Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

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krismunk
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Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by krismunk » June 6th, 2011, 12:40 am

This is part 3 of 4 detailing my herping adventures in Israel from May 20 through May 24, 2011. Parts 1 & 2 can be found here viewtopic.php?f=2&t=6491 & viewtopic.php?f=2&t=6516

Sunday morning I drove south towards the Negev desert where I was to meet with Aviad in the dunes near the Egyptian border late in the afternoon. Along the way I stopped at the Alexander stream to view the magnificent Nile softshell turtles, Trionyx triunguis. The Nile softshell turtle is an impressive beast reaching lengths of 1,2 meters and weighing up to 100 kg. It has all but disappeared from Israel and the rest of the northern parts of its range, the Mediterranean population being listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. The Alexander stream in central Israel is home to one of the last remaining populations north of the Sahara.

For better or worse, visiting the spot was a somewhat odd experience. On the one hand, high public awareness of the turtles results in a dedicated effort to preserve the population by means of population monitoring, protection of nesting banks and the like. On the other hand, the whole area seems like a zoo where the turtles - despite signs advertising that feeding is prohibited - are fed bread in vast amounts by the herds of tourists that line the boardwalk erected by the bank behind which the pungent aroma of barbecue spread by all the picnickers fills the air. Amazingly, given their demeanour by the boardwalk, as soon as you move just a few meters away the turtles behave very much like the shy, wild animals they should be.

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This nesting bank with nests individually fenced off for protection from predators was placed in more quiet surroundings a few hundred meters downstream from the main feeding site by the boardwalk.

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Alongside the turtles several large African catfish, Clarias lazera, swam about making the most of the bounty of food.

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The stream itself seems nothing special, murky and eutrophic as it is, but a little walk along the bank revealed a decent array of wildlife nonetheless; introduced species such as parrots and nutria, Myocastor coypus, alongside native kingfishers and reptiles such as Laudakia stellio, Natrix tessellata (nice to see one not run over) and the first fringe fingered lizard of the trip. Israel has several species of the genus Acanthodactylus but this far north only Schreiber's fringe fingered lizard, A. schreiberi (sorry, no pics), is found making it an easy ID. I could perhaps have found more herps but the habitat looked ideal for chameleons so I spent a good deal of time looking up into the bushes rather than down, to no avail.

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I met with Aviad in the dunes just past 6 o'clock in the evening to catch the last of the diurnal acitivity. We were a little late for this endeavour so all we found was a single Nidua fringe fingered lizard, Acanthodactylus scutellatus - (no pictures yet).

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As we walked the dunes in the light of the setting sun the first of the nocturnal species already made its presence known. I saw the sand moving under the branches of one of the small bushes spread across the dune, obviously being pushed up by some animal. I asked Aviad what it might be and he told me it was a skink so we scooped it up. I was delighted to see a true sand specialist, the wedge snouted skink, Sphenops sepsoides, a magnificent little creature perfectly adapted for "diving" in the loose substrate with its shovel like snout and reduced limbs. It was of course nigh on impossible to photograph as it would burrow into the sand at the blink of an eye. Even when we found a place with more compressed sand it couldn't burrow into that fast its shiny scales and incessant movement still presented quite a challenge.

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We found a couple more of these wonderful creatures as night drew in. They were just as adverse to modelling as the first specimen.

Around each of the small bushes was a number of Acanthodactylus burrows. They dig plenty of burrows to minimize the risk that the one they are sleeping in any given night is visited by one of the predators we would search for later in the evening. I came across a larger burrow and asked Aviad what might live there. I got the answer in the form of a quick flash of movement in the bush by my feet. Sadly, I didn't register what moved, but Aviad did. It was a desert agama, Trapelus savignii. This then became a target species for me but alas, we would not see any more.

In addition to the active herps we found a number of tracks from interesting creatures such as the desert monitor, Varanus griseus and the sandfish, Scincus scincus. The tracks were not quite fresh though, so trying to follow them made little sense. There were of course also lots of tracks of Acanthodactylus and assorted rodents, beetles, etc. Many of the tracks - such as those of the Acanthodactylus - were centered around the bushes they called home. Others, such as the monitor tracks, covered great distances.

