Black mambas are easily one of the world’s most deadly snakes. Their reputation goes before them. But even though everyone recognizes their name, most people don’t know a lot about them.
Did you know that they aren’t black, they’re brown? That in addition to being one of the most venomous snakes on earth, they’re also the fastest? And that just a drop of their venom can kill you in twenty minutes, if you’re not close to a hospital.
Black mambas are one of nature’s most fascinating creations. But it’s not just their venom that makes them interesting. There’s lots worth learning about their unique behaviors, and even myths and legends that have built up about them.
Black Mamba Appearance Facts
Before we get started with the interesting stuff—venom—let’s take a minute to learn a little about what these snakes are like. It’s an interesting topic, especially because they don’t look how you might imagine such a venomous snake to look.
1) They Are Brown, Not Black
Black mambas are members of the elapid family (Elapidae). These snakes are venomous species that can be found in tropical and subtropical regions.
They are olive or gray color. When you look at other incredibly venomous snakes like rattlesnakes or coral snakes, you can tell they’re venomous, because they warn you with rattles or bright colors. But the black mamba looks as plain as plain can be by comparison.
They get their name from the inside of their mouth, which is a blue-black color. When they’re threatened, they open their mouth wide. This is called ‘gaping.’ They do this to warn potential predators to stay away.
2) They Live in Africa
The black mamba lives in sub-Saharan Africa. This means the part of Africa that’s south of the Sahara Desert, which spans most of the north of the continent. In particular, you’re most likely to encounter them in East Africa. You can find them:
- As far north as Ethiopia and Somalia.
- As far south as South Africa, which is as far south as you can go on the continent.
- As far west as Angola. However, black mambas avoid central Africa—so you can’t find them in most of the DRC, for example.
They don’t like desert environments, but they do prefer a moderately dry habitat. You can find them in light woodland and savannah. Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on your view—they’re considered to be of ‘least concern,’ as opposed to threatened or endangered.
The IUCN is the official body that monitors wildlife populations and assesses whether a species is likely to go extinct. The black mamba’s huge natural range, plus their steady population, means that they won’t go extinct any time soon.
3) They Can Grow to 14 Feet Long
Black mambas are quite long for a snake, too. The average specimen is eight feet in length, which is long enough as it is. But the very biggest black mamba ever found was an incredible 14 ½ feet long. That’s twice, almost three times as long as some people. This particular specimen was found in Zimbabwe, part of the snake’s natural range.
They aren’t very heavy-bodied snakes, though—they’re thin for their length. That’s generally the case with venomous snakes like these, that don’t need hefty muscles to constrict their prey. As such, they don’t ‘seem’ like an animal that’s all that big, even though they’re so long.
As a general rule, the longer the black mamba specimen, the deadlier it is. That’s because snakes coil up their bodies to strike. They straighten out their body very, very quickly which is how they lunge so far at you. So, the longer the snake, the further away they can strike at you from. This means that even if you think you’re safely distant from the snake, you might not be.
4) They’re Long, But Not the Biggest
Black mamba vs. king cobra: who will win?
Black mambas aren’t the longest venomous snake in the world. That crown goes to the king cobra, which can reach an even-more-impressive eighteen feet long.
That’s not to say that a fourteen-foot-long black mamba isn’t a scary beast to encounter in the wild, though. They’re still Africa’s longest venomous snake. Their competition includes:
- The boomslang, which is five feet long
- The African puff adder, which is six and a half feet long
- The Mozambique spitting cobra, which is five and a half feet long
- The Gaboon viper, which is normally seven feet long
The longest snake in Africa is the African rock python—but these snakes aren’t venomous, they’re extremely powerful constrictors.
5) Their Fangs Are Quite Short
Despite being deadly, black mamba fangs are quite short. In fact, they’re only about a quarter of an inch long. Compare that to large rattlesnakes, whose fangs can be up to 6 inches—they are quite tiny. But they’re just as deadly as a rattlesnake.
The reason their fangs are so short is that they’re ‘proteroglyphous.’ This means that their fangs are stuck in place, attached to their jaw—like ours. Snakes with longer fangs like rattlesnakes are ‘solenoglyphous,’ which means that the fangs can fold back into their mouth. If a rattlesnake’s 6-inch-long fangs were stuck in place, they’d pierce right through their bottom jaw.
Even so, a deadly black mamba’s fangs work just the same as those of other snakes. They’re hollow, and connected via a duct to the snake’s venom glands. When they bite down, these glands shoot out venom as fast as they can, which goes through the fangs into the bite wound.
