The viper

Viper

The Viper is the only venomous snake found in Italy. The five species are distributed across all regions, except for Sardinia, where venomous snakes are not present.

  • Vipera Aspis [1]
  • Vipera Berus [2]
  • Vipera Ammodytes [3]
  • Vipera Ursinii [4]
  • Vipera Walser [5]

The common European Viper (Vipera aspis)

It is a reptile primarily found in hilly and mountainous regions. Distinctive features of the common European adder include adults usually measuring under 80 cm and always well below a meter in length. Young adders, measuring around 20 cm at birth, exhibit a coloration similar to that of adults.

Other characteristic traits of the common European adder include a triangular head, well-defined from the neck, a square-shaped snout with the tip pointing upwards, vertical pupils, and small head scales. They have a robust body and a short tail. Their posture and movements can aid in recognition from a distance: often adopting an S-shaped posture, they move slowly and inconspicuously.

Adders prefer sunny areas rich in vegetation such as shrublands, thickets, rocky areas, and scree. In summer, during the hottest hours, they seek shelter in vegetation, becoming more active in the morning and evening. With cooler temperatures (spring, autumn), they expose themselves to the sun for longer periods. During these times, the risk of close encounters is higher as adders are slower and may not always retreat spontaneously.

Italian adders belong to the Viperidae family and the Vipera genus, typical of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The common European adder or Vipera aspis is found in flat wooded areas up to altitudes exceeding 2500 m, in a variety of environments.

The ability of adders to live at high altitudes is due to their ovoviviparous nature: instead of laying eggs in the soil, the eggs are retained in the mother’s body until hatching. By exposing themselves to the sun, the mother maintains the eggs at temperatures significantly higher than the average at these altitudes, facilitating their development.

It is not a coincidence that the few reptiles living at high altitudes are predominantly ovoviviparous. The viper is a shy animal, closely tied to its territory. Its activity begins in March when males roam in search of a mate. During this period, they are less cautious, making encounters more likely.

After the mating season, vipers move less and hunt small mammals, occasionally targeting small birds. When the prey is within striking distance, the snake bites and releases it. The victim then tries to escape but soon succumbs to the effects of the venom.

In the meantime, the viper has begun to follow the scent trail left on the ground by its prey, precisely tracking it using its tongue. The tongue captures odor particles and brings them in contact with the organ located on the palate, specialized in odor reception (hence why snakes have a forked and highly mobile tongue).

In a short time, the snake reaches the now lifeless prey and swallows it whole, starting from the head. It then retreats to a sheltered location to begin the slow process of digestion.

The Vipera aspis is found only in France, Switzerland, and Italy. In Italy, there are three subspecies: the Vipera aspis atra is widespread in the Alps, displaying a highly variable coloration ranging from black to beige to brick red, often with very prominent dark dorsal patterns.

The habitat of vipers includes meadows, hilly areas, and woods, extending up to the limit of high-altitude grasslands. It’s important to note that vipers are cold-blooded animals, so they are rarely found during cold seasons; they tend to hibernate in solitude or in groups, depending on the species. Some species, while not covering long distances, tend to migrate to lower altitudes during the winter season.

An interesting observation for hikers is that vipers can be found on scree, piles of stones, or grassy mounds in the morning hours, at sunrise. Being cold-blooded, they seek the first rays of the sun to warm up. It is precisely during this time that the viper, being slower in movement, is more vulnerable and may defend itself with the infamous bite.

Like any other living being, vipers need, albeit minimally, a certain amount of water to drink, so they are rarely found in overly arid areas. Usually, they are located near streams, water puddles, or rock crevices where small amounts of water can accumulate consistently.


Long-nosed viper

The long-nosed viper, nose-horned viper (Vipera ammodytes) owes its common name to a fleshy appendage located at the tip of its snout. Long-nosed vipers can reach a length of 90 cm and exceptionally exceed one meter. The coloration can vary from brown to gray. Along the back runs a darker-colored pattern resembling a zigzag line or a series of connected diamonds. Melanic forms are rare.

A characteristic feature of this species is the “horn” located on the tip of the snout. Long-nosed viper is the most dangerous viper in Italy for humans, although the animal is shy and tends to flee in the presence of danger. The nose-horned vipe is present in a northeastern strip of Italy, southern Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, the Balkan Peninsula, and western Turkey.

Reproduction

The long-nosed viper is ovoviviparous. Females mate every two years, between April and May. Births occur between August and September, and the newly born vipers measure between 15 and 20 cm.

Curio and Legends

In folklore, parts of the nose-horned viper’s body are believed to have protective powers against evils. In Alto Adige, this includes the vertebrae preserved in the form of a rosary, while in Venezia Giulia, it involves placing severed heads under grappa.

