During last year’s project the spider team was returning from a visit to the lowlands and reported a snake spotting to us. Unsure if it was a coral snake returning intern, Rachel Clarkin-Breslin was advised to leave it alone – despite her doubts that it was not a coral snake. A snapshot showed us that it was U. euryzona. I was disappointed because I really wanted to see this snake and add it to my Urotheca collection. This year we hit the jackpot. On one of the first night hikes from our lower elevation base camp, Twan and I split up, taking different groups of people out. I had our kids when I saw a black and red bicolored snake at my feet next to a stream. Because it was moving rapidly I couldn’t tell if it was the potentially lethal coral snake, Micrurus multifasciatus (my top wish list snake for this trip), or just a mimic. I grabbed it and confirmed it was U. euryzona, a coral mimic, also known as the Halloween snake (actually several snakes are called Halloween or calico snakes). In my capture I unknowingly broke off about 3-4” of the snake’s tail. While examining the snake the broken tail caught my attention at my feet and I thought another one; until I realized I had caused the distraction in my careless grab. Although, careless may be relative as this snake masterfully mimics Micrurus multifasciatus as the colored bands shift from red to white along the same distribution and color shifting as M. multifasciatus. So either a reckless grab at the head and risk a fatal bite or a careless grab at the tail and risk breaking a portion of the tail (and losing the snake)….hmmmm.…what to do. Actually it is quite easy to tell the 2 species apart but when it is quickly thrashing away in the dark of night it does give one time to pause. Oddly, aside from the bands as opposed to stripes, U. euryzona is a larger snake than others in this genus. It also has a different ‘feel’ in its overall look. I’m certainly not capable of defining taxonomic placement but I wouldn’t be surprised if this species and its allied northern cousin U. elapoides (another banded coral mimic) eventually gets separated from the other snakes in this complex.
Here is one of the 2 banded or coral snake mimics of the genus. This is Urotheca euryzona. It is a much larger snake and overall has a different look and ‘feel’ of others in the genus. But you can see the characteristic long tail – the tip of which was broken off during capture.
Another view of U. euryzona basking in late afternoon light under some vegetation.
Costa Rica contains 6 or 7 of the species in this genus and Rara Avis is home to 4 of them. Towards the end of the trip Twan and I had each spent the morning catching up on our respective photo tasks. We were having lunch and tallying up our finds. Based on our success Twan mentioned that he was redeploying his snake wishlist and placing the last Urotheca, U. guentheri, to the top. Not five minutes later the rest of the group returned from a long hike to a waterfall and swim. The group had been led by Don Filipiak who was working as a guide at Rara Avis, and like me had gone from a casual project observer to unofficial/official team assistant. Both Don and herp team intern Alex Shepack were smiling which could only mean one thing – more snakes. Don had managed to catch a good-sized Micrurus nigrocinctus, the usually common Dendrophidion vinitor, and surprise, surprise, Urotheca guentheri!
A couple views of the spectacularly colored and patterned Urotheca guentheri. The brilliant orange coloring is back, this time on the vent, as well as the classic striping. The white spots just behind the eyes are a characteristic of this species.
After handling this snake, even now looking at details of the photos, I decided that to date, I think U. guentheri is the prettiest Costa Rican snake I have seen. You may not be able to tell in these photos but the base ground color is a nice reddish brown with a pair of ventro-lateral white stripes and a pair of dorso-lateral cream stripes. These stripes are lightly bordered by near black coloring. Then there is a subtle medium brown dorsal scale stripe. If that wasn’t enough there is that bright orange venter (belly) and a couple of simple white ocelli (spots) just behind the eyes. The patterning is extremely complex and yet stunning. So I now have all 4 of Rara Avis’ Urotheca species on my herp list and that is why I decided to begin this segment with them.