A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

California Rattlesnakes


A Rattlesnake Rattle

Click on the picture to listen to
the sound it makes when a rattlesnake shakes its tail.

northern pacific rattlesnake
Rarely, when the end of its tail is removed in an unusual event, a rattlesnake will not have any rattles.

observation link


All rattlesnakes in California are venomous and potentially dangerous.  (Commonly called poisonous)

A bite by any rattlesnake can be very dangerous without immediate medical treatment.  Treatment can require hospitalization and great expense.

There are 7 different species of rattlesnakes found in California. Two of these species are made up of more than one subspecies. This makes a total of 10 different kinds of rattlesnakes found in the state.

All rattlesnakes in California have a blotched pattern on the back and a rattle on the end of the tail which the snake sometimes uses as a warning sound.
(The rattle is sometimes missing on young snakes and may be broken off on adults, so don't automatically assume that a snake with no rattle is not a rattlesnake.)

To identify the species of rattlesnake you have seen, look for a picture that is similar to the snake you want to identify, clicking on it to enlarge it if necessary. Read the
brief descriptions of behavior and habitat, and if it fits your snake's appearance, click on the link to continue your search. All of these rattlesnakes can vary in appearance, so if you don't see one here that looks like the rattlesnake you want to identify, check the range maps to see which species occur in your area, then look at the pictures found on the page for each individual snake.

California Rattlesnakes
Forms Genus, Species, Subspecies Common Names    
  Family Viperidae Vipers    
  Genus Crotalus Rattlesnakes Linnaeus, 1758  
1 Crotalus atrox Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake Baird and Girard, 1853  
  Crotalus cerastes Sidewinder Hallowell, 1854  
2   Crotalus cerastes cerastes Mohave Desert Sidewinder Hallowell, 1854  
3   Crotalus cerastes laterorepens Colorado Desert Sidewinder Klauber, 1944  
  Crotalus mitchellii Speckled Rattlesnake (Cope, 1861)  
4   Crotalus mitchellii pyrrhus Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake (Cope, 1867 “1866”)  
  Crotalus oreganus Western Rattlesnake Holbrook, 1840  
5   Crotalus oreganus helleri Southern Pacific Rattlesnake Meek, 1905 Crotalus helleri
6   Crotalus oreganus lutosus Great Basin Rattlesnake Klauber, 1930 Crotalus lutosus
7   Crotalus oreganus oreganus Northern Pacific Rattlesnake Holbrook, 1840 Crotalus oreganus
8 Crotalus ruber Red Diamond Rattlesnake Cope, 1892  
  Crotalus scutulatus Mojave Rattlesnake (Kennicott, 1861)  
9   Crotalus scutulatus scutulatus Northern Mohave Rattlesnake (Kennicott, 1861)  
10 Crotalus stephensi Panamint Rattlesnake Klauber, 1930  

1. Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake

A large rattlesnake, found in the southern deserts in the southeast corner of the state. This rattlesnake
has black and white rings around the tail. The rings are about equal in width. Active day and night.

Notes on distinguishing this species from the similar Northern Mohave Rattlesnake.

Notes on distinguishing this species from the similar Red Diamond Rattlesnake.


Small rattlesnakes with unique sideways locomotion. Found in open sandy areas in the southern deserts.
Active at night and sometimes during the day. A small horn-like projection is visible above each eye.

2. Mohave Desert Sidewinder
    3. Colorado Desert Sidewinder  
4. Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake

A large rattlesnake, found mainly in rocky areas in the southern deserts and south coast.
Saddled pattern on adults appears slightly faded, not distinctly outlined, unlike other rattlesnakes in its range.
Color changes to match the rocks in its habitat. Active at night and day.

Western Rattlesnakes

The most commonly seen rattlesnake in California, found throughout the state, except the southern deserts.
Active day and night. Often seen while hiking in undisturbed areas, or on roads at night. These rattlesnakes do
not have black and white rings around the tail. They may have dark and light rings, but not black and white.

5. Southern Pacific Rattlesnake
6. Great Basin Rattlesnake
7. Northern Pacific Rattlesnake
Notes on identifying subspecies of Western Rattlesnakes, Crotalus oreganus, found in California.
8. Red Diamond Rattlesnake

A large rattlesnake, found in the Colorado desert and south coastal region. Active day and night.
Color is various shades of reddish brown.

