Saint Lucia racer (Liophis ornatus)

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Saint Lucia racer on leaf litter
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Saint Lucia racer fact file

Saint Lucia racer description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderSquamata
FamilyDipsadidae (1) (2)
GenusLiophis (3)

One of the world’s rarest snakes, the Saint Lucia racer is clinging to a precarious existence on the tiny Caribbean island of Maria Major (5). A relatively small, non-venomous snake, the Saint Lucia racer is distinguished by a comparatively short tail, and a stripe of dark brown that runs from the neck to the tip of the tail (6). Otherwise the body is a light brown, fading to olive whilst moulting, with a yellowish white on the undersides (5). A black band sits behind the large, conspicuous eyes, while the blackened pointed snout may have a scattering of yellow streaks (4) (6). In common with other Colubrid snakes, the two halves of the lower jaw are not connected, an adaptation that allows the Saint Lucia racer to swallow large food items (7).

Also known as
St Lucia racer.
Size
Average snout-vent length: 55 cm (4)
Average total length: 74cm (4)
Average weight: 67 g (4)
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Saint Lucia racer biology

Known from only a few specimens and sightings, very little is known about the biology of the Saint Lucia racer. This lack of sightings may be explained by its burrow-dwelling habits, as the Saint Lucia racer may enter the burrows of lizards to prey upon eggs, a unique behaviour within the Liophis genus, as most species prey upon amphibians in moist habitats (5). The Saint Lucia racer is thought to be diurnal; however, its breeding biology has yet to be described, but as is typical of most racers, it most likely lays eggs (1) (11).

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Saint Lucia racer range

Historically the Saint Lucia racer was found across the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, and the offshore Maria Islands (3) (8). However, today it is restricted to the tiny uninhabited island of Maria Major, having become extinct on mainland Saint Lucia, with a total range of less than a tenth of a square kilometre (3) (5) (9).

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Saint Lucia racer habitat

Maria Major is a dry, arid island, with large cactus thickets and low deciduous forest (5) (10).

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Saint Lucia racer status

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Endangered

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Saint Lucia racer threats

The West Indies is considered a biodiversity hotspot for reptiles, with over 87 percent of snake species endemic to the region. However, the region is also characterised by having some of the rarest snake species in the world, many of which, including the Saint Lucia racer, are extremely close to extinction (12). Once widespread across the island of Saint Lucia and the neighbouring Maria Islands, the introduction of small Asian mongooses (Herpestes javanicus)  initiated a dramatic decline, resulting in the complete extirpation of the species from the mainland, restricting the species to its present day distribution (9) (13). As a ground dwelling, diurnal snake, the Saint Lucia racer is particularly vulnerable to predation by mongooses, and consequently it now occupies a vulnerable position, with a population that is critically small (5) (9) (13).  

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Saint Lucia racer conservation

Facing the very real threat of extinction, the survival of the Saint Lucia racer is dependant upon the implementation of major conservation measures. As it is restricted to the very small island of Maria Major, along with a further six reptiles, four of which  are Saint Lucian endemics, the Saint Lucian government declared the Maria islands a nature reserve in 1982 (5) (14). As a direct result of this, reserve wardens have been employed to take tourist tours to the island, and to monitor activities on the island, thus generating funds for conservation and ensuring the island’s fragile environment is preserved (5). The Saint Lucia National Trust has also operated tours to the island, with plans to revive this, and efforts are underway to prevent exotic species establishing on the islands (5) (14)

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

For more information on the conservation of Saint Lucia, see:

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Authentication

Authenticated (23/06/2010) by Matthew Morton, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, c/o - Forestry Department, Ministry of Agriculture, Castries, Saint Lucia, West Indies.
http://www.durrell.org/

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Glossary

Diurnal
Active during the day.
Endemic
A species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
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References

  1. Henderson, R.W. and Powell, R. (2009) Natural history of West Indian reptiles and amphibians. University Press of Florida.
  2. Caribherp: Database of West Indian Amphibians and Reptiles (March, 2010)
    http://www.caribherp.org/
  3. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  4. Schwartz, A. and Henderson, R.W. (1991) Amphibians and reptiles of the West Indies: Descriptions, distributions and natural history. The University of Florida Press, Florida.
  5. Corke, R. (1987) Reptile conservation on the Maria Islands (Saint Lucia, West Indies). Biological Conservation, 40: 236-279.
  6. The J. Craig Venter Institute: Reptile Database (March, 2010)
    http://www.jcvi.org/reptiles/species.php?genus=Liophis&species=ornatus
  7. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  8. Tyler, R.E. (1849) Notes on the serpents of St. Lucia. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1849: 100-104
  9. Powell, R. and Henderson, R.W (2005) Conservation status of Lesser Antillean reptiles. Iguana, 12: 63-77.
  10. Young, R.P., Fa, J.E., Ogrodowczyk, A., Morton, M., Lesmond, S. and Funk, S.M. (2006) The Saint Lucia whiptail lizard Cnemidophorus vanzoi: a conservation dilemma? Oryx, 40: 358-361.
  11. Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  12. Henderson, R.W. (2004) Lesser Antillean snake faunas: distribution, ecology, and conservation concerns. Oryx, 38: 311-320.
  13. Henderson, R.W. (1992) Consequences of predator introductions and habitat destruction on amphibians and reptiles in the post-Columbus West Indies. Caribbean Journal of Science, 28: 1-10.
  14. The Saint Lucia National Trust (March, 2010)
    http://www.slunatrust.org/
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Image credit

Saint Lucia racer on leaf litter  
Saint Lucia racer on leaf litter

© Gregory Guida / www.gguida.com

Gregory Guida
gregory.guida@gguida.com
http://www.gguida.com

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