The Puff Adder - Fast and Furious

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Whichever way you look at it, the puff adder, Bitis arietans, is a difficult customer. This particular type of snake is responsible for more snakebites in Africa than any other. The very name, arietans means to strike violently, and strike it will.

Several factors give rise to the higher bite rate of this species.

  • It is an aggressive, highly-strung and slow moving snake that will not give way ahead of approaching footsteps. Both animals and humans fall prey to this bad-tempered creature, although most human deaths resulting from puff adder bites are due to poor or delayed treatment.
  • The snake is often found in close proximity to human habituation due to its fondness for rodents.
  • In addition, the snake occurs throughout Southern Africa, except in true desert, on mountain tops and in dense forests.

The snake can strike vigorously and quickly in all directions. It is able to lash out sideways without warning, or withdrawing its head like other snakes do. After a bite it quickly recoils, ready to strike again. Mice, rats, small mammals and ground birds are the usual recipients of these attacks, and often the force of the strike alone is enough to kill the animal. In return, the snake is most often killed by honey badgers, warthogs, raptors, other snakes and man.

A master of camouflage, the puff adder is an ambush predator and will lie in wait for its next unsuspecting meal and then pounce with lightning speed. The favourite hunting ground of this particular reptile is along well-worn paths, bringing it into conflict with man and large animals.

The puff adder is most often a dull dusty colour with several roughly chevron-shaped dark brown to black bands, rimmed in white, extending backwards to the tail. The belly is lighter, ranging in colour from yellowish to white.

When the snake does move, it can do so surprisingly quickly in a typical serpentine fashion, leaving deep tracks in the sand. The puff adder is also an efficient swimmer and can even climb if need be, although these occasions are rare.

Instead of moving off quickly like most other snakes in Africa, when it senses something approaching, the puff adder will announce its presence by blowing out air to produce a low hissing sound, hence the name "puff"adder. If this does not cause the offending footsteps to retreat, the snake freezes in place hoping to escape detection, as a last resort, it bites.

This snake is the very reason that you are warned to watch your feet while out in the bush. While out on a game walk, the presence of a trained guide is sure to keep you out of harm's way as it is easy to avoid conflict with these tetchy creatures if you know what to look for.

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Monday, 11 December 2017