The Gaboon viper, Bitis gabonica, is a terrestrial snake found in tropical climates. It has a fearsome reputation due to its great size, long fangs, and high venom yield. These strikingly beautiful snakes have a potent bite, and their fangs are longer than any other venomous snake in the world.
Gaboon vipers have colorful quadrangle and triangle shapes along their body. These colors provide excellent camouflage on forest floors in sub-Saharan Africa. Gaboon vipers are ambush predators, passively hunting small vertebrates, such as rodents. Their venom is deadly to humans, though it can be treated effectively with antivenom.
Here we take a look at all the important details about this snake – what it looks like, where it lives, and what it eats. We also explore the dangerous nature of Gaboon viper venom. Finally, we will look at some interesting facts about these snakes’ behavior and history.
Gaboon Viper Species Profile
Gaboon vipers hold the record for being the largest member of the Bitis genus. While it’s definitely not the largest snake in the world, it has a size and strength to be reckoned with, reaching 7 feet at the maximum.
- Average Adult Length: 4 feet
- Record Length: Over 7 feet
- Length At Birth: 12 inches
- Weight: Over 45 pounds
- Head Width: 5 to 6 inches
- Fang Length: 2 inches
These snakes will grow throughout their lifetime, with their rate of growth decreasing over time. It is unknown how long Gaboon vipers can live in the wild. In captivity, they will usually live to be between 18 and 20 years old.
What Does The Gaboon Viper Look Like?
A Gaboon viper’s head is triangular in shape, a shape iconic to vipers. It has prominent rostral horns at the end of its nose. The viper has a dark line down the center of its head and dark spots above its jaw on each side of the head. This stripe mimics the central vein of a fallen leaf. Gaboon viper eyes are gray or silver in color.
This snake has ridged, keeled, and smooth scales across its body. Female Gaboon vipers have around 135 rows of scales. The males have fewer scales, on the other hand, around 132 rows. This snake’s belly scales are usually a light yellow color with dark spots scattered across its length.
Gaboon vipers are known for beautiful color patterns in addition to the stripe on their head. Their base scale color is either purple or brown. On top of this base, yellow quadrangles create a symmetrical design across the center of the snake’s back. These quadrangles each have hourglass-shaped brown spaces. Along the sides of the snake lie triangular patterns of yellow and purple.
Where Does The Gaboon Viper Live?
Gaboon vipers thrive in both tropical and subtropical climates. They are found in forests, woodlands, and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. Occasionally, they branch out into agricultural fields as well.
According to The Herpetological Bulletin, Gaboon vipers range throughout the countries of Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Zululand, and South Africa.
These snakes largely prefer woodland thicket areas with more cover than the open savanna, depending on camouflage to stay hidden from their prey. They will take shelter under the leaf litter on the forest floor and stay there for hours at a time. Their quadrangle and triangle scape color patterns help them blend in with their surroundings.
On occasion, Gaboon vipers take up residence in a swamp. While they are not known to swim often, these snakes will sit in the mud of both still and moving waters. This is a good location for them to find amphibious prey.
As humans expand their farms and cities into formerly natural environments, Gaboon vipers have come into closer contact with humans. They can sometimes be found in agricultural areas close to forests, using cacao and coffee crops as cover like they would forest leaves. At night, these snakes sometimes come out onto paved roads to take advantage of the warm pavement.
What Does The Gaboon Viper Eat?
These vipers are carnivores, focusing on terrestrial vertebrates as their prey. According to the African Journal of Herpetology, Gaboon vipers generally eat small mammals, lizards, birds, and the occasional frog. The following are examples of Gaboon viper prey:
- Rodents, including giant rats
- Ground-living birds, such as francolins or doves
- Amphibians, such as frogs and toads
In more rare cases, Gaboon vipers have been found to hunt larger animals. These include brush-tailed porcupines and royal antelopes. In their local ecosystems, Gaboon vipers play an essential role in helping control the populations of rodents.
Male and female Gaboon vipers have matching diets in prey type and feeding frequency. The exception is when a female Gaboon viper is gravid and about to lay eggs; the snake will not eat during that time. Juvenile Gaboon vipers almost exclusively eat newborn mice, a much easier prey to hunt, along with the occasional small lizard.
How Does The Gaboon Viper Hunt?
Gaboon vipers are nocturnal animals. You will find them most active around sunset, when they first come out of their hiding place to find prey.
These snakes are passive hunters and ambush predators. They will stake out a spot to hunt from and lie perfectly still in it, blending in with the surrounding leaves on the forest floor. Once a prey animal crosses the snake’s path, it will quickly strike.
When it comes to speed, Gaboon vipers are surprisingly quick when they need to be, despite their usual sedentary lifestyle. These snakes are rather unpredictable, capable of switching from a sluggish pace to a short burst of speedy motion to strike at its prey.
Gaboon vipers use a variety of senses to track their prey. They are well equipped to detect vibrations in the ground as well as chemical signals. They can use visual cues as well to hunt their prey, but they depend less on what they can see and more on what they can feel and smell.
When these snakes are hungry, they will strike at almost any sideways movement that crosses their path. This has lead to some accidental bites in captivity. In zoos, Gaboon vipers are fed mice and rats.
What Hunts Gaboon Vipers?
There are no known predators of the Gaboon viper in the wild. Their camouflage is not meant to allow them to hide from predators. Instead, it allows them to stay out of sight of their prey until it is too late to flee.
If threatened by a human, a Gaboon viper will sound a loud hiss as a warning. If it cannot escape, it will deliver its venomous bite. Gaboon vipers are not a threatened species by any environmentalist organizations.
