by Chance Stevens
The reptiles of Baja are a very interesting bunch, from weird worm lizards to friendly sea snakes. In All Things Reptile, my focus is on the reptiles of La Ventana and the surrounding region. I am 14 and have a profound interest in herpetology, which is the study of reptiles and amphibians. Before writing about a new reptile, I always try to find one in the wild so I can learn about its preferred habitat and take my own pictures. Hopefully my columns can help you learn about, and identify, these beautiful creatures. To get in contact with Chance, please email The Ventana View.
Couch’s Spade Foot Toad
Sep 14, 2022 – Today we have a guest of honor! Although it is not a reptile (it’s an amphibian), I believe the Couch’s Spade Foot Toad deserves a column. As many of you know, here in LV/ES we have had a rainy September so far, with one tropical storm and a hurricane already. Although this can cause problems for humans, the local toads need the summer rains to reproduce.
A little over a week ago, we had our first big rain of the year on my family’s property in El Sargento. It rained all night. When I looked out my window, I saw that our road was a river! As I left my camper, I immediately heard a chorus from our lovely neighbors: the toads. I ran down our street to find that one of our friend’s yards had become a lake, which I christened “Lake Driveway.” It was brimming with Couch’s Spade Foot Toads. Over the next few hours, the toads called and called and called, with toads seemingly materializing out of nowhere. These rainfalls are the toads’ only chance to reproduce for the entire year, in most cases.
Then, as quickly as it started, it was over; by the afternoon, most of the toads had disappeared. However, what came next was even more exciting. Since water never lasts long in the desert, Couch Spade Foot Toads have adapted so that their eggs hatch in an astonishing 15-24 hours, and the tadpoles grow into toads in as little as 9 days.
The next morning, I headed to a smaller pool on the next lot up from Lake Driveway that was shrinking fast. The sun was coming out and I could tell the pool would probably not even last a few hours. It was full of hatchling tadpoles and I knew that, if I did nothing, the tadpoles would die. Quickly, I got a bin and set up a little tadpole enclosure, scooped up a few (which ended up being like 50), and brought them up to my camper. These young toads will eat just about anything made out of a plant so I experimented and, it turns out, they love lettuce and cucumbers, just like my old guinea pigs. So far, the “puddle pigs” are doing very well.
Over the last few days, I have stopped along roadsides to find puddles full of tadpoles. As these toads can live in temporary, polluted pools in parking lots with cars and trucks driving through them, I believe that Couch’s Spade Foot Toads are some of the toughest amphibians on Earth. Adult spade foot toads are very interesting, too, and I will go over them in a different week’s column.
Baja California Spiny Lizard
Aug 31, 2022 – The Baja California Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus zosteromus) is a fast, cautious and semi-large reptile widespread across Baja California Sur. These interesting spiny lizards are closely related to the very common Western Fence Lizards that I have been catching for many years in my hometown of Bend, Oregon.
Baja California Spiny Lizards are some of the larger members of the Spiny Lizard family and, in my experience, some of the hardest to catch, as they never stray too far from cover. As diurnal reptiles, they spend the day out and about and the night sleeping (like me) compared to geckos, which are just waking up at sunset (like my brother).
Baja California Spiny Lizards are most prominent in the summer, spring and fall. However, they are sometimes out in the winter on warm days, especially young lizards like the one in the photo.
Although the diet of these specific lizards is relatively unknown, I have witnessed a large adult hanging around a cow patty and gorging on the attracted flies, and another individual with a beetle in its mouth. The most common place to see these lizards is typically sunning on rocks or brush in the morning before the heat of the day or just foraging in their habitat, which is shrubby flats to rocky hills.
Cape Thread Snake
Jul 6, 2022 – Cape Thread Snakes (Rena boettgeri) are the strangest snakes that I have ever seen, by far!
These small, burrowing, worm-like creatures primarily eat ants and termites, as well as their larvae. They are most commonly found in well-vegetated areas with loose soil. The one in this photo was found in our neighbor’s water cistern.
Since Cape Thread Snakes are long and thin, hardly tapering on either end, they seem more like worms than snakes. Their eyes are very small and can be hard to see, resembling scales; their mouths are so tiny they look as though they were an afterthought; and, last but not least, their scales are translucent PINK!
