Burton’s Carpet Viper

Although I’m super excited to share this venomous viper with you today, I’m also super thankful that I don’t come across them more often on my wanderings. Why? Because “species in the genus Echis are responsible for the greatest proportion of all snake bite fatalities in humans.” (ARKive) Eek!

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This Burton’s Carpet Viper (Echis coloratus) was spotted in a wadi in Dahab, moving away from us – or we wouldn’t have been so excited to come across it! But it took its time crossing the narrow path in front of us and then slithering its way up the sunny rocks, giving us plenty of time to observe its beauty.

These vipers have short, stocky bodies and wide heads and can grow to lengths of 75 cm. Their backs are covered with a pattern of pinkish-grayish blotches that have a darker outline. They also have dark gray bands that stretch from the eyes to the corners of their mouths. Their coloration gives them excellent camouflage against the rocks.

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Called hayiah or um jenah by the Jebaliya Bedouin, these vipers are fairly common in South Sinai and can be found at elevations up to 2,000 m. They typically live in rocky mountainous regions, on steep slopes, ledges, cliffs, and in rocky wadis. They are nocturnal and crepuscular, active during twilight. But we spotted this one on the move at around 9 in the morning.

Another name for these vipers is the Palestine Saw-Scaled Viper. This name comes from their defensive strategy of rubbing their coils together to produce a strong hissing or sawing sound when approached, especially to deter humans as they don’t want to waste their precious venom on us. Other names include the Arabian Saw-Scaled Viper, Mid-East Saw-Scaled Viper, and the Painted Carpet Viper.

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Burton’s Carpet Vipers are unusual among vipers as they lay eggs, whereas their relatives give birth to live young. The vipers feed on small mammals, birds, lizards, and large invertebrates. They have long, hollow fangs that they can reportedly fold back against the roof of their mouths when not in use.

Seeing as this viper and its relatives are considered to be among the world’s most dangerous snakes, I will be sure to pay better attention when I set up camp in the desert!

References:

Aly, D. & Khalil, R. (2011). Wildlife in South Sinai. Cairo.Funded by the E.U. in cooperation with G.O.S.S.

Baha El-Din, Sherif. (2006).  A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Palestine saw-scaled viper (Echis coloratus) on ARKive.org

Egyptian Fan-toed Gecko

These little lizards have been showing their faces around my house and garden lately, so I’d thought we’d take a break from the buzzers and introduce the Egyptian Fan-toed Gecko!

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Also known as the Common Fan-footed Gecko, Ptyodactylus hasselquistii is reported to be “the most abundant of all lizards inhabiting the lowland wadis of South Sinai.” You’ve probably seen them around. They are easily recognized by their flared or fan-shaped toes.

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Ptyodactylus hasselquistii by Todd Pierson, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

The gecko pictured above was hanging out on my ceiling several weeks ago. Fan-toed Geckos are excellent climbers and can run easily across boulders, vertical rock walls, and cave roofs, as well as under ledges and overhangs. The geckos are able to do this thanks to thousands of microscopic toe scales – hooked, hair-like projections that allow the lizards to grip almost any surface.

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Called burs abu kaf in Arabic, these medium-sized geckos have flat, narrow heads, short and slender limbs, and long tails. Their color varies greatly depending on their surroundings, but they typically have dark bands across their back and tails. Fan-toed Geckos are generally nocturnal, coming out at night to forage on insects and arachnids, but they can also be active during the day, especially when the weather is colder and they can be found sunning themselves in a sheltered and safe location.

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Most lizards are usually mute, but not these geckos! They will make a chirping or clicking sound – tek, tek, tek – to communicate with other geckos. (In fact, during my afternoon nap today, I’m pretty sure I heard the one that my cat chased into the kitchen a few days ago. Poor thing is probably stressed and wanting to get back outside.)

Another fun fact: Geckos do not have eyelids. Instead their eyes are covered with a membrane that they must lick to clean and keep moist.

Want to know more? Head over to Mother Nature Network and read 12 Surprising Facts about Geckos.

Note: There is another species of Fan-toed Gecko in South Sinai – the Spotted Fan-toed Gecko (P. guttatus), which the guidebook says is the species found above 800 meters. There may also be several subspecies of Ptyodactylus hasselquistii, but this is still debated by scientists.

References:

Baha El-Din, Sherif. (2006).  A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Common fan-footed gecko (Ptyodactylus hasselquistii) on ARKive.org.

 

Bosc’s Fringe-toed Lizard

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Fringe-toed Lizards are Egypt’s most prominent reptiles and this species, the Bosc’s Fringe-toed Lizard (Acanthodactylus boskianus), is the most common diurnal reptile in Sinai. Diurnal means “active during the day” and these guys start to venture out of their burrows at mid-morning, on the lookout for insects like flies, beetles, and grasshoppers, or perhaps some spiders, to munch on.

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There is a lot of variation when it comes to the number of scales, size, shape of head, pattern, and color of Bosc’s Fringe-toed Lizards. They can range in color from dark or olive grey to reddish brown and their scales are keeled, or ridged. There are five dark-colored stripes on their backs, but these fade with age. Males are generally larger than females and juveniles often have blue tails. During breeding season, the tails of females turn red.

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These fringe-toed lizards inhabit deserts and semi-deserts. The lateral fringes on their toes are a special adaptation to help them move across loose sand. When wandering through wadis, you will often see these lizards scuttle ahead of you when they hear you coming, often darting beneath the nearest plant. If you look closely, you can also spot their tracks in the soft sand.

