A medium to fairly large snake, with a short, stocky body. Largest Egyptian specimen has a total length of 735 mm. Tail short, tail / total length = 0.08-0.13. Nostril round; 11-15 supralabials; eye moderate, separated from supralabials by 4-5 scales, pupil vertical; scales on dorsal side of head moderate, more than 14 interorbitals; a supraocular horn made of a single spine-like scale, present or absent; dorsals strongly keeled, 28-39 scale rows around mid-body; 137-156 ventrals, 23-45 paired subcaudals; anal entire. Dorsum sandy, with a usual pattern of large, brownish, rounded or square spots along mid-dorsum, alternating with smaller lateral dark spots; a dark band between the posterior of the eye to the angle of the mouth. Venter plain white.
Sahara horned vipers are among the most abundant and easily distinguishable of the venomous snakes of the North African and Middle Eastern deserts. Cerastes gasperettii is generally distributed all across North Africa, including southwestern Arabia and southwestern Israel. Common in the Sahara desert, it is most frequently found between Egypt and Morocco. Its range extends to southward to northern Mali, Niger, northern Chad, Sudan, and Mauritania.
Although records are rare in the southern Saharan borderlands, this snake has been reported within the Sahel, the sub-steppe region of the Sahara. Interestingly, C. cerastes is also known to inhabit the deserts of the eastern Sinai, coexisting with the Arabian horned viper, Cerastes gasperettii.
Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native ); ethiopian (Native )
- Branch, B., S. Spawls. 1995. The Dangerous Snakes of Africa. United Kingdom: Blandford.
- Cox, N., J. Chanson, S. Stuart. 2006. The Status and Distribution of the Mediterranean Basin. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: The World Conservation Union (IUCN). Accessed March 14, 2010 at http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/2006-027.pdf.
- Johann, H. 1973. A location of origin for Cerastes- cerastes in northern Tunisia Serpentes Viperidae. Salamandra, 9/3-4: 160.
- McGinley, M. 2007. "Status and distribution of reptiles and amphibians of the Mediterranean Basin" (On-line). Encyclopedia of Earth. Accessed March 14, 2010 at http://www.eoearth.org/article/Status_and_distribution_of_reptiles_and_amphibians_of_the_Mediterranean_Basin.
- Morain, M., B. Young. 2003. Vertical Burrowing in the Saharan Sand Vipers (Cerastes). Copeia, 2003/1: 131-137. Accessed February 20, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/sici?origin=sfx%3Asfx&sici=0045-8511%282003%291%3C131%3AVBITSS%3E2.0.CO%3B2-F&cookieSet=1.
- Schneemann, M., R. Cathomas, S. Laidlaw, A. El Nahas, R. Theakston, D. Warrell. 2004. Life-threatening envenoming by the Saharan horned viper (Cerastes cerastes) causing micro-angiopathic haemolysis, coagulopathy, and acute renal failure: clinical cases and review. QJM, 97/11: 717-727. Accessed February 21, 2010 at http://qjmed.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/97/11/717.
Distribution in Egypt
Almost throughout the entire country, except for cultivated lands of the Nile Valley and Delta. West of the Nile it is known from the Mediterranean coastal plain, south through the Western Desert, where it has been recorded from all the major oases and some minor ones. Exceptional records include specimens observed in Wadi Abd El Malek, the first from the extreme southwestern corner of Egypt. Widespread throughout the Eastern Desert and Sinai, except the north, where it is absent from the dune fields. Common along the margins of the Nile Valley, particularly along the shores of Lake Nasser, where very dense populations are found.
Northern Africa, south into the Sahel.
Distribution: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Israel, Jordan, Sudan, Oman (fide Joger 1983), Western Sahara karlhartli: Sinai peninsula, SE Egypt through Kordofan mutila: SW Algeria, adjacent Morocco. hoofieni: SW corner of Arabian Peninsula (endemic).
Type locality: King Khalid Airbase, Saudi Arabia, (18°18'N, 42°44'E)
Type locality: “Oriente’ (Egypt?)
