Tales of Shieldtails

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Shieldtails are primitive burrowing snakes found mostly in southern India and Sri Lanka, with only one species ever reported elsewhere – from the Eastern Ghats, on the other side of India. So named because of their flattened tail – resembling, you guessed it, a shield – we spotted this still-unidentified individual on a cool, leech-infested morning in the Western Ghats.

They’re one of the least-known species of the Ghats, being nocturnal and burrowing one to two meters into the ground most of the time.

They only emerge at all during the rainy season to mate; the rest of the time, they hang out in tunnels under the ground, digging with their wedge-shaped heads and using their distinctive tails as a ‘plug’ to stopper the holes, looking for their favorite prey – earthworms. In due process, they aerate hard soil, allowing passage of air to roots otherwise packed in.

But many believe them poisonous (they’re not) and some are killed upon discovery; the very little known about them, too, means that their habitat disappears faster than they can be studied. They’re a reminder of the value of the Ghats, of how much more can still be done there.

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