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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


Contia longicaudae - Forest Sharp-tailed Snake



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Forest Sharp-tailed Snake Forest Sharp-tailed Snake Forest Sharp-tailed Snake
Adult, Santa Cruz County Underside of adult, Santa Cruz County
Forest Sharp-tailed Snake Forest Sharp-tailed Snake Forest Sharp-tailed Snake
Adult, Santa Cruz County Adult, Santa Cruz County. © Mark Gary
Forest Sharp-tailed Snake Forest Sharp-tailed Snake Forest Sharp-tailed Snake
Adult, Del Norte County © Alan D. Barron
  Forest Sharp-tailed Snake  
  Adult in shed, Santa Cruz County

 
Habitat
Forest Sharp-tailed Snake Habitat Forest Sharp-tailed Snake Habitat Forest Sharp-tailed Snake Habitat
Habitat, Santa Cruz County

Habitat, Mendocino County Habitat, Santa Cruz County
Comparisons of the Two Species of Sharp-tailed Snakes (Contia)

Adult C. longicaudae from Santa Cruz County, and Adult C. tenuis from Santa Clara County.

(The C. longicaudae is in shed, so its color is duller than normal.)

Sharp-tailed Snakes Comparison Sharp-tailed Snakes Comparison Sharp-tailed Snakes Comparison
C. longicaudae on left,
C. tenuis on right.

C. tenuis on the left,
C. longicaudae on the right.
C. longicaudae on top,
C. tenuis on bottom.
Identifying Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia) species

Contia longicaudae went unnoticed for a long time because of its similarities to Contia tenuis and because of the fossorial and secretive nature of sharp-tailed snakes and of their seasonally-limited period of activity.

The easiest way to differentiate the two species in the field is to look at the caudal scales and the tail length. (Caudal scales are the scales on the tail behind the cloaca.) C. longicaudae has a longer tail with more caudal scales than C. tenuis. C. longicaudae has from 43 to 58 caudal scales, while C. tenuis has from 24 - 43. The tail of C. longicaudae averages 20 percent of the total length of the snake. The tail of C. tenuis averages 14.5 percent of the total length.

C. longicaudae has narrow black crossbars marking the anterior portion of the ventral scutes, covering only 1/3 to 1/4 of each ventral. The cross bands on C. tenuis are thicker, covering 1/2 to 1/3 of each ventral.

There are also subtle differences in dorsal and ventral coloration and pigmentation, but these probably won't help in identification.

Description

Nonvenomous
Considered harmless to humans.
Size
A small snake - Adults average 11 inches (2.79 cm) ranging from 4.9 - 17.6 inches in total length (1.2 - 4.47 cm). Hatchlings are about 3 inches long.
Appearance

The head of an adult is typically medium to light olive-gray or brown with black flecking or blotches, occasionally with orange blotches. Dorsal coloration is rusty, brick-red, or orange-red. Most adults have either faint or distinctly-colored brick-red or orange-red dorsolateral stripes extending from the head along the front third of the body where they blend into the body color. Occasionally the reddish coloration and dorsolateral stripes are not present.
Irregular black bands mark the ventral side. Each ventral scute is marked with one band, with the bands becoming faint or absent towards the tail, and absent from the anal plate and the caudal scales.
Juveniles typically have brighter dorsal coloration than adults.

Behavior and Natural History
(Little has been published about this species, so this information comes from descriptions of C. tenuis.)

Secretive, spends much time under surface objects or underground. A good burrower. Prefers moist environments. Active when the ground is damp, occasionally during or after rains, and sometimes when surface temperatures are as lowas 50 degrees.
Long teeth allow the snake to hold on to its slippery prey.
Diet
(Little has been published about this species, so this information comes from descriptions of C. tenuis.)

Feeds on slugs and their eggs and on slender salamanders.
Reproduction and Young
(Little has been published about this species, so this information comes from descriptions of C. tenuis.)

Lays eggs in June or July. Hatchlings emerge in mid-autumn.
Range
"Occurs along the outer Coast Ranges from northern California to southwestern Oregon, the Klamath Mountains of northern California and southern Oregon, and portions of the Cascade Ranges in southern Oregon." (Feldman and Hoyer, 2010.)
In California, specimens have been found in Humboldt, Mendocino, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, and Trinity counties. Found in Del Norte County in October 2011 by Brad Norman and Alan D. Barron - shown above. Not yet found (2011) but expected to occur in Siskiyou and Marin counties.

