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What is a Stiletto Snake?

By Kate Lonas
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The stiletto snake sounds dangerous, and it can be. People who travel to Africa are unlikely to see one, however, and if they do it probably won’t bite them. The name comes from the odd way in which it administers its venom rather than from its ferocity or its power to kill.

Most of the time, the stiletto snake is underground. Another common name for it is the burrowing asp, for the snake digs tunnels and is especially fond of beginning these under rocks. It travels through the ground to hunt, and therefore sightings are rare. The prey of the snake is creatures that also spend time underground, such as small mammals in their nests or other burrowing reptiles.

In the small spaces that animals make underground, there is not much room for vertical movement. It may be that this limitation of space is what led to the development of this snake’s unusual attack method. Most venomous snakes rear back a bit and open their mouths wide to bite down on their prey, a broad gesture that would get this animal nowhere in a narrow tunnel. The circumstances require a quick, tight action, like the knife strike of an assassin standing behind his victim. That is what the stiletto snake delivers by way of its unusual retractable fangs, which, in their resemblance to the sharp and slender blades called stilettos, give the snake one of its names.

Stiletto snakes have fewer teeth than other snakes because the mechanism of their retracting fangs occupies most of the space of their jaws. At rest, the fang lies horizontally within the snake’s mouth. When the snake attacks, its head lies directly over its prey. Muscles rotate just one of the fangs outward so that it flips like a switchblade and passes through the still-closed mouth. The snake then stabs the prey by moving its head sideways and backward. It uses the fang as a pinion to hold the prey in place while the venom takes effect.

With its ability to stab backward, the snake presents a challenge to herpetologists, those who study snakes, because to grasp it behind its head offers no protection from its fangs or fang. For most people, however, the animal poses little danger. It doesn’t willingly depart from its tunnels underground, except when seeking a mate and sometimes on nights after a rain.

When stiletto snakes do encounter people, the snakes don’t necessarily strike, and tend in fact not to, even when very close by. If one does bite a person, the effects are extremely painful and unpleasant, but most often are not fatal. Severe swelling of the affected area, disorientation, and nausea are some of the most common symptoms of the venom.

Southern Africa is home to this snake, though some are also found in the Middle East. It can be most easily recognized, if it comes above ground, by its characteristic outline, which is almost perfectly cylindrical with a narrow tapering head. This shape reflects its habit of digging. Size and coloration depends on the species, of which there are 15 in the genus Atractaspis, part of the family Atractaspididae.

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Discussion Comments
By anon989384 — On Mar 03, 2015

My friend was bitten accidentally by a Stiletto on his feet in Durban, South Africa. He spent two weeks in intensive care unit was discharged from the hospital and now he is back in the hospital. He said the pain is unbearable. I don't know if the doctors know what to do now. Not sure if he might lose his foot.

By anon150830 — On Feb 09, 2011

Durban, South Africa -- Two weeks ago friend of ours came across a stiletto snake in his driveway and thinking it was a small mole snake (but not sure) picked it up by grasping it behind the head - well you know the story - he was bitten on the thumb. He dropped the snake and his friend, thinking he was being a sissy picked it up and was also bitten.

They both spent five days in hospital with severely swollen hands and arms. I suggest people who know little about snakes leave them well alone.

By anon135522 — On Dec 19, 2010

I am from Ramsgate in South Africa and a guy has been bitten by a stiletto he said the pain was unbearable and he also made the mistake of incorrect identification and picked it up behind the head thus the bite.

By anon128969 — On Nov 21, 2010

I just got bitten by a Southern Stiletto snake about four hours ago. I was lucky, i suppose, as until now i only have swelling in my finger an hand, but not much pain so far. What i can tell anyone though is be alert. As a tour guide i thought i knew the different snakes very well, but still made the mistake of misidentifying it.

By anon118387 — On Oct 14, 2010

the stiletto snake can and will mess you up. Even months after being bitten you can have reoccurring symptoms to where it feels like you just got bit all over again.

i want a stiletto but there's no point in getting it. I've seen the same show where the guy was bitten and it messed him up bad. poor dude shouldn't have gotten so comfortable with the snake. Never let your guard down.

By anon117553 — On Oct 11, 2010

Having being bitten by a stiletto snake two years ago in South Africa, I can attest to the excruciating pain. Right up my left shoulder into the shoulder blade area. One thing that isn't mentioned here is the fact that not only did my pulse rate increase tremendously but I was also admitted to an intensive care unit for five days with blood pressure levels of 218/205. Scary.

By anon107790 — On Aug 31, 2010

yeah, i saw that episode also and I'd never want to go through that. Ate his thumb, bone and all. no wonder he was in that much pain. Here's a general rule people, don't mess with snakes unless you know what you're doing.

By Myke Clarkson — On May 17, 2010

Two species already have caused deaths: atractaspis microlepidota and atractaspis fallax. There is a monovalent antivenom for atractaspis microlepidota. Most bites are poorly reported and it is suspected many bites are falsely attributed to more feared species such as cobras. More research needs to be done on speciation and venom variance. For example "I Was Bitten" by a southern stiletto snake from Tanzania that cost me a thumb. However in South Africa I ran into many Southern stiletto bit victims who suffered little effect. So either they have locality variable venom, or species need to be broken up further. Either which way a prime example that more research is needed.

By anon42357 — On Aug 20, 2009

"As far as the stiletto snake not being fatal to humans that is a statement made in theory."

This is not theory - there have been several well documented cases of Stiletto snake bites. One of them even became a Discovery Channel episode of "I was bitten".

By anon41873 — On Aug 17, 2009

yeah. i saw that episode about a stiletto bite. sure seems like this article is not warning people enough of the dangers of these snakes. watch that episode and you will *not* want to mess with this snake. the guy described the pain as excrutiating, worst thing he ever had to encounter by far. they ended up giving him morphine in the end i believe since there is no anti-venom. he broke several of his teeth gritting them and gnawing on a spatula from the pain.

By anon39591 — On Aug 03, 2009

Some bite! Even bone getting eaten by enzymes. Watch I've been bitten and don't touch! Ratel

By anon37871 — On Jul 22, 2009

Just watch an episode of I've Been Bitten to see the graphic effects of the above mentioned comment.

By anon28718 — On Mar 21, 2009

As far as the stiletto snake not being fatal to humans that is a statement made in theory. The stiletto snake has a type of venom that is called a Serifium neuro toxin, also I believe known as an Indefemiul Toxin.

Now for this snake in specific there is *no* known anti-venom yet created by experts. Its venom can speed up the heart so fast as well as to pretty much liquefy the infected area of the bite pretty much digesting the affected area from the inside out. This is called Liquifraction Necrosis. So with no anti-venom for this type of snake depending on the bitten site of the body it is completely capable of being fatal to a humans.

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