Riparian mixed woodland/grassland habitat, Contra Costa County
Mixed woodland/grassland habitat beside reservoir, Contra Costa County
Habitat, Butte County
Habitat, rocky grassy hillside,
Contra Costa County
Habitat, next to small creek, Lake County
Riparian mixed woodland/grassland habitat, Contra Costa County
Habitat, Placer County
Comparisons of the Two Species of Sharp-tailed Snakes (Contia)
Adult C. longicauda from Santa Cruz County, and Adult C. tenuis from Santa Clara County.
(The C. longicauda is in shed, so its color is duller than normal.)
C. longicauda on left, C. tenuis on right.
C. tenuis on the left, C. longicauda on the right.
C. longicauda on top, C. tenuis on bottom.
Identifying Sharp-tailed Snake species (Contia)
Contia longicauda went unnoticed for a long time because of its similarities to Contia tenuis and because of its small size, fossorial and secretive nature, and 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. longicauda has a longer tail with more caudal scales than C. tenuis. C. longicauda has from 43 to 58 caudal scales, while C. tenuis has from 24 to 43. The tail of C. longicauda averages 20 percent of the total length of the snake. The tail of C. tenuis averages 14.5 percent of the total length.
C. longicauda 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.
Check the range map - there is little range overlap.
Sharp-tailed snakes found under trash in April in Placer County.
Not Dangerous (Non-poisonous) - This snake does not have venom that is dangerous to most humans.
Adults average 8 - 12 inches in total length (20.3 - 30.5 cm), with some nearly 18 inches long (45.7 cm).
Hatchlings are about 3 inches long (7.6 cm).
A small thin snake with a small head and a sharp point on the end of the tail.
Color and Pattern
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.
Life History and Behavior
Sharp-tailed snakes tend to be found most often on sunny days during the rainy season resting under objects in open areas such as boards, rocks, wood debris, gravel piles, or leaf litter.
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 low as 50 degrees.
Long teeth allow the snake to hold on to its slippery prey.
Diet and Feeding
Feeds on slugs and their eggs and on slender salamanders.
Lays eggs in June or July. Hatchlings emerge in mid-autumn.
Found in well-shaded moist forest habitats dominated by Douglas fir and redwoods. Also found in mixed woodlands with oaks and conifers.
This snake is also seen in human habitats including garages, yards and gardens, where it is usually found under surface objects or leaf litter, often when someone is gardening. They have also been found in water after falling in a pool and a hot tub. The small size of this snake also allows it to enter human houses where it probably has trouble finding its way back out. (I regularly receive pictures of them from people wondering what kind of snake they found in their house, and why.)
The Common Sharp-tailed Snake ranges from British Columbia and Vancouver Island south to near San Luis Obispo on the coast, and inland along the foothills of the Sierras south to Tulare County.
My range map shows a large gap in the range in Fresno county which is based on the records used in Feldman and Hoyer, 2010. Their research also showed some genetic differences between the southern population and snakes to the north in the Sierra Nevada.
There does not appear to be much overlap in range between C. tenuis and C. longicauda, and they have not yet been found at the same location, but the two species come into close proximity in California in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties, in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, and in Southwestern Oregon. (I have indicated in purple 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. longicauda typically occurs in moist well-forested areas, while C. tenuis occurs in somewhat drier, more open habitats of grassland, mixed woodland, and occasionally chaparral.
Notes on Taxonomy
The Sharp-tailed Snake, Contia tenuis was found to consist of two species which are almost identical in appearance - Contia tenuis, and a new species,Contia longicauda, which 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: Contia in that area show some morphological differrences from the average C. tenuis; they are geographically isolated; and they 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.
Feldman and Hoyer also found some variation within Contia tenuis:
"Our data also reveal additional structure within C. tenuis; populations from the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains form an incipient lineage that warrants further investigation."
Found in woodland, forests, grassland, chaparral, often near streams or water. Requires moist soil. Often encountered underneath surface objects in open grassy areas near forests, especially on sunny days after rain. Can also be found in piles of gravel. From sea level to 6,600 ft.
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The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the November 2020 California "Special Animals List" and the November 2020 "State and Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California" list, both of which are produced by multiple agencies and available here: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Data/CNDDB/Plants-and-Animals. You can check the link to see if there are more recent lists.
If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status you can go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.
This snake is not included on the Special Animals List, which indicates that there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California.