Chiang Mai’s herps from top to bottom

12 Aug

When you pay attention to the herps in an area, you might notice that elevation plays a big role in what you find.  While some herps can live just about anywhere, 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 big difference.  For example, there are snakes that you will only find below 1200 meters elevation, and snakes you will only find above 1200 meters elevation.  Little differences in the temperature, air, plant growth, rain patterns, rock formations, etc. all determine which species will live at which elevations.

To demonstrate, let’s take a tour of the herp life from the lowlands of Chiang Mai up to the top of Doi Suthep.  I’ve gotten to herp the area during two stretches, once 5-6 times in the span of two months in October/November and once 5-6 times over three weeks in March.   Those travels up and down the mountain, along with some information I’ve learned from herpers local to the area, have given me a pretty good idea of what can be found and where.

You’ll notice that a LOT 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 (and die).  Many species of snake are tough to find, and even an experienced herper might only see half the species of snakes in his area in a given year.   Certain species are only active during brief periods before/after rains, during certain temperature ranges in certain seasons, or other very specific conditions.  And even if you are out during the perfect conditions, you still might not get lucky.  But there are thousands of cars passing through that area….and if one of those thousands of cars hits a snake crossing the road during its perfect activity time, that dead snake will be there for you to find at any point the next day.   Sjon Hauser, who helped with many of these IDs, refers to the investigation of dead snakes as “forensic herpetology”.  So apologies for the many dead snake photos, but it’s an important part of the cataloging of species.

So let’s begin.


The flatlands of the city (300m)

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

Chiang Mai floor1

  1. Chinese Edible Frog
  2. Asian Painted Frog
  3. Round-tongued Floating Frog
  4. Chinese Edible Frog/Bullfrog
  1. Asian Grass Frog
  2. Inornate Froglet
  3. Four-lined Treefrog
  4. Common Indian Toad
  1. Yellow-striped Caecilian
  2. Ornate Narrowmouth Frog

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

Chiang Mai 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

There are a lot of snakes that love those marshy lowlands.  Sunbeam Snakes, Yellow-bellied Water Snakes, Checkered Keelbacks, Yellow-spotted Keelbacks, and Red-tailed Pipe Snakes are all semi-aquatic species which will almost always be found near these lower water bodies.  Buff-striped Keelbacks and Red-necked Keelbacks prefer to hunt their frog prey around open marshy/grassy areas and those also are found down low.  Banded Kukri Snakes can be seen all over the mountain, but they are also common in these wetlands.

Other snakes can be seen in the terrestrial city habitats.  I’ve only seen Golden Tree Snakes around human habitats in the lowlands, but I don’t know if that’s because they prefer low elevation, because they prefer human-disturbed habitats, or if I just haven’t been lucky to see them on the mountain yet.  Long-nosed Whip Snakes, Indo-Chinese Rat Snakes, Common Wolf Snakes, Laotian Wolf Snakes, Monocled Cobras, and the Blue Krait are a few other species which can 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 on the city outskirts who has seen a couple Indo-Chinese Sand Snakes, a neat open-habitat specialist that is unlikely to be seen in the most forested regions on Doi Suthep itself.

The lizards of the lowlands are primarily 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.  And Flat-tailed House Geckos, Spiny-tailed House Geckos, Stump-toed Geckos, and Tokay Geckos are found running on the outside of buildings at night.

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


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 though, 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.

lowest levels (2)

  1. Ornate 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
  2. Gyldenstolpe’s Frog?

In various more “flat” areas you can still find puddle-frogs which can breed almost anywhere that will hold rainwater.  I’ve seen Ornate Narrowmouth Frogs, Darkside Narrowmouth Frogs, Inornate Froglets, Asian Grass Frogs, and Common Indian Toads here.  However, you also begin to see the “stream frogs” of the mountain, inhabiting rocky, nice-flowing streams that you just don’t see down low.  Thus, these 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.
lowest levels

  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
  2. White-spotted Slug Snake
  3. Banded Kukri Snake
  1. Thai Cat Snake
  2. Striped Litter Skink

As far as snakes go, there are plenty of snakes here which would happily be found in lowland environments, but might be easier to find here simply because of the wilder habitat.  I’ve seen Oriental Whip Snakes, Banded Kukri Snakes, Oriental Rat Snakes, and Copperhead Trinket Snakes here, certainly species you can find in the city as well.  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 that the minor elevation difference is keeping them above 300m, but simply that the mountain is the only place where the best forested habitats for them still exist.

