Arxiu d'etiquetes: ophidian

Desert reptiles

Deserts are some of the most extreme habitats on the planet. The Sahara, the Gobi and the Sonora are some examples of warm deserts where the high temperatures and the lack of water pose a great challenge to animals that live in them. Reptiles are one of the animal groups that present the most incredible adaptations for life in deserts. In this entry we’ll explain the difficulties that desert reptiles must face in order to survive, and we’ll introduce you to different species of snakes and lizards that in the deserts have found their home.

REPTILES IN THE DESERT

The characteristic which unites all deserts is the scarce precipitation as, unlike most people think, not all deserts present high temperatures (there are also cold deserts, like the Arctic and the Antarctic, both in danger because of the climate change). Reptiles thrive better in warm deserts than in cold deserts, because the low temperatures would not allow them to develop their life activity.

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Map by Vzb83 of the warm deserts, both arid and semiarid, of the world.

Warm deserts not always have extremely high temperatures. While during the day temperatures may rise up to 45°C, when the sun goes down temperatures fall below freezing point, creating daily oscillations of up to 22°C. The different desert reptiles, being poikilotherms and ectotherms, use different behavioural strategies in order to avoid overheating during the day and to keep their body heat during the night (for example, climbing to elevated areas or sleeping in burrows).

The Namaqua chameleon (Chamaleo namaquensis) regulates its body heat changing its colouration. During sunrise it is black in colour in order to absorb as much radiation of the sun and activate its metabolism. When temperatures become higher, it turns white to reflect solar radiation. Video from BBC.

As we have already stated, the main characteristic of any desert is the lack of water. Generally, in a desert, it rains less than 250 mm of water a year. The scaly and impervious skin of reptiles prevents the loss of water, and their faeces contain uric acid which, compared to urea, is much less soluble in water, allowing them to retain more liquids. Most desert reptiles extract the water they need from their food and some drink water from the dew.

Both the extreme temperatures and the shortage of precipitations make the desert a place with very few living beings. Vegetation is scarce and animals are usually small and secretive. This lack of resources causes desert reptiles to be usually smaller than their cousins from more benevolent environments. Also, these saurians usually exploit any available food resource, although they think twice before wasting their precious energy to get their next meal.

SAND SNAKES

In many sandy deserts we can find various species of snakes (and legless lizards) that have adapted to a life among the dunes. Many of these ophidians share a locomotion method called “sidewinding”, in which they raise their head and neck from the ground and move them laterally while the rest of the body stays on the ground. When they place their head on the ground again they raise their body, making these snakes move laterally in a 45° angle. This method of locomotion makes these snakes move more efficiently in an unstable terrain. It also reduces the contact of their body with an extremely hot substrate, as the body of these ophidians only touches the ground in two points at a time.

As we can see in this video from RoyalPanthera, sidewinding allows desert snakes to move minimizing the contact with the hot terrain.

Many desert ophidians bury themselves in the sand both to avoid sun exposure and to blend in and catch their prey unaware. This has made many desert-dwelling snakes very sensitive to vibrations generated by their prey as it moves through the sand. In addition some species present an overly developed rostral scale (the scale at the tip of their snout), being much thicker in order to aid during excavation in sandy soils.

heterodon_nasicus2
An example of this are the North American snakes of the Heterodon genus, also known as hog-nosed snakes, as they present an elevated rostral scale giving their snout a characteristic shape. Photo of Heterodon nasicus by Dawson.

The horned vipers of the Cerastes genus also present various characteristics that facilitate life in the deserts. These vipers evade high temperatures becoming active at night and they spend the day buried in the sand. Their hunting method consists in burying themselves waiting for a prey to pass by, this way saving most of their energy. It is believed that their horn-shaped supraocular scales cover their eyes when they are buried in order to protect them from the sand.

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Photo by Tambako The Jaguar of a Sahara sand viper (Cerastes vipera), a species from North Africa and the Sinai Peninsula.