Sahara horned vipers are amongst the most distinct of the North African desert snakes. Compared to most snakes in the region, this species is short in length, averaging between 30 and 60 cm. Hatchlings are usually between 12 and 15 cm. Although females are larger, both sexes share the same general body structure and color patterns. The head is somewhat flat, broad, and triangular, with eyes on the side of the head, and the neck is thin.
Covered in approximately 25 to 35 rows of heavily keeled scales, C. cerastes is characterized by the presence of supraorbital “horns”, which consist of a single scale above each eye, from which a dark line extends towards the back of snake. This feature is what generally distinguishes Sahara horned vipers from other species of the genus Cerastes, as Cerastes gasperettii has horns that consist of multiple scales, and Cerastes vipera has its eyes on the top of the head. Prominent brow ridges typically ensue the lack or reduction of these horns.
The body is broad and appears flat, with a short tail which may have a black tip. This species is brownish-yellow and gray in color, perfectly blending into the sandy environment in which it lives. Dorsally, it also has rectangular brown patches that are darker in color than the rest of the body.
Range length: 30 to 85 cm.
Average length: 30 to 60 cm.
Other Physical Features: heterothermic ; venomous
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike; female larger
- Blanc, C. 1986. The reptile population of the extreme south of Tunisia. Amphibia-Reptilia, 7/4: 385-389.
- Disi, A. 1983. Herpetology of Jordan 1. Venomous Snakes. Dirasat Natural Sciences (Amman), 10/2: 167-180.
- George, L. 2002. Vipers. Mankato, Minnesota: Capstone Press.
Found throughout the Sahara in Northern Africa, C. cerastes inhabits a variety of habitats within the desert, including rock hills, sandy deserts, and wadis. Members of this species can sometimes be found in dunes, and are rarely found on rock pavement and gravel plains.
It has been determined that there is a strong correlation between microclimate and the general distribution of this species. Saharan horned vipers generally prefer cooler temperatures, with annual averages of 20°C or lower, and are usually found in altitudes of up to 1500m. Even humidity is important when considering the locality of these snakes. Temperatures must be high enough for the snake to bask and obtain heat, and humid enough to retain a maximum amount of water present in the body, as the only source of water is from prey.
Range elevation: 1500 (high) m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune
- 2004. "Cerastes cerastes (Desert Horned Viper)" (On-line). Accessed March 07, 2010 at http://zipcodezoo.com/Animals/C/Cerastes_cerastes/#Biology.
- Mermod, C. 1970. Living area and displacement activity of Cerastes-vipera and Cerastes-cerastes Reptilia Viperidae. Revue Suisse de Zoologie, 77/3: 555-562.
- Norris, S. 2000. "Desert Horned Viper" (On-line). Accessed March 07, 2010 at http://www.whozoo.org/Intro2000/sabrinor/SDNdeserthornedviper.htm.
One of the most versatile reptiles inhabiting Egyptian deserts; besides its capacity to endure extreme conditions, it also has a wide ecological amplitude, inhabiting a wide variety of habitats, typically in wadi systems with some vegetation and sandy soil, but also on gravel plains, hilly and mountainous country, and even in very rocky areas, where patches of sand or other fine soils are found. Not normally found in sand dunes (in contrast with C. vipera), but can be found on the fringes of extensive dune areas near harder substrates and rocky outcrops. Often near well-vegetated areas, but is also capable of existing in extreme deserts with no vegetation. Typically hides under the surface of loose soil in fairly exposed situations to ambush potential prey. Found up to an altitude of 1,000 m in the St. Katherinearea, but probably occurs at higher altitudes, where it is likely to be less common.
The diet of this carnivorous species consists primarily of small rodents, geckos, birds, and a variety of lizards. In captivity, a full grown specimen was observed to feed on weaver finches (Passer domesticus niloticus), lacertids (Mesalina olivieri), and dune geckos (Stenodactylus petrii). These vipers are also known to eat jerboas (Jaculus jaculus), yellow wagtails (Motacilla flava thunbergi), and chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita). Cerastes gasperettii has been known to travel long distances at night in search of prey.
