Puff Adders: In Search of Mates
So now that winter is coming to an end, snakes and other reptiles are starting to become far more abundant. One species that has become particularly abundant in the last few weeks, is the puff adder (Bitis arietans). To give context, in the last week, I have come across three puff adders. Two of them were average-sized adult males and the the third was a very large, very pregnant, female puff adder, which was on the verge of popping.
The reason for the increase in puff adder sightings is the direct result of the time of year we find ourselves in. We are smack-bang in the middle of breeding season, and males are prowling for receptive females. Although large, puff adders are usually very hard to find, and this is a product of their amazing cryptic camouflage coupled with their ability to remain motionless even when you are on the verge of stepping on them. Puff adders spend much of their time concealed beneath tufts of grass, but when it comes to breeding season (Late winter/early spring), males leave the safety of their hiding spaces in search of mates, which they find with the help of pheromone trails left by the females.
So whilst some people may believe these snakes have finally decided to take over Africa, the truth is; the puff adders are on the hunt, not for food and not for you, but rather for love. To put it bluntly, they are looking for a ‘betty’ and they will fight with any male puff adder that gets in their way. Because the female drops a scent trail, she has the ability to draw a large number of males, and in some cases, seven males have answered the call of just one female.
Interesting facts about puff adder mating:
Females give birth to live young
Males engage in combat for females
Puff adders can hybridize with Gaboon adders (Bitis gabonica)
One Kenyan puff adder has given birth to 156 juveniles, the largest recorded litter of any snake species
Whilst many males may follow the same scent trail, only one male is allowed to mate, and to determine this, male puff adders engage in neck-to-neck wrestling matches in which they wrap their bodies around their competitors and attempt to force their competitors’ to the ground. The male which wins the bout approaches the female, wraps his tail around hers, inserts his hemipenes into her cloaca and proceeds to mate. Mating can last several hours, but once done, both snakes part ways.
After 7-9 months, the female gives birth to 20-40 live young (viviparous), which measure anywhere between 15 and 20cm. Broods of up to 80 juveniles have been recorded, but the record still resides with a puff adder from Kenya, which gave birth to 156 juveniles in a Czech zoo.
So whilst puff adders may be dangerous and scary to those who are not fond of snakes, I hope this article illustrates just how fascinating these snake can be, because after all, If you can produce 156 children in one sitting, and live to tell the tail, you surely are a marvel to behold.
Alexander, G. & Marais, J. 2007. A Guide to the Reptiles of Southern Africa. Cape Town, STRUIK Nature.
Marais, J. 2004. A Complete Guide to the Snakes of Southern Africa. Cape Town, STRUIK.
Marais, J. 2014. Snakes & Snakebite in Southern Africa. Cape Town, STRUIK Nature.