SPINY CRITTERS

In different deserts of the world we find reptiles with their bodies covered in spines. This not only provides them with certain protection against predators, but is also helps them blend in in a habitat with plenty of thorny plants. Two of these animals are members of the Iguania suborder: the thorny devil and the horned lizards.

thorny_-_christopher_watson
Photo of a thorny devil (Moloch horridus) by Christopher Watson.

The thorny devil (Moloch horridus) is an agamid that lives in the Australian sandy deserts. This lizard presents spines all over its body, making it difficult for its predators to swallow. It also has a protuberance behind its head that acts as a fat storage.  When it feels threatened, it hides its real head between its legs and it exposes its neck protuberance as a decoy head. Probably, the most interesting adaptation of this animal is the system of small grooves among its scales, which collect any water that contacts its skin and conducts it directly to its mouth.

Horned lizards (Phrynosoma genus, affectionately called “horny toads”) are iguanids which are found in different arid habitats of North America. Similarly to the thorny devil, their body is covered in spines making them hard to eat for their predators. Also, when they are caught, they inflate their bodies to make the task even more difficult. Finally, some species like the Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) are known for their autohaemorrhagic abilities: when they feel cornered they squirt a stream of stinky blood from their eyes which scares away most predators.

federal_horned_toad_pic_crop
Photo from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service of a Texan horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum).

As you have seen, in the deserts we can find reptiles with some of the most inventive (and disturbing) adaptations of the world. These are only a few examples of the astonishing diversity of squamates that are found in the deserts of the world, which only seek to survive the harsh conditions of these extreme environments. Sometimes, it’s just a matter to avoid burning your feet with the hot sand.

Video from BBCWorldwide of a shovel snouted lizard (Zeros anchietae) making the “thermal dance” in order to diminish the contact with the hot sand.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted during the elaboration of this entry:

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Anuncis

Having no legs doesn’t make you a snake

With the arrival of good weather it becomes more probable that we go out to the forest to enjoy nature, and the possibilities of finding snakes and other reptiles sunbathing on a stone or running among the grass increase. Snakes are the best known legless squamates, even though there are many other species of lizards which have also lost their extremities during their evolution. In this entry I’ll explain some distinctive characteristics of the three species of legless lizards that we can find in the Iberian Peninsula, the slow worm and the Iberian worm lizards.

LIMBLESS LIZARDS

The loss of legs is an evolutionary phenomenon that has happened more than once in the Squamata order. In fact, currently there are at least nine different lineages of legless lizards (not counting snakes).  In most groups this happens as an adaptation to a subterranean lifestyle (these usually present a short, round tail) or to a life among grass and vegetation (which usually show a long, slender tail).

1Scheltopusik or European legless lizard (Ophisaurus apodus) a limbless lizard of the Anguidae family, photo by Tim Vickers.

Even though technically snakes are also legless lizards, unlike other groups, some ophidian species may pose a potential threat to human beings. This is why it’s important to know how to tell a snake from a legless lizard. There are some characteristics which can help us to differentiate a snake from a non-venomous lizard:

  • Snakes haven’t got movable eyelids, while the rest of lizards do have.
  • Ophidians have no external ear, while in most lizards the auditory channel can be appreciated.
  • Snakes present specialized ventral scales for locomotion, while most limbless lizards have to move with the aid of the irregularities of the substrate.
  • Many legless lizards can shed their tail as a defense mechanism (caudal autotomy) while snakes can’t.
www.public-domain-image.com (public domain image)Picture of a western green mamba (Dendroaspis viridis), a typical ophidian, by Jon Sullivan.

In a previous entry we already explained the different snake species that can be found on the Iberian Peninsula. Below, I’ll present you the three different species of legless lizards that we can find when we go out to visit natural landscapes of our country.

SLOW WORM (Anguis fragilis)

The slow worm is a legless squamate within the anguid family (Anguidae), in which we find the Anguinae subfamily, in which many species have lost their limbs or have them extremely reduced in size. The slow worm’s scientific name, Anguis fragilis, means literally “fragile snake”, referring to its ability to shed its tail to escape predators.