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; reptiles
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates)
This species is a particularly successful predator throughout the Sahara. With only a few known predators, it can be inferred that C. cerastes acts to limit the population sizes of the prey upon which it feeds.
Sahara horned vipers are known to have only a few natural enemies, including honey badgers, monitor lizards, and a variety of wild and feral cat species. The snakes' colors provide optimum camouflage, working in their favor as both predators and prey. In addition, although C. cerastes burrows in order to stay cool during the day, as well as to attack unsuspecting prey, this behavior may also help hide it from potential predators.
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Life History and Behavior
As specialized semi-fossorial snakes, all members of the genus Cerastes exhibit predatory launch strikes from partially buried positions in the Saharan sands. As such, the majority of the communication and perception techniques demonstrated by these snakes incorporate multiple environmental stimuli in order to enhance prey localization and acquisition. Through multiple studies and experiments, it has been found that foraging by vibration detection is particularly significant in C. cerastes, as well as other members of the genus. Additionally, visual capabilities are pertinent in strike accuracy and distance, although the snake is still quite capable of capturing prey with hindered vision. Interestingly, prey capture behavior does not seem to be limited by olfactory senses, and in contrast to common belief, chemosensory reliance in Cerastes during foraging is nearly negligible, as visual stimuli act as primary determinants of prey apprehension.
When communicating with other members of its own species, Sahara horned vipers rely mostly upon chemical signals in the form of pheromones. This is used particularly during the mating season, as it acts to locate members of the opposite sex. Also, C. cerastes makes use of vibrational stimuli and the ability to sense heat from other organisms in the environment from its pit organs in order to locate prey. Located just behind the nostrils, the pit organs in these snakes allow them to detect warm-blooded animals, even in the dark.
Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic ; chemical
Other Communication Modes: pheromones
Perception Channels: visual ; infrared/heat ; tactile ; acoustic ; vibrations ; chemical
- Morain, M., B. Young. 2002. The use of ground-borne vibrations for prey localization in the Saharan sand vipers (Cerastes). The Joural of Experimental Biology, 205/5: 661-665. Accessed February 20, 2010 at http://jeb.biologists.org/cgi/content/abstract/205/5/661.
Nocturnal. Submerges below loose sand surface using side-shuffling movements of the body, where it takes refuge and waits in ambush for surface-moving prey. Venomous to humans.
Along with Psammophis aegyptius, it is the only snake to be encountered over much of Egypt's deserts. Both species take advantage of migrant birds that land in the desert to rest in the course of their long trans-Saharan migration. During the migration seasons several individuals of these snakes can often be found in and around isolated trees in the desert, waiting for migrants to land.
As an oviparous species, Cerastes gasperettii offspring development occurs outside of the mother's body, in the fertilized eggs she lays. An increase in oxygen consumption allows the snake to experience an exponential growth pattern throughout embryonic development, and normal respiration rates are assumed after hatching.
- Ludwig, D., D. Mallow, G. Nilson. 2003. True Vipers. Malabar, Florida, USA: Krieger Publishing Company.
Although very little is known concerning the lifespan of individuals in the wild, specimens in captivity have been observed to survive for up to 18 years.
Status: captivity: 14 to 18 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Information regarding the mating systems of C. cerastes is data deficient. However, it has been observed that this species typically breeds during the first few weeks of April. In addition, it is assumed that members of the opposite sex locate and attract each other through the use of pheromones.
Copulation is generally observed during the first week of April and always occurs while buried under the sand. It is unknown whether these snakes breed annually. In a case of two captive individuals, copulation lasted for 4 days. Cerastes gasperettii generally oviposits anywhere from 8 to 23 eggs, usually under rocks or in abandoned burrows of reptiles and mammals. The young hatch after a 50 to 80 day incubation period. Juvenile Cerastes gasperettii reach reproductive maturity at 2 years of age.
Breeding interval: The breeding interval for Cerastes gasperettii is unknown.
Breeding season: Sahara horned vipers mate between April and June and eggs hatch from June to August.
Range number of offspring: 8 to 23.
