What is a Russell's Viper?

Rhonda Rivera

A Russell's viper is a venomous Asian snake that goes by many names including the chain viper, Indian Russell’s viper, and scissor snake. Along with the Indian cobra, the common krait, and the saw-scaled viper, the Russell's viper is a member of the “big four”, which is a group of snakes that cause the most snake bites in South Asia. This snake and its two subspecies are attracted to open areas with plenty of rodents to eat. In turn, rodents are typically abundantly found in places with a dense population of humans, so this viper naturally ends up in close proximity to human settlements. The snake is often described as having slow or sluggish movements unless it feels threatened, then it becomes quick and aggressive.

Russell's vipers can be found in Taiwan, southern China, and most of southeast Asia.
Russell's vipers can be found in Taiwan, southern China, and most of southeast Asia.

On average, the Russell’s viper is about 4 feet (1.2 m) long, but adults can be anywhere from 3 to 5.5 feet (0.9 to 1.7 m) long. The viper is generally more slender than other vipers, and has a flat, triangular head. It is normally a deep yellow-gold to brown in color with three lines of dark brown spots that run the length of its body. These spots are outlined with a deeper color, which in turn is outlined in white or yellow. Gongylophis conicus is a harmless snake that is commonly confused with the Russell’s viper due to its very similar appearances.

A bite from a Russell's viper may cause facial swelling.
A bite from a Russell's viper may cause facial swelling.

This viper is typically only found in Asia; more specifically, it is located in Taiwan, southern China, and most of southeast Asia. In some countries, it is a rare snake to come across. Other countries must deal with an abundant Russell’s viper population. It is rarely found in thick forests, rain forests, or swamps. This viper prefers grasslands, bushy areas, and farmland.

Juvenile Russell’s vipers are both more energetic and aggressive than their elder counterparts. Other key behaviors of this species are its distinctively loud hiss when in a threatening posture, and that, when it is biting someone, it may either quickly withdraw or remain in the bite position. In line with their extra aggression, young vipers will sometimes feed on other members of their own species.

The venom of the Russell's viper is dangerous, and people bitten by the snake can die within as little as 24 hours due to kidney, heart, or respiratory failure, as well as sepsis. Some people assert that the Russell’s viper is one of the most dangerous snakes in southeast Asia, due to its propensity to bite and toxicity. An antivenin for the poison exists, but bites from the snake remain very dangerous. Typical symptoms of a bite from the Russell’s viper include local pain, bleeding, and swelling. Other symptoms include facial swelling, bleeding from the gums, and necrosis.

A person bitten by a Russell's viper may die within 24 hours due to sepsis.
A person bitten by a Russell's viper may die within 24 hours due to sepsis.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@Scrbblchick -- I've heard other Vietnam vets tell similar stories about running into those snakes pretty close to their barracks. Apparently, they look enough like the U.S. pit vipers that they automatically instill fear in anyone who knows what they look like.

A former co-worker had a husband who was point man on a recon unit in Vietnam. He said one tactic they used to clear the VC from the immediate area was to learn to hiss like a Russell's viper. He said if you'd ever heard one hiss, you'd never forget it, and the VC knew very well what they sounded like. So, if they heard that hiss, they would beat feet out of the territory. Bob said he actually ran across one of them one time, and it struck at him, but fortunately, he had his combat boots and leggings on and it couldn't bite through the tough material. He said he ran like hell and left the legging behind after he unfastened it from the back. The snake was still striking at it.


A guy I was in college with told me about when his dad was an airplane mechanic in Vietnam. He said his dad was working on a plane when he saw this snake drop down out from underneath the cockpit's instrument panel.

He knew better than to pick it up, but got one of the South Vietnamese guys in the motor pool over to the plane to ID the snake. The guy took one look at the snake and ran off yelling, "Two-step! Two-step!" That's the Russell's viper in the vernacular. You get bit, take two steps and die.

They ended up getting a garbage can and a shovel and basically raked the snake into it, then took it to the edge of the airstrip and turned the can over and ran. My friend's dad said it looked like a mutant rattler, so he knew he didn't want to have anything to do with it!

Post your comments
Forgot password?