I want to take you on a tour of herp life from the lowlands of Chiang Mai up to the top of Doi Suthep.

Elevation plays a big role in where herps live. There are species in the hills that you will never find in the lowlands, and species in the lowlands that you will never find in the hills. Even minor differences in elevation can make a difference. For example, some snakes only thrive above 1200 meters elevation, while others will only be found below that mark. Temperature, air pressure, plant growth, rain patterns, rock formations, and more determine which forms will live at which elevations.

You’ll notice that many of the snakes in the photos I will be sharing are dead. Cataloging dead snakes on the road is an effective way to determine where different species of snakes live. Many species are tough to find, and even an experienced herper might only see half the snake species in his area in a given year. If you are out during the perfect conditions for a particular snake you still might not get lucky. But if one of the thousands of cars moving through the area hits a snake, that dead snake will be there for you to find at any point the next few days. Sjon Hauser, who helped with many of these IDs, refers to the investigation of dead snakes as “forensic herpetology”.

So let’s begin.

The flatlands of the city (300m)

Chiang Mai is at 300 meters elevation (about 1000 feet). That’s not high enough to exclude anything other than the species that like to hug the coastlines. Because the city is relatively flat there are plenty of rice paddies, marshes, canals, fish ponds, etc. that attract semi-aquatic species, especially those that prefer still/stagnant water which is tough to get on a mountain slope.

Thus you end up with a lot of the “marshy” species. Asian Painted Frogs, Round-tongued Floating Frogs, and Chinese Edible Frogs are all marsh-loving frog species which I’ve only seen in the lowlands. Inornate Froglets, Mukhlesur’s Narrowmouth Frogs, Darkside Narrowmouth Frogs, Asian Grass Frogs, Four-lined Treefrogs, and Common Indian Toads are more versatile and can be found higher up, but they love these lowlands too. And the awesome Yellow-striped Caecilian can be found anywhere in the city with enough moisture.

amphibians from the chiang mai city floor

1. Chinese Edible Frog
2. Asian Painted Frog
3. Round-tongued Floating Frog
4. Bullfrog hybrid

1. Asian Grass Frog
2. Inornate Froglet
3. Four-lined Treefrog
4. Common Indian Toad

1. Yellow-striped Caecilian

3. Mukhlesur’s Narrowmouth Frog

Many snakes frequent those marshy lowlands. Sunbeam Snakes, Yellow-bellied Water Snakes, Checkered Keelbacks, Yellow-spotted Keelbacks, and Red-tailed Pipe Snakes are all semi-aquatic species found near these lower water bodies. Buff-striped Keelbacks and Red-necked Keelbacks prefer to hunt around open marshy/grassy areas. Banded Kukri Snakes can be seen all over the mountain, but they are more common in these wetlands.

Other snakes can be seen in the drier city habitats. I’ve only seen Golden Tree Snakes around the lower developed areas, but I don’t know if that’s because they prefer low elevation, because they prefer human-disturbed habitats, or just chance. Long-nosed Whip Snakes, Indo-Chinese Rat Snakes, Common Wolf Snakes, Laotian Wolf Snakes, Monocled Cobras, and the Blue Krait are all species that tolerate these city habitats in the right places. I’ve also seen one Green Keelback and one Assam Mountain Snake down in the lowlands, both species which are more common when you get up the hill. I know one person who has seen a couple Indo-Chinese Sand Snakes on the city outskirts. They are a neat open-habitat specialist that is unlikely to be found in the most forested regions on Doi Suthep itself.

The lizards of the lowlands are those which get along well in human habitation. Bowring’s Supple Skinks and Siamese Leaf-toed Geckos can be found underneath cover. Oriental Garden Lizards and Indo-Chinese Forest Lizards run around ornamental vegetation. Flat-tailed House Geckos, Spiny-tailed House Geckos, Stump-toed Geckos, and Tokay Geckos climb on the outside of buildings at night.

