Published May 12, 2018. Updated April 1, 2024. Open access.

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Ornate Snail-eating Snake (Dipsas catesbyi)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Colubridae | Dipsas catesbyi

English common names: Ornate Snail-eating Snake, Catesby’s Snai-Eater.

Spanish common name: Caracolera andina.

Recognition: ♂♂ 68.5 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=49.3 cm. ♀♀ 72.6 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=52.6 cm..13 Dipsas catesbyi can be identified based on its brown dorsum with 15–35 white-bordered black ellipses and its black head with, usually, a white transverse line on the snout (Fig. 1).14 This species differs from D. pavonina, D. klebbai, and D. palmeri by having a loreal scale that does not contact the orbit due to the presence of a preocular scale.24 Unlike in D. pavonina, the blotches in D. catesbyi are narrower at the top of the dorsum than laterally.24

Figure showing variation among individuals of Dipsas catesbyi

Figure 1: Individuals of Dipsas catesbyi from Jatun Sacha Biological Reserve, Napo province, Ecuador.

Natural history: Dipsas catesbyi is a nocturnal snake that inhabits old-growth to heavily disturbed rainforests, which may be terra-firme or seasonally flooded.14 The species also occurs in plantations, banana groves, pastures, and rural gardens.5 Ornate Snail-eating Snakes are active at night, especially if it is raining or drizzling.5 Their movements throught the foliage are slow, graceful, and generally occur at night on the lower (0.4–1.8 m above the ground) forest stratum.15 However, they may also be seen crossing trails at ground level or perched on arboreal vegetation up to 20 m above the ground.3,4 During the day, individuals have been found coiled, hidden inside the leaf-litter, under banana leaves, or on vegetation.6,7 The diet in D. catesbyi consists primarily on slugs and snails, but soft-bodied insects are also eaten.1,8 The mollusks are presumably immobilized by the use of toxins secreted by the mucous cells of the infralabial glands. Nevertheless, all snakes in the genus Dipsas are considered harmless to humans. They never attempt to bite, resorting instead to musking and coiling into a defensive ball posture while expanding the head to simulate a triangular shape.9,10 One individual of D. catesbyi was even recorded emiting a defensive vocalization.11 The clutch size in this species consists of 1–6 eggs.3,12 In Ecuadorian populations, egg-laying takes place from April to June,13 whereas other populations breed throughout the year.12

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Conservation: Least Concern Believed to be safe from extinction given current circumstances..14 Dipsas catesbyi 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 remains nearby.14

Distribution: Dipsas catesbyi occurs throughout the Amazonian lowlands and adjacent slopes of the Andes in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador (Fig. 2), French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. It also occurs in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil.

Distribution of Dipsas catesbyi in Ecuador

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

Etymology: The name Dipsas comes from the Greek dipsa (=thirst)15 and probably refers to the fact that the bite of these snakes was believed to cause intense thirst. The specific epithet catesbyi honors Mark Catesby (1683–1749), 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-eating Snakes can be seen at a rate of about once every few nights, especially after a rainy day in forested areas throughout their area of distribution in Ecuador. Prime localities for this species in Ecuador include Yasuní Scientific Station, Jatun Sacha Biological Station, Shiripuno Lodge, and Sani Lodge.

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

Click here to adopt a species.

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) Ornate Snail-eating Snake (Dipsas catesbyi). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/RLKG9224

Literature cited:

  1. Dixon JR, Soini P (1986) The reptiles of the upper Amazon Basin, Iquitos region, Peru. Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee, 154 pp.
  2. Peters JA (1956) An analysis of variation in a South American snake, Catesby’s Snail-Sucker (Dipsas catesbyi Sentzen). American Museum Novitates: 1–41.
  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. Field notes, Reptiles of Ecuador book project.
  6. Cadle JE (2005) Systematics of snakes in the Dipsas oreas complex (Colubridae: Dipsadinae) in western Ecuador and Peru, with revalidation of Dipsas elegans (Boulenger) and Dipsas ellipsifera (Boulenger). Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology 158: 67–136.
  7. 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.
  8. Beebe W (1946) Field notes on the snakes of Kartabo, British Guiana, and Caripito, Venezuela. Zoologica 31: 11–52.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Yuri Fernandes I, Koch ED, Mônico AT (2023) First record of a snake call in South America: the unusual sound of an ornate snail-eater Dipsas catesbyi. Acta Amazonica 53: 243–245.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Schargel W, Rivas G, Ouboter P (2019) Dipsas catesbyi. The IUCN Red List of threatened species. Available from: DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-3.RLTS.T176788A44948867.en
  15. Brown RW (1956) Composition of scientific words. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C., 882 pp.

