The chances are high that you will not encounter a Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) anytime soon. And it is good because the bite of this snake is often deadly.
Gaboon vipers usually live in rainforests and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. But if you were to travel in this region, here are some important facts about this extremely dangerous creature.
The Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) has two deadly features. First – its fangs are the longest of any venomous snake. They are up to 2 inches (5 cm) long. Furthermore, these fangs literally never run out of venom: Gaboon viper produces the second largest amount of venom among all snakes.
Why Gaboon viper needs fangs that long?
Gaboon vipers are quite large and heavy. Adults usually grow to a length of 125–155 cm (4 to 5 ft), but a specimen with a maximum total length of 205 cm (81 in) was reported in Sierra Leone. Their weight may go over 11 kg (24 pounds).
Because of their large size, they need lots of food and therefore they hunt for large prey and have no trouble devouring an entire rabbit.
However, their hunting habits are different compared to other species of vipers. While most poisonous snakes bite their prey and then wait until it gets weaker because of injected poison, Gaboon vipers strike a target and hang on to it with their fangs and do not release the prey until the animal dies.
Longer fangs make this process easier. Also, they inject the venom into deeper tissues where blood circulation is stronger.
Extreme danger: Amount of venom is enough to kill six humans
Interestingly, the Gaboon viper’s venom itself is not particularly toxic. But the amount of venom is extraordinary and that is what makes it deadly.
Scientists say the amount of released venom is related to their behavior: when these vipers do not release their prey after a bite, a larger amount of venom can be injected. The prey is released only after it stops moving.
In a single bite, Gaboon vipers inject from 5 to 7 mL (450-600 mg dry mass) of venom. The maximum reported wet venom yield was 9.7 mL, and contained 2400 mg of dry venom.
The effect of the Gaboon viper’s venom on humans has been assessed indirectly, based on how sensitive monkeys were to its toxicity. The most ‘optimistic’ study (Branch, 1992) says that 90-100 mg of dry venom would be fatal in humans. This means that venom released in a single bite could be fatal to six people.
What is the first aid for the person who got bitten by the Gaboon viper?
When a human gets bitten by a Gaboon viper, the symptoms are:
- rapid and conspicuous swelling,
- intense pain,
- severe shock,
- local blistering, bruising, tissue necrosis,
- uncoordinated movements,
- involuntary defecation, urination,
- swelling of the tongue and eyelids,
Luckily, occurrences, when humans get bitten by the Gaboon viper, are extremely rare. These snakes are usually not aggressive toward people, and their natural habitat is limited to rainforest regions. Even when they meet a human, Gaboon vipers are still not willing to move very actively. However, the top priority is to avoid stepping on them by accident.
The Gaboon viper bite is considered a serious medical situation, even when a snake is relatively small and the bite is not deep. Here is the first aid procedure for the victim:
- It is important for the victim to remain as calm as possible. The bitten limb should be kept in a resting position at a level lower than the victim’s heart.
- A large crepe bandage should be wrapped immediately around the bitten limb, tightly, starting at the site of the bite and working up the limb (the full length if possible).
- If possible, a splint should be attached to the bandaged limb to keep it in a rigid state. Avoid bending or moving the limb.
- Immediately transport the victim to a hospital.
- DO NOT remove the splint or bandages. This must be done by a qualified doctor when the patient is already receiving Antivenom.
- DO NOT cut or incise the bite site. DO NOT apply ice to the bite site.
What do Gaboon vipers eat?
When hunting, the Gaboon viper can strike very fast, precisely, and basically from any angle. They are not the fastest-striking snakes, but at a speed of 6 meters (20 feet) per second, the prey usually has no chance to avoid a hit.
These snakes feed on a variety of birds, mammals, and amphibians. Doves, guineafowl, field mice and rats, rabbits, frogs, and toads are on their ‘favorite’ menu.
However, sometimes they catch larger animals, such as tree monkeys, porcupines, or even antelopes.
How to recognize the Gaboon viper?
The Gaboon viper can be recognized by its distinct coloration. The skin of this snake is covered in a pattern combining light and dark brown, pink and purple colors, arranged in diamonds and stripes along its back.
The snake has a short tail. Its eyes are small, while the head is broad and large. The neck is approximately a third of the width of the head. Light and dark lines radiate from around the eyes. The head and the overall body pattern is quite similar to a fallen leaf – which is why Gaboon vipers can hide effectively in plain sight, when encountered in their native habitat.
The Gaboon viper is also commonly called butterfly adder, forest puff adder, whisper, swampjack, and Gaboon adder.