The German herpetologist, Albert Günther, first described the Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) in 1864. Herr Günther was shown this highly venomous snake by explorers of the Zambezi river.
There is little doubt that the black mamba has a lethal bite. The first antivenin to temper the venom in a Black Mamba’s fangs was created in 1962. Before this point, almost all bites were fatal.
While undeniably deadly, the Black Mamba is often misunderstood. This snake is shy and will avoid human contact. If threatened, though, the Black Mamba will defend itself with deadly force.
Interesting Facts About Black Mamba Snakes
Let’s explore some interesting facts about this deadly snake.
They’re Not Black
The name, “Black Mamba” is a little misleading. These snakes do not have black scales. Instead, they will typically be gray or brown.
Most Black Mamba snakes develop darker scales as they age and shed their skins. A close relative is the Green Mamba, which actually is green.
The inside of this snake’s mouth is a deep black. This is where the name comes from. Showing this color is a Black Mamba’s final warning when it feels threatened. A deadly bite will typically follow.
The Mamba part of the name stems from the Zulu-language word, “Imbaba.”
The scientific name for the Black Mamba is broken down into two parts.
Dendroaspis is the genus of snake that all Mamba snakes belong to. Loosely translated, it means, “Tree Asp.” This is because three of the four members of the Dendroaspis genus live in trees. Black Mambas sometimes dwell in the higher ground too, but are largely terrestrial.
Polylepis is a combination of two words. Poly means many, while lepis translates as scales. The name was assigned by Albert Günther in 1864. The Black Mamba was well-known – and feared – by African natives long before this, though.
Belongs to the Elapidae Family
Black Mambas belong to a family of snakes known as Elapidae. Elapid means venomous, with the -ae suffix representing the plural.
Elapid snakes are notable for their long, hollow fangs. These enable the reptiles to release venom that paralyzes and kills the prey. Other than the Black Mamba, the most infamous elapid snake is the King Cobra.
Elapid snakes can be found all over the globe, including the USA. Most of the more dangerous examples are found in Africa, Asia, and Australia.
Live in Africa
Unless it escaped from a zoo, you will not find a Black Mamba in the United States. These snakes are native to Africa. To be precise, they’ll be found in sub-Saharan Africa.
Incidents of Black Mamba encounters outside of this continent are not unheard of. Case Reports in Critical Care profiles a bite of a breeder in Switzerland. Snake breeders and tamers should be the only international individuals that encounter a Black Mamba, though. Countries that host the Black Mamba include:
- Burkina Faso
- The Democratic Republic of the Congo
This makes snake bites a significant concern in sub-Saharan Africa. As per Toxicon, 314,078 snakebites were recorded in the territory between 1970 and 2010. 7,331 of these bites were fatal, while many more led to paralysis and limb amputation. 97% of these bites occurred in rural areas.
Nest with Other Snakes
If you think that encountering a Black Mamba is the worst thing that could happen, you are incorrect. There is a good possibility that the snake is living with friends.
Black Mambas are shy and secretive, but sometimes live in pairs and groups. This aids the snake in staying warm at night. It also offers an additional measure of protection.
In some cases, Black Mambas will nest with other snake species. The Egyptian Cobra is a common associate. This cobra is nocturnal though, so the two snakes will experience limited interaction.
Not Every Bite is Venomous
Like all snakes, Black Mambas are capable of administering a dry bite. This means that no venom is released. Black Mambas rarely settle for one bite, though. Prolonged attacks can lead to severe blood loss. This can be just as dangerous as venom.
The photographer Mark Laita is an interesting case study of a Black Mamba’s dry bite. Laita was photographing a docile Black Mamba when the snake was spooked. A bite followed – which Laita did not notice until he began to bleed profusely.
This suggests that a Black Mamba can inflict a dry bite if it chooses. Laita was lucky, though. Most Black Mambas that bite do so in fear of their life. This means the photographer was lucky to escape comparatively unscathed.
Venom Kills if Left Untreated
If a Black Mamba bites a human, urgent medical attention is required. Just two drops of venom are enough to be deadly. A Black Mamba will not bite and hold on. It will strike several times, extremely rapidly. This will expose a victim to multiple does of venom.
Typically, paralysis will set in within 10 minutes of the bite. This leads to shortness of breath and eventual loss of consciousness. Death will then follow as the lungs close down.
A healthy adult could die of an untreated Black Mamba bite within seven hours. Children, or anybody with underlying health issues, will perish sooner.
This is why rural mortality rates in Africa are so high. By the time a patient receives treatment, it is frequently too late.
Bites Can Be Treated
With the appropriate medical attention, a Black Mamba bite can be treated. As explained by Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, this is a two-step process.
