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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© Bruce D. Taubert

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Nothing to Be Afraid of
Cross paths with a glossy snake and you might mistake it for a rattler. But don't be fooled. Although glossies resemble their more ferocious counterparts, their bark is worse than their bite.

By Kathy Ritchie

"Laid back" isn't the first thing that comes to mind when people think about snakes, but the Arizona elegans, or glossy snake, is pretty much that. In fact, you might say that glossy snakes are a bit too mellow. "There's nothing really spectacular about them," says Paula Swanson, manager of reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates at the Phoenix Zoo.

Despite being the low men on the reptilian totem pole, glossies do have one distinctive characteristic that sets them apart from other Arizona snakes: They have incredibly smooth, glossy skin, which distinguishes them from similar-looking gopher snakes. And that glossy skin comes in a variety of patterns and colors, including shades of gray, tan, brown and even pink.

Unlike their more nefarious relatives, glossy snakes are nonvenomous. But when confronted with a human, they might try to mimic rattlesnakes by vibrating their tails. Unfortunately, these snakes, which average 3 feet in length, aren't masters of disguise. What's more, when handled by humans, they seldom bite — despite having a set of curved, needle-like teeth. And even if a glossy did try to sink its not-so-ferocious teeth into you, it probably wouldn't leave much of a mark. "A smaller glossy could barely puncture your skin," Swanson says. "I'd much rather get bit by a glossy snake than a dog or cat."

It seems the only animals these constrictors frighten are their prey, which includes small mammals and lizards.

With that kind of reputation — or lack thereof — glossies simply try to avoid humans and other predators ("They're a good bite-sized snack for roadrunners," Swanson notes) by being nocturnal. During the day, they're likely hiding underground — their narrow, pointed heads make them efficient burrowers.

There are three subspecies of Arizona elegans: The desert glossy snake, which can be found in Western and Southwestern Arizona; the Arizona glossy snake, which inhabits the south-central part of the state; and the Painted Desert glossy snake, which can be found in Northeastern Arizona and the southeastern part of the state.

Despite their mild-mannered reputation, glossies do become active in the springtime, when it's time to court. Not much is known about their breeding habits, but according to Randy Babb, a biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, glossies are probably no different than other snakes when it comes to mating. After the female releases a scent trail, which the male then follows, the snakes intertwine their tails and lie next to each other. The female will lay a clutch of about a half-dozen eggs, and, come July or August, the eggs will hatch.

If you do happen upon a glossy snake, remember, they're actually quite gentle. And should you feel the urge to pick it up, don't. There's a reason glossy snakes come out only at night, spending their days below the surface, far, far away from you.

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