There may be turtles – Southeast Asian Box Turtles and Malayan Snail-eating Turtles especially – but I have not seen them myself yet.

reptiles from the chiang mai city floor

1. IndoChinese Forest Lizard
2. Flat-tailed House Gecko
3. Oriental Garden Lizard
4. Bowring’s Supple Skink

1. Stump-toed Gecko
2. Golden Tree Snake
3. Spiny-tailed House Gecko

1. Siamese Leaf-toed Gecko
2. Yellow-spotted Keelback
3. Banded Kukri Snake
4. Checkered Keelback

1. Sunbeam Snake
2. Tokay Gecko
3. Unknown snake
4. Yellow-bellied Water Snake

The lower hills (300m-600m)

If you ride your bike towards Doi Suthep, about the time you reach the zoo the road begins to turn noticeably upwards. These lower hills aren’t as steep as the upper reaches and aren’t too much cooler than the flatlands of the city. The slope and forestation still creates different habitats than the city holds, though, so the species noticeably change.

In “flatter” areas of the hills you can still find pond frogs which breed anywhere that holds rainwater.  I’ve seen Mukhlesur’s Narrowmouth Frogs, Darkside Narrowmouth Frogs, Inornate Froglets, Asian Grass Frogs, and Common Indian Toads here.  However, you also find rocky, nice-flowing streams don’t exist down low.  Thus the lowest slopes of the mountain are the first places you’ll see Dark-sided Frogs, Green Cascade Frogs, Limborg’s Frogs, Taylor’s Stream Frogs, and Gyldenstolpe’s Frogs.

amphibians from the lowest levels of doi suthep

1. Mukhlesur’s Narrowmouth Frog
2. Dark-sided Frog
3. Asian Grass Frog
4. Taylor’s Stream Frog

1. Gyldenstolpe’s Frog
2. Dark-sided Frog
3. Darkside Narrowmouth Frog
4. Common Indian Toad

1. Inornate Froglet

3. Gyldenstolpe’s Frog

There are plenty of snakes here which thrive in lowland environments, but might be easier to find in the hills simply because of the wilder habitat.  I’ve seen Oriental Whip Snakes, Banded Kukri Snakes, Oriental Rat Snakes, and Copperhead Trinket Snakes here, all species you can find in the city.  But I’ve also found White-spotted Slug Snakes, Keeled Slug Snakes, Many-spotted Cat Snakes, Thai Cat Snakes, Mountain Bronzeback Snakes, and Malayan Pit Vipers – species which rarely wander into the city limits.  The issue is not so much the minor elevation difference, but that the mountain is the only place where the best forested habitats still exist.

I’ve only seen a few common species of lizards here, mainly those which prefer more forested areas – Streamside Skinks, Striped Litter Skinks, Siamese Leaf-toed Geckos, and Indo-Chinese Forest Lizards.

reptiles from the lowest levels of doi suthep

1. Oriental Whip Snake
2. Copperhead Trinket Snake
3. Mountain Bronzeback
4. IndoChinese Forest Lizard

1. Oriental Rat Snake
2. Streamside Skink
3. Siamese Leaf-toed Gecko
4. Many-spotted Cat Snake

1. Malayan Pit Viper

3. White-spotted Slug Snake
4. Banded Kukri Snake

3. Thai Cat Snake
4. Striped Litter Skink

The steep middle section (600m-900m)

When you get above 600m (about 2000 feet) is when the elevation gets high enough to begin excluding a few species. Also, most of the areas I’ve herped at these elevations on Doi Suthep are quite steep, which changes the nature of the stream, soil, and vegetation. So it’s hard to tell what is being affected by elevation and what is being affected by other changes in habitat.