Range gestation period: 50 to 80 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 2 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 2 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; sexual ; fertilization ; oviparous
There is no information currently available concerning the parental investment of Cerastes gasperettii.
- Brodie Jr., E., J. Campbell. 1992. Biology of the Pitvipers. Tyler, Texas, USA: Selva.
- George, L. 2002. Vipers. Mankato, Minnesota: Capstone Press.
- Ludwig, D., D. Mallow, G. Nilson. 2003. True Vipers. Malabar, Florida, USA: Krieger Publishing Company.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Cerastes cerastes
Below is the sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen.
Other sequences that do not yet meet barcode criteria may also be available.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Cerastes cerastes
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Center for Mediterranean Cooperation, Cerastes gasperettii is considered a species of “Least Concern” in terms of its conservation status. In fact, all three species of Cerastes are not of particular concern in the Mediterranean Basin.
A region relatively rich in biodiversity, the Mediterranean Basin is regarded as a biodiversity hotspot due to the abundance of threatened plant endemism that occurs. The primary threat to reptilian populations is habitat loss and degradation, mainly due to human activities. Pollution, the introduction of alien species, and general human disturbance are among the largest impacts to these populations. It is important to note that snakes are generally affected to the highest degree, however, only a few are actually considered threatened.
CITES: no special status
- Werner, Y., N. Sivan. 1992. Systematics and zoogeography of Cerastes (Ophidia: Viperidae) in the Levant: 2. Taxonomy, ecology, and zoogeography. Snake, 24/1: 34-49.
Status in Egypt
Common and widespread. Collected in large numbers for purposes of commercial antivenom production.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
A venomous snake, Cerastes gasperettii is capable of inflicting damage to its prey, but also bites when threatened. Common amongst all three species of Cerastes, the venom is cytotoxic, affecting the walls and contents of cells, yet is not very toxic when compared to most other snakes in the region.
Despite the widespread distribution of Sahara horned vipers, their relatively hostile habitats result in few humans bitten, and therefore little statistical data is available concerning C. cerastes bites. However, venomous bites have been known to cause swelling, nausea, hemorrhaging, vomiting, necrosis, and hematuria. Bites should be treated immediately with elevation, analgesics, and antibiotic cover. For more serious bites, supply of an appropriate antivenin is required.
Negative Impacts: injures humans (bites or stings, venomous )
As a very successful predator across the Sahara, C. cerastes acts to control populations of rodents that disturb livestock and other food sources of the native people of the region. In some areas, local people consider the snake to be of no particular danger, and the species is even tolerated around some villages. In contrast, other regions fear the snake, and believe it to have powers and even that it is capable of flying. Some native snake charmers use C. cerastes because of their horns, and large numbers of the species have been observed for sale at tourist resorts.
In addition, the venom derived from Sahara horned vipers provides a great deal of information concerning certain enzymes and their effects on reptilian and mammalian biochemical processes, as well as assist in the production of antivenins that are used for a variety of African snake species.
Positive Impacts: source of medicine or drug ; research and education
- O'Shea, M. 2008. Venomous Snakes of the World. United Kingdom: New Holland Publishers.
Cerastes cerastes is a venomous viper species native to the deserts of Northern Africa and parts of the Middle East. It often is easily recognised by the presence of a pair of supraocular "horns", although hornless individuals do occur. No subspecies are currently recognised.
The average total length (body + tail) is 30–60 cm (12–24 in), with a maximum total length of 85 cm (33 in). Females are larger than males.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of this species is the presence of supraorbital "horns", one over each eye. However, these may be reduced in size or absent (see genus Cerastes). The eyes are prominent and set on the sides of the head. There is significant sexual dimorphism, with males having larger heads and larger eyes than females. Compared to C. gasperettii, the relative head size of C. cerastes is larger and there is a greater frequency of horned individuals (13% versus 48%, respectively).
The colour pattern consists of a yellowish, pale grey, pinkish, reddish, or pale brown ground colour that almost always matches the substrate colour where the animal is found. Dorsally, a series of dark, semi-rectangular blotches runs the length of the body. These blotches may or may not be fused into crossbars. The belly is white. The tail, which may have a black tip, is usually thin.
