The Misunderstood Puff Adder | Worldwide Experience

Team member Dave, who has firsthand experience after working as a Field Guide in South Africa, elaborates on why the Puff Adder is his favourite snake.

“Snakes are one of my favourite creatures, very misunderstood and, in my opinion, wrongly feared by most. Given any chance at all, snakes will avoid contact with humans or any other larger animal that is not small enough to be on its menu. They do this in many ways as snakes come in many shapes and sizes and therefore have many different qualities and tactics. From large Rock Pythons to small Mole Snakes in South Africa, there are a wide variety of snakes. One of the most commonly seen and feared snakes just so happens to be my personal favourite, the Puff Adder.

Don’t get me wrong, Puffies (as they are commonly known) are dangerous. They are a member of the Viper family, therefore they are venomous, NOT poisonous! This is a very common misunderstanding but there is no such thing as a poisonous snake or a poisonous spider or really anything similar to this. Poison is something that you ingest such as a plant or insect of some kind, so if you eat it, you would get sick. Snakes, such as Puff Adders, are venomous, along with spiders and scorpions which means that they can inject you with their fangs (for snakes and spiders) or their stinger at the end of their tail (scorpions). Not all snakes are venomous, most don’t have any venom and are called constrictors, the biggest of which in Africa is the Rock Python. The Puffy, however, does have venom and could give you a nasty bite but, they will do everything in their power to stay well clear of you. Even if found, it will do everything it can to get away or, try and stay hidden in the vegetation.

Staying hidden is indeed the main tactic of Adders as they are all small to medium-sized snakes, and are relatively rotund in stature – heavily built is probably a better description. Males are slightly bigger than females and can grow up to around 1 metre in length with girths of 40 cm being reported. Because of this body shape, Puffies are not best suited for zipping around tree branches or slithering around quickly as you would associate with other snakes, they are much better suited for lying in wait, curled up in a coil-like shape which gives them the reputation for being a lazy snake. They do, however, have speed in other ways, such as when they come across a mouse, frog or something similarly small enough for them to eat. Puffies can strike at a rate that is very difficult to see with the naked eye and is well known for being one of the fastest-striking snakes in the world. According to Perry’s Bridge Reptile Park, they can strike within 0.25 of a second of being threatened. Their colouration or camouflage is another of their tools ranging from a dark brown colouration to bright yellow, depending on their area. This is potentially due to the type of soil and general colour of the low-lying vegetation and grass, for example, the bright yellow colour allows them to stay concealed in sandy soils and dry grass, whereas the browner colouration aids the concealment in wetter/muddier climates. All variations of Puff Adders share the distinctive chevron or diamond shape pattern along their backs.

Another of the defining characteristics of these stubby snakes is the large triangular-shaped head, this is not only a characteristic of the Puff Adder but of all members of the Viper family. Which, of course, houses their best weapon – their fangs, which are rather large and can grow up to around an inch in size. The fangs are hinged, meaning that they fold up when the snake opens its mouth and is ready to strike, keeping them nicely protected inside a sheath when not in use. Interestingly, similar to a shark, snakes continually replace their teeth up, to 6 times in their lifetime. This includes the fangs as they are so long – they are quite fragile so being able to replace them is an important adaptation.

The ‘Adder’ part of the name comes from the old English word for serpent and the ‘Puff’ part derives from the noise the snake makes when threatened, a loud puffing noise which acts as a warning when bothered and not wanting to use any of its arsenals. This indicates the mentality of the snake, with being able to inflict damage when needed to catch prey, they would much rather warn you that they are around. This noise, as much as it is loud and distinctive, could be confused with a tortoise, in particular the Leopard Tortoise. This is potentially an adaptation of mimicry from the snake's hard-shelled distant cousin, maybe trying to imitate a disturbed Puff Adder which all the African beasts (including us) know of to stay our distance and leave this potentially dangerous critter alone. Whereas, this species of reptile does not have much in the way of defence other than tucking their head and arms away into the shell.

Unfortunately, even though the Puffy makes a lot of effort to warn you that it’s nearby (along with all snakes), they are still persecuted and feared to the extent of being killed on sight on most occasions. They are indeed responsible for more bites than most others, but this is possibly due to people attacking and getting unnecessarily close to the snake. Although there is a fine line between fear and respect and probably rightfully so, this line is crossed with snakes, there is NO snake that can eat you. Why would a snake risk injury or even death by attacking something that is not its prey? It wouldn’t unless provoked or if it feels like it is under attack which they unfortunately quite often are. The truth is, if we did not have these beautiful creatures around, we would be completely overrun by rodents and other critters. Just like messing with any part of the food chain, the knock-on effects negatively run through the chain. You do need to be careful while wandering through the African bush, especially on footpaths where the snakes would be naturally hunting. If you do come across one, just step away as I have done many times. If you are lucky enough to find one of these majestic creatures in your home or garden, then a professional is always just a phone call away and after a quick Google you will find in every area there will be a willing person who has experience in handling them to come and remove so you both are in a safer place respectively.

Snakes, in my opinion, are beautiful and so specially adapted to their environment. Each species has very different qualities and adaptations, none more so than the perfectly prudent Puffies. Please try and view them as the highly specialised and important members of our eco-system that they are and not the evil man-eating serpent that we have been taught to believe as children!”

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by David McNab

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