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Last night I took a walk in Sabino Canyon with my friends Rene Clark and Dan Weisz, and we encountered something really cool. We were walking near the creek (now bone dry) when Rene spotted something by the trailside. It was a little snake, barely ten inches long. It was colored in alternating bands of brilliant orange and black. It had a tiny head and eyes that were no larger than pinheads.
The snake was a Variable Sandsnake, a species that is unique to the southwestern desert. It is not rare but it is very rarely seen because of its lifestyle. It spends nearly its entire life underground, burrowing into sandy soil where it “swims” through the sand in pursuit of small insects, worms, and other invertebrates. It only rarely shows up on the surface and then, only at night. It is completely harmless and astonishingly beautiful.
It’s a good question as to why this snake is so brilliantly colored. The colors obviously evolved, but why? The snake would not seem to benefit from them inasmuch as it appears to be nearly blind and it spends virtually all its life underground. I can think of one possible explanation. This snake shares a habitat with another extremely brightly colored snake, the Coral Snake. The Variable Sandsnake is non-venomous but the Coral Snake is highly venomous. These two snakes bear a superficial resemblance to each other that might look closer in dim light or in moonlight. So, perhaps the sandsnake is using a form of mimicry as a defense.
I smiled when I looked at the images of this snake. It reminds me very much of the Tim Burton film, “Beetlejuice.” That film — a comedic ghost story — had as a minor character, a gigantic sand snake, one that superficially resembles the one in these images, that pursued and temporarily devoured the film’s ghostly characters when they trespassed on forbidden terrain. Perhaps the film’s writers had this tiny snake in mind?
Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting. First image, ISO 320, f14 @ 1/160. Second image, ISO 160, f10 @ 1/160.