Besides, it wouldn’t make them much deadlier if their fangs were any longer anyway. They mostly eat small birds, rodents and bats—hardly a diet you need huge fangs for.
Black Mamba Behavior Facts
Next up, let’s learn more about how they behave when you encounter them in the wild. Part of the reason why they’re such a deadly snake is their behavior—but why? Let’s find out.
6) They’re the Fastest Snake in the World
So, black mambas have a reputation for being exceptionally venomous. But that’s not the only reason why people are afraid of them. They’re exceptionally fast, too—in fact, they’re faster than any other land snake in the world.
They can slither up to 12mph. For reference, human walking speed is about 3mph, and we jog at about 6mph. So, if you encountered a black mamba in the wild, you’d have to sprint for your life if they came after you.
7) They Don’t Chase After Prey
Fortunately, though, they won’t do that. Black mambas are clever hunters. They aren’t true ambush hunters, which stay perfectly still and wait for prey to come close to them.
However, they do rely on prey like rodents not being able to spot them. They’ll be out and about, looking around for prey. If they spot a mouse or rat, they’ll wait nearby until it heads into its den. They’ll then slither in after it, slowly, and bite the mouse when it isn’t looking.
Alternatively, if their prey is nearby, they’ll lash out as soon as it’s close enough. Once they bite their prey, they don’t actually hold onto it. They’ll let it go. But it will only be a matter of seconds before the snake’s prey starts to die. The mouse, rat or shrew will start to stumble—before they can’t move at all. Then, when they can’t move, the snake will come up and swallow them whole.
8) They’re Highly Aggressive
Black mambas are notoriously aggressive snakes. When most snakes encounter a person, they try and get away. It’s understandable—you’re many times bigger than they are, so they’re afraid you’re going to hurt them. Black mambas are normally the same. But, crucially, if you accidentally corner one, then they’ll stand their ground against you.
When you threaten them, and they feel that they can’t get away, they exhibit many behaviors to scare you off. First, as we mentioned above, they hold their mouth wide open in a display called ‘gaping.’ If this doesn’t work, they’ll spread out a neck flap that looks a little like a cobra’s. They’ll also start hissing at you. If you haven’t started running for your life yet, they’ll then attack you.
9) There are Myths About Them
Because they’re such a deadly snake, there are all sorts of myths about how they attack and why. One popular story is that black mambas can bite onto their own tail, and roll down a hill like a hoop. Then, when they’re near the bottom of the hill, they’ll uncoil themselves and fly at some poor unsuspecting person nearby.
Another myth is that they can balance on the very tip of their tail, although why they’d want to do that isn’t clear! Neither of these stories are true. But they are a reflection of how people have had to endure them and their bites for hundreds, even thousands of years. It’s little wonder that people try and make sense of how and why they’re so deadly.
10) They Can Climb Trees
Black mambas are both terrestrial and arboreal. In plain English, this means that you can find them both in trees and on the ground. They can climb all the way to the top of a tree to escape from any passing predators.
But for several hours a day, they’ll also sun themselves on basking rocks. They tend to stay in the same area, rather than exploring, although they’re not particularly territorial.
11) They Fight for Mating Rights
Like all snakes, black mambas need to mate. When it’s time—and breeding season is normally between April and June—the males will all fight for the attention of the biggest, healthiest females. But they don’t use their venom, because this would cause far too much damage to population numbers. Instead, they wrestle each other!
It’s quite difficult to wrestle when you don’t have any arms or legs. But black mambas manage it by wrestling with their necks. A snake will try and wrap themselves around their rival, which looks a lot like mating. They’ll then use their neck to pin the other snake down. The snake that pins the other one down is the winner, while the loser will slink off and try and find another mate.
Black Mamba Venom Facts
Alright—that’s enough fun facts. It’s time to move on to the interesting facts about black mamba venom. Black mamba venom is what makes them so unique and interesting.
12) Black Mamba Venom is Incredibly Deadly
So, just how deadly is black mamba venom? Well, all you need to kill somebody is two drops. That’s all. A black mamba doesn’t have very big venom glands, which are where venom is made and stored.
They ‘only’ have room for ten drops’ worth of venom. They’ll store these drops until they’re needed, usually for catching prey—but they use them to defend themselves, too.
The actual toxicity of black mamba venom is measured by assessing something called ‘LD50’. If you take a group of 100 lab rats, the LD50 is the amount of venom that has to be injected into them to kill 50 of them.
You also have to take into account whether the injection is under the skin, directly into a muscle, or directly into the bloodstream. Either way, though, you can compare LD50 (at least when the venom was administered in the same way) to figure out which snake’s venom is the most potent.
