AFGHAN ARABIA WILD
LIZARDS OF ARABIA
John M. Regan
The largest country in the Middle East, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a huge chunk of desert about one fifth the size of the United States It is bordered to the north by Iraq and Iran; Yemen and Oman round out its southern tip. To the east and west sit the strategic waterways of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Ruled by King Abdulah, son of the first Saudi king, Saudi Arabia is truly a monarchy. The country is a predominately harsh desert with no running waterways or large permanent bodies of water. Summer temperatures regularly exceed one hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit and barely 2 percent of the country is arable. Yet with twenty percent of the world's proven oil reserves it is a country of enormous geo-political and economic importance.
I was fortunate enough to spend a year in Saudi Arabia near the capital city of Riyadh. Located approximately in the middle of the country about two hundred miles from the Persian Gulf, Riyadh is known more for its strict adherence to Islamic practice, conduct, and dress than its nightlife. A favored tourist attraction it is not. But wildlife is another story. The Riyadh Escarpment, a dramatic curving line of spectacular desert cliffs runs from north to south along the west side of the city. The scenery is stunning and the fauna in the area just as dazzling. A single day's outing reveals everything from camel spiders to baboons. Wolves and hyenas prowl; owls, falcons, and eagles soar. Reptiles abound.
But lizards rule. Geckos in color shades from pink to white run about inside and outside homes, and inhabit every crack and crevice of the backyard by the dozens. In the desert the supremacy of lizards is even more evident. In fact the lizard population is so large that a dedicated observer can soon learn to gauge the temperature of the day simply by identifying the species of lizard that happens to be out at a particular time. It is as though the lizards have taken over the role of rodents in this austere climate.
Geckos and agamids boast the largest variety of species with the nod toward sheer numbers going to the geckos. Agamids, however, hold the size title. The largest and most famous of the Saudi agamids is the Dhub (pronounced "dubb") lizard, Uromastyx aegyptius. With an adult length of two feet and a hefty seven to ten pound weight, dhubs are the largest lizard species in Saudi and most well known. Dhubs have long been a favorite at the Saudi dinner table. Bedouin desert dwellers are experts at smoking the reptiles out of their den and making a snack out of the lizard's tail.
Those countless years of hunting have made the dhub a very wary animal. Despite their size and squat appearance, dhubs are extraordinarily fast and race to their burrow at the first inkling of danger. Catching one in the open is not an easy task. Finding them, however, is hardly a challenge. As the morning heat rises to about 90 degrees - cool by Saudi standards - the dhubs begin to emerge. They are so large and their burrows so distinctive that they are easy to see even when rolling along at a moderate speed in a car. Their resemblance to prairie dogs is remarkable. Like prairie dog dhubs are plant eaters.
The Saudi "Dhub" lizard, the famous
The Saudi "Dhub" lizard, the famous Uromastyx aegyptius.
Another large agamid is Blanford's Agama, Agama blandfordi. Bearing a marked resemblance in color and body type to bearded lizards, Blandford's Agama reaches ten inches in length and is just as noticeable a part of the desert landscape as the dhub. Yet unlike the easily spooked dhubs, Agama blandfordi is extraordinarily approachable. Their distinctive profiles grace exposed rocks, dirt mounds, and scrub brushes as they calmly bask during the hottest part of the desert day. Perhaps this is the key to their approachability - they simply aren't used to seeing other living things stirring in this heat. Photographing this guy is as easy as driving your vehicle up to their basking rock and clicking the shutter. They can be approached on foot just as easily. Dhub lizards excepted, this nonchalance in the presence of humans seems to be the case with many of the agamid species in the area. The smaller and much prettier Arabian Toad Headed Agama, Phrynocephalus maculatus, prefers rocky landscapes in more moderate heat. These slender lizards often sit very still and allow the photographer to belly crawl all around while snapping close up after close up.
The small and slender Toad Headed Agama sits on the other side
of the Agama sale. Blandford's Agama rests on a rock in the middle of
a blazing hot summer day. On the far right is a fascinating and
Hadramaut Sand Lizard. I found this
tiny specimen is what had to be the most inhospitable climate I've ever
The small and slender Toad Headed Agama sits on the other side of the Agama sale. Blandford's Agama rests on a rock in the middle of a blazing hot summer day. On the far right is a fascinating and delicate appearing Hadramaut Sand Lizard. I found this tiny specimen is what had to be the most inhospitable climate I've ever seen.
On the other end of the size scale are a number of small, American anole shaped lizards that inhabit a variety of desert niches. The delicately designed Hadramaut Sand Lizard, Mesalina adramitana, stretches out to just two inches. This diminutive reptile is a marvelous example of adaptation to extreme conditions. The terrain where they are most common are areas of small, pancake shaped rocks devoid of vegetation or anything approaching moisture. No bigger than a medium sized dragonfly this little lizard comes out at nearly the height of midday heat. Fast and perfectly camouflaged in sandy beige it is a difficult animal to spot. At first you think the heat and bland terrain are playing tricks on your eyes. Eventually you realize that those tiny, light brown flickers in your peripheral vision are actually this small lacertate. The obvious food source for the Sand Lizard are small insects yet there are several Saudi scorpions who could just as easily make a meal out of the Sand Lizard.
Another small, slender lizard is the colorful Tail Lasher, Eremias fasciata. Widespread throughout the area and into Central Asia this tiger striped and leopard spotted lizard has adapted itself to a huge variety of climates and habitats. About the time that the big dhubs retire back into their cool underground homes the Tail Lashers emerge and often in great numbers. It is an unusual trek into the desert when at least a dozen are not encountered; normally far more. In some places the herp enthusiast must take care not to step on the little fellows. Vigorous burrowers, Eremias fasciata, actually "sand swim" for short distances to escape danger.
