A Western Black-headed Snake discovered at night crawling in a sandy wash in Imperial County.
Four of us decided to stop road cruising at night for herps and walk around a rocky spot in the desert with flashlights. Granite night and leaf-toed lizards were out on the rocks along with a few banded rock lizards and a couple of chuckwallas. We saw red-diamond and speckled rattlesnakes and a rosy boa. Then Stuart Young spotted this little Tantilla crawling in the sand in a wash I had just walked across before him. It's always nice to see such a reclusive snake active in its habitat. I decided to film it exactly where it was found to let it crawl away in known territory. The video starts out with the terrified reptile moving at escape velocity, but it calms down a bit and moves more slowly before it crawls into the rocks.
A tiny Western Black-headed Snake crawls around in San Diego County.
This snake was found in the early morning in a small pit trap set out to survey the reptiles, rodents, and other small animals that were crawling around in the coastal chapparal habitat. It was filmed with some difficulty where it was found and then was allowed to crawl away into the brush to find a place to hide until night fell when it would be more comfortable continuing its nocturnal foraging (and hopefully would not fall in the trap again.)
Not Dangerous (Non-poisonous) - This snake does not have venom that is dangerous to most humans.
Mildly venomous. This snake uses a mild form of venom to immobilize its prey. This venom is considered harmless to humans.
One of the smallest snakes in California, about 3.5 - 15.5 inches long (9 - 40 cm).
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 faint light collar between the dark cap and the body color.
This collar may or may not have a border of dark dots.
The dark color usually drops 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.
Comparison Chart of Tantilla hobartsmithi - Smith's Black-headed Snake and Tantilla planiceps - Western Black-headed Snake.
From Contra Costa County south to San Diego County Western Black-headed Snakes and Ring-necked Snakes might be found in the same location.
Both are small slender long-tailed snakes with a ring around the neck and red coloring on the belly.
Click the photo below to learn how to tell them apart easily.
Life History and Behavior
Secretive -spends much of its time underground or underneath surface objects.
A good burrower, able to disappear quickly into loose soil.
Occasionally found active on the surface at night on roads, especially after rains.
Diet and Feeding
Eats millipedes, centipedes, and insects.
Not well understood.
A clutch of 1-3 eggs is laid from May to June. (Stebbins, 2003)
This probably means that the young are hatched in late Summer.
Eggs have recently been found in a female collected on July 6th, "extending the period in which T. planiceps carries eggs from May into July."
(Goldberg. Herpetological Review 48(1), 2017)
Occurs in grassland, chaparral, oak and oak-pine woodland, deserts. Along the rocky edges of streas and washes. Often found beneath rocks, plant debris, and other surface cover.
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 occurs along the coast of southern California, east and north to the desert side of the mountains as far as Whitewater Canon, and north through the south Coast Range to the San Francisco Bay where it has been recorded just south of San Jose, east of Mt. Diablo, and east of Livermore.
Documented in 2014 in the Caliente Mountains in San Luis Obispo County. (Herpetological Review 45(3), 2014)
Occurs in disjointed locations in Baja California, Mexico, south to the cape region.
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.
Flaxington, William C. Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Field Observations, Distribution, and Natural History. Fieldnotes Press, Anaheim, California, 2021.
Samuel M. McGinnis and Robert C. Stebbins. Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians. 4th Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2018.
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.
Joseph Grinnell and Charles Lewis Camp. A Distributional List of the Amphibians and Reptiles of California. University of California Publications in Zoology Vol. 17, No. 10, pp. 127-208. July 11, 1917.
The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the October 2021 California "Special Animals List" and the October 2021 "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.