Shovelnose snakes are a species of nonvenomous snake of the family Colubridae. This species has a unique appearance, unlike any other colubrid snake. True to its name, the shovelnose snake has a shovel-like snout that enables it rapidly bury itself through sand and swim or travel underneath the sand with little to no effort.
The long, flat snout also helps differentiate this snake from similar snakes, such as the long-nosed snake, the variable sand snake, and the variable groundsnake. Though shovelnose snakes are relatively small and thin-bodied, what is the largest recorded one? Let’s find out.
About Shovelnose Snakes
There are three major species of shovelnose snakes recognized as valid. They are:
- Colorado Desert Shovel-nosed snake (Chionactis annulata) -found in extreme Southeastern California deserts into Baja California and northern Sonora, Mexico, and east into southwestern Arizona.
- Western Shovel-nosed snake (Chionactis occipitalis) -Found in southwestern and central Arizona, southeastern California, southern Nevada, and northeastern Baja California in the United States and northwestern Sonora in Mexico.
- The Sonoran Shovel-nosed snake (Chionactis palarostris) -is found in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.
The Western Shovelnose Snake (Chionactis occipitalis)
The western shovelnose snake is commonly found in sandy areas, such as barren, scrub habitats in bases of bushes and tufts of grass, as well as desert flats and washes. This species is widely distributed across the Mojave and Colorado deserts just below 4700 feet (1400 meters).
Like all shovelnose species, the western shovelnose snake has a flattened shovel-shaped snout with an underset lower jaw. It has a cream, whitish or yellow ground color, and black or dark brown bands encircle the body or may be saddle-like. There may be a presence of red or orange saddles between the dark saddles. The smooth scales, lower jaw, and shovel-shaped nose make the shovelnose snake skilled at swimming in sand.
This snake is known to burrow in fine sand or live in the burrows of other animals. It also inhabits under surface cover objects and bushes or clumps of grass. Sometimes, it burrows through sand in search of prey. Other times, it prefers to lie under the surface of the sand, where the sun’s warmth can heat it. This snake eats scorpions and insect and insect larvae.
Colorado Desert Shovelnose Snake (Chionactis annulata)
The Colorado desert shovelnose snake is a small rounded snake with a narrow head characterized by a flat shovel-shaped snout with a large spade-like scale on the tip. The dorsal color of the snake is cream or yellowish, with black bands completely encircling the body. The black bands are usually less than 25 in number and often have narrow red bands between them.
As their name suggests, Colorado desert shovelnose snakes are usually found burrowing in desert habitats with loose sand and areas with sparse vegetation – such as sandy flats, washes, rocky hillsides, and dunes. They eat invertebrates such as insects, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, larvae of insects, and moths.
They are primarily nocturnal snakes, burrowing underground during the daytime in a fast swimming or side-to-side movement through loose sand with the help of their smooth scales, concave-like abdomen, and nasal valves that close the nostrils to sand entry. People sometimes report encountering this species crossing desert roads at night.
Sonoran Shovel-nosed snake (Chionactis palarostris)
The Sonoran shovelnose snake is a small harmless species endemic to the Sonoran desert in North America. The Sonoran shovelnose snake is found only in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument of Pima County, Arizona, in the southwestern United States and only in the state of Sonora in northwestern Mexico.
This species is cross-banded with black, yellow/whitish, and red bands. It bears a close resemblance to the Sonoran coral snake. But the venomous coral snake has a black snout, while the non-venomous Sonora shovel-nosed snake has a yellow snout. Another way to differentiate them is to know that the bands on a coral snake go completely around, but the shovelnose snake has a solid yellow belly.
Sonoran shovelnose snakes are seen mostly near washes and are more active in the evening and at night. The snake has adapted to swim through sandy desert soils using its spade-like mouth. This snake is an active forager, preying on scorpions, centipedes, spiders, and other invertebrates.
What is the Largest Shovelnose Snake Ever Found?
Shovelnose snakes are a small species with an average length of 30cm (11.8 inches). The maximum total length (including tail) recorded for shovelnose snakes is 43 cm (17 inches). Most adult individuals of this species grow to an average length of 10 to 17 inches (25 to 43 cm).
How Dangerous are Shovelnose Snakes?
Shovelnose snakes are nonvenomous snakes; they do not have venom that is dangerous to most humans and even pets. When confronted by a human or a predator, they typically move rapidly away from the threat at high speed. If they feel cornered, they may roll into a coil and repeatedly strike, often with a closed mouth. They rarely bite and are not associated with any fatality. They are also likely to smear musk and feces when captured.
Conservation Status of the Shovelnose Snake
Because most agricultural and urban development in the desert southwest occurs in the valleys, shovelnose snakes are substantially threatened with habitat loss and degradation. However, habitat loss is still relatively small and localized over the entire range of the species. The shovelnose snake is listed as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN’s Red List.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock.com
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