The Puff Adder is widely distributed over most of Southern Africa and lives in a variety of habitats. It is a slow-moving snake that relies heavily on camouflage, which has led to the belief that it is a lazy snake. It is commonly believed that the Puff Adder accounts for the most snakebite deaths in Africa but, explains Johan Marais of the African Snakebite Institute (ASI), that is certainly not the case.
Professor Graham Alexander and his team from the Alexander Herp Lab at the University of Witwatersrand conducted pioneering research on Puff Adders in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, just north of Pretoria. Several individual snakes were fitted with radio transmitters and tracked for several years. The most obvious conclusion was that most of these snakes spend most of their lives in camouflage, often hiding under a small shrub for several weeks at a time. They are not difficult to find when hiding in grass or plant debris – it is, in fact, close to impossible!
As this is an ambush hunter, individual snakes would lie in wait during the day or may be exposed at night, patiently waiting for a suitable meal to pass by. At times the snakes would wriggle their tails like a little worm to lure prey closer. In the case of toads, Puff Adders were observed protruding their tongue and slowly wriggling it until the toad got within striking distance.
Averaging 90 cm but rarely reaching a length of 1.4 m, this is a large snake with fangs reaching 2 cm in length. Its venom yield is around 300 mg, similar to that of a large mamba or cobra. Most victims are bitten at night when accidentally standing on a moving Puff Adder. While tracking Puff Adders in Dinokeng, some of the students
accidentally stood on a Puff Adder but surprisingly were not bitten. Professor Alexander then designed an experiment in which he put some rocks in a gumboot and then stood on a number of Puff Adders – all well camouflaged. Surprisingly, not a single Puff Adder struck or hissed. The reason for this is quite simple – they rely so heavily
on camouflage to remain undetected that they cannot afford to give away their presence.
The team then trained up some dogs to find Puff Adders – something that has been done quite often in the past while searching for other snake species. It’s a straight forward experiment – you rub a cloth against various snakes, place different cloths in different containers. If the dog is successful in pointing out the right containers, it gets a reward. But none of the dogs could find a Puff Adder! Turns out, and this is the first time that this has been shown for any animal, that Puff Adders do not give off any odours to avoid predators like carnivores and other snakes. They are truly invisible when camouflaged.
Most of this does not surprise me as I often speak to groups of hunters, hikers and fly-fishermen and always ask whether there are any snakebite victims in the audience. Puff Adder bites in these groups are quite rare, and the few snakebite victims are invariably those who picked the snake up.
This common snake bears live young – usually around 20 – 40 young at a time but a captive individual gave birth to 156 young! Mating happens in autumn and early winter on the Highveld and much later in the Cape, with male snakes following the pheromones of females and engaging in male combat when more than one male follows the same female. It is a bit of a wrestling match with both males raising their heads and attempting to push one another to the ground. They do not bite one another, not that it matters as they are immune to their own venom. The winner gets
to mate with the female. Recent genetic studies have shown that the young from a single clutch is fathered by two to five different males.
The Puff Adder is indeed highly venomous and, in some areas, accounts for many human bites. However, it has a slow-acting cytotoxic venom giving most victims ample time to get to a hospital and receive the required treatment. Symptoms following a bite usually include pain, progressive swelling, blisters and subsequent tissue damage. Blood may ooze from the fang bites. There is very little one can do other than getting to a hospital. Severe bites require antivenom, and patients receive six to twelve vials, depending on the severity of the bite. Avoid tight bandages, cutting and sucking, ice or heat – it may do far more damage than good. Suffering a snakebite can be an expensive exercise, and a few days in a high care unit with antivenom administered can easily cost in excess of R100 000. Should you require further operations the final bill could exceed R1-million!
Prevention is always better than cure. Stick to footpaths, use a torch at night and if you are spending a great deal of time in the field, get yourself a pair of decent snake gaiters.
The African Snakebite Institute (ASI) is the leading training provider of Snake Awareness, First Aid for Snakebite and
Venomous Snake Handling courses in Africa. These courses are presented by one of Africa’s leading herpetologists with over 40 years of experience, Johan Marais and Luke Kemp, a zoology graduate that has been working at ASI for the past four years. Besides their public and corporate training courses, ASI provides additional educational information, interesting reads and various tips in the form of newsletters, articles, posters and other documents on their website. They are also the largest distributors of snake handling equipment on the continent and have a free app that includes first aid information, snake identification features, snake removal information and more.
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