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

ColombiaCaquetáAcapulcoiNaturalist; photo examined
ColombiaCaquetáBelén de AndaquíesiNaturalist; photo examined
ColombiaCaquetáLa UnióniNaturalist; photo examined
ColombiaCaquetáLos ÁngelesGutiérrez-Lamus et al. 2020
ColombiaCaquetáMonserrateGutiérrez-Lamus et al. 2020
ColombiaPutumayoEl Encanto del VidesiNaturalist; photo examined
ColombiaPutumayoJardín de SucumbíosCalderón et al. 2023
ColombiaPutumayoLibertadiNaturalist; photo examined
ColombiaPutumayoNariñoGeopark Colombia 2022
ColombiaPutumayoPosada Portal del SoliNaturalist; photo examined
ColombiaPutumayoRío PutumayoGrant et al. 2023
ColombiaPutumayoVereda Islas de CartagenaBorja-Acosta & Galeano 2024
EcuadorMorona SantiagoArapicosFugler & Walls 1978
EcuadorMorona SantiagoArea de Conservación Municipal RunahurcoReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorMorona SantiagoChiguazaPeters 1956
EcuadorMorona SantiagoCusuimeOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorMorona SantiagoEl QuimiBetancourt et al. 2018
EcuadorMorona SantiagoEstación Biológica WisuiChaparro et al. 2011
EcuadorMorona SantiagoGualaquizaAMNH 25182; VertNet
EcuadorMorona SantiagoMacasArteaga et al. 2018
EcuadorMorona SantiagoMacumaPeters 1956
EcuadorMorona SantiagoNormandíaAMNH 35902; VertNet
EcuadorMorona SantiagoQuebrada Namakunts Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorMorona SantiagoRancho AllegroCAS 94092; VertNet
EcuadorMorona SantiagoSan Pablo de KantesiyaArteaga et al. 2018
EcuadorMorona SantiagoSantiago de TiwintzaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorMorona SantiagoSiete Iglesias ReserveOnline multimedia
EcuadorMorona SantiagoSucúaArteaga et al. 2018
EcuadorNapoAhuanoiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorNapoAhuano–Yuralpa roadiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorNapoAnaconda LodgeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorNapoArchidonaMHNG 2309.04; collection database
EcuadorNapoCalle Teniente Hugo OrtiziNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorNapoFinca FischerTCWC 65516; VertNet
EcuadorNapoGareno LodgeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorNapoHidroeléctrica Coca Codo SinclairCOCASINCLAIR 2013
EcuadorNapoHollín–LoretoArteaga et al. 2018
EcuadorNapoHuamaníNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorNapoHuaorani LodgeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorNapoJatun Sacha Biological ReserveThis work; Fig. 1
EcuadorNapoLiana LodgeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorNapoPacto SumacoCamper et al. 2021
EcuadorNapoQuehueirionoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorNapoReserva NarupaReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorNapoRío CotopinoHarvey 2008
EcuadorNapoRío PucunoUSNM 210933; VertNet
EcuadorNapoRuna HuasiNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorNapoSan RafaelArteaga et al. 2018
EcuadorNapoSanta CeciliaZug et al. 1979
EcuadorNapoSuchipakari LodgeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorNapoTenaReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorNapoTena–Puerto Napo roadiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorNapoUniversidad IkiamReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorNapoWild SumacoReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorNapoYachana ReserveBeirne et al. 2013
EcuadorNapoZatzayacuReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorOrellanaAguaricoiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorOrellanaApaikaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaÁvila ViejoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaBloque ShiripunoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaBloque YPFNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaCabeceras del Río NapoHarvey 2008
EcuadorOrellanaComuna Juan Pablo IINogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaCotapinoFugler & Walls 1978
EcuadorOrellanaEl CocaHarvey 2008
EcuadorOrellanaHacienda PrimaveraArteaga et al. 2018
EcuadorOrellanaHuiririmaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaLa Joya de los SachasNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaNenkepareReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorOrellanaNPFReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorOrellanaNuevo RocafuerteNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaPacca HuasiKingsbury et al. 2008
EcuadorOrellanaPlataforma Iro 1Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaPompeya SurNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaPre-Cooperativa Las Palmas, 2.7 km SW ofNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaReserva Río BigalGarcía et al. 2021
EcuadorOrellanaRío Tiputini, 7 km S ofKU 300816; VertNet
EcuadorOrellanaRío YasuníHarvey 2008
EcuadorOrellanaRío Yasuní, near Lake JatuncochaReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorOrellanaSan José de PayaminoMaynard et al. 2016
EcuadorOrellanaSanta RosaPeters 1956
EcuadorOrellanaShiripuno LodgeiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorOrellanaTambocochaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaTaracoaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaTigüinoUSNM 321112; VertNet
EcuadorOrellanaTiputini Biodiversity StationCisneros-Heredia 2003
EcuadorOrellanaTiputini, 10.9 km N ofHarvey 2008
EcuadorOrellanaVía Pompeya–Iro (km 108)Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaVía Pompeya–Iro (km 90–91)Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaVía Pompeya–Iro (km 96)Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaYarina LodgeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorOrellanaYasuní Scientific StationNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaAlto CurarayUSNM 210913; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaBalsauraOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaCabeceras del BobonazaUSNM 210926; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaCampo Villano BArteaga et al. 2018