At these elevations most of the pond-breeding frogs are no longer around, though I did see a Four-lined Treefrog up this high. Stream frogs like Dark-sided Frogs, Green Cascade Frogs, Limborg’s Frogs, Taylor’s Stream Frogs, Gyldenstolpe’s Frogs, and Big-headed Frogs are all found here.  A couple species that like the really high-torrent waters, like the Marbled Sucker Frog and the rare Inthanon Stream Toad, are first found in these steep reaches.

amphibians of doi suthep from waterfall up to 900 meters or so

1. Taylor’s Stream Frog
2. Dark-sided Frog
3. Taylor’s Stream Frog
4. unidentified Limnonectus

1. unidentified Limnonectus
2. Inthanon Stream Toad
3. Taylor’s Stream Frog
4. Marbled Sucker Frog

1. Green Cascade Frog
2. Gyldenstolpe’s Frog
3. Taylor’s Stream Frog
4. Taylor’s Stream Frog

1. Limborg’s Frog
2. Dark-sided Frog
3. Big-headed Frog

I haven’t found many snakes at this elevation, though Green Keelbacks and the rarely-seen Khasi Hills Keelbacks roam the streams.  I’ve also seen Banded Kukri Snakes and Oriental Whip Snakes on the road.  A couple lizards like these steep streams – specifically Berdmore’s Water Skinks and the Doi Suthep Bent-toed Geckos.  The unique Big-headed Turtle used to be found in the mountain streams here, though it has not been seen in some time and may now be extinct on Doi Suthep.  In the forest edges the Forest Crested Lizard, Common Sun Skink, Indian Forest Skink, and Speckled Forest Skink appear in good numbers.  Those species can be found at lower elevations in other areas, but perhaps don’t find the appropriate habitat as often lower down on Doi Suthep.

reptiles of doi suthep from waterfall up to 900 meters or so

1. Forest Crested Lizard
2. Doi Suthep Bent-toed Gecko

1. Khasi Hills Keelback

1. Streamside Skink
2. Berdmore’s Water Skink
3. Speckled Forest Skink

Towards the upper reaches (900m to 1200m)

If you’re climbing the mountain on your bike, this is where you’re getting a bit tired and starting to feel the elevation.  The forest gets denser and moister, and as a result some new interesting species appear.

Over 3000 feet in elevation is where you can first see one of Doi Suthep’s more famous species – the Crocodile Newt.  Thailand’s only salamander, the Crocodile Newt is only found on the upper reaches of northern Thailand’s highest mountains.  Another unique amphibian up here is the Doi Suthep Caecilian, found in only one valley. I haven’t been lucky enough to see either of those two, but I’ve seen several of the typical frog species – Dwarf Bush Frogs, Limborg’s Frogs, Taylor’s Stream Frogs, Common Indian Toads, Dark-sided Frogs, etc.

amphibians of doi suthep from upper waterfalls to 1200 meters

1. Unidentified Limnonectus
2. Taylor’s Stream Frog

1. Dwarf Bush Frog
2. Unidentified Limnonectus

2. Limborg’s Frog

For some reason I haven’t seen many dead snakes on this section of road (perhaps there is less car traffic up here), but I have seen Green Keelbacks and Assam Mountain Snakes on the trails.  The lizard life is fascinating at these elevations. These heights are where I first see Rough-bellied Mountain Dragons and Burmese False Bloodsuckers in the forest. A range of mountain-loving Scinella skink species roam here – I’ve found Reeve’s Smooth Skinks and possibly Black-spotted Smooth Skinks.  Common Sun Skinks and Doi Suthep Bent-toed Geckos continue to be found, and at about the 800m elevation mark the water skink species changes, with only Thai Water Skinks being found up this high while the Berdmore’s Water Skinks are restricted to the lower elevations. 

reptiles of doi suthep from upper waterfalls to 1200 meters

1. Assam Mountain Snake
2. Thai Water Skink
3. Doi Suthep Bent-toed Gecko
4. Reeve’s Smooth Skink

1. Black-spotted Smooth Skink
2. Indian Forest Skink
3. Common Sun Skink
4. Rough-bellied Mountain Dragon

1. Green Keelback

3. Burmese False Bloodsucker

The mountaintop (1200m-1676m)

Doi Suthep is rather short as mountains go, peaking out at 1676 meters (5,500 feet).  There are a few high-elevation species which are only found on the very tippy-top of the mountain. I’ve been up to the top of the mountain twice, both times in poor conditions for herping, so I’ve seen very little.  I’m aware that the famous Crocodile Newts can be found, and I’ve seen a dead Common Indian Toad, but that’s it for amphibians.

