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Contains articles and advice on a wide variety of venomous snake species. Answers and addresses questions on species husbandry, captive status, breeding, news and conservation issues concerning venomous snakes.

The World’s Most Venomous Snakes: Working with Mambas and King Cobras

Black mamba

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Tad Arensmeier

The dangers posed by a specific snake species depends upon a great many factors (please see below).  It is clear, however, that venomous snakes are a serious health concern…according to a recent study, each year’s 4.5 million venomous snakebites result in 100,000 deaths and 250,000 permanent disabilities (figures are approximate, please see the article linked below for details).  Certain large constrictors have also caused fatalities. In the course of field research in Venezuela, I observed a Green Anaconda attack a co-worker in what clearly was a feeding attempt.  Please see “Further Reading”, below, to read about both this incident and a recent study of human predation by Reticulated Pythons.   Today I’ll focus on the 2 most dangerous species that I’ve found most challenging as captives – the world’s largest and Africa’s longest venomous snakes, the King Cobra (Ophiophagus  hannah) and the Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis).

 

A Note on “The Most Dangerous”

Widespread species that adapt well to human presence, such as Puff Adders, bite far more people than do, for example, sea snakes and others that might have more potent venom, but which rarely encounter humans.  Wild Black Mambas readily colonize farms and villages, benefitting from the increased availability of shelter and food (rodents, nesting birds).  King Cobras, on the other hand, tend to live in more undisturbed habitats.  Venom evolution, a snake’s size, the availability of antivenin, individual sensitivities and a host of other considerations also complicate the issue.

 

Here I’m mainly considering captive care (in zoos…venomous snakes should never be kept in private collections!).

 

King Cobra skull

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Mokele

Large, Alert, Fast and Smart!

Cobras and mambas are classified in the family Elapidae, which contains 354 members.  Among them we find several species that are considered to be high-strung and aggressive when confronted.  While King Cobras and Black Mambas often retreat if able, encounters in homes, barns or, in my case, zoo exhibits, may lead to attacks.  And the large size attained by each increases both the potential strike range and the amount of venom that may be delivered by a bite.

 

Another difficulty presented to zookeepers is the fact that cobras and mambas are hard to move via a snake hook.  Incredibly-fast and quick to figure out what’s going on, they more often than not land on the floor when being “hooked”.

 

For safety’s sake, I try to rely upon hunger and other “hands-off” tricks when relocating these formidable creatures (please see below), but that is not always possible.  While rummaging through a storage area in the Bronx Zoo’s reptile house, I once found a homemade shield used decades ago by keepers entering the King Cobra exhibit.  One keeper in particular was said to become very concerned if the cobras seemed hungry, or their cage needed servicing; armed with his shield, he would enter quite often (the King Cobras under my care moved into their shift cage when I needed to enter…or else they remained hungry!).

 

“Curious Cobras”

Those who work with King Cobras often describe them as “curious”.  I can’t disagree, although when servicing their exhibits I found this trait to be un-nerving, to say the least!   Actually, all cobra species I’ve cared for exhibited an unusual degree of alertness, and responded immediately to what was going on around them.  For example, both Egyptian and King Cobras, perhaps sensing my footsteps in the service area behind their exhibits, would rear up and face the small sliding window I looked through before opening their exhibit doors.  As I slid back the window’s cover, a cobra was nearly always peering back at me…in a lifetime of working with snakes, I’ve not seen this done by any other species.

 

King cobra

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Hari Prasad

My most harrowing King Cobra incident involved an escaped individual at an airport.  Fortunately, I went the “brains over brawn” route and emerged unscathed – much to the disappointment of the several young onlookers who expected a battle!  Please see this article for the details.

 

How Do You Get a Black Mamba into a Pillow Case?

This disturbing question confronted me when I was called upon to ship the Staten Island Zoo’s resident specimen to another institution.  If anything, mambas are faster and harder to deal with than cobras…individuals cornered in homes have quickly caused multiple fatalities.  An adult can deliver 120 mg of venom in a single bite, and the lethal dose is only 10-15 mg, so this is not a creature to be taken lightly.  Again, I shamelessly used under-handed tricks to accomplish my task…please see this article for the details.

 

King Cobra and Black Mamba Natural History

While much is made of the dangers posed by these snakes, less attention is paid to the details of their lives in the wild.  Mamba and cobra diets, breeding behaviors, threat displays and colonization of human-dominated landscapes are especially fascinating, and quite unique.  I’ve written about their natural behaviors in the articles linked below.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio.  I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.   Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly.  Thanks, until next time, Frank.

