Flowerpot snakes

· Guest post by Malcolm Tattersall ·

We were moving lots of pot-plants last October, planting out many of them and re-potting others, and one day we disturbed a few strange worms in the process  … or so I thought. All of them were typical worm size, perhaps 8 – 12 cm long and shoelace-thick. Most were black, but one was a delicate lilac colour; and they were all very active, wriggling for their lives until they could vanish into the soil. When I handled them, I found them very dry and slippery, which puzzled me. It didn’t intrigue me enough to stop work, however, or I might have trapped them for closer observation and discovered that they weren’t worms at all but snakes.

A reptile chart at the Bush Garden Nursery alerted me to the fact that I had been playing with Flowerpot Snakes, Indotyphlops braminus.

The species isn’t native to Australia, but is a fairly recent arrival from SE Asia, probably arriving in boat cargo. Like the Mourning Gecko its invasiveness is enhanced by the fact that it is parthenogenetic, i.e., all individuals are females and a new population can be started by a single stowaway. It was first noticed in Darwin and the Torres Strait, and it was first reported in Townsville in 1998. It is now found in scattered populations from (at least) the Pilbara to Brisbane.

I was ready for the next one we found and was able to get the photo above (I have to say she wasn’t the easiest portrait subject, being very dark, quite small and quite uncooperative.)

She (all of them are female, remember) was about 12 cm long, which means she was close to fully grown. Her head was just slightly rounder (blunter) than her tail, although I wasn’t really sure which was which until I saw her tongue flicking out since the eyes are almost invisible and I couldn’t see the mouth at all. The scales are tiny, shiny and close-fitting, obviously designed to help her slip through the dirt but making her difficult to hold on to without injuring her.

Wikipedia says:

Adults measure 2–4 inches (5.1–10.2 cm) long, uncommonly to 6 inches (15 cm). It is the smallest known snake species. The head and tail are superficially similar as the head and neck are indistinct. Unlike other snakes, the head scales resemble the body scales. The eyes are barely discernible as small dots under the head scales. … Coloration ranges from charcoal gray, silver-gray, light yellow-beige, purplish, or infrequently albino, the ventral surface more pale. … Behavior ranges from lethargic to energetic, quickly seeking the cover of soil or leaf litter to avoid light. … The tiny eyes are covered with translucent scales, rendering these snakes almost entirely blind. The eyes cannot form images, but are still capable of registering light intensity. … Their diet consists of the larvae, eggs, and pupae of ants and termites.

The Wikipedia page also has the best collection of names for the species. The only one which might cause some confusion is Ramphotyphlops braminus, which is the name given to them by Steve Wilson in his Field Guide to Reptiles of Queensland and JCU on their wildlife pages. Australia does have its own blind snakes, all in the genus Ramphotyphlops, and Queensland is home to 18 species. They are all bigger than the Flowerpot Snake (up to 400 mm) but are otherwise very similar: non-venomous, subterranean predators of ants and termites.

This article first appeared on Green Path, Malcolm’s wildlife and environment blog, in October 2019.