The most common scenario of conflict between a human and a Gaboon viper is when a human accidentally steps on the viper. These vipers’ camouflage renders them nearly invisible on the forest floor. A stepped-on snake feels cornered and will not hesitate to bite.
Are Gaboon Vipers Venomous?
Like all vipers, Gaboon vipers are venomous snakes. Gaboon vipers are considered very dangerous compared to other venomous snakes.
This is because Gaboon vipers have the second-highest venom yield of any snake, second only to King cobras. A single adult male Gaboon viper has enough venom in its stores to inject lethal doses of venom to 30 adults.
Gaboon vipers also have the longest fangs of any venomous snakes. These fangs are around 2 inches long. These long, hollow fangs inject venom into the viper’s prey. It is possible for the viper to bite without injecting any venom. This is called a “dry bite.”
Gaboon vipers have solenoglyphous teeth. Their fangs rest folded up against the roof of the viper’s mouth, so the snake does not harm itself. When the snake bites its prey, it brings down its fangs to inject the venom.
If you are bitten by a Gaboon viper, it is essential that you go to a hospital right away. A medical professional can determine whether you have been envenomated and administer treatment as necessary.
Purpose of Venom
Gaboon vipers do not actively pursue their prey. They wait and hide until their prey approaches, and then deliver a quick bite. If the prey escapes, the viper needs to make sure it does not get far away.
By injecting venom into its prey, the Gaboon viper gives itself a second chance. Even if the prey wiggles free of its jaws, it won’t get very far. The venom also begins the process of digesting the prey animal, giving the viper a head start when it finally catches up and swallows its meal.
The venom produced by Gaboon vipers contains neurotoxins and hemotoxins. Neurotoxins affect the victim’s nervous system, causing muscular paralysis. Hemotoxins target the victim’s blood cells instead. This is a dangerous combination for the snake’s prey and humans alike.
According to Clinical Pathology, the hemotoxins inGaboon viper venom give it a significant anticoagulant behavior. This means that it prevents the blood of the victim from clotting.
Some snake venom hemotoxins prevent the creation of platelets. However, Gaboon viper venom does not affect platelet creation in itself. Rather, it prevents platelets from completing their vital work. The venom achieves this with a direct proteolytic action on fibrinogen, in which it releases soluble breakdown products that counteract the efforts of platelets. The following symptoms often follow a Gaboon viper bite:
- Swelling of the affected limb
- Necrosis, or cell death, around the bite
- Hemorrhaging near the wound
- Internal hemorrhaging throughout the body
- Spontaneous bleeding
- Dyspnea, or labored breathing
- Chest tightness
- Hypotension, or low blood pressure
In extreme cases, cardiac arrest caused by the neurotoxins in the venom can occur. If treatment is delayed, the victim may need to have the affected limb amputated. Doctors may need to remove damaged tissue if necrosis proceeds too far. Without treatment, people have died.
The harmful effects of Gaboon viper venom can be counteracted with an appropriate antivenom. Antivenom is created using the venom of the Gaboon viper itself. The cause of the injury is also the cure.
Scientists create antivenom by injecting another animal with the viper’s venom. This is usually a hardy domesticated animal such as a horse or cow. Then, plasma is extracted from the envenomated animal’s blood. This plasma is used to create antivenom and cure Gaboon viper bites.
There are currently no other known medical uses for Gaboon viper besides creating antivenom.
Gaboon Viper Interesting Facts
Now that you understand the basic details of the Gaboon viper, let’s learn a few more interesting facts about this fascinating snake.
A Surprisingly Docile Snake
The deadly venom of the Gaboon viper has granted it a justifiably frightening reputation. However, the demeanor of the snake itself does not seem to go along with this fear.
Gaboon vipers are quite docile and placid in their temperament. It is in fact very rare for Gaboon vipers to bite humans at all. This calm behavior, combined with their beautiful appearance, has made a Gaboon viper an increasingly popular feature of reptile collections around the world.
This does not mean that it is actually safe to privately own a Gaboon viper. Clinical Toxicology reports on 5 separate cases of captive Gaboon vipers biting their handlers. 4 of these cases required hospitalization in order to recover, while the fifth victim died before they could get to a hospital.
A Snake of Many Names
The Gaboon viper was discovered in 1854. Back then, while scientists were still trying to separate it out from other snake species, the viper was described by the name Echidna Gabonica. It would later end up with the scientific name Bitis gabonica.
The word “Gabon” comes from the Portuguese “Gabão.” This word refers to the narrow strip of territory where the snake was first discovered. European colonizers adopted the slightly altered word “Gaboon” to refer to the northern portion of the French Congo.
Gaboon vipers have been called by many other names as well. This includes the Gaboon adder, the butterfly adder, the swampjack, the whisper, and the forest puff adder.
They Don’t Lay Eggs
Most snakes are ovoviviparous. This means that they lay eggs, often but not always brooding the clutch until the eggs hatch.
Gaboon vipers, on the other hand, are viviparous. The female Gaboon viper carries its young inside of it for 7 months of gestation. These snakes can give birth to anywhere between 20 and 50 juvenile vipers at once.
These reclusive snakes make it difficult to examine their mating systems. It is known that Gaboon vipers mate during the rainy season in Africa. This can be anywhere between September and December. In captivity, female Gaboon vipers have been observed lifting their tails and swaying back and forth to show the male snakes that they are ready to mate.
When born, their babies are ready to take care of themselves. They are around a foot long and have their adult color patterns. The parent snakes will not stick around to take care of the offspring.
The Gaboon viper is a creature of contradictions. It is docile and deadly, colorful and well-hidden. Now you know some facts and details about this amazing species of snake – not only how to identify them and where to find them, but some of what makes them so unique.