Montpellier Snake: Habitat and Characteristics

The Montpellier snake is the most numerous snake in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the most persecuted for its bad reputation. If you want to get to know it better, keep reading.
Montpellier Snake: Habitat and Characteristics

Last update: 15 September, 2021

The Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus) is a reptile that belongs to the Lamprophiidae family. It’s the largest snake in the Iberian Peninsula and has a wide distribution, and is also found in areas close to human settlements.

The proximity to homes and its bad reputation (as it sometimes preys on poultry) means that it’s often hunted and attacked. Even so, it’s the most abundant land snake in Spain and one of the few poisonous ones – along with the cogulla snake (Macroprotodon cucullatus) on the peninsula.

Habitat of the bastard snake

This species has a perimediterranean distribution, as its found throughout the Iberian Peninsula, in North Africa, in southeastern France and in northwestern Italy. In the Iberian Peninsula, the average annual precipitation of its habitats varies from 170 to 200 cubic millimeters and the average annual temperatures are between 10 ºC and 18.5 ºC.

The Montpellier snake doesn’t appear in areas that have more than 90 days of frost per year or that show average temperatures below 22 ºC in July. It prefers scrubland with medium or low coverage and open spaces, and so it’s commonly found in cultivated fields, pastures, and even dunes.

This reptile is also usually seen in areas close to human settlements, be they roads, gardens, or walls. As far as altitude is concerned, it’s found between sea level and 2,160 meters in the Sierra Nevada. The further north their populations are located, the lower the ecosystems they inhabit.

Montpellier snake

Montpellier snake characteristics

The Montpellier snake is the largest in the Iberian peninsula and in Europe, as it reaches sizes of 2 meters in length (6.6 feet), although specimens of 2.5 meters (8.3 feet) have been found on occasions. The females are smaller and do not usually exceed 1.5 meters (5 feet).

One of the most representative characteristics of the Montpellier snake is found on its head. Above its eyes, it has prominent preocular scales that look like eyebrows, which gives this snake a unique appearance.

Its tail is long, thin and the color of adult males is uniform and varies between light gray, olive green, and brown. The ventral area is yellowish. In juveniles and females, the design is more varied in its coloring, and they can be black, white, gray, and brown. This coloration allows them a greater camouflage.

Character and behavior

Montpellier snakes are diurnal and have high body temperatures. The period of activity usually goes from March to November, although due to the increase in temperatures due to climate change, these snakes are starting to be seen in other months too.

The peak of daily activity is usually from 4 to 8 in the afternoon. These snakes can travel distances of about 42 meters per day and the males are territorial.

On the other hand, they’re calm snakes that are more aggressive in the breeding season or in the face of danger. If they feel cornered, or that an attack is imminent, they rise and emit a loud hiss to intimidate their attackers. This snake will bite if it’s caught and the injury it causes is painful, due to the inoculation of venom.

The venom of the Montpellier snake

The Montpellier snake has an opisthtoglyphic dentition. This dental conformation is characterized by having two fangs at the end of the jaw attached to the venom glands. In order to inoculate the toxins, these snakes need to bite down hard on the prey and keep it trapped.

The venom of this species is neurotoxic and usually has an analgesic effect, manifesting itself with symptoms such as altered consciousness and muscle twitching, among others. Its bite is not usually serious (except for adverse reactions), as it doesn’t have a highly toxic venom.

Montpellier snake bites in humans are very rare, since for poisoning to occur it’s necessary for the snake to catch you and make swallowing movements to inoculate the toxins. The effects of the bite are usually local and appear during the first 6 hours.

Feeding the Montpellier snake

They are snakes considered Eurífagas or not very selective when it comes to selecting their prey (within their status as carnivores), so they have a great variety of victims. The Montpellier snake feeds mainly on reptiles, birds, and mammals.

These snakes don’t select their food, they simply consume what happens to be around. Reptiles are often their main prey, specifically the ocellated lizard (Timon lepidus) and several species of lizards.

Birds are the least hunted group, as Montpellier snakes tend to catch chicks from nests rather than adult birds. The prey changes with the size of the specimens, as the newborns feed mainly on insects, and the larger ones are capable of catching rabbits.

Reproduction of the Montpellier snake

Male Montpellier snakes begin their spermatogenesis in spring, so the breeding season begins between May and June. The males often fight each other and it’s common to see them rolled up in a ball.

Sexual maturity occurs earlier in males than in females. In the latter, it’s usually reached at 5 years of age and with a body size greater than that of the males.

The laying varies with the size of the female and is usually between 4 and 20 eggs. These are deposited in humid and sunny places (abandoned burrows, under stones, under logs, or among the litter) and usually hatch at the end of August.

State of conservation

According to the Red Book of Species, the Montpellier snake is considered to be of “Least Concern”, but it still has to face several dangers. One of the main ones are the accidents when this particular snake sunbathes on roads, in addition to direct hunting by humans.

Habitat fragmentation and the accumulation of pesticides and insecticides in tissues and eggs also have serious long-term consequences for this species. In addition, as they have late sexual maturity, many females don’t reach 5 years of age, and so the number of reproductive specimens tends to decrease over time.

We must remember the importance of the Montpellier snake in its ecosystems, both as a natural pest controller and in food chains, as it’s the food of many different species. Preserving it isn’t only a matter of ethics, but also our responsibility towards the environment that surrounds us.

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