Published March 18, 2022. Open access.

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Black-headed Centipede-Snake (Tantilla melanocephala)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Colubridae | Tantilla | Tantilla melanocephala

English common name: Black-headed Centipede-Snake.

Spanish common name: Culebra ciempiés cabecinegra.

Recognition: ♂♂ 43.5 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=30.9 cm. ♀♀ 39.9 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=31.7 cm..13 The Black-headed Centipede-Snake (Tantilla melanocephala) 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 black head cap and a pattern of thin black longitudinal lines.27 The presence of dorsal scales arranged in 15 rows at mid-body distinguishes T. melanocephala from other brownish co-occurring snakes such as Taniophallus brevirostris and Atractus gaigeae.8

Figure showing variation among individuals of Tantilla melanocephala

Figure 1: Individuals of Tantilla melanocephala from Santander department, Colombia (); Cotundo, Napo province, Ecuador (); and Morromico Reserve, Chocó department, Colombia ().

Natural history: UncommonUnlikely to be seen more than once every few months.9 to locally frequentRecorded weekly in densities below five individuals per locality.,10 especially in southeastern Brazil, where individuals are found evenly throughout the year.11 Tantilla melanocephala is a semi-fossorial (living underground and at ground level) snake that, in Ecuador, occurs in the evergreen forest ecosystem, but elsewhere in South America also occurs in savannas and seasonally dry forests.12 This species is present in pristine habitats7,9 as well as in disturbed areas such as pastures,13 cultivated fields,2,10 rural gardens,9,14 and houses.14 Black-headed Centipede-Snakes have been seen moving on soil and leaf-litter1 or crossing roads3 during the daytime,6,7,9,15 at dusk,16 or at night.11 When not active, they bury themselves under soft soil2,9,14 or hide under rocks,17 surface debris, in termite mounds, or beneath logs.11 The diet of T. melanocephala is primarily composed of centipedes,3,11,13,18 but insects such as roaches6 are occasionally consumed.3 Black-headed Centipede-Snakes 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.11 The time between seizure of a centipede and the onset of pre-ingestion maneuvers is 2–7 minutes.11 Centipedes are always swallowed head first.11

Black-headed 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 thrash the body vigorously3 and may shed portions of their tail.9,16 Individuals of Tantilla melanocephala are preyed upon by owls (Athene cunicularia),19 snakes (Bothrops atrox20 and Pseudoboa coronata7), and spiders.21,22 In seasonally dry areas, breeding in T. melanocephala coincides with the rainy season11; but in the Amazon rainforest and in the Atlantic Forest, reproduction seems to take place year-round.18,23 Gravid females containing 1–3 eggs have been found in the Amazon,2,3,7,24 and in the Cerrado and Atlantic Forest of Brazil.11 Clutch sizes of 2–3 eggs has been reported.16,25

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Conservation: Least Concern Believed to be safe from extinction given current circumstances.. 26 Tantilla melanocephala is listed in this category mainly on the basis of the species’ wide distribution, occurrence in protected areas, and presumed stable populations. Therefore, the species is considered to be facing no major immediate extinction threats.26 Black-headed Centipede-Snakes persist in the urban-rural landscape and are likely to keep thriving under current scenarios of global warming.27 It has been hypothesized that these snakes are introduced in several islands in the Caribbean, including Grenada and Mustique, probably from Trinidad or northeastern South America, and likely via boat traffic.14,28 Some snakes may have arrived in construction materials, such as sand.28 There is information29,30 that suggests that this snake species suffers from traffic mortality and predation by house cats.31

Distribution: Tantilla melanocephala is widely distributed throughout the lowlands and adjacent mountain foothills of Central America and South America, from Central Panama, Venezuela, and the Lesser Antilles, to northeastern Argentina. The species has an estimated total range size of 2,946,399 km2 that encompasses eastern Mesoamerica, the northern Chocó rainforest, Magdalena valley, the entire Amazon basin, the Cerrado, and the Atlantic Forest.12 In Ecuador, this species occurs at elevations between 118 and 1620 m (Fig. 2).

