Species in the most common pattern (characteristic of 30% of the taxons) are found in northern Israel and their distribution extends northwards. About 15% are found in most of the Negev, and their distribution area usually extends to both North Africa and Arabia (Saharo-Arabian distribution). Other species are found in the Arava Valley and the eastern part of Israel (Arabian distribution, about 23% of the taxons), and circa 10% of the taxons are found in southwest Israel, and their distribution area extends west to North Africa (Saharan distribution).
Other distribution patterns include species endemic specifically to northern Israel and those endemic specifically to southern Israel (together they comprise about 14% of the taxons), or species that are not endemic, but whose distribution area in Israel is limited to Mt. Hermon. One species (T. triunguis) has a global distribution area that is mainly African (tropical), although in Israel and north of it, the species is found in streams in the Mediterranean region. Three species are found throughout most of the country. Two distribution patterns are found in sea turtles: one encompassing only the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and another encompassing only the Gulf of Eilat, and the Indian and Pacific oceans. Species that combine these two distribution patterns (Werner 1988) are divided into separate subspecies (Ernst & Barbour 1989), and each subspecies appears in table 1 in the appropriate distribution pattern.
At times species with different distribution patterns can be found in the same habitat. In the sands of the Yemin and Rotem plains, for example, representatives of four different distribution patterns can be found: the Testudo werneri, has a Saharan distribution pattern; Acanthodactylus boskianus, found in most of the Negev, has a Saharo-Arabian distribution; the Pseudocerastes persicus fieldi is found in the central Negev and the Arabian deserts, and alongside them, Chalcides ocellatus, and Psammophis schokari, are found throughout nearly all of Israel. As a result, unique species compositions exist in different areas, which do not repeat themselves in other parts of these species’ distribution area.
Some of the reptiles found in Israel are at the edge of their global distribution area. Some Saharan species in Israel, for example, are at the northern or eastern limit of their distribution area: Scincus scincus scincus, Acanthodactylus longipes, Acanthodactylus scutellatus scutellatus, Cerastes vipera, Cerastes cerastes cerastes, and others. Other species found north or northeast of Israel, reach the southern boundaries of their distribution area in Israel: three species found on Mt. Hermon are particularly notable - Coluber ravergieri, Elaphe hohenackeri taurica and Elaphe quatuorlineata sauromates. The Eirenis levantinus has a similar distribution, but occurs also in the Upper Galilee.
Some species have distribution areas limited to narrow areas in Israel. Such are the Cyrtodactylus amictopholis, which is endemic to Mt. Hermon and the Acanthodactylus beershebensis, which is endemic to the Be’er Sheva Valley and survives today only on very limited areas. Other species are endemic to some of Israel and adjacent countries (see distribution pattern table).
Table 1. Distribution patterns of reptiles living in Israel today (not including exotic species).
||No. of Taxons
|Northern – in the Mediterranean area and extending north (Lebanon, Syria, Turkey). Sometimes extends east, and even beyond the Middle East.
||Mauremys caspica rivulata, Testudo graeca (T.g. terrestris and T.g. ssp. in the Golan), Cyrtodactylus kotschyi orientalis, Ptyodactylus puiseuxi, Laudakia stellio ssp., Chamaeleo chamaeleon recticrista, Lacerta media israelica, Lacerta laevis laevis, Acanthodactylus schreiberi syriacus, Ophisops elegans ehrenbergii1, Ablepharus rueppellii (A.r. rueppelli and A.r. fastae ), Eumeces schneideri pavimentatus, Mabuya vittata, Ophisaurus apodus, Typhlops vermicularis, Eryx jaculus turcicus, Coluber jugularis asianus, Coluber nummifer, Coluber rubriceps , Natrix tesselata tesselata , Eirenis coronella, Eirenis decemlineata, Eirenis rothi , Eirenis levantinus, Rhynchocalamus melanocephalus 1, Malpolon monspessulanus insignitus, Telescopus fallax syriacus, Vipera palaestinae, Micrelaps muelleri.|
