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Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Family: Viperidae
Subfamily: Viperinae
Genus: Bitis
Gray, 1842
  • Cobra - Laurenti, 1768
  • Echidna - Merrem, 1820
  • Clotho - Gray, 1842
  • Bitis - Gray, 1842
  • Echidne - Duméril & Bibron, 1844
  • Hallowellius - Reus, 1939
  • Macrocerastes - Reus, 1939[1]

Common names: puff adders, African adders,[2] African vipers.[3]  
Bitis is a genus of venomous vipers found in Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula.[1] It includes the largest and the smallest vipers in the world. Members are known for their characteristic threat displays that involves inflating and deflating their bodies while hissing and puffing loudly.[2] The type species for this genus is B. arietans,[1] which is also the most widely distributed viper is Africa.[3] Currently, 14 species are recognized.[4]


Size variation within this genus is extreme, ranging from the very small B. schneideri, which grows to a maximum of 28 cm and is perhaps the world's smallest viperid, to the very large B. gabonica, which can attain a length of over 2 m and is the heaviest viper in the world.[2]

All have a wide, triangular head with a rounded snout, distinct from the neck, and covered in small, keeled, inbricate scales. The canthus is also distinct. A number of species have enlarged rostral or supraocular scales that look like horns. The eyes are relatively small. They have large nostrils that are directed outwards and/or upwards. 0-6 rows of small scales separate the rostral and nasal scales. All species have a well-developed supranasal sac. The front of the maxillary bones are very short, supporting only one pair of recurved fangs.[5][2]

These snakes are moderately to extremely stout. The body is covered with keeled scales that are imbricate with apical pits. At midbody, the dorsal scales number 21-46. Laterally, the dorsal scales may be slightly oblique. The ventral scales, which number 112-153, are large, rounded and sometimes have slight lateral keels. The tail is short. Anal scale single. The paired subcaudal scales number 16-37 and are sometimes keeled laterally.[5][2]

Geographic range

Found in Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula.[1]


Bitis species are known for their behavior of inflating and deflating their bodies in loud hissing or puffing threat displays. They are terrestrial ambush predators and appear sluggish, but can strike with amazing speed.[2]


All members are viviparous and some give birth to large numbers of offspring.[2]


All members of this genus are dangerous — some extremely so.[2] At least six different polyvalent antivenoms are available. Five are produced by Aventis Pasteur (France), Pasteur Merieux (France) and SAIMR (South Africa). All of these specifically protect against B. arietans and four also cover B. gabonica.[6][7] At least one protects specifically against bites from B. nasicornis: India Antiserum Africa Polyvalent.[8] In the past, such antivenoms have been used to treat bites from other Bitis species, but with mixed results.[2]


