A rarely seen venomous orange snake with a name befitting a sci-fi superhero (or villain) has been spotted in the southeastern part of the UAE.
The Arabian cat snake was observed twice last year – once in July and a second time in October – in Wadi Helo, along the border of Sharjah and Fujairah.
The two sightings appear to be the only published record of the species in the UAE since 2009, according to a recent report in The Herpetological Bulletin.
The recent sightings “add important data to the current known distribution and status of the Arabian cat snake within the UAE and suggest that there is a stable population in at least the south of the country and that Wadi Helo represents an important area” for the species in the UAE, researchers wrote in the report, “An updated distribution of the Arabian cat snake Telescopus dhara in the United Arab Emirates” published last November.
The first cat snake in the UAE was found in Sharjah and reported in 2007. It was likely transported in date palms imported into the country from northern Oman, according to researchers.
The species was subsequently spotted three more times, often as road kill, in Fujairah, Kalba and Wadi Helo until 2009 when it was last seen.
Since then, the Arabian cat snake – better known to scientists as Telescopus dhara – reappeared in the UAE slithering on a tree stump late one July night last year. A second sighting was recorded in the same general area of Wadi Helo three months later when a snake was discovered “moving slowly across a loose rocky slope” around 1am. In both cases, the snakes were orange in colour, which corresponds to the previous recorded sightings in the UAE.
“Potential habitat of T. dhara exists throughout the Hajar mountain range and multiple records from both the more northerly Musandam Peninsula and Oman to the south lend further support to a potentially more continuous area of occupancy within the UAE,” researchers wrote.
An adult cat snake is on average between 60 and 70cm in length and likely got its name from its distinctive facial features, said Mr Gardner.
“It is apparently called a cat snake due to its large eyes with vertical pupils,” said Mr Gardner, who now lives in Australia. “It is a nocturnal snake that lives in rocky areas. Hence, in the UAE it is restricted to the Hajar mountains.”
The cat snake is “rear-fanged,” and feeds on small geckos and birds.
“Rear fanged snakes find it quite hard to engage the fangs on a large animal such as a human leg or arm,” said Mr Gardner. “In my experience, these snakes are very reluctant to bite. While there is no documented evidence regarding the potency of the venom of this species, the venom is not considered harmful to humans.
“It does however have large venom glands, and it should be treated with caution. There is always the possibility that someone might be allergic to the venom, and this could cause more serious problems.”
Although the species is not endangered, the authors suggest it “may be uncommon” and is “deserving of listing on the UAE Red Data List of species of conservation concern.”