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What is a Viper?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A viper is a venomous snake from the family Viperidae; such snakes are also known as viperids. Vipers are among the most famous of venomous snakes, probably because their population is quite widespread and because the snakes can deal a hefty bite when provoked. Like most venomous snakes, vipers would actually prefer to avoid human interactions, if possible, so if people remain calm when encountering vipers, they are much less likely to be injured.

Several features distinguish members of the viper family. The snakes tend to have very heavy bodies, with distinctively triangular heads. Many vipers are also quite brightly colored, which can be a useful alert for people who wish to avoid them, and they are very fast-moving snakes, with the ability to open their mouths quite wide. The speed of the viper is probably the most dangerous thing about it, as people can be struck by vipers before they even realize they've encountered a snake.

The most famous feature of the viper is its hollow fangs, which fold back against the roof of the mouth when not in use. Vipers are also capable of controlling the amount of venom they inject into prey, making a calculated decision which is based on the size of the prey. Since most vipers strike to disable, rather than to kill, their ability to control the amount of venom they exude can be quite useful, as it allows them to conserve their venom for future use.

Vipers can be found in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and there are several viper subfamilies, including the Crotalinae, or pit vipers. As a general rule, people who visit areas with a large viper population will be warned about the snakes, and many such regions also have extensive stocks of medical supplies to treat viper bites. If you are traveling in an area where vipers are known to be an issue, you should not stray off trails and roads, and you should be very careful in warm weather, when the snakes may be sunning themselves; vipers also like to lie on paths and roadways at night to absorb radiated heat.

When traveling in snake territory, heavy pants and boots should be worn, so that if a snake strikes, it has less chance of reaching your skin. It's also an excellent idea to make noise as you travel to alert snakes to the fact that you are coming, and watch where you put your hands and feet. If you do see a snake, back away slowly, and in the event that someone is bitten, the victim should be kept as still as possible until a medical crew arrives.

Frequently Asked Questions

What distinguishes vipers from other snakes?

Vipers are distinguished by their long, hinged fangs that allow for deep venom injection. Unlike many other snakes, vipers have a distinctive triangular head and keeled scales. Their venom is highly specialized, containing enzymes that immobilize prey and begin digestion. Vipers are also known for their ambush hunting techniques, lying in wait for unsuspecting prey.

Where can vipers be found geographically?

Vipers are found across the world, with the exception of Australia, Madagascar, and Antarctica. They inhabit a wide range of environments, from deserts and forests to mountains. The pit vipers, a subfamily of vipers, are particularly widespread in the Americas, while true vipers are primarily found in Asia and Africa.

How do vipers use their venom to capture prey?

Vipers use their venom primarily for prey capture and defense. When they strike, their long fangs penetrate the prey, delivering venom that immobilizes it through neurotoxins or hemotoxins. This not only subdues the prey but also starts the digestive process, as some components of the venom break down bodily tissues.

Are all vipers dangerous to humans?

While vipers possess potent venom, not all species are considered dangerous to humans. The risk depends on the venom's toxicity, the amount injected, and the size of the snake. Some species, like the saw-scaled viper, are responsible for more human fatalities due to their proximity to populated areas and aggressive nature.

How can you identify a viper in the wild?

To identify a viper in the wild, look for distinctive features such as a broad, triangular head, narrow neck, and stout body. Many vipers have a characteristic pattern or coloration that provides camouflage. Additionally, pit vipers have a heat-sensing pit between the eye and nostril on each side of their head.

What is the conservation status of vipers?

The conservation status of vipers varies widely among species. Some are considered threatened or endangered due to habitat loss, poaching, and human conflict. Organizations like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) monitor viper populations and work towards their conservation through various programs and protective measures.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Alchemy — On Oct 17, 2010

@ Istria- Good advice. I just want to add one more important piece of advice. Call ahead to the hospital if you can to alert them to the fact that there has been a venomous snakebite. Identify the snake, and let the doctor know so they can order the correct antivenin. If you are unsure of the species of snake, kill it, and bring it in ONLY if it does not endanger anyone else in the group.

When you kill a snake be aware that it can still poison you, even if the head is separated from the body. If it is too dangerous to kill the snake for identification, try to take a picture of it on your phone (probably the best idea), or examine it from a distance and note some of the snakes features. Note things like relative length, patterns and markings, relative girth, and head shape. Only 70% of venomous snakes bites actually result in injected poison, but identification can be the difference between life and death.

By istria — On Oct 17, 2010

@ Comparables- Many of the old theories about treating venomous snakebites actually do more harm than good. Cutting around the wound can be stressful to the victim, can cause more damage, and increases the risk of infection. Applying suction can be counterproductive when the bite is from certain snake species, and tourniquets can cut off arterial circulation and cause complications that result in amputation.

The best thing to do when bitten by a snake is to remain calm and still. Do not get excited and raise your adrenaline, or the symptoms will become more severe since the venom will circulate quicker and have more time to cause damage. Also, try to keep the bite level with your heart. Splint an arm; lay down if you are bitten on the leg, etc. If a viper bites you, you can use a venom suction tool in the first three or four minutes. Mainly, get the victim to help, and keep the person as calm as possible. This means keeping yourself calm if you are the only help until professionals arrive.

By Comparables — On Oct 17, 2010

So what are you supposed to do when a venomous snake bites you or someone in your group? It seems like all the old stories about sucking out the venom and applying a tourniquet to the area are all bad ideas. What is the best course of action if a venomous snake bites a friend or me?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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