Highland Snail-Eater

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Colubridae | Dipsas | Dipsas ellipsifera

English common names: Highland Snail-Eater.

Spanish common names: Caracolera elegante.

Recognition: ♂♂ 81 cm ♀♀ 63 cm. In its area of distribution, the Highland Snail-Eater (Dipsas ellipsifera) is the only snake having a brownish dorsum with 27–39 blackish,1,2 vertical bars between which there is a more or less distinct narrow pale bar. The Sandy Snail-Eater (S. dunni) may be found in the same area as D. ellipsifera, but it does not have a barred color pattern. The almost identical D. elegans occurs south of the distribution of D. ellipsifera.

Natural history: Uncommon. Dipsas ellipsifera is a nocturnal snake that inhabits old-growth to heavily disturbed cloudforests and highland shrublands, plantations, and urban gardens.3,4 Highland Snail-Eaters are active at night, especially if it is raining or drizzling.3 They move actively but slowly at ground level or on shrubby vegetation.3 Nothing its known about their diet, but they probably feed on slugs and snails. During the day, snakes of this species rest coiled under rocks.3 Highland Snail-Eaters are harmless to humans; they are extremely docile and never attempt to bite. If threatened, individuals may expand their head to simulate a triangular shape and produce a musky and distasteful odor.3

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Conservation: Endangered.5 Dipsas ellipsifera is listed in this category because the species occurs as fragmented populations over a 2,740 km2 area where most (~58%) of the vegetation cover has been destroyed and transformed into crops, cattle pastures, and human settlements. The species also faces continuing decline in the extent and quality of its habitat.5

Distribution: Dipsas ellipsifera is endemic to an estimated 2,740 km2 area in the northwestern slopes of the Andes in Ecuador as well as in the inter-Andean valley of the Río Mira.

Distribution of Dipsas ellipsifera in Ecuador

Etymology: The generic name Dipsas, which comes from the Greek word dipsa (meaning “thirst”),6 probably refers to the fact that the bite of these snakes was believed to cause intense thirst. The specific epithet ellipsifera comes from the Greek word elleipsis and the Latin suffix fero (meaning “to carry”).6 It is a reference to the ellipsoidal dorsal markings of the species.7

See it in the wild: Although highland Snail-Eaters are nocturnal, they are easier to find during the day by turning over rocks in areas of highland shrublands. One of the best localities to find Highland Snail-Eaters is in the vicinity of Pimampiro.


Do snails attract snakes? Yes. Snail-eating snakes follow snails visually or by tracking their scent trail.8

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.8

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

Photographers: Alejandro ArteagaaAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador. and Jose VieiraaAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,bAffiliation: ExSitu, Quito, Ecuador.

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

Literature cited:

  1. 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.
  2. Peters JA (1960) The snakes of the subfamily Dipsadinae. Miscellaneous Publications, Museum of Zoology, Univesity of Michigan 114: 1–224.
  3. Field notes, Reptiles of Ecuador book project.
  4. Orcés VG, Almendáriz A (1987) Sistemática y distribución de las serpientes Dipsadinae del grupo oreas. Politécnica 12: 135–155.
  5. Cisneros-Heredia DF, Almendáriz A, Yánez-Muñoz M (2019) Dipsas ellipsifera. The IUCN red list of threatened species. Available from: www.iucnredlist.org
  6. Brown RW (1956) Composition of scientific words. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C., 882 pp.
  7. Boulenger GA (1898) An account of the reptiles and batrachians collected by Mr. Rosenberg in western Ecuador. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 9: 107–126.
  8. Sheehy C (2012) Phylogenetic relationships and feeding behavior of Neotropical snail-eating snakes (Dipsadinae, Dipsadini). PhD Thesis, UT Arlington.