Black Mamba’s venom has an LD50 of about 0.30mg/kg when injected subcutaneously (i.e., just under the skin). This isn’t quite as venomous as other snakes. The inland taipan, for example, has a subcutaneous LD50 of 0.01mg/kg. But it’s still more than enough to kill you, provided that you don’t get medical treatment in time.
13) Their Venom is a Neurotoxin
Black mamba venom is what’s known as a neurotoxin. This kind of venom attacks the nervous system. The proteins in their venom attach themselves to the receptors, which would normally pick up signals from the brain.
When these receptors are covered in enough of these proteins, they can’t pick up these signals. This sounds like it might not be so serious—maybe it would cause a little pain, or make you feel a little nauseous?
No. If the receptors are covered in enough of these proteins, the brain can’t tell the body what to do. First of all, this stops you from being able to move around as you want. You’ll start to stumble, and lose control of your limbs. You’ll slur your words.
But far worse is that your brain won’t be able to tell your lungs to breathe, or tell your heart to beat. This is what makes the venom deadly. You become completely paralyzed, to the point where your heart and lungs stop.
14) Their Bite is 100% Fatal
Antivenom hasn’t always been available. And before it was, black mambas were one of the few snakes on earth that were 100% fatal.
This is due to two main reasons:
- Their venom is, of course, potent and toxic. Only two drops are needed to kill a person.
- They often strike multiple times per attack, increasing the likelihood of envenomation.
Even today, they’re still very dangerous to encounter. Their natural habitat isn’t in well-developed areas—it’s out in the wild. When you come across one in Africa, you might not be close to a hospital.
And even if you are, that hospital might not be equipped to deal with a black mamba bite. Plus, many African hospitals cannot get patients there quickly (like helicopters). So, unless you carry antivenom with you, you’re out of luck.
15) They Can Kill in 20 Minutes
So, how long does it take to die from a black mamba bite? Twenty minutes. This isn’t just the case with severe bites; it’s the average. Many people die in even less time as a result of their bite, so you better hope you’re near a hospital, or that you have an antivenom kit with you.
It all depends on how much venom is used. While you only need two drops for them to kill you, if they inject less than that, it’s not a guarantee you’ll survive, but you’ll be alive for longer, at least.
If they do use lots of venom, though, you’ve only got a few minutes to live. The effect is made worse if you’re quite small, or of course, if the snake were to bite a child or a small animal.
16) They Strike Repeatedly
When a black mamba strikes, they don’t just strike once and let go (like most venomous snakes). They strike multiple times, which increases the amount of venom that they use.
You might be imagining quite a slow process—one where you at least have time to try and get away. But it’s anything but that. The snake will strike several times, very quickly, all within a second.
You could be walking along minding your own business, and before you know it, you’ve actually been bitten five times by one of the deadliest snakes on earth. It’s no wonder so many people die each year from black mamba bites.
17) They Kill Thousands Per Year
It’s unclear exactly how many people black mambas kill per year. That’s for many reasons. First, it’s not a question that scientists have necessarily sought to answer.
And because their geographic range is so wide, and the majority of people bitten don’t even go to see a doctor, no one single group can say with any certainty the exact amount of people who die from their bites.
However, there are statistics we can extrapolate from. About 1.5 million people are bitten by snakes in sub-Saharan Africa each year. Of these, an estimated 20,000 will die. Africa does have many venomous snake species, but the black mamba is responsible for thousands of these deaths. With more widely available antivenom and medical care, this number could most certainly be reduced.
There are also frequent news reports from around the world of people who die from their bites. These include researchers trying to extract their venom, and owners and breeders who think they should be kept as pets. And according to the Toronto Sun, in 2017 a Russian snake-owning YouTube star streamed his ‘suicide by snake bite’ after his wife left him. He cut off the stream before he collapsed, but he was dead by the time an ambulance arrived.
18) Their Venom Is a Painkiller
According to BBC News, their venom contains a very potent painkiller. Scientists studying their venom were perplexed as to why the black mamba’s venom would contain a painkiller as strong as it does. After all, black mambas aren’t concerned with the welfare of the tiny mammals they eat.
The scientists found that their venom contains pain-killing proteins, which are called ‘mambalgins.’ In studying these painkillers, they found that they were just as strong as morphine at dulling pain, at least when used on mice.
Since mice and people actually have quite similar nervous systems, they think that mambalgins would make highly effective painkillers for us, too. Unfortunately, the research isn’t’ at a point where these painkillers can be used.