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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


Smith's Black-headed Snake - Tantilla hobartsmithi

Taylor, 1937
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Smith's Black-headed Snake California Range Map
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Smith's Black-headed Snake
Adult, Inyo County
Smith's Black-headed Snake Smith's Black-headed Snake Smith's Black-headed Snake
  Adult, Inyo County (underside)
Smith's Black-headed Snake Smith's Black-headed Snake Smith's Black-headed Snake
Adult, Inyo County Underside of adult, Inyo County Adult, Inyo County
Smith's Black-headed Snake Smith's Black-headed Snake Smith's Black-headed Snake
Tulare County © Patrick Briggs
Adult, Inyo County © Brad Alexander
Smith's Black-headed Snake Smith's Black-headed Snake Smith's Black-headed Snake
Adult, 29 Palms, San Bernardino County © Walter Combs Adults with a relatively pale dorsal color, San Bernardino County 
© Adam G. Clause
   
Smith's Black-headed Snake From Outside California
Smith's Black-headed Snake Smith's Black-headed Snake Smith's Black-headed Snake
  Adult, Pima County, Arizona  
     
Habitat
Smith's Black-headed Snake Habitat Smith's Black-headed Snake Habitat  
Habitat, Inyo County Habitat, Inyo County  
     
Short Video
  Smith's Black-headed Snake  
A tiny Smith's Black-headed snake crawls across a paved road at night.
 
Similar Species
Comparison Chart of Tantilla hobartsmithi - Smith's Black-headed Snake and Tantilla planiceps - Western Black-headed Snake.

A plain-colored Variable Ground Snake with black on the head is sometimes confused with a Black-headed Snake, but the ground snake has a loreal scale, which is not present in Tantilla, and lacks the red coloring on the belly.
Variable Groundsnake Smith's Black-headed Snake
  Underside of Variable Groundsnake Underside of
Smith's Black-headed Snake
Description

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

Mildly venomous. This snake uses its grooved and enlarged rear teeth and a mild form of venom in its saliva to immobilize its invertebrate prey. This venom is considered harmless to humans.

Size
One of the smallest snakes in California, about 4.5 - 15 inches long (11.5 - 38 cm).

Appearance
A small, thin, snake with a flat head and smooth, shiny scales.
Color and Pattern
The body color is brownish or beige and unmarked.
The top of the head is dark brown or black, with a light collar between the dark cap and the body color.
The dark color usually does not extend lower on the head than the bottom of the eye and does not extend below the mouthline behind the corner of the jaw.
The belly is whitish with a reddish stripe that does not extend all the way to the edge of the ventral scales.
This stripe may fade out toward the head.

Life History and Behavior

Activity
Secretive - spends much of its time underground or underneath surface objects.
Not much is known about this snake.
A good burrower, able to disappear quickly into loose soil.
Typically it is found beneath surface debris.
(I have also seen this snake active on the surface on a cool May morning in the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas. The trail wildlife sighting log indicated that several other people had seen black-headed snakes active on the trail recently.)
Diet and Feeding
Eats a variety of invertebrates and their larvae including millipedes and centipedes.
Breeding
Lays up to 3 eggs in summer.

Geographical Range
The known range of this species in California and elsewhere is spotty due to its secretive nature.
Its range is probably less disjointed than the records show.
It has been recorded from the southern Sierra Nevada foothills and in the southern San Joaquin Valley, in the Owens Valley north to the White Mountains, through the Death Valley region, and in isolated locations in the eastern Mojave desert.

I have received an unconfirmed report of a Tantilla, presumably this species, found in the Imperial Valley at the southern end of the Salton Sea.

Outside of California, it occurs in Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.

Habitat
Found in desert, grassland, sagebrush, creosote bush, chaparral, juniper scrub, open coniferous forests. Prefers canyon bottoms and the rocky edges of streams and washes. Often found beneath rocks, plant debris, and other surface cover.

Notes on Taxonomy
Formerly classified with Tantilla planiceps. There are around 50 species of Tantilla from North America to Argentina, with two occuring in California, including T. planiceps.

Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
None
Taxonomy
Family Colubridae Colubrids Oppel, 1811
Genus Tantilla Black-headed Snakes Baird and Girard, 1853
Species

hobartsmithi Smith's Black-headed Snake Taylor, 1937
Original Description
Tantilla hobartsmithi - Taylor, "1936" 1937 - Trans. Kansas Acad. Sci., Vol. 39, p. 340

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

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Tantilla - Latin - tantillum - so small a thing - refers to the small size
hobartsmithi - honors Smith, Hobart M.

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

Alternate Names
Southwestern Black-headed Snake

Related or Similar California Snakes
T. planiceps - Western Black-headed Snake
H. t. nuchalata - California Nightsnake
H. t. deserticola - Desert Nightsnake

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.


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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