Issue 17.5: October/November 2014

Hawai‘i’s Snake

Story by Dawn Southard
Photo by Chad Heronemus

Old 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.

Turns 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.

The 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.

But 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.

Its 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.