||Stenodactylus sthenodactylus sthenodactylus, Trapelus pallidus pallidus, Pseudotrapelus sinaitus, Uromastyx aegyptius, Acanthodactylus boskianus, Mesalina guttulata guttulata, Mesalina olivieri schmidti, Scincus scincus scincus, Varanus griseus griseus, Leptotyphlops macrorhynchus, Coluber rogersi, Coluber rhodorachis, Spalerosophis diadema cliffordi, Lytorhynchus diadema, Malpolon moilensis, Telescopus dhara. |
||Bunopus tuberculatus, Ptyodactylus hasselquistii hasselquistii, Ptyodactylus guttatus , Stenodactylus doriae, Tropiocolotes nattereri, Laudakia stellio brachydactyla, Acanthodactylus opheodurus, Coluber elegantissimus, Eirenis coronelloides, Walterinnesia aegyptia, Echis coloratus, Pseudocerastes persicus fieldi, Atractaspis engaddensis|
||Testudo werneri, Stenodactylus petrii, Trapelus savignii, Acanthodactylus scutellatus scutellatus, Acanthodactylus longipes, Sphenops sepsoides, Psammophis aegyptius, Macroprotodon cucullatus cucculatus, Cerastes cerastes cerastes, Cerastes vipera|
|Endemic principally to northern Israel (and sometimes adjacent countries)
||Cyrtopodion amictopholis, Lacerta kulzeri ssp., Chalcides guentheri, Ophiomorus latastii, Typhlops simoni , Vipera bornmuelleri|
|Endemic principally to southern Israel (and sometimes adjacent countries)
||Testudo graeca floweri, Uromastyx ornata ornata, Chamaeleo chamaeleon musae, Acanthodactylus beershebensis, Eumeces schneideri schneideri, Coluber sinai, Telescopus hoogstraali, Cerastes gasperettii mendelssohni|
|Limited in Israel to Mt. Hermon (with a broad distribution northwards or eastwards)
||Coluber ravergieri, Elaphe quatuorlineata sauromates, Elaphe hohenackeri taurica |
|Nearly throughout the country (with a broad distribution area outside Israel)
||Hemidactylus turcicus turcicus, Chalcides ocellatus, Psammophis schokari|
|In the Gulf of Eilat and the Indian and Pacific oceans
||Lepidochelys olivacea, Eretmochelys imbricata bissa4, Caretta caretta gigas , Chelonia mydas agassigii4, Dermochelys coriacea schlegelii4|
|In the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean
||Eretmochelys imbricata imbricata4, Caretta caretta caretta4, Chelonia mydas mydas4, Dermochelys coriacea coriacea4|
B. The status of reptiles in Israel
The current checklist of Israeli reptiles is missing a number of species found here until the beginning of the 20th century that have since become extinct. The existence of three species is definite and supported by museum evidence (Crocodylus n. niloticus, Emys orbicularis, and Macrovipera lebetina obtusa). These species can still be found in other areas outside Israel. Another species, Blanus strauchi, mentioned in late 19th century writings from the Tiberias area, ranges from Anatolia and northern Iraq to Lebanon and Syria (Martens 1997, Bosch 1998). This species belongs to the Amphisbaenia, a separate suborder in the Squamata, different from the suborders Sauria (lizards) and Ophidia (snakes). The written evidence however, is not supported by museum evidence, nor has the species been reported from Israel during the 20th century. As a result of this uncertainty, Blanus strauchi has not been included in the list of extinct species in Israel.
There are two exotic reptile species in Israel today. One, the Trachemys scripta elegans, was introduced by man: juvenile specimens were sold in pet shops from the 1970s, and several individuals are known to have been released by their owners in different parts of the country (Bouskila 1986). The species originates in the United States and most of the specimens in Israeli pet shops have been imported from farms in the Far East. T. s. elegans are popular pets and find their way to natural habitats in different parts of the world, where they compete with local species. Adults have been seen or trapped in the Yarqon River since 1981 (Sidis 1983), but it is still not clear whether there is a breeding population in Israel. Importation of T. s. elegans to Israel has been prohibited for the past several years.
Another species, the Cyrtopodion scaber, apparently arrived unaided (without deliberate human interference) in cargo arriving at the Eilat port. The first record in Israel is from 1989 and additional specimens have been seen or captured since then in the Eilat area, and C. scaber are apparently spreading gradually south and north of Eilat (Werner 1998). The Cyrtopodion scaber ranges from Pakistan to the Red Sea shores in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Its expansion to areas beyond its original distribution area is a relatively common occurrence in geckos.
