Two species of sea snakes are most likely to be encountered
in the Central Pacific Region. Although new distributional records
for sea snakes may be of interest to scientists, sea snakes pose no
real threat as invasive species and under most conditions should be
left in the habitats in which they are sighted. Sea snakes rarely
bite in defense even when contacted by divers swimming intimately with
them in their environment.
The Yellow-lipped sea snake, Laticauda colubrina
This snake has a prominent paddle-like tail.
The conspicuous grayish-white body coloration with prominent dark
transverse bands or blotches is markedly different from the coloration
of the Pelagic sea snake. This coloration could be confused
with other sea snakes (similar in appearance) resident in the Australian
and Southeast Asian regions, but it is less likely to be encountered
in the Central Pacific. This snake is common in the Republic
of Palau and also infrequently encountered in Micronesia; however,
it is poorly documented east of Palau. Laticauda may
be found in extremely shallow shoreline and reef conditions.
As a member of the family Laticaudidae, it is one of the few sea snakes
known to haul out on land for purposes of egg-laying or in sea caves
and isolated rock islands where aggregations of unknown significance
are reported. It is technically a venomous species but rarely
bites defensively. Human envenomations are rare or nonexistent.
Its venom is only used in feeding to immobilize fish and other animals
on which it feeds. However, to be safe, individuals of Laticauda
should not be handled casually by inexperienced persons. One or more
harmless banded eels have the elongated body form, paddle-like tail
and coloration of the yellow-lipped sea snake and hence can be confused
with this species.
The Pelagic sea snake (or yellow-bellied sea snake),
Pelamis platurus: This snake has a prominent paddle-like
tail. The Pelagic sea snake's coloration normally includes a
black background color contrasting strongly with a yellow belly and
pale yellow lateral stripe along the body which frequently breaks
into an undulating array of black and yellow blotches on the posterior
body and tail. This snake spends much of its time floating in open
ocean waters along the edges of the continental shelves of large land
masses. It is venomous, although not nearly as toxic as many
other sea snakes. Fatalities are rare even among fishermen who,
bare-handed, regularly remove these snakes from their nets.
It is rarely seen in the Central Pacific but is always a possibility
as an ocean vagrant dispersed as a result of unusual currents and
storms. It is a member of the largest sea snake family, Hydrophiidae,
and hence bears its young alive without leaving the ocean.
Common Treesnakes, Genus Dendrelaphis spp.
These snakes have a number of characteristics that
aid in identification and comparison with other snakes likely to be
found in the region. These include a slender body, relatively
large head and eyes, alert behavior, defensive strategy of inflating
the neck and anterior body vertically when excited, exposing a lighter
skin coloration between the scales that may include blue or black
spots, and unicolor olive green to dark blue/black coloration with
or without a conspicuous dorsal stripe. These harmless racer-like
snakes are encountered on the ground or in vegetation when active
in daylight hours, or on low vegetation when sleeping at night.
Dendrelaphis species are native to a broad area spanning Australia,
New Guinea, the Philippines, and approaching the Central Pacific Region
as far east as Palau. A green-colored species of the genus was
captured in Saipan several years ago and was thought to have arrived
as a stowaway in construction materials arriving from the Philippines.
This beautiful snake is a predator of lizards and frogs and poses
no threat to man. It should be protected from being killed within
its native range.
Dog-faced water snake, Cerberus rynchops
Relative to other snakes, dog-faced water snakes
have a blunt head, rounded snout, and relatively small eyes positioned
close to the top of the head. The coloration is dark to medium
brown with faint indications of darker blotches on the dorsal body.
Some yellow may be present along the ventrolateral margin of the body
adjacent to the gray to yellowish ventral coloration marked with alternating
blotches of dark and light color. The overall body form is one
of a relatively heavy bodied snake (i.e., body girth robust relative
to body and tail length). These harmless water snakes are commonly
found in tidal creeks, mangrove swamps, and in or near bodies of freshwater.
Cerberus species are native to Palau and many areas west of
Palau, including the Philippines and Southeast Asia. Although
these snakes are capable of being pugnacious and biting when handled,
they are non-venomous fish eaters constituting natural parts of the
aquatic ecosystems in which they occur and should not be killed indiscriminately.
