The Whiptails Strike Back

Around our home, the most commonly seen snakes are Eastern Patch-noseds, the high-elevation sister species of Western Patch-nosed Snakes. Like their lowland cousins, Whiptail Lizards are a staple of their known diet, so we assumed that was what the one we spotted was after as he diligently excavated a burrow in our yard one June evening. Over the course of about an hour, we watched him dig and dig; as the sun set, he gave up for the day, and we watched him knowingly glide over to a leaky cistern for a drink before holing up in a concrete crack for the night.

One week later he (or perhaps a look-alike: Patch-nosed are similar in appearance!) was back, at another soil hole just a couple of body-lengths from his prior work. I left my video camera trained on his operation in hopes of learning later what his quarry might be.

A Whiptail Lizard (slender brown lizard with light stripes and spots) approaches an Eastern Patch-nosed Snake (yellow snake with dark brown stripes) digging.
A Whiptail Lizard approaches an Eastern Patch-nosed Snake digging.

That evening, Melissa and I reviewed the day’s footage. He dug tirelessly, flinging soil with his snout and rolling sizable gravel up and out with the side of his head. They are remarkably effective excavators! To our surprise, an adult Whiptail made an appearance at the edge of the frame. What could she be doing? (The species here is all-female.) She was perilously close to a predator whose specialty is her own kind! Again and again, she wandered into frame, in apparent interest at the snake’s activity (surely she wouldn’t mock her pursuer, as Bugs Bunny does Elmer Fudd – real animals don’t take chances with their predators for laughs!).

Finally, in an act that we (cautiously) attribute to maternal heroism, the Whiptail dashed into the pit to bite the snake while his head was below ground. The strike was so fast that only a couple of video frames record the incident in a blur, and the lizard was gone. The snake was gone, too – he disappeared into the hole, or perhaps used another exit off-frame – but was not seen again in the video.

But we did see the Whiptail again. She dutifully returned to collapse dirt back over the hole created by the Patch-nosed.  Such maternal heroics have not been described for most reptiles, and not knowing if this Whiptail’s nest was located here relegates our explanation to speculation. What but a mother’s care can explain her ferocity in the face of danger? Whatever the reason for the Whiptail’s bravery (and the snake’s doggedness!), we will continue to record and share our observations with whomever we can, and readers can answer for themselves, are these creatures worthy of respect?