I remember that fresh April morning of 2009. The winter was all but gone and the first rays of sunlight had clothed the forest in a shade of amber yellow. We drove slowly along the Bannerghatta-Ragihalli road, which passes through the Bannerghatta National Park, our eyes peeled for wildlife. We had been invited by the forest department to participate in a census of herbivores within their safari area. We were not required to be there until 9 am, so we decided to go bird watching.
We had seen several birds along this road in the past: I vividly remember once encountering a flock of Green Imperial Pigeons, after I spooked a Common Indian Nightjar from the road while going to Camp Gee Dee on a motorbike. Today, we stopped to answer a phone call and some of us got off the car to stretch our legs. Walking along the edge of the road, we spotted a snake. I pulled out my camera and took a few pictures. It was apparent that the snake was up to something – it was seen sticking its snout into the ground, which was filled with loose, sandy soil.
Over the next minute, the snake kept trying to plunge its head into the soil while the remainder of its body quickly formed loose coils and the tail was whipping about. The body convulsions continued as the snake fully pushed its head into the soil. All of a sudden, in one quick motion, the tail flipped over and the snake coiled around a lizard four times and slipped down on to some vegetation. The snake had grabbed the lizard near the base of its tail, just below the hind limb. The lizard kept twitching its tongue and panting heavily but did not seem to struggle and escape the grasp of the snake. Perhaps it was aware of the fatality of the situation.
Meanwhile, the snake kept chewing on the lizard’s cloaca in a sideways manner for about two minutes. By then, the lizard had stopped panting but continued to flick its tongue—a faint flicker of life. We felt that it would be safe to move the vegetation around and get a good look at the snake and its now hapless quarry. Moving the vegetation did not bother the snake but the lizard twitched twice when the camera flash was triggered. After about six minutes since capture, the snake stopped the chewing action but held on to the lizard’s tail in its jaws and the body in its coils. The lizard appeared to be limp. Then, the snake released its grip on the lizard’s tail and leaned back on to the ground, as if to grab a much-needed gasp of air. We could see the snake inhaling and its body compressing as it exhaled.
After two minutes, the snake moved towards the lizard and stopped. Three more minutes later, the snake started to flick its tongue and loosened its coils from around the lizard’s body. It then chewed on the base of tail of the lizard again but from the side opposite to where it had bitten. Two more minutes passed until the snake released the lizard from its coils. Then, it crawled towards the lizard and began chewing on the sides of the lizard, working its way up to the head. Subsequently, it began ingesting the lizard, head first. Over the next few minutes, the snake fully ingested the lizard. At the same time, my camera had had enough and announced that the memory was full. Those were the days when I had a small point-and-shoot camera, and memory cards came in a few megabytes’ capacity unlike gigabytes today. From the photographs and video clippings, I could estimate that the snake handled the lizard for a total duration of 28 minutes from capture to ingestion. Quite a lot of effort to get your morning breakfast, I would say!
I forgot about this incident until last year, when I found these photographs while looking for some other images. I was able to identify the snake as a Barred Wolf Snake (Lycodon striatus). It is a member of the genus Lycodon comprising 50 species, and widespread from central through south and Southeast Asia. The Barred Wolf Snake is a slender-bodied snake that is widespread across parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. It is thought to be primarily nocturnal, measures up to 430 mm, and is characterised by an entirely black eye.
The lizard was also subsequently identified as Ophisops leschunaultii, based on photographs. It belongs to the family Lacertidae, comprising 321 species in 39 genera. Members of this family are widespread across Europe, Africa and Asia. Lacertids are fast, and are diurnal lizards found in open areas, with rough scales and well-developed limbs. Among these, four genera viz. Acanthodactylus (1 sp), Mesalina (1 sp), Ophisops (5 sp) and Takydromus (3 sp) are reported from the Indian subcontinent. The Snake-eyed Lacerta, Ophisops leschunaultii, is one among four other species of Ophisops found in south India. It is commonly found in areas predominated by rocks and sand.
This sighting and the subsequent behavioural observations underscore the importance of keeping your senses awake and the role of natural history observations in enhancing basic knowledge about biodiversity. As a case to point, members of the wolf snake genus Lycodon are known to be ‘durophagous’ (meaning, they eat lizards and skinks) and have evolved specialised dentition to be able to do that. My observations show that L. striatus is not entirely nocturnal. It also adds another group of hard-scaled lizards to the durophagous habit of Lycodon species. This highlights the glaring lack of natural history information about lacertids in India. While O. leschunaultii are commonly seen basking on rocks, little else is known about them and the burrowing behaviour reported here could be a roosting or predator avoidance strategy. Further studies will be necessary to better understand their ecology, behaviour, and how they are coping in rapidly urbanising landscapes across India.
Here is a video of the incident as it unfolded.