Hardon tzav matzui (uromastyx aegyptius) in the Arava desert
Chameleon in a friend's back yard
I will admit to having a favourite of favourites amongst our local reptiles - the chameleon. Few creatures are so intriguing as this alien looking beast with its bulging eyes which can move independently of each other, its amazing camoflage and its peculiar, slow gait. Their famous ability to change colour can be exicting to watch, sometimes different sides of the animal adopt different colours according to which parts are in the shade and which in the sun.
There are two sub-species in Israel, the Mediterranean chameleon (chamaeleo chamaeleon recticrista), found in central and northern Israel, and the Sinai chameleon chamaeleo chamaeleon musae, found in southern desert regions. Sadly chameleons are less commonly seen today, in part due to urbanisation, and in part because their charm and slow gate makes them easy prey for curious children who trap them and try to raise them as pets, many chameleons do not survive this treatment - enjoy them in the wild, but leave them be.
On the one occasion I was lucky enough to see one at really close quarters I had forgotten to bring my camera, but our friend Jay Harwood (in who's street the chameleon appeared) kindly fetched his digital camera and took this close-up shot for me.
Shmamit habatim (Mediterranean gecko) which crawled into a container on my kitchen counter...
One type of creature which is both common nationwide and easy to spot is the lizard which comes in a large variety of species, sizes and colours, including at least one which is legless. They are a very common sight all over Israel, whether in urban areas, the countryside or the desert - wherever there is a convenient rock or wall for them to sunbathe on or stake out their prey from.
Fan-Fingered Gecko (ptyodactylus guttatus) in the Negev
Several species of lizard are mentioned in the bible, including a reference to the tzav, literally a turtle, but here apparently the Egyptian mastigure. The following verse in Leviticus (11:30), describing non-kosher "creeping things", also mentions other types of lizard: "...the koah (desert monitor) and the lita'ah (lizard) and the homet (skink)..."
The book of Proverbs describes the shmamit batim (Mediterranean gecko), a tiny, pink lizard commonly found inside Israeli homes. "The shmamit climbs with her hands, but dwells in the palaces of kings" (Proverbs, 30:28).
These geckos perform a useful service eating a variety of household bugs, including clothes moths and mosquitos. It's fascinating to watch them hunt, often they lie in wait upside down on the ceiling, deftly pouncing on any flying insect that comes within reach. The only downside of having one in your house is that it can leave you little "presents", usually small droppings on a wall.
Another lizard common around homes in central and northern Israel is the charming small Lebanon lizard (lacerta laevis) sitting on the outside wall of a house, or basking in the sun while perched on a protruding tree root or drain pipe. These are some of our most colourful lizards, with an olive back, black horizontal stripe down the side and either a blue, white, yellow or green belly, depending on region and/or gender.
Roughtail rock agama near my home in Modi'in
Known in Hebrew as lita'ah zerizah, literally "speedy lizard", their best defense is indeed their speed and agility, when alarmed they seem to disappear instantly, hiding in cracks in a wall or tree bark or under rocks. Like many local lizards, they also have detachable tails that they use as a last resort to distract their many predators, allowing the lizard to escape while leaving its attacker with a squirming tail.
The desert regions in particular are home to lizards in an array of dazzling reds, yellows and orange patterns. I photographed this sand coloured gecko in the Negev desert, but actually its territory includes much of central and southern Israel. Around Eilat this species is replaced by a daintier and ruddier gecko, while up north there is a darker and bulkier species. There is also a tree gecko in more temperate areas whose pattern and colouring are a perfect match for many trees in the area - when one of those sits on an olive tree you only notice it when the bark looks like it's moving...
The most commonly seen local lizard where I live in central Israel is probably the roughtail rock agama (laudakia stellio stellio), known locally as a hardon or hardun. They are rather sinister looking with rough dark armoured skin, but perfectly harmless. If frightened they run away and hide in the crevice of a rock or tree, inflating their skin and opening their mouth wide to wedge themsevles into the space, making it impossible to dislodge them. Sometimes I see a large dark male surveying his territory from the top of the nearby water tower.More usually they are to be seen during the warmest times of day sunning themselves on rocks, to the extent that it seems that each rocks has its own resident hardon, and believe me, this country is full of rocks, and that makes for a lot of these lizards...
Hardon tzav matzui (uromastyx aegyptius)
The granddaddy of our native lizards though is in my opinion is the Egyptian mastigure (uromastyx aegyptius), or in Hebrew hardon tzav matzui literally "common turtle hardon", and you can see why from the photo. Personally I think of them as baby dinosaurs - that is certainly the first name that came to mind the first time I saw one, relaxing on a rock in the Arava desert. For all its fearsome looks though, this is a peaceful fellow, whose favourite food is acacia trees, though he is also partial to bugs. In the Arava you might come across him clambering over an acacia to get to the juiciest leaves and fruits. Definitely a monster worth meeting.
