Could you ever imagine a snake with a large triangular head, with horns, and 2-inch fangs? Well, there is one in nature and it is not even a horror story. The Gaboon vipers or Bitis gabonica, are the most venomous of all snakes, with massive bodies and unique features. They are distributed throughout Africa. They prefer to live at lower altitudes in sub-Saharan tropical rain forests and woodlands. However, sometimes they can be found at higher altitudes as high as 1500-2000 meters. In the rainforest they build their house by digging holes on the ground and cover them up with leaves. Below, I will walk you through the stunning body features of these animals, how they are dangerous as predators, and their natural habits.
As mentioned above, these animals have distinct features of a large triangular head, horns between their nostrils, and two small horns below their eyes. Inside their mouth, there are 2 inch fangs. Their body is covered with scales and males tend to have more scales then females. Even with a larger number of scales, male vipers are smaller in size and are 3-5 feet long, while females can reach up to 4-6 feet in length. An average Gaboon weights about 16 kg. Their scales consist of dark brown with pale pink or yellow spots. Patterns of Gaboon vipers are forming a symmetrical design that makes a unique pattern on their scales. The background color is typically a brown or purple color which helps them to use their body color as camouflage in the forest. They move very slowly, however, their strike range is one of the highest in the world (175-200 miles per hour). Also, there is evidence that these snakes can actually rotate themselves.
Gaboon vipers are apex predators and there are no predators to keep their population in check. Their only predators are human hunters or they can be killed accidentally by large mammals such as elephants or hippopotamus. Even monitor lizard who is immune to snake’s venom prefers not to eat it because it will leave 2-inch deep wounds with its fangs on the monitor’s body. Gaboon Vipers inject more venom than other venomous snakes. A single bite may release 600 milligrams of venom when only 1-12 milligrams is needed to kill a mouse. They are very passive predators, they prefer to lay still and wait until prey comes by. Gaboon vipers, in order to catch a prey, use visual cues, detect vibrations that an animal makes, and sense chemical signals. They prey on small animals such as rats and frogs. They are not generally aggressive and do not attack first if left alone. When disturbed, Gaboon vipers will either produce a loud sound or deliver a venomous bite. The venom is cytotoxic causing swelling, severe shock, blisters and convulsions, damaging local tissues. If a person steps on it and it injects the venom, the person’s life can be saved by medical interference, but the affected foot will have to be amputated.
Female Gaboon vipers are viviparous (giving birth to living young) and can give birth up to 50 younger ones, but usually about 24 of them survive. They provide no parental care, young snakes disperse right after birth and live their solitary lives. The offsprings are about 25-32 cm in length and weigh 25-45 grams. Baby Gaboon vipers, unlike adults, feed on smaller prey like insects, field mice, frogs, tortoise eggs, and shrews that are easier to catch and swallow, because their mother is not responsible for feeding them. There is nothing known about how Gaboon vipers communicate among each other, but they may use chemical cues to find and attract receptive mates. Gaboon vipers are solitary, calm snakes that need each other only to mate. However, males might be aggressive towards each other when fighting over a female. The males rub their chins against each other, interweave their necks and can push each other so hard that their scales push aside.
Being an apex predator, the Gaboon viper does not face any danger that is directly associated with its survival. However, several human activities are responsible for their habitat destruction and causes them to migrate into open paddies and coffee plantations. Many parts of southern Nigeria, Niger Delta and the forested grounds of Togo suffer from severe deforestation. This results in degradation of tropical territories, swamps and woodland terrains and thus limiting the natural habitat of the Gaboon viper. Even though the species has not been listed on the IUCN Red List, it is facing population decline in the western parts of Africa. A very calm Gaboon viper can be visited in Lincoln Park Zoo of Chicago, but if you would like to meet one in a wild, just take a doctor with you or maybe another snake in your pocket.