The Galapagos Racer Snake leapt to instant fame in 2016, when BBC Planet Earth footage of them chasing a Marine Iguana went viral on the internet, receiving an incredible 13 million views! So let’s see what all the fuss is about (spoiler alert: the iguana manages to escape by the skin of his teeth).
The writhing mass of snakes might be enough to give you nightmares (especially for baby iguanas), but in truth the Galapagos Racer Snake is harmless to humans and usually a very shy creature. They are small in size, but famed for their speed, capable of racing up to 3.5 miles/hour – making them one of the fastest snakes on the planet.
Galapagos Racer Snakes are constrictors, wrapping themselves around their prey and squeezing until suffocation, and can also use small amounts of venom to finish the job. They hunt mostly for small mammals and reptiles, such as Lava Lizards, Grasshoppers, Geckos and of course baby Marine Iguanas, and will also occasionally raid Darwin’s Finch nests for eggs or small hatchlings.
Today, some Galapagos Racer Snake species are under threat, due to predation by Galapagos Hawks, as well as by introduced species, like pigs, goats, and cats, which enjoy eating snakes eggs.
Spotting Galapagos Racers is no easy task, because unlike most Galapagos animals they are in fact very shy around humans. It is made even harder by the fact that they are diurnal reptiles - most active at dawn and dusk, but resting in shady hideouts during the hot hours of sun when most tourists make land visits.
If you are lucky enough to cross paths with one during a Galapagos Cruise, then your naturalist guide will be on hand to help with correct species identification, and to tell you much more about them.
Classification of Galapagos Racer Snake species is rather confusing, and continually changing as more is understood about them. Today, the most common classification is into two broad subspecies: The Western Racer, and the Eastern Racer, although other Racer species also exist, such as Darwin’s Racer Snake and the Hood (Española) Racer.
Read on to learn more about the most common Western and Eastern Racers.
Conservation Status: Least Concern
Scientific Name: Pseudalsophis Occidentalis
Where To See Them: On Fernandina and Isabela islands.
When To See Them: All Year Round.
The Western Galapagos Racer Snake is the largest snake species found at the Galapagos Islands. They can be distinguished from the Eastern Racer Snake as being longer and darker in appearance, and by the range of their habitat which is limited to the Western islands of the archipelago.
It was Western Galapagos Racers from Fernandina Island that were the stars of the BBC Planet Earth video. Galapagos visitors to Punta Espinoza (Fernandina) from May to June could be in for a treat - this is the best place to see the Western Racer congregating in groups, during Marine Iguana hatching season. At other times of year they are mostly solitary creatures, making them much harder to find.
It is not only Marine Iguanas who need to be on the lookout for Western Racers; these snakes have also been observed hunting in groups for sea fish in the rock pools on Fernandina shores at Cape Douglas. This remarkable behavior makes them the only species of land snake in the world to have acquired a taste for fish.
Eastern Galapagos Racer Snakes can be found on different islands - on San Cristobal they are uncommon and identified by striped markings, while on the islets close to Floreana they are more abundant but with spotted markings.
For visitors a good place to look out for them is on San Cristobal, along the trail running from Baquerizo Moreno town to Punta Carola beach. This path takes you through their preferred terrain of volcanic rocks and dry shrubland, where they are most active during the first hours after sunrise or just before sunset.
Other terrestrial snake species can also be found at the Galapagos Islands – The Banded Galapagos Snake and Striped Galapagos Snake.
Written by John Potts
John is the original founder of Happy Gringo. He is from London UK and has over 17 years of travel and work experience in Latin America. John´s biggest passions in life are travel and nature, he has had the pleasure to visit more than 75 different countries, and calls Quito, in Ecuador, home.