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While on safari two years ago, I was packing up my tent one morning and was surprised to turn around and see mating fringe-toed lizards! I took dozens of photos of them and they did not seem to mind my presence. According to ARKive, “During courtship the male approaches the female with a bent neck, and then runs in semi-circles, whilst probing the female’s body with its tongue.” Probing? Looked more like biting to me, but I’m no lizard!

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If the female is receptive to these advances, she will lift her tail, allowing the male to make contact.

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Looking quite satisfied there, isn’t he? (Yes, I’m projecting.)

References:

Baha El-Din, Sherif. (2006).  A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Bosc’s fringe-toed lizard (Acanthodactylus boskianus) on ARKive.org.

 

 

 

 

 

Schokari Sand Racer

This past weekend we decided to wander along one of our usual routes, and I was treated to an unusual spotting – a sand snake! As we were walking, we passed a large dark boulder where I often spot agama lizards. I was just about to mention this to my friend when I looked down at the rock I was about to step on, suddenly realized that is what not a branch laying across it, and quickly had to swing around to avoid stomping on a snake. Eeek! I’m not completely comfortable with snakes apparently. But he was beautiful! A gorgeous golden-brown color with dark brown patterns. I wish I could share a picture of him, but I guess he was just as scared as me because he slithered away and hid beneath a rock.

We have spotted these sand snakes before, maybe three or four other times, in wadis near Dahab. The first time we saw one, in 2010, it was my husband who almost stepped on the snake. That time though, the snake stayed still long enough for us to take a few photos. And we were able to identify it as a Schokari Sand Racer (Psammophis schokari).

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These snakes are long and slender; they can grow to a length of about 1.5 meters. The patterns and colors of Schokari Sand Racers can vary a lot, ranging from a light sandy-gray with pale patterns to strong, dark contrasting colors.

Since my collection of snake photos is limited (and I’m okay with that!), I turned to Flickr for more images of this desert reptile.

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Psammophis schokari, Morocco – photo by Alexandre Roux, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Notice the dark stripe that runs from the snout, past the eyes, to the back of the head.

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Schokari sand racer in Morocco – photo by Alexandre Roux, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Schokari Sand Racers live in sandy and rocky deserts and prefer places with good vegetation. They are most common in coastal areas. During times of bird migration, these snakes might be found on nearby trees and bushes. Here they wait to feed on the small songbirds that are flying through.

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Psammophis schokari, Israel – photo by Alex Slavenko, CC BY-NC 2.0

Schokari Sand Racers are found throughout the Sinai peninsula and are actually one of the most common snakes in Egypt.

And there’s a reason they’re called Sand Racers – they can reach speeds up to 16 kph when chasing prey! The snakes typically eat lizards, small birds, rodents, and other snakes. After grabbing their prey, they release a venom that immobilizes the animal before swallowing them head first. Despite being venomous, Schokari Sand Racers are generally not a threat to humans as their main defense is their speed. I’m grateful for that. 🙂

Have you come across snakes during any of your wadi wanders? How did you – or  how would you – feel about such an encounter?

References:

Baha El-Din, Sherif. (2006).  A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Schokari sand racer (Psammophis schokari) on ARKive.org

Ornate Spiny-tailed Lizard

It was tough deciding which cool creature I should feature first, but recent discussions on Project Noah had me thinking about Dhabb lizards, so they won!

Ornate Spiny-tailed Lizards (Uromastyx ornata), also called Dhabb Lizards, are one of the larger animals you’ll come across in the wadis of South Sinai, their bodies growing up to 20 cm in length. Dhabb lizards like to bask in the hot desert sun. Males choose a highly visible position to declare their territory to other Dhabbs and to be on the lookout for intruders. If you’re on the lookout while hiking, you can sometimes spot these lizards ahead of you on the rocky sides of the wadis.

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If you proceed slowly and quietly, the lizards will sometimes let you approach and get a closer look.

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But often, when they hear you coming, the lizards scramble on their short, powerful legs into a rocky crevice and all you see is their very distinctive spiny tail.

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Male Dhabbs, like those pictured above, have blue heads and greenish blue backs with bands of black-edged yellow spots. The female and juvenile lizards sport a similar pattern but in reds, browns, and greys. Their coloration overall, however, can vary quite a bit depending on age, sex, and breeding condition.

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Ornate Dhabb lizards are active during the day and they are most active at midday during the hottest months of the year. They are herbivorous, munching mainly on the leaves, seeds, and flowers of desert plants. Occasionally, they might feed on invertebrates like insects and spiders.

A few years ago, while hiking one of our regular routes, my husband and I came across a Dhabb lizard feeding on the lush desert plants underneath an acacia tree. (There had been a bit of winter rain so the wadis were quite green with vegetation. And Dhabbs are strongly associated with acacias.) The Dhabb did not seem bothered by our presence and carried on eating as I sat on a nearby rock with my camera . What a treat it was to be able to watch!

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Ornate Spiny-tailed Lizards are listed as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, the Red List justifies this classification, recognizing that the lizard has gone locally extinct in parts of Egypt and Israel but continues to thrive as a species in Saudi Arabia. The lizards are heavily collected by animal traders despite the fact that exporting this species is illegal in Egypt. In Sinai, Dhabb lizards are also threatened by loss of habitat due to tourist activities, removal of acacia trees for charcoal making, quarrying, and general development.

So, please remember, when visiting Sinai’s spectacular deserts:

Take nothing but pictures,
Leave nothing but footprints,
Kill nothing but time.

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References:

Wilms, T. & Sindaco, R. 2012. Uromastyx ornata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012:e.T198538A2531743.http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012.RLTS.T198538A2531743.en. Downloaded on 08 May 2016.

Baha El-Din, Sherif. (2006).  A Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Egypt. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Ornate spiny-tailed lizard (Uromastyx ornata)  on Arkive.org