AFGHAN ARABIA WILD
Saudi Arabian Snakes
John M. Regan
Some time ago I wrote an article for Reptiles Magazine titled, “Lizards of Arabia.” I was pleased with my clever title and the fact that it was actually published. No doubt about it – in the world of Saudi reptiles, lizards rule. With about one hundred different species climbing around over rocks, sand, walls, and ceilings Saudi Arabia is truly a land of lizards. A recent email, however, got me thinking about Saudi serpents. The lacertilians might have the edge in numbers but snakes outshine everything in the area of pure fascination.
The Reptile Data Base lists 32 species of serpents that range somewhere in or just outside of the Saudi peninsula. I deliberately include the word outside because a variety of sea snakes are found in the clear warm waters surrounding Saudi Arabia. These salt water loving serpents are, like their brethren around the world venomous. Of the land dwelling species 11 are venomous. These include a number of vipers and two species of cobras. The rest of them are relatively small and harmless like the common Sand Racer in the photo.
After a bit of research two species of Saudi Arabian snakes really caught my attention. First up, and perhaps the most oddly fascinating of any snake are the Mole Vipers. Atractaspis engaddensis, commonly known as the Israeli Mole Viper, inhabits the Arabian Peninsula but it is just one of several species of this strange snake that live in this area of the world.
Mole vipers are obviously named for their similarity to the family of mammals we call insectivores. They normally burrow in the sand and attack prey underground. The fangs of mole vipers diverge from the norm as well. While most venomous snakes have a pair of fangs enclosed in sheaths that retract into the animal’s mouth when closed, mole viper fangs are exposed on either side of the snake’s head. This has earned them numerous other nicknames such as Side Stabbers and Stiletto Snakes. The general theory for these laterally exposed fangs is that they are an adaptation for the “close quarter combat” necessary to attack prey in small, underground burrows. The theory makes sense. In a confined space it would be easier for the snake to move its head from side to side instead of wide, open mouthed strike. So far, however, the behavior has not been photographed.
On the far right is the track of what I am pretty sure was left
by some kind of horned viper. These particular tracks were found in
Afghanistan. The other two photographs on the left are examples of
tracks that I found in Saudi Arabia. These kinds of tracks were are
very common in the sandy desert soil over there. Remnants of a
wandering Mole Viper? I cannot say for certain.
On the far right is the track of what I am pretty sure was left by some kind of horned viper. These particular tracks were found in Afghanistan. The other two photographs on the left are examples of tracks that I found in Saudi Arabia. These kinds of tracks were are very common in the sandy desert soil over there. Remnants of a wandering Mole Viper? I cannot say for certain.
Joining the list of venomous serpents with odd head ornaments are the Horned Vipers. The horned vipers are relatively short and thick bodied snakes. Most are sand colored and possess a pair of “horns” that project directly up just behind each of the snake’s eyes. The Arabian Horned Viper, however, sports the most elaborate and showy ornaments. About one inch long and comprised of a single scale they jut straight up with dramatic flair. Although it would seem that these scaly projections somehow serve to protect the snake’s eyes their exact purpose is unknown. Perhaps they provide a degree of eye shade from blaring desert sun, thus improving vision while at the same time creating a small barrier against windblown sand that would also interfere with their sight. Horned vipers, however, are more than ambush predators hiding just under the surface sand to wait for prey. These guys are aggressive predators as well. Primarily active at night their distinctive sidewinder type movement patterns are very evident in the morning light.
References and Photos:
Reptile Data Base
AFGHAN ARABIA WILD