We also found other signs of the animals' presence. Droppings of Dorcas gazelle, Gazella dorcas were plentiful. A cape hare, Lepus capensis, suddenly raced by. Now as well as after dark, there were plenty of arthropods running about all over - scorpions (Buthacus sp.), solfugids, spiders, centipedes, beetles, mantids, grasshoppers, ants, ant lions, roaches, etc. Birds in the form of chukars and crows walked around scanning the sands, bee eaters flew by overhead. In all it was quite fascinating to see what a wealth of wildlife inhabited this seemingly quite barren and rather inhospitable environment.

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After nigthfall we got out the flashlights and started searching for fresh tracks of the nocturnal predators, The first find was an Anderson’s short fingered gecko, Stenodactylus petrii.

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We would see quite a few of these over the course of the evening. They inhabit the loose sand of the upper, mobile, dunes. In the bottom between the dunes where the sand is stabilized they are replaced by their close relative Lichtenstein's short fingered gecko, Stenodactylus sthenodactylus. We searched for these as well, but in vain.

Soon afterwards Aviad found the first snake track - from a horned viper, Cerastes cerastes. As the animals had just started their activity we did not have to follow the track for long before locating the snake. Later in the evening as the snakes had moved further about and the tracks had become longer they became much harder to follow, particularly when the snakes on their hunt for rodents up and down the dunes made their way down to the stabilized sand where the tracks would sometimes simply vanish. Finding and following these tracks through the sands to locate these magnificent kings of the dunes with their peculiar horns was great fun though. More often than not we would eventually find them just sitting out in the open atop the sand. In all, I think we found 8 individuals this night.

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The next set of tracks found was quite similar but much smaller - left by the common sand viper, Cerastes vipera. Whereas the horned viper tracks would cover great distances across open sand, these would simply go methodically from bush to bush, the snakes searching for and then going down each and every Acanthodactylus burrow along ther way. When you couldn't find any tracks leaving a particular bush, well, you knew the snake had to be in there somewhere and just had to start looking. We found 4 of these equally magnificent creatures, the first a "large" adult female, recognizable by her black tail tip.

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We also found snake tracks of a very different form. Whereas the Cerastes species sidewind their way across the sand the crowned leafnose snake, Lytorhynchus diadema, uses a different form of locomotion leaving a continuous impression rather than a set of distinct marks as the vipers. I photographed the tracks of Lytorhynchus as well as C. cerastes the following morning. These photographs will be included in my next - final - Israel post.

Lytorhynchus are lizard hunters like C. vipera and use their sense of smell to locate their prey. When they get a whiff of a lizard they will move to and fro all across the area to pick up the scent and leave a maze of tracks from which it can be quite difficult to find the way out making their tracks harder to follow. We did manage to find two though, one inside a bush the other halfway down a lizard burrow where it was, however, unsuccesful.

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We saw a fair number of rodents as well, a total of 4 species of gerbils - Gerbillus gerbillus, G. henleyi, G. andersonii and G. pyramidum, pictured below. We had hoped to also see the jerboa, Jaculus jaculus, but found only its tracks.

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By now it was late and we were tired, so when the tracks of a horned viper led us a long way back to the cars where it made a loop under mine before disappearing into the compressed sand nearby we took it as a sign. We got out or sleeping bags, found a nice place between the dunes, lit a fire, grabbed a beer and a bite to eat and had a small chat before we let sleep overwhelm us underneath the starry desert sky.

The fourth and final part of my Israeli herping travelogue can be found here viewtopic.php?f=2&t=6562

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FunkyRes
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by FunkyRes » June 6th, 2011, 12:46 am

Excellent! Thank you for sharing.

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-EJ
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by -EJ » June 6th, 2011, 2:08 am

Beautiful post and photos. Especially loved the Horned Viper and seeing the Stenodactylus in it's native habitat... no tortoises?

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Dr. Dark
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by Dr. Dark » June 6th, 2011, 2:31 am

Man, these have been INCREDIBLE posts of herps not often seen on this forum!!! Keep them coming...

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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by Paul White » June 6th, 2011, 6:22 am

that softshell looks both pretty and huge. They're amazing animals aren't they?

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MHollanders
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by MHollanders » June 6th, 2011, 8:08 am

Killer post. I love how similar Cerastes and Lytorhynchus are to Crotalus cerastes and Phyllorhynchus in the US.

