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The African Puff Adder(Bitis arietans)

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

THE PUFF ADDER

FEEDING

TEMPERATURE

VENOM & BITES

HANDLING

A CASE HISTORY OF A FATAL BITE

BOTTOM

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06/01/03.....Thanks for all the nice comments about my site everyone. I'm glad it was interesting & informative for those of you who keep venomous snakes. I will be updating soon as I had planned to do long ago. Sorry it is taking so long. I've been offline for a while but as you can see i'm back now. Again, thanks for visiting & tell your friends about my site. ....... .....HEY KATIE!!!

06/29/03.....I have added a link at the top of the page that will take you to see some of my personal pictures. Right now I only have one pic up but i'll be adding lots more soon of me & some of my friends & family, Hell, i'll even add one of you if you'd like to send one for me to post.....

.....07/10/03.....I finally did some updating as you can see by the link above to my personal picture page. I plan to add lots more there. I also am working on a couple of new snake pages, the Cottonmouth & the Canebrake Rattlesnake. I'm planning to start on a Copperhead page as well. I've had lots of Copperheads & they all have been excellent captives. I'm constantly being asked what would be the best snake for someone just starting out with hot species. My answer has always been the Copperhead. A Copperhead page should be a big help for newbies. I answer lots of Email about venomous snakes, so I thought it might be a good idea to set a certain time for me to hang out in my chatroom & talk to some of my visitors. Starting this friday(07/11/03) i'll be in at 9:00pm. Feel free to come in & chat. If all goes well, i'll be in every week.

INTRODUCTION

I began this page because there seems to be very little information on the web regarding the Puff Adder. Of all the venomous snakes that I keep and have kept over the years, they are my favorite. They are very dangerous snakes and I do not wish to encourage anyone to attempt to keep them. You should have plenty of experience with non-venomous species, preferably aggressive specimens, and the proper training before obtaining a venomous snake. I plan to include a case history of a fatal envenomation of an experienced keeper by the Puff Adder in order to demonstrate the seriousness of keeping these or any other venomous snake. I have lots of training and experience with venomous snakes and I have never been bitten. Do your homework before you undertake the practice of venomous snake keeping. It is a very large responsibility that could very well cost you your life.Click here to see the effects of snakebite.

My first thought was to include information on the larger Bitis Vipers only, but I finally decided to give them special attention, but to make it a site dedicated to all venomous snakes. So this should be a fairly hefty site when I am finished. I plan to add things daily so check back often. If you have any questions or comments feel free to email me at bitis666@yahoo.com

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pic. of a puff adder
One of my Puff adders eating a large rat

THE PUFF ADDER(Bitis arietans)

Two different races of the Puff Adder are recognized: The typical Puff Adder (Bitis arietans) & the Somali Puff Adder (Bitis arietans somalica.) The Somali Puff Adder differs from the typical race in having keeled subcaudals. The Puff Adder gets its name from its habit of inflating its body and emitting a deep, low warning hiss to warn intruders to stay away.

In the wild, the Puff Adder is found in many different habitats but it has a preferance for savanah. It is widespread throughout sub-saharan Africa, however, it is absent from the Coastal Rainforrest regions of West and Central Africa as well as the Mediterranian Coastal regions of North Africa. In the extreme Northwest it occurs in Southern Morroco. It also has a limited distribution in the Arabian Peninsula. The Somali Puff Adder is restricted to Northern Kenya, Eastern Ethiopia & Samolia, including Coiama Island.

The Puff Adder is one of the three largest vipers of Africa, the other two are: the Gaboon Viper(Bitis gabonica) & the Rhinoceros Viper(Bitis nasicornis.) The Puff Adder is second largest after the Gaboon Viper which can reach lengths of nearly seven ft. and is the heaviest viper in the world. The Puff Adder can also attain a very large size, and I have had in my possession a specimen that was nearly five ft. in length, and approximately as big around as a football; a very impressive snake! It died about a month after I purchased it, probably from liver damage due to over feeding by its previous owner. It was much too large for hooks to be of any use. These snakes feed voraciously and care must be taken not to over feed them.

The Puff Adder is a very slow moving, lethargic snake that doesn't move around very much, however, it is capable of short bursts of speed when attempting to escape. Regardless of its normal sluggishness, the Puff Adder is one of the fastest striking snakes in the world. There is a picture in circulation taken in 1936 of a Puff Adder striking with only the last few cm of its body still on the ground; Quite a feat for such a heavy bodied snake.

