CaliforniaHerps.com

A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


Sharp-tailed Snake - Contia tenuis

(Baird and Girard, 1852)
Click on a picture for a larger view



Sharp-tailed Snakes Range Map
Range in California: Red (maybe Purple)

Click the map for more information



observation link





Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake
Adult, Butte County Juvenile, Butte County Adult, Yuba County
Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake
     Adult, Placer County   Adult, Contra Costa County
Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake
  Adult, Placer County   Adult, Contra Costa County
Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake
Adult, Lake County A sharp point at the tip of the tail gives this snake its name.
Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake
Adult, coiled defensively hiding its head, Contra Costa County Underside of adult, Santa Clara County Juveniles, Contra Costa County Adult, Lake County. © Nancy Mittasch
Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake
Adult, Monterey County
© Patrick Briggs
Fresno County © Patrick Briggs Adult, San Mateo County
© Rory Doolin
Adult, Alameda County
© David Kositchek
Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake
Juvenile, Contra Costa County Adult, Butte County Juvenile, about 4 inches in length, Monterey County © Katie Zarn. Adult, Shasta County  Randy Rice
Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snake Sharp-tailed Snakes
Unusually-colored Juvenile from Butte County, probably hypo-melanistic or amelanistic.   © Jackson Shedd Typical and pinkish-orange morphs
© Rodney Lacey, who finds both morphs together in Butte County.
Adule with pale markings, Sonoma County © Ric DelMar Often several Sharp-tailed Snakes are found underneath the same cover object, in this case a large board in San Mateo County. © Rory Doolin
       
Habitat
Sharp-tailed Snake Habitat Sharp-tailed Snake Habitat Sharp-tailed Snake Habitat Sharp-tailed Snake Habitat
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
Sharp-tailed Snake Habitat Sharp-tailed Snake Habitat Sharp-tailed Snake Habitat  
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.)

Sharp-tailed Snakes Comparison Sharp-tailed Snakes Comparison Sharp-tailed Snakes Comparison  
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 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. 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.

 
Short Video
  Sharp-tailed snakes
  Sharp-tailed snakes found under trash in April in Placer County.    
     
Description

Not Dangerous (Non-poisonous)  -  This snake does not have venom that is dangerous to most humans.

Size
Adults average 8 - 12 inches in total length, with some nearly 18 inches long.
Hatchlings are about 3 inches long.

Appearance
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.
Young
Juveniles typically have brighter dorsal coloration than adults.

Life History and Behavior

Activity
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 and Feeding
Feeds on slugs and their eggs and on slender salamanders.
Breeding
Lays eggs in June or July. Hatchlings emerge in mid-autumn.

Geographical Range
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.

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.

Full Species Range Map
Red = Approximate Range of Contia tenuis - Sharp-tailed Snake

Habitat
Found in well-shaded moist forest habitats dominated by Douglas fir and redwoods. Also found in mixed woodlands with oaks and conifers.

Notes on Taxonomy
The snake traditionally known as Contia tenuis was found to consist of two species which are almost identical in appearance. The new species, Contia longicauda, 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.

Habitat
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.

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
None
Taxonomy
Family Colubridae Colubrids Oppel, 1811
Genus Contia Sharp-tailed Snakes Baird and Girard, 1853
Species

tenuis Sharp-tailed Snake (Baird and Girard, 1852)
Original Description
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.
tenuis
- Latin - thin, narrow, slender - "body slender"

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

Alternate Names
None

Related or Similar California Snakes
T. planiceps - Western Black-headed Snake
Diadophis punctatus - Ring-necked Snake
Contia longicauda - Forest Sharp-tailed Snake

More Information and References
California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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

 

Home Site Map About Us Identification Lists Maps Photos More Lists CA Snakes CA Lizards CA Turtles CA Salamanders CA Frogs
Contact Us Usage Resources Rattlesnakes Sounds Videos FieldHerping Yard Herps Behavior Herp Fun CA Regulations
Beyond CA All Herps


Return to the Top

 © 2000 -