Scientific name: Bitis arietans arietans (Merrem, 1820).
Size: 70-100cm (can exceed 150cm).
Diet: Mainly rodents (Vlei arts, Striped field mice, Multimamate mice) but will readily take toads, lizard, birds and small tortoises.
Description: Large, thick bodied snake with a triangular head covered in small scales. It has relatively small eyes with vertical pupils. Body colour varies depending on locality with most snakes taking on a yellow-brown to light brown skin colour. The dorsal scales are strongly keeled and most individuals have chevrons on the back.
Number of young: 20-40 young in late summer (can exceed 80 hatchlings).
Conservation status: Least concern.
Distribution: Common throughout Southern Africa.
Habitat: Found almost everywhere except in alpine areas, dense forests and true deserts. Particularly common in areas with high bush cover.
The puff adder is arguably one of the most widespread and common snakes in Southern Africa (FitzSimons 1980). Although abundant in most areas, the snake avoids detection through cryptic camouflage and immobility. When found, the snakes tend to inflate their bodies and hiss to ward off potential threats (Patterson 1986).
Puff adder venom is cytotoxic and very dangerous to humans with puff adder bites’ being the most common venomous snake bites in South Africa. The venom is haemolytic in action and causes the breakdown of red blood cells and capillaries. The venom can result in organ failure and secondary infections as a result of necrosis if immediate medical attention is not sought (Alexander & Marais 2007).
Unlike other snakes which seek out their prey such as cobras, puff adders utilize sit-and-wait tactics to ambush unsuspecting prey. Once prey is in range, puff adders strike with lightning-fast precision and insert their relatively long fangs into the prey item and immediately let go. Puff adders do not risk injury but rather wait for the venom to take effect and then follow the scent trail using their tongue (Patterson 1986, Alexander & Marais 2007).
Although effective, the sit-and-wait strategy employed by puff adders places them at risk of discovery by passing predators. According to a study done by Miller et al. (2015) puff adders may avoid detection through the use of chemical crypsis. In the study meerkats and dogs were exposed to a large range of snakes and the only scent that both the meerkats and the dogs were unable to repeatedly and accurately detect was that of the puff adders (Miller et al. 2015).
Puff adders also differ in their manner of locomotion because unlike most snakes, puff adders utilize rectilinear locomotion which involves movement in a straight line. This is opposed to the conventional serpentine locomotion which is only used when the animal is in severe distress (Alexander & Marais 2007).
Although sluggish on land, puff adders are relatively good swimmers and have been found to spend hours in the water with just the head breaking the surface (FitzSimons 1980). Puff adders are most commonly seen in breeding season when males can be observed cruising the veld in search of females. Once found, males will compete for females. The males wrap themselves’ around their competitor and attempt to get their head on top while forcing the body of the other male to the ground (Alexander & Marais 2007).
Puff adders are an incredibly fascinating species of snake which are particularly beautiful in the Eastern cape because of their bright and contrasting colours. Although dangerous, with knowledge and respect, these snakes pose little threat to people in the context of everyday life.
Alexander, G. & Marais, J. 2007. A Guide to the Reptiles of Southern Africa. Cape Town. STRUIK Nature.
Branch, B. 2016. Snakes and other Reptiles of Southern Africa. Cape Town. STRUIK Nature.
Bates, M.F., Branch, W.R., Bauer, A.M., Burger, M., Marais, J., Alexander, G.J. & de Villiers, M.S. (eds). 2014. (CD set). Atlas and Red List of the Reptiles of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Suricata 1. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
FitzSimons, V. F. M. 1980. A Field Guide to the Snakes of Southern Africa. Cape Town. Nature Lover’s Library.
Jacobsen, N. 2005. Remarkable Reptiles of South Africa. Pretoria. BRIZA Publications.
Miller, A. K., Maritz, B., McKay S, Glaudas, X. & Alexander, G. J. 2015. An ambusher’s arsenal: chemical crypsis in the puff adder (Bitis arietans). Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20152182. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2015.2182.
Patterson, R. & Meakin, P. 1986. Snakes. Cape Town. STRUIK Publishers.