Distribution of Tantilla melanocephala in Ecuador

Figure 2: Distribution of Tantilla melanocephala in Ecuador. 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”),32 is probably a reference to the small body size of snakes of this genus. The specific epithet melanocephala, which comes from the Greek words melas (meaning “black”) and kephale (meaning “head”),32 refers to the black head cap characteristic to individuals of this species.

See it in the wild: In Ecuador, Black-headed Centipede-Snakes are usually found no more than once every few months at any given area and usually only by chance. Apparently, the only localities where the species is recorded consistently is around the towns Archidona and Santa Cecilia. The majority of individuals have been found by walking along forest trails during the daytime.

Notes: This account follows Wilson and Mena (1980)5 and Wilson (1999)33 in recognizing Tantilla melanocephala and T. equatoriana as distinct species, a view contrary to Greenbaum et al. (2004).34 Tantilla fraseri is also considered to be a valid taxon and not a synonym of T. melanocephala, following Peters (1960).35 An unpublished36 species delimitation analysis based on DNA sequences confirms these arrangements, a view that is shared here based also on the differences in head pattern between the species.

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

Photographers: Jose Vieira,bAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.,cAffiliation: ExSitu, Quito, Ecuador. Sebastián Di Doménico,dAffiliation: Keeping Nature, Bogotá, Colombia. and Alejandro ArteagaaAffiliation: Khamai Foundation, Quito, Ecuador.

How to cite? Arteaga A (2022) Black-headed Centipede-Snake (Tantilla melanocephala). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/ECIK7982

Literature cited:

