New species of Arabian desert snake discovered near ancient city

A new species of snake has been discovered in Saudi Arabia which forms a missing puzzle piece in our knowledge of snake distribution on the Arabian Peninsula.

The new snake is described in a paper published in the journal Zoosystematics and Evolution.

Map of red sea with yellow markings
Habitats of Rhynchocalamus hejazicus. Credit: Fulvio Licata and Adel A. Ibrahim (CC-BY4.0).

“Snakes are a diverse group of reptiles but are notoriously hard to detect due to their secretive behaviour and rarity,” the authors write. Gaps in our knowledge, they add, are particularly notable in “undersampled regions of the world, such as the Middle East.”

This is why new snake species continue to be found even today.

Rhynchocalamus hejazicus is a small snake, with adults measuring about 25–40cm from the tip of the snout to the tip of the tail. It lives in the Hejaz Mountains in western Saudi Arabia.

The new snake belongs to a genus with 5 species of secretive snake which is widely distributed from Egypt to Iran. R. hejazicus has distinctive colouration, with a mostly reddish body and black colour.

A totally black form of the species has also been found. This “melanistic morphotype” is similar to other animals which have in their gene pool all-black individuals, such as jaguars.

R. hejazicus lives in sandy and stony soils, including in habitats that have been disturbed by humans. This suggests that it should not be listed as a threatened species according to the IUCN criteria.

Black snake on stony soil
Black ‘melanistic morphotype’ of Rhynchocalamus hejazicus. Credit: Fulvio Licata (CC-BY4.0).

Little is known about the newly discovered snake. It appears to be mainly nocturnal as all individuals encountered were active at night.

The species was discovered through intense sampling between 2017 and 2023 in a vast area around the ancient Arabic oasis city of AlUla which boasts a 7,000-year-old civilisation history.

“The discovery of a new species of snake widespread in the central-western regions of Saudi Arabia is surprising and gives rise to the hope that more undiscovered species might be present in the Kingdom,” the authors write.

Sign up to our weekly newsletter

Please login to favourite this article.