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Rhinophis

Rhinophis are a genus of shield-tailed snakes (family Uropeltidae). There are 19 species, including three that were recentlt reassigned to Rhinophis from Uropeltis or Pseudotyphlops. Rhinophis are poorly studied fossorial snakes endemic to mountain ranges in southern peninsular India & Sri Lanka, especially in the high-altitude 'shola' forests of the Western Ghats. Of all uropeltid snakes, they have the most highly modified heads, bearing a blade-like rostral scale for burrowing.

Rhinophis can be distinguished from all other uropeltids by various features of the internal soft anatomy and of the head scalation, including the absence of a temporal scale and a mental groove, and by having a shortened, dorsally-compressed tail with a distinct, rugose, keratinous disc at the end. The degree of enlargement and rugosity of the tail disc varies among species and ontogenetically.

Thanks to their doubly-supported skulls (both the atlas and axis contact the skull), their thick, myoglobin- & mitochondria-rich anterior trunk muscles, and unique method of burrowing (in which they simultaneously push the sides of the body against the tunnel walls and move the head forward, without pushing the rest of their bodies backward), Rhinophis are capable of tunneling through relatively hard soil. Their body scales shed dirt and their shield-like tails collect it behind them as they burrow. They eat earthworms and are eaten by other snakes, wild boars, mongeese, and predatory birds. They mate during the rainy season and females give birth to 3-9 live young at a time. It's likely that a high amount of diversity remains to be described, but continued habitat destruction and degradation throughout their range means that we may never know the true extent of the diversity of Rhinophis.

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© Andrew Durso

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