A medium-sized, thick-bodied snake with a relatively short tail (2) (3) (4) (5), the Persian horned viper (Pseudocerastes persicus) is named for the pair of prominent, scale-covered “horns” above its eyes (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7). This species has a short, rounded snout and a wide, flattened head, which is distinct from the neck (2) (3) (5) (6).
The Persian horned viper is generally pale brown, grey, bronze or bluish-grey above, with dark brown rectangular blotches or cross-bands (3) (6) (8). There is a dark brown line along the side of the head (3) (5) (8) and fainter brown spots on the throat and the sides of the body (3) (5). The underside of the Persian horned viper is whitish, and the tail often has a black tip (3) (5) (8). Some individuals may lack distinct markings on the body (2) (3).
As in other vipers, the scales of the Persian horned viper are heavily keeled, with a rough texture (3) (4) (9). The eye has a vertical pupil (3) (4) (5), and the nostrils are directed upwards and outwards (3) (5). The male Persian horned viper is larger than the female (5).
Although some scientists recognise two subspecies of the Persian horned viper, Pseudocerastes persicus persicus and Pseudocerastes persicus fieldi (7) (10), the latter is now generally considered to be a distinct species, Field’s horned viper (Pseudocerastes fieldi) (1) (3) (11). In addition to having separate distributions, the two also differ in the properties of their venom, and Field’s horned viper has a significantly shorter tail (3) (11).
The Persian horned viper resembles the Arabian horned viper (Cerastes gasperettii) in appearance, but its “horns” are made up of many small scales, rather than a single elongated scale (6) (7). This difference gives the Persian horned viper its genus name, Pseudocerastes, meaning ‘false Cerastes’, as well as its alternative common name of ‘false horned viper’ (7).
- Also known as
- false horned viper.
- Cerastes persicus, Pseudocerastes bicornis.
- Total length: up to 90 cm (2)
- Tail length: 8 - 8.5 cm (3)
Persian horned viper biology
Like other vipers, the Persian horned viper is venomous and possesses a pair of long, hollow fangs which fold flat against the roof of the mouth when not in use (4) (9). This species is usually active at night (5) (6) and is thought to hunt a variety of rodents, lizards and birds (1) (5) (6) (7).
When disturbed, the Persian horned viper may inflate its body and hiss loudly (4) (5). It typically moves across the ground using a ‘sidewinding’ motion, travelling sideways in a series of S-shaped curves (5) (6).
Relatively little is known about the breeding behaviour of the Persian horned viper, but it has been reported to breed between March and July in Pakistan (5). Like many other viper species, it may give birth to live young (1) (9), although others report it to lay eggs (7).
Persian horned viper range
The Persian horned viper occurs in the Arabian Peninsula, in Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and north through Iran, Azerbaijan and Iraq, to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in the east (1) (3) (4) (5) (11).
This species may also potentially occur in southeast Turkey, but its presence there has yet to be confirmed (1) (11).
Species with a similar range
Persian horned viper habitat
A species of deserts and semi-deserts (6) (7), the Persian horned viper is typically found in rocky and sandy areas and in scrubland (1) (5) (6), although it avoids areas of loose sand (6). This snake is usually found at high elevations (4) (8), up to about 1,800 to 2,000 metres above sea level (1) (5).
The Persian horned viper often climbs into small bushes, and can also be found sheltering under rocks, in rock crevices and in burrows (1) (4) (5).
Species found in a similar habitat
Persian horned viper status
The Persian horned viper is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
Persian horned viper threats
The Persian horned viper is widespread and not currently considered to be at risk of extinction (1). However, it faces a serious threat from over-collection, mainly for the production of anti-venom and for the pet trade, and this is causing its populations to decline in some areas. The Persian horned viper has also been hunted in the past for its skin, although this is no longer considered to be a significant threat (1).
In winter, the Persian horned viper often congregates in smaller areas of suitable habitat, making it easier for collectors to rapidly exterminate local populations (1).
Persian horned viper conservation
Although the Persian horned viper occurs in protected areas across its range, measures need to be taken to ensure that it is not over-collected. These could include, for example, only paying snake collectors for more common species for anti-venom production (1).
Ongoing monitoring of this venomous snake is needed to ensure that continued exploitation does not cause it to become threatened (1).
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- A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
- A projecting ridge along a flat or curved surface, particularly down the middle.
- A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
IUCN Red List (February, 2012)
Vine, P. (1996) Natural Emirates: Wildlife and Environment of the United Arab Emirates. Trident Press, London.
Bostanchi, H., Anderson, S.C., Kami, H.G. and Papenfuss, T.J. (2006) A new species of Pseudocerastes with elaborate tail ornamentation from western Iran (Squamata: Viperidae). Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 57(14): 443-450.
Hellyer, P. and Aspinall, S. (2005) The Emirates: A Natural History. Trident Press Limited, London.
Wildlife of Pakistan - Persian one-horned viper or false horned viper, Persian two-horned viper (February, 2012)
Firouz, E. (2005) The Complete Fauna of Iran. I.B. Tauris Publishers, London.
O’Shea, M. (2008) Venomous Snakes of the World. New Holland Publishers, London.
Cunningham, P.L. (2002) Review of the false horned viper (Dumeril, Bibron & Dumeril, 1854) from the UAE & northern Oman, including a first record for Jebel Hafit. Tribulus, 12(1): 26-27.
Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) (February, 2012)
The Reptile Database (February, 2012)
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