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Amphibians and reptiles

Armenia's dry climate is reflected in the paucity of amphibian species and lack of specialities. All eight species in the country have a wide distribution even though only one is also native to the UK. Widespread European species are marsh frog (Rana ridibunda), green toad (Bufo viridis), eastern spadefoot toad (Pelobates syriacus), European tree frog (Hyla arborea), and smooth newt (Triturns vulgaris). The others, not included in most field guides, are banded frog (Rana camerani), lemon-yellow tree frog (Hyla savignyi) and banded newt (Triturus vittatus).

By contrast, Armenia is very rich in reptile species with a total of 50 although some are now threatened by denudation of the habitat as a result of overgrazing. The Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo graeca) may occasionally be encountered as one crosses a track. Ponds may contain one of two species of terrapin, European pond terrapin (Emys orbicularis) and stripe-necked terrapin (Mauremys caspica).

The geckos which can frequently be seen on the outside walls of buildings in the countryside are Caspian rock geckos (Temddactylus caspius). The Caucasian agama (Laudakia caucasia) is a lizard with a decidedly prehistoric dragon-like appearance. Like all agamas, it has a plump short body with a long thin tail, a triangular head and long legs. Agamas are capable of some colour change to match their background. Two legless lizards which might be mistaken for snakes (though being lizards rather than snakes they have eyelids and they can shed their tails to escape a predator, a practice known as autotony) are the slow worm (Anguis fragilis) and the European glass lizard (Ophisaurus apodus). Skinks are lizards which, while not usually completely legless, generally in Europe only have vestigial legs of little or no apparent value for locomotion. The Armenian fauna includes several skinks: two-streaked lidless skink (Ablepharus bivittatus); Chernovs lidless skink (Ablepharus chemovi); golden grass skink (Mabuya aurata); and the Berber skink (Eumeces schneideri). The other lizard species are typical lizards belonging to the large family Lacertidae. Ones of particular interest are those with a limited range outside Armenia such as stepperunner (Eremias arguta), Balkan green lizard (Lacerta trilineata) and Caucasian green lizard (Lacerta strigata). Even more unusual is the Armenian lizard (Lacerta armeniaca) in which a proportion of the females practise parthenogenesis - in other words without fertilisation by a male they lay eggs which hatch and produce a daughter that is an exact genetic copy of the mother.

Snakes are very well represented with 23 species and they are more commonly seen than in many countries. Interesting snakes include the sand boa (Eryx jaculus), one of Europe's few snakes which kill their prey by constriction, mostly small lizards and rodents in this case. Largely nocturnal it rests by day in rodent burrows or under large stones. Unusually the snake is viviparous, the female giving birth to about 20 live young which feed on small lizards. The Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus) belongs to the family Colubridae, snakes whose fangs are at the back of the mouth. Such snakes find it difficult to inject their venom into large objects. Unusually for a snake this diurnal species possesses good vision and, when hunting, it sometimes rises up and looks around rather resembling a cobra. The Montpellier snake reaches 2m in length. A much smaller colubrid is the Asia Minor dwarf snake (Eirenis modestus) which grows to only 15cm and feeds on insects. Dahl's whip snake (Coluber najadum) is another diurnal snake. Very slender, it is extremely fast moving but rarely exceeds lm in length. Another whip snake is the secretive and weakly venomed mountain racer (C. ravergieri). Caucasian rat snake (Elaphe hohenackeri) is one of Europe's smaller snakes, growing up to about only 80cm. Very unusually for a snake it is often found in the vicinity of human habitations where it frequents piles of stones and holes in old stone walls.

Vipers are among the snakes which, unlike the colubrids, have fangs at the front of their mouth. They are consequently much more dangerous because they do not need to get their mouth round the victim in order to inject poison. There are several interesting species in Armenia which have a very limited distribution. Armenian viper (Vipera raddei) is now seriously threatened in the country through pasturing and overgrazing while Darevsky's viper (V. darevskii), described as recently as 1986, also has a very limited range and is similarly threatened. Bites from these species can be fatal as can those from Armenia's more widely distributed vipers. Perhaps the most dangerous of all is the blunt-nosed viper (V. lebetina), at 2.5m one of the largest of its genus. An able climber of trees, the danger from this snake lies mainly in the extreme speed of its attack and the method of biting: rather than bite and withdraw, it keeps its teeth lodged in its target and works its jaws to pump more venom in. It is not a snake to be approached lightly, although it generally makes a loud hissing before attacking, thus giving some warning.

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