The warm climate and diverse rural landscape in Portugal make it the perfect home for several species of snakes. The majority of these are harmless to people. There are only two which are considered venomous enough to hurt humans. One of them is on our list here, while the other is only rarely seen due to its declining population. And although you might hear the word “Cobra” said while in Portugal, don’t worry. It’s merely the word for “snake” in Portuguese. There are no cobras living there!
The snakes in Portugal generally live in remote areas away from human habitation and busy towns. But if you know where to look, you’ll find a few sunning themselves on rocks, beside rivers, and on roads.
If you do come across one, or want to go looking for some, here are a few of the common snake species you might see.
Horseshoe Whip Snake
One of the most common snakes in Portugal, the Horseshoe Whip Snake is a beautiful specimen with striking markings. This round-eyed snake has a narrow neck and substantially wider head. At the back of its head is the horseshoe marking which gives the species its name. The rest of its body features large dark circles on lighter scales that can be yellow-grey, greenish, or brown.
This snake enjoys the sunny climate of central and southern Portugal but can be found in various habitats, including rocky outcrops, scrubland, sandy areas, shoreline, and farmland. This snake is of the least concern to conservationists due to its ability to adapt and thrive in new habitats. It has recently been making itself at home on the Balearic Islands, where it is not a native species. Its thought that it was accidentally transported there from mainland Spain via shipments of olive trees. Its numbers are now thriving there, and since it has been doing damage to the native lizard population, it is considered an invasive species.
While a danger to lizards, the horseshoe snake does not pose much threat to humans. Although it is known to bite if handled or threatened, its bite does not contain any venom. However, a snake bite – venomous or not – is not pleasant, so we still recommend keeping your distance if you see this or any snake while in Portugal.
Southern Smooth Snake
These sunshine lovers do not like to be cold or wet and choose to live in lowland areas warmed by the sun: rocky outcrops, hedgerows, and scrubby vegetation. Mostly active at night, they will spend their days sleeping in seldom disturbed spots and hibernate from September to April to avoid the winter.
This pale snake has grey scales sometimes tinged slightly red or yellow. Darker markings run along its back and in a dotted or U-shape on the back of its neck. A distinctive dark stripe runs between its eyes and from the corner of its eyes to its mouth. It can grow to around two feet long, although it is often smaller.
Completely harmless to humans, these snakes are not venomous or aggressive. They exist mainly on a diet of lizards and small insects. They have an expansive habitat ranging through Europe and Northern Africa and in Portugal are considered abundant enough to be of little concern to conservationists. Although due to habitat destruction, their numbers have fallen dramatically in other countries. They are considered a threatened species in France and Monaco.
Another beautifully marked species, the ladder snake gets its name from the distinctive markings on juveniles of its family. They have a clearly defined ladder pattern running the length of their backs, two dark vertical stripes with dark spots making the ‘rungs’ of the ladder. These spots fade as the snakes grow older, leaving the adults with only the verticle lines visible.
A relatively common sight in Portugal, these snakes like to sunbathe on dirt tracks and roads. Unfortunately, this leads to a high mortality rate as they regularly get struck by vehicles. It also makes them easy prey for eagles, their natural predator.
This snake can be defensive and is known to bite without provocation, so you’d be wise to keep your distance. If you were to approach it, you might hear it hiss and see it rear back or lunge as though to strike you. If you continue to approach, it may bite, and although it is not a venomous snake, its bite can still be painful. And it does have one other defensive mechanism; the Ladder Snake is known to empty its anal glands when biting or feeling threatened. This creates a powerful, unpleasant aroma that we don’t recommend experiencing.
False Smooth Snake
This little grey or pale brown snake only grows to around 21inches long and is one of the smallest species of snakes found on the Iberian Peninsula. This snake is venomous, although because of its size and the placement of its fangs, it is of no threat to humans.
The False Smooth Snake’s fangs are towards the rear of its mouth, meaning that it must transfer its prey to the back of its mouth to bite and inject the venom. While this method effectively incapacitates its regular victims: lizards, and some small rodents, it is ineffective on humans or large prey.
This snake also has a docile nature and is not known to attack with or without provocation. We don’t recommend testing this theory, though. If you see this or any other snakes in Portugal, keep your distance and allow them to make their escape. If they do not move, walk away, giving them a wide berth. Remember, you are a visitor to the snake’s habitat and should always treat them with respect.
Iberian Grass Snake
The grass snake is a harmless water snake that is widely distributed throughout Europe. Many subspecies of these snakes live in various countries, but the one most common to Portugal is the Iberian Grass Snake.
Although generally brown or dark green, the grass snake can sometimes be a beautiful jade or blueish-green hue. Juvenile snakes often have a band or collar of lighter color around their neck, which explains why they are sometimes known as a Ringed Snake.
An excellent swimmer, the grass snake spends its days swimming through freshwater, hunting for amphibians and sometimes worms to eat. Although ponds are its natural hunting ground, it doesn’t always live in or near them. The grass snake is often found in woodlands and on the edges of fields instead.
Completely harmless to humans, these snakes do, however, have some interesting defense mechanisms. When threatened, they can empty foul-smelling liquid from their anal glands, vomit, and play dead so well that they intentionally leak blood from their mouths and noses. They can also rear back, hissing and flattening their heads, giving the appearance of a cobra about to strike. They are not related to cobras, however, and rarely actually try to bite.
The second water snake on our list, the Viperine, is another strong swimmer who lives off a diet of fish and amphibians. Unlike the grass snake, however, this one prefers fast-moving water to ponds. This clever snake will wrap its tail around a rock or tree branch, anchoring itself in place as it waits for its next meal to wash downstream.
Although its name might suggest a hint of danger, the Viperine is not a viper and is actually named for its habit of pretending to be one. They have a similar head shape to the triangular one associated with vipers and, if they feel threatened, can coil up and rear back, imitating a viper about to strike. However, it’s all for show, and these non-venomous snakes rarely, if ever, bite humans.
There are also quite docile in nature and often don’t try to move when they hear a human approaching. So if you’re hiking near river banks keep an eye out for this one!
The Seoane’s Viper is also known as the Portuguese or Baskian Viper, and if you want to spot this one you’ll need to put a little bit of effort in. Firstly because its habitat is confined to a particular area, in the extreme north of Portugal and Spain and the southwest of France.
The second reason is that even when you do spot one, they are rather tricky to identify. Unusually for vipers, this species doesn’t have a uniform appearance. Their color and markings can differ widely from one snake to the next. Some are dark brown, almost black in color, while some are much paler brown, beige or tan. They can have a distinct zig-zag pattern of markings running down their backs or a more scattered and fragmented pattern. Others have no patterns at all but are just one solid color.
So, tricky to spot and even tougher to identify, if you come across one of these snakes while in Portugal, you’re fortunate. But don’t get too close because this viper is one of Portugal’s two venomous snakes that can deliver a bite harmful to humans.
Seoane’s vipers are generally not aggressive and would prefer to escape confrontation with humans, not pursue it. However, they do have toxic venom and their bite can be painful and cause some unpleasant symptoms including pain, swelling, and trouble breathing. The Seoane’s Viper has also been known to be fatal in rare cases so always seek medical attention if you think you’ve been bitten by one.
Are there poisonous snakes in Portugal?
There are two species of venomous snakes in Portugal. The most common is the Seoane’s Viper and the second is the Lataste’s Viper which has dangerous venom but is rarely seen in Portugal due to declining numbers.
Are there water snakes in Portugal?
Yes, the Iberian Grass Snake and the Viperine are the two species of water snake found in Portugal.
Are snakes common in Portugal?
Yes, several species of snakes can be seen quite regularly in Portugal. However, sightings mainly occur in rural areas away from human habitation and tourist resorts.