The Fascinating Science Behind The Gaboon Viper's Camouflage And Lethal Precision

Last year, a man from North Carolina survived an assault by a gaboon viper that he had as a pet. According to the medical staff who attended to him, they had never witnessed anyone else survive a bite from such a highly poisonous snake.

It's worth noting that the gaboon viper ranks among the most venomous snakes globally. To aid in his recovery, the victim required 44 doses of antivenom, the highest number of doses ever administered by the overseeing experts.

Sadly, he did lose two fingers during the ordeal, but fortunately, he did not experience any other adverse consequences.

Gaboon Viper: One of the Most Venomous Snakes in the World

While the bites of gaboon vipers have the potential to cause death, these snakes generally exhibit a serene temperament and rarely bite humans. Fortunately, this is a favorable attribute, considering they possess the longest fangs among all venomous snakes, measuring 2 inches (5 centimeters).

Additionally, they hold the distinction of being the largest vipers native to Africa. Their impressive size can exceed 6 feet (1.8 meters) in length and weigh over 45 pounds (20 kilograms). The largest individuals may possess heads nearly 6 inches (15 centimeters) wide.

They inhabit rainforests and moist regions throughout Africa, gliding across the forest floor in search of prey. Their diet mainly consists of small to medium-sized mammals and birds. However, they aren't proactive hunters. Instead, they patiently wait in concealment, utilizing their distinctive brown, pink, and purple-patterned stripes and diamonds to blend seamlessly with their environment.

Their exceptional patterns can mimic fallen leaves, enabling them to conceal themselves amidst scattered foliage on the ground. When prey ventures close enough, the viper swiftly strikes and grasps it until it succumbs.

The uncommon instances when they bite people typically occur when the snakes are accidentally stepped on before they can flee. If they sense danger, they will raise their heads and emit a threatening hiss before attempting to strike. They hunt alone and primarily at night, being most active around sunset.

Gaboon vipers can regulate the amount of venom released during a bite, resulting in some bites causing no harm while others can prove fatal. When experiencing extreme hunger, they may attack almost anything that moves, potentially leading to accidental bites on humans.

Unlike most snakes, these vipers give birth instead of laying eggs, with litters typically containing between 50 to 60 offspring. These vipers also have a relatively long lifespan, up to approximately 20 years.

The Danger Of Exotic Pet Snakes

Shortly after the incident involving the North Carolina man, a similar occurrence occurred in Virginia, where another individual was bitten by their pet gaboon viper. In response, the local police department had to request an "expedited delivery" of antivenom from the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in addition to the antivenom from the Smithsonian National Zoo.

"The concern is with these snakes that are not endemic to our area — are not native to our area — is if these patients require treatment with antivenom, is trying to locate the antivenom and then trying to get it to the health care facility," said Natasha Tobarran, D.O., with Virginia Poison Center.

Zoos and aquariums have these exotic antivenoms on hand as a safety measure for their staff who handle these non-native species.

"The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center provided 35 doses of antivenom for emergency transport by state police to the VCU Medical Center," Mackenzie Di Nardo with the aquarium said.

Fortunately, it's uncommon to encounter a snakebite while out in nature.

"The majority of the snakes that you find, especially in your backyard, or in your crawlspace or wherever, even sometimes make their way into people's garages, are completely harmless. The other big thing is that snakes, in general by nature, are not aggressive animals," Kortney Jaworski, Herpetology Curator at the Virginia Living Museum explained.

Moreover, in the event of a snakebite, local hospitals are prepared with the appropriate antivenom for the snake species found in the region.

"None of the old wives' tales apply. So don't try to suck the venom out. Don't cut it open. Don't, don't put a tourniquet on it. Especially don't put a tourniquet on it because basically what you're doing is isolating that toxin," said Jaworski.

She added that Exotic pets necessitate a specific permit, but they also carry the potential risks of obtaining inaccessible or difficult-to-obtain treatment during emergencies.