Tag Archives: Snakes in Spain

Horseshoe Whip Snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis) Culebra herradura

Non-Venomous

  • English: Horseshoe Whip Snake.
  • Scientific: Hemorrhois hippocrepis (Coluber hippocrepis (Linnaeus 1758).
  • Castilian: Culebra herradura.
  • Catalan: Serp de ferradura.
  • Portuguese: cobra-do-ferradura.
  • Family: Colubridae.
  • Distribution: Found in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa, and in southern and central Portugal, southern, eastern and central Spain, Gibraltar, southern Sardinia and Pantelleria Island in Europe. In the island locations, it may have been introduced. Since the early 2000s it has been reported from Balearic Islands of Mallorca, Ibiza and Formentor. (It could have been introduced there by way of old olive trees imported from mainland Spain).

The Horse-shoe whip snake can reach a length of 180cm although they are often less. They are fairly slender, shy and fast moving. Although mostly diurnal they can also be seen out on warm evenings (crepiscular).

Horseshoe whip snake - Coluber hippocrepis – Culebra de Herradura
Horseshoe whip snake – Hemorrhois hippocrepis Coluber hippocrepis – Culebra de Herradura

The body pattern is brighter and more obvious on juveniles with the main colour varying between yellow, off white, olive, grey or sometimes brown, this is marked by large black or brown spots uniformly placed along the dorsal line with smaller alternating spots along the flanks. In adults the paler areas within the pattern are much finer giving an overall darker appearance. (Sometimes very dark almost black). The belly is pale in shades of peach, yellow, orange or red with dark marks openly dispersed near the head and more dense near the tail. The name stems from a shape on the head which looks like a horse shoe with the points facing back.

Horseshoe whip snake - Coluber hippocrepis – Culebra de Herradura
Horseshoe whip snake – Hemorrhois hippocrepis Coluber hippocrepis – Culebra de Herradura

Their habitat ranges from coastal plains with low vegetation to dry scrub covered mountains up to 1,800m within the southern part of their range. Most of the population is found below 700m. They also live close to humans in cultivated areas and orchards, hunting around buildings or ruins and making use of dry stone walls. Generally ground dwelling and moving very quickly these snakes are also agile climbers going into bushes or along rough vertical banks and can move along dry stone walls searching the crevices for prey.

Video of a shed or sloughed skin from a horseshoe whip snake

Their diet consists mainly of small mammals, the largest being rats, occasionally taking lizards such as moorish geckos and small birds. The young eat mainly lizards and also invertebrates. They actively seek out their meal, grasping it in their strong jaws and swallowing it head first. Horseshoe whip snakes may occasionally constrict their prey and do not have fangs or venom. This species of snake will always try and avoid detection, fleeing rapidly from human disturbance, but if cornered and handled will defend itself by hissing and biting.

Horseshoe whip snake - Coluber hippocrepis – Culebra de Herradura
Horseshoe whip snake – Hemorrhois hippocrepis Coluber hippocrepis – Culebra de Herradura

In warmer zones of their range they may be active throughout the year, otherwise taking a short hibernation period during the colder times between November and March. Mating takes place in the spring with the female then laying a clutch of around 5 or 10 eggs (occasionally more than 20) under a rock, in an existing mammal tunnel or in old wood. Around two months later hatchlings will appear at a length between 15 and 35cm. The females are not sexually mature until they are about 8 years old and the males 5 years.

Similar species: none with these markings.

Video of black horseshoe whipsnake

Taken in January of 2021 by Michael Peterson this video shows how it can sometimes be difficult to identify a snake in Spain. Colors and patterns vary greatly even within a species. This Horseshoe whip snakes is possibly the darkest we have ever seen and bears none of the familiar pattern across its back.

Note the change in scientific name in recent years Hemorrhois hippocrepis Coluber hippocrepis


The Grazalema Guide

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Southern Smooth Snake (Coronella girondica) Culebra Lisa Meridional

  • Non-venomous
  • English: Southern smooth snake.
  • Scientific: Coronella girondica (Daudin 1803).
  • Castilian: Culebra Lisa Meridional.
  • Catalan: Serp llisa meridional.
  • Portuguese: Cobra bordalesa.
  • Family: Colubridae.
  • Distribution: Iberia and much of Mediterranean basin area.

The Southern Smooth Snake is a slim, elegant snake with a rounded body and an average length of around 60cm, some reaching just under a metre. If warm enough then they are active between March and November. They are fairly slow moving and not good at climbing.

Coronella girondica – Culebra Lisa Meridional –2
Southern smooth snake – Coronella girondica – Culebra Lisa Meridional Image shows the two dark stipes below the head.