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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by Crimson King » June 6th, 2011, 10:41 am

Very well done and THANKS!
:Mark

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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by mikemike » June 6th, 2011, 5:35 pm

Awesome posts! Thanks for sharing! The Lytorhynchus look like a cross between Arizona and Phyllorhynchus. Very cool snakes. Congrats on the Cerastes as well!

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Bill Love
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by Bill Love » June 6th, 2011, 8:33 pm

Very cool post, especially regarding the horned vipers, a personal favorite of mine. I've never thought of Israel as a place I'm particularly interested in visiting, but your post ups my interest level.

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krismunk
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by krismunk » June 6th, 2011, 11:37 pm

Thanks for all your kind replies :)
-EJ wrote:Beautiful post and photos. Especially loved the Horned Viper and seeing the Stenodactylus in it's native habitat... no tortoises?
Not in this post. I can't say that I specifically targeted them either (do see how the "hardtops" could be highly misleading :oops: )

You'll find one in my previous post viewtopic.php?f=2&t=6516.
-Paul White wrote:that softshell looks both pretty and huge. They're amazing animals aren't they?
They are :)

They tend to get less pretty with age though. The spots become less conspicuous and many of the larger ones are scarred to some extent.
-Bill Love wrote:I've never thought of Israel as a place I'm particularly interested in visiting, but your post ups my interest level.
I can only recommend it ;)

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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by justinm » June 7th, 2011, 4:44 am

You've seen some pretty amazing things in a place I had never thought of herping. I am loving this trip report, thanks for opening my eyes.

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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by Bill Love » June 7th, 2011, 6:47 am

I just reread your account of tracking the sand vipers and noticed a tidbit that is loosely connected to a theory I had years ago when keeping this species in a huge vivarium. You mentioned the tracks (of C. vipera) wandering from bush to bush, which was presumably seeking any refugia in the open sand that might represent an island of something that might harbor prey. I'll assume C. cerastes does the same thing. Had it been daytime, I'd assume it was shade they sought, but that they also seem to seek plants at night means to me either A.) they know the route to their favorite 'hangouts' (this would seem difficult to memorize across shifting sand ???), or B.) they can see disruptions in the horizon that might indicate an island effect where food might be present and gravitate that way. Probably no great revelations there, but this kind of offhandedly brings me to a theory I had about the reason for their 'horns'. In the desert, ANYthing that breaks the monotony of the sand may represent something worth checking out as either food, water or shelter. I wonder if when the horned vipers bury themselves with only their heads visible if the horns might resemble an emergent seedling or insect to a hungry mammal, lizard or bug, and thus be a subtle attractant of potential prey for the snake. Do you have any observations that lend themselves to such a notion?

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krismunk
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by krismunk » June 7th, 2011, 7:07 am

Bill Love wrote:...a theory I had about the reason for their 'horns'. In the desert, ANYthing that breaks the monotony of the sand may represent something worth checking out as either food, water or shelter. I wonder if when the horned vipers bury themselves with only their heads visible if the horns might resemble an emergent seedling or insect to a hungry mammal, lizard or bug, and thus be a subtle attractant of potential prey for the snake. Do you have any observations that lend themselves to such a notion?
I don't.

But it's very interesting to hear this theory a second time. Aviad Bar who was with me in the desert that evening and knows the habitat and its inhabitants extremely well had a similar one. He was also inclined to believe that their benefits as atractants would increase with size and that evolution would thus favour the development of increasingly large horns until such a point as they became so large that whatever disadvantages their size would entail for the snakes outweighed this benefit.

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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by kyle loucks » June 7th, 2011, 12:37 pm

Awesome! I used to keep Cerastes, what cool snakes. Is gasparetti still a valid subspecies?

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krismunk
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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by krismunk » June 7th, 2011, 12:46 pm

Thanks, Kyle :)

Gasperetti is now generally acknowledged as a full species. I searched for them the following day (see my last Israel post), but without luck.

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Re: Herping the holy land, day 3, softshells & hardtops

Post by Warren » July 28th, 2011, 12:31 pm

Wow! Another great post! Fantastic Cerastes photos and those softshells are amazing! I was there and this was an awesome night.

Here's Aviad talking the same theory that Bill mentioned, and a gross nutria video.






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