Notes on distinguishing this species from the similar Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake.

9. Northern Mohave Rattlesnake

A large rattlesnake found in the Mohave Desert. Active at night, and sometimes during the day.
This rattlesnake has black and white rings around the tail. The black bands are smaller than the white bands.

Notes on distinguishing this species from the similar Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake.

10. Panamint Rattlesnake

A large rattlesnake, found mainly in rocky areas in the northern and eastern Mohave Desert.
Saddled pattern on adults appears slightly faded, not distinctly outlined, unlike other rattlesnakes in its range.
Color changes to match the rocks in its habitat. Active at night and day.

Range Maps of Rattlesnakes in California
  Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake Sidewinder - Crotalus cerastes
  1. Red: Crotalus atrox 2. RedCrotalus cerastes cerastes -
 Mohave Desert Sidewinder

           3. Orange: Crotalus cerastes laterorepens -
   Colorado Desert Sidewinder
  Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake Western Rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus (viridis)
  4. RedCrotalus mitchellii pyrrhus
5. Blue: Crotalus oreganus helleri
 Southern Pacific Rattlesnake

   6. OrangeCrotalus oreganus lutosus
 Great Basin Rattlesnake

7. RedCrotalus oreganus oreganus
 Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

  Red Diamond Rattlesnake Northern Mohave Rattlesnake
   8. Red: Crotalus ruber 9. Red: Crotalus scutulatus scutulatus

  Panamint Rattlesnake    
  10. OrangeCrotalus stephensi

Frank Buchter contributed this chart to help identify rattlesnakes in California (except sidewinders.)

Recognizing the Differences Between Rattlesnakes and Gopher Snakes
Harmless and beneficial gophersnakes are sometimes mistaken for dangerous rattlesnakes. Gophersnakes are often killed unnecessarily because of this confusion.
(It's also not necessary to kill every rattlesnake.)

It is easy to avoid this mistake by learning to tell the difference between the two families of snakes. The informational signs shown above can help to educate you about these differences. (Click to enlarge).

If you can't see enough detail on a snake to be sure it is not a rattlesnake or if you have any doubt that it is harmless, leave it alone.
You should never handle a snake unless you are absolutely sure that it is not dangerous.


"Rattlesnakes are also among the most reasonable forms of dangerous wildlife: their first line of defense is to remain motionless; if you surprise them or cut off their retreat, they offer an audio warning; if you get too close, they head for cover. Venom is intended for prey so they're reluctant to bite, and 25 to 50 percent of all bites are dry - no venom is injected."   Leslie Anthony. Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist. Greystone Books, 2008.

Rattlesnakes are typically described as poisonous, but they are actually venomous.
A poisonous snake is one that is harmful to eat. A venomous snake injects dangerous venom into its victim.

A bite from a rattlesnake can be extremely dangerous, but rattlesnakes should not be characterized as aggressive and vicious, striking and biting without provocation, as they are often shown. If rattlesnakes are given some space and enough time to escape to a safe place, they will usually just crawl away as fast as possible to avoid confrontation. Rattlesnakes will not strike without a reason: they will strike at a potential meal and they will defend themselves from anything they perceive as dangerous. They avoid striking and biting because it uses up their valuable supply of venom which they need to kill and digest their food.

Rattlesnakes are often portrayed with the body partly coiled, the tail rattling loudly, and the head raised up and ready to strike, but they do not need to coil up this way to strike and bite. This display is a warning not to come any closer. It's a defensive behavior that some rattlesnakes use when they sense that crawling away would put them in danger of attack.

Rattlesnakes do not always rattle a warning. Sometimes they rattle loudly to warn potential enemies of their presence, but other times they remain silent when they sense a threat, choosing to remain still to rely on their cryptic color and pattern to let them blend into their surroundings to hide from the threat. Making a noise in this situation risks advertising their presence. They also use their natural camouflage to hunt by sitting still, without rattling, trying to remain invisible as they wait for a warm-blooded prey animal to pass close enough to strike.

More Information About Rattlesnakes
  Living With Rattlesnakes Rattlesnake Signs and Art Rattlesnake Sounds  

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