There is a dark strike from their neck to the rear corner of the eye. The eye itself has an orange / red ring around a circular black pupil. The body colour can vary between grey / brown to ochre with darker bands or blotches crossing the back in a non-uniform way. The underside is a creamy or orangey yellow with a haphazard checkered pattern of dark scales. This colouration is brightest in young ones.

They may be found in dry open scrub lands or rocky hillsides, hedgerows and open woods or around older cultivated trees. They will hide in old vegetation, under rocks and in stone walls. In warm southern areas they can be found in mountain regions but in cooler areas are more lightly to be below 1000m. This species of snake is mainly active in the evenings and at night, although they may be active during the day in wet weather, they are very secretive.

Coronella girondica – Culebra Lisa Meridional –1
Southern smooth snake – Coronella girondica – Culebra Lisa Meridional – Note the similarity to a ladder snake?

They generally eat small lizards, with skinks, geckos, smaller snakes and occasionally mammals also taken, young ones eat insects. Most of their prey is crushed by constriction and is swallowed head first.

Coupling takes place in spring with between 4 to 16 eggs being produced during the summer, these take 6 to 9 weeks to hatch, appearing in late August or September. The young tend to be active during the day and only measure 10 to 20cm.

The average life span for Coronella girondica is around 15 years. They reach sexual maturity when they are 4 years old.

Similar species

  • Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca) Lacks the strongly patterned and colourful underside.
  • False Smooth Snake (Macroprotodon cucullatus) Often has a bold dark collar.
  • Young Ladder Snake (Elaphe scalaris) Has a more bold and regular ladder pattern on back.

The Grazalema Guide

The best way to see all our web projects in one place is over at the Grazalema Guide.

The Grazalema Guide – Tourist Information Portal for the Sierra de Grazalema, Wildside Holidays, The town of Ronda and the Caminito del Rey.

https://grazalemaguide.com/

Ladder Snake (Zamenis scalaris) Culebra de escalera

  • Non-Venomous
  • Scientific: Zamenis scalaris (Elaphe [Rhinechis] scalaris)
  • English: Ladder Snake
  • Spanish: Culebra de escalera
  • Basque: Escailera-suge
  • Catalan: Serp blanca
  • Portuguese: Cobra-de-escada
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Distribution: The geographic range of the ladder snake includes Portugal, Spain, southern France and a small area of Italy. They have also been identified in Menorca and the Iles d’Hyères off Provence. It is mostly absent from northern Iberia including much of the Pyrenees, Galicia although the species has been found on Ons Island, in the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park, Cantabria and the Basque Country. (The population on Menorca may stem from an introduction by humans).

Description

The Ladder Snake, A species of Zamensis (Elaphe Rhinchensis), a genus of snakes traditionally found in Eurasia, northern Africa and North America has a confusing taxonomy. Authorities have now split the genus into smaller groups.

The Ladder Snake is a medium-sized colubrid snake with a total maximum length of about 160cm, but averaging 120cm. The snout is pointed, and the rostral scale projects sharply backwards between the two internasal scales. In coloration the adult Ladder Snake is less variable than many other species, being a shade of brown from yellowish to dark brown (most pictures seem to show the latter) and with a pair of darker longitudinal stripes running down the length of the body from the neck to the tip of the tail.

Ladder Snake (Zamenis scalaris) Culebra de escalera
Ladder Snake (Zamenis scalaris) Culebra de escalera (Juvenile showing “ladder” pattern on back. This changes to two dark paralel lines as they get older.

There is usually also a dark stripe running backwards from the rear of the eye to the angle of the jaw and subtle, occasional darker markings on the sides. The underside is silver-grey to whitish, sometimes with a few dark spots. The eye is dark brown to black. The young are more striking in appearance, being lighter and somewhat brighter in colour, yellow to light brown, with black transverse bars down the back that often join up at outside edges and form the characteristic “ladder” pattern. They also have many more prominent dark scales along the sides and on the head and the yellowish or whitish belly is marked with black that sometimes covers it in its entirety. With age these prominent patterns fade and the overall colour becomes darker, until the simpler adult pattern is left.

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Habitat and habits

It is found in areas with plenty of bush cover, including vineyards, hedges and overgrown dry-stone walls and is common in Mediterranean woodland. Sunny and stony habitats are especially preferred. Although known from heights of up to 2,200m, the Ladder Snake is more usually found at 700m or lower.

