Morocco’s Desert Horned Viper

Easily identified by the pair of ‘horns’ above its eyes, the Desert Horned Viper (Cerastes cerastes) is found in the arid Saharan regions of Morocco, as well as in other North African countries, such as Egypt, Libya and Algeria, extending southward to Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Mauritania. Their favored habitat is in sand, but they are also found in wadis and rocky hills. They prefer temperatures no higher than 20°C and need some humidity, so they are generally found in higher altitudes.

The Desert Horned Viper is quite short in comparison with other snakes in Morocco, measuring between 30 and 60 cm in length. Both sexes have similar body shape and color patterns, with the female generally being larger than the male. The triangular shaped head is broad and flat with eyes on either side and supported by a thin neck. The ‘horns’ are, in fact, single scales above each eye, with a dark line extending backwards. The body is covered with between 25 and 35 rows of keeled scales colored in shades of brown, yellow and beige enabling the snake to blend into its sandy surroundings. They use the method of ‘sidewinding’ to move quickly across the hot desert sand. By lifting its body in a loop, with the rest of the body following the loop, the viper is able to keep contact between hot sand and its belly to a bare minimum. Their diet consists primarily of small rodents, lizards and birds and they may travel long distances to search for prey. They travel at night and rest in the day, hidden in the sand, abandoned burrows or under rocks.

While information of the breeding cycle of the Desert Horned Viper is quite sparse, it is known that they mate in April each year, after which the female lays between 12 and 20 eggs in abandoned burrows or under rocks. It takes between 50 and 80 days for the eggs to hatch, with the hatchlings being up to 15 cm in length. Desert Horned Vipers are able to breed from two years of age and use pheromones to attract a mate. The Desert Horned Viper’s venom is toxic, but it is seldom deadly to humans, although it can cause some very unpleasant symptoms. They do not, however, attack for no reason and usually only bite in self-defense. This fascinating reptile is just one of the many creatures found in the wide open spaces of Morocco.