My male Puff Adders usually become a little more active in the mating season, and begin crawling around and checking things out, and after mating, they usually settle back down once more. If they do not mate this roaming may persist for a month or so before they settle down. The males have a considerable sex drive and it has been observed in the wild engaged in ritualized combat with Black Mambas(Dendroaspis polylepis), an entirely different species of snake. The Puff Adder gives birth to live young & holds the record for the largest number of offspring for any snake (156 young.) Litters of 20-40 neonates are, however, much more common. In my personal opinion, The Puff Adder is more dangerous during the mating season than at other times, as mine have all seemed to be more irritable and willing to strike during this period.

pic. of a Puff Adder

The African Puff Adder(Bitis arietans)

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FEEDING

The Puff Adder is a very hearty feeding snake that very rarely refuses food, and as I stated earlier, care must be taken not to overfeed them to insure good health. Juveniles should be fed about once every seven days. When the snake reaches about 2-1/2 to 3ft, start feeding it bi-weekly, and when it finally reaches about 4ft, feed it every three weeks from then on. Each feeding should be a large morsel. The Puff Adder has an enormous swallowing capacity and there are records of wild caught specimens containing prey which weighed more than the snake itself. I've always given my Puff Adders larger prey than I normaly would a snake of comparable size, and I have never seen any ill effects to my snakes whatsoever. In fact, they have always been very healthy with very, very few health problems.

For several reasons, I always feed my Puff Adders pre-killed food items, and here again, I have never seen any ill effects. One reason for this is simply the fact that if for any reason, the snake refuses to eat, you then have the problem of removing the prey animal, that more often than not, will be very uncoopertive with your removal attempts, thus making its removal hazardous for the keeper. The prey animal may also injure your snake, making it necessary to handle the snake for treatment of its wounds. He too, will more than likely not be very co-operative in your endeavor to treat him and in return, will try to inflict some wounds of his own, maybe help remove one of your arms with necrosis or quite possibly, your life. I'm sure you get the picture. Dead prey is best.

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TEMPERATURE

In captivity, I try to keep the temperatures at the warm end of the cage at around 90dg. This gives them a nice warm end to bask, as well as a cooler end if they get too hot. At night, I let the temperature drop down to 70-75dg, but never lower than 70dg. During the day, they spend quite a bit of thier time basking under the lights contentedly, not a care in the world. I also keep a hide box in the cage with each individual, but they very rarely use it. But its there if they decide they'd like to.

All of my snakes are well adjusted to captivity, and although being far from the ideal snake for most people to keep, they do adapt well and are fairly easy to maintain. Even though at times they may seem almost completely tame, you can never handle them carelessly or treat them as you would a nonvenomous pet snake. Always keep that in mind.

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VENOM & BITES

The Puff Adder has a very well developed solenoglyphous venom delivery system. The venom is injected through its large hollow fangs like hypodermic needles and it sometimes, but not often, holds on to its victim. The approximate lethal dose of venom for humans is 100mg. and from 100-350mg. may be injected in a single bite. The symptoms of Puff Adder envenomation may include: intense pain, massive swelling, abdominal cramping, high fever, the victim may go in and out of shock, breathing may become increasingly difficult, there is usually extensive subcutaneous bruising and blood blisters form rapidly. Death from Puff Adder bite usually occurs two to four days after envenomation, most often from complications arising from blood volume deficit and the development of a disseminated intravascular coagulopathy. Death has occured in under thirty-minutes from intravenous injection of venom, resulting in catastrophic circulatory collapse. Death sometimes occurs from anaphylactic shock or organ failure due to the extensive swelling.

Most bites to humans occur because the Puff Adder is common near human habitation, it frequently basks on or near foot paths, and when approached it will remain motionless relying on its camouflage to avoid detection. It is primarily nocturnal so this is particularly true at night when it is most active, however, it is not uncommon to find a Puff Adder basking during the day. The Puff Adder is also very common in most of its range. It usually doesn't strike unless touched or stepped on, but if it is, it often strikes with great force and astonishing speed. The Puff Adder is the leading cause of snakebite death in Africa, and bites that aren't fatal usually result in some degree of disfigurement & disability, ranging from the loss of a fingernail or toenail, to the loss of the entire limb, according to the severity of the bite. Approximately sixty percent of all snakebite in Africa is attributed to the Puff Adder, however, it only strikes in self-defense and would much rather escape or be left alone than bite a human. If it realizes that it has been discovered it will assume a striking possition with its head down, its nose pointed toward the ground, inflates its body and emits a very deep hiss to warn intruders to stay away. If approached too closely or further molested, it will not hesitate to strike. If its warnings are heeded it will begin to slowly back away hissing, and then finally turn and move off.

Puff Adders can strike from any position and in all directions with great speed and force, even from what will appear to be a resting position, therefore, you have to be very careful to stay out of its strike range at all times. The only warning of an impending strike may only be a slight movement of its eye. If it strikes and you are within its reach, you will have absolutely no time to react to avoid its bite. The incredible speed with which it strikes must be seen to be believed.

puff adder in defensive position

A black & yellow Cape phase Puff Adder in typical strike/defensive position

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HANDLING

The small to medium sized Puff Adder can easily be lifted at mid-body with a snake hook and placed in a holding bin or container when cages need to be cleaned. For larger specimens it is best to use a trap box if possible. When I do use hooks with my larger Puff Adders, I either lift them with two hooks, or use my hooks to "guide" them wherever they need to go. Since Puff Adders are such heavy bodied snakes, it would be easy to injure them using only one hook.