In many ways the prey of the Ladder Snake is typical of that of most rat snakes. A study of Alicante populations showed that nearly three quarters of its prey was mammalian (including mice, rabbits and shrews), about a quarter arthropods (spiders, insects, etc) and the remainder birds. For the latter item the Ladder Snake will seek out nests with chicks or eggs in trees or on walls, being a fair climber. Lizards are also eaten. The young tend to start out with small lizards, nestling rodents and arthropods such as grasshoppers.

The Ladder Snake is normally a diurnal creature (active by day), but during the hottest part of the year may be more active at night, even after midnight, while in the spring it may be active at dawn or dusk. In terms of behaviour it is more like a whipsnake than a ratsnake, being more aggressive and defensive than most Elaphe species. Warning signs are hissing and lunging forward with the mouth open and attempts to pick up a Ladder Snake may be met by sharp bites and also the emptying of the glands around the cloaca, which apparently is quite offensive! This behaviour may also explain the greater mobility of the snake compared to some of its relatives: movements of 100m per day are known, and the average home territory of an individual is 4,500m2. Adults may sometimes be found in buildings hunting for rodents, something to be borne in mind if you have an old outhouse, barn or similar building on your property. Paradoxically this is one way that the Ladder Snake may be seen as beneficial to people. It does not normally shelter in such places, however, but tends to use rodent burrows, piles of stones or hollow trees.

Ladder Snake (Zamenis scalaris) Culebra de escalera
Ladder Snake (Zamenis scalaris) Culebra de escalera

Breeding

courtship takes place in Iberia in May-June, elsewhere possibly also in April, though not all females breed every year. Mating lasts for about an hour and 3-6 weeks later a clutch of 4-24 (usually no more than 15) eggs is laid. Incubation lasts 5-12 weeks. The colourful young are about 20cm long on hatching. Unusually, the mother may remain with them for a few days. Males mature sexually at a length of about 50cm, females at a length of 65cm (the latter taking about five years). One authority quotes records of 19 years longevity for both captive and wild individuals.

Populations in the south of Iberia are active all year round, but in cooler areas a winter rest of 4-5 months is usual. Hibernation is sometimes communal.

Scalation details

the rostral projects between the internasals. There is one preocular (sometimes divided) and 2-3 postoculars and 7-8 supralabials, of which the 4th and 5th or 5th and 6th touch the eye. The temporals are arranged in a 2 x 3 or 2 x 4 pattern. The dorsal scales are smooth and arranged in 25-31 (almost always however 27) rows at midbody. The ventral scales number 198-228 and there are 48-68 pairs of subcaudal scales.

Although reasonably common across its range, chemical pesticides in vineyards and other fruit-growing areas in the last century did cause damage to Ladder Snake populations. Among its predators are mustelid mammals (martens, ferrets etc), corvid birds (crows and relatives) and birds of prey.


The Grazalema Guide

The best way to see all our web projects in one place is over at the Grazalema Guide.

The Grazalema Guide – Tourist Information Portal for the Sierra de Grazalema, Wildside Holidays, The town of Ronda and the Caminito del Rey.

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Aesculapian Snake (Elaphe longissima or Zamenis longissimus) Culebra de esculapio

  • Non-Venomous
  • Scientific: Elaphe longissima (Laurenti, 1768) or Zamenis longissimus.
  • English: Aesculapian Snake.
  • Spanish: Culebra de Esculapio.
  • Basque: Eskulapioren sugea.
  • Catalan: Serp d’Esculapi.
  • Family: Colubridae.
  • Distribution: northeastern Spain (mainly areas in or bordering Pyrenees), northern and central France, southern Switzerland, northern and central Italy, western Sardinia, and practically entire Balkans and central eastern Europe from eastern Austria and Slovakia southwards and eastwards, as far as Moldova

The Aesculapian Snake is a species of Elaphe, a genus of snakes traditionally found in Eurasia, northern Africa and North America, although some authorities have now split the genus into smaller groups. Some also consider Elaphe longissima to be a species of Zamenis instead, but the traditional species name looks set to be around for a while yet.

A number of former subspecies of this snake are now considered full species in their own right but none of these occur in Spain.

The Aesculapian Snake was first described by Josephus Nicolaus Laurenti in 1768 as Natrix longissima, later it was also known as Coluber longissimus and for the most part of its history as Elaphe longissima. The current scientific name of the species based on revisions of the large genus Elaphe is Zamenis longissimus. Zamenis is from Greek word for angry, irritable or fierce. Longissimus comes from Latin and means “longest”; the snake is one of the longest over its range.

The common name of this snake arises from its association with the Greco-Roman god of healing, Aesculapius (Greek Asclepius), around whose temples in the ancient world the species was encouraged.

The traditional sign of medicine even today is two snakes entwined around a staff.

