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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


Forest Sharp-tailed Snake - Contia longicauda

Feldman and Hoyer, 2010
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Sharp-tailed Snakes California Range Map
Range in California: Orange & Purple

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observation link





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 Forest Sharp-tailed Snake Forest Sharp-tailed Snake
Adult in shed, Santa Cruz County Adult, Santa Cruz County © Zachary Lim
  Forest Sharp-tailed Snake  
  Adult, San Mateo County © Jared Heald  
     
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. 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 (Contia) species

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.

Description

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

Size
Adults average 11 inches (27.9 cm) ranging from 4.9 - 17.6 inches in total length (12.4 - 44.7 cm).
Hatchlings are about 3 inches long.

Appearance
A small thin snake with a small head and a sharp-ended 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
(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 and Feeding
(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.
Breeding
(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.

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

Geographical 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 Del Norte, 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 -snake shown above. Not yet found (2011) but expected to occur in Siskiyou and Marin counties.


Comparison of range and habitat with Contia tenuis

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
Notes on Taxonomy
The Sharp-tailed Snake, 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.

The Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles changed the species name longicaudae to longicauda in their 2012 list of scientific and common names:
"This species was originally named Contia longicaudae by Feldman and Hoyer (2010, Copeia, 2010: 254–267); however, because they explicity treated the second part of the binomen as an adjective, it must agree with the name Contia in gender and number so that the correct spelling is Contia longicauda."


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.



Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)

Contia longicauda - Forest Sharp-tailed Snake (Stebbins & McGinnis 2012)
Contia tenuis - Sharp-tailed Snake (Stebbins 1954, 1966, 1985, 2003)
Gentle Brown Snake; Oregon Worm Snake; Pacific Brown Snake; Pacific Ground Snake (Wright & Wright 1957)
Contia tenuis - Sharp-tailed Snake (Van Denburgh 1897)
Purple-tailed Snake (Yarrow 1882)

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

longicauda Forest Sharp-tailed Snake Feldman and Hoyer, 2010
Original Description
Contia longicauda - (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.
longicauda
- 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
California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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, 1957.

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
NatureServe Global Ranking
NatureServe State Ranking
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
IUCN

 

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