Published March 2, 2022. Updated March 20, 2022. Open access.

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Cloud Forest Centipede-Snake (Tantilla fraseri)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Colubridae | Tantilla | Tantilla fraseri

English common names: Cloud Forest Centipede-Snake, Fraser’s Centipede Snake.

Spanish common names: Culebra ciempiés de bosque nublado, culebra ciempiés de Fraser.

Recognition: ♂♂ 35.4 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=27 cm. ♀♀ 31.4 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=25.3 cm..1,2 The Cloud Forest Centipede-Snake (Tantilla fraseri) 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, a cream postocular stripe, and a cream patch on the snout.3 The belly is yellow to orange-red.4 Tantilla equatoriana and T. miyatai are similar to T. fraseri, but the first lacks a cream snout patch, and the second has a well-defined dark head cap (absent in T. fraseri). The presence of dorsal scales arranged in 15 rows at mid-body distinguishes T. fraseri from other brownish co-occurring snakes such as Atractus dunni, Saphenophis boursieri, and Urotheca lateristriga.5 Juveniles of T. fraseri have a more contrasting head pattern that includes two cream spots on the nape.4,6

Figure showing variation among individuals of Tantilla fraseri

Figure 1: Individuals of Tantilla fraseri from Milpe () and Guarumales (), Pichincha province, Ecuador.

Natural history: RareTotal average number of reported observations per locality less than ten.. Tantilla fraseri is a semi-fossorial (living underground and at ground level) snake that inhabits old-growth to moderately disturbed cloud forests, lower-montane forests, and areas containing a matrix of cattle pastures, crops, and rural houses.1 Cloud Forest Centipede-Snakes have been seen moving on leaf-litter or soil during the daytime. When not active, these snakes hide under logs, between tree bark, or bury themselves in soft soil among roots and debris during the day or at night.1 Snakes of the genus Tantilla feed primarily on centipedes,79 but the specific dietary preferences of T. fraseri are not known. One individual was observed feeding on the egg of a lizard (Andinosaura oculata).10 Cloud Forest 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; if captured, they may try to poke with their sharp tail tip.1 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 Urotheca lateristriga preying upon an individual of this species in Milpe Bird Sanctuary, Ecuador.1 Tantilla fraseri is likely an oviparous species, but the clutch size and nesting sites are not known.

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Conservation: Near Threatened Not currently at risk of extinction, but requires some level of management to maintain healthy populations.. Tantilla fraseri is proposed to be included in this category following IUCN criteria,11 because the species has been recorded at 38 localities (including 16 protected areas; see Appendix 1) and it is distributed over an area which retains the majority (~64%) of its forest cover.12 Therefore, the species is considered to be facing no major immediate extinction threats. However, some populations are likely to be declining due to deforestation by logging and large-scale mining, especially in the province Imbabura,13 where only four populations of the species are known. The fear of snakes is also a source of mortality to individuals of this species. People in rural regions tend to kill any snake, even those not dangerous to them.

Distribution: Tantilla fraseri is endemic to an estimated 3,461 km2 area along the Pacific slopes of the Andes of northwestern Ecuador. The species occurs on the upper drainage of the Blanco and Toachi rivers at elevations between 1034 and 2208 m (Fig. 2).

Distribution of Tantilla fraseri in Ecuador

Figure 2: Distribution of Tantilla fraseri in Ecuador. The star corresponds to the approximate type locality: western slopes of the Andes in the vicinity of Quito. 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”),14 is probably a reference to the small body size of snakes of this genus. The specific epithet fraseri honors Louis Fraser, a British zoologist and naturalist who collected the specimen on which the original description of the species was based.

See it in the wild: With the exception of a few localities, Cloud Forest Centipede-Snakes are found no more than once every few months at any given area and usually only by chance. In Ecuador, the locality having the greatest number of observations is Santa Lucía Cloud Forest Reserve, where, apparently, Tantilla fraseri is the most common snake species.4 It appears the best way to find Cloud Forest Centipede-Snakes is to slowly walk along trails through areas of well-preserved forest. Another option is to flip surface objects in clearing besides these areas during the daytime.

Acknowledgments: This account was published with the support of Secretaría Nacional de Educación Superior Ciencia y Tecnología (programa INEDITA; project: Respuestas a la crisis de biodiversidad: la descripción de especies como herramienta de conservación; No 00110378), Programa de las Naciones Unidas (PNUD), and Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ).

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

Photographers: Jose VieirabAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,cAffiliation: ExSitu, Quito, Ecuador. and Alejandro ArteagaaAffiliation: Khamai Foundation, Quito, Ecuador.