SONY DSCPhoto of a slow worm close to Nismes, by © Hans Hillewaert.

Description

The slow worm is a small lizard with no visible legs, which can grow to 40 centimetres in length. It presents shiny, smooth scales and a small head with a poorly differentiated neck. Unlike snakes, it has movable eyelids, a forked tong and a small tympanic aperture.

Juvenile individuals usually have a golden or silver brown colouration with their sides and belly of a black coloration. Females and juveniles are similarly colored, being ochre with a dark brown or black belly and a black dorsal band, even though their coloration varies a lot.

Slow Worm (Anguis fragilis), seen near Hitchin, Hertfordshire, during the final test of the August GOC walk, on 3 August 2013. It's the first ever reptile I've photographed, and indeed, the first I've seen in the wild! So I was very happy.Female slow worm, photografied at Hertfordshire by Peter O'Connor.

Males are more uniformly colored, with its back and sides of brown or grey coloration, while some older individuals show dark brown spots on their sides which may become of a bluish coloration with age.

6Male slow worm, with distinctive blue spots, by Maria Haanpää.

Habitat and distribution

It’s a widely distributed reptile throughout most Europe, all being found from the Iberian Peninsula, England and Scotland up to Iran and west Siberia, passing through Greece and Turkey.

7Map showing the slow worm's distribution, by Osado.

In the Iberian Peninsula it is found mainly in the northern half, occupying most Galicia, Asturias, Basque Country and Castile and León and the north of Aragon and Catalonia. The slow worm is a common species that goes unnoticed thanks to its inconspicuous customs. We can find slow worms in a wide variety of open habitats, such as grasslands, scrublands and open forests.

8Distribution of the slow worm in Spain, by Lameiro.

Unlike most reptiles, which look for sunny places to warm up, the slow worm has a strong preference for wet and shadowy places, with plenty of low growing vegetation. It usually shelters under stones, tree logs, plastic wastes or small mammal’s burrows.

Male slow worm (Anguis fragilis)A male slow worm on its habitat, on the Netherlands, by Viridiflavus.

Biology and ecology

In the Iberian Peninsula the slow worm is active from the end of February to November, when hibernation starts, during which groups of up to 100 individuals can be found. Mating lasts from middle March up to July, during which males can be found fighting. Their gestation period lasts about three months, they are ovoviviparous species (females produce eggs but babies hatch inside their mothers) and females give birth from 2 to 22 young.

Many different species of reptiles, birds and mammals prey upon this species. As other lizards, the slow worm can shed its tail as a defence mechanism, which continues moving while the rest of the animal flees. The tail starts to regenerate after a few weeks.

10Picture of a slow worm after shedding its tail, by SuperMarker.

Slow worms feed on snails, earthworms, insect larvae and many other small invertebrates, because, unlike snakes, they can’t unhinge their jaws to swallow big prey. This animal has been unfairly persecuted even though it is a helpful species for fields and gardens, as it feeds on many species considered pests for many cultivated plants.

11Photo of a slow worm feeding on a slug, by Biosphoto/Thiebaud Gontard.

WORM LIZARDS (Blanus cinereus and Blanus mariae)

Amphisbaenians (clade Amphisbaenia) are a group of highly specialized subterranean squamates known as worm lizards. Even though externally they resemble some primitive snakes, they are different in that, while snakes first lost their front limbs and their left lung, worm lizards first lost their hind limbs and their right lung. Currently about 180 species of amphisbaenians are known, two of which are found on the Iberian Peninsula: the Iberian worm lizard (Blanus cinereus) and the Maria’s worm lizard (Blanus mariae), both differentiated by distribution and genomic studies.

12Iberian worm lizard in Andalusia, photo by Antonio.

Description

Worm lizards are reptiles strictly adapted to a subterranean lifestyle, with bodies externally resembling that of earthworms. At first it’s difficult to tell the head and the tail apart, which is useful for worm lizards when it comes to escape predators (just as the slow worm, worm lizards can shed their tail, which doesn’t regenerate completely).

