Home

Psammophis sibilans (LINNAEUS, 1758)

Video: 
Dâr Oulâd Tâleb, Assaba, Mauritania. Field mission to Morocco and Mauritania - 2012
Filmed by J.C. Brito. See https://www.youtube.com/user/biodeserts. This animal is called sibilans by the maker.

The exact taxonomic place of the specimen in the video is not yet clear.  According to C. de Haan (in litt.) there is a not yet described morph of Psammophis occurring mainly in the Sahel from east to west Africa, that in respect to size (up to 200 cm) and pattern is most similar to the uniform morph of Psammophis cf. phillipsi. The head is almost Malpolon-like, but the dorsal scales are positioned in vague bendings and lack the apical groove of Malpolon, like in all Psammophis. Ivan Ineich (MNHH, Paris) took a picture of a fast moving specimen ca. 1996 in South-Mauretania.

 

Identification Corkill 1935: "The anal is paired. The ventrals number 155 to 198, the subcaudals 90 to 116 pairs and the dorsals 17 in the row. The limit of recorded length is 1210 mm."
Derivatio nominis Latin sibilare: to hiss. Sibilans: hissing.
Subspecies
In the literature, a variety of subspecies is mentioned, that nowadays are all considered as separate species.
There is a whole group of species that are considered as belonging to the 'sibilans-complex, and its taxonomic classification is a paradise
(or a hell) for
taxonomists.
What makes it
even harder, is that there are specimens from a variety of species that asre almost look-a-likes. The differences lies in numbers of ventral scales and subcaudals, dentition, or in the microstructure of the outer layer of the skin - no things that are easy to verify.
 
Common Names Striped Sand Snake, Hissing Sand Snake, Gestreifte Sandrennatter  
African Beauty Snake, Sand Snake, Sand-Zischnatter, Couleuvre chapelet, Couleuvre oreillard, Couleuvre rayée du sable. 
Local names are often different for striped or uniform animals, and don't discriminate between P. schokari and P. sibilans. Brandstätter (1995) treats the variety of name extensively.
Corkill 1935: "In the Central Sudan the striped forms are known to the Arabs as ABU SA-AIFA, because their marking suggests the commonly used fibre strips of the Dom Palm. The non-striped forms are known as ABU FAR or ABU FEIRAN in allusion to the usual rodent diet of the species. Other Arabic names used are UM SOT inspired by its whip-like form and ZERRAG suggested by the fact that its movements are like those of something shot or lanced like an arrow or spear. This last name is commonly used throughout the Arab world for any swift, thin, whippy snake. To the Hadendoa the striped form of P. sibilans is known as TOMAI and the unstriped as MA'YITT. The
Nubas of TINDIA call the striped form BURUSAM."
Synonyms Because the confusion about the taxonomic status of this species has always been large, we find many names in literature.

Coluber sibilans LINNAEUS 1758: 222
Coluber moniliger DAUDIN 1803
Psammophis sibilans — BOIE 1827
Coluber auritus GEOFFROY DE ST-HILAIRE 1829
Psammophis moniliger var. hierosolymitana JAN 1870 — BOETTGER 1880: 163
Psammophis sibilans var. intermedius FISCHER 1884: 49
Psammophis thomasi GOUCH
Psammophis furcatus (not Peters) Boulenger (part), 1910, p. 513; Fitz-
Simons, F. W. (part), 1912, pp. 122, 123; Hewitt (part), 1912, p. 270.
Psammophis sibilans sibilans Loveridge, 1940, p. 30 (generic revision)Psammophis subtaeniatus var. sudanensis WERNER 1919
Psammophis sibilans sibilans — LOVERIDGE 1955
Psammophis sibilans — SCHLEICH, KÄSTLE & KABISCH 1996: 517
Psammophis sudanensis — LEBRETON 1999
Psammophis sudanensis — TRAPE & MANÉ 2002
Psammophis sibilans — TRAPE & MANE 2004
Psammophis sudanensis — TRAPE & MANÉ 2005
Psammophis sibilans — LARGEN & SPAWLS 2010: 564
Psammophis sibilans brevirostris (PETERS 1881)
Psammophis brevirostris PETERS 1881: 89
Psammophis breviceps PETERS 1881: 87 (in error for brevirostris)
Psammophis brevirostris — WERNER 1899
Psammophis brevirostris — STERNFELD 1910: 56
Psammophis sibilans brevirostris — AUERBACH 1987: 169
Psammophis sibilans brevirostris — BOYCOTT 1992
Psammophis sibilans brevirostris — BAUER et al. 1995: 73
Psammophis brevirostris — BROADLEY 2002
Psammophis brevirostris — SHINE et al. 2006  

According to Broadley 2002 the derived P. sibilans complex (Cadle 1994) apparently evolved in East Africa and occupies more mesic habitats (with a moderate or well-balanced supply of moisture; compared to a dry habitat, a mesic habitat is moister) than the other two groups (schokari-group and the notostictus-group), while its members differ consistently in dorsal scale microstructure (Brandstätter, 1995). The basal species seems to be P. subtaeniatus, with high tooth counts on all dentigerous bones, high counts for supralabials, ventrals and subcaudals, and a striped pattern both dorsally and ventrally. Psammophis orientalis and P. leopardinus have reduced counts for teeth, supralabials, ventrals and subcaudals, while P. brevirostris continues this trend still further. The most derived form in the complex appears to be P. mossambicus, the largest species in the genus, which has fewer (but larger) teeth and completely lacks pale dorsolateral stripes.
Psammophis crucifer and P. ansorgii appear to be peripheral derivatives of the P. sibilans complex, P. ansorgii on the Angolan plateau and P. crucifer in the Cape lowlands, extending northwards onto the interior plateau regions of South Africa, with relict populations on the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe.

"Synonymy: Kaiser et al. 2013 considered the generic names Eipperus Hoser 2012, Elliottus Hoser 2012, Rayhammondus Hoser 2012, Slatteryus Hoser 2012 invalid and rejected their use instead of Psammophis. Werner 1902 described Psammophis brevirostris temporalis which may be a synonym of Psammophis sibilans brevirostris." (1)

 

Distribution If we follow the opinion of Broadley, P. sibilans does not occur in Southern Africa above 12º latitude, and can be considered a North-African species. 

Reptile Database:

Algeria (JOHANN 1981), W Libya, Egypt (HR 33: 69), Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia

The following records may be erroneous as they may refer to forms previously assigned to sibilans but may represent other forms:
Angola, Zaire ?, Congo (Brazzaville), Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin ?, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Mauritania,(HÅKANSSON 1981), Central African Republic, Chad, Tanzania, “virtually pan-African” (Largen 1997), Senegal (sudanensis: TRAPE & MANÉ 2002), Uganda (PITMAN 1974)

(Map according to Reptile Database, May 2014)

"Erroneously reported from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia (Schleich et al. 1996; Brandstätter 1996). Not listed by BROADLEY & POYNTON 1998 for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire). Not in Gabon fide PAUWELS & VANDE WEGHE 2008. Not reported from Benin according to ULLENBRUCH et al. 2010, not in Liberia (L. Chirio, pers. comm., 23 Aug 2013)."(1)

Psammophis sibilans is nowadays considered as a typical North African species, above 12º latitude (Broadley, 1977). Considering the taxonomic uncertainty, only specimens from Egypt and Ethiopia can be called sibilans with certainty. Other species are often very similar, like P. orientalis, P. sudanensis, P. subtaeniatus and P. rukwae.

Trape and Mané (2006) consider the specimens they found in western Africa that were described by others as Psammophis sudanensis leucogaster as Psammophis sibilans, 'the most abundant snakes of the west African savannah, in spite of the uncertainty that still exists about its geographical distribution, the type originating in Egypt.' This is their distribution map for the studied regio:

Kelly e.a. (2008) give an evolutionary relationship table, from which I selected the part of the 'sibilans-complex':

 


Also, they give distribution maps for the clades they formed, from which I isolated the maps for the same complex:

 


The distribution of Psammophis sibilans in sensu stricto as given by Kelly (2008) corresponds more or less with that given by Brandstätter (1995):

 


 

Seemingly, it is mainly a matter of more or less precise divisions, and what in earlier days was called 'Psammophis sibilans', can now be considered as a broad group of closely related and very similar snakes in a large part of Africa, of which P. sibilans in sensu stricto is restricted to the areas as given by Brandstätter (1995) and Kelly (2008).

***

Trape & Mané on the snakes of Niger (2015):

Psammophis sibilans (Linnæus, 1758)
Material: 622 specimens.
Localities: Aholé (52), Baboul (22), Chetimari (42), Cissia (50), Goudoumaria (3), Karosofoua (64), Kéllé
(1), Kusa (6), Malbaza (30), Piliki (28), Saboulayi (30), Saouna (1), Tarka Dakouara (100), Tékhé (80), Téla (20), Toundi Farkia (4), Tounga Yacouba (89).
Literature records: Azzel (Villiers 1950a, 1950b, Papenfuss 1969); SW Niger (Roman 1974: 101 specimens);
Alambaré, Dagaraga, Gaya, Gourgou, Kouré, La Tapoa, Moli Haoussa, campement Nigercar (Chirio 2009).
Remarks: We attribute these specimens to P. sibilans (type locality: Egypt) pending a comprehensive molecular study that incorporates specimens from the full range of the P. sibilans complex. Such specimens are characterized by five infralabials in contact with the first pair of mentals, a divided anal, and a more-or-less striped dorsal pattern, with at least a black and white chain on the scales of the vertebral line (this chain is occasionally absent in the Sahel, but always present in Sudan and Guinea savanna areas).

Types Lectotype: ZMB 7256 (designated by BROADLEY 1977) [Psammophis brevirostris PETERS 1881]  
Description Nostril pierced between 2 nasals; preocular 1, usually widely separated from frontal; postoculars 2; temporals usually1/2+3; supralabials 8 (very rarely 7 or 9), the fourth & fifth (rarely third & fourth, fourth only or fifth & sixth) entering orbit; infralabials usually 10 (rarely 9 or 11), the first 4 (rarely 3 or 5) in contact with anterior sublinguals; dorsal scales in 17-17-13 rows.

Broadley 1959: "Variation. (35 specimens.) Midbody scale rows 17; ventrals 167-177; anal divided; subcaudals 92-107; upper labials 8 (9 on oiie side of an Essexvale snake), the fourth and fifth entering the orbit; lower labials 9-10, the first four in contact with the anterior sublinguals; preocular l; postoculars 2; temporals 2+2, 2+3, rarely 2+l (through fusion on both sides of two snakes). Tail length .26 to .31 of the total."

Broadley 1959: "Colouration. Head brown above, uniform, or with an intricate pattern of chestnut markings; sides of head brown, preocular sometimes yellow, lower half of upper labials yellow, usually spotted with black; chin and throat yellow, speckled with black or with a series of black-edged ocelli on the lower labials. Body grey-brown to olive above, uniform, or with a series of narrovv black dorsal stripes formed by black scale edgings, the vertebral scale row often lighter than the rest. Yellow to white below, uniform, or with a double row of obscure olive blotches."

Broadley 1959: "Size. Largest (SM/R.34) 1740 (1253+487) mm. from Salisbury."

Characteristically with striped marking, but unmarked specimens do occur. Local names often discriminates between striped and unstriped animals.

My captive bred males from 2011 and 2013 were both around 120 cm long in 2015, the females only slightly smaller.

Handling Corkill 1935, about schokari:  "Unlike sibilans it is of placid disposition."
And so it is. The specimens of sibilans I keep, are quite wild, and placid only when cool, for instance in the morning or during the night. They then tend to remain still, and can be picked up easily. But once aroused, or heated up, they are fierce and fast, and will always bite when caught.
  Broadley 1959: "Sexual dimorphism. The sexes eannot be separated on scale counts. Sexing is made difficult by the small size of the hemipenes. The everted hemipenes of' a 1466 mm. Essexvale  male were only 12 mm. in length and 2 mm. in diameter."
 
Habitat & food Corkill 1935: "These snakes are often encountered in the day-time. They are common in cultivation, in gardens, round houses and in the cracks of cotton soil. They have been noted swimming in irrigation canals in the Damer area. They feed usually on small rodents, but they are said also to eat young birds and locusts."

Broadley 1959: "Diet. Stomachs examined contained skinks (Mabuya s. striata) and a frog (Rana sp.). Captive specimens took rats, lizards (Mabuya s. striata; Mabuya v. varia; Ichnotrophis capensis] and frogs (Rana d. delalandii; Phrynobatrachus natalensis)"
And: "A four-foot specimen, captured by D. S. Rider at Umvuma, disgorged a mamba (Dendroaspis p. polylepis) a little over two feet in length."

Broadley 1959, writing about Rhodesian specimens: "Habitat. Although probably the best known species in the genus, Fsammophis s. sibilans is definitely not a sand snake and I have never heard one hiss! "Hissing Sand-Snake," the direct translation of the scientific name, is most inappropriate and should be dropped. This species is restricted to shady localities along rivers and in vleis, orchards and similar situations. I found it abundant along tho Umzilizwe River, below Mount Selinda, where specimens seem to attain a greater average length than usual . A specimen froiu the Umgusa TCiver, Bnlawayo, was dug out of a termitarium."

Brandstätter (1995) indicates that this species likes the nearness of water. In Egypt for instance, it exclusively inhabits the narrow vegetated area alongside the Nile and the numerous irrigation canals, and the irrigated cultivated areas, where it is useful as a predator on rodents.

Corkill 1935: "These snakes are often encountered in the day-time. They are common in cultivation, in gardens, round houses and in the cracks of cotton soil. They have been noted swimming in irrigation canals in the Damer area. They feed usually on small rodents, but they are said also to eat young birds and locusts."
Broadley 1959, writing about Rhodesian specimens (but are these still to be considered sibilans?): "Although probably the best known species in the genus, Psammophis s. sibilans is definitely not a sand snake and I have never heard one hiss! "Hissing Sand-Snake," the direct translation of the scientific name, is most inappropriate and should be dropped. This species is restricted to shady localities along rivers and in vleis, orchards and similar situations. I found it abundant along the Umzilizwe River, below Mount Selinda, where specimens seem to attain a greater average length than usual . A specimen from the Umgusa River, Bulawayo, was dug out of a territorium."
Brandstätter (1995) indicates that this species likes the nearness of water. In Egypt for instance, it exclusively inhabits the narrow vegetated area alongside the Nile and the numerous irrigation canals, and the irrigated cultivated areas, where it is useful as a predator on rodents. "Found in marginal cultivated lands, fallow fields, on canal banks, wetland margins, and nearby semi-desert" (Life Desks, http://lifedesk.bibalex.org/ba/pages/800). In these areas there is characteristically a dense vegetation with high grass or reed.
On the other hand, this species is also reported in arid areas with scattered bushes and trees. It seems rather adaptive, also to cultivated environments.

In general, Psammophis sibilans is ground dwelling, but it can often be found climbing in bushes and even trees. In captivity, I often observed them to prefer to rest in the highest area of the terrarium, on branches (see picture). The same I noticed in specimens from Kenya in the eighties. Females dropped their eggs from a branch (the eggs eventually all hatched, by the way). They did clearly not choose the hottest spots, but visited these only from late in the morning, and left them again to rest in a cooler place, like in the branches (25-27°C) or under a log.

Pictures made in March 2015. Click to enlarge.

Food consists mainly of rodents (mice, small rats), but also in this respect it is very adaptive. Broadley (1959): "Stomachs examined contained skinks (Mabuya s. striata) and a frog (Rana sp.). Captive specimens took rats, lizards (Mabuya s. striata; Mabuya v. varia; Ichnotrophis capensis] and frogs (Rana d. delalandii; Phrynobatrachus natalensis)". And: "A four-foot specimen, captured by D. S. Rider at Umvuma, disgorged a mamba (Dendroaspis p. polylepis) a little over two feet in length."
Near the Nile food consists for a large part of frogs (Rana temporaria). Of course lizards, mainly Acantodactylus, and skinks are also preyed upon, as well as juvenile birds and snakes. Unfortunately, the latter is also sometimes the case in captivity.

Prey is caught in pursuit and then immobilised by some windings of the snakes body, but only if needed. Harmless prey, such as nestling mice or rats, or dead prey, is not constricted. Live prey is held, while the snake chews its venom into the prey. After sometimes less than a minute, the prey is unconscious or dead and can be swallowed, head first (though not always, which sometimes leads to tiresome trials and retrials).

In captivity, they readily accept rodents (live or dead), small birds, and even sometimes pieces of raw beef. Running live prey is typically caught in a wild pursuit. It is not always easy to get the prey into the terrarium: the snakes notice the prey before the window panel has been opened, or as soon as it is brought in, and when given the chance grab it out of the tweezers (or the hand of the keeper). When they are warm during the day, they get extremely wild at the sight of prey, and when two or more snakes live in the same terrarium, they tend to always pursue the same prey, triggered by the hunting behaviour of the other snakes. Needless to say, this means a real hazard of 'cannibalism by accident', and the keeper always has to be very alert - and provided with a glove.
This wild behaviour when hot, is often confused with aggressiveness, but this is not right. They are not aggressive at all, they do not tend to attack, if disturbed they simply want to escape, and do that fast. When cool, in the morning or during the night, or just on a cool day, they can easily be taken and handled. Food and fear, are the things that trigger them.

In captivity, periods without any food are mentioned up to six months, without signs of deprivation. It is not clear what the thermal conditions were in reported cases.
They seem to be able to survive long periods without drinking water. In captivity, I have observed them drinking from a water bowl, but this is rarely seen. Like related snakes as Malpolon, they seem to extract enough water from the prey they catch and have an extreme low rate of water loss through the skin (Lahav & Dmi’el 1996; Licht & Bennett 1972).
 

"In Egypt largely confined to fluvial habitats of the Nile Valley. Found in marginal cultivated lands, fallow fields, on canal banks, wetland margins, and nearby semi-desert." (LifeDesk).

On a question in a reptile forum, I found the following answer from a Bryan, Venom Evolution Laboratory, School of Biological Sciences University of Queensland, Australia:
"Are they true P. sibilans or are they actually P. mossambicus? If they are larger than a meter, they are almost certainly P. mossambicus. A very common misidentification. P. sibilans is actually a fairly small species.
Bryan"
As far as we can see now, these observations are not correct.

 

Venom Broadley 1959 (but was this a P. sibilans?)
"Venom. I have been bitten three times by adult snakes while catching them. Full bites from a 3-foot Essexvale snake and a 4-foot Bulawayo snake produced in each case only slight local pain and inflammation, which passed off within an hour. On 16.viii.57 I captured a 3'9" male at Bulawayo. I had dug the snake out of a pile of thornbush and debris and was lying on the ground under the thorn branches when I seized the snake, who promptly fastened onto my finger and chewed. It took me a minute or two to back out of my tunnel and disengage the snake's fangs from the base of my finger. After 10 minutes the finger started to swell up and I scarified and sucked the punctures. The whole hand was swollen and tender within an hour, but there was no pain. The swelling started to subside after 24 hours and was back to normal after 48 hours."
Reproduction Broadley 1959: "Breeding. On 2.x.57 a 1197 mm. Bulawayo female laid 19 eggs, which hatched on 22.ii.58."

If this did concern P. sibilans, the number of eggs seems to indicate that there have been more than one female for this nest.

For an extensive article about the keeping and breeding of P. sibilans in captivity, read the article I will shortly publish. Have patience or send me a mail.

Behavior

In my experience, the behavior of this snake seems to be identical with that of specimens of P. orientalis and P. subtaeniatus in captivity. They never really tame, which is also true for those born in captivity.
Note the remarks about behavior in P. orientalis.