How to cite? Arteaga A (2022) Cloud Forest Centipede-Snake (Tantilla fraseri). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/SMTS1944

Literature cited:

  1. Field notes, Reptiles of Ecuador book project.
  2. Greenbaum E, Carr JL, Almendáriz A (2004) Taxonomic status of Tantilla equatoriana Wilson and Mena 1980 (Serpentes: Colubridae). The Southwestern Naturalist 49: 457–464.
  3. Valencia JH, Garzón-Tello K, Tipantiza-Tuguminago L, Pulluquitín F, Barragán-Paladines ME, Noboa G (2017) Serpientes del Distrito Metropolitano Quito (DMQ), Ecuador, con comentarios sobre su rango geográfico y altitudinal y conservación. Avances en Ciencias e Ingeniería 9: 17–60. DOI: 10.18272/aci.v9i15.305
  4. Savit AZ (2006) Reptiles of the Santa Lucía Cloud Forest, Ecuador. Iguana 13: 94–103.
  5. Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Guayasamin JM (2013) The amphibians and reptiles of Mindo. Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica, Quito, 257 pp.
  6. Yánez-Muñoz M, Meza-Ramos P, Ramírez S, Reyes-Puig J, Oyagata L (2009) Anfibios y reptiles del Distrito Metropolitano de Quito (DMQ). In: Yánez-Muñoz MH, Moreno-Cárdenas PA, Mena-Valenzuela P (Eds) Guía de campo de los pequeños vertebrados del Distrito Metropolitano de Quito (DMQ). Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales (MECN), Quito, 9–52.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Maddock ST, Smith EF, Peck MR, Morales JN (2011) Tantilla melanocephala (Black-headed Snake). Diet. Herpetological Review 42: 620.
  11. IUCN (2001) IUCN Red List categories and criteria: Version 3.1. IUCN Species Survival Commission, Gland and Cambridge, 30 pp.
  12. MAE (2012) Línea base de deforestación del Ecuador continental. Ministerio del Ambiente del Ecuador, Quito, 30 pp.
  13. Guayasamin JM, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Vieira J, Kohn S, Gavilanes G, Lynch RL, Hamilton PS, Maynard RJ (2019) A new glassfrog (Centrolenidae) from the Chocó-Andean Río Manduriacu Reserve, Ecuador, endangered by mining. PeerJ 7: e6400. DOI: 10.7717/peerj.6400
  14. 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 Tantilla fraseri in Ecuador (Fig. 2). Go to the section on symbols and abbreviations for a list of acronyms used.

EcuadorCotopaxiBelow SigchosWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorCotopaxiBosque Integral OtongaThis work
EcuadorCotopaxiLas PampasGreenbaum et al. 2004
EcuadorCotopaxiPalo QuemadoMHNG 2412.062
EcuadorCotopaxiRecinto GalápagosArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorImbaburaBosque Protector Paso AltoMecham & Cueva 2009
EcuadorImbaburaEl PalmalGreenbaum et al. 2004
EcuadorImbaburaEl Refugio de IntagPhoto by Peter Joost
EcuadorImbaburaManduriacu ReserveJowers et al. 2020
EcuadorPichinchaÁrea de amortiguamiento de la Reserva PulhulahuaValencia et al. 2017
EcuadorPichinchaBelow PactoWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorPichinchaBosque Protector CambugánValencia et al. 2017
EcuadorPichinchaChiribogaWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorPichinchaChontal AltoGreenbaum et al. 2004
EcuadorPichinchaGuarumosThis work
EcuadorPichinchaKumbha Mela LodgeiNaturalist
EcuadorPichinchaLas TolasArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorPichinchaMaquipucuna ReserveLópez et al. 1998
EcuadorPichinchaMashpi LodgeValencia et al. 2017
EcuadorPichinchaMilpe Bird SanctuaryThis work
EcuadorPichinchaMindo GardenArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorPichinchaMindo Loma Bird LodgeiNaturalist
EcuadorPichinchaMontecristiValencia et al. 2017
EcuadorPichinchaNanegalGreenbaum et al. 2004
EcuadorPichinchaNanegalitoPhoto by Andrew Cecil
EcuadorPichinchaPacha Quindi Nature RefugeiNaturalist
EcuadorPichinchaReserva Las GralariasThis work
EcuadorPichinchaReserva Un Poco de ChocóPhoto by Andreas Kay
EcuadorPichinchaReserva YunguillaValencia et al. 2017
EcuadorPichinchaRío PiripeValencia et al. 2017
EcuadorPichinchaSan Jorge de TandayapaiNaturalist
EcuadorPichinchaSan Lucía Cloud Forest ReserveiNaturalist
EcuadorPichinchaTandapiMHNG 2398.039
EcuadorPichinchaTandapi, 2 km S ofThis work
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasBosque Protector Río GuajalitoThis work
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasEstación Experimental La FavoritaArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasLas PalmerasMHNG 2249.036
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasMiligaliBoulenger 1883