SONY DSCIberian worm lizard next to Murcia. Note the similarity between head and tail. Photo by Jorozko.

Adults may measure more than 15 centimetres in length, with some individuals reaching 30 centimetres. The head is blunt and short, with a wide frontal scale to aid them while digging. Their eyes are vestigial (they can only detect changes of light intensity) and are covered by scales, while they have very acute hearing and smell.

14Photo of the head of an Iberian worm lizard, where you can see the scale-covered eyes, by J. Gállego.

Scales are rectangular and are distributed evenly forming rings around their body. Coloration goes from pale pink, to dark purple and brown, and there is no sexual dimorphism between males and females. Like all amphisbaenians, worm lizards can move both forwards and backwards.

15Adult worm lizard next to Cáceres, in which we can see the rectangular and evenly distributed scales. Photo by Mario Modesto.

Habitat and distribution

The two peninsular species of worm lizard are found exclusively in the Iberian Peninsula, except in the north and northeast, from sea level up to 1800 metres of altitude (in Sierra Nevada). The Iberian worm lizard (Blanus cinereus) is more widely distributed, while the Maria’s worm lizard (Blanus mariae) occupies the southwest of the peninsula.

16Distribution map including both Blanus cinereus and Blanus mariae, by Carlosblh.

Worm lizards are found in a wide variety of habitats, from forests of holm oaks, pine trees and oaks to crops, gardens and sandy areas. They have subterranean habits, and usually take shelter under rocks and logs. Like the slow worm, worm lizards prefer humid zones and with soft soil, easy to dig into.

Biology and ecology

Worm lizards are active all year round, even though their activity specially intensifies during spring, summer and after rainy weather. During the day they usually shelter in underground galleries or under logs and rocks. In winter they maintain their body heat, moving through galleries at different depths or staying under sun warmed stones.

P1050134Photo of an Iberian worm lizard next to Cádiz, photo by Jorge López.

Their diet is composed of insects, arachnids and other arthropods found between leaves or underground. Worm lizards are eaten by a great number of terrestrial vertebrates, and their defense mechanisms include: tail scission, escaping to some of their galleries or curling up to form a ball.

Video of an Iberian worm lizard from Albacete, by Encarna Buendia.

The reproduction season goes from February to June, while mating usually occurs between April and May. Females lay a single relatively large egg, which is abandoned buried underground. Incubation period lasts for 69 to 82 days, and the newborn measure between 78 to 86 millimetres.

16Photo of a pair of Iberian worm lizards in a garden near Seville, by Richard Avery.

OTHER LEGLESS LIZARDS

As I’ve already said, apart from the species described above, there are many other groups of limbless lizards over the world. Some of these other groups are:

Scincidae family: A family of chubby, short legged lizards, many of which have no functional limbs. In the Iberian Peninsula we can find two species: the Bedriaga’s skink (Chalcides bedriagai) and the western three-toed skink (Chalcides striatus).

Benny_Trapp_Chalcides_striatus_Spanien
Western three-toed skink, photo by Benny Trapp.

Pygopodidae family: A group of lizards with absent or reduced limbs, related to geckos.

17Photo of a Burton's legless lizard (Lialis burtoni) from southern Australia, by Matt.

Dibamidae family: Legless tropical lizards of subterranean habits.

18Photo of a dibamid called Anelytropsis papillosus, taken from Tod W. Reeder et al.

Anniellidae family: American legless lizards.

19A legless lizard from the Anniella genus, form California, by Marlin Harms.

Even if most legless lizards are harmless, it doesn’t mean we can touch them and handle them in any form we want when we find them in nature. Legless lizards, as most wild animals, are easly stressed by human handling and shouldn’t be handled except for scientific purposes. The best way to enjoy nature is by observing it without disturbing it.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted during the elaboration of this entry:

Difusió-anglès

Iberian ophidians: nice snakes and venomous vipers

In my first blog entry I talked about the different kinds of snake that exist based on their dentition. In this entry, I’ll explain what species of ophidian we can find in the Iberian Peninsula, which species are venomous and which aren’t, and how we can identify the different species we can find when we are on the field. As we will see in this entry, snakes have been unfairly demonized, as the species in the Iberian Peninsula pose no threat to us.