  1. Duellman WE (1978) The biology of an equatorial herpetofauna in Amazonian Ecuador. Publications of the Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas 65: 1–352.
  2. Dixon JR, Soini P (1986) The reptiles of the upper Amazon Basin, Iquitos region, Peru. Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee, 154 pp.
  3. Martins M, Oliveira ME (1998) Natural history of snakes in forests of the Manaus region, Central Amazonia, Brazil. Herpetological Natural History 6: 78–150.
  4. Hoogmoed MS, Gruber U (1983) Spix and Wagler type specimens of reptiles and amphibian in the Natural History Museum in Munich (Germany) and Leiden (The Netherlands). Spixiana 9: 319–415.
  5. 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.
  6. Beebe W (1946) Field notes on the snakes of Kartabo, British Guiana, and Caripito, Venezuela. Zoologica 31: 11–52.
  7. Duellman WE (2005) Cusco amazónico: the lives of amphibians and reptiles in an Amazonian rainforest. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 433 pp.
  8. Whitworth A, Beirne C (2011) Reptiles of the Yachana Reserve. Global Vision International, Exeter, 130 pp.
  9. Field notes, Reptiles of Ecuador book project.
  10. Lynch JD (2015) The role of plantations of the African palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) in the conservation of snakes in Colombia. Caldasia 37: 169–182.
  11. Marques OAV, Puorto G (1998) Feeding, reproduction and growth in the crowned snake Tantilla melanocephala (Colubridae), from southeastern Brazil. Amphibia-Reptilia 19: 311–318. DOI: 10.1163/156853898X00214
  12. Nogueira CC, Argôlo AJS, Arzamendia V, Azevedo JA, Barbo FE, Bérnils RS, Bolochio BE, Borges-Martins M, Brasil-Godinho M, Braz H, Buononato MA, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Colli GR, Costa HC, Franco FL, Giraudo A, Gonzalez RC, Guedes T, Hoogmoed MS, Marques OAV, Montingelli GG, Passos P, Prudente ALC, Rivas GA, Sanchez PM, Serrano FC, Silva NJ, Strüssmann C, Vieira-Alencar JPS, Zaher H, Sawaya RJ, Martins M (2019) Atlas of Brazilian snakes: verified point-locality maps to mitigate the Wallacean shortfall in a megadiverse snake fauna. South American Journal of Herpetology 14: 1–274. DOI: 10.2994/SAJH-D-19-00120.1
  13. Cunha OR, Nascimento FP (1993) Ofídios da Amazônia. As cobras da região leste do Pará. Papéis Avulsos Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi 40: 9–87.
  14. Berg CS, Jeremiah A, Harrison B, Henderson RW (2009) New island records for Tantilla melanocephala (Squamata: Colubridae) on the Grenada Bank. Applied Herpetology 6: 403–404. DOI: 10.1163/157075309X12531848433029
  15. Silva JL, Valdez J, Ojasti J (1985) Algunos aspectos de una comunidad de ofidios del norte de Venezuela. Biotropica 17: 112–125. DOI: 10.2307/2388503
  16. Marques R, Mebert K, Fonseca E, Rödder D, Solé M, Tinôco MS (2016) Composition and natural history notes of the coastal snake assemblage from Northern Bahia, Brazil. ZooKeys 611: 93–142. DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.611.9529
  17. Quinn DP, McTaggart AL, Bellah TA, Bentz EJ, Chambers LG, Hedman HD, John R, Muñiz Pagan DN, Rivera Rodríguez MJ (2010) The reptiles of union Island, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. IRCF Reptiles & Amphibians 17: 223–234.
  18. Araujo de Oliveira F (2016) Variação geográfica na ecologia de Tantilla melanocephala (Serpentes: Colubridae) em áreas de Caatinga e Floresta Atlântica no Nordeste na região Neotropical. MSc thesis, Universidade Federal da Paraíba, 51 pp.
  19. Granzinolli MAM, Motta-Junior JC (2003) Tantilla melanocephala (Black-headed Snake): predation. Herpetological Review 34: 156–157.
  20. Bisneto PF, Kaefer IL (2019) Reproductive and feeding biology of the common lancehead Bothrops atrox (Serpentes, Viperidae) from central and southwestern Brazilian Amazonia. Acta Amazonica 49: 105–113.
  21. Rocha CR, Motta PC, Portella AS, Saboya M, Brandão R (2017) Predation of the snake Tantilla melanocephala (Squamata: Colubridae) by the spider Latrodectus geometricus (Araneae: Theridiidae) in Central Brazil. Herpetology Notes 10: 647–650.
  22. De Sousa L, Manzanilla J, Cornejo-Escobar P (2007) Depredación sobre serpiente colúbrida por Latrodectus cf. geometricus Koch, 1841 (Araneae: Theridiidae). Ciencia 15: 410–412.
  23. Santos-Costa MC, Prudente ALC, Di-Bernardo M (2006) Reproductive biology of Tantilla melanocephala (Linnaeus, 1758) (Serpentes, Colubridae) from eastern Amazonia, Brazil. Journal of Herpetology 40: 553–556.
  24. Fitch H (1970) Reproductive cycles in lizards and snakes. Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas, Lawrence, 247 pp.
  25. Natera-Mumaw M, Esqueda-González LF, Castelaín-Fernández M (2015) Atlas serpientes de Venezuela. Dimacofi Negocios Avanzados S.A., Santiago de Chile, 456 pp.
  26. Passos PGH, Powell R (2019) Tantilla melanocephala. The IUCN Red List of threatened species. Available from: DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-3.RLTS.T203321A2763890.en
  27. Hurtado Morales MJ (2021) Vulnerabilidad e importancia de las serpientes en Colombia: escenarios de cambio climático, impactos antrópicos y servicios ecosistémicos. MSc thesis, Universidad de Los Andes, 131 pp.
  28. Daudin J, de Silva M (2007) An annotated checklist of the amphibians and terrestrial reptiles of the Grenadines with notes on their natural history and conservation. Applied Herpetology 4: 163–175. DOI: 10.1163/157075407780681329
  29. Photo by Daniel Mesa.
  30. Baltazar R, Burgos Gallardo F, Baldo JL (2013) Tantilla melanocephala (Linnaeus, 1758) - (Serpentes: Colubridae): primeros registros para la Provincia de Jujuy y confirmación de su presencia en el noroeste argentino. Cuadernos de Herpetología 27: 81–83.
  31. Photo by Saifudeen Muhammad.
  32. Brown RW (1956) Composition of scientific words. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C., 882 pp.
  33. 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
  34. Greenbaum E, Carr JL, Almendáriz A (2004) Taxonomic status of Tantilla equatoriana Wilson and Mena 1980 (Serpentes: Colubridae). The Southwestern Naturalist 49: 457–464.
  35. Peters JA (1960) The snakes of Ecuador; check list and key. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology 122: 489–541.
  36. Arteaga et al. (unpublished).

