Published January 4, 2021. Open access.

Gallery ❯

Red-headed Brittle-Snake (Urotheca fulviceps)

Reptiles of Ecuador | Serpentes | Colubridae | Urotheca | Urotheca fulviceps

English common names: Red-headed Brittle-Snake, Red-headed Litter Snake, Red-headed Glasstail, Tawny-headed Glasstail, Graceful Brownsnake.

Spanish common names: Culebra quebradiza cabeciroja (Ecuador); hojarasquera cabeciroja (Colombia); cola de vidrio de cabeza roja (Costa Rica).

Recognition: ♂♂ 69 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail. ♀♀ 46.1 cmMaximum distance from the snout to the tip of the tail.. The Red-headed Brittle-Snake (Urotheca fulviceps) is a slender small-sized snake with a cylindrical body, smooth scales arranged in 17 rows at mid-body, and long tail (39–45% of total length) that is often incomplete. In adults, the head is reddish-brown, gradually fading to pale orange towards the neck,13 whereas in young individuals the orange neck coloration is vividly contrasting.4 The dorsum is uniformly brown, olive, or dark greenish-gray, but sometimes there is a poorly defined light longitudinal line along the lower flanks. The ventral coloration is whitish with irregular black blotches on the sides.5,6 In Ecuador, U. fulviceps could be confused with U. lateristriga and Rhadinaea decorata, but these species have a deep orange-red ventral coloration instead of cream-white as in U. fulviceps.

Figure showing an adult individual of Urotheca fulviceps

Figure 1: Adult of the Red-headed Brittle-Snake (Urotheca fulviceps) from Santander department, Colombia.

Natural history: UncommonUnlikely to be seen more than once every few months.. Urotheca fulviceps inhabits old-growth to moderately disturbed evergreen to semi-deciduous forests in lowland and foothill areas, but it also occurs in open areas nearby the forest border.4,6 Usually, Red-headed Brittle-Snakes are active at daytime but during hot, dry periods, they may switch to a nocturnal activity pattern.4,7 Inactive individuals have been found under rotten logs.3,4 Individuals are terrestrial to semi-fossorial and forage actively on the leaf-litter in search of frogs and small lizards, which constitute their main prey items.1,2 Urotheca fulviceps has a long, fragile tail that breaks off easily when is grabbed, enabling the escape and survival of the snake. Individuals are often found with incomplete tails.3 Red-headed Brittle-Snakes have a docile behavior, and there are no cases of envenomation reported for this species. Therefore, its bite is considered harmless to humans. When threatened, theses snakes hide the head under body coils or make a cloacal discharge.2,8 This species is oviparous. One female laid a clutch of six eggs.9

Reader support helps us keep the Reptiles of Ecuador book 100% free.

Conservation: Least Concern Believed to be safe from extinction given current circumstances..10 Urotheca fulviceps is listed in this category because the species is widely distributed and has been reported in many protected areas across its distribution range.4,10 However, the fragmentation and loss of rainforest habitat are major threats to some populations of this species, particularly those occurring in dry forest areas of Caribbean Colombia and Venezuela10 or along western Ecuador, where an estimated ~60% of the suitable habitat of the species has already been destroyed.11 The fear of snakes is also a source of mortality to individuals of this species, because people in rural regions tend to kill any snake, even those not dangerous to them.12 The lack of information about the ecology and population trends of this species suggests that more research is needed in order to better assign a conservation category to it.2

Distribution: Urotheca fulviceps is distributed throughout the Mesoamerican lowlands of Central America and the Chocó and Río Magdalena valley regions of northern South America.13 It occurs from the Pacific versant of Costa Rica, through Panamá, to western of Ecuador, including Colombia and northwestern Venezuela.14,15 In Ecuador, the species occurs at elevations between 14 and 1394 m (Fig. 2).

Distribution of Urotheca fulviceps in Ecuador

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

Etymology: The generic name Urotheca, which comes from the Greek words oura (meaning “tail”) and theke (meaning “box”),16,17 refers to the thick tail. The specific epithet fulviceps, which comes from the Latin words fulvus (a brown-yellow coloration) and ceps (meaning “head”),18 refers to the head coloration.19

See it in the wild: Red-headed Glasstails cannot be expected to be encountered reliably in Ecuador, as individuals are spotted no more than once every few months. However, at Canandé Reserve and at Buenaventura Reserve, individuals have been spotted more than once. The snakes may be located by scanning the leaf-litter on the forest floor as well as by turning over logs and rocks in pastures near the forest border.

Author: Felipe A. Toro-CardonaaAffiliation: Red de Biología Evolutiva, Instituto de Ecología A. C. Xalapa, Veracruz, México.

Editor: Alejandro ArteagabAffiliation: Tropical Herping (TH), Quito, Ecuador.