I never "tail" any of my Bitis Vipers because there simply is no good reason to do so. The tailing method is for use with fast moving agile snakes such as Elapids. Puff Adders sit well on the stick, and are not fast moving, but strike much faster than any Elapid or foolhardy snake keeper. I have kept many Puff Adders, Gaboon Vipers, & Rhinoceros Vipers, and I have never seen a situation that warranted tailing one of these snakes. Click here to get a first hand account of "tailing" the Puff Adder.
When it becomes necessary to pin and "neck" a Puff Adder it should be done on a soft no slip surface, such as a foam rubber pad, and should only be performed by an expert. Puff Adders very much resent being handled in this way and will jerk and struggle violently to free themselves. Place the snake on the pad and pin it on top of the head, just behind the eyes, not on the neck, when you are certain that the snake is unable to withdraw its head, place your index finger on top of the head and place your thumb and middle finger on either side of the head, just behind the jaws. Be sure that you have a good firm grip before you remove the pinning stick. When you are quite certain that you have a good grip, remove the stick. This is the point in the procedure when most bites occur, so you must be very sure of your grip. Be prepared for the Puff Adder to jerk, attempt to bite, and work itself free from your grasp. Lift the snake, being sure to take its weight at mid-body with your free hand. When you are finished with whatever you needed to do with the snake, place its body on the floor of a suitable container and choose the right momment to "throw" its head away from you and quickly snap the lid closed. This is an extremely dangerous procedure, and if you have never necked a venomous snake the Puff Adder is not a good starting point. Any handling or manipulation of the Puff Adder is potentially life threatening. Stay focused, and concentrate completely on what you are doing.

Puff adder in strike pos.
The Puff Adder in strike position. From this pos. the Puff Adder can deliver one of the fastest strikes of any snake.

The African Puff Adder(Bitis arietans)

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A CASE HISTORY OF A FATAL BITE

The following is the case history of the fatal envenomation of Gerald de Bary, the director of the Hogle Zoological Gardens in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1964.

On a Saturday night in January 1964, Gerald de Bary was finishing up his reptile cage cleaning chores. For safety reasons the cages were only to be cleaned after all of the visitors had left the Gardens. At approximately 10:30pm de Bary opened the Puff Adder cage and for reasons he nor physicians could explain, de Bary experienced a brief moment of faintness and to keep from falling threw up his left arm to catch himself, but instead his arm was thrust into the Puff Adders cage. The snake struck instantly and sank both fangs deeply into the underside of his forearm. The pain of the bite snapped de Bary back to full consciousness. He quickly closed and locked the door of the cage and summoned two assistant keepers to his aid. One of them immediately placed an improvised tourniquet around his arm.

Earlier that evening, de Bary had shown one of his assistants where the supply of antivenin was stored in a refrigerator in the keepers room. While being helped into this room, de Bary seems to have forgotten that the antivenin was right there in the same room and he sent one of his assistants away where an additional supply was stored. In the rush the assistant forgot to bring a hypodermic syringe and had to be sent back after it. No one remembered that everything that they needed was right there with them in the same room.

Another assistant had phoned the police and requested an ambulance. In a few minutes the ambulance arrived with a police reporter named Art Kent. Kent had knowledge of the type of injection that was needed and under de Barys instruction, administered the first injection about 20 min. after the bite occurred.

About 10 min. later Dr. George D. Gross arrived and noted that de Barys forearm was swelling and was becoming discolored. De Bary was quickly rushed to the hospital and was given an additional 10cc of antivenin on the way. By the time he reached the hospital he was begining to complain of tingling sensations in both hands, abdominal cramping, and a severe burning pain in his left arm and shoulder. His left arm was packed in ice. (not a very good idea) During the night additional serum was given at 30 minute intervals and several shots were given to relieve the pain. His temperature rose to 105dg. and he went in and out of shock. His breathing had become so difficult that oxygen had to be given by mask. By 8:00am the following morning his pulse was weak and rapid at 200 beats per min. In order to improve the action of the heart he was digitalized. An hour later Dr. Gross ordered a tracheotomy be performed due to a swelling over the throat that was worsening. By then there was massive edema of de Barys left arm and the left side of his chest.Voiding urine had become almost impossible and attempts were made to use an artificial kidney but every time it was begun de Bary went into shock.

At 5:30am Monday morning nearly 30hrs. after being bitten by the Puff Adder, de Bary seemed to be holding his own fairly well. Dr. Gross noted with satisfaction that his vital signs were stable, and there was a general improvement in his clinical condition although parts of his body, including his face, were severely swollen due to a tremendous amount of serous fluids in the tissue spaces. De Bary was well enough to talk, and even joked with his wife at one point. An hour later, there was a sudden drop in his blood pressure and his heart stopped beating. All attempts to revive him were ineffectual, and at 6:30am Monday morning, Gerald de Bary was pronounced dead. The pathological examination which followed showed de Bary to have been a man in good physical condition at the time of the bite with no abnormalities that may have contributed to his death. It must be pointed out that the snake which killed de Bary only struck in self defence. The doctors could find nothing wrong with de Bary that may have caused his sudden faintness.

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pic. of a Gaboon Viper

The West African Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica rhinoceros)

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