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The puff adder Bitis arietans is a large, venomous snake that occurs throughout Africa and in the southwestern Arabian peninsula. This species usually reaches a maximum length of approximately 1 m, but the largest individuals may be nearly twice that long. Its relatively dull coloration, consisting of a pattern of dark chevrons on a lighter tan or brown background, camouflages the snake very effectively. This species is a primarily nocturnal ambush predator, preying on small mammals, birds, lizards, frogs, and toads, and while it spends most of its time on the ground, it can also swim or climb into low vegetation. It is generally slow-moving, but it can strike extremely quickly.

Due to its wide distribution, potent venom, and highly cryptic coloration which makes it prone to being stepped on inadvertently, Bitis arietans is thought to kill more people than any other African snake (Mallow et al. 2003), accounting for nearly 32,000 deaths per year and many more disabilities (Swaroop and Grab 1954). Its venom is highly toxic, capable of causing massive tissue necrosis, hypotension, coagulopathy, thrombocytopenia, and spontaneous bleeding, apparently adapted to immobilize prey and begin the digestive process. However, unlike in some of its close relatives, the venom of B. arietans acts relatively slowly, and with proper treatment, death can be prevented in 90-95% of cases (Spawls and Branch 1995, Lavonas et al. 2002, Mallow et al. 2003).

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© Sean Po, Harvard University, EOL

Source: The Harvard University Herpetology Course - OEB 167

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