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Land Snakes of the United Arab Emirates and Surrounds

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By Bish Brown

(The following article appeared in two parts in the October 1991 [No. 14] and November 1991 [No. 15] issues of the ENHG Al Ain Newsletter. J.N.B. [Bish] Brown was a member of the Abu Dhabi chapter of the Emirates Natural History Group and, at the time of this article, was based at the Centre for Documentation and Research in Abu Dhabi.)

Seventeen species of snakes have been collected and identified in the United Arab Emirates and surrounds, including the Musandam Peninsula of Oman, during the past 40 years. Of these, four are sea snakes and that will not be dealt with here.

Snakes have their place in the food chain, being both hunters and hunted. On balance, in the UAE, they probably do more good than harm, but humans are inevitably brought up to think of them all as dangerous. A snake is usually something to be killed on sight, whether it is harmless or a potential danger. I do not wish to underestimate the seriousness of snakebite, but with care snakebites should easily be avoided. When did you last hear of someone being bitten by a snake in the UAE? Although several colubrid species of snake have rear fangs that are capable of injecting venom into their prey, it would probably not be in sufficient quantity to cause great harm to a human. The four species in the Viper family (Nos 1811 to 1825) are front-fanged and potentially the most dangerous ones, which should be left alone when encountered. Even so, these snakes use their venom to subdue their prey and not usually for aggression.

Snakes are warm weather creatures, relying on external heat to maintain their body temperatures. They are rarely seen on very cold days, and even in the mild winters here may well hibernate for short periods. The full heat of the summer sun would also be fatal for them, as they cannot stand high temperatures. Movement over hot ground would be painful, so they are most likely to be seen in the early morning, late afternoon, or at night.

The distribution of snakes in the UAE in this note is based in part: on a table prepared by John Gasparetti of specimens collected from this area and found in various overseas museums; personal communications, particularly with Dr. E.N. Arnold of the Natural History Museum in London; ENHG records; and my own observations. That there are few records from east of the Hajjar mountains may be significant. It could mean there are fewer species, or it could be that there were fewer observers in that area over the past 40 years or so.

In 1989, of the 1 192 dead snakes delivered to me by the Municipality in Abu Dhabi, 750 [63%] were identified as vipers of two different species (Cerastes cerastes and Echis carinatus). They were reported to have come from two areas known as Ajban and Rawdah al Reef, both closed to the Abu Dhabi-Dubai road. Details of when they were caught (i.e. time of day) were not provided, though most were probably found at night. Four other specimens were represented, namely Eryx jayakari, Lytorhynchus diadema, Malpolon moilensis, and Psammophis schokari. It was noted that many of these less dangerous, but longer snakes, were the ones most mutilated when killed. This could indicate that the workers felt that they were in fact more dangerous than the vipers. Alternatively, they probably moved much faster over the sand and needed to be struck more times to ensure capture.

Although a color description has been included, color is often very variable and not always a reliable way of identifying a snake. The general shape of the viper family with a broad triangular hear, thin neck, stubby body, and very short tail is probably more reliable. Even so, a small young viper may not show all these features but still be capable of injecting a fairly large dose of poison.

Most vipers, when approached, make a loud apparent hissing sound by rubbing their serrated scales in opposite directions. If you hear this sound, stop, look around, and move cautiously away. Prevention is better than cure! Never walk around barefooted, with open shoes, or barelegged when camping on sandy or gravelly desert, or in wadis, especially at night. Carry a torch. Vipers usually move with a side-winding motion, which leaves a series of offset parallel lines. Collubrid snakes make a straight, continuous S-shaped sideways undulating track.

Cobras have not been found in the UAE to date.



Sub order - serpents - snakes Family Typhlopidae (Worm snakes)
1602 Rhamphotyphlops braminus (Flower-pot snake)

This very tiny, harmless snake measuring only 170 mm in length, 3 mm in diameter, and with a short 4mm tail, was found in Dubai in 1982 [A.D. Garner]. It could be quite widespread, but not very often recorded. Color may be variable, but in Arabia is generally pinkish. It lives underground and its diet of termites and ants make it beneficial to gardeners. Probably imported and transported in soil along with plants.

