Discover the Largest Sidewinder Rattlesnake Ever Recorded

Written by Brandi Allred
Updated: October 13, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/Josh Mitchell
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Key Points

  • Sidewinder rattlesnakes are interesting because of their strange ‘sidewinding’ locomotion and their heat vision.
  • The largest sidewinder on record is 30 inches long.
  • Though these rattlesnakes are venomous enough to subdue their small prey, sidewinders actually pose little threat to humans.

Of all the rattlesnakes in the world, sidewinders are one of the most famous. As you might have guessed from their name, they move using a peculiar ‘sidewinding’ motion. Here, we’ll discover the largest sidewinder rattlesnake ever recorded and much more. Sidewinders are similar in appearance to most other kinds of rattlesnakes, like the prairie rattlesnake and eastern diamondback rattlesnake. They’re non-aggressive and rarely bite people.

Like most snakes, sidewinder rattlesnakes eat small creatures, which they hunt with their heat vision. They’re pit vipers and live exclusively in the Southwestern US and Mexico. Though they present little danger to humans, sidewinders are often killed out of fear and misapprehension. That’s why, now more than ever, it’s important to understand these incredible creatures.

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Read on to learn more about the largest sidewinder rattlesnake ever recorded!

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The Biggest Sidewinder Rattlesnake on Record

Where Do Snakes Live
Sidewinder rattlesnakes are much smaller than eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, which can grow up to eight feet long.

Mark_Kostich/Shutterstock.com

Though there are four species of viper, all commonly known as sidewinders, but only one is the sidewinder rattlesnake (Crotalus cerastes). They’re also known as horn vipers or horned vipers. Most sidewinders grow to 20 inches long (just under two feet). The largest sidewinder rattlesnake ever recorded measured at over 30 inches long, or 2.5 feet. The upper bound for sidewinder rattlesnakes according to The Venomous Reptiles of the Western Hemisphere is 31.5 inches, with females being larger than males.

Species Profile: Sidewinder Rattlesnake

Sidewinder rattlesnakes are pit vipers. They’re native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. They don’t grow quite as large as other rattlesnakes, but they’re comparable in size to the pygmy rattlesnake which is common in the Southeastern United States.

Let’s take a closer look at all the things that make this snake unique!

Appearance

The most recognizable aspects of the sidewinder rattlesnake’s appearance are its rattle and the horns above its eyes. Sidewinders don’t have true horns. Instead, they’re large, raised scales, which may help shade their eyes from the sun. Even the largest sidewinder rattlesnake ever recorded had a rattle, though rattle length cannot be used to determine the age. As rattlesnakes grow, the tip of the rattle frequently breaks off, making room for new rattle sections.

Sidewinders are generally very light in color, with darker splotches of color along their backs and sides. Their bellies are pale creme in color, while their sides and back are tan and light brown. Further, they have yellow eyes with narrow, vertically split pupils.

Behavior

A Sidewinder Snake lying in the desert
The sidewinder rattlesnake is ectothermic, which means it cannot control its own body temperature.

RA fotografia/Shutterstock.com

The sidewinders are some of nature’s most proficient hunters. Using their heat and scent sensing abilities, they follow prey to their burrows. Then, they wait, coiled up into an ‘S’ position. Once the prey comes close enough, the sidewinder strikes in a move so fast that few creatures can evade it.

But, perhaps even more impressive than its hunting strategy is the sidewinder rattlesnake’s method of locomotion. Normally, snakes slither forward, with most of their body touching the ground. But, because of the extreme heat of the desert sands, sidewinder rattlesnakes have evolved to move while most of their body remains elevated. To do this, they shift their bodies sideways, one half at a time. This results in the curious ‘sidewinding’ motion and keeps them cool at the same time.

During cooler months, sidewinders usually limit their activity to daytime hours. Alternately, depending on the climate, they may go into full brumation until the mating season starts back up in spring. Then while the weather is warmer, these snakes become nocturnal.

Habitat

Sidewinder rattlesnakes are endemic to the desert lands of southwestern North America and northern Central America. Specifically, they live in California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Baja, and northwestern Mexico. Because they live in such mercilessly hot settings, sidewinders hunt mostly at night. During the day, they stay cool and conserve energy by sleeping in the shade of rocks or abandoned rodent burrows.

Diet 

sidewinder crawling in sand
Sidewinder rattlesnakes eat mostly reptiles when young, shifting to mostly mammals as adults.

iStock.com/Josh Mitchell

As juveniles, sidewinder rattlesnakes are only big enough to eat small prey, like lizards. In fact, their diets consist almost entirely of small reptiles until they get big enough to take down the larger (relatively) creatures of the desert. Adult sidewinder rattlesnakes eat lizards, birds, and rodents. The biggest component of their diet is mammalian, with mice and rats high on the list.

Reproduction

Sidewinder rattlesnakes give birth to an average of 10 snakes per litter that are born in an embryonic membrane. Upon birth, the young snakes are known as snakelets. For the first week, the baby sidewinders stick together to conserve heat during cold desert nights. Their mother provides protection for newborns during this period. However, once they shed their skin they’ll venture out on their own.

In the wild, sidewinder rattlesnakes are thought to live for 5-10 years. In captivity, though, they’ve been known to live for nearly 20 years.

Venom

As pit vipers, sidewinders have heat-sensing pits and large venom glands. Their heat-sensing pits are located near their nostrils, while their venom glands sit just behind their eyes. The venom courses through hollow, switchblade-like fangs and into their prey. Once bitten, rodents generally succumb within minutes or hours, depending on the amount of venom injected. 

In cases of human bites, not all attacks actually inject venom. Many self-defense bites are ‘dry,’ though all rattlesnake bites should be treated by medical professionals.

Conservation

Sidewinder rattlesnakes are currently listed as Least Concern. As long as their habitats remain unfragmented and their prey remains readily available, they should survive as a species for a very long time. 

If you happen upon a sidewinder in the wild, remember: look, but don’t approach. Never attempt to touch or harass a sidewinder rattlesnake. They only bite if threatened and do not hunt or seek out humans. Like most wild animals, they would rather be left alone.

Up Next…

You need to find out everything there is to know about sidewinders and all the coolest kinds of rattlers! And we’ve got you covered.

Sidewinder Animal Facts– These might be one of the strangest pit vipers out there!

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sidewinder crawling in sand
The sidewinder is also known as the horned rattlesnake.
iStock.com/Josh Mitchell
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About the Author

Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She holds degrees in English and Anthropology, and spends her free time writing horror, scifi, and fantasy stories.

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