Comprehensive Description


The genus Atheris contains a group of venomous vipers commonly known as "Bush Vipers". They belong to Viperinae subfamily and thus have no heat sensing pits. There are currently 8 known species. Every Atheris species is venomous. The live south of the Sahara desert in Africa. Species in the genus Atheris live only in rain forests. All Atheris vipers range from 48 to 70 centimeters in length. Every species shares the same broad triangular head. The eyes are large. The are slender snakes and have heavily keeled scales. Atheris species come in a large variety of colors.

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Atheris is a genus of venomous vipers known as bush vipers.[2] They are found only in tropical subsaharan Africa (excluding southern Africa)[1] and many species have isolated and fragmented distributions due to their confinement to rain forests.[3] In an interesting example of convergent evolution, they show many similarities to the arboreal pit vipers of Asia and South America.[2] Ten species are currently recognized.[4]


They are relatively small in size, with adults ranging in total length (body + tail) from 40 cm (16 in) for A. katangensis to a maximum of 78 cm (31 in) for A. squamigera.[2]

All species have a broad, triangular head that is distinct from the neck. The canthus is also distinct and the snout is broad. The crown is covered with small imbricate or smooth scales, none of which is enlarged. The eyes are relatively large with elliptical pupils. The eyes are separated from the supralabials by 1–3 scale rows and from the nasal by 2–3 scales.[3]

The body is slender, tapering, and slightly compressed. The dorsal scales are overlapping, strongly keeled and have apical pits. Laterally these are smaller than the middorsals. Midbody there are 14–36 rows of dorsal scales. There are 133–175 rounded ventral scales. The subcaudal scales are single and number 38–67.[2][3] The tail is strongly prehensile and can support the body while suspended from a branch or a twig.[5]

Members of this genus come in an amazing variety of colors and patterns, often within a single species. A. ceratophora and A. squamigera are particularly variable.[6]

Geographic range[edit]

They are found in tropical subsaharan Africa, excluding southern Africa.[1]

Some species have only isolated populations, surviving in small sections of ancient rainforest. It is obvious that they once had a much wider distribution, but are now declining.[2]


They inhabit rainforest regions, mostly in remote areas far from human activity.[2]

Conservation status[edit]

Some species are threatened by habitat destruction.[2]


All species are strictly arboreal, although they can sometimes be found on or near the ground.[6]


Atheris species have been known to prey upon a variety of small amphibians, lizards, rodents, birds, and even other snakes. Some species or populations may specialize in eating frogs, but most have been described as opportunistic feeders.[3][6] Prey is typically ambushed from a hanging position, held until it has succumbed to the venom and then swallowed.[6]


All Atheris species are ovoviviparous.[5] Mating takes place in September–November and the females give birth to live young in March and April.[7]


A. squamigera is reported to do very well in captivity, needing only something to climb on and having no particular temperature requirements. Captive specimens take mice and small birds.[3] However, there have been reports of cannibalism.[6] Food may be refused during the African winter months of July and August.


Not much is known about their venom except that it is strongly hemotoxic, causing pain, swelling, and blood clotting problems.[2] Until recently, their venom has often been regarded as less toxic than that of many other species, perhaps because bites are uncommon,[3] but this turned out not to be the case. There are now a number of reports of bites that have led to severe hemorrhaging.[8][9][10] One case was fatal.[3] Atheris-specific antivenin does not exist[2] and antivenins meant for bites from other species seem to have little effect, although Echis antivenin has been reported to have been of some help in a case of A. squamigera envenomation.[3]


Species[1]Taxon author[1]Subsp.*[4]Common nameGeographic range[1]
A. anisolepisMocquard, 18870West central Africa: Gabon, Congo, west DR Congo, north Angola.
A. ceratophoraF. Werner, 18950Usambara bush viperThe Usambara and Uzungwe Mountains in Tanzania.
A. chlorechisT(Pel, 1851)0West African bush viperWest Africa including Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, isolated locations in Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
A. desaixiAshe, 19680Mount Kenya bush viperTwo isolated populations in Kenya: in the forests at Chuka, south-eastern Mount Kenya, and Igembe in the northern Nyambeni range.
A. hispidaLaurent, 19550rough-scaled bush viperCentral Africa: DR Congo, south-west Uganda, west Kenya.
A. katangensisde Witte, 19530Upemba bush viperRestricted to Upemba National Park, Shaba Province in eastern DR Congo.
A. mabuensisBranch & Bayliss, 2009 [11]0Mount Mabu forest viperMount Mabu and Mount Namuli, northern Mozambique
A. matildaeMenegon, Davenport & Howell, 20110Matilda’s horned vipersouth west Tanzania
A. nitscheiTornier, 19021Great Lakes bush viperCentral Africa from east DR Congo, Uganda and west Tanzania southward to north Malawi and north Zambia.
A. squamigera(Hallowell, 1856)0variable bush viperWest and central Africa: Ivory Coast and Ghana, eastward through southern Nigeria to Cameroon, southern Central African Republic, Gabon, Congo, DR Congo, northern Angola, Uganda, Tanzania (Rumanika Game Reserve), western Kenya and Bioko Island.

