Published March 12, 2024. Open access.

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Rusty Whipsnake (Chironius scurrula)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Colubridae | Chironius scurrula

English common names: Rusty Whipsnake, Wagler’s Sipo.

Spanish common names: Serpiente látigo roja, serpiente látigo de Wagler.

Recognition: ♂♂ 224.3 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=151.1 cm. ♀♀ 201.4 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=139.1 cm..1 Chironius scurrula can be identified by having 10 rows of dorsal scales at mid-body, an entire anal plate, smooth scales, and a unique coloration.13 This species exhibits an ontogenetic shift in color pattern. Juveniles present a uniform green coloration, with rusty orange blotches in medium-sized individuals.47 Adults range from dark reddish brown to bright orange-red (Fig. 1), with some large individuals exhibiting a nearly uniform black dorsal coloration and a rusty venter.13 The juveniles can be differentiated from other green snakes, such as C. exoletus, Chlorosoma viridissimum, and Erythrolamprus typhlus by the low number of dorsal scales rows.13

Figure showing variation among individuals of Chironius scurrula

Figure 1: Individuals of Chironius scurrula from Ecuador: Río Nangaritza, Zamora Chinchipe province (); Río Curaray, Pastaza province (); Napo Wildlife Center, Sucumbíos province ().

Natural history: Chironius scurrula is a fairly common diurnal and semi-arboreal snake that inhabits primary forests, secondary forests, forest edges, and disturbed areas such as clearings, pastures, and roadsides.15 This species seems to occur in higher densities along large rivers and lagoons, where individuals are often seen at the water’s edge or swimming across the surface.5,8 During the day, Rusty Whipsnakes can be seen actively moving on the forest floor or resting or foraging on shrubs and trees up to 6 m above the ground.13,9 At night, they sleep coiled on understory vegetation.1,2,3,9 Their diet is composed primarily of frogs and rarely on lizards.110 It has been observed that gravid females of C. scurrula contain between 6 and 11 oviductal eggs, and that hatching may occur in the local rainy season.1,3,9 The Rusty Whipsnake, when disturbed, can exhibit an aggressive behavior which consists of raising the first third of the body while striking repeatedly.8 However, this is an aglyphous snake, meaning it lacks venom-inoculating teeth.1 It is hypothesized that due to their similarity, juveniles of C. scurrula mimic Chlorosoma viridissima and Bothrops bilineatus,5 snakes that cause envenomations.3,9 There are recorded instances of predation on members of this species, including by hawks11 and antshrikes.12

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Conservation: Least Concern Believed to be safe from extinction given current circumstances..13 Chironius scurrula is listed in this category primarily because the species is widely distributed, occurs in protected areas, and is able to tolerate some degree of habitat disturbance so long as forest remain.13 Although little is known about threats to this species, deforestation and the decline in the number of anuran prey due to pollution and emerging diseases could have a negative localized impact on some populations.14 Chironius scurrula is particularly affected by vehicular traffic, being frequently found dead-on-road throughout its range.8

Distribution: Chironius scurrula is widespread throughout the Amazon rainforest Brazil, Peru, Ecuador (Fig. 2), Colombia, Suriname, Guyana, French Guyana and Venezuela.

Distribution of Chironius scurrula in Ecuador

Figure 2: Distribution of Chironius scurrula in Ecuador. See Appendix 1 for a complete list of the presence localities included in the map.

Etymology: The name Chironius was coined by Leopold Fitzinger in 1826, but likely originated in 1790 with Blasius Merrem, who used the common name “Chiron’s Natter” for Linnaeus’ Coluber carinatus.15 In Greek mythology, Chiron was a centaur reputed for his healing abilities. Likewise, in ancient Greek civilization, sick people hoping for a cure flocked to temples where sacred snakes were carefully tended and presented to the sufferers. The specific epithet scurrula is a Latin word meaning “buffoon” and refers to the eye-catching pattern of adults.1

See it in the wild: Rusty Whipsnakes are particularly common along the Río Cuyabeno, where individuals are recorded at a rate of about once every few days especially along the river margins during sunny days.

Special thanks to Karin von Loebenstein and Mahesh Jaishankar for symbolically adopting the Rusty Whipsnake and helping bring the Reptiles of Ecuador book project to life.

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Authors: Laura Gómez-MesaaAffiliation: Escuela de Ciencias Aplicadas e Ingeniería, Universidad EAFIT, Medellín, Colombia. and Esteban Garzón-FrancobAffiliation: Colecciones Biológicas de la Universidad CES (CBUCES), Facultad de Ciencias y Biotecnología, Universidad CES, Medellín, Colombia.

Editor: Alejandro ArteagacAffiliation: Khamai Foundation, Quito, Ecuador.

Photographer: Jose VieiradAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,eAffiliation: ExSitu, Quito, Ecuador.

