Last updated 19 July 2006: updated with paragraph on dietary habits.

A broad introduction to

The Colubridae

The Colubridae form by far the biggest family of snakes, numbering over two thousand species. Although commonly called harmless snakes, this is not necessarily so: some species are back-fanged and of these a few are dangerously venomous, although it should be stressed that these are in the very small minority and not among the commonly kept species.

The exact relationships of the different subfamilies to one another, and indeed to other snake families, are somewhat disputed at the moment. Furthermore a full listing of all the species by subfamily, even more than for the skinks, would be enormous and in constant need of revision, and since many of these species are never seen in captivity, would be a labour of love rather than practicality. We have however added an alphabetical list of species elsewhere. The EMBL reptile database listing has an excellent online list.

Although colubrids are traditionally perceived as preying on mice and other rodents, this is only part of the story. While rodents do indeed form a significant part of their diet, particularly for those kept in captivity, colubrids take other vertebrate and invertebrate prey, including lizards, frogs, fish, birds, leeches, newts and salamanders, insects, slugs and snails, and even crayfish. Some colubrid species are generalists and will consume whatever they can overpower: others are highly specialised and will decline unless they can take a certain item of prey in sufficient quantities. Needless to say, the specialists often do not make good subjects for captivity.

The main subfamilies are as follows:

Colubrinae The "common" or "true" colubrids 
Dipsadinae Arboreal mollusc-eating snakes found only in Central and South America. The front teeth are adapted for pulling snails out of their shells.
Homalopsinae Aquatic snakes found in fresh, brackish or sea water. They are opisthoglyphic, that is to say possessing grooved venom fangs at the rear of the upper jaw. 
Lycodontinae "Wolf" snakes, distinguished by the arrangement of the teeth which include large recurved teeth arranged in groups at the front and back of the upper jaw and the front of the lower jaw.
Natricinae Semi-aquatic snakes
Pareatinae Slug-eating snakes 
Psammophiinae Sand snakes
Pseudoxenodontinae False "strange-tooth" snakes
Xenodermatinae Literally, "strange-skin" snakes: a family with granular skins somewhat akin to those of the Acrochordidae
Xenodontinae Literally, "strange-tooth" snakes:  

This list excludes a number of families which are either doubtful or disputed. See the EMBL database listing for more specifics, including these "odds and ends" and some references.

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