Guide for the Reptile Perplexed: A Look at Local Lizards, Snakes and Amphibians

"Who knows the difference between a gecko and an agama?" youth leader Idan asks his young charges in the Israeli cult film "Operation Grandma," directed by Dror Shaul. One says the starred agama (Laudakia stellio) is a mammal. Idan corrects the error by pointing out special features of the agama's tail, and explaining that the lizard belongs to the reptile family.

A pocket guide was recently published to provide a quick and simple introduction to 59 of Israel's most common reptiles and amphibians, including four different agama lizards. The guide was edited by Noam Kirschenbaum, illustrated by Tuvya Kurtz, and written by Boaz Shoham, a herpetologist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and director of the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) Reptiles and Amphibians Center.

Though Israel is a small country, there are about 100 species of reptiles and amphibians, a richer variety than those found in many European nations. This is because several continents meet in Israel, each with its own diverse habitats. All reptile and amphibian species in Israel are protected, and it is forbidden to collect or raise them in captivity.

Some of the species in the new guide are gravely endangered amphibians whose numbers have dwindled when their habitats were destroyed by development. One of the most prominent and impressive examples is the striped newt (Triturus vittatus). The male-striped newt is particularly visible when it heads for water, during mating season, and a notched crest develops along its length. Artificial pools were created for another amphibian, the local salamander (Salamandra infraimmaculata), to replace natural winter pools that were destroyed.

Some reptile species live inside homes or near residential areas. A notable example is the European legless lizard (Ophisaurus apodus). This 120-centimeter lizard looks very much like a snake. The most common reptile found in Israeli homes is the Mediterranean gecko, often seen hanging upside down from the ceiling with the help of small suction cups on its toes.

About 23 snake species are included in the guide - some of them colorful, non-poisonous snakes, like the local blackhead. Some poisonous snakes are included, and the notorious nahash tzefa, Palestinian viper, receives special treatment in the guide. This 135-centimeter snake is the most dangerous local species because of its highly-toxic venom.

Several rules listed in the guide make it possible to avoid contact with poisonous snakes or better handle a chance encounter. The guide also provides directions for handling a snake bite. The most important rule when encountering a snake in nature is to permit the snake to proceed on its way rather than approaching it or move in a threatening fashion. In the event of snake bite, one should not attempt to cut or burn the wound or suck out the venom. The bitten individual should be encouraged to lie down, as walking or running accelerates the spread of venom. It is vital to bring the individual to the hospital even if he claims to feel well.