INTRODUCTION

In the Iberian Peninsula we can find 13 different species of snakes, with representatives of three of the four types of dentition I talked about in my last post. There aren’t any proteroglyphous snake because the members of the Elapidae family are restricted to tropical and subtropical habitats. Most of the iberian species are snakes of the Colubridae family (aglyphous or opisthoglyphous) or vipers and adders of the Viperidae family (solenoglyphous).

Natrix maura bo
Viperine water snake (Natrix maura), aglyphous
Malpolon bo
Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus), opisthoglyphous
Vipera latastei bo
Snub-nosed viper (Vipera latastei), solenoglyphous

COLUBRIDS vs. VIPERS

When we find a snake in the wild it’s important to know if that animal is a colubrid or a viper. Bites from Iberian colubrids are mostly harmless because they have either an unspecialized non-venomous dentition (aglyphous) or posterior venomous fangs (opisthoglyphous) which usually doesn’t inject venom and even if they do, normally they don’t inject enough venom for it to be dangerous. On the other hand, as Iberian vipers are solenoglyphous, they inject large quantities of venom, being vipers responsible for most of the snake bite accidents in Spain. Yet, bites are extremely rare, and most happen after a too prolonged manipulation of the animal.

To identify a snake as a colubrid or a viper there are some anatomical characteristics which tell them apart. These characteristics are usually only applicable to iberian ophidians; species from outside the Iberian Peninsula may present different combinations of characters.

The most cited character is the pupil. Normally vipers show an elliptic, slit-like pupil, while colubrids present a round pupil. However, this character is variable, because with low-light conditions a viper’s pupil may look round as the eyes of these animals can adapt to darkness.

PUPILA
Colubrid with round pupil (ringed snake, Natrix natrix) and viperid with elliptic pupil (snub-nosed viper, Vipera latastei). Photos by Honorio Iglesias.

The second character refers to the shape of the body. While colubrids are mostly thin, have an undifferentiated neck and a long slim tail, vipers have a triangular-shaped head with a neck differentiated from the body, and a short and conic tail.

BODYYY
Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus) and Baskian viper (Vipera seoanei, photo by Daniel Gómez)

Although it may be difficult to look at, scales can be useful to tell colubrids and vipers apart. Vipers always present keeled scales, which have a little keel-like protuberance longitudinally on it. On the other side, even though they can have some keeled scales, most colubrids present smooth scales.

SCALES
Smooth scales of a horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis, photo by Saúl Yubero) and keeled scales of an asp viper (Vipera aspis, photo by Grégoire Meier)

Finally, while colubrids are active animals and usually flee before we can get close to them, vipers rely on their camouflage to avoid predation. Therefore, they stay still so we can’t see them, and may bite if they feel cornered.

IBERIAN OPHIDIANS

Colubridae family:

Coronella genus: Known as smooth snakes. In the Iberian Peninsula we can find the northern smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) which presents a dark mask-like spot covering from the nasal openings up to the neck and dark irregular markings on its back, and the southern smooth snake (Coronella girondica) which presents a pair of parietal marks and dark transversal spots on its back.

Coronella aust gir
Northern smooth snake (Coronella austriaca, left, photo by Christian Fischer) and southern smooth snake (Coronella girondica, right, photo by Evaristo Corral)

Hierophis genus: The green whip snake or western whip snake (Hierophis viridiflavus) is a brightly-coloured snake with a pattern of black, yellow and green spots over its body. Even though they can grow up to 170 cm of length they are not venomous. It can be usually found from temperate forests to crop fields, and even in abandoned buildings.