First, pressure must be applied to the site of the bite. This may require the use of a tourniquet. As a result, limb amputation is common in the aftermath of a Black Mamba bite. The intention is to prevent the venom from spreading.
Once this process is complete, an antivenin must be administered. Without this medication, there is no curing a Black Mamba bite. The venom acts quickly and efficiently to completely close down the human body.
Grow to 14 Feet in Length
The Black Mamba is the longest venomous snake in Africa. The biggest Black Mamba on record was found in Zimbabwe, reaching 14.4 feet in length. Thankfully, most Black Mambas peak at around eight feet. There is no difference in size between males and females.
Fastest Snake in the World
If you are unfortunate enough to encounter a Black Mamba, fleeing is the safest move. Black Mambas want to be left alone. If you retreat, the snake will likely do the same.
This is assuming that the snake has not been aggravated. Black Mambas have been known to chase humans, though this rare.
Being pursued by a Black Mamba is concerning. Black Mambas can reach land speeds of 14 miles per hour. This is the fastest of any snake.
Not an Endangered Species
The Black Mamba is not going anywhere. The population of this snake is considered stable, and of no concern. Good news for herpetologists, but less so for natives of African countries.
Mate Between April and June
Spring and summer are peak mating times for Black Mambas. A female Mamba will lift her tail to denote that she is ready to mate. The male will then wrap itself around the female. The two snakes will remain motionless for several hours during the mating process.
Male Black Mambas often compete for the right to mate with a female. This involves wrestling. The two mambas wrap themselves around each other’s necks until one is subdued.
Once impregnated, a female Black Mamba will lay eggs within three months. A Black Mamba nest could contain anywhere from 6 to 17 eggs. These will usually hatch in one to two months.
Lay Eggs Then Abandon Their Young
Black Mambas are not doting mothers. Once the snake has laid her eggs, she abandons them. The resulting baby Mambas are alone from the moment they hatch.
Upon hatching, Black Mambas measure around 20 inches in length. They grow quickly, though. By the time a Black Mamba reaches its first birthday, it could measure 6’7″ in length.
Perhaps more importantly, young Black Mambas are every bit as deadly as their adult counterparts. This means that mortality in Black Mambas is comparatively low. Many of these snakes live for eleven years or longer.
Eat Birds and Small Mammals
The staple diet of a Black Mamba is small birds. Black Mambas are opportunistic hunters, and often look for nests. Hatchlings and young birds are a favored delicacy. This is why these snakes are sometimes found in trees.
If birds are not available, the Black Mamba will hunt small mammals. Rodents and bats are the likeliest prey. If desperate, a Black Mamba will eat smaller snakes. Typically, warm-blooded prey is preferred.
The Black Mamba immobilizes prey before eating. It will hunt and stalk a meal, striking, and retreating. Once injected with venom, small animals rapidly succumb to paralysis and die. The Black Mamba will then drag the prey back to its lair and eat.
Few Natural Predators
As you can imagine, the Black Mamba is high on the food chain. Few wild animals attempt to eat this snake, aware of the risks in doing so.
Eagles are the most common predators of Black Mambas. These birds of prey will swoop and claim an adult Black Mamba. This is one of the main reasons that Black Mambas prefer to stay hidden.
Smaller and younger Mambas may fall victim to larger snakes. Black Mambas have also been found in the stomachs of crocodiles. As Mambas prefer dry conditions though, these animals will rarely intersect.
The mongoose is another natural enemy of the Black Mamba. The mongoose is naturally immune to snake venom. This means that it may claim a Mamba as prey.
Black Mambas are active during the day. This is because these snakes adore the sun. As an ectotherm, the Black Mamba does not generate body heat from within. It relies on the sun to stay warm.
Most Black Mambas will locate a preferred basking spot and return daily. This could be on a rock or within a tree. The Black Mamba is most likely to be found basking at sunrise and mid-afternoon.
When not sunbathing, the Black Mamba will go into hiding, usually underground. When the sun goes down, the Black Mamba seeks shelter in its lair. Most Black Mambas identify a preferred lair and return every night unless forcibly ejected.
Like many snakes, the Black Mamba is shy and reclusive. Black Mambas prefer to leave humans alone, and to be left alone in return.
If you find yourself in Africa, watch your step. Do not invade the territory of a Black Mamba. This will be seen as an act of aggression. The snake will respond in kind. It will bite, possibly multiple times, then flee.
Overall, Black Mambas prefer to set their sights on easier prey. It’s a common cliché that we are more afraid of animals than they are of us. In the case of the Black Mamba, it’s true.
If you’re keen to see a Black Mamba with your own two eyes, visit a zoo. Multiple locations in the United States host these snakes. This way, you will be protected from the inherent risks. Be grateful that you are unlikely to ever encounter a Black Mamba in the wild.