Pacific Island Boa, Candoia carinata
These boas are relatively small with a head moderately
set off from the more slender neck region, relatively short prehensile
tails, and variable coloration ranging from light gray-brown to orangish
rusty brown with or without distinct dorsal blotches, and a white
venter. The shape of the head is distinctive relative to other
snakes, with a relatively long, narrow snout and overall delicate
appearance. Males have a pair of tiny spike-like spurs anterior
to the anal region that are vestiges of the limb apparatus largely
lost in the evolution to limblessness. Candoia carinata
is native to some islands in the Republic of Palau, and a second species
of the genus occurs in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and as far
east as some islands in American and Western Samoa. They are
absent from the eastern Carolines and Mariana Island groups.
As members of the Family Boidae, Candoia are protected under
the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species and by
most local governments. This species is also harmless and should
be protected in its natural habitat.
Habu snakes, Genus Trimeresurus
Like most vipers, Habu snakes have an enlarged and
angular head, markedly set off from the narrower neck, a relatively
heavy body and short tail relative to the brown Treesnake, and enlarged
front fangs that are erected when biting but fold horizontally when
the mouth is closed. These snakes are true vipers native to the Southeast
Asian Region and larger island groups including the Philippines, Ryukyus,
Japan, etc. They are all venomous, and the bite of many species
can be fatal. They should be treated with considerable caution
if encountered in areas outside their range as well as where they
occur naturally. Medical attention should be sought promptly
in the event of a bite in which venom is likely to have been injected.
Garter snakes, Thamnophis sp.
These snakes are moderately sized
with a light mid-dorsal stripe and lateral stripes along the ventrolateral
margin of the greeenish to olive brown body. Some individuals
may have conspicuous zones of red coloration on the dorsal body.
The dorsal scales are keeled with a raised ridge running longitudinal
along the length of each scale. This harmless species and other
similar species of the genus Thamnophis are most likely to
appear on Pacific Islands as a stowaways in bundled Christmas trees
originating from the Western United States.
The Blind snakes, Ramphotyphlops sp.
These tiny worm-like snakes have
extremely reduced eyes evident only as tiny dots on the top of its
head. The head is not set off from the body, and the short blunt
snout must be carefully examined to distinguish it from the stub tail,
which has a tiny spur-like scale on the tip. Most animals have
a body girth comparable to that of a pencil lead, and the
species rarely exceeds a few inches in length (maximum is about 1
foot). The color is often dull black or slate gray, but some
individuals can be pinkish gray.
R. braminus is an inconspicuous
snake known from many oceanic islands (e.g., throughout the Marianas,
Carolines, and Hawaiian Islands, as well as many other areas of the
tropics). It is an all-female species (i.e., the females lay
eggs without benefit of mating with males), and thus every female
could potentially found a new population. These snakes are commonly
encountered in soil and litter and have colonized many oceanic islands
when moved in the loose soil associated with potted plants.
Other blind snakes might be encountered, but it will be difficult
for anyone but a snake specialist to distinguish between these species.
This harmless species and its relatives are predators of termites
and ants, and are not considered to be threats to island ecosystems
even as introduced species. In fact, other species similar in
size, body form, and habit do exist on Pacific Islands (e.g., two
species exist on some islands in Palau, but the distinctions between
the various blind snakes are subtle and beyond the scope of this discussion).
Western Gopher or Bullsnake, Pituophis melanoleucus
This harmless snake differs markedly
from most snakes mentioned above, in that it has a yellowish tan dorsal
coloration with conspicuous square markings along its body that may
be present in a variety of colors including rust, dark brown, or black.
It also has secondary smaller blotches lower on the body's side.
Its scales are keeled and arranged in 27-37 longitudinal rows when
counted at midbody. It is most likely to be confused with a
viper, which has similar color patterns, but can be distinguished
by its more pointed head, round pupil of the eye instead of elliptical,
and a vertical line through the eye as opposed to horizontal.
As a common snake in the western continental United States, this species
has occasionally arrived to Pacific Islands (e.g., Saipan and Pohnpei)
as a stowaway in cargo or as a child's pet. Mimicking more dangerous
species, it attempts to intimidate animals that threaten it by producing
a hissing sound, vibrating its tail, and flattening its head, which
has oftentimes led to its unfortunate death at the hands of people,
fooled by the bluff, who confuse it with a rattlesnake.