Hierophis viri
Green whip snake (Hierophis viridiflavus), juvenile (left, by Polypterus) and adult (right)

Natrix genus: Commonly known as water snakes due to their affinity for aquatic habitats. In the Iberian Peninsula we can find two species, the viperine water snake (Natrix maura) named after its zigzag marking and its keeled scales similar to a viper, and the grass or iberian ringed snake (Natrix astreptophora) which presents reddish pupils, an extremely variable coloration and a black “ring” in juvenile individuals.

Natrix mau nat
Viperine water snake (Natrix maura, left, photo by Honorio Iglesias) and iberian ringed snake (Natrix astreptophora, right photo of Fafner).

Zamenis genus: The Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus) is a slim, long and harmless colubrid with a characteristically narrow and elongated skull. It is normally found on forested areas, with different microclimatic variations to aid it on its thermoregulation. This species is the one represented coiled around the rod of Aesculapius and the Bowl of Hygieia, symbols of medicine and pharmacy respectively.

Zamensis long
Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus) (left by Amiralles).

Hemorrhois genus: The horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis) is an aglyphous colubrid that, even if it may bite if touched or grabbed, it’s not considered a venomous species. It presents a transversal mark on its head from one eye to the other, and another mark in the shape of a horseshoe on its neck, which gives this species its common name. It’s a species typical of rocky habitats.

Hemorrhois hippo
Horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis). Photos by Accipiter and Raúl León.

Rhinechis genus: The ladder snake (Rhinechis scalaris) receives its common name due to the stripes that juvenile specimens present on their back, similar to a ladder, even though adult individuals may present only longitudinal stripes on their body without any transversal marks connecting them. Despite being an apparently aggressive snake, it rarely bites and is harmless to human beings.

Rhinechis sca
Ladder snake (Rhinechis scalaris). Photos by Matt Wilson (left) and by Fernando Fañanás (right).

Macroprotodon genus: This is one of the few venomous species in the Peninsula. The western false smooth snake (Macroprotodon brevis) is an animal common on many different Mediterranean habitats. Even if it’s venomous, its small opisthogyphous mouth and its calm behavior make it totally harmless. It is characterised by a dark mark on the back of its head, and its short and flattened skull.

Macroprotodon brev
Western false smooth snake (Macroprotodon brevis). Photos by Saúl Yubero and Amiralles, respectively.

Malpolon genus: With specimens growing up to two and a half meters of length, the Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus) is the largest ophidian of the peninsula. Due to its opisthoglyphous dentition it normally doesn’t inject venom when biting (which is extremely rare), but larger individuals with much wider mouths may inject venom, but to cause symptoms it should hold its bite for a long period of time (most bites, even if rare, are dry warning bites). It is easily recognisable for its prominent eyebrows which give it a ferocious look.

Malpolon mons
Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus). Photos by Herpetofauna and RuizAraFoto respectively.

RuizAraFoto

Viperidae family:

There’s only one genus of vipers on the Iberian Peninsula with three representative species. Vipers and adders usually have a wide and triangular head, a lightly elevated snout and usually present a zigzag pattern on their back which help them camouflage. The three Iberian species are venomous, but thanks to modern medicine, their ocasional bites aren’t harmful to human beings. The asp viper (Vipera aspis), the most venomous snake in the peninsula, presents grey, golden or yellow scales, with black or green spots. The snub-nosed viper (Vipera latastei) is the most common viper in the peninsula and its coloration varies from brown to grey. Finally the Baskian or Portuguese viper (Vipera seoanei) is a middle-sized viper and with a highly polymorphic pattern.

Vipera asp lat seo
Asp viper (Vipera aspis, top left, photo by Felix Reimann), snub-nosed viper (Vipera latastei, top right, photo by Honorio Iglesias) and Baskian viper (Vipera seoanei, bottom, photo by Andre Schmid).

As we have seen, snakes and vipers aren’t as bad as they are portrayed to be. Most species flee from human beings, and accidents and bites happen when we force them to interact with us too much. Also, ophidians help farmers and agriculturers by hunting and eating species traditionally seen as vermin. If we leave snakes and vipers alone, we will be able to enjoy the beauty of this animals in peace.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted in the elaboration of this entry:

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