THE GRASS SNAKE OF CYPRUS

THE GRASS SNAKE OF CYPRUS

Natrix natrix cypriaca

 

Introduction:  The Grass Snake is one of the most rare and endangered snakes in Cyprus.  This snake, was first mentioned as "water snake" by Dr. J. Sibthorp who visited Cyprus in 1787.  Boulenger in 1888 in his list "On Reptiles and Batrachians from Cyprus" cites it as Tropidonotus natrix.  This snake was common in Cyprus, and it was believed that after the early 1960's it was extinct.  A small population was rediscovered in 1992 by H. Wiedl.  This and another recently discovered population are so small that they urgently need protection!

Species range:  Northwest Africa, Iberia, middle and eastern Europe, middle England, Scandinavia up to 67o N, former northern USSR, Corsica, Sardinia, Italy, Sicily, Balkans, Greece, many Aegian islands, Turkey, southern Russia, northern Iran, Asia up to Lake Baikal.  The cypriot form has been considered an endemic subspecies.

Localities on Cyprus where specimens were observed:  It can be found from sea level up to 700 m above sea level.  In a dam and stream at the northern foot hills of Troodos massif.  In addition in a lake at the east part of the island.  The earliest archaeological site in Cyprus Akrotiri Aetogremnos has produced a sample of Natrix natrix which was living on the island 10,000 years ago.  This suggests to us that this snake was isolated long enough to warrant subspecies status.

Identification:  The body length rarely exceeds 100 cm, females grow larger than males.  A slight stout non-venomous water snake with a well-defined rounded head and round pupil.  The colour is variable, and within this subspecies there are three colour morphs.  The original or normal pattern has a gray, beige to dark brown ground colour with round dark brown spots or bars in the middle and lateral part of the body.  Many melanistic individuals can be found.  There are a number of dark brown individuals speckled with small light dots, called picturata-morph, which most probably are hybrids between the normal colour individuals with the black ones.  The belly is white with black bars to black in melanistic individuals.  The preanal scale is divided, whereas in the viper (Vipera lebetina) it is undivided.  However, in both species all dorsal scales are keeled.

Habits:  Diurnal and occasionally nocturnal.  It is mainly aquatic and prefers moist areas around streams and dams.  In case of disturbance the snake tries to escape into the water and dives.  Natrix is a good swimmer and hunts its prey from the water.  When handled it does not bite, however it tries to defend itself by empting a strong bad smelling fluid from the anal glands.  This species can be observed mainly between the end of March and the end of October.  Sometimes in suitable weather conditions, it can be seen during winter.  It seems to be mainly active between May and August.  Mating occurs between May and June, oviposition between July and August and hatching between September and October.  Based on data from captivity, the clutch size is 4-9 eggs.  The oviposition sites in nature are unknown.

Food:  A very special feeder, diet depends almost only on frogs (Rana levantina), and very rarely on fish (Cyprinus carpio).

Enemies:  Man who kills it out of ignorance, and other snakes.

Conservation measures and advice for the public:  It seems that the greatest danger that this species faces, is the collection of snakes for private collections and possibly for trade, both by locals and foreigners.  Therefore, it is necessary to strengthen controls against collection.  The public is advised to report to the Game Fund or to the police anyone who is chasing or collecting grass snakes.

The public should be taught to identify and respect this snake, and should know that is harmless and in danger of extinction.

Cypriot Grass Snake

(normal pattern)

Cypriot Grass Snake

(melanistic)

Cypriot Grass Snake

(picturata - morph)

 

Cypriot Blunt Nosed Viper

(Vipera lebetina)