Published May 31, 2024. Open access.

Red-bellied Litter Snake (Rhadinaea decorata)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Colubridae | Rhadinaea decorata

English common name: Red-bellied Litter Snake.

Spanish common names: Culebra hojarasquera de vientre rojo, culebra adornada de hojarasca, culebra café adornada.

Recognition: ♂♂ 67.5 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=47.0 cm. ♀♀ 60.8 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=44.4 cm..1 Rhadinaea decorata is a small slender snake that can be identified by its adorned coloration. The top of the dorsum is light brown, clearly separated from the dark brown flanks by a sharp white dorsolateral line that begins behind the eye (faint in older specimens; Fig. 1).18 There is a white labial stripe, with the posterior border of each supralabial scale edged in black. The belly is light orange with a series of minute ventrolateral black spots along the first third of the body.18 This species differs from the brittle snakes (genus Urotheca) and the spotbelly snakes (genus Coniophanes) that inhabit Ecuador by having a white ocular stripe that is continuous with or followed by a light dorsolateral line.2

Figure showing an adult individual of Rhadinaea decorata

Figure 1: Adult female of Rhadinaea decorata from Bosque Protector La Perla, Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas province, Ecuador.

Natural history: Rhadinaea decorata is a terrestrial snake found in old-growth to heavily disturbed lowland rainforests as well as in pastures and crops.18 Red-bellied Litter Snakes forage on leaf-litter and among roots during daytime, particularly when maximum amount of sunlight filters through the forest canopy.1,3 At night, they remain hidden beneath the leaf-litter, in crevices, or under pieces of wood.1 Their diet includes frogs (even poison frogs such as Oophaga pumilio), tadpoles, anuran eggs, salamanders, anoles, whiptails, and earthworms.2,3,7,9 They actively hunt and subdue prey by means of envenomation (they are opisthoglyphous), but their bite is harmless to humans.1 These jittery snakes rely primarily on crypsis to avoid detection. If disturbed, they typically just disappear into the leaf-litter, but some individuals exhibit thanatosis (death feigning).10 The tail is long, fragile, and breaks off easily when grabbed by a predator, enabling the escape and survival of the snake. The clutch size in this species consists of 2–4 eggs.9,11

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Conservation: Least Concern Believed to be safe from extinction given current circumstances..12 Rhadinaea decorata is listed in this category primarily because the species has a wide distribution spanning many protected areas. Furthermore, most populations appear to be stable and persist in human-modified habitats.12 However, in the southern part of its range, this species is restricted to a comparatively small (22,772 km2) isolated area that has lost approximately 76% of its original rainforest cover. Therefore, R. decorata could qualify for the Vulnerable category at the national level in Ecuador if its habitat continues to be destroyed.

Distribution: Rhadinaea decorata is widely distributed throughout Mesoamerica and west of the Andes in South America, from Mexico to western Ecuador (Fig. 2).

Distribution of Rhadinaea decorata in Ecuador

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

Etymology: The genus name Rhadinaea comes from the Greek rhadinos, meaning “slender.”13 The specific epithet decorata is an adjective meaning “decorated” or “adorned,” in reference to the white markings on the head.1

See it in the wild: Although the Red-bellied Litter Snake is considered a common species throuhout Central America, in Ecuador it has only been sighted 8 times, making it one of the rarest colubrid snakes in the country. Recently, individuals of Rhadinaea decorata have been sighted at Bosque Protector La Perla and at Bilsa Biological Reserve.

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) Red-bellied Litter Snake (Rhadinaea decorata). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/ILKO1966

Literature cited:

  1. Myers CW (1974) The systematics of Rhadinaea (Colubridae), a genus of New World snakes. Bulletin of American Museum of Natural History 153: 1–262.
  2. MECN (2010) Serie herpetofauna del Ecuador: El Chocó esmeraldeño. Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales, Quito, 232 pp.
  3. Vásquez-Restrepo JD, Toro-Cardona FA (2019) Rhadinaea decorata (Günther, 1858): culebra café adornada. Catálogo de anfibios y reptiles de Colombia 5: 56–63.
  4. McCranie JR (2011) The snakes of Honduras: systematics, distribution, and conservation. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Ithaca, 714 pp.
  5. Savage JM (2002) The amphibians and reptiles of Costa Rica, a herpetofauna between two continents, between two seas. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 934 pp.
  6. Ortega-Andrade HM, Bermingham J, Aulestia C, Paucar C (2010) Herpetofauna of the Bilsa Biological Station, province of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. Check List 6: 119–154. DOI: 10.15560/6.1.119
  7. Lotzkat S (2014) Diversity, taxonomy, and biogeography of the reptiles inhabiting the highlands of the Cordillera Central (Serranía de Talamanca and Serranía de Tabasará) in western Panama. PhD thesis, Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main, 931 pp.
  8. Heimes P (2016) Snakes of Mexico. Chimaira, Frankfurt, 572 pp.
  9. Leenders T (2019) Reptiles of Costa Rica: a field guide. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 625 pp.
  10. Donini JT, Ussa M (2016) Rhadinaea decorata (Elegant Leaf Litter Snake): defensive behavior/ death feigning. Herpetological Review 47: 483.
  11. Solórzano A (2004) Serpientes de Costa Rica. Distribución, taxonomía e historia natural. Universidad de Costa Rica, San José, 792 pp.
  12. Chaves G, Köhler G, Lamar W, Porras LW (2017) Rhadinaea decorata. The IUCN Red List of threatened species. Available from: DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-2.RLTS.T198401A2525266.en
  13. 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 Rhadinaea decorata in Ecuador (Fig. 2). Go to the section on symbols and abbreviations for a list of acronyms used.

EcuadorCotopaxiBosque Privado JDLSMZUTI 4808; examined
EcuadorEsmeraldasBilsa Biological ReserveOrtega-Andrade et al. 2010
EcuadorEsmeraldasEsmeraldasYánez-Muñoz et al. 2010
EcuadorEsmeraldasEsmeraldas, 20 km S ofMHNG 2532.032; collection database
EcuadorPichinchaCascada TataláRodríguez-Guerra 2020
EcuadorPichinchaPuerto QuitoMHNG 2221.023; collection database
EcuadorPichinchaRío BlancoMyers 1974
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasBosque Protector La PerlaThis work; Fig. 1