Published March 8, 2022. Open access.

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Ecuadorian Centipede-Snake (Tantilla equatoriana)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Colubridae | Tantilla | Tantilla equatoriana

English common name: Ecuadorian Centipede-Snake.

Spanish common name: Culebra ciempiés ecuatoriana.

Recognition: ♂♂ 43.3 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=31.5 cm..1 The Ecuadorian Centipede-Snake (Tantilla equatoriana) may be recognized from other snakes in its area of distribution by having the following combination of features: smooth scales arranged in 15 rows at mid-body, a round head similar in width to the neck, small eyes, no loreal scale, and a brownish dorsum with a pattern of thin black longitudinal lines.2 The belly is immaculate white and the head is brown with a long cream postocular stripe but no contrasting blackish head cap.2 Tantilla fraseri and T. miyatai are similar to T. equatoriana, but the first has a well-defined blackish head cap (indistinct in T. equatoriana) and the second has a broad cream snout patch (absent or reduced in T. equatoriana).3 The presence of dorsal scales arranged in 15 rows at mid-body distinguishes T. equatoriana from other brownish co-occurring snakes such as Atractus iridescens, Coniophanes fissidens, and Urotheca lateristriga.4

Figure showing variation among individuals of Tantilla equatoriana

Figure 1: Individuals of Tantilla equatoriana from Morromico Reserve, Chocó department, Colombia (); and Canandé Reserve, Esmeraldas province, Ecuador ().

Natural history: Extremely rareTotal average number of reported observations per locality less than three.. Tantilla equatoriana is a semi-fossorial (living underground and at ground level) snake that inhabits old-growth to heavily disturbed evergreen lowland forests as well as disturbed areas such as pastures and plantations.5 Ecuadorian Centipede-Snakes have been seen moving on soil and leaf-litter during the daytime or at night.5 Snakes of the genus Tantilla feed primarily on centipedes,68 but the specific dietary preferences of T. equatoriana are not known. Ecuadorian Centipede-Snakes rely on their secretive habits as a primary defense mechanism. When threatened, these calm but jittery snakes try to flee by digging into the soil or disappearing into the leaf-litter; if captured, they may try to poke with their sharp tail tip.5 Centipede snakes in general are opistoglyphous (having enlarged teeth towards the rear of the maxilla) and mildly venomous, which means they are dangerous to small prey, but not to humans. There is a record of an Erythrolamprus mimus preying upon an individual of this species during the daytime.5 Tantilla equatoriana is likely an oviparous species, but the clutch size and nesting sites are not known.

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Conservation: Least Concern Believed to be safe from extinction given current circumstances.. Tantilla equatoriana has not been formally evaluated by the IUCN Red List. Here, the species is proposed to be included in the LC category given its wide distribution over a region (the Colombian Pacific coast) that has not been heavily affected by deforestation. Therefore, T. equatoriana is considered to be facing no major immediate extinction threats. However, in the Pacific lowlands of northwestern Ecuador, much (~53%)9 of the species’ habitat has been lost due to deforestation caused by rural-urban development and the expansion of the agricultural frontier. For this reason, T. equatoriana may qualify for a threatened category in the future if its habitat continues to be destroyed.

Distribution: Tantilla equatoriana occurs in the Chocoan lowlands and adjacent Andean foothills from western Colombia to Cotopaxi province in northwestern Ecuador. This species has been recorded at elevations between 9 and 1245 m (Fig. 2).

Distribution of Tantilla equatoriana in Ecuador

Figure 2: Distribution of Tantilla equatoriana in Ecuador. The star corresponds to the type locality: San Lorenzo, Esmeraldas province. See Appendix 1 for a complete list of the presence localities included in the map.

Etymology: The generic name Tantilla, which is derived from the Latin word tantillus (meaning “so little”),10 is probably a reference to the small body size of snakes of this genus. The specific epithet equatoriana refers to the type locality: Ecuador.2

See it in the wild: Ecuadorian Centipede-Snakes cannot be expected to be seen reliably using standard methods of field herpetology. Individuals of this elusive snake are found no more than once every few months at any given area and usually only by chance. Apparently, the only locality where the species has been recorded more than once is the town San Lorenzo, Esmeraldas province. The majority of individuals have been found by walking along forest trails during the daytime.

Notes: This account follows Wilson and Mena (1980)2 and Wilson (1999)11 in recognizing Tantilla equatoriana as a valid species distinct from T. melanocephala, a view contrary to Greenbaum et al. (2004).1 An unpublished12 species delimitation analysis based on DNA sequences confirms the original arrangement, a view that is shared here based also on the differences in head pattern between the two 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 (2022) Ecuadorian Centipede-Snake (Tantilla equatoriana). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/BUZN7430

Literature cited:

  1. Greenbaum E, Carr JL, Almendáriz A (2004) Taxonomic status of Tantilla equatoriana Wilson and Mena 1980 (Serpentes: Colubridae). The Southwestern Naturalist 49: 457–464.
  2. Wilson LD, Mena CE (1980) Systematics of the melanocephala group of the colubrid snake genus Tantilla. Memoirs of the San Diego Society of Natural History 11: 5–58.
  3. Wilson LD (1987) A résumé of the Colubrid snakes of the genus Tantilla of South America. Milwaukee Public Museum Contributions in Biology and Geology 68: 1–35.
  4. MECN (2010) Serie herpetofauna del Ecuador: El Chocó esmeraldeño. Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales, Quito, 232 pp.
  5. Field notes, Reptiles of Ecuador book project.
  6. Acosta Vásconez AN (2014) Diversidad y composición de la comunidad de reptiles del Bosque Protector Puyango. BSc thesis, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, 157 pp.
  7. 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.
  8. Peters WCH (1863) Über einige neue oder weniger bekannte Schlangenarten des zoologischen Museums zu Berlin. Monatsberichte der Königlichen Preussische Akademie des Wissenschaften zu Berlin 1863: 272–289.
  9. MAE (2012) Línea base de deforestación del Ecuador continental. Ministerio del Ambiente del Ecuador, Quito, 30 pp.
  10. Brown RW (1956) Composition of scientific words. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C., 882 pp.
  11. Wilson LD (1999) Checklist and key to the species of the genus Tantilla (Serpentes: Colubridae), with some commentary on distribution. Smithsonian Herpetological Information Service 122: 1–34. DOI: 10.5479/si.23317515.122.1
  12. Arteaga A (unpublished).

Appendix 1: Locality data used to create the distribution map of Tantilla equatoriana in Ecuador (Fig. 2). Go to the section on symbols and abbreviations for a list of acronyms used. Asterisk (*) indicates type locality.

ColombiaNariñoLa GuayacanaMCZ 150222
ColombiaNariñoRío RosarioGreenbaum et al. 2004
EcuadorCarchiTobar DonosoSamec & Samec 1988
EcuadorEsmeraldasCanandé Biological ReserveThis work
EcuadorEsmeraldasLita, 16 km W ofMHNG 2521.082
EcuadorEsmeraldasMayrongaArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorEsmeraldasSan JavierUIMNH 55725
EcuadorEsmeraldasSan Lorenzo*Wilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorEsmeraldasTulubí, 10 km E ofGreenbaum et al. 2004
EcuadorPichinchaEl Chalpi-SaguangalValencia et al. 2017
EcuadorPichinchaHostería Selva VirgenThis work
EcuadorPichinchaKapari LodgeiNaturalist
EcuadorPichinchaRuta al CintoiNaturalist
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasOtongachi ReserveWilson & Mata-Silva 2015
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasSanto Domingo de los ColoradosGreenbaum et al. 2004