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Shield-tailed snakes (family Uropeltidae) are poorly studied fossorial snakes. There are 55 species in 8 genera. They are most closely related to Asian pipesnakes (Cylindrophiidae and Anomochilidae). The maximum size of the largest species is about 18" long, and some species have brightly colored undersides, especially on the neck and tail. They are endemic to mountain ranges in southern peninsular India & Sri Lanka, especially in the high-altitude 'shola' forests of the Western Ghats. Thanks to their doubly-supported skulls (both the atlas and axis contact the skull), their thick, myoglobin- & mitochondria-rich anterior trunk muscles, and unique method of burrowing (in which they simultaneously push the sides of the body against the tunnel walls and move the head forward, without pushing the rest of their bodies backward), they are capable of tunneling as deep as two meters through relatively hard soil. Their body scales shed dirt and their short, blunt, shield-like tails collect it behind them as they burrow. Most species eat earthworms, and they are eaten by other snakes, wild boars, mongeese, and predatory birds. They mate during the rainy season and females give birth to 3-9 live young at a time. It's likely that a high amount of diversity remains to be described, but continued habitat destruction and degradation throughout their range means that we may never know the true extent of uropeltid diversity.


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© Andrew Durso

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