The status of most reptile species in Israel has become vulnerable as the population in Israel grows and along with it, open habitats shrink or become fragmented. Nevertheless, it seems that one species, the Mauremys caspica rivulata, has succeeded in broadening its distribution due largely to its resistance to various water pollutants and its ability to inhabit unclean water sources and wastewater reservoirs, as a substitute for dwindling clean water sources.
Table 2: The status of reptiles in Israel (species and subspecies)
Remarks relating to the assessment of the status of reptiles in Israel:
1. Only species of marine reptiles (sea turtles) that breed on Israeli beaches and require a preserved terrestrial habitat for laying eggs are discussed here. Some of the species that do not breed in Israel, but occur near its coast, are in various degrees of global danger, but are not discussed here, and are categorized as NE (Not Evaluated).
2. Species categorized as DD (Data Deficient), have been included in this category due to insufficient information on their current distribution, and on changes in relation to the past, in at least part of their distribution area. Thus, for example, the distribution of Acanthodactylus opheodurus in some parts of the Negev and the 'Arava is unclear due to the difficulty of morphological differentiation from Acanthodactylus boskianus at this stage. This makes it difficult to ascertain how much it has been harmed by the reduction of certain habitats in this area, and it is categorized as DD.
3. Several of the reptile species inhabiting sandy areas in the northwestern Negev and in other regions are limited in Israel exclusively to sandy areas. At this stage, a significant part of the western Negev sandy region is used by the Israel Defense Forces as training grounds, and is thus relatively protected. However, land use classification of these areas may change in the future (if, for example, areas intended for farming or sand mining will be expanded). Reduction of protected sandy areas will probably lead to deterioration in the status of many reptile species inhabiting sandy areas, and place them in higher regional danger categories.
4. Exotic species in Israel have not been included in table 2.
Reptiles in Israel are found in all natural habitats in the country. Even in extreme arid habitats almost completely bare of vegetation (e.g. ravines in the Lisan Lake sediments in the Dead Sea Plain and the northern Arava), sparse reptile populations can be found.
The number of species in a given location is determined by many factors (Bouskila & Dickman, in press). Some of these include climatic conditions and habitat structure (vegetation type and cover, soil, rock and stone cover). Some of these factors are important in creating a suitable climatic environment for reptile activity, and some provide cover, which can be vital, both for times when climate conditions are not suitable and as a refuge from predators. Other factors that contribute to species abundance in a given area are the result of interspecific interactions (food, predators, competitors and commensal species). At times, the presence of one species affects the presence of other species significantly. In the Arava gravel plains, for example, Bunopus tuberculatus, Hemidactylus turcicus turcicus and various snake species reside and even lay eggs in the deep burrows and egg deposition burrows of Uromastyx aegyptius. In these cases, U. aegyptius, with its ability to dig deep, long holes in gravel plains covered with ‘desert pavement’ made of hard stones, provides other species with shelter from the extreme climatic conditions in the Arava. These burrows also attract many other non-reptilian species that are eaten by reptiles, such as spiders and other arthropods (part of the geckoes diet) or rodents - part of the snakes diet (Bouskila 1984).
One particularly rich habitat in reptiles is the park forest of the type found in the Lower Galilee, which is characterized by well-spaced oaks interspersed with sunny areas of herbaceous vegetation and abundant rocks that provide shelter.
Many species are also found in sandy areas, particularly desert sands. Some of these are extremely adapted to sandy conditions and virtually do not exist outside them (Stenodactylus doriae in the Arava sands, Stenodactylus petrii, Acanthodactylus s. scutellatus, Acanthodactylus longipes, Scincus s. scincus and Cerastes vipera in the western Negev, and Sphenops sepsoides and Lytorhynchus diadema found in both these sandy areas). Other species that inhabit various types of soils, not only sand, such as Stenodactylus sthenodactylus sthenodactylus, Chalcides ocellatus, Varanus griseus griseus and Spalerosophis diadema cliffordi can be found alongside them (Werner 1987). The sandy habitat is obviously of vital importance for those species whose distribution is limited to them.