(Aesculapian snakes are among those carried in procession in Italy in honour of Saint Dominic of Sora during the Festival of Saint Dominic Abbot (also known as the “Festival of the Serpari”) in the village of Cocullo, which takes place on the first Thursday of May. Nowadays after the festival the snakes are returned to their place of capture and released).

Description

This is a medium-sized colubrid snake with a total maximum length of about 200cm but averaging 140-160cm. Males are the larger of the sexes. The snout is somewhat flattened and the rostral scale does not protrude backwards between the two internasal scales. In coloration the adult Aesculapian Snake is less variable than many other species, being a light brown with small white dots. Although coloration is said to be more variable in general for this snake, one Spanish source describes only the light brown and fairly pattern-free coloration: however, darker or black (melanistic) individuals may occur, as do albino specimens. Some authorities also cite very subtle, slightly darker longitudinal lines that are harder to distinguish than those on the Ladder Snake. The belly is yellowish or whitish. The young are greyish brown with a row of dark spots on the back and a yellow area on either side of the head, giving them the appearance of small Grass Snakes (Natrix natrix), but unlike the latter, their scales are smooth rather than keeled.

E. longissima can be distinguished from Zamensis scalaris by its flatter snout, the rostral scale on the end of the snout which does not jut backwards between the internasals, and its rather calmer behaviour. The number of ventral and subcaudal scales on the Aesculapian Snake is also on average higher than on the Ladder Snake. The young of the two species are very easy to tell apart given the Ladder Snake’s juvenile patterning.

Scalation details

The rostral does not project between the internasals. There is one preocular (sometimes divided) and 2-3 postoculars and 8-9 supralabials, of which the 4th and 5th touch the eye. The temporals are arranged in a 2 x 3 or pattern. The dorsal scales are smooth and arranged in 23 (occasionally 21) rows at midbody. The ventral scales number 211-250 and there are 60-91 pairs of subcaudal scales.

Range and habitat

The range of this species is very large compared with many other European snakes, being found from Spain to the Caucasus. In Spain it is found in Santander, the Basque Country, Navarre, Huesca, Lérida, Barcelona and Gerona. In the Basque Country it lives in deciduous woods and meadows between pine woods and oak groves, while in Catalonia it can be found in beech and oak areas. Generally it likes the sun (in the northernmost parts of its range it is normally found on southerly-facing, exposed slopes) but avoids excessive heat, and in the south may be found in more humid places than elsewhere. Most of its habitats are dry and in addition to the usual places (dry stone walls, sunny woods, ruins, etc) may include paths and tracks (when sunning itself) and sometimes haystacks (perhaps due to the known propensity of haystacks to produce internal heat due to bacterial fermentation).

Habits and prey

The prey of the Aesculapian Snake is typical of that of most rat snakes, consisting of small mammals from mice and voles up to the size of squirrels, birds and lizards. The young normally start off with small lizards. It seems to have an unusually high metabolism for a snake, since in summer it may eat as frequently as every 3 days.

The Aesculapian Snake is normally a diurnal (active by day) and crepuscular (active at dawn/dusk) creature. It is less aggressive and more calm than the Ladder Snake, Elaphe [Rhinechis] scalaris, but this is relative: the Aesculapian Snake will still hold its ground, making chewing movements with its jaws, and will bite and/or empty its foul-smelling cloacal glands if further harassed. Its movements have been described as “deliberate”. Although not an arboreal snake it is a good climber of trees.

Breeding

courtship takes place in Iberia in May-June. In June-July a clutch of 5-15 (usually no more than 15) eggs is laid. These hatch in September. The young are about 23-25cm long on hatching. Unusually, the mother may remain with them for a few days. Males mature sexually at a length of about 50cm, females at a length of 65cm (the latter taking about five years). One authority quotes records of 25-30 years longevity.

In Spain the Aesculapian Snake takes its winter rest from October to March: elsewhere this period may last up to 6 months, depending on climate. The period of greatest activity is May to July.

The wide range of the Aesculapian Snake would appear to make it reasonably secure, and it is not listed in the IUCN “Red List” of Endangered Species. Threats to this snake would no doubt include those which apply generally to snakes, namely loss of habitat, pollution and natural predators such as birds of prey or mustelid mammals.

Thanks to wikipedia for the image at the top of this page…. (Above image by FelixReimann – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, )

If anyone has any images of this species and would like to publish them on this page I would be most grateful. 🙂


The Grazalema Guide

The best way to see all our web projects in one place is over at the Grazalema Guide.

The Grazalema Guide – Tourist Information Portal for the Sierra de Grazalema, Wildside Holidays, The town of Ronda and the Caminito del Rey.

https://grazalemaguide.com/