Western Leaf-Nosed Snake
Western Leaf-Nosed Snakes (Phyllorhynchus decurtatus) are interesting, small and harmless snakes that inhabit sand dunes and desert landscapes with creosote bushes. They are strictly nocturnal. These little snakes — and I mean little! 12 to 20 inches (or 30 to 50cm) as adults — are very specialized and have a fascinating diet of mostly lizard eggs; however, they will also eat geckos, other lizards and sometimes bugs.
When I found my first and only leaf-nosed snake so far, a few of my friends and I had been watching the sunset at the Bufador south of town. It was getting dark and my friends headed home, so it was just me and my dad. As we were getting ready to go, I proposed the idea of driving slowly down the road with a spotlight to try to find a nocturnal snake. Begrudgingly, we set off kind of slowly down the road.
After a few minutes —I had seen a few beetles but nothing too interesting — we headed onto a large, wide sandy road and my dad took the opportunity to speed up, saying “There will not be any snakes here.” Well, as luck would have it, there was a juvenile Western Leaf-Nosed Snake right in the middle of the road. I yelled “SNAKE! STOP!!! SNAKE!!!!!” To my horror, we went directly over it.
My dad stopped a little way up the road and I leaped out of the car. Luckily for the snake — and my dad — the snake was fine and had not been hit. Since then, I have gone out to the Bufador at night probably 10 times and have not seen a single other snake, so I guess I just got lucky.
Jun 1 2022 – Sea turtles are amazing and magical animals to see in the wild. These majestic swimmers are, no doubt, some of the most tenacious turtles in the world. Though only an estimated 1 in 1,000 hatchlings makes it to adulthood, once full grown they are capable of defending against the most brutal of attacks, even from sharks.
Here on the Sea of Cortez, our most common sea turtle is the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) and this is the turtle we recently witnessed digging nests in the sand. Last week, at around 8:30pm, one of these beautiful reptiles crawled up the beach and started digging a hole. Clearly a female preparing to lay eggs, she dug a few test holes before deciding the conditions were not quite right; perhaps the sand was too dry or the wrong temperature. Then she headed back out to sea. We knew there were no eggs in the nest because the mother turtle left the nests as holes, rather than packing them down with her flippers and body.
Sea turtles are definitely being threatened as the world is changing, from their eggs getting squished by cars or dug up by dogs, to pollution and global warming. Since plastic sometimes looks like jellyfish, which is a favored food, it can be devastating when turtles mistakenly eat it.
When the mother turtle dug her holes on the beach last week, the six false nests were quickly covered by a protective fence and stakes by some caring beachgoers. Although pointless in this case, since the nests didn’t contain any eggs, their action demonstrates how much people care. Acts of kindness like this can make a big difference in helping these important and incredible creatures’ next generation.
May 18, 2022 – Desert Iguanas (Dipsosaurus dorsalis) are fast, robust and very common lizards that like it hot! They will be out and everywhere above 40 degrees Celsius. These iguanas are, arguably, the most abundant lizards in La Ventana and the surrounding region.
According to the book Reptiles and Amphibians of Baja California (by L. Lee Grismer), these reptiles are active from March through October in Northern Baja, and variable in Southern Baja. Since La Ventana is so windy in the winter, it may be too cold for these heat-loving iguanas, and I believe they hibernate through the winter here like they do in the north. I did not see a single Desert Iguana all winter.
As for their diet, they eat a lot of leafy vegetation and insect larvae.Now for the story of how I finally caught a Desert Iguana: It was a warm morning just a few days ago and I was determined to catch something. I had been on the trail of a large Zebra-Tailed Lizard when I noticed my cat sitting attentively next to a piece of hollow pipe. I went over and heard a scrabbling sound from inside the pipe. Suddenly very interested, I tried to see what was inside. After several failed attempts, I decided to bring the pipe inside my house so that whatever it was would not escape. The next ten minutes were spent chasing a large Desert Iguana around a small empty room and then, finally, I caught my first representative of this species.
May 4, 2022 – The Speckled Rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchellii) is one of several species of rattlesnakes that inhabits the area around La Ventana, living exclusively near rocky areas. They eat mostly rodents, and sometimes birds and lizards.
Rattlesnakes are ambush predators, meaning they will lie in place for days on end, waiting for prey to pass by. Most of the time, their ambush spots will be in rock crevasses or “hidey-holes.” They are semi-nocturnal in the winter, and fully nocturnal in the summer.
