Spanish Snakes the facts – Ray Hamilton

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Common Spanish snake species in Southern Spain – a quick look.

In response to several posts on the site regarding Spanish snakes identification I have put together a very basic guide to help people who are trying to work out which species they are seeing locally. Included are the five species that I have most frequently found in the region. Some species will be more abundant in one area than others and at different times of the day or night. Snake colours are dulled by dusty conditions and dependent on the shedding of their old skin. Newly shed (sloughed) snakes have more vibrant colours and cleaner markings.

The lengths of snakes vary greatly and are notoriously difficult to estimate. Finally the shape of a snakes head is not an accurate way to try and identify the species. Some snakes will flatten their heads and create a triangular profile in an attempt to bluff potential predators.

Local or Spanish names have not been included – there are just too many, and often the same name is given to more than one species.

1. Horseshoe Whip Snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis)

Usually up to 160 cms (63 inches) 
Large, robust and agile snake which is patterned with a row of round brown spots along the back with smaller markings on each side. Horseshoe shaped marking on the head. When glimpsed gives the impression of a brown or tan ‘spotty’ snake. As they age, colours darken and merge and may give the impression of an all black snake. Quick to make off when disturbed at basking spots.


2. Western Montpellier Snake (Malpolon monspessulanus)

Usually up to 200 cms (78.5 inches) and exceptionally up to 250 cms (98 inches).
Surely southern Spain’s most stunning and impressive snake. Slender snakes with narrow heads and a distinctive ‘eagle eyed’ appearance due to raised scales over large eyes. Juveniles have a grey or reddish brown background colour with irregular bars and spots with white or paler markings along the flanks. Females can retain the flecked markings whilst adult males have an overall olive or grey colour with a darker ‘saddle’ a short way down the body.

Active in the daytime, even during the hottest part of the afternoon. Sometimes hunts with the front part of the body raised above the ground. A timid and speedy snake that is quick to escape given the chance. Often seen as road kill due to its hunting style.

The Montpellier Snake has venom which is delivered via fangs at the back of the mouth. Experts on the subject suggest “Its opisthoglyphous fangs are situated so far back in the mouth that the species is rendered virtually harmless to a human.”

3. Viperine Snake (Natrix maura)

Up to 85 cms (33.5 inches) 
‘Viperine’ refers to the snakes Viper like zig zag dorsal pattern and not to the presence of any venom. Slightly pointed head and the eyes have obviously rounded pupils. A small water snake of drab colouring, usually gray, reddish brown or olive green, typically featuring a darker zig zag pattern along the back. Some specimens show light stripes along the body length. If you have a pool or stream near your garden this is the species you are likely to encounter.

4. Ladder Snake (Rhinechis scalaris)

Up to 120 cms (47 inches) – occasionally slightly larger.
This species changes it’s pattern with age. Young snakes have a row of black ‘H’ shaped markings along the back – the rungs of the ladder. As it matures these markings fade and black stripes either side of the back become more obvious – the ladder rails. Beige background colour often gives a quick impression of a yellow snake. In most circumstances should be easy to identify.

5. Iberian False Smooth Snake (Macroprotodon brevis)

Small snake, up to 65 cms (25.5 inches)
Brown, tan or pale grey body colour with faded pattern along the back and sides. Best identifying marks are the dark collar and dark line under the eye. I have most frequently encountered this snake when turning ground cover. If disturbed often tries to hide it’s head under body coils. It is most active after rain and at dusk /after dark.

As in the Montpellier this species is venomous although no cases of envenomation of humans are known. Experts suggest “The rear fangs reduce the possibility of venom injection, the mouth is too small and the toxicity of the venom is too low to cause obvious symptoms.”

In my opinion, the best guide book to lookout for is,
“Field Guide to the Amphibians & Reptiles of Britain and Europe” by Speybroeck, Bukema, Bok, Van der Voort and Velikov. Everything you would ever need is in there and up to date.

If you would like to see distribution maps or report reptile sightings check out the website – Here

Horseshoe Whip Snake – a brown spotty snake

Western Montpelier Snake Big eye white markings along lip.
Ladder Snake, adult with rungs faded away leaving adult body stripes. This snake was missing a long section of it’s tail.
Viperine Snake – zig zag pattern, round eye.
Iberian False Smooth Snake, in defence, hiding it’s head.

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