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

ColombiaCaquetáFlorenciaMLS 1256
ColombiaCaquetáReserva La AvispaUAM-R-0397
ColombiaPutumayoRío PutumayoWilson & Mena 1980
ColombiaPutumayoVereda La PaziNaturalist
EcuadorMorona Santiago9 de OctubreTipantiza-Tuguminago et al. 2021
EcuadorMorona SantiagoFinca El PiuraiNaturalist
EcuadorMorona SantiagoGeneral PlazaArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorMorona SantiagoGualaquizaWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorMorona SantiagoKuchintsaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorMorona SantiagoMiazalWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorMorona SantiagoNormandíaAMNH 35896
EcuadorMorona SantiagoRío UpanoAMNH 28813
EcuadorMorona SantiagoSan Juan BoscoPhoto by Juan Carlos Sanchez
EcuadorMorona SantiagoShuin MamusiNaturalist
EcuadorNapoArchidonaMHNG 2441.014
EcuadorNapoYachana ReservePhoto by Scott Waters
EcuadorNapoZoo el ArcaThis work
EcuadorOrellanaConcepciónWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorOrellanaEl CocaMHNG 2412.058
EcuadorOrellanaRío Bigal Biological ReservePhoto by Thierry García
EcuadorOrellanaSan José de SunoiNaturalist
EcuadorOrellanaTiputini Biodiversity StationNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorOrellanaYasuní Scientific StationArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorPastazaAlto CurarayWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorPastazaArajunoArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorPastazaBataburo LodgeOnline multimedia
EcuadorPastazaBioparque YanacochaiNaturalist
EcuadorPastazaBobonazaArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorPastazaCampamento K10Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaCanelosWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorPastazaCopataza (Achuar)Peñafiel 2013
EcuadorPastazaFátimaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaIntersección Cueva de los TayosPeñafiel 2013
EcuadorPastazaKawaPeñafiel 2013
EcuadorPastazaMeraNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaMontalvoArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorPastazaPozo Garza-1Nogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorPastazaPuyoWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorPastazaPuyo, 10 km N ofArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorPastazaRío Arajuno, headwaters ofWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorPastazaRío CorrientesWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorPastazaRío CurarayArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorPastazaRío HuiyoyacuArteaga et al. 2013
EcuadorPastazaRío PindoWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorPastazaRío TalinUSMN 287933
EcuadorPastazaRío VillanoWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorPastazaSarayacuWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorPastazaShellMHNG 2309.097
EcuadorPastazaSumak Kawsay In SituBentley et al. 2021
EcuadorPastazaVillanoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosCasa de Eduardo PayaguajeNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosEstación PUCE en CuyabenoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosLa Selva LodgeNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosLago AgrioDuellman 1978
EcuadorSucumbíosLimoncochaWilson & Mena 1980
EcuadorSucumbíosPlayas del CuyabenoNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorSucumbíosSan Pablo de KantesiyaMHNG 2307.067
EcuadorSucumbíosSani LodgeThis work
EcuadorSucumbíosSanta CeciliaDuellman 1978
EcuadorSucumbíosTarapoaNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorTungurahuaUnspecified localityUMMZ 84107
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeProyecto Minero MiradorPhoto by Raquel Betancourt
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeTundayme, 10 km SE ofiNaturalist
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeTundayme, 5 km E ofNogueira et al. 2019
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeUnspecified localityUMMZ 82891
EcuadorZamora ChinchipeValle del QuimiBetancourt et al. 2018
PeruAmazonasAguaruna VillageMVZ 163428
PeruAmazonasCaterpizaUSNM 566611
PeruAmazonasKayamasMVZ 163314
PeruAmazonasShaimUSNM 316642
PeruAmazonasUpper Río NievaWilson & Mena 1980
PeruAmazonasZona Reservada Santiago-ComainaJowers et al. 2020
PeruLoretoNautaJowers et al. 2020
PeruLoretoSargento LoresJowers et al. 2020