Photographer: Elson Meneses PelayocAffiliation: Universidad Industrial de Santander, Bucaramanga, Colombia.

How to cite? Toro-Cardona FA (2021) Red-headed Brittle-Snake (Urotheca fulviceps). In: Arteaga A, Bustamante L, Vieira J (Eds) Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world. Available from: DOI: 10.47051/AGPA4964

Literature cited:

  1. MECN (2010) Serie herpetofauna del Ecuador: El Chocó esmeraldeño. Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales, Quito, 232 pp.
  2. Rojas-Morales JA, Marín-Martínez M, Zuluaga-Isaza JC (2018) Aspectos taxonómicos y ecogeográficos de algunas serpientes (Reptilia: Colubridae) del área de influencia de la Central Hidroeléctrica Miel I, Caldas, Colombia. Biota Colombiana 19: 73–91.
  3. Leenders T (2019) Reptiles of Costa Rica: a field guide. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 625 pp.
  4. Toro-Cardona FA, Vasquez-Restrepo JD (2019) Urotheca fulviceps (Cope, 1886). Catálogo de Anfibios y Reptiles de Colombia 5: 56–63.
  5. Myers CW (1974) The systematics of Rhadinaea (Colubridae), a genus of New World snakes. Bulletin of American Museum of Natural History 153: 1–262.
  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. Field notes, Reptiles of Ecuador book project.
  8. Montgomery CE, Griffith EJ, Ross HL, Jaramillo CA, Lips KR (2006) Urotheca decipiens (Collared Glass-tailed Snake). Diet. Herpetological Review 37: 236.
  9. Solórzano A (2004) Serpientes de Costa Rica. Distribución, taxonomía e historia natural. Universidad de Costa Rica, San José, 792 pp.
  10. Acosta-Chaves V, Batista A, García-Rodríguez A, Ines-Hladki A, Ramírez-Pinilla M, Renjifo J, Saborío G, Urbina N, Vargas-Álvarez J, Schargel W, Rivas G (2017) Urotheca fulviceps. The IUCN Red List of threatened species. Available from: DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-2.RLTS.T203615A2769137.en
  11. MAE (2012) Línea base de deforestación del Ecuador continental. Ministerio del Ambiente del Ecuador, Quito, 30 pp.
  12. Lynch JD (2012) El contexto de las serpientes de Colombia con un análisis de las amenazas contra su conservación. Revista de la Academia Colombiana de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales 36: 435–449.
  13. Wallach V, Kenneth LW, Boundy J (2014) Snakes of the world: a catalogue of living and extinct species. CRC Press, Boca Raton, 1237 pp.
  14. Manzanilla J, Mijares-Urrutia A, Rivero R (1998) Geographic distribution: Rhadinaea fulviceps. Herpetological Review 29: 115.
  15. Rojas-Runjaic FJ, Natera-Mumaw M, Infante-Rivero EE (2008) Reptilia, Squamata, Colubridae, Urotheca fulviceps: distribution extension. Check List 4: 431–433. DOI: 10.15560/4.4.431
  16. Brown RW (1956) Composition of scientific words. Smithsonian Books, Washington D.C., 882 pp.
  17. Quattrocchi U (1999) CRC world dictionary of plant names: common names, scientific names, eponyms, synonyms, and etymology. CRC Press, Boca Raton, 640 pp.
  18. Thomas VP, Sanoj E, Sabu M, Prasanth VA (2009) On the identity and occurrence of Amomum fulviceps (Zingiberaceae) in India. Rheedea 19: 13–17.
  19. Cope ED (1886) Thirteenth contribution to the herpetology of tropical America. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 23: 271–287.

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

ColombiaNariñoReserva Natural Río ÑambíiNaturalist
EcuadorCotopaxiEl Jardín de los SueñosPhoto by Christophe Pellet
EcuadorCotopaxiGalápagos, nearMHNG 2413.050
EcuadorCotopaxiLas PampasMHNG 2269.06
EcuadorEl OroAtahualpa, 20 km NW ofPhoto by Anton Sorokin
EcuadorEl OroReserva Biológica BuenaventuraPhoto by David Agro
EcuadorEsmeraldasBilsa Biological ReserveThis work
EcuadorEsmeraldasCanandé ReserveThis work
EcuadorEsmeraldasRío CupaUSNM 204203
EcuadorEsmeraldasTundaloma LodgeThis work
EcuadorEsmeraldasVida Rosero ReserveThis work
EcuadorGuayasCerro de HayasThis work
EcuadorGuayasRecinto El AromoMHNG 2458.078
EcuadorPichinchaMashpi medioThis work
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasPatricia Pilar, 14. km SE ofMCZ 156956
EcuadorSanto Domingo de los TsáchilasSanto DomingoUIMNH 92249