Bio Facts: Viper, Gaboon
Central to South Africa in forested areas (Tanzania, Uganda and southern Sudan, west to Zambia, Zaire, Zimbabwe and south through Mozambique, northern Zululand and South Africa).
Rainforests and wet areas in parts of Central, East, and West Africa. Forest floor.
The Gaboon viper is venomous and their bite can be fatal. Its body length can approach 6 feet. It can weigh up to 25 pounds. Females tend to be larger than the males. The head is triangular. On the largest individuals, the head can be nearly six inches across its widest point. The body is boldly patterned in rectangles and triangles of buff, purple, and brown. They have the longest fangs of any snake, reaching 2 inches in a large specimen.
Over 18 years
2 to 3 years
In the wild, they feed on a wide variety of ground birds, small mammals, including the spiny brush-tailed porcupine, and even larger creatures such as the small Royal antelope. In the Zoo, they are fed rats and mice.
The Gaboon viper is primarily active at night when it hunts for food such as rodents, hares, small monkeys, ground-living birds, and toads. During the day, it can be found basking in a patch of light shining down from the trees. Gaboon vipers maintain limited home ranges.
Gaboon vipers are passive hunters, waiting concealed in the leaf litter and waiting to strike at whatever small creatures pass within range. They strike with amazing speed and accuracy. Most snakes strike and release, but the Gaboon viper holds its prey until the victim dies. Due to the snake’s placid nature, bites to humans are rare; most occur when the snake is stepped on before it has an opportunity to get away. If harassed, it will raise the upper part of its body and hiss in threat before actually striking. In addition to its unwillingness to bite, the viper can control how much venom is injected, so the result of a strike can range from no effect to rapid death. A hungry snake will strike at almost any lateral movement, so some bites might well be a result of mistaken identity.
Very little is known about the mating and courtship habits of the Gaboon viper. Adult males have been reported to engage in “combat dances” when attempting to attract the attention of females. Competing males will hold their heads high off the ground, adopting the warning “strike” posture. Then, with elegant swaying movements, one will attempt to assert dominance by forcing the other’s head down. The females can have 50 - 60 babies at a time, although the average litter seldom exceeds 24. Young are born live and are between 9.5-11.5 inches long. Coloration and patterning is the same as the parents’ coloration.
The Gaboon viper is a thick-bodied, broad-headed snake. The West African subspecies also has two horn-like projections on its snout. Its broad head mimics a fallen leaf, right down to the central vein, and this camouflage makes it difficult to see. They stay well hidden on the forest floor, and like to surprise their prey when they attack. The fangs are long and hollow.
It is the heaviest venomous snake in Africa and grows to a length of 6.5 feet and can weigh up to 25 pounds, making it the largest of Africa’s true vipers.
The Gaboon viper has the largest fangs (up to 2 inches) of any snake.
Because of their deadly venom and excellent camouflage, the Gaboon viper has few enemies. Only a few creatures such as the secretary bird and a few of the snake-eating snakes will attack the Gaboon viper. Large monitor lizards may also pose a threat.
Venomous snakes were feared, with vipers often being the snake that was promoted as the most venomous of all upon those who were full of greed.
One morality tale tells of how if you suffer from avarice you should beware of the viper. One man dreamt of finding a beautiful necklace made of gold close to a freshwater spring. For three nights the dream came and was very vivid. Feeling that he knew where the spring was, he climbed to it and felt underneath a stone. Suddenly a viper that had not appeared in his dream bit him. His greed had driven him too far. Consequently, his desires caused his death.
The Gaboon viper is more severely threatened by agricultural development than by natural predators.
Jacksonville Zoo History:
Since June of 1966 (possibly since 1965), the Gaboon viper has been exhibited on and off here. Currently, we have two subspecies, the East African Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica gabonica) and the West African Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica rhinoceros).