Family Leptotyphlopidae (Thread snakes)
1604 Leptotyphlops macrorhynchus (Thread snake)

Lives underground in soil and recorded from Sharjah in 1980 [E.N. Arnold] and Al Ain in 1980 [P. Dickenson]. Up to 200 mm in length, 3 mm in diameter and tail of 17 mm. Two were discovered at Ad Door during archaeological excavations in 1989 [J. Martin]. They were only 150 mm long and pink in color. The small number of records probably does not reflect a much wider distribution. Harmless.

Family Boidae (Sand boas)
1622 Eryx jayakari (Sand boa)

The only true constricting snake in the Emirates. It rarely reaches more than 600 mm in length. Its wedge shaped head enables it to travel beneath the sand surface in search of prey. The background color is pale orange-brown with dark brown traverse bands. The eyes are placed high on top of the head and have round black pupils that change to narrow slits to daylight [Gross, Gazelle Vol.1, No. 6]. Even though it has no poison, it will still make mock "strikes" if it is provoked. It has been recorded from Sharjah 1944 and 1972; Buraimi 1950; Al Ain 1990 [A. Bott]; Abu Dhabi area 1964, 1981, 1990 [C. Adams]; Jebel Faiyah 1971; Ras al Khaimah; Dubai 1989 [A. Dickson]; Sir Bani Yas Island. Harmless.

Family Colubridae [Typical snakes]
1660 Coluber rhoderhachis (Cliff racer)

A common, harmless snake of moist wadis and rock areas. Quite often long and very thin, it moves rapidly over rough terrain and is able to climb almost vertical rock faces. Its color and pattern are variable, usually with a light gray or fawn background and dark gray or dark brown transverse stripes across the back. There is a small white stripe through the eye. It has been recorded from Dhaid 1971; Wadi Hatta 1976; Huwaylat; Siji; Ghayl (RAK) 1983; Wadi Shawkah, Wadi Fay 1983; Jazirah Daimaniyat 1978 and Kasab both in Musandam. In 1988 at Hayl Fort [Brown], one was seen to climb two feet up a wall and catch a fan-footed lizard (Ptyodactylus Hasselquistii) around the middle. The lizard in turn grabbed the snake in its mouth and both were locked together, so that they could be picked up. The snake eventually let go the lizard and was released. I retained the lizard for five hours, but as it showed no signs of poisoning, it too was released. Maximum length 1200 mm.


1662 Coluber ventromaculatus (Rat snake)

A dead specimen of this harmless snake was obtained from the island of Sir Bani Yas in August 1989 [Brown] and this is believed to be the first confirmed record for the Emirates. They are apparently common, but are killed on sight as they are thought to be dangerous. They hunt in daylight and their diet of rats and mice makes them beneficial. The specimen was 871 mm long, very slender, head dark with large scales, body light gray with darker lines and blotches. They can survive in very arid conditions, as one live specimen was captured in June 1991 during tree planting operations well away from the nearest water. Maximum length 1000 mm.


1670 Lytorhynchus diadema (Leaf-nosed snake)

A small, harmless, nocturnal snake. Its background color is light fawn and there are approximately 41 dark brown blotches along its back from immediately behind the head to the tip of the tail. The underside is off-white. There is a broad dark band between the eyes. It has been found in Jebel Dhanna 1963; Abu Dhabi area; Al Hamra 1971; Sharjah 1970 and 1972; Sahil 1981; Sweihan; Dubai 1990 [M. Jongbloed]. Maximum length 450 mm.


1675 Malpolon moilensis (Arabian rear-fang snake)

One of the commoner snakes in the central and western region of the UAE. Most often encountered during daylight hours, but in hot weather it tends to emerge after sundown. Quite often, it can be found under manmade debris on gravelly or semi-sandy areas. Color is variable light or dark sandy brown with darker brown or blackish spots. If provoked, it sometimes raises its head and the front part of its body, flattens its neck and advances towards the adversary looking like a cobra. It has been recorded at Buraimi 1951; Jebel Dhanna 1963; Abu Dhabi area 1971; Sweihan road 1980-85 [Brown]. One was seen emerging from a jerboa hole on the Madam Plain in April 1991 [Brown]. Most commonly found as road casualties. Food taken from dead specimens included jerboa/gerbil, sand boa and small geckoes. Maximum length 1100 mm.


