Gaboon viper bite: Why should you avoid this dangerous animal and why its fangs are special?

Chances are you won’t encounter a Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) Soon. And that’s good because the bite of this snake is often deadly.

Gaboon vipers commonly live in the tropical forests and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. But if you’ve been to the region, here are some important facts about this extremely dangerous creature.

Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica).  Image credit: Holger Krisp via Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0

Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica). Image credit: Holger Krisp via WikimediaCC BY 3.0

The Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) has two deadly features. First – its fangs are the longest among the Poison snake. They grow to 2 inches (5 cm) long. What’s more, these fangs actually never run out of venom: the Gaboon cobra produces the second largest amount of venom of all snakes.

Why does the Gaboon viper need such long fangs?

Gaboon vipers are quite large and heavy. Adults typically grow to 125–155 cm (4 to 5 ft) in length, but a specimen with a maximum total length of 205 cm (81 in) has been reported in Sierra Leone. Their weight can exceed 11 kilograms (24 pounds).

Due to their large size, they require a lot of food and therefore they hunt large prey and have no trouble swallowing a whole rabbit.

    Complete the Skeleton of a Viper Gaboon (Bitis gabonica).  Here, you can see the full length of its huge fangs.  Image credit: Stefan3345 via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Complete the Skeleton of a Viper Gaboon (Bitis gabonica). Here, you can see the full length of its huge fangs. Image credit: Stefan3345 via WikimediaCC BY-SA 4.0

However, their hunting habits are different from other vipers. While most venomous snakes bite their prey and wait until it is weakened by the injection, Gaboon venomous snakes attack their target and cling to it with their fangs and do not release their prey until when the animal dies.

Longer canines make this process easier. In addition, they inject venom into deeper tissues where blood circulation is stronger.

Extremely dangerous: The amount of venom is enough to kill 6 people

Interestingly, the Gaboon viper’s venom itself is not particularly poisonous. But the amount of venom is extraordinary and that’s what makes it so deadly.

Scientists say the amount of venom released is related to their behavior: when these venomous snakes do not release their prey after biting, a larger amount of venom can be injected. The prey is released only after it stops moving.

In one bite, Gaboon vipers inject 5 to 7 mL (450-600 mg dry mass) of venom. The maximum reported wet venom yield is 9.7 mL, and contains 2400 mg of dry venom.

The effects of Gaboon viper venom on humans were evaluated indirectly, based on the sensitivity of the monkeys to its toxicity. The ‘most optimistic’ study (Branch, 1992) states that 90-100 mg of dried venom will cause death in humans. This means that the venom secreted in a single bite can be deadly for 6 people.

Do you see the Gaboon viper in this image?  Image credit: Ltshears via Wikimedia, license GFDL

Do you see the Gaboon viper in this image? Image credit: Ltshears qua WikimediaGFDL . License

What is first aid for someone bitten by a Gaboon viper?

When a person is bitten by a Gaboon viper, the symptoms are:

  • rapid and conspicuous swelling,
  • aching pain,
  • shock,
  • local blistering, bruising, tissue necrosis,
  • uncoordinated movements,
  • fecal incontinence, urination,
  • swelling of the tongue and eyelids,
  • convulsions,
  • syncope.

Fortunately, cases of humans being bitten by a Gaboon viper are extremely rare. These snakes are generally not aggressive towards humans and their natural habitat is limited to tropical forest areas. Even if they do meet a human, the Gaboon vipers are not willing to move very aggressively. However, the first priority is to avoid accidentally stepping on them.

The Gaboon viper bite is considered a serious medical condition, even if the snake is relatively small and the bite is not deep. This is first aid procedure to the victim:

  1. It is important for the victim to stay as calm as possible. The bitten limb must be kept in a resting position, lower than the victim’s heart.
  2. A large bandage should be wrapped immediately around the bitten limb, tightly, starting at the bitten site and extending the limb (full length if possible).
  3. If possible, a splint should be attached to the bandaged limb to keep it rigid. Avoid bending or moving the limb.
  4. Immediately transport the victim to the hospital.
  5. DO NOT remove the splint or bandage. This must be done by a qualified physician when the patient is already receiving Antivenom.
  6. DO NOT cut or slit the bite. DO NOT apply ice to the bite.

What do Gaboon vipers eat?

When hunting, the Gaboon viper can attack very quickly, accurately and basically from any angle. They are not the fastest attacking snakes, but at 6 meters (20 feet) per second, prey usually has no chance to dodge the blow.

These snakes feed on a variety of birds, mammals, and amphibians. Pigeons, guineafowl, hamsters and rats, rabbits, frogs and toads are all on their ‘favorite’ menu.

However, they sometimes catch larger animals, such as tree monkeys, porcupines, or even antelopes.

How to recognize Viper Gaboon?

Viper Gaboon can be recognized by its distinct coloration. The skin of this snake is covered in a pattern a combination of light and dark brown, pink and purple, arranged in diamonds and stripes along its back.

The snake has a short tail. Its eyes are small, while the head is wide and large. The neck is approximately one-third the width of the head. Light and dark lines radiate from around the eyes. The head and overall shape of the body are quite similar to that of a fallen leaf – which is why Gaboon vipers can hide effectively when clearly seen, when encountered in their native habitat.

Gaboon viper is also commonly referred to as butterfly adder, jungle puffer adder, whisperer, swampjack and Gaboon adder.

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