Common sandfish (Scincus scincus)

Also known as: Iranian sandfish
GenusScincus (1)
SizeLength: 15 cm (2)

This species has yet to be assessed by the IUCN.

Among the world’s most accomplished burrowers are a genus of desert-dwelling skinks (Scincus sp.) commonly known as the sandfish (3) (4). As the name suggests, sandfish have the remarkable ability to move with considerable speed below the surface of loose sand (5) (6). This unusual behaviour is attributable to a number of physical adaptations including a streamlined body, highly polished skin, strongly developed limbs, a chisel-shaped snout, and reduced ear openings (5) (7) (8). With several recognised subspecies, the common sandfish is quite variable in appearance, but generally has yellow to tan scales with well defined, broad, grey bands across its back (3) (7).

Species in the Scincus genus are distributed over an extensive belt of desert from the west coast of Africa, through the Sahara and into Arabia (5).

Found in arid environments where sand is loose and easily burrowed (4) (7).

Contrary to what was previously thought, recent studies have shown that rather than pulling their limbs close to the body, sandfish move through sand by rotating their legs back and forth in a manner much like the crawl stroke in swimming (5) (6). However, while they are extremely efficient at moving beneath the sand, in the absence of a perceived threat, sandfish do actually prefer to travel on the surface. Although the ear openings are small, these skinks have excellent hearing, which enables them to detect insect prey moving below the surface (7).

Some subspecies of the common sandfish are kept as pets in North America and Europe (4), but the impact of trade is not well documented.

There are no known conservation measures in place for the common sandfish but owing to its occurrence in a sparsely populated region of the world, it is probably buffered to some extent from human impacts.

To learn more about reptile conservation visit:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. CITES (January, 2009)
  2. Bartlett, P.P., Griswold, B. and Bartlett, R.D. (2001) Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates: An Identification and Care Guide. Barron's Educational Series, New York.
  3. Bartlet, R.D. (2003) Spiny-Tailed Agamids (Uromastyx and Xenagama). Barron's Educational Series, New York.
  4. Bartlett, P.P. (1997) Lizard Care from A to Z. Barron's Educational Series, New York.
  5. Baumgartner, W., Fidler, F., Weth, A., Habbecke, M., Jakob, P., Butenweg, C. and Böhme, W. (2008) Investigating the Locomotion of the Sandfish in Desert Sand Using NMR-Imaging. PLoS ONE, 3(10).
  6. ScienceDaily (June, 2009)
  7. Hellyer, P. and Aspinall, S. (2005) The Emirates: A Natural History. Trident Press Limited, United Arab Emirates.
  8. Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.