Species name: Puff Adder
Scientific Name: Bitis arietans
Weight: Male: 2-4 kg – Female: 3-5kg
Length: Male: Under 1m – Female: Up to or over 1m
General Habitat: A wide variety of habitats from semi-arid areas, woodlands, savannah, forests and even suburban areas.
Diet: A large variety of prey such as rodents, frogs, birds and even insects.
The Puff Adder gets its name from the snake’s habit of inflating its body and hissing when threatened and is the epitome of an ambush predator. They are very sedentary snakes and may often lay in wait near game trails, rodent trails, fallen trees and densely vegetated areas for weeks at a time. With incredibly intricate patterns of alternating patches and chevrons of brown, tan and cream, they are exceptionally well camouflaged snakes perfectly adapted for a wide variety of habitats throughout Africa. They are equipped with large fangs and a potent cytotoxic venom that causes severe mass damage to cells and tissue alike. Capable of causing death in adult human beings if envenomation occurs and is untreated, they are responsible for many human deaths in remote parts of the Sub-Saharan continent every year.
They are rather sluggish snakes with a unique method of movement referred to as rectilinear motion as they undulate their body along the ground in a linear movement resulting in a distinct track as the ventral scales grip the surface and propel the snake forward in a caterpillar-like motion. Although rather slow moving, they have one of the fastest striking speeds of any Southern African snake. They have unusually large fangs that most often penetrated deep into the flesh, so envenomation is almost always effective. The bite site is incredibly painful and most deaths are caused by secondary infection or necrosis if untreated.
Snakes are very rarely seen out in the wild especially in winter when they enter a state similar to hibernation, called brumation where they are far less active. If spotted they are usually sunning themselves in the roads in the mid-afternoon sun although if given the choice and the time they will usually move off. They may be one of the apex predators of the herpetological world but that doesn’t mean they are immune to predation. Many raptors or birds of prey will actively prey on Puff Adders. Secretary birds, Southern Ground Hornbills and Brown Snake Eagles being but a few. Other predators include mammals such as Honey Badgers and even some of the mongoose family although size is always a factor taken into account. Unfortunately, man accounts for the vast majority of deaths as people often kill them out of fear and a lack of understanding.
They may be one of the less-popular organisms out here but play an integral part in the environment keeping the ecosystem in balance and playing their part in the greater scheme of things. If ever encountered a wide birth is advised and in the event of finding one within a human habitation or garden there are qualified members of the public who are usually happy to help these little guys on their way. With a good understanding of these fascinating animals, their habits and habitats we should be able to coexist in this incredible place we are both lucky to be able to call home.
My Memorable Sighting
This may be familiar with some of the more experienced rangers out here but often while out on a game drive scouting for wildlife one can easily get absorbed looking for animals in the surrounding areas as we drive past. This was one such day when we were on the search for a leopard, one of the harder to find animals out here. As we were driving along, deep in thought of the leopard’s possible movements and whereabouts, my teammate and tracker Vorster shouted out to me from the front of the bonnet of the vehicle, “Nyoka!”; which means, “Snake!”. Completely caught off guard I instinctively braked… Hard. Desperately hoping I hadn’t run it over. Instead, I had brought the vehicle to a halt just in time, with the Puff Adder directly beneath Vorster’s feet! It didn’t take more than a split second until Vorster had launched himself off his tracker seat and onto the bonnet of the vehicle in a desperate bid to escape the startled snake. Upon reversing with Vorster clinging to the front of the vehicle, out of harms way, the whole vehicle exploded in a fit of hysterical laughter and relieved giggles as the horrified but safe Puff Adder slunk off into the nearby grass.