Published March 24, 2022. Open access.

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Wandering Centipede-Snake (Tantilla petersi)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Colubridae | Tantilla | Tantilla petersi

English common names: Wandering Centipede-Snake, Peter’s Centipede-Snake.

Spanish common names: Culebra ciempiés errante, culebra ciempiés de Peters.

Recognition: ♂♂ 46.7 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=37.4 cm. ♀♀ 44.3 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. Snout–vent length=35 cm..1,2 The Wandering Centipede-Snake (Tantilla petersi) may be recognized from other snakes in its area of distribution by having a round head similar in width to the neck, small eyes, no loreal scale, and a tan dorsal ground color in which each scale is edged in black (Fig. 1).1,2 The most similar snake occurring in the valley of the Río Mira is Mastigodryas pulchriceps, a serpent larger in body size, having dorsolateral stripes, and a loreal scale.3

Figure showing an adult male individual of Tantilla petersi

Figure 1: Adult male of Tantilla petersi from Cahuasquí, Imbabura province, Ecuador.

Natural history: Extremely rareTotal average number of reported observations per locality less than three.. Tantilla petersi is a semi-fossorial (living underground and at ground level) snake that inhabits the dry to humid highland shrubland ecosystem. It occurs in areas areas containing a matrix of native vegetation, rural gardens, human settlements, and pastures.4,5 Wandering Centipede-Snakes have been seen active at ground level during the day.4,5 Two individuals were found on the floor of house and one of them was being eaten by a rat.5 Another was found wandering on the patio of a hot spring complex.5 When not active, these snakes have been found buried under the soil in gardens and crops, beneath construction material besides roads, at the base of Kikuyu grass tussocks, or among herbaceous vegetation.5 Although there is no information about the diet of T. petersi, it is likely that it feeds primarily on centipedes, as is the case for other members of the genus.68 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. Camouflage and trying to to flee are the most common defense behaviors seen in this species.5

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Conservation: Endangered Considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the near future.. Tantilla petersi is proposed to be listed in this category, instead of Critically Endangered,9 because new data suggests that the species’ estimated extent of occurrence (795 km2; see Fig. 2), though small, is greater than the 100 km2 required for inclusion in the more threatened category.10 Still, the specie’s habitat is under pressure due to increased human activities such as infrastructure expansion, agriculture, and livestock grazing.9 Based on maps of Ecuador’s vegetation cover published in 2012,11 an estimated ~63% of the native shrubland habitat of T. petersi has already been destroyed. Furthermore, the species has not been recorded in any protected area. There is anecdotal information5 that suggests that this snake species suffers from direct killing and predation by black rats.

Distribution: Tantilla petersi is endemic to an estimated 795 km2 area in the xeric inter-Andean valley of the Río Mira in northern Ecuador. The species has been recorded only in Imbabura province at elevations between 2040 and 2498 m (Fig. 2).

Distribution of Tantilla petersi in Ecuador

Figure 2: Distribution of Tantilla petersi in Ecuador. The star corresponds to the type locality: Pimampiro, Imbabura 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”),12 is probably a reference to the small body size of snakes of this genus. The specific epithet petersi honors American herpetologist James A Peters (1922–1972), in recognition of his contributions to expanding the knowledge on Neotropical reptiles, particularly those from Ecuador.

See it in the wild: Wandering Centipede-Snakes are rarely encountered. Individuals are found no more than once every few months and usually only by chance. It appears the best way to find individuals is to slowly cruise through dirt roads along areas of well-preserved shrubland at dusk. Another option is to flip surface objects in clearing besides these areas during the daytime.

Authors: Alejandro ArteagaaAffiliation: Khamai Foundation, Quito, Ecuador. and Diego Piñán

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

How to cite? Arteaga A, Piñán D (2022) Wandering Centipede-Snake (Tantilla petersi). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/NZDR4489

Literature cited:

  1. Wilson LD (1979) A new snake of the genus Tantilla from Ecuador. Herpetologica 35: 274–276.
  2. Wilson LD (1991) Tantilla petersi Wilson. Catalogue of American Amphibians and Reptiles 527: 1.
  3. Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Guayasamin JM (2013) The amphibians and reptiles of Mindo. Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica, Quito, 257 pp.
  4. Field notes, Reptiles of Ecuador book project.
  5. Field notes of Diego Piñán.
  6. 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.
  7. 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
  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. Cisneros-Heredia DF (2017) Tantilla petersi. The IUCN Red List of threatened species. Available from: DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-2.RLTS.T203323A2763904.en
  10. IUCN (2001) IUCN Red List categories and criteria: Version 3.1. IUCN Species Survival Commission, Gland and Cambridge, 30 pp.
  11. MAE (2012) Línea base de deforestación del Ecuador continental. Ministerio del Ambiente del Ecuador, Quito, 30 pp.
  12. 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 petersi in Ecuador (Fig. 2). Go to the section on symbols and abbreviations for a list of acronyms used. Asterisk (*) indicates type locality.

EcuadorImbaburaCahuasquíThis work
EcuadorImbaburaChachimbiroField notes of Diego Piñán.
EcuadorImbaburaPimampiro*Wilson 1979
EcuadorImbaburaUniversidad YachayiNaturalist
EcuadorImbaburaYahuarcochaWilson 1991