Denizens Of The Desert:
Callisaurus, The Gridiron-tailed Lizard
Sauromalus, The Chuckwalla
Testudo, The Desert Tortoise
Desert Horned Lizard
Spilogale, The Spotted Skunk
Read More Articles About: Denizens Of The Desert
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
HE is the most vicious in appearance, most unusual in habit, and most feared by man of all the reptiles of the desert. He is so tiny that he seems made for a plaything, yet there is no man who is not ready to reckon him a beast of pro-portions when the measure of horribleness is applied and not the rule of girth or length. His hand is against every creature: he is no falsifier: he carries no mark of innocent countenance to bespeak friendliness where none exists. The green glares of cruelty are in his eyes and the hornlike scales above them give him the malignant aspect that befits his splenetic and ugly temper. His actions are quick, his aim is sure, and demonlike he prowls about in the darkness of night, by day lurking beneath bushes where his enemies cannot see him, but where he can strike the passer-by to advantage. This is the sidewinder -- pygmy rattlesnake of the desert sands.
The outstanding feature of uniqueness which readily separates this from all other rattle-snakes, and which gives to the sidewinder his vernacular name, is his peculiar mode of progression. Instead of moving forward in the manner of ordinary snakes, he moves away sidewise, keeping in the meantime his broadside always toward the observer - a motion which is especially advantageous in carrying him over the sands. It is a somewhat looping movement and the tracks which are left in the sands are peculiarly different from those of all other rattlesnakes, being not continuous, but disjointed, and resembling a series of colonial ff's, each separated by a space of three or four inches. Sidewinders apparently have a special fondness for crawling along in wagon tracks, and it is here where I have most often noticed the peculiar marks.
All other rattlesnakes must coil at least to some extent before they strike, but this erratic snake strikes "on the run," securing leverage for his head by arching the neck, after the fashion of a swan. This gives him an unmeasurable advantage over his other crotaline cousins and heightens greatly his danger to man; for he is always ready to attack the moment he is approached.
The average length of an adult sidewinder is about fifteen inches. His girth is about equal to that of a man's middle finger but may be greater if food has recently been taken. The dorsal ground color of white and the bands of brownish on his body give him a high degree of protection on the gray granitic sands on which Nature intended he should live.
As briefly stated before, sidewinders are almost wholly a night-roving species, doing most of their hunting under cover of darkness -- the time when the kangaroo rats and wild mice, their chief fare, are most active and most plentifully found. During the day, especially in summer, they generally seek the shelter of rock crevices or hide under bushes where they can avoid the fierce heat. To expose themselves long to the sun on a desert day, when it is hot enough to cook eggs in the sand, would be to invite death. Five to ten minutes' exposure on the superheated sand in the glaring sun rays of midsummer is sufficient to kill. Generally, when found during the day, they are seen wound tightly about the bases of shrubs or tightly coiled up in a compact little mat or pad in the shade. If able to find some slight depression, they curl up in that, quite often utilizing the hoofmarks made by cattle. These their coiled forms just about fit.
As soon as the sun goes down, they begin to wander abroad upon the warm sands. Walking along the railroad tracks at this time of day l have often found them stretched along the flange of the hot rails absorbing the heat from the fast radiating steel. Because of the side-winder's nocturnal habits I have never fancied desert travel by night in summer, especially when afoot. All experienced desert travelers feel much the same as I do in so far as I can learn. The rattle of this snake is small and seldom used, and there is nothing to warn one of its presence. The great Mammoth Wash at its southeastern end of the Salton Sink is a place where sidewinders are especially abundant, and it has a most evil reputation even among the oldest "desert rats,'' as the veteran prospectors are called. 'They avoid traveling across it at night in summer whenever possible, and if it is absolutely necessary to go over it they all resolve in most solemn terms "to go straight through and not stop to camp once." Who enjoys a rattlesnake crawling over one's covers at night?
One evening in late May, while a friend and myself were sitting on a rock quietly munching a crust, I espied a moving object near one of our bed-rolls. Watching it more closely I noticed that it was a small serpent crawling into the blankets. Realizing that it might be a dangerous reptile, l took a near-by stick in my hand and went up and carefully unrolled the bedding. As I had suspected, there lay a little sidewinder. I do not like to think of what might have happened had my eyes not detected in the semi-darkness the snake moving into his hiding. I cannot too strongly urge my readers when camping on the desert in late spring and summer always to make up their beds anew each evening just before retiring; for not only rattlesnakes, but such other unpleasant visitors as centipedes, vinegaroons, and scorpions may have found a hiding-place between the covers since last they were used. Furthermore, I think it shows good judgment to sleep off the ground on a cot swinging from a tree if possible, as soon as the warm nights begin. There is no use taking chances.
There is abroad a colossally absurd notion that rattlesnakes are always found in pairs, and that if you kill one the other will soon seek its mate. It is quite possible that during the spring months, that is, the mating season, they may occasionally be found near to one another, but this pairing is only temporary and during the remainder of the year individuals wander solitarily.
All rattlesnakes are ovoviviparous; that is, they hatch their eggs before they are laid. The egg, with its yolk, white, and thin, flexible, membraneous shell, is formed within the oviduct of the female, but it never leaves the body. Hence the young are born alive.
Crotalus cerastes, the horned rattlesnake, or sidewinder, is the most characteristic snake of the Lower Sonoran Desert areas of the Great Basin -- southeastern California to southern Nevada, southwestern Utah and Arizona. In general it confines itself to the sandy and gravelly expanses, leaving the higher and more rocky desert mountain regions to be occupied by the tiger and the pallid rattlesnake.