Thursday, August 20, 2009

Herps of the Holy Land

Whether you want to call it Israel, Palestine, the Occupied Territories, the Zionist Entity, or whatever description fits your political perspective, the Holy Land is an alluring place with much to see and do. This area stretches from Lebanon in the North to Egypt in the South, with Jordan sharing its eastern border and the Mediterranean lapping at its western shores. Herpetelogically speaking, this land has significant overlap with the species I've been herping during my study abroad in Jordan. There are a few herps in Jordan that the Holy Land lacks, and vice versa, but the bulk of the herps are the same. In spite of that fact, I was still excited to be in a new area with new ground to cover, even if only for just a few days.
The above picture is the view of Nazareth from a hill inside the city. As a tourist in a tour group, it sometimes gets difficult to find places away from the "scene" of tourism. The new rule of needing at least two other people with me wherever I go also makes herping a challenge. Every now and then, though, I step off the bus into a place where I am able to turn over a rock or two to see what I can find. Although herping was not extremely plentiful, there are a couple new species of note.
As already mentioned, many of the herps I documented here were repeats. This Turkish gecko was found under a rock in Nazareth. Turkish geckos were also common at night, along with a few fan-toed geckos, at the Ron Beach Hotel in Tiberias. Additionally, I observed a juniper skink in Jerusalem, a Schneider skink up north by the Golan, a marbled skink in Jerusalem, numerous starred agamas throughout the land, and an increase in numbers of lebanon lizards compared to Jordan (but oddly enough, not a single snake-eyed lizard, which were abundant in Jordan).

In Nazareth, I was surprised to also find a single Syrian agama (Trapelus ruderatus) on the same hillside where the first picture was taken. At first, I imagined that it was simply another starred agama. Since it was early in the morning and I wasn't getting much herp action, I decided to investigate the specimen out of boredom. I heard it rustling, and I looked over and spotted it just as it climbed off a large, flat rock at ground level and clamber under an overhang. When I kneeled down to get a better look, I noticed something was different about it. It seemed to move and act differently, its coloring was a bit unusual, its head was smaller in comparison to its body and more rounded, and its tail lacked the spines typical of a starred agama. This was the only picture I could take, and it doesn't clearly show the lizard, but at least it can be clicked on to enlarge it, and you can see that it was really there. Although these exist in Jordan as well, this was my first time seeing one. Its head is sticking up at the back of the crevice.
Unfortunately, letting a new specimen escape would not happen just once. Our tour group also traveled up to the northern end of the Holy Land to a place called Banias, where the forests are cool and shady, and streams of clear water flow into large pools. I desperately wanted to stay here all day to herp, but the other 40 students weren't as eager to flip rocks over for hours on end to search for reptiles and amphibians. I was only given 15 minutes of free time to look around on my own. I really wanted to find a fire salamander, but the time of day and time of year were not on my side to make this a reality. Instead, I discovered another new lizard (which escaped before I could get out my camera and sneak up on it) called an Emerald green lizard (Lacerta trilineata). It gave a rustling in the bushes like a Lebanon lizard, which I had grown accustomed to seeing, but when I looked through the dense shrub, I found that this lizard was larger, pretty much uniform in color, without any striping, and its head was less flat and more robust. The next day I saw it listed in a book about animals of the Holy Land, it being one of only four lizard species depicted in the book.
With time in Jordan gone, and time on this side of the border quickly drawing to a close, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever see a Mediterranean chameleon (Chameleo chameleon). First, I was tiring of having to split my attention between scanning the trees for chameleons and scanning the ground for virtually everything else. But second, it was just mentally exhausting to constanly be thinking about them, wondering if they are in the habitat I'm in, where they could be hiding, etc. I was even beginning to question their very existence. Then, one fateful day at Tel Dan in the northern part of the country, I was lucky enough to chance about a beautiful, fully grown adult clinging to the lower trunk of a eucalyptus tree, partially concealed by a bush growing next to it.
I was absolutely ecstatic. My group was listening attentively to an explanation about a restored ruin, which I quickly grew disinterested in, and I began wandering around to see what I could find. I peered around a large eucalyptus tree and turned back. Then, I quickly looked again, thinking I had seen something that looked scaly and green. It was a tail. I followed the tail to the lizard behind the bush and saw a bright green chameleon clinging to the trunk of the tree. It was staring back at me with its turret-style eyes. I literally ran towards it (as if it could run away) and lifted it off the tree and into my hands. I became the new center of attention for just a moment, as my peers and even instructors were fascinated with my reptile find.

I had to keep staring at it to remind myself that I had indeed just caught the specie that I had dreamt about for so long. They are not particularly rare to find, but my time in the Middle East was so limited, and the days were so hot, that I didn't know if I would actually run across one in my herping during the summer. I was very pleased to finally get the chance!

And this wraps up my summer study abroad and herping adventures in Jordan and the Holy Land. Combining these places (and not including Egypt) I've managed to document a total of 35 herp species, which I think is respectable, considering the circumstances. It boils down to 27 lizard species, 4 snake species, 2 frogs, 1 toad, and 1 tortoise. Of the 27 lizards: 8 species were geckos (3 Ptyodactylus, 1 Hemidactylus, 1 Bunopus, 1 Cyrtopodion, 1 Tropiocolotes, and 1 Pristurus); 6 agamas (3 Trapelus, 1 Laudakia, 1 Pseudotrapelus, and 1 Phrynocephalus); 5 skinks; 2 Lacertids; 1 Chameleon; and 5 other. There is so much still to herp here, and in more favorable conditions these numbers could be improved. I hope to return in some future day and pick up where I left off. Until then, perhaps I can fit in some more herping in the states before winter sets in.


  1. that chameleon is awesome! i love it :]

  2. WOW! How can Christmas even top that? I bet you were stoked to have found that. Your timing couldn't have been better before leaving! Hope to see you soon.

  3. Dude! I have to tell you I am really jealous from this post. That Chameleon is awesome. I wish I could have been there for that one. "What a beauty" Well, see you in a few days and we will get a little herping in before it gets to cold.