The coastal sands in Israel were once continuous with the northwestern Negev sands. The sandy strip along the Coastal Plain is drier than its surroundings and usually covered with less vegetation. These conditions create a form of desert penetration into more humid areas, and allow some of the desert species to extend northwards into the Mediterranean climatic region creating a unique combination of Mediterranean and desert species inhabiting the same area (e.g. Acanthodactylus schreiberi syriacus and A. s. scutellatus). This habitat is rapidly disappearing, and even where they are relatively undamaged, sandy areas are becoming fragmented and isolated from each other, mainly by construction and roads. The sea turtles Caretta caretta caretta and Chelonia mydas mydas lay their eggs in certain sandy areas adjacent to the Mediterranean coast, whose preservation is vital for breeding of these species on Israeli beaches to continue.
The cushion-plant habitat on Mt. Hermon appears in combination with various degrees of rock cover and herbaceous expanses. Many species occupy this habitat, some unique to Mt. Hermon and others typical of Mediterranean landscapes. Different species reach different altitude belts, probably according to their degree of adaptation to the rapidly changing climatic conditions with the rise in altitude. Some endemic species are found exclusively on Mt. Hermon.
Some species, such as the Lacerta media israelica, are found only in natural woodlands and sunny patches on its fringes. The Lacerta laevis laevis and Cyrtodactylus kotschyi orientalis are also found primarily in this habitat. The Ophisops elegans ehrenbergii is found throughout the batha areas, which are covered by semi-shrubs, but its accompanying species vary according to geographic location, and species combinations differ between Mediterranean, semi-steppe or central Negev bathas.
Herbaceous meadows are important to some species, e.g. Chalcides guentheri, but patches of this habitat remain only in isolated areas, mostly far apart. Ptyodactylus spp. (usually different species in different regions) and Laudakia stellio populate cliff landscapes almost throughout the country. In cliffs and rocky areas in the south other species join them, particularly Pseudotrapelus sinaitus, Uromastyx ornata ornata (in the Eilat Mountains) and Echis coloratus.
In the few areas where loess plains still remain, the Acanthodactylus beershebensis can be found, associated with different species in different sites, some of which have also been affected by the decline in loess plains over the past years. The gravel plains in the central Negev and the Arava are the main habitat of the Uromastyx aegyptius, accompanied by lizard and snake species found in other areas in the Negev. The area covered by gravel plains is decreasing, as a result of changes in land use for agriculture or military use.
The Trionyx triunguis, the Mauremys caspica rivulata and the Natrix tesselata tesselata are found in streams and freshwater bodies. The Crocodylus n. niloticus also occupied these habitats until the beginning of the 20th century, but they are now threatened by drainage and pollution of water sources. The Mauremys caspica rivulata seems to be relatively resistant to pollution and flowing sewage, but other species require clean water. Although some reptile species are capable of occupying habitats near man, the presence of dogs, cats, ravens and the like, which are common in the vicinity of man, endangers them.
D. Disturbance and threat factors in Israel
1. Habitat destruction – this factor threatens more species than any other, including endemic species and species with narrow distribution areas, such as A. beershebensis. The elements involved in habitat destruction include:
- Construction (particularly problematic along the Coastal Plain).
- Sand quarrying (both licensed and illegal; problematic mainly along the southern Coastal Plain).
- Cultivation of loess soils in the Negev (mainly by Bedouins) destroys habitats even in dry years when no wheat grows.
- Agricultural area expansion, in many regions at the expense of natural habitats. This factor is particularly threatening vital reptilian habitats in the northwestern Negev, in loess areas, and in the Arava Valley, on gravel and sandy plains.
- Israel Defense Forces camps and training areas (problematic mainly in the Negev) – the damage in this case is most obvious when tank, armored carrier and all-terrain vehicle traffic is not limited to defined routes. In training grounds where military activity is limited to shooting into the area, damage to reptiles is not significant.
- Planting – in Mediterranean areas: planting of dense, uniform pine forests transforms natural habitats into new ones in which many species cannot survive. In the south, planting trees on loess plains, where there were formerly no trees, modifies the habitat. As a result, Mediterranean reptile species penetrate at the expense of desert species, and also facilitate penetration by predators that did not formerly occupy the area (Hawlena & Bouskila 2000).
