It doesn’t get much better than this rainbow ‘sunbeam snake’


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Bec Crew 12 March 2018
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If you’re looking for a snake to cure someone’s phobia, the incredibly beautiful sunbeam snake is a good place to start.

Non-venemous, non-aggressive, and with an unexpectedly adorable face, sunbeam snakes (sp. Xenopeltis) offer a rare dose of adorable among the killing machines that so many of us have developed an (often irrational) fear of.

Because seriously, look at that face:

sunbeam snake
A Southeast Asian and Indonesian sunbeam snake (Xenopeltis unicolor). Image credit: shutterstock

There are just two species of sunbeam snake in the world. The two pictured above are Xenopeltis unicolor, which are found throughout Southeast Asia and Indonesia; and then there’s Xenopeltis hainanensis, which is native to China and Vietnam.

These snakes are known for their bright rainbow sheen, which is caused by nanostructures  in their scales called iridophores.

These structures contain microscopic layers that refract light between them, causing an iridescence that’s only made stronger by a layer of dark pigmentation that runs beneath the surface of the scales, giving these snakes a blue or violet undertone:

sunbeam snake
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

This sheen is also amplified by the fact that the sunbeam snake’s scales sit so closely against its body, to help facilitate its favourite behaviour – burrowing.

Sunbeam snakes love to burrow into soft, muddy soil to hide throughout the day, which explains their unique facial features – that flat-topped, rounded head is perfect for going snout-first into the dirt.

And rather than moving its head up and down to dig deeper, the sunbeam snake will waggle its head side to side to clear a path.

Despite what their iridescence might suggest, these beauties prefer to stay hidden for most of their lives, so your best chance of seeing one is waiting until dusk, when they emerge to hunt for frogs, lizards, and small mammals.

And because of their lack of venom, sunbeam snakes are constrictors, which really just adds to their cuteness, somehow.

If you’re still now convinced, check out the incredibly chill “Freya”, showing off her beautiful white belly: