When we think of spiders, scorpions or especially centipedes, these thoughts are usually not synonymous with lunch. However, there is one tiny, indescribable snake species that resides in this state and does just that, and that species is the black-headed plains snake.
The plains black-headed snake (Tantilla nigriceps) is a harmless and rather small snake, with most adults reaching sexual maturity between 6 and 8 inches in total length. The largest specimen ever recorded was just under 15 inches, making this individual a true “whopper”. I have personally observed well over 100 individuals of this species, and have never seen one even approaching record size.
Like other members of the genus Tantilla, this species is rather unpretentious in appearance. Body coloring varies slightly from tan to light yellowish without any distinguishing marks. The only mark on the top of the snake is the dark, usually black crown on the top of the head (hence the origin of the common name black-headed snake). This black crown extends beyond the scales of the head on the neck by more than 3 scales and is always either convex or pointed. It is one of the diagnostic traits used to differentiate this species from other closely related species. The belly is white with a narrow band of pink or salmon color running lengthwise down the center of the belly. Due to the small, smooth dorsal scales, this snake will often have a shiny appearance.
Plains Black Head Snakes can be seen throughout much of the southwestern United States, including west 2/3 of the great state of Texas. Like most other burrowing animals, this species prefers areas with loose soil in which it can burrow. It is often seen in meadows and pastures under surface debris such as flat stones, fallen logs, and even dried cow patties. In urban settings, it often resides under decorative slabs, clay pots and piles of rubbish. Wherever it occurs, the soil should have a certain amount of moisture to maintain the required high humidity that it prefers.
Like almost all other reptiles that reside in temperate climates, they undergo a period of inactivity during the colder months of the year, allowing sexually mature adults to generate the sperm and eggs necessary for successful reproduction in the spring. . Very similar to most other harmless snakes found in Texas, black-headed plains snakes are egg-laying animals. Mating takes place mainly during the months of March and April, and the 1 to 3 extremely elongated eggs are laid a month later in sufficiently humid areas. After an incubation period of around two months, the delicate babies hatch and are 2-3 inches in length, typically mimic the color and pattern of adults, and are able to fend for themselves from birth.
Black-headed plains snakes are primarily burrowers, spending the vast majority of their lives underground or under surface debris. It is in this habitat that they find their main prey, centipedes, spiders, scorpions and insect larvae. When precipitation is abundant, this species will become active on the surface, and many are found crossing roads under these conditions.
This species, although rarely encountered (other than by those who actually seek it!), Is quite common. Interestingly enough, this species is actually rear-fanged and has a slight toxin, but lacks a sophisticated venom delivery system. The venom is also quite weak. Therefore, like the majority of snakes that occur in this state, it is completely harmless to humans.
Michael Price is the owner of Wild About Texas, an educational company specializing in poisonous animal safety training, environmental counseling, and eco-tourism. Contact him at [email protected]