“Wake the serpent not…”

Wake the serpent not—lest he
Should not know the way to go,–
Let him crawl which yet lies sleeping
Through the deep grass of the meadow!
Not a bee shall hear him creeping,
Not a may-fly shall awaken
From its cradling blue-bell shaken,
Not the starlight as he’s sliding
Through the grass with silent gliding.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

On a narrow trail at Wild Sumaco lodge on the eastern slopes of the Andes, the guide behind me suddenly gasped. Unseen by me, a slender snake had apparently slithered right between my legs into the leaf litter. It was just showing, in a shadowy corner, so I took a rather bad photograph from a respectful distance:

False coral snake, which went right between my feet. With eggs??

At the time, we didn’t notice, being rather focussed on the snake itself, but there seem to be eggs next to it. Whether they are the snake’s own eggs, or those of something else, I have no idea.

My guide then took a long stick, and gently moved away some leaves, and the snake emerged into daylight, allowing us to see its startling coloring, and changed its demeanor entirely, swaying its head side-to-side in a positively cobra-like manner:

False coral snake, which went right between my feet. With eggs??

Back at the lodge (by a different route!), we tried to identify it. The reassuring consensus was that it was a false coral snake, non-venomous. More specifically, the best match I can find is Lampropeltis triangulum, one of the milksnakes, though the yellow band across the back of the head is not typical (most of them have a whitish band). They are oviparous, so that fits too.

The coloration is an example of Batesian mimicry: with their spectacularly vvid coloring, they aim to deceive potential predators into confusing them with the truly poisonous Coral Snakes.

 

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