How to cite? Gómez-Mesa L, Garzón-Franco E (2024) Rusty Whipsnake (Chironius scurrula). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/BBBU5830

Literature cited:

  1. Dixon JR, Wiest Jr JA, Cei JM (1993) Revision of the Neotropical snake genus Chironius Fitzinger (Serpentes, Colubridae). Museo Regionale di Scienze Naturali di Torino, Torino, 280 pp.
  2. Duellman WE (1978) The biology of an equatorial herpetofauna in Amazonian Ecuador. Publications of the Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas 65: 1–352.
  3. Martins M, Oliveira ME (1998) Natural history of snakes in forests of the Manaus region, Central Amazonia, Brazil. Herpetological Natural History 6: 78–150.
  4. Dixon JR, Soini P (1986) The reptiles of the upper Amazon Basin, Iquitos region, Peru. Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee, 154 pp.
  5. Natera-Mumaw M, Esqueda-González LF, Castelaín-Fernández M (2015) Atlas serpientes de Venezuela. Dimacofi Negocios Avanzados S.A., Santiago de Chile, 456 pp.
  6. Cole CJ, Townsend CR, Reynolds RP, MacCulloch RD, Lathrop A (2013) Amphibians and reptiles of Guyana, South America: illustrated keys, annotated species accounts, and a biogeographic synopsis. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 125: 317–620.
  7. Marques OAV, Sazima I (2003) Ontogenetic color changes may strengthen suggestion about systematic affinities between two species of Chironius (Serpentes, Colubridae). Phyllomedusa 2: 65–67. DOI: 10.11606/issn.2316-9079.v2i1p65-67
  8. Field notes, Reptiles of Ecuador book project.
  9. dos Santos-Costa MC, Maschio GF, da Costa Prudente AL (2015) Natural history of snakes from Floresta Nacional de Caxiuanã, eastern Amazonia, Brazil. Herpetology Notes 8: 69–98.
  10. Roberto IJ, Ramos Souza A (2020) Review of prey items recorded for snakes of the genus Chironius (Squamata, Colubridae), including the first record of Osteocephalus as prey. Herpetology Notes 13: 1–5.
  11. Photo by Jessica dos Anjos.
  12. Photo by Frank Pichardo.
  13. Hammerson GA, Nogueira C, Catenazzi A, Hoogmoed M, Schargel W, Rivas G (2014) Chironius scurrulus. The IUCN Red List of threatened species. Available from: DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-2.RLTS.T44580168A44580177.en
  14. Barquero-González JP, Stice TL, Gómez G, Monge-Nájera J (2020) Are tropical reptiles really declining? A six-year survey of snakes in a tropical coastal rainforest: role of prey and environment. Revista de Biología Tropical 68: 336–343. DOI: 10.15517/rbt.v68i1.38555
  15. Merrem B (1790) Beitrage zur Naturgeschichte. Duisburg um Lemgo, Berlin, 141 pp.

Appendix 1: Locality data used to create the distribution map of Chironius scurrula in Ecuador (Fig. 2). Go to the section on symbols and abbreviations for a list of acronyms used.

