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Desert horned vipers (Cerastes cerastes) are abundant and easily recognizable across their Middle Eastern and northern African desert habitats. These large venomous snakes can deliver a potent and sometimes fatal bite. This, combined with their intimidating physical features and prevalence in seemingly inhospitable desert landscapes, has led to the desert horned viper’s proliferation in the folklore and mythology of northern Africa and the Middle East.
Desert horned vipers have a very distinctive appearance, and are easily identified by the protruding scales above their eyes. These scales mimic the appearance of sharp horns, and give the desert horned viper its name. Desert horned vipers are heavy-bodied snakes and can reach lengths of around 2 feet. They are typically sand-colored -- tan, brownish, yellowish or reddish, with darker rectangular patches along their backs.
Range and Habitat
Desert horned vipers are found in arid desert environments, including sandy dunes, rock outcroppings, dry riverbeds and occasionally gravel plains. Desert horned vipers tend to be found in cooler areas where the average annual temperature does not exceed 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and in areas of low elevation. These snakes inhabit northern Africa’s Sahara Desert, from Egypt and Morocco south to Niger, Mali, Chad, Sudan and Mauritania. This species can also be commonly found in the Middle East, in countries like Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Behavior and Ecological Role
Desert horned vipers play a key role in their ecosystems. Because they have few natural predators, these vipers are able to consume a large number of rodents and control their populations. Those animals that do prey on desert horned vipers, like honey badgers and feral cats, often find predation difficult thanks to the snakes’ excellent evasion strategy. Desert horned vipers spend their days hiding in holes or under rocks, or burrowed into the sand with only their eyes and nostrils exposed, making the most of their camouflage.
Interactions with Humans
Because they are venomous snakes, some interactions with humans can prove dangerous. However, due to the hostile conditions of the horned viper’s habitat, human interaction with these creatures is fairly rare, and most bites are not fatal. The venom of the desert horned viper is a cytotoxin that attacks and breaks down cell walls, but is considerably less toxic to humans than the venom of many other snakes in the same geographic area. For this reason, this snake has become tolerated by locals in and around some villages (but not most) as a mostly harmless rodent-control agent.
Role in Folklore and Mythology
The prevalence of these snakes, along with their venomous bite and sinister appearance, has made them commonplace in regional folklore and mythology. Some folklore suggests that these snakes are capable of flight, or have magical powers. Ancient Egyptians are thought to have embalmed desert horned vipers, and their mummified remains have been found at archeological sites along the Nile River. According to scientists from the Department of Medicine at the University Hospital of Zurich, some claim that this species is even responsible for the famed bite that assisted Cleopatra in her suicide, though these scientists suggest that the venom of the desert horned viper is likely not potent enough to cause such a quick death.
- University of Michican Museum of Zoology: Cerastes cerastes
- Desert USA: The Desert Horned Viper
- Clinical Toxinology Resources: Cerastes cerastes
- QJM, An International Journal of Medicine: Life-Threatening Envenoming by the Saharan Horned Viper (Cerastes cerastes) Causing Micro-angiopathic Haemolysis, Coagulopathy and Acute Renal Failure [PDF]
- Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images