EcuadorPastazaCampo Villano K10Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaCanelosOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaChichirotaPeters 1956
EcuadorPastazaChuyayacuNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaComunidad Santa RosaPeters 1956
EcuadorPastazaConamboOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaCuraray MedioReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorPastazaIndependenciaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaJuyuintzaOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaJuyuintza, 4.5 km SE ofNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaKapawi LodgePhoto by Kristiina Ovaska
EcuadorPastazaKurintzaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaLorocachiNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaMangayacuNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaMeraUSNM 210904; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaMontalvoUSNM 210923; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaPucayacu (Río Pucayacu)USNM 210906; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaPuka YakuNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaPuyoArteaga et al. 2018
EcuadorPastazaPuyo, 10 km N ofNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaRío ArajunoUSNM 210925; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaRío BobonazaZug et al 1979
EcuadorPastazaRío BufeoOrtega-Andrade 2010
EcuadorPastazaRío CopotazaUSNM 210907; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaRío CorrientesPeters 1956
EcuadorPastazaRío OglánPeters 1956
EcuadorPastazaRío Pastaza Peters 1956
EcuadorPastazaRío PindoUSNM 210915; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaRío RutunoUSNM 210908; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaRío SandaliasPeters 1956
EcuadorPastazaRío SolísPeters 1956
EcuadorPastazaRío VillanoUSNM 210874; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaSanta AnaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaSanta Rosa (along Río Conambo=Tigre)AMNH 49175; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaSanta Rosa de ArapinoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaSarayacuNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaShell–MeraUSNM 210904; VertNet
EcuadorPastazaSumak Kawsay In SituBentley et al. 2021
EcuadorPastazaTamandúa ReservePhoto by Yatin Kalki
EcuadorPastazaTambo UniónPeters 1956
EcuadorPastazaTarangaroNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaTerritorio ShiwiarOrtega-Andrade et al. 2010
EcuadorPastazaTzarentzaReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorPastazaVillanoReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorSucumbíosBloque 15Izquierdo et al. 2000
EcuadorSucumbíosCasa de máquinasNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosCascalesNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosComunidad ZábaloCevallos Bustos 2010
EcuadorSucumbíosDurenoMHNG 2436.067; collection database
EcuadorSucumbíosEl ReventadorArteaga et al. 2018
EcuadorSucumbíosGüeppicilloYánez-Muñoz & Venegas 2008
EcuadorSucumbíosLa BarquillaCampos et al. 2001
EcuadorSucumbíosLa Selva LodgeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorSucumbíosLago AgrioDuellman 1978
EcuadorSucumbíosLaguna MandiiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorSucumbíosLimoncochaZug et al 1979
EcuadorSucumbíosLumbaquiHarvey 2008
EcuadorSucumbíosLumbaqui, 5 km E ofDueñas and Báez 2021
EcuadorSucumbíosPlayas del CuyabenoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosPuerto El CarmenNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosPuerto LibreDuellman 1978
EcuadorSucumbíosPuerto RodríguezNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosPutumayoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosReserva Ecológica Cofán BermejoYánez-Muñoz et al. 2017
EcuadorSucumbíosRío GüeppiYánez-Muñoz et al. 2017
EcuadorSucumbíosRio Sábalo campsiteReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorSucumbíosSan Pablo de KantesiyaArteaga et al. 2018
EcuadorSucumbíosSani Field StationiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorSucumbíosSani LodgeReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorSucumbíosSansahuariNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosSanta CeciliaDuellman 1978
EcuadorSucumbíosSendero ItayaReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorSucumbíosShushufindiNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosTarapoaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosZábalo, Familia CriolloNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorTungurahuaReserva Río ZuñacYánez-Muñoz et al. 2013
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeCopalinga ReservePhoto by Paula Reeves
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeDestacamento Coangos, 2 km NE ofNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeMaycu ReserveReptiles of Ecuador book database
EcuadorZamora ChinchipePermatreeiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeRap 7, Cordillera del CóndorAlmendáriz et al. 2014
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeRío NangaritzaiNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeRío VergeliNaturalist; photo examined
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeZumbaPhoto by Darwin Núñez
PeruAmazonasAguaruna VillageMVZ 163260; VertNet
PeruAmazonasCaterpizaUSNM 566560; VertNet
PeruAmazonasKayamasUSNM 560422; VertNet
PeruAmazonasLa PozaUSNM 566563; VertNet
PeruAmazonasPuerto GalileaUSNM 566562; VertNet
PeruAmazonasSan Antonio, Río CenepaUSNM 560424; VertNet
PeruLoretoCerro de KampankisCatenazzi & Venegas 2016
PeruLoretoMoroponDixon & Soini 1986
PeruLoretoSan JacintoKU 222193; VertNet
PeruLoretoSanta MaríaDixon & Soini 1986