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


The steep middle section (600m-900m)

When you get above 600m (about 2000 feet) is when you first get high enough to begin excluding a few species based on elevation and not simply flatness.  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 sometimes it’s hard to tell what is being affected by elevation and what (more likely) is simply being affected by other changes in habitat.

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?

At these elevations most of the pond-breeding frogs are no longer around, though I did see a Four-lined Treefrog up this high once.  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.

waterfall up to 900 meters or so1

  1. Forest Crested Lizard
  2. Doi Suthep Bent-toed Gecko
  1. Khasi Hills Keelback
  1. Indian Forest Skink?
  2. Berdmore’s Water Skink
  3. Speckled Forest Skink

I haven’t been as fortunate at finding snakes at this elevation, though both Green Keelbacks and the rarely-seen Khasi Hills Keelbacks can be found alongside the streams.  I’ve also seen Banded Kukri Snakes and Oriental Whip Snakes on the road.   A couple lizards appear to like these steep streams just like the frogs do – 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, these are the elevations where the Indian Forest Skink, Forest Crested Lizard, Common Sun 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.


Towards the upper reaches (900m to 1200m)

If you’re making your way on your bike, this is when you’re probably getting a bit tired and really starting to feel the elevation.  This is also where some of the forest can get a bit moister and denser, and the species get interesting as a result.

upper waterfalls to 1200 meters

  1. Unidentified Limnonectus
  2. Taylor’s Stream Frog
  1. Dwarf Bush Frog
  2. Unidentified Limnonectus
  1. Limborg’s Frog

These high elevations (over 3000 feet) are where you first begin to see one of Doi Suthep’s more famous species – the Crocodile Newt.  Thailand’s only salamander, the Crocodile Newt is only found on the higher elevations of northern Thailand’s highest mountains.  Another unique amphibian up here is the Doi Suthep Caecilian, found in only one valley.  I’ve seen a number of the typical frog species around here – Dwarf Bush Frogs, Limborg’s Frogs, Taylor’s Stream Frogs, Common Indian Toads, Dark-sided Frogs, etc.

upper waterfalls to 1200 meters1

  1. Assam Mountain Snake
  2. Thai Water Skink
  3. Doi Suthep Gecko
  4. Reeve’s Smooth Skink?
  1. Black-spotted Smooth Skink?
  2. Doria’s Smooth Skink
  3. Common Sun Skink
  4. Rough-bellied Mountain Dragon
  1. Green Keelback
  2. Burmese False Bloodsucker

For some reason I haven’t seen many dead snakes on this section of road (possibly because I’ve traversed it less often and there is less car traffic up here), but I have seen Green Keelbacks and Assam Mountain Snakes on the trails.  The lizard life becomes really fascinating at these elevations – this is where I first see Rough-bellied Mountain Dragons and Burmese False Bloodsuckers in the forest.  There’s also a wide range of mountain-loving Scinella skink species here – I’ve found Reeve’s Smooth Skinks, Doria’s Smooth Skinks and possibly Black-spotted Smooth Skinks here.  Common Sun Skinks and Doi Suthep Bent-toed Geckos continue to be found up here, but 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.   I’ve also seen a dead Tokay Gecko at this height.


The mountaintop (1200m-1676m)

Doi Suthep is rather small as mountains go, peaking out at 1676 meters (5,500 feet), though they don’t come much bigger in Thailand.  Thus, 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 up here.  I’m aware that the famous Crocodile Newts can be found here, and I’ve seen a dead Common Indian Toad, but that’s it for amphibians (though more could possibly be revealed with better work).

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

It’s the snakes that are interesting.  Near the highest reaches of the road I’ve found dead Black-spotted Slug Snakes, Hampton’s Slug Snakes, Collared Black-headed Snakes, and Mountain Pit Vipers – all species which you will find only in these high elevations above 1000-1200 meters.  I’ve also seen Assam Mountain Snakes and Reeve’s Smooth Skinks up here, and the interesting McClelland’s Coral Snakes are found at these upper elevations.  Like I said, my limited time up at these elevations means that more could likely be found with additional searches.


You should know that there are many other species on Doi Suthep which I have not found myself yet.  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, 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 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 within which they can be found.

I hope that tour gives you a bit of the sense of the kinds of 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 lose the lowest-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 might 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 apparently has.
  • Finally, it is only by preserving the forests at the very top, above 1200m, 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 an incredible array of herps to fill them, and I hope this treasure can be preserved for generations to come.

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Posted by on August 12, 2016 in Herping adventures


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