Eastern sandfish (Scincus mitranus)

Also known as: Red sandfish
GenusScincus (1)
SizeMale weight: 10 - 44 g (2)
Female weight: 7 - 35 g (2)

The Eastern sandfish is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Owing to their remarkable ability to seemingly ‘swim’ through sand, species in the skink genus Scincus are appropriately known as sandfish (3) (4). The physical adaptations that allow these lizards to move with speed below the sand surface include a streamlined body, highly polished skin, strongly developed limbs, a chisel-shaped snout, and reduced ear openings (3) (4) (5). The eastern sandfish has an overall golden-pink colour with each scale edged in black. A series of golden bars runs down the side of its back, while a further row of dark bars runs down the flanks (4).

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 (3). In Arabia, there are isolated populations of the eastern sandfish in northeast Yemen, southern Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait (2).

Found in arid environments where there is loose sand to burrow into (2) (4).

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 (3) (6). However, while they are extremely efficient at moving beneath the sand, in the absence of a perceived threat, sandfish prefer to travel on the surface (4).

Although the ear openings are small, these skinks have excellent hearing, which enables them to detect insect prey moving below the surface (4). The eastern sandfish feeds primarily on beetles, but in times of scarcity, insect larvae and plants can form an important component of its diet (7).

The eastern sandfish has a short breeding season, lasting just two months between May and June, and appears to produce just one clutch a year. The timing of the breeding season coincides with the wet season, a factor which is thought likely to contribute to its reproductive success (2)

A small number of eastern sandfish are exported to North America and Europe as part of the pet trade (8).

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

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  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2013) 
  2. Al-Johany, A.M., Al-Sadoon, M.K. and Al-Farraj, S.A. (1997) Reproductive biology of the skink Scincus mitranus (Anderson, 1871) in the central region of Saudi Arabia. Journal of Arid Environments, 36: 319 - 326.
  3. 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).
  4. Hellyer, P. and Aspinall, S. (2005) The Emirates: A Natural History. Trident Press Limited, United Arab Emirates.
  5. Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. ScienceDaily (June, 2009)
  7. Al-Sadoon, M.K., Al-Johany, A.M. and Al-Farraj, S.A. (1999) Food and Feeding Habits of the Sand Fish Lizard Scincus mitranus. Saudi Journal of Biological Science, 6(1): 91 - 101.
  8. Bartlett, P.P. (1997) Lizard Care from A to Z. Barron's Educational Series, New York.