Elegant Snail-Eater

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Colubridae | Dipsas | Dipsas elegans

English common names: Elegant Snail-Eater.

Spanish common names: Caracolera elegante.

Recognition: ♂♂ 91.9 cm ♀♀ 93.3 cm. In its area of distribution, the Elegant Snail-Eater (Dipsas elegans) is the only snake having a brownish dorsum with 26–46 blackish, vertical bars between which there is a more or less distinct narrow pale bar. The Andean Snail-Eater (D. andiana) is similar, but differs from D. elegans by having a clearly defined dark ∩-shaped mark on the back of the head. The almost identical D. ellipsifera occurs north of the distribution of D. elegans. In cloudforests of northwestern Ecuador, D. elegans is often confused with the Cloudy Snail-Eater (Sibon nebulatus), but this other snake has a pattern of irregular blotches instead of vertical bars.

Natural history: Frequent. Dipsas elegans is a nocturnal snake that inhabits old-growth to moderately disturbed cloudforests, montane forests, highland shrublands, plantations, pastures with scattered trees, and urban gardens.1,2 Elegant Snail-Eaters are active at night, especially if it is raining or drizzling.1 They move actively but slowly at ground level, or on vegetation 0.15–4.3 m above the ground.2 They feed on slugs, snails, and earthworms.35 During the day, snakes of this species rest coiled inside the leaf litter or under rotten logs.6,7 Elegant Snail-Eaters are harmless to humans; they are extremely docile and never attempt to bite.1 If threatened, individuals may flatten their body and expand their head to simulate a triangular shape and produce a musky and distasteful odor.2 Individuals of D. elegans are preyed upon by the viper Bothrops asper.2 Females lay clutches of up to seven eggs.6,7

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Conservation: Near Threatened. We consider Dipsas elegans to be in this category, instead of Vulnerable,8 following IUCN criteria9 because the species occurs in at least 78 localities and 20 protected areas,2 and presumably tolerates moderate habitat degradation. Although we consider D. elegans to be facing no major immediate threats of extinction, it is worth mentioning that its extent of occurrence is estimated to be less than 10,000 km2 and there is continuing decline in the extent and quality of its habitat. There is virtually no suitable native vegetation cover left in the valley of Quito due urban development.

Distribution: Dipsas elegans is endemic to an estimated 8,147 km2 area in the western slopes of the Andes in Ecuador as well as in the inter-Andean valley of Quito.

Distribution of Dipsas elegans in Ecuador

Etymology: The generic name Dipsas, which comes from the Greek word dipsa (meaning “thirst”),10 probably refers to the fact that the bite of these snakes was believed to cause intense thirst. The specific epithet elegans is a Latin word meaning “elegant” or “select”.10 It is appropriate to describe the tasteful color pattern of this snail-eating snake species.

See it in the wild: Elegant Snail-Eaters can be seen with ~10–30% certainty at night in cloudforest areas throughout their distribution, especially on vegetation after a period of rain. Some of the best localities to find Elegant Snail-Eaters are Otonga Reserve, Intag Cloudforest Reserve, and along the old Nono–Mindo road.


Do snails attract snakes? Yes. Snail-eating snakes follow snails visually or by tracking their scent trail.11

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.11

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

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

How to cite? Arteaga A (2020) Dipsas elegans. 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. Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Guayasamin JM (2013) The amphibians and reptiles of Mindo. Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica, Quito, 257 pp.
  2. Field notes, Reptiles of Ecuador book project.
  3. Valencia JA, Garzón K (2011) Guía de anfibios y reptiles en ambientes cercanos a las estaciones del OCP. Fundación Herpetológica Gustavo Orcés, Quito, 268 pp.
  4. Savit AZ (2006) Reptiles of the Santa Lucía Cloud Forest, Ecuador. Iguana 13: 94–103.
  5. Cisneros-Heredia DF (2005) Report of molliscivory in Atractus carrioni Parker 1930. Herpetozoa 18: 185–186.
  6. Orcés VG, Almendáriz A (1987) Sistemática y distribución de las serpientes Dipsadinae del grupo oreas. Politécnica 12: 135–155.
  7. Almendáriz A, Orcés G (2004) Distribución de algunas especies de la herpetofauna de los pisos: altoandino, temperado y subtropical. Politécnica 25: 97–150.
  8. Cisneros-Heredia DF, Almendáriz A, Yánez-Muñoz M (2017) Dipsas elegans. The IUCN red list of threatened species. Available from: www.iucnredlist.org
  9. IUCN (2001) IUCN Red List categories and criteria: Version 3.1. IUCN Species Survival Commission, Gland and Cambridge, 30 pp.
  10. Brown RW (1956) Composition of scientific words. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C., 882 pp.
  11. Sheehy C (2012) Phylogenetic relationships and feeding behavior of Neotropical snail-eating snakes (Dipsadinae, Dipsadini). PhD Thesis, UT Arlington.