Unique biodiversity: five snake species endemic to Iran

July 27, 2020 - 21:49

TEHRAN – Many wildlife species in Iran are unknown to ordinary people. It becomes clear when a video of a spider-tailed horned viper goes viral on social media, and many people wonder whether this strange animal really lives in Iran.

However, the world of reptiles is full of the unspoken and many reptiles of the country are unique in their kind.

In the following article, we get you acquainted with some of the wonders of snake species in Iran. What you read below is a brief description of the life and biological characteristics of some of the most unique snakes in Iran.

Montivipera latifii

The Montivipera species group consists of the venomous snakes with 5 known species and sub-species; Montivipera albicornuta, M.latifii, M.raddei raddei, M.raddei kurdistanica, and M.kuhrangica, which their taxonomic situation is very controversial. These species live in alpine meadows from 1800 to more than 3200 meters from SL.

The populations of these species are really fragmented and are posed to the serious danger of extinction because of humane activities. Because of the high risk of extinction, M.latifii is sited in Endangered category of IUCN Red List. The first step to applying the conservation plans is to know the exact taxonomic situation and precise distribution areas.

Montivipera latifii is found in Iran in the upper Lar valley in the Alborz Mountains. Unfortunately, the mountain plains that are home to this species are being severely degraded by overgrazing. Currently, the largest protected area of this species in Lar National Park has an uncertain future due to threats such as habitat destruction due to overgrazing and excessive tourist presence.

“This snake is one of the few snakes in the world that has two completely different designs of zigzag and linear and another design that combines the two,” Khosro Rajabizadeh, a biodiversity expert at the University of Ghent in Belgium said.

Interestingly, babies are born with different designs from one mother, he added.

The total habitat of this species is not more than 150 km and in terms of width it may not be more than 20 to 30 km; because it is found only in the heights of the southern slopes of Alborz, he added.

Unfortunately, illegal hunting is a factor that has severely damaged the population of these vipers due to their venom, Alireza Shahrdaripanah, a wildlife expert said.

There is no certain information of their population in Iran, which is a big problem that makes protection more difficult, he said, adding, the habitat of Latifi viper is more vulnerable than spider-tailed horned viper due to the presence of tourists, which indicates the need for serious protection.

Eastern Montpellier snake

“The eastern Montpellier snake (Malpolon insignitus) is a species of mildly venomous rear-fanged snake.

As you know, snakes often live individually and have no desire for group life; but this specie has a dominant male who selects a female in the breeding season, the male takes care of the female he has chosen; While the dominant male has several other males around him, those males are obedient to this dominant male.

Obedient males are those whose strength does not reach the dominant male but live near the dominant male. As a result, if the dominant male goes in conflict with another male, the obedient males help him. This is true even in the case of human conflicts,” he explained.

“Dominant males prey for their females, and obedient males do the same so that the females do not move too far from the eggs they lay. The female does not sleep on the eggs but stays close to the eggs anyway.

This species is very special among Iranian snakes and is the only snake that has this unique feature of group life during reproduction. Another characteristic of this snake that is very different from other snakes is that it marks not only its own female but also its own submissive males. This is done by secreting a type of pheromone from the nasal glands so that the group does not mix with the rest of the snakes,” he said.

Eirenis

Genus Eirenis, are often small in size. So far, 22 to 23 species of this genus have been identified in the world, tens of species are distributed in Iran.
Rajabizadeh said that "One of the interesting features of Eirenis snakes is that they are often half a meter or even smaller in size. Research shows that these snakes evolved from the large Dolichophis snake; That is, snakes that are often over one meter to one and a half meters in size have shrunk over evolution. The emergence of Eirenis has greatly affected the biodiversity of these snakes because these snakes have greatly diversified. The number of species of the genus Eirenis is much higher than that of the genus Dolichophis; “At the same time, these snakes have found special adaptations.”

