Published February 27, 2024. Open access.

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Sabin’s Ground Snake (Atractus michaelsabini)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Colubridae | Atractus michaelsabini

English common names: Sabin’s Ground Snake, Golden Ground Snake.

Spanish common name: Tierrera de Sabin, tierrera dorada.

Recognition: ♂♂ 35.9 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=32.1 cm. ♀♀ 42.9 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=39.2 cm..1 Atractus michaelsabini can be recognized by its round head similar in width to the neck, small eyes, dorsal scales arranged in 15 rows at mid-body, and golden to olive brown dorsum (Fig. 1). The other co-occurring ground snakes are A. microrhynchus and A. paucidens, both of which have dorsal scales arranged in 17 rows at mid-body and have either a brown dorsum with a series black spots or a uniform black dorsum with a series of red blotches on the anterior third of the body.2 Atractus michaelsabini differs from A. roulei by having a dorsal pattern in which each scale is outlined in a thin black line, thus creating a reticulation, and by having the prefrontal scale in broad contact with the postnasal (not in contact or barely in contact in A. roulei).1

Figure showing variation among individuals of Atractus michaelsabini

Figure 1: Individuals of Atractus michaelsabini from Ecuador: Guanazán, El Oro province (); Corraleja, Azuay province ().

Natural history: Atractus michaelsabini is a rarely encountered semi-fossorial snake that inhabits dry to humid montane shrublands, seasonally dry foothill forests, evergreen montane forests, and cloud forests.1 The species also occurs in human-modified environments such as irrigated pastures and agricultural fields.1,3 Most individuals have been found during the day hidden under rocks, mats of rotten vegetation, or buried in soft soil in pastures and maize plantations close to remnants of native forest.1 At night, they have been seen crossing forest trails. At the type locality, clutches of three or four eggs have been found under soil.1 Anecdotal information suggests that these snakes are more active during the rainy months.1 When exposed, their defensive behavior consists mainly of trying to flee. When handled, they can use the sharp tail-tip for poking.1 Based on what is know about the diet of other Atractus, this species probably feeds on earthworms or slugs.4,5

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Conservation: Endangered Considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the near future..1 Atractus michaelsabini is listed in this category following IUCN criteria because the species’ extent of occurrence is estimated to be much less than 5,000 km2 (Fig. 2) and its habitat is severely fragmented and declining in extent and quality due to deforestation.1 Although A. michaelsabini is present in two protected areas (private reserves Buenaventura and Yunguilla of Fundación Jocotoco), nine of the 14 localities where the species has been recorded are in heavily human-modified areas. Approximately 70% of the forest cover throughout the species’ potential distribution area has been destroyed, mostly due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier.1

Distribution: Atractus michaelsabini is endemic to an area of approximately 2,530 km2 along the southwestern slopes of the Andes of Ecuador (Fig. 2).

Distribution of Atractus michaelsabini in Ecuador

Figure 2: Distribution of Atractus michaelsabini in Ecuador. The star corresponds to the type locality: Corraleja, Azuay province. See Appendix 1 for a complete list of the presence localities included in the map.

Etymology: The name Atractus, which is a latinization of the Greek word άτρακτος (=spindle),68 probably refers to the fact that snakes of this genus have a uniform width throughout the body and a narrow tail, resembling an antique spindle used to spin fibers. The specific epithet michaelsabini honors a young nature lover, Michael Sabin, grandson of American philanthropist and conservationist Andrew “Andy” Sabin.1

See it in the wild: Golden Ground Snakes are rarely seen throughout their distribution. The two areas having the greatest number of observations are Molleturo in Azuay province and Guanazán in El Oro province. The snakes may be detected by scanning the forest floor and leaf-litter along dirt roads at night, or by turning over rocks and logs in pastures near remnants of native vegetation during the daytime.

Author: Alejandro ArteagaaAffiliation: Khamai Foundation, Quito, Ecuador.

Photographer: Jose VieirabAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,cAffiliation: ExSitu, Quito, Ecuador.

How to cite? Arteaga A (2024) Sabin’s Ground Snake (Atractus michaelsabini). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/ATJH7662

Literature cited:

  1. Arteaga A, Quezada A, Vieira J, Guayasamin JM (2022) Leaving no stone unturned: three additional new species of Atractus ground snakes (Serpentes, Colubridae) from Ecuador discovered using a biogeographical approach. ZooKeys 1121: 175–210. DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.1121.89539
  2. Arteaga A, Mebert K, Valencia JH, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Peñafiel N, Reyes-Puig C, Vieira-Fernandes JL, Guayasamin JM (2017) Molecular phylogeny of Atractus (Serpentes, Dipsadidae), with emphasis on Ecuadorian species and the description of three new taxa. ZooKeys 661: 91–123. DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.661.11224
  3. Field notes of Jorge Luis Romero.
  4. Balestrin RL, Di-Bernardo M, Moreno AG (2007) Feeding ecology of the neotropical worm snake Atractus reticulatus in southern Brazil. The Herpetological Journal 17: 62–64.
  5. Cisneros-Heredia DF (2005) Report of molluscivory in Atractus carrioni Parker, 1930. Herpetozoa 18: 185–186.
  6. Woodward SP, Tate R (1830) A manual of the Mollusca: being a treatise on recent and fossil shells. C. Lockwood and Company, London, 750 pp.
  7. Beekes R (2010) Etymological dictionary of Greek. Brill, Boston, 1808 pp.
  8. Duponchel P, Chevrolat L (1849) Atractus. In: d’Orbigny CD (Ed) Dictionnaire universel d’histoire naturelle. MM. Renard, Martinet et Cie., Paris, 312.

Appendix 1: Locality data used to create the distribution map of Atractus michaelsabini in Ecuador (Fig. 2). Go to the section on symbols and abbreviations for a list of acronyms used. Asterisk (*) indicates type locality.

EcuadorAzuay Corraleja*Arteaga et al. 2022
EcuadorAzuay La GritaArteaga et al. 2022
EcuadorAzuay PoetateArteaga et al. 2022
EcuadorAzuay Reserva Biológica YunguillaArteaga et al. 2022
EcuadorEl OroChepelYánez-Muñoz et al. 2019
EcuadorEl OroEl ChiralSavage 1960
EcuadorEl OroEl PanecilloArteaga et al. 2022
EcuadorEl OroGuanazánArteaga et al. 2022
EcuadorEl OroLa ChontaArteaga et al. 2022
EcuadorEl OroÑalacapac Yánez-Muñoz et al. 2019
EcuadorEl OroPacha–Cerro AzulArteaga et al. 2022
EcuadorEl OroReserva Biológica BuenaventuraArteaga et al. 2022
EcuadorEl OroSouth of ChontaSavage 1960
EcuadorLojaEl CisneArteaga et al. 2022