1690 Psammophis schokari (Variable sand snake)

A long, usually quite slim snake with a long heavily scaled head and obvious neck. The eye pupil is round and there is a dark brown stripe from the snout through the eye and continuing along the body. The body is usually light fawn with white, yellowish or dark brown longitudinal stripes, although the stripes are not always present in some specimens. Food taken from a dead specimen included a large lacertid lizard. In the stomach of one 1080 mm long adult, there was a 630 mm snake of the same species. The tail is about one third of the total maximum length of 1200 mm. It moves very quickly with a straight S-shaped sideways undulation.


1694 Spalerosophis diadema cliffordii (Clifford's snake)

This is not a common snake, having been reported only once from the Tayyibah plain between Dibba and Masafi in 1971. Its diet of rates and mice makes it beneficial to man, and it is likely to be found close to human habitation. Maximum length 1100 mm. Color very variable being either brown or gray with a series of dark spots along the back.





Family Biperidae [Vipers]
1811 Cerastes cerastes gasparetti (Sand viper)

Usually inhabiting sandy areas, where there is some low vegetation, it is the largest viper in the UAE. Most active at night, it may also be encountered sun bathing at the entrance to a hole under a bush. A potentially dangerous snake, having large venom injection fangs at the front of its mouth. The poison is potent and the bite leaves two distinct puncture marks in the skin. Its appearance is quite stubby, the head triangular in shape with a distinctly thinner neck, very heavy body, and a short yellowish tail. Color can be variable to match its habitat, but is generally sandy brown with darker transverse bands and blotches. Occasionally, a specimen may have a scaly horn above each eye and is called a "horned viper", but it is the same species. It has been recorded near Abu Dhabi, though not on the island; Liwa; Shah; Asab; Bu Hasa; al Hamra; Jebel Dhana; near Al Ain; Sharjah. Maximum length 800 mm.


1815 Echis carinatus (Saw-scaled viper)

Probably the most aggressive of the vipers, it has been found on offshore islands, along the coast north-east from Abu Dhabi through to Ras Ghanada, Dubai, Sharjah to Ras al Khaimah and inland to the hills around Mileiha, Wadi Shawkah, Munay, Dayd and Manama. Usually more colorful than C. cerastes, it is dark sandy brown with a series of white markings down the back linked by a black line, giving the impression of a zigzag. Quite often there is a mark like a forward pointing arrow on the head. Definitely dangerous and should be avoided. Maximum length 600 mm.


1820 Echis coloratus (Carpet viper)

The carpet vipers seen in the UAE are generally a sandy brown color with numerous whitish markings edged in dark brown along the back from neck to tail. They have been reported sunbathing on rocks near water in wadis in the early morning. However, they are more frequently encountered just after sunset or at night. Great care should be exercised when climbing rocks as they often rest in crevices. They have been recorded at Siji 1971/3; Khatt 1972; Wadi Asima 1973; Manama 1973; Hatta 1982 [Brown] and 1987 [Fuelner]. Potentially quite dangerous. Maximum length 600 mm.


1825 Pseudocerastes persicus (False horned viper)

Rarely recorded, it has been seen only in the Musandam Peninsula at Ras al Harra. A snake that could have been this species was photographed near the top of the Wadi Khabb Shamsi in 1989 [Woodward]. It was brownish in color and appeared to have raised tubercles above the eyes. Maximum length 600/700 mm.




Photographs of nearly all of the above snakes will be found in one or more of the mentioned references. The numbering system used is that adopted by the Emirates Natural History Group for recording purposes.

I am always happy to receive reports of snakes, or indeed any reptiles seen in the Emirates. If you are unsure of an identification, a written note or photograph may help.

References

Brown, J.N.B., 1989. ADCO Annual Report 1989.
Brown, J.N.B., 1977-90. Emirates Natural History Group Bulletin, Nos 1 - 42.
Gallagher, M.D., 1990. Snakes of the Arabian Gulf and Oman.
Gasperetti, J., 1988. Snakes of Arabia. Fauna of Saudi Arabia, Volume 9.

Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan