The stiletto snake sounds dangerous, and it can be. People who travel to Africa are unlikely to see one, however, and if they do it probably won’t bite them. The name comes from the odd way in which it administers its venom rather than from its ferocity or its power to kill.
Most of the time, the stiletto snake is underground. Another common name for it is the burrowing asp, for the snake digs tunnels and is especially fond of beginning these under rocks. It travels through the ground to hunt, and therefore sightings are rare. The prey of the snake is creatures that also spend time underground, such as small mammals in their nests or other burrowing reptiles.
In the small spaces that animals make underground, there is not much room for vertical movement. It may be that this limitation of space is what led to the development of this snake’s unusual attack method. Most venomous snakes rear back a bit and open their mouths wide to bite down on their prey, a broad gesture that would get this animal nowhere in a narrow tunnel. The circumstances require a quick, tight action, like the knife strike of an assassin standing behind his victim. That is what the stiletto snake delivers by way of its unusual retractable fangs, which, in their resemblance to the sharp and slender blades called stilettos, give the snake one of its names.
Stiletto snakes have fewer teeth than other snakes because the mechanism of their retracting fangs occupies most of the space of their jaws. At rest, the fang lies horizontally within the snake’s mouth. When the snake attacks, its head lies directly over its prey. Muscles rotate just one of the fangs outward so that it flips like a switchblade and passes through the still-closed mouth. The snake then stabs the prey by moving its head sideways and backward. It uses the fang as a pinion to hold the prey in place while the venom takes effect.
With its ability to stab backward, the snake presents a challenge to herpetologists, those who study snakes, because to grasp it behind its head offers no protection from its fangs or fang. For most people, however, the animal poses little danger. It doesn’t willingly depart from its tunnels underground, except when seeking a mate and sometimes on nights after a rain.
When stiletto snakes do encounter people, the snakes don’t necessarily strike, and tend in fact not to, even when very close by. If one does bite a person, the effects are extremely painful and unpleasant, but most often are not fatal. Severe swelling of the affected area, disorientation, and nausea are some of the most common symptoms of the venom.
Southern Africa is home to this snake, though some are also found in the Middle East. It can be most easily recognized, if it comes above ground, by its characteristic outline, which is almost perfectly cylindrical with a narrow tapering head. This shape reflects its habit of digging. Size and coloration depends on the species, of which there are 15 in the genus Atractaspis, part of the family Atractaspididae.