Arabian horned viper (Cerastes gasperettii)

GenusCerastes (1)
SizeLength: 60 – 80 cm (2)

The Arabian horned viper is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The Arabian horned viper is one of three currently recognised species of horned viper, a group which is recognisable for the distinctive horn-like scales that project from above the eyes of some individuals (3). The Arabian horned viper has sandy-coloured upperparts, marked with faint, light brown crossbars along the back, and white or yellowish underparts (2) (4). The head is broad and roughly triangular, while the body is robust, with a short tail, and covered with keeled scales (4). Like other vipers, this species has hinged, hollow fangs, which lie flat when the mouth is closed and swing forward when opened, and are capable of injecting large quantities of venom (3) (5).

The Arabian horned viper is found in the Middle East and throughout the Arabian Peninsula. There are two subspecies, Cerastes gasperettii gasperettii, which occurs in the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Oman, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and

South-west Iran (2) (6), and Cerastes gasperettii mendelssohni, which is restricted to the Arava Valley in Israel and Jordan (6).

Found in desert and semi-desert habitats, the Arabian viper is well adapted to life on arid sandy and stony ground, and occurs up to elevations of 1,500 metres (2) (4).

Active from dusk until dawn, and well-camouflaged amongst the sand and rocks, the most obvious sign of the Arabian horned viper’s presence is usually the sinuous tracks it leaves while employing its sidewinding method of locomotion (5). This species is an efficient predator and uses both active pursuit as well as ambush to capture prey. In the latter technique the Arabian horned viper buries its body and head beneath the sand using rapid side-to-side wriggling, until only the eyes and snout are exposed (4). The snake then lays in wait for prey such as lizards, small birds and rodents to approach, before striking with lightning speed and injecting the animal with its powerful venom (4) (5). The venom acts quickly, killing a house sparrow in 27 to 90 seconds, at which point the snake swallows its victim whole (3) (4).

Despite its deadly capabilities, the Arabian horned viper falls prey to larger predators such as desert monitors (4). When threatened, this species coils its body and rubs its keeled scales together to create a rasping sound, and it will also hiss and inflate its body before resorting to striking (4) (5).

The Arabian horned viper mates between April and June, with egg-laying taking place between July and August. A clutch of 8 to 20 soft-shelled eggs is laid, which hatch after around six to eight weeks, with the young already measuring between 14.5 and 17.5 cm in length (4).

While there do not appear to be any major threats to this species as a whole, the newly described subspecies Cerastes gasperettii mendelssohni may be threatened by virtue of its restricted range and the destruction of its habitat for agriculture (7).

In Saudi Arabia, the Arabian horned viper is believed to be threatened by overcollection for its venom (1).

The Arabian horned viper has been recorded within the Wadi Ramm Protected Area in southern Jordan (1) (8), and may also occur in other protected areas within its range (9). This species is protected by national legislation in Israel (1).

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  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2013)
  2. O'Shea, M. (2008) Venomous Snakes of the World. New Holland Publishers, London.
  3. Mares, M.A. (1999) Encyclopedia of deserts. University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma.
  4. Schleich, H.H., Kästle, W. and Kabisch, K. (1996) Amphibians and Reptiles of North Africa: Biology, Systematics, Field Guide. Koeltz Scientific Books, Koenigstein.
  5. Hellyer, P. and Aspinall, S. (2005) The Emirates: A Natural History. Trident Press Limited, United Arab Emirates.
  6. J. Craig Venter Institute (July, 2009)
  7. Werner, Y.L., Sivan, N., Kushnir, V. and Motro, U. (1999) A statistical approach to variation in Cerastes (Ophidia: Viperidae), with the description of two endemic subspecies. Kaupia, 8: 83 - 97.
  8. Baker, M.A., Qarqaz, M., Rifai, L., Hamidan, N., Omari, K.A., Modry, D. and Amr, Z. (2004) Results of herpetofaunal inventory of Wadi Ramm Protected Area, with notes on some relict species. Russian Journal of Herpetology, 11: 1 - 5.
  9. World Database on Protected Areas (July, 2009)