COMMON NAME (SCIENTIFIC NAME)Eryx colubrinus
DIETSmall mammals, lizards, birds, and nestlings
RANGENorthern and eastern Africa
HABITATRegions with loose, sandy soil. Occurs in desert margins and vegetated sand dunes
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Program and General Information
The Kenyan Sand Boa is one of the smallest boa species in the world, averaging just 15-25 inches long. A native of Eastern Africa, this boa has adapted itself to a life spent beneath the sand of the desert borders and scrublands found there. Its mottled yellow, orange, and brown coloration helps it to blend it its arid surroundings, while its’ wedge-shaped head allows it to glide through the sand as though it were swimming. A hunter by nature, the boa uses the sand to hide itself from prey, ambushing them and dragging them under the sand to either crush or suffocate them. Breeding season occurs primarily in the spring and summer.
Kenyan sand boas are ovoviviparous and after a 4 month gestation period females give birth to 5-20 offspring. Hatchlings are independent at birth and take about 2-3 years to reach maturity.
Kenyan Sand Boas are strictly carnivorous, feeding on what other small animals they may come across in the desert. Their diet primarily consists of small rodents, lizards, and birds. Occasionally, they have been known to hunt out the nests of small mammals and birds.
The Kenyan Sand Boa is a burrower, spending the majority of its life concealed under/moving through sand and loose soil. Hidden in the sand, they generally lie in wait to ambush small prey, constricting the prey or dragging it beneath the sand in order to suffocate it.
They are largely nocturnal, active during the night or during mornings and evenings while preferring to stay hidden from the sun in the midday heat.
Habitat and Range
Kenyan sand boas are native to Eastern Africa, from Egypt down to the Northern tip of Tanzania, including Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Chad, Niger, Yemen, and Somalia. It lives within the loose soil of arid and semi-arid regions, desert margins, vegetated sand dunes, and savannah scrublands.
During the day the sand provides protection from the sun, so the boa can save energy to be active at night. Their head is relatively small and has a distinct wedge-shape, excellent for burrowing through sand and soft soil, and their smaller, anterior scales help facilitate burrowing.
Common Physical Features
The Kenyan sand boa is often described as a heavy bodied snake with a blunt head, small eyes, thick, short body, and cone-shaped tail. They are a smaller species of snake averaging between 15-30 inches. Females do tend to be heavier and longer than males. Small males will usually grow to around 15-20 inches long while larger females may grow as much as 30 inches. The sand boa’s belly is typically a white or cream color and its back has orange or yellow coloration with dark brown splotches to help it camouflage in the sand.
Adaptations: Kenyan sand boas have adapted to life burrowed under the sand. The shape and opening of their mouths are positioned in a way that prevents accidental ingestion of sand and soil while the snake is moving through burrows. The keeled scales on the rear portion of the tail, not only aid in protection, but also provide increased traction in soft sand.
The Kenyan sand boa’s head is relatively small and is wedged shaped to facilitate burrowing through their substrate. The boa’s eyes and nostrils are positioned on top of the head so that they remain free of debris when the snake’s body is hidden below the sand. This allows the snake to easily watch for prey nearby while remaining camouflaged. By tunneling through sand, the Kenyan Sand Boa is able to more easily stalk prey, evade predators, and regulate body temperature.
Snakes have an interesting way of sniffing out their prey items. Like other reptile species, Kenyan sand boas have a Jacobson’s organ in the roof of their mouth. They will stick out their tongue in order to pick up scent particles in the air or from the surface of objects.
Their tongues are forked at the end, splitting in two directions in a V-shape, allowing the snake to pick up scent particles from two different directions. When the tongue is brought into the mouth to the Jacobson’s organ, the organ will process the information and determine which side of the tongue the scents came from. This will inform the snake which direction to go to find that scent. (If it picks up the scent on the left fork, then it knows to go to the left. If it picks it up on the right, then it goes to the right. And then if it picks up the scent on both forks then it knows the scent is coming from straight ahead.)
Kenyan sand boas are constrictors. They have powerful body muscles to squeeze and suffocate prey. Snakes have a highly flexible skull that allows them to swallow their prey whole. Contrary to popular belief, they do not actually unhinge/dislocate their jaws to swallow prey because there isn’t anything to actually unhinge/dislocate! A snake’s jaw is only loosely joined to its skull by ligaments, which allows the jaw to be solid enough to bite, but flexible enough to expand for swallowing. Once prey is inside the mouth, the snake alternate using the left and right sides of the upper and lower jaws to “walk” the prey to the back of the throat where powerful muscles will help force the prey down the rest of the body. To better visualize the movement of the jaw imagine laying on your stomach and crawling using your elbows and knees to move. That is similar to how the snake’s upper and lower jaws work to push the food into the mouth and down the throat.
Behavior and Life Cycle
Breeding season for the Kenyan sand boa typically occurs between spring and summer with hatchlings being born around October/November. There doesn’t appear to be any specific mating rituals with this species, but due to their excellent camouflage, males do have to spend some time digging around for the females. Sand boas are ovoviviparous, which means that females will lay eggs inside their bodies, the eggs hatch inside the body, and the mother will give birth to live young. The mother can then reabsorb all of the nutrients left behind from the eggs inside her body. After a 4 month gestation period, female sand boas give birth to 5-20 hatchlings. Hatchlings are approximately 8-10 inches and are completely independent from birth. They reach maturity around 2-3 years.
Conservation of the Natural World
The Kenyan Sand Boa is currently classified as least concern on the IUCN Mediterranean Red List, and little study has been done on possible threats the species may be facing today. However, its numbers have been reported to be declining in Egypt due to habitat destruction, a threat shared by many species across the globe. Saving species from extinction and conserving the natural world and the places that wild animals call home go hand in hand.
From clearing forests for agriculture, to pollution to climate change, today’s natural world is in a lot of trouble. But if we work together, we can make lasting impacts.
What can we do?: One thing that we can do is support sustainable agriculture practices. By purchasing products that are certified by organizations such as Bird Friendly, you are helping in the conservation of forests and habitats around the world. Switching to a more sustainable lifestyle can also help. By using public transport, turning off lights that are not in use, reducing the use of plastic, and using more organic cleaning products we can help to reduce pollution in our environments. Remember the phrase, “reduce, reuse, recycle!”