It’s the snakes that are interesting.  Near the highest reaches of the road I’ve found Black-spotted Slug Snakes, Hampton’s Slug Snakes, Collared Black-headed Snakes, and Mountain Pit Vipers – all species which are only found here above 1000-1200 meters.  The interesting McClelland’s Coral Snakes are found at these upper elevations. I’ve also seen Assam Mountain Snakes and Reeve’s Smooth Skinks up here.  More species could be found with additional searches.

doi suthep reptiles from top reaches above 1200 meters

1. Collared Black-headed Snake
2. Reeve’s Smooth Skink

1. Hampton’s Slug Snake

1. Mountain Pit Viper
2. Black-spotted Slug Snake
3. Assam Mountain Snake

There are many other herps on Doi Suthep which I have not yet found myself and thus don’t know where they fit on the mountain.  These include Smith’s Litter Frog, Lesser Stream Horned Frog, Burmese Horned Frog, Mud Slender Frog, Twin-spotted Tree Frog, Large-warted Tree Frog, Doria’s Treefrog, Butler’s Narrowmouth Frog, Yunnan Dwarf Gecko, Common Flying Gecko, Blanford’s Flying Dragon, Orange-winged Flying Dragon, Banded Slender Skink, Doria’s Smooth Skink, Bengal Monitor, Slender Worm Snake, Collared Reed Snake, Triangle Black-headed Snake, Common Bronzeback, Hill Wolf Snake, Indian Banded Wolf Snake, Red Mountain Racer, Red-tailed Green Racer, Big-eyed Mountain Keelback, Chinese Keelback, Mock Viper, White-lipped Pit Viper and dozens of other species.  Each of those species have their own habitat requirements and their own little niches on the mountain.

I hope that tour gives you a sense of the things you can notice with a lot of systematic herping in the same area.  It also might give you an appreciation for the need to preserve every little habitat.

  • If the lowlands get completely developed or poisoned with pesticides and fertilizers, we’ll have trouble seeing Asian Painted Frogs, Round-tongued Floating Frogs, Chinese Edible Frogs,  Sunbeam Snakes, Yellow-bellied Water Snakes, and Red-tailed Pipe Snakes.
  • If we develop or cut down the lower-elevation forests, we might lose White-spotted Slug Snakes, Keeled Slug Snakes, Many-spotted Cat Snakes, Thai Cat Snakes, Mountain Bronzebacks, and Malayan Pit Vipers.
  • If something harms the habitat of those steep streams in the mid-elevations, then Dark-sided Frogs, Green Cascade Frogs, Limborg’s Frogs, Taylor’s Stream Frogs, Gyldenstolpe’s Frogs, Big-headed Frogs, Marbled Sucker Frogs, Inthanon Stream Toads, Khasi Hills Keelbacks, Berdmore’s Water Skinks and Doi Suthep Bent-toed Geckos could disappear.
  • If we encroach too much on the mid-elevation forests, we might not see Dwarf Bush Frogs, Doi Suthep Caecilians, Forest Crested Lizards, Rough-bellied Mountain Dragons, Burmese False Bloodsuckers, Specked Forest Skinks, Reeve’s Smooth Skinks, Doria’s Smooth Skinks, or Black-spotted Smooth Skinks anymore.
  • Those few water bodies up above 800m are the only habitat where the Crocodile Newts and the Thai Water Skinks are holding on, and without that habitat, they may become extinct from Doi Suthep just like the Big-headed Turtle possibly has.
  • Finally, it is only by preserving the forests at the very top, above 1000m, that we’ll preserve Black-spotted Slug Snakes, Hampton’s Slug Snakes, Collared Black-headed Snakes, Mountain Pit Vipers, and McClelland’s Coral Snakes.

Every habitat is important.  Doi Suthep has an incredible array of habitats and a marvelous array of herps to fill them, and I hope this treasure can be preserved for generations to come.