Of course, the reduction in body size in the genus Eirenis has also brought some adaptations; For example, large Hierophis snakes, which are close to Eirenis snakes, often feed on warm-blooded prey, such as small rodents. Eirenis snakes, on the other hand, feed on cold-blooded prey such as arthropods. Arthropods have exoskeletons, so Eirenis have weaker jaw muscles but stronger, conical teeth than their larger ancestors. On the other hand, these snakes, unlike their ancestors who prefer surface life, like to live in the subsurface and empty spaces underground.

Spider-tailed horned viper

Being pushed toward extinction through poaching, the spider-tailed horned viper has been discovered in 2006. The venomous snake has a unique tail that has a bulb-like end bordered by long drooping scales that give it the appearance of a spider, which is waved around and used to lure insectivorous birds to within striking range.

There are no accurate statistics of spider-tailed horned viper population, but it is spotted in the province of Ilam, Kermanshah, and Lorestan. To date, there have been no reports of spider-tailed horned viper being discovered in other countries.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has banned illegal trade of spider-tailed horned viper in August 2019.

First of all, you should know that the biological characteristics of this snake have been studied very little, but it is probably laying eggs. Although its distribution in the world is only in Iran, its reproduction in Iran has not been studied yet. So what we are referring to here is based solely on what we know so far. Now, perhaps, much more attractive features of this snake will be introduced to the world later. One of the interesting features of this snake is how it hunts birds, Rajabizadeh explained.

The 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the CITES CoP18 took place in Geneva, Switzerland, from 17-28 August 2019, through which Iran’s proposal to add rare spider-tailed horned viper on the Convention’s Appendix II have been accepted.

Following the CITES mission designed to protect endangered species against illegal trade, and based on the international demand for such illegal trade, the CITES office in Iran set out to send a proposal to the Convention Secretariat to add spider-tailed horned viper on the Convention’s list and thus prevent its illegal trade in early March.

Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction; trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.

So, any trade of the species is permitted only with the CITES’s permission, and all 183 member parties are obliged to control the ports and prevent the trade of this viper.

Spider-tailed horned viper was declared endangered by the DOE in November 2018.

Cerastes gasperettii

Cerastes gasperettii, commonly known as the Arabian horned viper, is a venomous viper species found especially in the Arabian Peninsula and north to Israel, Iraq, and Iran. It is very similar in appearance to C. cerastes, but the geographic ranges of these two species do not overlap. No subspecies of C. gasperettii are recognized.

First, this snake lives in very tropical areas of our country, such as Ahvaz (Al-Baji region) in the sandy and earthen hills and has a limited distribution in Iran, Shahrdaripanah said.

“The vegetation where this species is found is also very limited in diversity. Unfortunately, we are not very aware of its protection status in Iran because not much work has been done. Some specimens of this viper have two deformed horn-like scales on their heads, which is their unique feature, while others are hornless.

This snake is one of the species that have a high camouflage ability. It is completely colored similar to sand which helps camouflage it. On the other hand, the shape of the scales is also effective in hiding. The scales are prominent and the two bands start from the side of the nose and extend along the face to the cheeks, appearing like two lines on the head from above. The spots on his body are not perfect zigzags, but they are spots. In the camouflage mode, the pupil of the snake's eye and part of the horn is out of the sand, which has a different effect.

This snake is nocturnal and is not seen during the day due to the hot weather. Depending on its size, it chooses its prey and its diet consists of rodents and even lizards. One way to identify this snake is to leave a mark on the sandals. Because it moves in a zigzag pattern, but the wind quickly destroys the traces and makes it difficult to find.

This snake is laying eggs and the place where it lays eggs must be on a balanced level; That is, where it is neither too hot nor too deep. These snakes lay between four and eight eggs each time, depending on environmental conditions. Their venom is also strong, but because they are nocturnal and live in desert and warm habitats, they do not have much conflict with humans,” he explained.

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