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What is a Black Mamba?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 02 April 2014
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Black mambas are snakes which are native to Africa; they are more formally known as Dendroaspis polylepis. These African residents are infamous for their extreme speed, lethal venom, and irritability, and they often pop up in books and films about Africa. As a general rule, most people outside of Africa do not encounter black mambas, and wish to keep it that way. In Africa, human-snake encounters tend to go badly.

These snakes are named not for their skin color, but for the color of their mouths. A typical black mamba is gray to olive brown in color, with an inky black mouth which is only seen when the animal strikes. These snakes are the largest in Africa, running around eight feet (over two meters) on average; they are the second largest snakes in the world, surpassed only by the king cobra. In a few instances, a black mamba can reach a length of up to 14 feet (almost five meters).

The black mamba is also extremely fast, although the snakes generally move quickly to avoid predators, rather than to strike prey. When they strike, black mambas rely on their lethal venom, which contains both a neurotoxin and a cardiotoxin, to paralyze their victims. The snakes have been known to strike with minimal provocation, and are sometimes characterized as aggressive, although tales of mambas trailing people for long distances are probably a bit exaggerated.

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An adult black mamba nests underground in a small burrow or abandoned animal hole. Mambas are diurnal, sleeping at night and remaining active during the day unless extreme heat drives them underground. The snakes tend to prefer grassland and bush, although a black mamba is also perfectly capable of climbing a tree, as their scientific name suggests: dendroaspis means “tree snake.” When a black mamba breeds, the female produces a small clutch of eggs which hatches into pale gray juveniles; the young snakes are vulnerable to mongooses and birds when they are very young, but they are perfectly capable of catching their own prey.

For humans, the black mamba is a formidable enemy. One injection of venom from an adult snake is enough to kill a human being in under an hour if antivenom is not administered. In the event that someone is bitten by a black mamba, the best course of action is to have someone run for medical assistance and tourniquet the affected limb.

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