Israel is home to a broad selection of turtles representing several different orders: pond turtles, land turtles, softshell turtles, sea turtles and leatherbackturtles.
Caspian turtle in the Hula wetlands
Israel has two species of land tortoises: the Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise, the most common turtle in Israel and the much rarer Egyptian tortoise, a desert species. The temperate Mediterranean tortoise was one of the first creatures in Israel to be declared a protected species because its popularity as a pet, and in some Mediterranean countries, as a delicacy. In fact in many parts of its range it is now extinct or endangered. In Israel though you can still come across the tortoise in many areas, especially in during the spring. I've even come across them in local parks and gardens.
Another easily seen turtle is the Caspian turtle is found in ponds, drainage ditches, lakes, sewage ditches and wetland areas. While the highly endangered African softshell turtle , is on the verge of extinction in this country, due to the pollution of Israel's coastal rivers, the Caspian turtle thrives in polluted water, with particularly high
Mediterranean Spur-thighed Tortoise
Marine turtles are much less easy to spot, and sadly, are highly endangered. As in many Mediterranean countries, the development of Israel's coastal cities and beaches has dealt a harsh blow to sea turtles, who lay their eggs on Israel's beaches. Conservation efforts are underway in Israel to protect this species, with protected beaches on both the Mediterranean and Red Sea coast (Eilat).
While 3 of Israel's 5 species of frogs and toads are quite common, they are not as a common a sight as the country's many lizards. You are far more likely to hear frogs or toads than to see them. The most commonly seen is the European green toad.
Israel's smallest and most charming amphibian is also the region's smallest, the ilanit or Savigny's treefrog. This frog is only about 4 cm long and lives on and around plants and trees. Its regular colouring is a bright pea green with a black stripe across the eyes and along the flanks, though it has a chameleon-like ability to change colour, adapting to different shades of green according to nearby foliage or morphing to a mottled grey-brown when foraging
European Green Toad
Sadly one native frog, the Israel painted frog, once endemic to the Hula swamp is now extinct. Its habitat was devestated in the early fifties by the draining of the swamp and lake, part of a campaign to erradicate malaria mosquitos which then plagued the region. In recent years parts of the Hula swamp and lake have been restored as a nature reserve, but the move came too late to save the Israel painted frog.
There are about 40 species of snake in Israel from tiny, pink, worm-like blind worm snakes which live underground to impressive specimens such as the desert dwelling Persian horned viper, one of the few poisonous Israeli species.
The great majority of Israel's snakes are harmless to humans, performing a public service by eating rodents and invertebrates. On a day to day basis you are unlikely to meet any in urban areas, though they are found in the cities too, especially on areas of wasteland or gardens where the weeds have been allowed to grow high, attracting rodents and hence the snakes that feed on them.
That said, just because snakes aren't looking for trouble doesn't mean that one shouldn't be careful. Most Israeli kids are taught not to carelessly pick up or turn over rocks, and not to stick their limbs into rock crevices - all possible hiding spots for snakes.
Crowned Dwarf-Racer (eirenis coronella)
The time of year when one should be most alert for snake activity is the spring, usually around April and early May, when the snakes awake from their winter hibernation and are likely to be particularly numerous and active. This is the time of year when venomous snakes are at their most potent, with the toxins refreshed after several months of rest.
There are references to at least 13 different types of reptile in the bible, including several species of snake, as well as to snakes in general, nahashim (nahash s.). Some references are to saraf, usually translated to mean "serpent", though in a couple of places this appears as saraf me'offef, literally "flying serpent", which some scholars understand as a description of the hooded Egyptian cobra, an emblem of the Pharoahs, and a species not found in Israel.
Many biblical verses appear to describe types of snake found in Israel to this day. Snakes mentioned by name include desert species such as the peten (black desert cobra), shfifon (Persian horned viper) and the ef'eh (Palestine saw-scaled viper), as well as the tzefa (Palestinian viper) found in temperate parts of the country.
The snake is one of the first creatures to appear in the bible. In Jewish tradition it lost its legs following its infamous tempting of Eve and Adam to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, an act which resulted in humanity's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. To this day certain species of snake retain residual legs or claws, a reminder perhaps of the punishment described in Genesis 14: "You will crawl on your belly and eat dust all the days of your life."
Snakes feature in many other parts of the bible too, often as a metaphor, for example the patriarch Jacob's blessing for the tribe of Dan "Dan shall be a snake by the road, a horned viper on the path which bites the horse's heels so that his rider falls backwards" (Genesis 49:17). The Persian horned viper lies in wait for its prey under a bush or in the sand. The verse might relate to the location of Dan's territory along the often dangerous border with Philistia, or perhaps to the tribe's strategic position close to the main trade routes.
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Copyright 2005 by Leiah Elbaum. Text and photographs on this page are by Leiah Elbaum, except for the chameleon, photographed by Jay Harwood. Last updated 5 May 2005.Return to home