Leaping Lizards! (and Springing Snakes)

I decided to take the kids for a walk and a little exploration.  I chose the area near Seibu Dome for its easy access and the Sayama Fudoson and Yamaguchi Senshu Kannon temple complexes – located in the foothills near Lake Sayama and Lake Tama, since these would provide some points of interest and nature, plus make for easy walking.

The weather was, for the most part, excellent – we had about half an hour of rain during lunch – and some wildlife was also taking advantage of conditions.  Most notable were various insects and lizards.  And the kids insisted that I get some photos of these.

A grasshopper on a Bodhisattva. “Yes, Grasshopper…”

Only three lizard species are known in this part of Japan, and one of these – Schlegel’s Japanese gecko (Gekko japonicus) – is thought to be introduced, albeit over a  millennium ago.  They were previously thought to be a native species with a large naturally-occurring range (including China and the Korean peninsula), or possibly native to western Japan but introduced to eastern Japan.  However, researchers cite a lack of genetic difference between individuals in Japan and the Asian mainland and an absence of pre-Heian Era records as evidence.

Schlegel’s Japanese gecko is a night-active hunter that preys largely on moths and cockroaches, so I’m happy to have this invasive species “invade” my home!!

The other two are the Japanese grass lizard (Takydromus tachydromoides) and the Japanese five-lined skink (Plestiodon japonicus), and we saw several of both species.

Japanese grass lizard on a stone lantern. Note the length of the tail.

The Japanese grass lizard is known locally as kanahebi (日本金蛇 or occasionally 日本蛇舅母).  Its name in Japanese contains the word for snake, although it is a true lizard and its legs are well-developed and clearly visible.  Furthermore, it runs and crawls in the fashion of a larger lizard, so the naming seems a very poor choice.

A closer photo.

This lizard typically grows to between 16 and 25 cm in length, with nearly two-thirds of that being tail length.  It is also easily recognisable through its matte colouration.

Japanese grass lizards feed mostly on insects, spiders and other arthropods, especially slaters (woodlice, pillbugs, or whatever else they are called in your part of the world)

Their natural enemies are snakes, predatory birds (shrikes are well-known predators) and mammals like foxes, tanuki and weasels.

When threatened, these lizards will typically rush into undergrowth or use their climbing skills to escape.  They also have the ability to drop their tail.

Up close and personal with a Japanese grass lizard.

The Japanese five-lined skink is known locally as Nihon tokage (日本蜥蜴 or日本石竜子).  It is easily distinguished from the Japanese grass lizard by its shiny scales, and the brilliant metallic-blue on the tip of juveniles’ tails.  In addition, these lizards’ legs, eyes and ears are not as well developed, and their preferred method of escape is climbing under rocks or into crevices.  While growing to similar sizes to the former, their tails are proportionally shorter.

They are day-active hunters of worms, spiders, insects and other arthropods, but will also eat fruit.

These skinks also have the ability to drop their tails, and are more likely to do so than the grass lizard.

Japanese five-lined skink. Seconds before I took this shot, it was joined by a juvenile with a bright blue tail tip. You can see the shininess of the scales here.

It was on our return to the stairway at the main gate of Sayama Fudoson that we encountered a snake.

(Going through my blog’s stats, I regularly see snakes as one of the top-hitting tags, along with tanuki and Totoro.  Obviously, the more snake stories I write, the more visitors my blog gets… but enough with the vanity)

“Look kids, a snake!”, I say as soon as I spot it.


But something doesn’t seem quite right.  Maybe it’s the pattern on the scales, maybe it’s the broad shovel-like shape of the head, or maybe it’s the coiling action.  Maybe it’s all three.  I can’t say for sure, but almost immediately I instinctively realise what kind of snake it is.


My first encounter with a wild specimen.

It’s practically harmless… except for its potent venom, effective venom delivery system, and grouchy attitude…

Gloydius blomhoffii is sometimes known in English as the Japanese copperhead, sometimes as the mamushi pit viper, and sometimes just mamushi.  The local name is Nihon mamushi (日本蝮), but this is usually shortened to mamushi.

Growing between 45 and 60 cm long, this hunter feeds on small mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs, and is found in a wide range of habitats.  It is a pit viper, which gives it the ability to hunt in low light and areas of poor visibility.

But more significantly, this is the most dangerous snake in mainland Japan.

I have openly mocked the urbanized Japanese fear of the mamushi on this blog, and still say much of the dangers of this snake are grossly exaggerated.  That said, it is still a venomous animal and needs to be treated with respect and caution.

I made sure the kids didn’t come near as I closed the distance to get a couple of shots.  Wildlife photography with a mobile phone is a particularly tricky task – not getting close enough makes for poor photos; getting too close usually causes the subject to scamper off.

I got my shots and stood up to check what the kids were up to.  That was when I learned something new about the mamushi – they can jump!

I have heard stories of snakes leaping to attack people but had always dismissed them as urban legends.  Well, this one sprang forward at least 30 cm.  Luckily, it was unable to clear the drain channel between me and it, tumbled in, and got no second chance.

Apparently, about 3000 people are bitten by these snakes every year, with five to ten fatalities.  That’s one exclusive group I’m proud not to be a member of.

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9 Responses to Leaping Lizards! (and Springing Snakes)

  1. Bolko says:

    Vipers really strike, they don’t jump. Probably you were refering to myths of snakes jumping to the height of a human face and biting, but these are false, except if we are talking about large king cobras or mambas than can rais up to human height. A viper usually strikes less than its body length, but you should be cautious anyway when approaching them.

    • wildinjapan says:

      Thanks for the shout!
      You are correct about snakes not being able to “jump”; my explanation was not sufficient. I meant that as this one made a forward-thrusting striking action, the momentum carried it forward almost as if it was jumping.
      And, yes, I will treat them with caution!

  2. Randall says:

    Quick checks elsewhere indicate the number of fatalities to be more along the lines of 30-40 a year. Bites are extremely painful even when not fatal and can result in necrosis as well. I’d advocate extreme caution with them.

  3. Amy says:

    Hi, I enjoed your blog on snakes. My daughter and I saw a dead mamushi walking our dogs today. Last week, we had a one meter yamakagashi by our entrance. Contrary to what many tell us, these are venomous, aggressive, seem to be able to spit venom, and can jump. I have had a yamakagashi actually rear up and try to intimidate my car or go into a hole and come back out. This one was caught after an hour but we waited an hour for help. After caught, it was put into a draw string bag, and lumped right out before it was tied! Appaently, it likes toads and my husband had a toad friend in his myoga garden. Maybe it was after that toad. Going to have to move the toad to a new home just in case others come.

    • wildinjapan says:

      Amy, thanks for your comment!

      I didn’t know that yamakagashi got that big. A quick check shows that they grow up to 150 cm long. They can’t (as far as I know) spit venom but do have that venom-secreting gland on the back of their necks. As you know, their venom fangs are at the back of their mouths, and it wasn’t until fairly recently that they were known to be venomous. Maybe your toad should consider moving!

  4. GOAT 山羊 says:

    My friend Chris and I encountered one in Shikoku on my last day of walking the island in 2008. Pretty little things. Shikoku is Snake Central but the dozen or so other reptiles I saw seemed to be pretty harmless.

    • wildinjapan says:

      I’m guessing that with all the farming going on in Shikoku, insects and rodents abound, and these provide a meal for the reptiles.
      Nice to see of all the “dangerous” things you’ve encountered in Japan, only one mamushi.

  5. anthonyvenable110 says:

    Reblogged this on anthonyvenable110.

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