Tuesday, April 12, 2011

SOME SNAKES ARE SHARP, SOME ARE DULL

This is most apparent if you look at the ends of their tails.

The Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia tenuis) epitomizes the sharp end of the spectrum. The tip of its tail, really the last scale on the tail, is quite sharply pointed. This small and secretive snake is usually found under logs or rocks, and it presumably comes out at night, when it hunts for its primary prey, slugs. Oddly, one of the most commonly observed prey species is an introduced slug, and one wonders what they ate before the introduction!

It may be that the sharply pointed tail tip is handy for subduing slimy prey, but it also has been speculated that it may be used against predators (a snake may press it into the hand of a human captor) or even as an aid in burrowing. All pure speculation, of course, but we assume there must be some adaptive function of this prickly tail.

It has also been suggested that the banded pattern on the snake’s underside, sometimes exposed, may mimic the banded pattern of several millipede species of the area. As the millipedes are toxic and distasteful, some Sharp-tailed Snakes may escape predation by this mimicry.

Few people see this interesting snake, as its range is very restricted in the Pacific Northwest, and it appears to be active only for a relatively short time in spring and fall, when it is warm enough for reptile activity yet cool and moist enough so this small species isn’t stressed by low humidity. April and September are good months to look for sharp-tails by looking under objects on the ground that may serve as hiding places. Be sure to replace them carefully.

Rubber Boas (Charina bottae) are at the other end of the spectrum, with an extremely blunt tail for a snake. One of the consequences of this is that it is difficult to distinguish the head end from the tail end, and this may be the whole point, as it could be an effective anti-predator strategy. A snake captured by the wrong end might be more able to escape, and, if inclined, might even bite the predator. The latter seems unlikely, as these snakes are extremely docile, at least when picked up by a human.

Rubber Boas are much more common and widespread in the Northwest, usually associated with open conifer woodland. They are active all summer and take a wide variety of prey, mostly small mammals but also other vertebrates. They are active at night during much of the summer, but on cooler days especially they may be seen out and about. Otherwise, you look under rocks and logs, just as you would to find Sharp-tailed Snakes. A fortunate naturalist might find both of them together!

Dennis Paulson

1 comment:

PDX Nature Nut said...

Thanks for the great post. I've seen a few Rubber Boas - very pretty snakes - but I didn't know about the Sharp-tailed snake.