Species[1] Authority[1] Subsp.*[4] Common name Geographic range[1]
B. arietansT (Merrem, 1820) 1 Puff adder Most of sub-Saharan Africa south to the Cape of Good Hope, including southern Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, southern Algeria, Guinea]], Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Cameroon, Central African Republic, northern, eastern and southern DR Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa. Also occurs on the Arabian peninsula, where it is found in southwestern Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
B. atropos (Linnaeus, 1758) 0 Berg adder Isolated populations in the mountainous areas of southern Africa: the Inyanga Highlands and Chimanimani Mountains of eastern Zimbabwe and nearby Mozambique, in South Africa along the Drakensberg Escarpments in the provinces of Transvaal, western Natal, Lesotho and eastern Free State, and in the southern coastal mountains of western and eastern Cape Province.
B. caudalis (Smith, 1849) 0 Horned adder The arid region of south-west Africa: south-west Angola, Namibia, across the Kalahari Desert of southern Botswana, into northern Transvaal and southwestern Zimbabwe. In South Africa it is found from the northern Cape Province south to the Great Karoo.
B. cornuta (Daudin, 1803) 1 Many-horned adder The coastal region of south-west Namibia through west and south-west Cape Province in South Africa. There are also a few isolated populations in eastern Cape Province.
B. gabonica (Duméril, Bibron & Duméril, 1854) 1 Gaboon viper Guinea, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, Cameroon, DR Congo, Central African Republic, southern Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, eastern Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, eastern Zimbabwe, Mozambique, northeast KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa.
B. heraldica (Bocage, 1889) 0 Angolan adder The high plateau of central Angola.
B. inornata (Smith, 1838) 0 Plain mountain adder Isolated population on the Sneeuberg, eastern Cape Province, South Africa.
B. nasicornis (Shaw, 1792) 0 Rhinoceros viper From Guinea to Ghana in West Africa, and in Central Africa in the Central African Republic, southern Sudan, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, DR Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Uganda and western Kenya.
B. parviocula Böhme, 1977 0 Ethiopian mountain adder Known from only three localities in the highlands to south-west Ethiopia, at altitudes of 2000-3000 m.
B. peringueyi (Boulenger, 1888) 0 Peringuey's desert adder The Namib Desert from southern Angola to Lüderitz, Namibia.
B. rubida Branch, 1997 0 Red adder Several isolated populations in the northern Cape Fold Mountains and inland escarpment in Western Cape Province, South Africa.
B. schneideri (Boettger, 1886) 0 Namaqua dwarf adder White coastal sand dunes from Namibia, near Lüderitz, south to Hondeklip Bay, Little Namaqualand, South Africa.
B. worthingtoni Parker, 1932 0 Kenyan Horned Viper Restricted to Kenya's high central Rift Valley at altitudes over 1500 m.
B. xeropaga Haacke, 1975 0 Desert mountain adder North-western Cape Province in South Africa and the arid mountains of the lower Orange River basin, north into southern Namibia and Great Namaqualand as far as Aus.

*) Not including the nominate subspecies (typical form).
T) Type species.[1]


Other species may be encountered in literature, such as:[2]

  • B. albanica - Hewitt, 1937
  • B. armata - Smith, 1826

Lenk et al. (1999) used molecular data (immunological distances and mitochondrial DNA sequences) to estimate the phylogenetic relationships among species of Bitis. They identified four major monophyletic groups for which they created four subgenera:[2]

For now, this division is of little consequence as far as the nomenclature is concerned. However, the definition of subgenera within a genus is often the sign of an impending split. Therefore, anyone interested in these snakes would do well to familiarize themselves with these new subgenera.[2]

See also

Cited references

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T. 1999. Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, vol. 1. Herpetologists' League. 511 pp. ISBN 1-893777-00-6 (series). ISBN 1-893777-01-4 (volume).
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 Mallow D, Ludwig D, Nilson G. 2003. True Vipers: Natural History and Toxinology of Old World Vipers. Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida. 359 pp. ISBN 0-89464-877-2.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Spawls S, Branch B. 1995. The Dangerous Snakes of Africa. Ralph Curtis Books. Dubai: Oriental Press. 192 pp. ISBN 0-88359-029-8.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Bitis(TSN 634420) at Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Accessed 18 March 2007.
  5. 5.0 5.1 U.S. Navy. 1965. Poisonous Snakes of the World. US Govt. Printing Office, Washington D.C. 212 pp.
  6. Bitis arietans antivenoms at Munich AntiVenom INdex. Accessed 25 August, 2006.
  7. Bitis gabonica antivenoms at Munich AntiVenom INdex. Accessed 25 August, 2006.
  8. Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Venom Response Unit at Accessed 5 September 2006.

Other references

  • Branch WR. 1999. Dwarf adders of the Bitis cornuta-inornata complex (Serptentes: Viperidae) in Southern Africa. Kaupia (Darmstadt) (8): 39-63.
  • Lenk, P., H.-W. Herrmann, U. Joger, & M. Wink (1999) Phylogeny and taxonomic subdivision of Bitis (Reptilia: Viperidae) based on molecular evidence. Kaupia, 8: 31-38.
  • U.S. Navy. 1991. Poisonous Snakes of the World. New York: Dover Books. (Reprint of US Govt. Printing Office, Washington D.C.) 232 pp. ISBN 0-486-26629-X.

External links