These snakes won’t bite

Spiny-tails love to be fondled and carried over long distances by their captors, around whose fingers they entwine themselves, says T.S.N. Murthy

Spot-bellied spiny-tail.
Spot-bellied spiny-tail.— Photo by Ashok Captian

We are quite familiar with the snakes that bite but are scarcely aware of the harmless ones that refuse to bite and what is more, they love to be handled.

One can often find these beautiful snakes at high altitudes in the forests of the Western Ghats. They mostly dwell underground and can escape our notice. Commonly called ‘Spiny-tails’ because of their spiny tail, these little known snakes lead sheltered lives in the deep muddy soil or decaying vegetation.

With their short and rigid cylindrical bodies, diminutive eyes, slender and pointed heads and the blunt tail-tips which are obviously the adaptations for their mode of life, they easily pass off as typical burrowing snakes.

To a casual observer the tiny head of these snakes looks like the tail-end and the blunt tail as the head. When they move, it seems they are crawling backwards.

The burrowing snakes are brilliantly coloured. They are generally red orange or yellow in colour. Some black forms are remarkable for their iridescence. With their pretty spots and blotches marking the body, they are often mistaken for deadly vipers and kraits and are done with mercilessly by the layman.

Rarely exceeding a foot in length, the spiny-tails never attempt to bite even if roughly handled or irritated. Instead, they love to be fondled and carried over long distance by their captors, around whose fingers they entwine themselves.

The spiny-tails feed mostly on earthworms, insects and other soft-bodied arthropods found in mud. They lay no eggs but produce live young — three to eight at a time.

Of the 44 kinds known, some 33 species are confined to the wooded regions of the major hill ranges, namely the Nilgiris, Palanis Anaimalais and the Cardamom Hills of Western Ghats. The remainder are found in Sri Lanka.

These snakes used to be so abundant till the 1960s in the forests of the Western Ghats that they were a common sight on forest paths and even in the compounds of houses during and after heavy rains.

However, economic considerations and other monetary pressures on the utilisation of the forest land have resulted in the gradual clearing of huge sholas and trees which are the lifeline for these poorly evolved and helpless creatures. The pity is the primitive snakes are fast disappearing as more and more rain forests are cleared. Some species are severely threatened and some face extinction.