Text and pictures by Sriyan de Silva Wijeyeratne in Loris Vol. 29 Issue:
The Sri Lankan jungles and underbrush have many interesting species working their way through life. Quite beautiful when looked at closely, but rarely appreciated or liked when encountered, are the many snakes which share this space with the rest of the wild creatures. Despite the hype and fear, most people could consider themselves lucky to come across a snake when trekking and so on as the snake’s default behaviour will be to avoid humans. Most people have not encountered snakes in the wild and the bigger issues are close encounters in the vicinity of residential areas and during agricultural activities. I for one have remained fascinated with snakes since childhood.
Focus and attention is often given to the large and to the deadly snakes. However, the small and harmless or mildly venomous snakes which cause no real harm to man, are also ecologically important, pretty, and worth knowing about and understanding. In fact, a larger proportion of snakes in
Sri Lanka fall into this category. They often glide through leaf litter, are found in scrubland, under decaying logs, forest edges, underground in softer soil, woodlands, plantations and around home gardens. They feed on geckoes, skinks and some even on smaller snakes and snake eggs. Different species of snake are found in most parts of our country and they play an important role in keeping the balance of nature. Sadly, our normal response is to kill first and ask questions later. This short article is a layman-oriented plea to help protect a large section of the snake species in Sri Lanka which are quite small, harmless and can easily be eliminated from your “hit list” when wondering if one is dealing with their venomous cousins.
With cobras usually being more easily identifiable due to their markings and hoods, it is the krait and the viper names which are loosely used in fear, to kill off many other snakes whose only fault was to be born a snake. On closer inspection, these smaller species look quite different. Sri Lankan folklore is packed with non-factual mystique about the power of snakes to be reborn, to suck blood, pluck out ones eyes, crawl into ones ears when asleep and more.
The cat snake (maapila) for example instills more fear through legend than reality, although their bite and especially chewing motion can result in pain and complications. Snake species with a reddish hue even end up being considered blood suckers by some folks.
A layman’s process can help eliminate a large degree of worry when trying to protect the much smaller species. Since we have only a handful of deadly venomous species, a process of elimination can be helpful.
The venomous sea snakes with their flattened paddle like tails inhabit the coastal regions and in rare instances some coastal inland waters. Thankfully, they hardly figure in the snake bite statistics for Sri Lanka although their bite packs a deadly punch. They are often caught in fishing nets. The semi-arid zone based saw scaled viper with its distinct cruciform on top of its head is not present elsewhere and again, has not featured in a single death in Sri Lanka so far. Although small (up to around 45 cm) their bite though can be quite painful, cause complications and are best avoided.
The hump nosed viper species are short in size (usually 30-40 cm) and are quite widespread. They are somewhat easily identified as they have stout bodies, narrow necks and larger triangular heads with snouts pointing upwards. They are usually slow moving. Their strike lunge is quite fast however, despite the short striking distance, and they do account for a fair portion of bites due to their presence all over Sri Lanka.
The deadly slender bodied kraits are usually dark with narrow or broad white banding at times in some species, which can unfortunately also disappear over time. The brownish highly venomous triangular headed Russell’s viper has spotty patches running on top and along each side of its body and of course causes a lot of deaths and issues due to their widespread presence around plantations and paddy fields, its quick action and aggressive nature.
If the crude approach above is taken, it can help a first level elimination of the fear factor around snakes. This is particularly useful when the intent is not to kill or capture, but to carry out closer study with self-preservation and avoidance being key. One can easily encourage these other little snake species at least to “go on their way” rather than kill them. Interestingly, most of the small narrow bodied colorful snakes in Sri Lanka are non-venomous or very mildly venomous and have little or no harmful consequence to humans. There are also a few non- venomous species which mimic the “real deal merchants of death” but their identification requires better knowledge and insight. One can start by at least protecting the obvious. Let us focus on a few of them.
We are blessed with some beautiful small snakes which are widely distributed. There are several species of shield tailed snakes (family Rhinophis) whose name is derived from the flat scale at the tip of its tail which is shield like. There are small burrowing snakes that have cone shaped heads, often with a keel and a somewhat indistinctive neck. Amazingly, we have sixteen endemic species in this category (out of seventeen or so globally). They are all non-venomous, inoffensive snakes which are usually found under loose soil, in decaying leafy piles of litter and home gardens. They frequently get dug up by people during land clearance for agriculture and the construction of drains and often get killed rather than released back into a different patch of soil. They love feeding on worms and when cornered, could curl up and at times spew foul smelling excreta as a defense. Some examples would be the Blyth’s shield tail, Phillips’ shield tail and black-bellied shield tail.