Common names of this species include Desert sidewinding horned viper  Saharan horned viper, horned desert viper, Sahara horned viper, desert horned viper, North African horned viper, African desert horned viper, greater cerastes, asp and horned viper. In Egypt it is called el-ṭorîsha (حية الطريشة).
It is found in arid North Africa (Morocco, Mauritania and Mali, eastward through Algeria, Tunisia, Niger, Libya and Chad to Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia) through Sinai to the northern Negev of Israel. In the Arabian Peninsula, it occurs in Yemen, Kuwait, extreme southwestern Saudi Arabia and parts of the country in Qatar where it is sympatric with C. gasperettii. A report of this species being found in Lebanon is unlikely, according to Joger (1984).
These snakes favor dry, sandy areas with sparse rock outcroppings, and tend not to prefer coarse sand. Occasionally, they are found around oases, and up to an altitude of 1,500 metres (4,900 ft). Cooler temperatures, with annual averages of 20 °C or less, are preferred.
They typically move about by sidewinding, during which they press their weight into the sand or soil, leaving whole-body impressions. Often, it is even possible to use these impressions to make ventral scale counts. They have a reasonably placid temperament, but if threatened, they may assume a C-shaped posture and rapidly rub their coils together. Because they have strongly keeled scales, this rubbing produces a rasping noise, similar to the sound produced by snakes of the genus Echis. In the wild they are typically ambush predators, lying submerged in sand adjacent to rocks or under vegetation. When approached, they strike very rapidly, holding on to the captured prey (small birds and rodents) until the venom takes effect.
In captivity, mating was observed in April and always occurred while the animals were buried in the sand. This species is oviparous, laying 8–23 eggs that hatch after 50 to 80 days of incubation. The eggs are laid under rocks and in abandoned rodent burrows. The hatchlings measure 12–15 cm (about 5-6 inches) in total length.
C. cerastes venom is not very toxic, although it is reported to be similar in action to Echis venom. Envenomation usually causes swelling, haemorrhage, necrosis, nausea, vomiting, and haematuria. A high phospholipase A2 content may cause cardiotoxicity and myotoxicity. Studies of venom from both C. cerastes and C. vipera list a total of eight venom fractions, the most powerful of which has haemorrhagic activity. Venom yields vary, with ranges of 19–27 mg to 100 mg of dried venom being reported. For venom toxicity, Brown (1973) gives LD50 values of 0.4 mg/kg IV and 3.0 mg/kg SC. An estimated lethal dose for humans is 40–50 mg.
A number of subspecies may be encountered in literature:
- C. c. hoofieni Werner & Sivan, 1999 - Saudi Arabia.
- C. c. karlhartli Sochurek, 1974 - Egyptian horned viper - southeast Egypt and Sinai Peninsula.
- C. c. mutila Domergue, 1901 - Algerian horned viper - southwest Algeria, Morocco.
- List of viperine species and subspecies
- Viperinae by common name
- Viperinae by taxonomic synonyms
- Viper (hieroglyph)
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- Photo sequence of Cerastes cerastes feeding in the wild (Gilf Kebir, Egypt, 27 October 2004) at FJ Expeditions accessed 19 October 2013
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- Labib RS, Azab ER, Farag NW. 1981. "Proteases of Cerastes cerastes and Cerastes vipera snake venoms". Toxicon 19: 73-83.
- Linnaeus C. 1758. Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, diferentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio Decima, Reformata. Stockholm: L. Salvius. 824 pp. (Coluber cerastes, p. 217).
- Schneemann M, Cathomas R, Laidlaw ST, El Nahas AM, Theakston RDG, Warrell DA. 2004. "Life-threatening envenoming by the Saharan horned viper (Cerastes cerastes) causing micro-angiopathic haemolysis, coagulopathy and acute renal failure: clinical cases and review". Association of Physicians. QJM 97 (11): 717-727. Full text at Oxford Journals. Accessed 9 March 2007.
- Schnurrenburger H. 1959. "Observations on behavior in two Libyan species of viperine snake". Herpetologica 15:70-2.
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