With the summer season arriving and the weather warming up, you’ll find more people out and about, but you will also find the snakes of the region are becoming more active too! One of the species people most commonly mentioned are the “puffies” – the puff adders Bitis arietans. Puff adders have an extensive range, occurring through most of sub-saharan Africa, and are found in most habitats except desert, dense forest, and mountain tops. Puff adders are a distinctive snake, growing to just over 1 m with a thick, stocky body and large, flattened, triangular head with rounded snout. The upper body is yellow-brown to light brown in colour, with black, pale-edged chevrons on the back, and bars on the tail. The underside of the snake is white to yellow in colour, which may have a few scattered dark spots. In general, puff adders are a sluggish species, relying on camouflage for protection, and moving not in the typical serpentine fashion but more like a caterpillar, leaving straight deep tracks in the sand. They lie in cover (beautifully camouflaged due to its colouring) waiting to ambush an unsuspecting victim, and if disturbed will puff themselves up (hence the name puff adder) and hiss continually – a warning well worth heeding! Disturbed puff adders will also hold the front of their bodies in a taut S-shape ready to strike, and can strike at great speed both to the side and the front. They have long, hinged fangs (12 – 18 mm) which penetrate deeply. Puff adders are a viper species with cytotoxic venom, which though not as potent as the neurotoxic venom of mambas and cobras, causes extensive swelling, pain, and necrosis. Puff adders are responsible for the most human fatalities from snake bites, due to their wide distribution and common occurrence, potent venom produced in large volumes and injected deeply by long fangs, and their tendency to bask on footpaths and not move immediately when approached. Ultimately however, we do not need to a love a species to respects it’s important role in the ecosystem, and appreciate how it is adapted to its role.
Written by: Minke Witteveen
For further reading:
- Branch, W.R. 1998. Field Guide to Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. Pp. 114-115. Struik Publishers: Cape Town.