Help identifying an Afghan snake please.

Asked September 19, 2014, 1:29 AM EDT

Hi. Yesterday I encountered a snake on the airfield at Kandahar, Afghanistan and wondered if you may be able to help identify it. It was around an aircraft and I wonder if it might be dangerous to the engineers who occasionally lay down underneath it to work.It was 8am, I imagine about 25-30 degrees celcius and on the concrete dispersal about 15 yards from any cover, the concrete blast walls under which it could easily hide. I can't imagine the nearest source of water. It was about a foot long, a light coppery sandy colour with no clear markings although I suspect it was quite young due to how skinny it was. It moved quickly by sidewinding rather than straight forwards. I took a panicked photo of not the best quality! I will try to add it later. Thanks for your help...

Outside United States

4 Responses

Please do add the photo. There are only about 34 species of snakes in Afghanistan, although like many things the herpetofauna is poorly known. You can see a list here. Only 8 of these are dangerous: 2 are cobras, 1 is a krait, and 5 are vipers. All the rest are harmless. The krait is bluish-black with white bands, so we can probably rule that one out, and the two cobras occur farther east in Afghanistan, so if your snake is dangerous it is probably a viper.

Two things that you said suggest opposite IDs to me. The sidewinding behavior rather strongly suggests that it was a saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus), a species that is well-known for sidewinding. On the other hand, you mentioned how skinny it was. I usually think of vipers as fat or heavy-bodied, and of most harmless snakes as slender. Echis is fairly slender for a viper, and it is a brown color (like most desert snakes), but it does have markings. Without seeing a picture it's hard for me to say more.

I'm not familiar with any species of non-venomous snake in Afghanistan that uses sidewinding, but a lot of snakes sidewind to move across loose or slippery substrates, like sand or mud. You said it was on concrete? I would expect a snake on concrete not to sidewind, but to crawl normally. Sounds awfully hot out there for a snake to want to be on the concrete. Incidentally, most desert reptiles never drink water - they drink dew that collects on their scales in the morning.

I would certainly encourage your engineers to use caution if they are lying on the ground in the desert to work on aircraft. If it's paved underneath where they are I'd be less concerned, both because it would probably be rare that a snake would venture onto the pavement and because the visibility would be much better, so they could check for snakes before they laid down. If it's dirt or rock underneath I'd be a lot more careful.

Thanks for your service,

I had trouble uploading the photo, try and remember I said it was taken in a panic so not the clearest! Thanks for your reply by the way, it's very interesting about the way they get water! The aircraft operating area is a very large concrete hard surface but with gravelly sand around the edges. The snake was about 30 meters from the nearest edge although vertical concrete blast walls between each parking bay would make a perfect hiding places for little chaps like this. It's reassuring that they wouldn't like the heat of this surface during the day but this was first thing before the sun had had a chance to start toasting everything. The engineers have all been made aware and are being cautious when moving chocks, hoses etc. We did wonder if this fella might climb up into the undercarriage bay to shelter from the heat. Have you seen Snakes On A Plane?! Thanks for your help on this.

Here's the only other photo I managed as it made its way hastily away from us.

That's definitely not a viper, its body is much too slender. At first I thought it was a Psammophis, a sand snake, but none of the three Afghani species have a mark below the eye like that. Instead, I'm nearly certain it is Platyceps rhodorachis, a harmless snake known as the Wadi Racer, Desert Racer, or Braid Snake. I didn't know they used sidewinding, although it makes sense.

I suppose it's possible one might climb into the landing gear, but if you've been out there a while and this is the first one that you've seen, that suggests to me that they rarely come out towards where the planes are (although, as you say, it does sound like the blast walls would make good shelter). I have seen Snakes on a Plane, fortunately the premise is quite unrealistic. However, it's probably a good idea for you and your engineers to stay alert for snakes when you're getting down on the ground out there.

You should consider uploading your sighting to HerpMapper, they'd love to get some records from Afghanistan!

More resources: