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What is a Sand Viper?

T. M. Robertson
T. M. Robertson

Sand viper is a term used to describe three different breeds of desert snakes. The first is Vipera ammodytes, more commonly known as the nose-horned viper. Next is Cerastes vipera, also known as the avicenna viper or Sahara viper. Third is heterodon, also referred to as a hog-nosed snake. The ammodytes and vipera species are highly venomous, while the heterodon is harmless.

Vipera ammodytes can be found in Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. It's considered a large and highly venomous snake that can grow up to 38 inches (about 95 cm). The snake gets its more common name of nose-horned viper because of the single horn protruding from the tip of its snout. Although it's often referred to as a sand viper, this snake actually prefers rocky terrain and not sand. The Vipera ammodytes female gives birth to live babies.


Cerastes vipera, otherwise known as avicenna viper and Sahara viper, is located throughout the deserts of the Middle East and Northern Africa. Its average length is 8 to 14 inches (about 20 to 35 cm), but it has been known to grow up to 1.6 feet (about 50 cm). The venom of the Cerastes vipera is classified as hemotoxic, meaning it attacks the blood and organs of the victim. This breed is described as having a triangular-shaped head, small eyes, and as being pale in color with three rows of dark brown spots. An uncommon characteristic of this sand viper is that females lay eggs that hatch within a few hours, instead of the more common live births, or eggs that hatch in several weeks.

Heterodon occurs throughout North America and averages 14 to 40 inches (about 35 to 101 cm) in length. The heterodon is the only species of sand viper considered harmless because it doesn't have venom. Instead, this sand viper has slightly toxic saliva that occasionally gives a slight numbing feeling to its victims, but is not damaging or fatal. The distinguishing characteristic of this snake is its upturned snout, which is what gives it the more common name of hog-nosed snake. This snake's preferred habitat is in sandy soils.

The sand viper is a well-known snake documented throughout history, and it even played a prominent role in ancient Egypt. Mummies of sand vipers were found embalmed in the area once known as Thebes. It's also likely that Cleopatra used a Cerastes vipera to inflict her fatal wounds. In addition, Egyptians documented over 2,200 years ago that victims of the sand viper could be saved with treatment.

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Discussion Comments


Hognose snakes are fairly common in the Southeastern U.S. I've never seen one, but then again, I try to stay away from all reptiles.

My dad said, if disturbed a hognose would puff itself up and rattle its tail in leaves to sound like a rattlesnake. If you kept messing with it, it would roll over and play dead. Flip it over on its belly and it would roll back over. He said they might bite, but mostly preferred playing dead. He never got bitten, although he said his youngest brother got too close to one and got nailed. No harm done, but he left the snakes alone after that.


My cousin was in Saudi Arabia for several years and did some desert work. He said they really had to watch out for the cerastes sand vipers. They're not really aggressive, but because they blended in so well with the sand, it was easy to step on one, or put your hand on one without seeing it. They always wore boots anyway, but still watched where they were stepping.

He said the bites were usually treatable, but very painful and sometimes debilitating if the venom load was high enough. They were a good ways from a city, so medical treatment was at least a couple of hours away. You mostly just didn't want to be bitten.

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