In addition, there are several species of small “blind snakes” (family Typhlopidae) which again occupy similar habitats. Worm-like in external appearance as seen in this picture, they frequently emerge during the rains to higher ground when their terrain gets flooded. This fascinating limbless skink (family Nessia and pictured on this leaf) has the telltale marks of having had legs earlier, but which evolution has chipped away at leaving just a minor reminder of what used to be. They are not snakes, but are small lizards with elongated bodies, pointed heads and are somewhat snake like and cylindrical. Since the hind limbs are the last to disappear, P.E.P Deraniyagala was of the opinion that they are probably of use for copulation.
Sri Lanka also has several species of rough-sided snakes (family Aspidura) which are also small (below 40 cm), cylindrical, reddish or brownish in shade and are usually burrowing snakes. Aspidura identification goes back to Boie who first described a species in 1827. I find them extremely beautiful. They spread from the lowlands to the central highlands and are commonly encountered in areas like Horton Plains (pictured with some of its beautiful inner colors showing). What is even more encouraging is that the list is still growing with herpetologist Mendis Wickramasinghe recently (2020) discovering two new species – one Aspidura and one shield tail in the Knuckles region. In 1861, only 36 species of snakes were found in Ceylon (Tennent). During Deraniyagala’s time it had gone up to 83 and he himself indicated the likelihood of that number increasing. Today we are at around 107 species (and counting), with 54 (half) being endemic.
I personally worry about the massive highway structures which are carving our country into smaller land parcels with inadequate terrestrial access for smaller species from one side of the road to the other at frequent intervals. This is bound to isolate these small groups of endemic species soon which then eliminates their breeding population with the roads becoming their highway towards extinction.
Another family of widely distributed non-venomous smallish snakes are the wolf snakes (family Lycodon) which unfortunately (for them), often enter human habitats in search of geckos and rodents and live in roofs and abandoned spaces and in wall crevices etc. I recently had an encounter with one in my highly urban home in Dehiwela, much to my delight. These common brownish snakes have some sub species which are quite docile while some others are quite aggressive when handled or cornered. Since one sub species mimics kraits, their presence is usually treated with disdain.
Pictured also is the endemic Sri Lankan pipe snake (Cylindrophis maculatus: Sinhala- Depath Naya, given the tendency to raise its tail into a small hood and flattens itself when threatened, while hiding its head). It grows to around 50 cm and is found in all zones up to around 600m above sea level. It has a striking and contrasting black and white underbelly and emerges in the night to feed on its favorite food- other small snakes such as the rough-sides, shield tails and kukri snakes. What a world we live in!!
Another group of small snakes include species like this Jerdon’s polyodont (Sibynophis subpunctatus: Sinhala- Dathi Gomaraya), which grows to only around 40 cm, and is found in all zones up to 750m. The snake is restricted to the dry and wet zone plains of Sri Lanka (subspecies ceylonicus) and the Western Ghats (the typical subspecies). This species was first identified in Sri Lanka around 1734 by Seba and later in the mid 1850’s by Jerdon and even rechristened. Terrestrial, but capable of burrowing, and active by day, it has easily identifiable markings and is somewhat similar to the Sri Lankan coral snake, which is also another smallish species. It hunts by day for frogs, lizards, skinks and snakes.
Of interest in our small category are several kukri snakes (family Oligodon), their name likely to have originated from the kukri dagger shaped marking on the back of their heads closer to the neck area. They were first featured by Seba in 1735. They eat small mammals, lizards and reptile eggs, are ground dwelling and can be active by day or cooler nights.
A cute Templeton’s kukri snake (Oligodon calamarius : Sinhala- Kabara Dathkatiya)- around 25 cm and found in the lowland wet zone up to around 1000m above sea level. This is a somewhat unstudied species with beautiful dark brown, light edged cross bars on its back and is endemic to Sri Lanka. This one loves to hide its head in body coils and its eyes have large round pupils. These are quaint, inoffensive snakes with a docile temperament and of course non-venomous.
With such a large number of smaller snakes not causing us any trouble, and while recognizing that big snakes were also small in size at some point, it would only be fair that we pause to reconsider our aggressive “kill first” actions. So next time you see a smaller snake at least, take a good look, and ensure that they are not killed out of fear.
Not all snakes are worthy of the bad boy status. Habitat destruction by man is causing severe strain to these small species and threatening their survival.
Except for the Aspidura which was photographed in the central hills, all these snakes were pictured by me in and around the Aranya Nature Village estate vicinity, located in Pannila (a small township in-between the areas of Matugama and Aluthgama)