There does not appear to be much overlap in range between C. tenuis and C. longicaudae, and they have not yet been found at the same location, but the two species come into close proximity in California in San Mateo County, and in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, and in Southwestern Oregon. (I have indicated in gray on the range map one area in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties where their distribution may overlap. There could also be other areas of overlap in California, including San Mateo county and the border of Humboldt and Trinity counties.) They appear to be segregated by habitat type in these areas. C. longicaudae typically occurs in moist well-forested areas, while C. tenuis occurs in somewhat drier, more open habitats of grassland, mixed woodland, and occasionally chaparral.
Habitat
Found in well-shaded moist forest habitats dominated by Douglas fir and redwoods. Also found in mixed woodlands with oaks and conifers.
Taxonomic Notes
The snake traditionally known as Contia tenuis was found to consist of two species which are almost identical in appearance. The new species was discovered by Richard Hoyer based on differences in size, scale counts, and habitat preference. DNA evidence was presented by Feldman and Spicer in 2002. (Journal of Herpetology 36(4): 648-655). A formal description of the new species was published in 2010:

Chris R. Feldman, Richard F. Hoyer A New Species of Snake in the Genus Contia (Squamata: Colubridae) from California and Oregon. Copeia May 2010, Vol. 2010, No. 2 : pp. 254-267.


Diversity in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains

Another unique lineage of Contia appears to exist in Tulare county in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. These snakes show some morphological differrences from the average C. tenuis, are geographically isolated, and have been found in groves of sequoias, at elevations and habitat not typical for C. tenuis. More specimens need to be examined in order to fully understand the evolutional divergence of these snakes from C. tenuis.
Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
None.

Taxonomy
Family Colubridae Colubrids
Genus Contia Sharp-tailed Snakes
Species
longicaudae Forest Sharp-tailed Snake
Original Description
Contia longicaudae - (Feldman and Hoyer, 2010) Copeia May 2010, Vol. 2010, No. 2 : pp. 254-267

Originally within (Contia tenuis - (Baird and Girard, 1852) - Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Philadelphia, Vol. 6, p. 176)

from Original Description Citations for the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America © Ellin Beltz

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Contia - honors Le Conte, John L.
longicaudae
- Latin = long-tailed (longi = long and cauda = tail)

Taken partly from Scientific and Common Names of the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America - Explained © Ellin Beltz

Alternate Names
Formerly recognized as the species Contia tenuis - (Common) Sharp-tailed Snake

Related or Similar California Snakes
Contia tenuis - (Common) Sharp-tailed Snake
Diadophis punctatus - Ring-necked Snake
More Information and References
Natureserve Explorer

California Dept. of Fish and Game

Chris R. Feldman, Richard F. Hoyer A New Species of Snake in the Genus Contia (Squamata: Colubridae) from California and Oregon. Copeia May 2010, Vol. 2010, No. 2 : pp. 254-267.

Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M.  Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.

Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.

Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Snakes of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.

Bartlett, R. D. & Alan Tennant. Snakes of North America - Western Region. Gulf Publishing Co., 2000.

Brown, Philip R. A Field Guide to Snakes of California. Gulf Publishing Co., 1997.

Ernst, Carl H., Evelyn M. Ernst, & Robert M. Corker. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.

Wright, Albert Hazen & Anna Allen Wright. Handbook of Snakes of the United States and Canada. Cornell University Press.

Brown et. al. Reptiles of Washington and Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society,1995.

Nussbaum, R. A., E. D. Brodie Jr., and R. M. Storm. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Pacific Northwest. Moscow, Idaho: University Press of Idaho, 1983.

St. John, Alan D. Reptiles of the Northwest: Alaska to California; Rockies to the Coast. Lone Pine Publishing, 2002.

Conservation Status

The following status listings come from the Special Animals List and the Endangered and Threatened Animals List which are published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.


This snake is not included on the Special Animals List, which indicates that there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California.
Organization
Status Listing
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) None
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) None
California Department of Fish and Wildlife None
Bureau of Land Management None
USDA Forest Service None

 

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