What is a Gaboon Viper?

Mary McMahon

A Gaboon viper is a venomous snake native to the rain forests and woodlands of Sub-Saharan Africa. These snakes are famous for their formidable size, being among the largest of the viperids. They are not considered threatened or endangered, and they are in fact quite abundant in their native habitat, often to the chagrin of the other animals that share that habitat. For people who are interested in seeing a Gaboon viper in a safer environment, some zoos keep these snakes on display.

Gaboon vipers live in rain forests.
Gaboon vipers live in rain forests.

While formally known as Bitis gabonica, the Gaboon viper also has a number of other common names, including forest puff adder, swampjack, and butterfly adder. A number of regional superstitions surround the Gaboon viper, probably with the goal of encouraging people to avoid these potentially hazardous snakes.

Adult Gaboon vipers can be almost six feet (two meters) in length, with very bulky bodies. These snakes have long fangs, and they appear to generate more venom than any other snake. For those who get close enough to see, a Gaboon viper can be readily identified by the horny structures between the nostrils, and the distinct stripes under the eyes. They are usually nocturnal, sunning themselves during the day and becoming active at night, and in addition to living in natural forests, Gaboon vipers will also willingly settle in crop plantations, sometimes posing a danger to workers.

These snakes have excellent natural camouflage in the form of overlapping brown and black patches of scales. They are ambush predators, waiting under piles of leaves or branches for prey such as small animals or birds, and when they identify and strike at prey, they usually hold on until the prey is dead, rather than biting and releasing as many venomous snakes do. Gaboon vipers tend to be solitary, hissing and puffing up their bodies when they are threatened.

For humans, the Gaboon viper isn't much of a threat, because these snakes are generally quite calm. They will only strike if provoked, and even then they may only bite, without releasing venom. When people are bitten, it is usually because they have stepped on a sleeping or basking Gaboon viper, and the understandably upset snake has attempted to defend itself. In instances when venom is released, it can be severely debilitating or deadly if the bite is not attended to quickly.

Gaboon vipers mature at two to three years of age, and they can live for up to 20 years. They are viviparous, which means that the female snakes bear live young, but little else is known about their reproductive cycle, except that the males appear to engage in mock battles during courtship, perhaps with the goal of impressing the females.

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Discussion Comments


The gaboon viper is on the red data list as an endangered snake.

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