Gaboon vipers (Bitis gabonica) are one of the most dangerous snakes on earth. They will use their venomous bite to defend themselves from predators, so always keep a safe distance. Unfortunately, their camouflage makes them very difficult to see easily. You always need to be on your guard.
Gaboon vipers are ambush predators that live in the rainforests and savannas of Africa. They have two-inch fangs and can inject prey with more venom than any other venomous snake. They have exceptional camouflage. In fact, the most common way to be bitten by a gaboon viper is to step on one without realizing.
If you encountered a Gaboon viper in the wild, you’d probably be safe. They tend to ignore people and are quite ‘docile’ for a venomous snake. Just walk away slowly and allow the snake to get away.
Table of Contents:
- 1 Gaboon Viper Snake Facts
- 2 Where Do Gaboon Vipers Live?
- 3 Gaboon Viper Appearance
- 4 Gaboon Viper Diet
- 5 How Venomous Are Gaboon Vipers?
- 6 Gaboon Viper Breeding
Gaboon Viper Snake Facts
|Scientific Name:||Bitis gabonica|
|Other Names:||Gaboon adder, Gabon viper|
|Length:||50 to 60 inches on average|
|Lifespan:||15 years on average|
|Natural Habitat:||Central and Western Africa, rainforest and savannah|
|Activity:||Mostly active at night, i.e., nocturnal|
|Hunting Method:||Venom (deadly to humans)|
|Distinguishing Features:||Very long fangs, effective camouflage, and a pointy nose|
|Conservation Status:||Least concern, with some snakes living in protected wildlife reserves|
Where Do Gaboon Vipers Live?
Gaboon vipers are only native to Africa, so you’re unlikely to ever see one in the wild if you live in the U.S. They live across the middle of Africa, around the equator.
They range from coastal West Africa—places like Nigeria, Togo and the Ivory Coast— into central Africa, to countries like the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Across this whole area, there are thick rainforests as well as more temperate forested areas, with less humidity and less warmth all year round.
Gaboon vipers are also happy living in savannah areas, which are significant areas of grassland. However, they’re most content on the forest floor, which is what they blend in with best.
They’re not currently considered endangered. However, the growing human population is encroaching on their habitat.
If this continues, then it’s likely that they will become endangered eventually, just like other animals from the same area like lions, elephants, giraffes and so on.
The name Gaboon is an old variant of the name Gabon. Gabon is a country in central/western Africa where you can find this particular snake.
Like many names for African countries, it’s changed over the years. This snake has kept the old spelling of the name rather than the new one.
Are There Gaboon Vipers in Zoos?
If you don’t live in Africa, or can’t go there on holiday, you might be able to see a Gaboon viper at a zoo. They aren’t a common zoo animal, but there are a few that are spread across the U.S.
One is the Gaboon viper kept at Philadelphia Zoo. He was donated to the zoo by a previous owner who realized that Gaboon vipers were far too dangerous to keep at home. The keepers never handle him as it’s too dangerous to do so, and will only ever touch him with a snake hook.
Gaboon Viper Appearance
It’s unlikely that you’re going to come across one. You don’t need to learn to tell them apart from other snakes, like with milk snakes and coral snakes.
Gaboon Viper Coloration
The Gaboon viper has a bright and colorful pattern of diamonds and stripes along its back. To start with, their head is predominantly one color.
In some subspecies, there are small triangles of accent color that come out and downwards from the eyes. Along their back, they have stripe segments, divided by accent colors.
They have a series of diamonds on their sides with arches, coming up from their underside, dividing them. The diamonds consist of one light and one medium-light color, and the arches are outlined in a dark color. The diamonds are wider towards the head and tail, and thinner in the middle.
Gaboon viper coloration is dependent on the exact subspecies. The East African Gaboon viper has quite a few colors along its back, including light and dark brown, as well as pinks and purples.
The head is a solid block of very light brown with two dark triangles under each eye. The West African Gaboon viper is generally a little darker. This all sounds quite complicated, but as you can tell from the pictures above and below, they have a typical pattern for a snake.
Gaboon Viper Camouflage
The Gaboon viper has excellent camouflage Their colors help it blend into the forest floor environment it lives in.
A Gaboon viper’s camouflage is crucial. It’s an ambush predator, which means that it stays as still as possible and waits for prey to come close enough that they can strike.
This is also referred to as ‘passive hunting,’ as opposed to active hunting because they sit and wait rather than finding prey. They have to be ambush predators because they’re usually quite slow and sluggish when they move.
