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Atractaspis spp., Mole vipers

Clinical entries


  • 1. Atractaspis andersonii
  • 2. Atractaspis aterrima
  • 3. Atractaspis battersbyi
  • 4. Atractaspis bibronii
  • 5. Atractaspis boulengeri
  • 6. Atractaspis branchi
  • 7. Atractaspis congica
  • 8. Atractaspis corpulenta
  • 9. Atractaspis dahomeyensis
  • 10. Atractaspis duerdeni
  • 11. Atractaspis engaddensis
  • 12. Atractaspis engdahli
  • 13. Atractaspis fallax
  • 14. Atractaspis irregularis
  • 15. Atractaspis leucomelas
  • 16. Atractaspis magrettii
  • 17. Atractaspis microlepidota
  • 18. Atractaspis micropholis
  • 19. Atractaspis phillipsi
  • 20. Atractaspis reticulata
  • 21. Atractaspis scorteccii
  • 22. Atractaspis watsoni


Atractaspis andersonii, A. fallax, A. magretti, A. micropholis and A. phillipsi were formerly described as a subspecies of Atractaspis microlepidota. Also Atractaspis watsoni has long been considered synonymous with Atractaspis microlepidota. The formerly large distribution area of Atractaspis microlepidota from west Africa to the Arabian Peninsula has been considerably reduced by this taxonomic revision. Trape et al. (2006) restrict the distribution of A. microlepidota to Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania.


Atractaspis coalescens is now a subspecies of A. irregularis.


Serpentes; Atractaspididae. Formerly assigned to Viperinae or Aparallactinae (Colubridae).

Common names

Mole vipers, Burrowing vipers, Burrowing asps, Stiletto snakes, Side stabbing snakes, Erdvipern

  • 1. Arabian small-scaled burrowing asp
  • 2. Slender burrowing asp
  • 4. Southern burrowing asp, Bibron's burrowing asp, Mole viper
  • 6. Branch’s Stiletto Snake
  • 10. Duerden's burrowing asp, Beaked burrowing asp
  • 11. Israeli mole viper
  • 13. Peter's burrowing asp, Mole viper
  • 16. Magretti's burrowing asp
  • 17. Small-scaled burrowing asp
  • 18. Sahelian burrowing asp
  • 19. Phillip's burrowing asp, Phillip's Erdviper
  • 22. Watson’s burrowing asp


Tropical and southern Africa, Middle East and Arabian Peninsula. See link "Distribution" at the top of the page for detailed information.


  Map 43 Atractaspis spp.



These peculiar venomous snakes are now classified as a separate family of venomous snakes (Atractaspididae). This is above all due to their particular skull structure and special fangs: 2 large fangs at the very front of the maxilla that are folded back when not in use and which are not erected in a posterior-anterior direction as in viperids, but are rather projected laterally, with the snake's mouth virtually closed. They are stabbed into the prey via sidewards movements of the head (thus "Side stabbing" or "stiletto" snake). In this manner these snakes can efficiently kill the small burrowing mammals which are their main source of food in their narrow underground tunnels.

This species lives underground and only comes to the surface at night or during heavy rainfall. Body well suited to burrowing, with a small head and sharply tapering, generally pointed snout and small eyes. The tip of the tail is blunt. Usually dark colouring without markings. Largest specimens up to 90 cm long.

Distribution from tropical forests to desert regions. If they are surprised during the day, they roll themselves into a ball; at night they are more than ready to engage in defensive strikes. Caution is required particularly when handling these snakes (sidewards "backward stabs").


Atractaspis species are not only responsible for bites to herpetologists, but in certain areas can often be the cause of bites in laypersons. Accidents generally occur in victims walking around at night, particularly after heavy rainfall.

In Natal, South Africa, A. bibronii often causes moderate cases of envenoming with mainly local effects (Tilbury and Branch 1989). In 9 documented cases of bites (A. dahomeyensis or A. microlepidota) in Nigeria, there were no systemic signs of envenoming, apart from fever (Warrell et al. 1976c).

Isolated cases of envenoming due to A. engaddensis, A. irregularis and A. microlepidota have been known, with the latter two species also causing fatalities (Corkill et al. 1959). Of 22 reported cases of envenoming by A. microlepidota (=A. phillipsii or A. magrettii?) in Sudan, 3 were fatal (Corkill 1956).

Atractaspis venoms that have been investigated in animal experiments are strongly toxic and are among the most potent snake venoms. However, usually only one fang is employed when these snakes "stab" their victim, and it seems that only very small amounts of venom are injected.

Literature (biological)

Broadley 1983, 1991, Broadley and Cock 1989, Gasperetti 1988, Golani and Kochva 1988, Joger 1984, Kochva 1990, Kochva and Meier 1986, Minton 1992, Pitman 1974, Rödel et al. 2019, Roman 1980, Trape et al. 2006, Visser and Chapman 1978, Welch 1980

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