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The burrowing asps (Atractaspis) are a genus of 15 species of venomous snake within the Atractaspididae family. Their range spans from Southern Africa up to the Sahara and into the Middle East (Underwood and Kochva 1993). They have earned themselves many other English common names, including mole viper, stiletto snake, and side-stabbing (or back-stabbing) snake. The Sudanese titles for these African and Arabic snakes are even more dramatic, with names such as ‘Father of blackness’, ‘Shroud bearer’, and ‘Bite dead’ (Greene 1997). Snakes of this genus are rarely seen due to their fossorial (burrowing) lifestyle, though they can sometimes be found crawling at the surface at night, especially after rains (Greene 1997). Their bodies are specialized for tunneling in the earth, giving them an overall worm-like shape with a cylindrical body, stubby tail, indistinct neck, and protruding upper jaw to help push through dirt and sand. All species within the genus look very similar with smooth scales and brown or black coloration, occasionally with a pale underbelly (Deufel and Cundall 2003).
Despite a somewhat drab and unassuming exterior, snakes in genus Atractaspis have rotating fangs unique in the snake world. Each fang moves autonomously and rotates out sideways to allow the snake to stab backwards into its prey, a huge divergence from the frontal strike characteristic of most venomous snakes. This method of feeding probably evolved as an adaptation to hunting in confined spaces, a challenge common to fossorial snakes (Deufel and Cundall 2003). Species of Atractaspis have hemorrhagins, specialized cardiotoxins and neurotoxins in their venom, which is used primarily to immobilize prey (Greene 1997, Kochva 2002). Their diet includes small rodents, frogs, other snakes, and often burrowing reptiles such as legless lizards, and/or amphisbaenians (worm lizards) (Shine et al. 2006, Deufel and Cundall 2003). When threatened, they hide their head in the coils of their body and raise their tail to mimic the head (Kochva 2002). Burrowing asps do not usually threaten people, though there have been a few cases of humans being bitten. Bite symptoms can include fever, nausea, general weakness, sweating, pallor, fluctuations in the level of consciousness, a rise in blood pressure, edema, and cardiovascular effects from the sarafotoxins that can even lead to cardiac arrest (Greene 1997, Stafford 2000, Kochva 2002). Venom toxicity varies greatly between the species of Atractaspis, and even varies between members of the same species in different geographical locations (Kochva 2002). An antivenom has been developed to counteract the effects of an Atractaspis bite (Abd-Elsalam 2011, Ismail et al. 2007).