ColombiaCaquetáFlorencia Cárdenas Hincapié & Lozano Bernal 2023
ColombiaCaquetáLas VerdesGutiérrez-Lamus et al. 2020
ColombiaCaquetáLos ÁngelesGutiérrez-Lamus et al. 2020
ColombiaCaquetáRío OrteguazaCárdenas Hincapié & Lozano Bernal 2023
ColombiaCaquetáVereda El ParaisoCalderón et al. 2023
ColombiaCaucaPiamonteiNaturalist; photo examined
ColombiaPutumayoBajo MansoyáCahueño & Barbosa 2022
ColombiaPutumayoCentro Experimental AmazónicoBetancourth-Cundar & Gutiérrez-Zamora 2010
ColombiaPutumayoFinca MariposaCalderón et al. 2023
ColombiaPutumayoPuerto AsísCárdenas Hincapié & Lozano Bernal 2023
ColombiaPutumayoSinaí II BaldíoCahueño & Barbosa 2022
ColombiaPutumayoVereda La PaziNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorMorona SantiagoCusuimeOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorMorona SantiagoEl TiinkReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorMorona SantiagoLa LibertadNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorMorona SantiagoLogroñoReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorMorona SantiagoMacasAMNH 35835; VertNet
EcuadorMorona SantiagoMacumaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorMorona SantiagoMiazalUSNM 237038; VertNet
EcuadorMorona SantiagoMisión BomboizaDixon et al. 1993
EcuadorMorona SantiagoRío NapinazaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorMorona SantiagoSawastianOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorMorona SantiagoSucúaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorMorona SantiagoYaupiPhoto by Darwin Núñez
EcuadorNapoCabañas PiatúaTorres-Carvajal et al. 2019
EcuadorNapoConcepcionUSNM 237022; VertNet
EcuadorNapoDurenoDixon et al. 1993
EcuadorNapoEl ChacoMHNG 2399.04; collection database
EcuadorNapoGareno LodgeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorNapoJatun Sacha Biological StationHernández-Sánchez 2013
EcuadorNapoRío CotapinoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorNapoRío HollínNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorNapoSan Juan de MuyunaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorNapoSan RafaelMHNG 2412.017; collection database
EcuadorNapoTenaUSNM 237023; VertNet
EcuadorNapoWild Sumaco Wildlife SanctuaryCamper et al. 2021
EcuadorNapoZoo el ArcaPhoto by Diego Piñán
EcuadorOrellanaÁvila ViejoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaBloque 43Photo by María Jose Quiroz
EcuadorOrellanaEdén–YuturiiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorOrellanaEl CocaReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorOrellanaJoya de los Sachas, 3 km N ofiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorOrellanaLoretoUSNM 237021; VertNet
EcuadorOrellanaPalanda bloque 65MZUTI 3726; collection database
EcuadorOrellanaPlataforma petrolera Ginta 1Torres-Carvajal et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaReserva Río BigalGarcía et al. 2021
EcuadorOrellanaRío JivinoReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorOrellanaSacha PAD-310Rodríguez-Guerra & Carvajal-Campos 2024
EcuadorOrellanaSan José de PayaminoMaynard et al. 2016
EcuadorOrellanaSanta TeresitaTorres-Carvajal et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaTiputini Biodiversity Station Cisneros-Heredia 2003
EcuadorOrellanaVía Pompeya Sur–Iro, km 101Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaVía Pompeya Sur–Iro, km 62Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaYasuní Scientific StationReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorPastazaCanelosOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaCentro Ecológico Zanja ArajunoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaChichirotaDixon et al. 1993
EcuadorPastazaCobaya CochaAMNH 49158; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaCuraray MedioThis work; Fig. 1
EcuadorPastazaGuacheAMNH 49093; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaKallanaMZUTI 5041; collection database
EcuadorPastazaMeraiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorPastazaMontalvoOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaPucayacuUSNM 237035; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaPuyoUSNM 237024; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaRancho VerdeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorPastazaRío Conambo, near mouth of Río RomarizoDixon et al. 1993
EcuadorPastazaRío HuizayacuDixon et al. 1993
EcuadorPastazaRío PastazaDixon et al. 1993
EcuadorPastazaRío PindoDixon et al. 1993
EcuadorPastazaRío VillanoDixon et al. 1993
EcuadorPastazaSanta Rosa (along Río Conambo =Tigre)AMNH 49164; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaSarayacuDixon et al. 1993
EcuadorPastazaShellMHNG 2399.041; collection database
EcuadorSucumbíosCooperativa Dos RíosTorres-Carvajal et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosEntrada a La Selva LodgeNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosGuacamayo EcolodgeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorSucumbíosJamu LodgeiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorSucumbíosLago AgrioiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorSucumbíosLaguna GrandeNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosLimoncocha Biological ReserveLACM 73365; VertNet
EcuadorSucumbíosNapo Wildlife CenterThis work; Fig. 1
EcuadorSucumbíosNicky Amazon LodgePhoto by Tomas Carlberg
EcuadorSucumbíosPañacochaMHNG 2399.074; collection database
EcuadorSucumbíosPañacocha, línea de flujoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosPayaguajeiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorSucumbíosPuerto El CarmenNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosSan Pablo de KantesiyaMHNG 2399.038; collection database
EcuadorSucumbíosSani LodgeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorSucumbíosSanta Cecilia Dixon et al. 1993
EcuadorSucumbíosTucan LodgePhoto by Harry Turner
EcuadorSucumbíosVia Lumbaqui–La BonitaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeAlto NangaritzaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeEl PinchoPhoto by Darwin Núñez
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeLas OrquídeasTorres-Carvajal et al. 2019
EcuadorZamora ChinchipePachicutzaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorZamora ChinchipePaquisha, 4 km N ofiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeReserva Forest El ZarzaRodríguez-Guerra & Carvajal-Campos 2024
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeRío NangaritzaThis work; Fig. 1
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeSubcuenca del Río TundaymeBetancourt et al. 2018
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeZurmiPhoto by Darwin Núñez
PeruAmazonasVicinity of HuampamiMVZ 176531; VertNet
PeruAmazonasVicinity of La PozaMVZ 175317; VertNet
PeruAmazonasVicinity of ShiringaUSNM 566717; VertNet
PeruLoretoBaltaLSUMZ 26795; VertNet
PeruLoretoCampo AndoasValqui Schult 2015
PeruLoretoCashiboyaDixon et al. 1993
PeruLoretoCentro UniónDixon et al. 1993
PeruLoretoCerro de KampankisCatenazzi & Venegas 2016
PeruLoretoContamanaDixon et al. 1993
PeruLoretoIquitosDixon et al. 1993
PeruLoretoMadre Selva Biological StationiNaturalist; photo examined
PeruLoretoMishanaDixon et al. 1993
PeruLoretoMoroponDixon et al. 1993
PeruLoretoPampa HermosaDixon et al. 1993
PeruLoretoReserva Nacional Pacaya SamiriaFMNH 45579; VertNet
PeruLoretoRio CushabatayDixon et al. 1993
PeruLoretoRío HuallagaDixon et al. 1993
PeruLoretoRío NanayDixon et al. 1993
PeruLoretoRío PutumayoDixon et al. 1993
PeruLoretoRío SepalinaNogueira et al. 2019
PeruLoretoSan JacintoKU 222192; VertNet
PeruSan MartínTarapoto, 5 km NE ofiNaturalist; photo examined