Reptiles are threatened not only when parts of the habitat are completely destroyed and natural habitat area is reduced, but also when different factors modify habitat conditions (Bouskila 1996):
2. Intensive grazing by livestock (problematic both in Mediterranean areas and in the northern and central Negev) – in the north, damage is mainly vegetation alteration; in the south, it results mainly from soil crust trampling (Zaady & Bouskila, 2002).
3. Complete lack of grazing (problematic in the south) – areas where livestock grazing has been prevented and wild ungulate density decreases, are apt to become covered with soil crusts too thick for reptiles reliant on burrow digging (Zaady & Bouskila, 2002). Moreover, vegetation in these areas may become too dense for reptiles to survive (e.g. in the closed area surrounding the nuclear plant in the Yemin Plain and in extensive fenced areas surrounding military camps and airfields).
4. Off-road vehicle traffic (problematic on the Coastal Plain – particularly in sandy areas – and in extensive areas in the south – Negev and Judean Desert) – off-road travel destroys soil crusts, modifies habitat and may affect the drainage system (Bouskila 1996).
5. Roads – damage is principally through habitat fragmentation and resulting isolation of small populations. Isolation of small populations can have many consequences, including diminished survival probability, genetic isolation, and reduced survival capacity in patches where populations were hurt, etc. (Bachi 2000). Another factor, roadkill, occurs frequently due to the tendency of many reptiles active at night or in the evening to absorb heat from roads. In some areas, diurnal reptiles are also victims of roadkill (e.g. Uromastyx aegyptius in the Arava, particularly in the mating season when males move around a lot on their way to female burrows, Bouskila 1984).
6. Stream and water body pollution – problematic principally in the north.
7. Water source decline as a result of water diversion into pipes near the source. This is a problem chiefly in northern Israel and in the En Gedi Nature Reserve, where the blockage of water flow in the vicinity of the En Gedi spring could pose a threat to the rich Echis coloratus population at the site (Tsairi and Bouskila, 2004).
8. Increase in the number of animals in the vicinity of man – cats, dogs and ravens increase the incidence of reptile predation, particularly near human settlements. Cattle egrets have established breeding colonies on large trees within human settlements (e.g. Be’er Sheva) and outside them, from where they spread to natural habitats in the vicinity and prey on many creatures, including reptiles.
9. Reptile collecting – by reptile fans or for illegal trade. When species considered in demand are collected from their natural habitats, their populations are harmed. Moreover, in the course of collection, shelters are sometimes destroyed and habitats degraded.
10. Eradication by people with low environmental awareness – fear or superstition commonly leads to killing of all types of snakes, Ophisaurus apodus and L. stellio. Killing reptiles for food is common mainly in the Arava: foreign workers set traps for U. aegyptius and cause serious damage to populations in the vicinity of agricultural communities in this region.
E. Recommendations for conservation
Preserving large areas as nature reserves – particularly in habitats that are not yet represented in sufficiently large reserves (e.g. loess plains, sandy areas in the Coastal Plain and in the 'Arava Valley). Israel’s small area makes it difficult to rely exclusively on nature reserves as shelters for endangered reptile species, and efforts must be made to correctly manage open spaces outside reserves:
- Protection from illegal habitat destruction (quarrying).
- Involvement in afforestation policy so that the distribution and character of forests have a minimal effect on endangered species.
- Studying the effect of grazing on reptile species and limiting grazing to times and loads appropriate for habitats and areas vital to endangered species.
- Careful consideration of the necessity of every road proposed for construction.
- When roads are built – construction of many suitably sized underpasses to encourage reptiles to use them (Bachi 2000). Moreover, as long as there is no efficient fencing to prevent reptile from entering highways, openings must be made in the concrete New-Jersey type road-dividers.
- Protecting and preventing pollution of water sources.
- Reducing factors that encourage raven and cattle egret population increases.
- Keeping dogs and cats out of nature reserves. Also, monitoring dog and cat movements in settlements bordering on reserves, while endeavoring to find ways to reduce the threat of wildlife predation by these animals. One solution used in other parts of the world is the requirement that cat owners attach bells to their cats’ collars to warn wildlife of their approach. It is also necessary to thin out populations of stray cats and dogs.
- Enforcing laws relating to reptile trade and to trapping and collecting by reptile fans.
- Educating the public on the importance of reptile conservation in their natural habitats.
- Research on species about which information is sparse.