Yerevan and around

From 24 May till 2 June 2009 we visited Central Armenia. Or should we say Hayastan? because that’s the Armenian name for the country. Anyway, it is written in a unique alphabet that doesn’t look familiair to any other language. Can you imagine how helpless we were, not being able to read neither speak much in Armenian. And the fact that all Armenians easily speak Russian didn’t make much difference. All the more reason to especially acknowledge the English speaking herpetologist Marine Arakelyan from Yerevan State University. She guided us around, arranged very exclusive places to stay and provided ideal opportunities to see much of Armenia’s herpetofauna. We also thank Marine’s dedicated student Anna Vardanyan and mammologists George Papov and Tigran Hayrapetyan for being such good company and for their contribution to make this trip unforgettable.

We arrived late at Zvartnots airport, warmly welcomed by Marine and her husband. After picking up our brand new mini-bus at Hertz, the next stop was the convenient apartment in the centre of Yerevan, that Marine rented for us during our whole stay. No matter how late it was already, we had to eat first, according to Marine. Not a bad idea at all, since Marine and her mother had prepared some excellent food.

The night of our arrival we had a warm welcome with plenty of delicious food and wine in the Yerevan-apartment that Marine arranged for us. Left to right: Marine Akakelyan, Kosta Karoutas, Bart Siebelink, Ronald Laan, our Armenian landlord, Marine’s husband Sam, Guido van der Lugt, Arjan van der Lugt and Ben Verboom.
Many new names and faces. The identification guide that we made for our hosts (with our names in Russian characters) was really helpful.
View on tremendous Mount Ararat (5160 m). On the foreground outskirts of the Armenian capital city Yerevan. The Ararat lies not in Armenia but in eastern Turkey.

To our surprise Marine showed up lately in the morning. While we were eagerly waiting to go out in the field as quickly as possible, Marine said: “Don’t worry, the snakes are not out yet.” And she was right. At this time of year (spring and early summer) most herpetofauna in Armenia doesn’t seem to show up before noon. So after lunch, prepared by Anna, we left Yerevan to explore our first destination.

Geghard Monastery

This well-preserved and impressive monastery, also known as Geghardavank, was built in 1215 A.D. It is actually a complex of churches, sometimes completely dug out of the surrounding cliff rocks and woodland. We were stunned by this beautiful place, which is a perfect mixture of culture and nature. A walk around the complex soon resulted in several reptile species completely new to us. On the walls of the monastery we found quite a few beautifully coloured Darevskia raddei. These lizards were used to people and proved to be willing models in front of our cameras. 

To our big surprise the first snake of that day was a spotted whip snake, Hemorrhois ravergieri, which was found close to the Monastery. We took our time to do some photography, while Marine and Anna did their research on the lizards.

The famous Geghard monastery (1215 A.D.) is a one hour drive from Yerevan. The monasteries usually lie on excellent klooi-spots. Here we found Darevskia raddei raddeiHierophis ravergieriAnguis fragilis and Ophisaurus apodus.
From the inside the monasteries are very pure and ‘alive’ in terms of generations lighting candles.


The next stop was the Temple of Garni, an almost 2000 years old Hellenic temple. Besides a few glass lizards, we were mainly impressed, rather shocked, by the skins of wolf, fox, lynx and marten that were openly for sale in one of the tourist shops!

Not far from Garni, south-east of Yerevan, we visited an area of semi-desert. Finsch’s wheatear was spotted here, and we found several collared dwarf snakes (Eirenis collaris). After a short desert rain shower, Ronald found the first viper under a rock: a subadult blunt-nosed viper (Macrovipera lebetina)! Our adrenaline level increased even more when we also found a large specimen of Schneider’s skink (Eumeces schneideri) and a Schmidt’s whip snake (Hierophis schmidti). Our first day in Armenia was a big success!

Much older than Geghard is the nearby Hellenistic ancient village of Garni (8th century BC). In spite of the drizzling rain Guido found four Ophisaurus apodus here.
An embarassing tourist attraction: five beech martins, one lynx, three unidentified black martens, two foxes and a wolf

