Story by Dawn Southard
Photo by Chad Heronemus
myths die hard. For years hikers in Hawai‘i could traipse worry-free through
the jungle because, as it’s often said, there are no snakes in Hawai‘i.
out that’s not exactly true. At least two species of snake are established in
Hawai‘i, one of which is highly poisonous. Fortunately the yellowbellied sea
snake (Pelamis platura), a seafaring relative of the cobra, is rarely seen in
Hawai‘i’s waters; over the years, scientists have collected fewer than twenty
specimens, and swimmers are unlikely to encounter one.
Brahminy blind snake (Ramphotoyphops braminus), however, is a different story.
Although not native to Hawai‘i — it’s thought to have arrived in the 1930s in a
shipment of potted plants from the Philippines—this harmless little snake is
now common on most of the major islands. Hardly anyone notices, though. It’s
very small — usually less than six inches long — and it mostly lives
underground. You might find one burrowing under stones or dead logs. A lot of
Island residents have probably already seen one and not realized it because the
Brahminy blind snake looks like an earthworm. Like earthworms, the snake is
blunt at both ends, so it’s hard to tell the head from the tail. And, as its
name suggests, the Brahminy blind snake has only tiny, vestigial eyespots,
making it seem even more wormlike.
look closely and you’ll see that it’s definitely a snake: It moves like a
snake, and its flicking, forked tongue is a dead give- away. Unlike earthworms,
it doesn’t have body segments; it’s covered with scales and, like all snakes,
periodically sheds its skin. After it molts its new skin is robin’s-egg blue
for several days.
most remarkable trait, though, is that the Brahminy blind snake might be the
only completely parthenogenic snake in the world. That means females can
reproduce without the help of a male. It takes only one. In fact all the
Brahminy blind snakes in Hawai‘i are females, and they’re essentially clones.
Parthenogenesis is a big reason these little snakes have been able to colonize
remote archipelagoes like Hawai‘i, but it’s also a risky strategy: Because they
all share the same genome, a single disease could wipe out the entire
population—although it’s possible few would notice.