Puff adders responsible for most of the serious snakebites in southern Africa

Puff adders can be found in most parts of Namibia except for the dunes of the Namib Desert. This is a very well camouflaged snake which occurs in different colour variations, from dark grey to reddish or yellowish but always with the same distinct pattern. It is slow moving, most active at night, hides during the day in thick grass, under bushes, in holes and any other form of ground cover. In the mornings it likes to lie in the sun next to a tuft of grass, a rock or a bush. In the early evening puff adders often lie on the tar road, especially in the beginning of winter.

Puff adder
A puff adder lies well camouflaged on top of a fallen tree trunk.

When walking in the bush one should never step over a fallen tree trunk but rather onto it first to look around before stepping down, because a puff adder could be on the other side in the shade. When disturbed, puff adders may hiss and puff to warn of possible danger. One should stop dead in one’s tracks immediately and then retreat very slowly. This will calm the snake and show it that there is no danger. When harassed or frightened, puff adders will often draw back their head in an S-shape and strike with incredible speed. When striking the puff adder is one of the fastest snakes. Puff adders cannot back off backwards but they are good swimmers like most snakes. Their fangs are up to 18 millimetres long. Each snake has several spare fangs on both sides, because without their poison fangs they would not be able to feed or defend themselves.

Normally they move in a straight line but when disturbed or threatened they will move rapidly in the typical serpentine motion. Puff adders cannot bite their tails and roll down a slope. They feed on rats, mice and other small mammals, on ground-dwelling birds, lizards, toads and sometimes other snakes. They often fall prey to cobras, i.e. the Anchieta´s and the Cape Cobra. But their biggest enemy is man, followed by birds of prey.

Puff adder
A puff adder is feeding on a tree rat. These snakes always swallow their prey head first. Sometimes the fangs are used to get the prey in. Here the poison fangs are clearly visible but folded backwards. Cobras have very short fangs which they cannot fold back.

The poison of puff adders is cytotoxic, which means it destroys tissue and blood cells. Symptoms include extreme pain, swelling and sometimes blistering at the site of the bite. Most bites are below the knee because people come too close to the well-camouflaged snake. A doctor needs to be seen as soon as possible. Antivenom is usually necessary.

Puff adders are viviparous: they give birth to live young, 20 to 40 at a time. Immediately after being born the young snakes break free from their membranous sac. Once dry, they shed their skin for the first time and move off. They are poisonous as soon as they are born. The mother does not care for her young. During mating season females produce a pheromone which attracts males. Several males may follow the scent of a single female.

There is no reason to kill puff adders. These snakes can be easily caught with the help of a broom and a bucket or box. One needs to be gentle when guiding the snake into the box or bucket. If it is injured because of rough handling (e.g. broken ribs) it becomes a dangerous snake to release, because when it has sustained painful injuries it will strike very easily. Always release snakes far away in the bush.

Author: Dirk Heinrich


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