brahminy blind snake

A most unusual new denizen of Louisiana, found in 1993, brought the state’s snake species total to 40.  The newest found snake species is the Brahminy Blind Snake, Ramphotyphlops braminus.  It represented not only a new species for the state, but also a new genus and family (Typhlopidae).

 Only a handful of specimens have been found, and only one specimen made its way into a museum collection as a voucher specimen (it is now in the collection of LSU’s Museum of Natural Sciences [LSUMZ 56317]).  It was collected in the Mid City area of New Orleans on November 11, 1993, by Mr. Richard Lopicallo.  Richard has 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 the tiny scales and he noticed it flicking its tongue in and out.  When he called and briefly described the new find to a herpetologist, the scientist knew that it could be nothing else.  As would be expected, the herpetologist arrived at his house soon after the phone call.  The two naturalists looked about in the lot (an abandoned plant storage site formerly used by a landscaper) and found no other blind snakes, but they found two other naturalized herps (Mediterranean Gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus, and Greenhouse Frog, Eleutherodactylus planirostris) and a few Ground Skinks (Scincella lateralis).  Richard has also seen Brown Anoles (Anolis sagrei) on the site. 

Brahminy Blind Snakes reach a length of about six inches.  They are very slender, being 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 restriction 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 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 gives the perfect vehicle for relatively quick transport from tropical areas to points all over the globe.

The second aspect of its biology is the most remarkable.  The Brahminy Blind Snake is the only snake species that is known to be parthenogenetic.  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 will eventually create a population.  In other species, a population doesn’t have a chance to become established unless a single arriving individual is a gravid female or a male/female pair arrives.

So, the Brahminy Blind Snake is the quintessential colonizer.  If an individual arrives in a area where it can survive (e.g., in a moist, warm climate), and 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 so many potted plants from tropical areas are imported, it is not surpriseing that the species appeared.  In fact, it is surprising that it was not found years ago.  Of course, the species may have been here for years and was simply not found.  As the word spreads, nurseries and gardeners will probably report the snake’s presence.