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Atractaspididae (The Mole Viper) Information and Venom

Appearance & Description

The Atractaspididae are a family of snakes found in Africa and the Middle East, commonly called mole vipers, stiletto snakes, or burrowing asps. Currently, 12 genera are recognized.

This subfamily includes many genera formerly classed in other families and subfamilies, on the basis of fang type. It includes fangless (aglyphous), rear-fanged (opisthoglyphous), fixed-fanged (proteroglyphous), and viper-like (solenoglyphous) species. Early molecular and physiological data linking this subfamily to others were ambiguous and often contradictory, which means the taxonomy of this subfamily has been highly contentious. The nominate family, Atractaspididae, has itself been moved to and from other taxa, reinforcing the ambiguity of this subfamily.

Mole Viper's Venom

Many of these snakes are inoffensive or far too small to envenomate a person effectively. However, some can inflict severe tissue necrosis; e.g. if the victim’s thumb is bitten, the tip of that digit may be lost. Relapses may occur long after the bite.

Very few deaths have resulted from accidents with these snakes, although large individuals of Atractaspis microlepidota and other long-glanded species are very likely to be dangerous. Some of the long-fanged species are able to stab their prey (or an unfortunate human) even while their mouths are closed, and the typical grasp used by herpetologists to securely hold venomous snakes is not safe for this group. This ability to stab sideways even with a closed mouth is the basis for an English name used for some of them: “side-stabbing snakes”.

Their fangs can stick out the side of their mouth, hence the “side-stabbing” name, which makes it particularly easy to get bit.

The venom is cytotoxic, so the bite is painful and tends to cause swelling, blistering, and/or tissue damage. It’s not uncommon for people to lose part of their finger from it, but it doesn’t tend to cause enough damage to amputate bone.

These snakes spend a significant amount of its time underground but might be found out on warm humid nights. They may also accidentally get dug up while people are gardening or while moving material the snake might be hiding under, and can sometimes fall into pools then panic bite when someone grabs the snake to rescue it.

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