A few kilometres further on we reached the semi-arid Asian mountain steppe. Here we found Eirenis collaris and Natrix tessellata.
The weather was very changeable and the landscape became tougher. Of the right you see one of us searching. Here we found Eumeces schneideriOphisops elegansTyphlops vermicularisDolichophis schmidti and a subadult Macrovipera lebetina obtusa
Two sides of the same road: rugged rocky canyons and steppe hills
Reptiles & amphibiansYerevan and around
Marsh frogPelophylax ridibunda5
Green toadBufo viridis1
Levant Green LizardLacerta media3
Caucasus Green LizardLacerta strigata2
Snake-eyed LacertidOphisops elegans1
 Darevskia raddei>10
 Darevskia nairensis2
Slow wormAnguis fragilis1
Glass LizardOphisaurus apodus9
Schneider’s SkinkEumeces schneideri2
Worm snakeTyphlops vermicularis7
Collared dwarf snakeEirenis collaris9
Dotted dwarf snakeEirenis punctatolineatus1
Spotted whip snakeHemorrhois ravergieri1
Schmidt’s whip snakeHierophis schmidti2
Dice snakeNatrix tessellata1
Grass snakeNatrix natrix1
Armenian viperMontivipera raddei4
Blunt-nosed viperMacrovipera lebetina1
Other highlights  
Laughing DoveStreptopelia senegalensis1
Egyptian VultureNeophron percnopterus2
Finsch’s WheatearOenanthe finschii2
Krupers’s NuthatchSitta krueperi1
Adult male of Darevskia raddei raddei on the walls of the Geghard monastery parking place. It was our very first herpetological recording of this trip. We didn’t expect this species to be so beautiful!
Our first blunt nosed viper (Macrovipera lebetina), a subadult
Marsh frog (Pelophylax ridibunda) in a dirty ditch outside Yerevan.
At Geghard we nearly stepped over this splendid male of Anguis fragilis colchicus, the southeast-European subspecies of the slow worm
Green toad (Bufo viridis) was found only on hills and far from water
Marine (right) and her student Anna Vardanyan (left) taking measurements for their study on population genetics of Darevskia-lizards. In the background Guido is preparing his shot of Hierophis ravergieri
Beautiful landscape, no fences, no big agricultural machines. Habitat of Eumeces sneideriLacerta mediaOphisaurus apodusTyphlops vermicularis and Macrovipera lebetina obtusa

Hatice mountain

The next morning we went to the Hatice Mountain. About halfway, we took a break and discovered several Levant green lizards (Lacerta media). Our first amphibian, a marsh frog (Pelophylax ridibunda) was a fact here too.

Hatice mountain is known as a place where Armenian viper, Montivipera raddei, can be found. Unfortunately, due to poor weather conditions (cool, cloudy, a little rain) that afternoon, vipers were not found. However, we did find dotted dwarf snake (Eirenis punctatolineatus). 

To find Armenian viper, we needed another visit to Hatice mountain, and help from researchers studying this endangered species ….

Pelyphaea tournefortii, an interesting parasitic plant (Orobanchaceae) with a limited distribution
This young (2 inch) praying mantid Empusa fasciata blends up with the substrate, but against the air its alien-like silhouette can’t be denied
Couple of blues (probably groot Tragantblauwtje) courtshipping on Verbascum

Raddei research

The Armenian mountain viper (Montivipera raddei) is a flagship species not to be missed. It occurs in higher altitudes than Macrovipera lebetina and is strictly confined to the Armenian highlands and mount Ararat in eastern Turkey. The Armenian population declined dramatically over the last decades, partly because these colourful vipers might get caught away by pet-collectors and traders. Although the Armenian viper is on the red book and protected by Armenian law, collection still goes on. Since 2004 the species is closely studied by people from Saint Louis Zoo (Missouri, USA), in cooperation withthe Institute of Zoology of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia. Their research aims to increase the ecological knowledge on this species, necessary to develop effective conservation guidelines. We were very lucky to join Jeff Ettling, Curator of Herpetology & Aquatics at the Saint Louis Zoo, and some of his colleagues, on a field trip to the Abovian Region near Jerevan, where he monitors a population of tagged Armenian vipers. This was a good opportunity to find several without having to scrutinize every rock. More information on the research:

And here it is the Armenian viper (montivipera raddei). A robust and colourful viper with its typical “eyebrows”. 

Yerevan a combination of Lada and Porsche Cayenne

Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan, with its 1.3 million inhabitants, is by far the biggest city of the country; 33% of the resident Armenian population nowadays lives in Yerevan. Yerevan’s symbol is Mount Ararat, an impressive 5000+ m high old volcano that dominates the landscape to the west. At an average altitude of nearly a thousand meters a.s.l, the continental climate of Yerevan (and the whole of Armenia) is quite extreme; summers are hot and dry, winters are cold. During our stay, which was in between these extremes, weather conditions were ok for herping, although a little bit cool for spring.

Our anchorpoint in the streets of Yerevan: the white lada of Marine.
Our anchorpoint in the streets of Yerevan: the white lada of Marine.
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People are very hospitable and friendly