The snake’s head is also designed to be camouflaged. Its light and dark markings radiate out from the middle of its head, which sometimes has a line running along it from the nose to the neck.
Coupled with the fact that it’s shaped like a triangle, their head looks quite a lot like a leaf. If you were walking in the forest, you probably wouldn’t notice it among leaf litter.
And even though Gaboon viper attacks are rare, the snake’s camouflage is usually to blame. If you walked up to one, it’s quite common for the snake not to react at all.
If it does respond, it’s typically to try and get away from you. But if you’re wandering through the forest and accidentally step on one, that’s when they can strike.
Gaboon Viper Length
The two subspecies vary in length.
The eastern Gaboon viper will only reach 4 foot on average, which is short for such a deadly snake. The western Gaboon viper doesn’t get much longer, just reaching five foot on average.
Aside from their color and pattern, Gaboon vipers also have a few things that set them apart and make them easily recognizable.
- They have a pair of tiny horns on their nose. The West African Gaboon viper’s horns are the longest of all the subspecies. They’re about an inch long, right next to each other on the end of the snake’s nose. They’re so prominent that the species’ scientific name is Bitis gabonica rhinoceros. The other subspecies have horns of varying lengths, but none are as long. They’re still noticeable if you’re looking, though.
- Gaboon vipers also have slit pupils, like cats. When it’s time for them to sleep, they can narrow their pupils to let in less light.
- The Gaboon viper doesn’t move like a typical snake. It crawls along like a caterpillar, very slowly. This is called rectilinear movement.
- Their heads are big and wide so that they can store all the venom they create. They create far more than other snakes, and so their heads are consequently wider.
If you were to meet one in the wild, the first thing you’ll notice is that they’re much fatter than other snakes of their length.
They’re officially the world’s heaviest viper, with the biggest ever specimen found to be about 25lbs. If you ever see one in the wild, walk away from it. They aren’t fast enough to catch up with you.
Gaboon Viper Diet
Gaboon vipers eat a varied diet, but they’re obligate carnivores. This means that they can’t eat anything other than meat, and occasionally eggs if they’re easily available.
They normally eat small mammals and birds, mostly rodents like squirrels, mice, and rabbits. If they can find them, they’ll also eat frogs.
The variety of their diet helps them to survive in the wild. Since they live in the rainforest and the savannah, food normally isn’t a problem for them.
They can go for weeks without eating if they eat a large prey item. They have been spotted eating larger prey like tree monkeys and antelopes.
Like other snakes, the Gaboon viper will open their jaws as wide as possible, to the point where they can eat prey that’s bigger than they are.
Gaboon Viper Hunting Behavior
Gaboon vipers are ambush hunters. This means that they’ll pick a spot to sit and wait and see if any prey comes by. For hours, even days, they’ll stay entirely still just waiting for a meal. They’ll be coiled so that they can strike, as quick as a flash, at any unsuspecting little animal that comes by.
When they hunt, Gaboon vipers display slightly different behavior to most other vipers. When a snake is as venomous as a viper, it will normally bite prey, let it go, and wait for it to become paralyzed/die.
This prevents any potential injury that the snake might incur because of its prey thrashing around. A rat or mouse could quite easily scratch or bite at a snake’s eye, and even though the eye is covered by a protective clear scale, they could still damage it.
The Gaboon viper bites but doesn’t let go, much like a constrictor. That’s why it can inject so much venom in just one bite. It doesn’t constrict around its prey, though.
It’s a purely venomous snake. Why would they risk causing themselves an injury? Because they keep pumping in more and more venom, making the prey die even quicker.
How Venomous Are Gaboon Vipers?
So, a Gaboon viper is venomous, but just how venomous is their bite? Compared to other snakes, their venom isn’t that strong.
Toxicity is measured according to ‘LD50’, which is the amount of venom required to be fatal half of the time (i.e., if you injected ten people with that amount, five of them would die). According to the journal Life Sciences, the LD50 of Bitis gabonica venom is approximately 1.25mg/kg in rabbits.
This means that if a group of rabbits each weighs 1kg or about 2lbs, you would need to inject them with 1.25mg of venom each for half of them to die. 1.25mg of water is about a quarter of a teaspoo.! But the LD50 of black mamba venom is 0.28mg/kg, which is a lot more concentrated.
However, where a Gaboon viper excels is that it has enormous venom glands, much bigger than other snakes. Each bite from a Gaboon viper produces more venom than any other venomous snake.