 

Further Reading

Anaconda Attacks: Notes from the Field

Human Predation by Wild Reticulated Pythons

Venomous Snakebites Worldwide

King Cobra Natural History

Black Mamba Natural History

Most Dangerous Snake in USA? Rattlesnake Study Provides Clue

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Chris Brown

I’ve spent decades working with venomous snakes, setting-up snakebite protocols in zoos, and responding to snakebite emergencies.  Today, I’m sometimes criticized for my strong stand against the keeping venomous snakes in private collections.  But I have learned that, even under the best of circumstances, treatment can be hampered by gaps in our knowledge.  For example, we know that the chemical characteristics of venom vary over the ranges of certain species.  This can affect treatment, and, as we’ll see below, may mean the difference between life and death for a victim.  In fact, the venom of some Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes is so unique that it is unaffected by the antivenin currently in use! Are they the most dangerous snake in the USA?

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Venomous Reptiles – Newly Discovered Viper is an Endangered Species

B. nigroviridis

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by TimVickers

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Guifarro’s Palm Pit Viper (Bothriechis guifarroi), recently described as a new venomous reptile species in the journal Zookeys, may already be in danger of extinction.  In an attempt to draw attention to its plight, the newfound snake has been named after Mario Guifarro, a conservationist murdered for his work within its habitat.  Three other arboreal pit vipers have been uncovered in recent years (please see below)…each also faces an uncertain future.

I’ve had the good fortune of working with several Bothriechis species at the Bronx and Staten Island Zoos.  Although somewhat similar in external appearance, each inhabits a unique habitat, or niche within a habitat, and they can teach us a great deal about how snakes evolve and partition resources.  Guifarro’s Palm Pit Viper is the 10th species to be included in the genus (the last to be described was B. thalassinus, in the year 2000), but I’m sure more await discovery. Read More »

Venomous Pythons? – Snakebite Victims Benefit from New Research

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  In recent years, researchers have found toxins in a wide array of snakes and lizards formerly believed to be harmless…even the Bearded Dragon is not above suspicion (please see below), but venomous pythons?  While working at the Bronx Zoo, I was several times called upon to assist in confiscating snakes that had appeared in the pet trade before we learned of their potentially lethal venom (i.e. Asian Watersnakes, genus Rhabdophis). All evidence of toxicity must be taken seriously…bear in mind that both the Boomslang and Savanna Twig Snake were thought to be harmless until each killed a prominent herpetologist!  The recent discovery of toxins in the mucus of certain pythons poses a unique and unexpected concern for snakebite victims.

Boomslang

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by CorneliusA

Python Venom

Studies at the University of Queensland have revealed the presence of toxins in the mucus of several python species.  Described as “relic venom”, they occur in only trace amounts. In common with many other snakes, pythons may have relied upon venom at some point in their evolutionary history.  Although they no longer utilize venom to overcome prey or defend themselves, pythons continue to produce some toxic compounds.  While some snakes bear toxins that target specific animals (i.e. Tentacled Snakes, Erpeton tentaculatum, which prey upon fish), python toxins seem to have no use, and pose no danger to people.

The toxin molecules thus far identified in pythons differ from those found in any known venomous snake.  Being so chemically unique, they are of great interest to those seeking to develop new chemical compounds and medicines. Read More »

Africa’s Deadliest Snake? Black Mamba Habits, Venom and Behavior

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. As any experienced reptile enthusiast knows, accounts concerning the size and aggressive nature of various snakes are usually highly exaggerated. The Black Mamba, however, comes close to living up to the legends that surround it, and has long been among the most feared of all African snakes. In the course of a lifetime spent working with venomous snakes in the wild and captivity, I’ve come to regard it as deserving of a special degree of respect. Today we’ll take a look at its natural history and behavior.

Description

The Black Mamba is the longest of Africa’s many venomous snakes. It is slender in build and averages 8-9 feet in length, but 14 footers have been recorded. Also very agile and fast-moving, several individuals have been clocked at 12.5 miles per hour. Black Mambas often travel about with the head held high, in a manner similar to that of North America’s Black Racer.

Black mamba feeding

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Tad Arensmeier

The “black” part of its common name is derived from the color of mouth’s interior, which is displayed when the animal is threatened (North America’s Cottonmouth behaves in a similar fashion). The body color may be various shades of brown, olive or gray, but is never black.

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