Smooth Operator

It seems quite incredible to consider that our rarest reptile, the smooth snake (Coronella austriaca)  was only recognised as a British species in 1859. A specimen caught six years earlier had been previously dismissed as a grass snake (or variant of) and

smooth snake sexing 3
Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca)

it was a man called Dr J E Gray who got round to taking a closer look and making a clean identification.

Estimates suggest a British population of between 2 and 3000 individuals – a seemingly perilous number, and yet on some of our southern heaths they are relatively (if locally) common.

Most reptiles require exposure to a direct heat source (the Sun) to raise body temperature, but the smooth snake absorbs warmth form its immediate surroundings (the term ‘cryptic heliotherm’ is often applied to this process) and therefore spends almost all if its life out of sight and underground. The only way to monitor them is to lay refugia, normally in the shape of corrugated iron sheets,

smooth snake sexing 2
A second individual – note the difference in markings on the back of the head and neck. They are specific to each individual – a fingerprint.

beneath which they will be attracted. A dark but often unnaturally warm spot where the animals can slough (shed their skin) and perhaps even bump into a mate.

Due to their rarity, it is an offence to disturb smooth snakes, and illegal to turn a tin and look for one without holding a licence. This week though, I was fortunate  to spend the day with Gary Powell of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC), in order to learn how to identify and sex specific individuals.

The weather has been a bit iffy of late, but the morning in question was overcast and dry and Gary was hopeful that we would be able to find one or two animals.

There was a slightly sombre edge to the conversation as we made our way out onto the

Smooth snake sexing
The male smooth snake has a longer tail than the female, with a slight bulge below the vent (where the reproductive organs sit) and a slightly orange hue.

heath. The ARC Trust, like so many of our Conservation Groups, is heavily reliant on EU funding, and the result of the Referendum could have serious implications for their future work.

Having wallowed a little in the reality of a post-EU Environment (and got a welly full of mire as I crossed a particularly damp piece of bog), we needed a reptile or three to lift the mood, and the smooth snakes (and also grass snake, slow worm, common and sand lizards) obliged – as did the silver-studded blues that clouded across the heather at the slightest hint of sunshine.

It was a fabulous morning, though having got home I realised that I was an adder short of a full set, so I nipped out to my local spot to complete my first Grand Slam of British reptile species seen in the same day.

Massive thanks to Gary Powell and Steve Masters for the day – and a reminder that these images were all taken under licence.


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