*) Not including the nominate subspecies.
T) Type species.


Other species may be encountered in literature, such as:[12][13]

  • A. acuminata Broadley, 1998 — western Uganda
  • A. broadleyi Lawson, 1999Cameroon (East Province)
  • A. hirsuta Ernst & Rödel, 2002 — Ivory Coast
  • A. rungweensis Bogert, 1940 — south-west Tanzania, north-east Zambia, north Malawi
  • A. subocularis Fischer, 1888 — Cameroon (Southwest Province), extreme east Nigeria

Until relatively recently, the following species, all of which are terrestrial, were also included in the genus Atheris:[3]

Together with Atheris, these four genera are sometimes referred to as the tribe Atherini.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T. 1999. Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, Volume 1. Washington: District of Columbia: Herpetologists' League. 511 pp. ISBN 1-893777-00-6 (series). ISBN 1-893777-01-4 (volume).
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Spawls S, Branch B. 1995. The Dangerous Snakes of Africa. Ralph Curtis Books. Dubai: Oriental Press. 192 pp. ISBN 0-88359-029-8.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mallow D, Ludwig D, Nilson G. 2003. True Vipers: Natural History and Toxinology of Old World Vipers. Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company. 359 pp. ISBN 0-89464-877-2.
  4. ^ a b "Atheris". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 13 July 2006. 
  5. ^ a b Mehrtens JM. 1987. Living Snakes of the World in Color. New York: Sterling Publishers. 480 pp. ISBN 0-8069-6460-X.
  6. ^ a b c d e Overview at The World Of Atheris. Accessed 8 September 2007.
  7. ^ Captivity at The World Of Atheris. Accessed 8 September 2007.
  8. ^ Mebs D, Holada K, Kornalík F et al. (October 1998). "Severe coagulopathy after a bite of a green bush viper (Atheris squamiger): case report and biochemical analysis of the venom". Toxicon 36 (10): 1333–40. doi:10.1016/S0041-0101(98)00008-7. PMID 9723832. 
  9. ^ Top LJ, Tulleken JE, Ligtenberg JJM, Meertens JHJM, van der Werf TS, Zijlstra JG (2006). "Serious envenomation after a snakebite by a Western bush viper (Atheris chlorechis) in the Netherlands: a case report" (PDF). Neth. J. Med. 64 (5): 153–6. PMID 16702615. 
  10. ^ Bitten by a Sedge Viper! at VenomousReptiles.org. Accessed 2 August 2007.
  11. ^ Branch WR, Bayliss J (2009). "A new species of Atheris (Serpentes: Viperidae) from northern Mozambique". Zootaxa 2113: 41–54. 
  12. ^ Atheris at the Reptarium.cz Reptile Database. Accessed 2 August 2007.
  13. ^ a b Home at The World Of Atheris. Accessed 8 September 2007.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bonaparte CL (1849). "On the Lorine genus of Parrots, Eclectus, with the description of a new species, Eclectus cornelia". Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 17: 142–146 [145, footnote]. 
  • Boulenger GA. (1896). Catalogue of the Snakes in the British Museum (Natural History). Volume III., Containing the ...Viperidæ. London: Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History). (Taylor and Francis, printers.) xiv + 727 pp. + Plates I.- XXV. (Genus Atheris, p. 508.)
  • Broadley DG (1996). "A review of the tribe Atherini (Serpentes: Viperidae), with the descriptions of two new genera". African Journal of Herpetology 45 (2): 40–48. doi:10.1080/21564574.1996.9649964. 
  • Cope ED (1862). "Notes upon some REPTILES of the Old World". Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia 14: 337–344 [343–344]. 
  • Freed P (1986). "Atheris chlorechis (West African bush viper)". Herpetological Review (Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles) 17 (2): 47–48. 
  • Günther ACLG (1863). "On new species of snakes in the collection of the British Museum". Annals and Magazine of Natural History (London) 11 (3): 20–25 [25]. 
  • Lanoie L, Branch W (1991). "Atheris squamiger: fatal envenomation". Journal of the Herpetological Association of Africa (Stellenbosch) 39: 29. 
  • Love W (1988). "Bush vipers (Atheris): Experiences in breeding and maintenance". Vivarium 1 (3): 22–25. 
  • Pareti KS (1994). "Cannibalism in a captive West African bush viper (Atheris chloroechis)". Herpetological Review (Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles) 25 (1): 17. 
  • Pitman CRS (1974). A Guide to the Snakes of Uganda. London: Codicote, Wheldon & Wesley. ISBN 0-85486-020-7. 
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