But then again, Broadley 1959 states:
"Habits. This is a very active snake, and as it usually frequents reedbeds or long grass in vleis, it is not easy to capture. "When pursued, it makes a short dash and then lies low until  you are on top of it, then it makes another dash. This goes on until the snake eventually escapes into thick cover or a reedbed. Although it usually bites when captured, this species settles down very rapidly in captivity and likes being handled. Several of my specimens have learned to associate my appearance with food. They will come to the cage door and take lizards and frogs from my fingers. I captured one snake at Mount Hampden while it was engaged in swallowing a lizard (Mabuya s. striata). I put snake and lizard in the same bag and when I got home I discovered that the lizard was inside the snake!"

Who knows?
 

References
  • Boulenger, George A. 1891. Catalogue of the reptiles and batrachians of Barbary (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia), based chiefly upon the notes and collections made in 1880-1884 by M. Fernand Lataste. Tr. Zool. Soc. 13: 93-164
  • Brandstätter, Frank 1996. Was Linnaeus wrong? - Errors and mistakes in the first description of Psammophis sibilans (Linnaeus, 1758) (Colubridae). LINNEAN 12 (3), October, 1996: 36-39.
  • Brandstätter,F. 1996. Die Sandrennnattern. Die Neue Brehm-Bücherei 636, Magdeburg (Germany), 142 pp.
  • Broadley, D.G. 1977. A review of the genus Psammophis in southern Africa (Serpentes: Colubridae). Arnoldia 8 (12): 1-29
  • Broadley, D.G. 2002. A review of the species of Psammophis Boie found south of Latitude 12° S (Serpentes: Psammophiinae). Afr. J. Herpetol. 51 (2): 83-119
  • Johann, H. 1981. Herpetologische Eindrücke auf einer Reise durch die Sahara. Herpetofauna 3 (13): 17-21
  • Largen, M.J.; Spawls, S. 2010. Amphibians and Reptiles of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Edition Chimaira, Frankfurt, 694 pp.
  • Largen,M.J. 1997. An annotated checklist of the amphibians and reptiles of Eritrea, with keys for their identification. Tropical Zoology 10: 63-115
  • Loveridge, A. 1956. On snakes collected in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan by J.S. Owen, Esq. Sudan Notes Rec. 36: 37-56 [1955]
  • Marx, Hymen. 1958. Egyptian snakes of the genus Psammophis. Fieldiana: Zoology 39: 191-200
  • Padial, J. M. 2006. Commented Distributional List Of The Reptiles Of Mauritania (West Africa). Graellsia, 62(2): 159-178
  • Schleich,H.H., Kästle,W., Kabisch, K. 1996. Amphibians and Reptiles of North Africa. Koeltz, Koenigstein, 627 pp.
  • Schlüter, U. 2006. Sandliebhaber - die psammophilen Nattern Nordafrikas. Reptilia (Münster) 11 (4): 72-80
  • Venchi, Alberto and Roberto Sindaco 2006. Annotated checklist of the reptiles of the Mediterranean countries, with keys to species identification. Part 2 -Snakes (Reptilia, Serpentes). Annali del Museo Civico di Storia Naturale "G. Doria", Genova, XCVIII: 259-364
 

Direct sources for this page:

  1. The Reptile Database
  2. Bill Branche's Field Guide to the Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. London, New Holland., 1988
  3. Brandstätter, Frank. Eine Revision der Gattung Psammophis mit Berücksichtigung der Schwestergattungen innerhalb der Tribus Psammophiini (Colubridae; Lycodointinae). Diss. 1995. Saarbrücken.
  4. Broadley, D.G. 2002. A review of the species of Psammophis Boie found south of Latitude 12° S (Serpentes: Psammophiinae). Afr. J. Herpetol. 51 (2): 83-119

Pictures

Photographs of P. sibilans can be found on the index page for photographs too.

3,5 year old captibe bred male.

Juveniles captive bred 2014

Individual characteristics of my breeding stock

Click here for the individual characteristics of my animals.

Pictures

Eggs of female 2, 26 April 2015 Mating of older couple in April 2015
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.
Photo by Axel Marchélie.
Captive bred specimen.