A Gaboon viper can inject up to 600mg in a bite, which is more than enough to kill a human. This is because a Gaboon viper doesn’t let go once it bites down into prey—it just keeps pumping venom into your bite wounds.
If they do decide to bite, you haven’t got long to react. They’re one of the fastest-striking snakes in the world, so before you know what’s happened, you’ll have been bitten.
The good news is that they’re quite ‘docile’ for a venomous snake. You have to provoke them to get bitten. So, if you were ever to encounter one in the wild, leave it alone.
Do Gaboon Vipers Kill People?
It’s exceptionally rare for somebody to be killed by a Gaboon viper.
According to a paper in the journal Toxicon, their reputation as a fearsome snake is partly unfounded. The scientists conducting the study in question—which sought to find out more about the effects of their venom—could only find six detailed clinical reports of Gaboon viper bites.
Another more recent paper in the journal Clinical Toxicology found five more. These cases were all related to people that kept the viper as a pet.
Fortunately, four of the five were able to receive antivenom in time. However, one person required amputation and another required ‘debridement,’ where dead tissue is cut out. Another person died because they couldn’t get assistance in time.
How Long Are Gaboon Viper Fangs?
Gaboon vipers have the biggest fangs of any snake in the world. The Gaboon viper holds the Guinness World Record for having the longest fangs of any snake. This helps them to inject venom deeper into a bite wound than other venomous snakes, which makes their attack more effective.
If you were to get close enough to one to take a look, they wouldn’t seem that long, though. That’s because they’re covered by large gums.
The frontmost fangs are entirely covered by gums, and the two behind them only have about 1/3 of the fang poking out. However, when they bite, this doesn’t stop their fangs sinking into you.
What Happens When You’re Bit by a Gaboon Viper?
If a Gaboon viper bites you, you’ll notice a few things straight away.
- The area around the bite wound will immediately swell up.
- The area around the bite will also have severe blisters around it.
- You’ll be in incredible pain but also go into a state of shock.
- You’ll immediately have trouble breathing.
- You might not notice, but your blood pressure will swiftly drop. You’ll also experience damage to your heart.
Over the next ten minutes, you’ll start to experience other symptoms too. Your tongue and eyelids will swell up like you’re experiencing anaphylactic shock.
You’ll also become unable to steady yourself, and won’t be able to move in the way that you want to (almost like you’ve been drinking alcohol).
Finally, you’ll start convulsing/having a fit, and you’ll become unconscious. At this point, the blisters and bruises will spread, and the tissue around the bite mark will begin to die.
Because of the effects of the venom, your blood won’t be able to clot properly, and you may spontaneously bleed both internally and externally. If the damage gets to this point, it’s likely because the snake envenomated you enough to kill you.
Gaboon Viper Predators
Some animals can kill and eat Gaboon vipers. Monitor lizards and some species of bird (specifically secretary birds, which can grow taller than 4 feet) can prey on juvenile Gaboon vipers.
There isn’t any animal that’s prepared to attack a fully grown Gaboon viper, for the simple reason that they’re too dangerous. It’s much easier for a predator to find and kill a squirrel, for example, than it is to kill a Gaboon viper—so that’s what they do instead.
Gaboon Viper Breeding
Since they live in equatorial Africa, Gaboon vipers breed differently to U.S. snakes. In American snakes, any snake that doesn’t live on the equator—they’ll breed after brumation. But since Gaboon vipers don’t brumate as the temperature never gets that low, they’re active all year long.
Even so, they’ll only mate once every two or three years. They make up for it by laying up to 40 eggs per clutch. Scientists have even reported five-year breeding cycles (five years between laying one clutch and then laying another). The Gaboon viper isn’t currently endangered.
There’s also a difference between West African and East African Gaboon vipers. In West Africa, they have the rainy season in and around the rainforest where the West African Gaboon viper lives.
The snake times their mating and egg laying to coincide with the beginning of the rainy season. But the East African Gaboon viper doesn’t, and will happily mate or lay eggs at any time of the years.
When it’s time to mate, like in other snakes, the males will fight one another. But Gaboon vipers fight uniquely. They don’t use their fangs or venom, because that would end up with the other male dying, which isn’t good for the species as a whole.
Instead, one male will slither on top of the other, before both snakes intertwine. This looks a little like mating. However, one male will then lift their head so that they’re off the ground and facing one another. They’ll then push, almost like arm wrestling, to see which snake can overpower the other.