Do You Know This Shy and Elusive Reptile?

Are you a person that can’t pass a fallen log or flat object on the ground without carefully turning it over to see what could be hiding or living under it? There is a whole ecosystem of ‘fossorial,’ or burrowing creatures that depend on rotting logs or piles of leaves to live under. Recently a couple colleagues and I were out observing wildlife on the Mitigation Lands. It had snowed and then rained that day, but the sun had come out and the afternoon was warming up. We were walking along an upland area called Plasma where there are pasture areas adjacent to created wetlands and two beautiful woodlands full of oak and ash trees. There are several large Valley Oaks, Quercus lobata, on the outskirts of the woodlands and we approached one of them to get a better look. One of the young scientists saw the perfect rotting log-branch and we gathered around it as she turned it over. The first creature we saw was a very large Potato Bug, Stenopalmatus fuscus, the insect that eats holes in my potatoes I then have to feed to my chickens! Then we saw that there was what at first looked like a California slender salamander (one of the creatures featured in our February 6th ‘Life Down Under’ blog) but right away we saw there were no little, tiny legs and it was quite a bit longer than those salamanders. We noticed the black and cream barring on the belly and realized it was the elusive Sharp-tailed snake, Contia tenuis. This was a life sighting for me as I have never found one before.

The diminutive, docile, and graceful Sharp-tailed snake is a beautiful gray to brown or even bubble-gum pink to peachy-orange snake that can look like a giant earthworm until you turn it over and see the barring of dark and cream lines that can be gray, black, or pale green. The one we found had distinctive black barring with a cream color in between all along the entire length of the underbelly. There were pinkish spots and a dark reddish lateral line along the sides. Its head was very small and there at the tip of the tail was the modified scale spine that gives this snake its name.

This is a fossorial snake, meaning that it is a burrowing snake. It is nocturnal and is adapted for cooler weather, so is often found in the winter and spring after it rains. It is common in suburban northern California gardens under piles of leaves and woodpiles. The Sharp-tailed snake is endemic, or geographically restricted, to the western United States and British Columbia and is closely related to another snake that I find in the early spring in Willits called the Ring-necked snake, Diadophus punctatus. Ring-necked snakes are small, beautiful nocturnal snakes that share many of the same habits as Sharp-tailed snakes. Ring-necked snakes have yet to be documented on the Mitigation Lands.

The Sharp-tailed snake has some interesting adaptations for living underground such as the modified scale at the end of the tail that is a sharpish spine used to impale slugs that are its preferred food. They eat garden variety slugs so can be very helpful to gardeners. Sharp-tailed snakes do not eat native Banana slugs as they are usually too big, but perhaps they eat small juvenile ones? Another adaptation is that they have extra long recurved teeth for holding on to slippery or slimy prey. Luckily for us, they are docile snakes and don’t tend to bite humans. Besides slugs their diet includes other soft-bodied invertebrates.

If you are lucky enough to observe this rare snake, take a moment to appreciate the endless variety nature provides.