Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Yellow-striped Blind Snake

“Ethan, I have one of your special friends to show you” are Colin’s words as he walks up to me cradling this jewel in his hands. Tarangire National Park is known for its snakes and we’ve seen Black Mambas, Puff Adders, Green Tree-snakes, Sand-snakes, Rufous-beaked Snakes, Boomslangs, and encountered Black-spitting Cobras and watched Rock-Pythons climb trees. Considering events in the past few months, and the fear of snakes that was instilled into me as a child, why am I so fascinated by these animals? Well let’s start with this amazing little guy.
No, its not a bracelet.

It’s small, about 30 cm long, and blind. It has a big yellow stripe down it’s back and can you guess what it’s called? A Yellow-Striped Blind-Snake. Its Latin name is Rhinotyphlops unitaeniatus.

Blind-snakes (Typhlopidae) belong to a group of snakes that are considered primitive, yet highly specialized and they are closely related to another family called the Worm Snakes (Leptotyphlopidae). They first appear in the fossil record 135 million years ago and since their general body plan hasn’t changed much since then, it is obviously a highly successful one.

Check that helmet and can you see it's tongue?
Blind-snakes and worm-snakes are blind because they live under the ground and don’t need to see. Their bodies feel tight, and are cylindrical with a large scale over their foreheads somewhat like a helmet. This acts as a battering ram when they push through the soil. Their tail ends in a spike (caudal spine) that they use as an anchor for pushing through the soil. I think it’s fascinating that these two groups of snakes have special glands in their foreheads whose function no one has yet figured out.

According to the map in “The Field Guide to Reptiles of East Africa”, the Yellow-striped Blind-Snake isn’t recorded as far south and west as Tarangire National Park so this may well be a first.

The tail ends in a spike- note the Ant-lion pit on the left.
What does it eat? Well, like most Blind Snakes, its diet consists of termites and ants.

Its quite a sharp spike.
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