Eremuas fasciata pauses in front of
its burrow. I nicknamed these little guys Tail Lashers due to the
habit the have of waving that long tail periodically. On the right is
Schmidt's Fringe Toed lizard.
Eremuas fasciata pauses in front of its burrow. I nicknamed these little guys Tail Lashers due to the habit the have of waving that long tail periodically. On the right is Schmidt's Fringe Toed lizard.
Species with a size and personality ideal for the collector are the Fringe Toed Lizards. Schmidt's Fringe Toed Lizard, Acanthodactylus schmidti, is the most striking. This is a beautifully colored reptile displays a light brown, almost orange back richly speckled with white scales. Schmidt's Fringe Toe is about seven inches long and distinguished by an exceptionally long fourth toe on the foot of each rear leg from which protrude a number of comb like pointed scales. Although this trait is not uncommon in desert lizards it is especially pronounced in this species. Fringe Toes are active and interesting to observe as they meticulously inspect their territory. When prey is spotted the lizard goes instantly rigid. Suddenly the tail quivers violently as though anticipating the kill. With a flashing strike the drama is over and the Fringe Toe continues its explorations.
The lizards most noticeable to Saudi Arabian inhabitants are the geckos. Throughout the desert and in and around humans the ubiquitous geckos have made themselves at home. In addition to their unique "geckoness" that makes them so recognizable the geckos of Saudi have a behavior that sets them apart from their cousins - they do not burrow. This time honored adaptation to the broiling Saudi sun is casually ignored by the geckos who prefer to hide under rocks, debris, trash, cracks, and crevices. They simply are not into digging.
Perhaps the most common is the Blandford's Rock Gecko, Bunopus tuberculatus. Ranging in color from dull brown to a beautiful pink hue, this gecko is at home in or out of the house. At the other end of the beauty scale is the Roughed Tailed Gecko Cyrtopodion scaber, which might be more appropriately named "Ugly Gecko." Light to dark gray with an oddly elongated body the Rough Tailed Gecko will never win a contest for best looking lizard. In Saudi Arabia they seem to prefer living near humans, but not with them. Rough Tails are found in abundance alongside homes and in backyards, old buildings, and dry rotted trees.
A sampling of the incredible gecko population of
Saudi Arabia. The unknown specimen on the left I discovered look down
at me from the inside of a wadi cave I was exploring. Nearly ten
inches long this big gecko pot bellied lizard was the oddest and largest
gecko I found over there. Nights bring out a white gecko I
have yet identified. A decidedly homely member of the gecko family is
the gray colored
On the right is the common Baluch Rock Gecko, a
beautiful pink hued reptile common in the desert.
A sampling of the incredible gecko population of Saudi Arabia. The unknown specimen on the left I discovered look down at me from the inside of a wadi cave I was exploring. Nearly ten inches long this big gecko pot bellied lizard was the oddest and largest gecko I found over there. Nights bring out a white gecko I have yet identified. A decidedly homely member of the gecko family is the gray colored Cyrtopodion scaber. On the right is the common Baluch Rock Gecko, a beautiful pink hued reptile common in the desert.
There are at least a hundred lizard species in Saudi Arabia; many perhaps unknown in the west. The Saudis are not known as great naturalists and species identification is a challenge. Geckos of almost pure white emerge at night and big pot bellied geckos haunt wadi caves. Large desert monitors prowl the land as well. For any reptile enthusiast the Kingdom is a potential treasure trove. Transportation is not difficult, nor particularly expensive. There are daily round trip flights from Atlanta to Dubai; ticket prices run from one thousand to three thousand dollars depending on the season. From Dubai it is a short hop via Saudi Air to King Kahled Airport in Riyadh. Don't worry about living arrangements; there are many top notch hotels in Dubai and Riyadh. April through June are the best months to visit; the heat is not so furnace like and it is warm enough to make the reptiles comfortable.
Getting into the desert is easy. King Fahd Highway runs through Riyadh and will get you out into the wilderness in short order. A word of warning about driving - it is dangerous, very, very dangerous! Saudis are utterly reckless and pay no attention whatever to speed limits, stops signs, or traffic signals. Do not think that because you have driven in New York or Boston that you are prepared. The hazards in our big cities are nothing compared to Riyadh.
For sightseeing and herping in the Riyadh area two locations are in the absolute must see category: Thumamah and the Tuwayq Mountains. Al Amariyah is a Saudi national park and is an intriguing complex of cliffs, deep wadis, and hidden valleys. In addition to being fertile herping grounds, Al Amariyah is a fossil hunter's dream. Entire hillsides are comprised of the fossilized remains of coral, shells, and sponges. Plush Bedouin style tents are available for overnight stays. The Tuwayq Mountains, also known as the "Edge of the World," is an astounding ridge of desert cliffs that stop abruptly and overlook a desert plain that seems to go on to infinity. Overnight stays are possible, but bring a tent or sleep in your vehicle.
Dos and Don'ts:
All of this is really not so difficult to deal with. The desert is hot and dry so use common sense. Going without a beer for a week or two is not a terrible trial. Western style restaurants and major restaurant chains are everywhere. You'll eat well (minus the pork). Politics and religion aside, Saudi Arabia is a fascinating country. You'll see an extraordinary array of wildlife, landscapes that will haunt your memory - and a lot of lizards.
AFGHAN ARABIA WILD