by Bob Thomas
A most unusual denizen of Louisiana long ago brought Louisiana’s snake species total to 40. The species is the Brahminy blind snake, Ramphotyphlops braminus. When it was found, it represented not only a new species for the state, but also a new genus and family (Typhlopidae).
As of this writing, a handful of specimens has been found in New Orleans and Lafayette. The first specimen was collected in the Mid-City area of New Orleans on November 11, 1993, by Richard Lo Piccolo. Richard, who now lives in Pass Christian, MS, had a few pet lizards and he was looking for crickets under boards and trash in a lot near his home when he found the Brahminy blind snake under a board lying on a cement slab. He knew it was a snake because he could see its tiny scales and he noticed it flicking its tiny forked tongue in and out. When he called me and briefly described the new find, I knew that it could be nothing else. As you would expect, I arrived at his house soon after the phone call. We looked about in the lot (an abandoned plant storage site formerly used by a landscaper) and found no other blind snakes, but we found two other naturalized herps (Mediterranean gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus, and greenhouse frog, Eleutherodactylus planirostris) and a few ground skinks (Scincella lateralis). Richard had also seen the introduced brown anole (Norops sagrei) on the site.
Brahminy blind snakes reach a length of about six inches. They are very slender, about the size of a piece of spaghetti, and shiny black in coloration, sometimes with buffy white to yellow on the chin and tail. Since they are highly adapted for burrowing, they have very tiny eyes that are covered by translucent scales. The head is rounded, with no constriction to identify the neck, and the tail comes to an abrupt point. Brahminy blind snakes live in loose, moist soil and they feed on small invertebrates, especially ants and termites.
A native of southeast Asia, the Brahminy blind snake is now distributed throughout the world, mostly in tropical and warm temperate locations. In the U.S., it was previously known only from Florida, Hawaii, and Boston, Massachusetts (the latter remarkably far north for the species).
So why has this species been such a successful invader of pantropical and adjacent temperate areas? The answer lies in two aspects of its biology. The first is that since the species is a burrower and prefers friable soils, it is easily transported in potted plants. This provides the perfect vehicle for relatively quick transport from tropical areas to points all over the globe.
The second aspect of its biology is most remarkable. The Brahminy blind snake is the only snake species that is definitely known to be parthenogenetic throughout its life. That is, it is an all female species that automatically begins to lay fertile eggs when it reaches sexual maturity, without the need for males. If a single individual arrives and lives, it may eventually establish a population. In other species, a population doesn’t have a chance to develop unless a single arriving individual is a gravid female or a male/female pair arrives.
Parthenogenesis makes the Brahminy blind snake the quintessential colonizer. If an individual arrives in an area where it can survive (e.g., in a moist, warm climate), it does not die before it lays eggs, and its eggs do not desiccate, then poof, the species becomes established.
Since New Orleans has the perfect climate and habitat for the Brahminy blind snake, and we import so many potted plants from tropical areas, I was not surprised that the species has appeared. In fact, I’m a little surprised that it was not found years earlier. Of course, it may have been here for years and we simply did not find it. As the word gets out, I expect nurseries and gardeners will report the snake’s presence. As expected, several have been found in the Audubon Zoo.
Give us a call if you find any shiny black “worms” with flicking tongues!
Brahminy blind snake, Ramphotyphlops A typically sized Brahminy
braminus. This specimen was the first found blind snake, collected in Lafayette
in Louisiana. It was collected in New Orleans this year.
by Richard Lo Piccolo. Photo by David Castellanos.
Photo by Bob Thomas.
Only close examination allows one to
differentiate the head from the tail of a
Brahminy blind snake.
Photo by Brad Moon.