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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Africa's Giant Gaboon Vipers

For as long as I can remember, I've been impressed by Gaboon Vipers (Bitis gabonica). These western African behemoths can reach 5 3/4 feet in length and over 14.5 inches in girth, and weigh up to 25 pounds with an empty stomach. They are the heaviest vipers and possess the longest fangs, up to one and a half inches in length! Furthermore, their geometric dorsal pattern, as intricate as it is beautiful, is ideally suited to camouflaging them against the leafy forest floor, where they lie in wait for their endothermic prey: birds, rodents, rabbits, monkeys, small antelope, porcupines.

A Gaboon Viper, beautifully camouflaged
Like many vipers, Gaboon Vipers are ambush predators, a lifestyle to which they are supremely adapted. Long folding fangs and deadly venom allow them to kill their prey while keeping a safe distance from it. A very low metabolism permits them to wait in one spot for weeks, until the perfect opportunity presents itself. They spend between three-quarters and 95% of their time just sitting quietly, sometimes for up to three months at a time. Every so often, a viper, particularly a male during the breeding season of March through May, will embark on a long-distance movement of one quarter to two thirds of a mile, sometimes in a single day.1 The preferred habitat of Gaboon Vipers is a mosaic of forest, thicket, and grassland, although they will sometimes enter sugarcane fields and rural gardens. As with most snakes, life as a Gaboon Viper is probably pretty dull.

The impressive fangs of a Gaboon Viper
In spite of its impressive size, or perhaps because of it, Gaboon Vipers are, like many of their kin, docile and retiring. "On two occasions, I accidentally stepped directly on B. gabonica during the course of radiotracking, only becoming aware of this after feeling squirming movement beneath my foot. At no point during either encounter did the snake hiss or show aggression in any manner", writes Jonathan Warner in his dissertation, which also contains evidence that hippos, elephants, and leopards may walk right by Gaboon Vipers without noticing them. Being stepped on and squashed by these large herbivores might be the primary cause of mortality for adult vipers, which are not vulnerable to many natural predators.

You can see why
Although Gaboon Vipers produce prodigious amounts of venom (nearly 10 mL), the toxicity is rather low compared to other venomous snakes, and there are only a few detailed clinical reports of bites. They are undoubtedly dangerous snakes, but envenomations are few compared to such infamous species as the Russell's Viper. Like most snakes, particularly slow-moving ones with good camouflage, Gaboon Vipers usually sit still and remain unnoticed whenever a human comes nearby (so in other words, pretty much the exact same thing they were already doing).

Gaboon Viper plate from Duméril, Bibron, & Duméril's Erpétologie Générale;
unfortunately, this is one of the only plates not in color
Like most vipers, female Gaboon Vipers give birth to a litter of live young once every two to three years, usually between 20 and 40. Females do not eat while pregnant. Little is known about their reproductive behavior, but males combat one another over females, which must be an impressive sight. Much recent research on Gaboon Vipers has taken place in South Africa, where they are known as Gaboon Adders. In the southernmost populations, which are disjunct from the main range of the species, the climate is subtropical and seasonal differences in activity are observed, but radiotelemetry studies conducted in tropical areas of Cameroon and Nigeria show no seasonal changes in behavior.2

East African Gaboon Viper (B. g. gabonica)
What's the thing on their nose for? It is much larger in the West African subspecies than in the East African one. Hypotheses range from enhancing crypsis to doing nothing at all. Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology has addressed this question, but it seems he met with about the same amount of success as I did in finding a compelling, well-supported reason why these snakes have horns. I couldn't find any studies that examined whether the horns had a sensory function, although it certainly seems possible.

West African Gaboon Viper (B. g. rhinoceros)
I learned something new about these vipers recently. It seems that, among other heavy-bodied snakes, they have evolved the ability to retain their feces for incredibly long periods of time - months to years, after which time 5-20% of the body weight of a single snake may be feces. While this would kill a human, retained fecal material may be functioning as metabolically inert ballast in these species, which require a stationary inertial base for striking. Available data suggest that enhanced uptake of water and nutrients can also be achieved in snakes retaining feces - the poisonous urates (read: pee) are excreted more frequently. Amazing.

1 One exception is that these snakes always move following shedding, which occurs about twice a year, perhaps to distance themselves from potential predators attracted by the sloughed material or to avoid external parasites in the old skin that could reattach to the snake.

2 Snake biologists in Africa face challenges unfamiliar to we North Americans: "In several instances, I had to abort tracking efforts due to B. gabonica locations in close proximity to potentially dangerous game; namely [Water Buffalo, Rhinoceros, Elephant, Hippopotamus, and Crocodile]", writes Jonathan Warner in his dissertation.


Thanks to Tim Vickers, Wolfgang Wuster, Ivica, Markus Oulehla, and Jonathan Warner for their photos.


Lillywhite HB, de Delva P, Noonan BP (2002) Patterns of gut passage time and chronic retention of fecal mass in viperid snakes. In: Schuett GW, Höggren M, Douglas ME, Greene HW (eds) Biology of the Vipers. Eagle Mountain Publishers, Eagle Mountain, UT, pp 497-506

Linn I, Perrin M, Bodbijl T (2006) Movements and home range of the gaboon adder, Bitis gabonica gabonica, in Zululand, South Africa. Afr Zool 41:252-265

Luiselli L (2006) Site occupancy and density of sympatric Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) and nose-horned viper (Bitis nasicornis). J Trop Ecol 22:555-564

Marsh NA, Whaler BC (1984) The Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica): Its biology, venom components and toxinology. Toxicon 22:669-694

Warner JK (2009) Conservation Biology of the Gaboon Adder (Bitis gabonica) in South Africa. PhD dissertation, School of Animal, Plant, and Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

This Gaboon Viper quilt was made for me by
my mother on my 21st birthday.
The geometric pattern lends itself perfectly
to quilting.

Creative Commons License

Life is Short, but Snakes are Long by Andrew M. Durso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Bill Sutton said...

Nice article Durso. I am also amazed with that camoflaged pattern. I have had similar experiences radiotracking copperheads. Twice I stepped directly on these guys with not an aggressive response. Looks like they would rather try and stay hidden rather than risk an attack.

Andrew Durso said...

Thanks Bill, well put and I agree. I have heard similar stories from Jayme Waldron about Eastern Diamondbacks.

Unknown said...

I've heard the same from a few more people about EDBS as well. I'm always blown away by checking out the camo of these African vipers. Sorry Bill, Copperheads just can't compete with this patterning.

Unknown said...

A very informative and interesting blog!

I hope you don't mind but I have used some of your images and information about Gaboon Vipers on my science website for kids.

You can see the article at Newtonsapple.org.uk

Please do not hesitate to contact me if any of the information is factually incorrect or if you want me to make any deletions or alterations.


Steve Shipton

Andrew Durso said...

Thanks Steve, yep, no problem, glad you included a link or two.

The only things I noticed that are not correct are the spelling of "Komodo", calling a boa constrictor a python in your last video, and the sentence "Snake skins are incredibly smelly and any nest lined with snake skins would smell disgusting to us humans." The odor of snake skin is barely detectable to humans because we have such a weak sense of smell, but flying squirrels can smell it just fine.

Thanks for reading!

Unknown said...

Thank you for your advice; I have made the changes you suggested.

In Britain we only have four species of snake and only one venomous species, the Vipera Berus.

I guess I live in a herpetalogical wasteland!

The stuff of nightmares for you snake aficionados!


Andrew Durso said...

No problem. I guess you could say that, but I've never seen the snakes of Europe, so I'd love to see them!