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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
1670 Lytorhynchus diadema
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
1694 Spalerosophis diadema cliffordii
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
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
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
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.
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.