Rattlesnakes are one of the most feared and unjustly killed groups of snakes. Being venomous, people are scared of them and may act on those fears, which is the reason they are in decline. Yet, like many other venomous snakes, if you leave them alone you are extremely unlikely to be bitten. And it’s pretty easy to leave them alone if you just pay attention: they like to live hidden in rocks, so they are hard to find in the first place, and their rattle serves as a warning to be cautious. The majority of rattlesnake bites – over 90%! – happen because people either are not paying attention and accidentally step on them, or are trying to catch or kill them.
If you are bitten, the best thing to do is stay calm and find the nearest place with anti-venom, typically at a hospital. In La Ventana, the closest hospital with anti-venom is in La Paz. Being bitten hurts a lot but most snake bites are not fatal. Ideally, you should get anti-venom as quickly as possible; for rattlesnakes, you have at least three hours.
Rattlesnakes are beautiful and impressive snakes that are more scared of us than we are of them. Many good people already know not to harm these magnificent creatures. If left alone, humans and rattlesnakes can live in harmony like we once did long ago.
California King Snake
Apr 20, 2022 – California King Snakes (Lampropeltis californiae) are some of the most powerful snakes in the world. In general, pound for pound, king snakes are the strongest constrictors.
Though they are famous for their ability to eat rattlesnakes and other snakes like Rosy Boas, their usual diet consists of rodents, young birds, lizards and anything else with a tail and a head.
King snakes live in almost every habitat on the Baja California Peninsula, including urban areas, salt flats and sand dunes, but they are extremely rare. My good friend who grew up in La Ventana has never seen one, and it has long been my dream to find one.
Last week, I heard my dad shout “SNAKE!” I was expecting a coachwhip or maybe a gopher snake but, when I got there, I saw my first king snake. I was in shock.
After holding her for a minute, she unfortunately regurgitated a Rosy Boa (regurgitating is a defense mechanism for many snakes, as it makes them lighter and faster, which they hope will help them escape). I was lucky to see a king snake at all, and this was something very special, but there was more to come.
The next day, I was sitting impatiently outside of Oscaritos with six melting popsicles in my lap, waiting for my friend (name undisclosed) to come back after he had ditched me while I was grabbing his drinks in the store. Just then, another friend (who is also my neighbor) pulled up, and was so kind as to offer me a ride home. He told me that another king snake had just been seen in our driveway. When we got home, there was another even prettier king snake in the exact same spot where I had caught the first. It took me a minute to figure out what was happening: this male king snake was following the female’s scent trail! This was something extraordinary!! This was going to be a king snake couple.
Black-Tailed Brush Lizard
Apr 13, 2022 – The Black-Tailed Brush Lizard (Urosaurus nigricauda) is a camouflage, adaptive and sneaky reptile that likes to live in trees, rocky areas and, as its name suggests, brush. This is a relatively small lizard that always seems to assume you can’t see it, making it one of the easiest to catch and one of my personal favorites.
Interestingly, at the Sol de Mayo waterfall, I have seen a Black-Tailed Brush Lizard living on a rock next to the river. As I approached, it jumped into the water and swam to the nearest rock. That was the first lizard I have ever witnessed swimming, and willingly, no less! I find this very impressive.
The diet of these lizards is quite wide as they will eat most bugs and other invertebrates as long as they are small-ish. According to my best resource (Amphibians and Reptiles of Baja California by L. Lee Grismer), these reptiles are active all year round. However, in La Ventana I did not see them at all from the time we arrived in December until early March but, once they were out, they seemed to be everywhere.
Spare the Non-Venomous Snakes!
Apr 6, 2022 – Usually I would have an article all about one specific reptile but, this time, I have a topic that is far more important.
Earlier this week, a friend contacted me saying that there was a snake on his cousin’s farm and they were going to kill it. I got there as soon as possible and, luckily, they had waited for me. It was a harmless and beneficial Cape Gopher Snake that eats mice and keeps the farm from getting rodent-infested. (I have an entire column on Cape Gopher Snakes in the archive.)
This is a real lesson.
Many of the 16-ish non-venomous snake species around La Ventana somewhat resemble venomous rattlesnakes and will do their best to act like rattlesnakes to ward off predators. Unfortunately, since people are so afraid of rattlesnakes, this defensive mimicry has the opposite effect on humans. In other words, rather than warding off human predators, acting like a rattlesnake actually makes people more likely to hurt or kill a snake.
However, there are ways to help. For example, our neighbors are having a house built and I have befriended the workers. They know that I love reptiles so, every time they find one, they let me take it instead of possibly killing it. In this way, I have assisted three sand snakes, two whiptail lizards and many scorpions.
If you find a snake or lizard and don’t know what to do with it, I am more than happy to identify and/or relocate it, which is not ideal but sometimes necessary.
Mar 30, 2022 – Zebra-Tailed Lizards (Callisaurus draconoides) are fast, harmless, camouflage reptiles with an accurate name, since the underside of their tails displays a striking black and white-striped design. The males have beautiful belly patterns with blue, orange, black, white and even red colorations.
They are most commonly found on sandy arroyo bottoms and on beaches at the edge where the plants stop, but they will live in many habitats. Around La Ventana, I have witnessed about 10 Zebra-Tailed Lizards in one bush.
They are so incredibly fast that they seem to fly to the nearest safe place and, if there is no cover nearby, they will quickly burrow themselves into the sand and disappear. The only reason I was able to catch the one in the photo was because, when it burrowed itself into the sand, its tail was sticking out.
As for their diet, they eat a lot of butterfly and moth larvae as well as ants, termites and beetles.
Cape Gopher Snake
Mar 23, 2022 – On the 15th of March, as we were driving home from Hot Springs Beach, I saw what looked like a large shadow stretching across the road. But wait, there was nothing casting the shadow and it was 12:30pm, a time when the sun is high and there are few shadows. How could this be possible?
Well, that is a bit of a trick question. If you know what my columns are about, you can probably guess the answer.
Cape Gopher Snakes (Pituophis vertebralis) are beautiful, big and, in my experience, friendly serpents. They are completely harmless, though they can hiss and shake their tail when threatened, which can be intimidating.
Their coloration is striking. Starting at the head, they have orange-ish bands that fade to black at the tail. The picture below will help to identify them. Gopher snakes can get quite large; the individual in the photo is an impressive 5 feet in length.
As for their diet, they will eat rodents, birds, bird eggs and sometimes even lizards, but I think they prefer rodents. This makes them great for pest control! If you see one of these awesome snakes near your house, I’d say let it stay, as they are harmless. Around here, they are active year round and, interestingly, will be out during the day in both winter and spring, and at night in the summer and fall.
Western Banded Gecko
Mar 16, 2022 – Western Banded Geckos (Coleonyx variegatus) are crafty, quick and adorable lizards with a striking pattern of yellow, white and black. They are nocturnal and not too common, so you don’t see them very often.
The photo below was taken in March in El Sargento. I found this little guy under an old tarp in a roadside trash heap.
Here in the Cape Region, these geckos don’t really hibernate so you can still see them throughout the winter. During the colder months, they spend most of their time under rocks and trash, and rarely come out, similar to many local snake species.
Western Banded Geckos are generalists, meaning they will take any food opportunities they can get, and will eat most moving things that they can fit in their mouths.
Cape Spiny-Tailed Iguana
Mar 9, 2022 – The Cape Spiny-Tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura hemilopha) is a large, fast and semi-common lizard living in trees, walls, atop cacti and really anything that can offer a quick escape. These diurnal reptiles disappear at even the hint of danger, from both predators and herpetologists alike, making them a nightmare to catch and, for that reason, I don’t have any pictures of this lizard from the mainland.
Fortunately, these iguanas also live on our neighboring island, Isla Cerralvo. As they have far less predators there, they bask happily right on the ground and seem less offended by the Paparazzi, including me last week when I had the opportunity to visit.
Their diet is mostly plant-based but they will eat insects and even carrion on occasion. Their teeth are meant for ripping leaves but are quite good at ripping skin, too. Iguanas also have a small amount of venom, so avoiding bites is a good idea. And those are not their only defenses! After retreating into a rock crevasse, they will orient their spiny tails at the entrance of the hole and, if you try to extract them… well, let’s just say that a spine under the fingernail can be very painful.
Asian House Gecko
Mar 2, 2022 – The Asian House Gecko (Hemidactylus Frenatus) is common, quick and, unfortunately, invasive in Mexico. It is also invasive in Australia, the USA, the Galapagos, East Africa, Hawaii, nearly all of Central America and many parts of South America.
Fortunately, in Baja, there are no native species that compete with the house geckos, and they are much less damaging than some other invasive species in other places, for example the Burmese Pythons in Florida.
All house geckos are relatively small and nontoxic, and frequently live in close proximity to humans. They live in trees and houses and eat insects. They are a good food source for many snake, bird, lizard and mammal species.
As their name suggests, these geckos are originally from Asia. They have conquered nearly all of their survivable habitat. In my opinion, humans and house geckos have a symbiotic relationship: we give them protection and they eat annoying house bugs!
Feb 23, 2022 – The Night Snake (Hypsiglena family) is a small, harmless and technically venomous snake that inhabits most of Baja California. Near La Ventana, we have three species: the Cape Night Snake, the Baja California Night Snake and the Coast Night Snake. They are all relatively similar.
The picture below is of a Coast Night Snake that I found in mid January. It can be difficult to tell night snakes apart and I can only offer limited help. The Coast Night Snake is the most common, and the Baja California Night Snake typically has more spots of dark brown and is slightly larger than the other two.When I said “technically venomous,” I was talking about how these snakes are rear-fanged with a weak venom that is just strong enough to help subdue its prey (small lizards, snakes and frogs). They are reluctant to bite, and completely harmless to humans and pets. Similarly, the most well-known snakes in North America, garter snakes, are also mildly venomous in this way and pose absolutely no threat to humans.
Feb 16, 2022 – The Sand Snake (Chilomeniscus stramineus) is a small, harmless and striking snake with beautiful pigmentation. Its coloration ranges widely from orange with contrasting black bands to solid brown, or anywhere in between.
Sand Snakes are sometimes known as sand swimmers as they seemingly swim through the sand. These non-venomous cuties are nocturnal and frequently found on sand dunes or anywhere with loose soil, including even rocky outcroppings on occasion. Their tracks look like small curvy indents on the sand between bushes, sometimes littering the dunes.
Interestingly, Cerralvo Island has its own endemic species of sand snake known as Savages Sand Snake that lives only on the island and nowhere else. It’s relatively similar to the somewhat common Sand Snake that shares the mainland with us.
As for the diet of these little reptiles, they eat small invertebrates such as crickets, centipedes, cockroaches and termites. Here in the Cape Region, these snakes are active throughout the year but their peak activity is from mid-March to late August. They are very cold tolerant, and can be found still foraging throughout the night even at temperatures near 16 degrees C (61 degrees F), which is quite cold in the reptile world.
Feb 9, 2022 – The Orange-Throated Whiptail (Aspidoscelis hyperythra) is a slender, harmless and graceful lizard with a beautiful blue tail and sometimes an orange neck. Its Spanish name is Huico (pronounced “wee-ko”).
The whiptail is extremely fast and relatively small, growing up to around 2.5 inches, not including its frequently very long tail, which is composed of segments and is sometimes longer than the lizard itself! When being attacked by a predator, the tail can break off at any one segment to confuse the enemy and help the lizard escape. The tail grows back over time.
Its diet is mostly termites but also sometimes cockroaches, spiders and moths. It is more active during the summer months. In the winter, in La Ventana we mostly see juveniles and occasional adult females, but rarely adult males.
This striking local resident is diurnal and prefers relatively dense vegetation but can be readily observed in dry grass fields and frequently yards. During warm, sunny or overcast days, however, they can be seen foraging in the leaf litter. Unlike many human residents, whiptails seem to prefer low or no-wind days.
Baja California Coachwhip
Feb 2, 2022 – The Baja California Coachwhip (Masticophis fuliginosus) is probably the most common snake in La Ventana and the surrounding region. The photo below shows me holding a juvenile Coachwhip that I found in a brush pile a few weeks ago, in early January.
This slender, harmless, non-venomous snake is diurnal, quite fast and, like many snakes, elusive.
Normally, adults have black-colored heads, with their bodies fading to gray towards the tail. Juveniles are more brownish, like the one in the photo. They are one of La Ventana’s longest snake species. Adults range in size from four feet up to eight feet long.
Like many other local snakes, this species is most active during the summer months. During warm, sunny winter days, however, these snakes can be found out and about. Look for them in brush piles, under rocks and flat scraps like discarded wood planks, cardboard, carpet remnants, etc.
Overall, Baja California Coachwhips are beautiful and amazing snakes and, as long as we don’t bother them, they won’t bother us!