Non-venomousSnake Breeds

Sunbeam Snake

Sunbeam Snake (Xenopeltis unicolor)

Up until yesterday, I’ve only seen small sunbeam snakes – about 15 inches long. They are fat and can be found under plastic or other things in muddy water, or anywhere near water. I found one small sunbeam crossing the street at night during rain in Sisaket – so I pulled him off the road and up into the brush.

Yesterday I saw a 1+ meter snake at a friend’s. The big ones are really impressive. Thick, smooth like glass, and with an unbelievably cool rainbow iridescence that you must see.

Sunbeam snakes get their name because they beam in the sunshine… so to speak. Their scales reflect a luminescence – like a rainbow of colors – and it’s surreal to see a sunbeam snake in the bright sunshine (I have a video for you below, but it doesn’t give justice to the intensity of the rainbow of colors).

Sunbeam Snake (Xenopeltis unicolor) Head Close Up
Sunbeam Snake (Xenopeltis unicolor) Head Close Up

Thai language: Ngoo sang ateet, Ngoo leu-um deen

Appearance: Sunbeam snakes are thicker than large bananas (with skin) as adults. Their scales are very smooth and the snake has a texture like rubber. Dirt doesn’t appear to stick to the scales. The head is like a shovel blade, tending toward flat. The eyes are small and designed for burrowing in the dirt.

Length: Both male and female sunbeams are usually about a meter long with the female growing up to 1.3m for the maximum length (about 4 feet).

Range: All over Thailand. I’ve found them in Trang, Surat, Krabi, and Nakhon Si Thammarat provinces. Also found all over Southeast Asia from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, to Burma (Myanmar), China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Malaysian Peninsula and over to the Philippines.

Habitat: These snakes love the shallow water, muddy areas where they lie hidden under leaves or junk waiting for nightfall. They can be found close to human habitat as well as any lake or other body of water. They are fossorial – meaning, they hide under things – like leaves, dirt, and just about anything.

I have found them crossing roads, under stones, and cruising just along the top of a long drainage ditch, peeking down over the rim occasionally to see if they see something.

Notes: These sunbeam snakes rarely bite. They do not do well in captivity and quickly die because they get stressed out. If you keep one – be sure to have a soft substrate they can burrow (dig) into to cover themselves. They need cool shade and water. Don’t put them in the sun for long.

Active Time? Nocturnal – night.

Food: Frogs mostly, lizards, geckos, and other snakes. Sunbeam snakes kill prey by squeezing (constricting) it like a python.

Natural Enemies: King cobras and kraits would probably eat these snakes, though I don’t have evidence that they do.

UPDATE – we saw a Malayan Krait (B. candidus) attempt to eat a sunbeam over and over and over but the sunbeam snake was able to twist out of the grip and get the krait in constriction. The sunbeam snake seemed unaffected by the krait’s venom. The krait bit the sunbeam snake over a dozen times as we watched.

Defensive Behavior: Curl tail. Rarely bite. Very low-key, mellow snakes if you’re not provoking them. They move very slow and their scales are good for water but not so great for street, rocks, and other hard smooth surfaces.

Venom Toxicity: None. No danger to humans except possibly a strong bite if you anger it. I’ve heard about only one person ever being bitten by this snake. It just doesn’t typically happen.

Offspring: Little is known. Tough to keep very long – they die quickly in captivity.

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Infraorder: Alethinophidia
Family: Xenopeltidae
Genus: Xenopeltis
Species: X. unicolor
Binomial name: Xenopeltis unicolor

Classification by Reinwardt, 1827

Sunbeam Snake Photo:

Body of sunbeam snake in Thailand - brown, thick and iridescent scales.
The photos and video don’t do the colors justice – you really have to see the sunbeam snake in person to believe it. ©Vern Lovic

My Sunbeam Snake Video:

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  1. They look like a magical creature. They’re so beautiful. I wish I could meet one in person, at least just once. But I don’t live anywhere near where they do.

  2. Just found your website and love it so much! I’m thai and hope I can see this snake at least once in my life. Such a beautiful and lovely creature.

    I heard lots of thai people kill this snake just because they believe that it is venomous and whoever got bitten by it will died after exposed to sunlight! Poor thing!

  3. I found a 1.7m-1.8m long sunbeam snake at my friend’s house!!!

      1. yaa, its his PET that he kept for YEARS!
        sadly he dont let me get pics…

  4. I have read from some articles.. they are said xenopeltis will reelase some bad smell from their body. Is it right? how bad the smell is?

    1. It is the most foul-smelling odor in the world. Really. I cannot stand it anymore. I don’t even catch those snakes or handle them any longer, the smell is just wretched.

  5. I found my first Xenipeltis this afternoon. It was the fourth snake which got trapped in an old fish trap which lies amongst the bushes and trees along the side of our house. The previous three were all monocled cobras so it was good to find something different. It was about 60 cm long, very calm and very beautiful. We released it in a nearby field that has some marshy ground at the far end.

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