Ornate Snail-Eater

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Colubridae | Dipsas | Dipsas catesbyi

English common names: Ornate Snail-Eater, Catesby's Snail-Eater.

Spanish common names: Caracolera adornada.

Recognition: ♂♂ 80.6 cm ♀♀ 82.3 cm. The Ornate Snail-Eater (Dipsas catesbyi) can be identified based on its brown dorsum with 18–35 white-bordered black circles or ellipses1 and its black head with, usually, a white transverse line on the snout. The most similar species that may be found living alongside D. catesbyi in Ecuador are D. pavonina, D. klebbai, and D. palmeri. These other Dipsas species have the loreal scale in contact with the eye (in D. catesbyi the loreal scale does not contact the orbit). Unlike in D. pavonina, the blotches in D. catesbyi are narrower at the top of the dorsum than laterally.

Natural history: Common. Dipsas catesbyi is a nocturnal snake that inhabits old-growth to heavily disturbed evergreen to semideciduous forests, plantations, banana groves, and rural gardens.2,3 Ornate Snail-Eaters are active at night, especially if it is raining or drizzling.2 They move actively but slowly at ground level, or on vegetation 0.3–20 m above the ground.3,4 They feed on slugs, snails, and soft-bodied insects.5,6 During the day, snakes of this species rest coiled inside the leaf litter or under banana leaves.7 Ornate Snail-Eaters are harmless to humans; they are extremely docile and never attempt to bite.2 If threatened, individuals may flatten their body and expand their head to simulate a triangular shape and produce a musky and distasteful odor.8,9 Females lay 1–6 eggs per clutch.10 Ecuadorian populations of D. catesbyi lay eggs from April to June,11 whereas other populations breed throughout the year.10

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Conservation: Least Concern.12 Dipsas catesbyi is listed in this category because the species is widely distributed throughout the Amazon basin and is considered to be facing no major immediate threats of extinction.12

Special thanks to Clayton Lane for symbolically adopting the Ornate Snail-Eater and helping bring the Reptiles of Ecuador book project to life.

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Distribution: Dipsas catesbyi occurs throughout the Amazon basin and adjacent slopes of the Andes in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. It also occurs in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil. In Ecuador, the species is native to an estimated 108,460 km2 area in the Amazon basin and the eastern foothills of the Andes.

Distribution of Dipsas catesbyi in Ecuador

Etymology: The generic name Dipsas, which comes from the Greek word dipsa (meaning “thirst”),13 probably refers to the fact that the bite of these snakes was believed to cause intense thirst. The specific epithet catesbyi honors Mark Catesby (~1682–1749), an English naturalist and explorer best known for his illustrated book on birds, beasts, fishes, insects, and plants of southeastern United States and the Caribbean.

See it in the wild: Ornate Snail-Eaters can be seen with ~5–30% certainty at night, especially after a rainy day, in forested areas throughout its area of distribution in Ecuador. Some of the best localities to find Ornate Snail-Eaters in Ecuador are Yasuní National Park, Jatun Sacha Biological Station, Shiripuno Lodge, and Sani Lodge.


Do snails attract snakes? Yes. Snail-eating snakes follow snails visually or by tracking their scent trail.14

Do snail-eating snakes eat the shell of the snails? They don't. These snakes use specialized muscular contractions of their wedge-like head to extract snails from their shells.14

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

Photographers: Jose Vieira,aAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,bAffiliation: ExSitu, Quito, Ecuador. Frank Pichardo,aAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador. and Sebastián Di Doménico.

How to cite? Arteaga A (2020) Dipsas catesbyi. In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J, Guayasamin JM (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: www.reptilesofecuador.com

Literature cited:

  1. Peters JA (1956) An analysis of variation in a South American snake, Catesby’s Snail-Sucker (Dipsas catesbyi Sentzen). American Museum Novitates: 1–41.
  2. Field notes, Reptiles of Ecuador book project.
  3. 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.
  4. Duellman WE (2005) Cusco amazónico: the lives of amphibians and reptiles in an Amazonian rainforest. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 433 pp.
  5. Dixon JR, Soini P (1977) The reptiles of the upper Amazon Basin, Iquitos region, Peru. II. Crocodilians, turtles and snakes. Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee, 91 pp.
  6. Beebe W (1946) Field notes on the snakes of Kartabo, British Guiana, and Caripito, Venezuela. Zoologica 31: 11–52.
  7. Cadle JE (2005) Systematics of snakes in the Dipsas oreas complex (Colubridae: Dipsadinae) in western Ecuador and Peru, with revalidation of D. elegans (Boulenger) and D. ellipsifera (Boulenger). Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology 158: 67–136.
  8. Marciano-Jr E, Mira-Mendes CV, Dias IR, de Oliveira FFR, de Oliveira Drummond L (2015) Dipsas catesbyi (Catesby’s Snail-eater). Defensive behavior. Herpetological Review 46: 643.
  9. Cadle JE, Myers CW (2003) Systematics of snakes referred to Dipsas variegata in Panama and Western South America, with revalidation of two species and notes on defensive behaviors in the Dipsadini (Colubridae). American Museum Novitates 3409: 1–47.
  10. Alves FQ, Argolo AJS, Jim J (2005) Biologia reprodutiva de Dipsas neivai Amaral e D. catesbyi (Sentzen) (Serpentes, Colubridae) no sudeste da Bahia, Brasil. Revista Brasileira de Zoologia 22: 573–579.
  11. Zug GR, Hedges SB, Sunkel S (1979) Variation in reproductive parameters of three neotropical snakes, Coniophanes fissidens, Dipsas catesbyi, and Imantodes cenchoa. Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology 300: 1–20.
  12. Schargel W, Rivas G, Ouboter P (2019) Dipsas catesbyi. The IUCN red list of threatened species. Available from: www.iucnredlist.org
  13. Brown RW (1956) Composition of scientific words. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C., 882 pp.
  14. Sheehy C (2012) Phylogenetic relationships and feeding behavior of Neotropical snail-eating snakes (Dipsadinae, Dipsadini). PhD Thesis, UT Arlington.