In the former Yugoslavia, Vipera ammodytes is called “poskok” (“jumper”) because it is believed to have the ability to leap. It is false that vipers can jump; instead, they are ambush hunters and move only when strictly necessary.

Another myth is that vipers give birth in trees. In reality, birth occurs on the ground, not in trees, as these reptiles (unlike Colubrids) do not climb trees due to the structure of their tail (short and stubby, preventing climbing).


The bite of the viper

The bite of a viper is a frequently debated topic; fortunately, what is generally believed about this subject does not always correspond to reality, both regarding the incidence of deaths from viper bites and the habits of these reptiles. Statistics indicate that in most European countries, death due to a viper bite occurs on average every 1-5 years: a relatively low number compared to the total number of individuals bitten.
Nevertheless, there is still a disproportionate fear of vipers compared to the actual danger they pose.

Distinguishing vipers from other non-venomous snakes

The HEAD of the viper is more FLATTENED and, when viewed from above, it is wider than that of non-venomous snakes, with an almost triangular shape.

The EYE of the viper has a VERTICAL PUPIL shaped like a spindle, similar to that of cats, unlike other snakes that have a circular one. The head is then covered with small scales, while those of non-venomous snakes are always broad and quite noticeable.

Intuitively, these signs are easy to observe only if the snake is captured; when, instead, as frequently happens, it is glimpsed only as it quickly moves away, the only characteristic that stands out is the shape of the body. In vipers, it is rather stout, and the TAIL, while ending in a point, is SHORT, with only a few centimeters between the part of the body with the maximum diameter and the part with the minimum diameter at the tip.

Non-venomous snakes, on the other hand, have a more elongated and tapered shape with a gradual and visible decrease in body diameter from the head towards the tail.

Another substantial difference can be observed in the mark left by the BITE ON THE SKIN (in case one gets bitten but hasn’t been able to see the reptile clearly): in the case of a viper bite, TWO LARGER RED POINTS THAN THE OTHERS are evident, spaced about 1 centimeter apart. These are due to the presence of venomous fangs, which are absent in non-venomous snakes, whose bites are characterized by a row of small dots all of the same size. Be cautious even if the bite shows the presence of a single larger point than the others: the viper may have lost one of its two venomous fangs.

Symptoms

In addition to the marks left by the fangs, a viper bite causes redness, swelling, tingling, pain, and cyanosis (bluish skin color) localized in the area surrounding the bite in the first few minutes, but quickly spreading to the periphery. Within an hour, systemic effects also begin to appear, including nausea, vomiting (sometimes with blood), muscle pain, diarrhea, cardiovascular collapse, and shock leading to loss of consciousness.

First aid

If first aid is performed diligently, quickly, and with great care, it is relatively difficult for a viper bite to be fatal. The severity of the bite depends on several factors: the age of the person bitten (children and the elderly are more sensitive); body weight; overall health conditions; the location and depth of the bite (subcutaneous fat slows down the spread of venom); the amount of venom injected, in turn, depends on the fullness of the venom glands and the size of the viper. The amount of venom lethal to a healthy adult is approximately twice the average dose injected with a bite!

Long-nosed viper

Scientific Classification

Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Family: Viperidae
Genus: Vipera


What to do in case of a viper bite?

  • The first thing to do is to keep the injured person calm to avoid further agitation and to carry out all first-aid maneuvers with due care. Any movement of the injured person should be avoided, as it would only accelerate the distribution of venom in the body; the injured person should lie down and be kept calm.
  • The bite area should be washed with water and soap and then disinfected with substances that do not contain alcohol because viper venom when in contact with alcohol, forms toxic compounds.
  • If the bite is on the upper limb, immediately remove rings, bracelets, or watches before swelling occurs.
  • Stimulating beverages such as tea or strong coffee, which contain more caffeine, can be administered to the injured person as they help prevent a dangerous drop in blood pressure.
  • It is essential to transport the injured person to the nearest emergency facility. Remember that the injured person should move as little as possible!

In case of a bite to the lower limbs (legs)

Apply a wide bandage, at least 10 cm wide and about 10 meters long (I know, it’s difficult to carry a bandage of such dimensions…), pulling and exerting moderate pressure. This bandage should be extended as high as possible and, in any case, below the bitten point. The bandage should not be too tight; its purpose is to slow down the lymphatic circulation (which carries the venom) and not the blood circulation.
To achieve effective immobilization of the limb, a rigid splint should be applied and securely fastened. If these two steps are performed correctly, the applied compression should not be uncomfortable for the injured person and, most importantly, it can be maintained in place for several hours. In any case, it SHOULD NOT BE REMOVED until the patient reaches the nearest hospital emergency room.

Bite to upper limbs (arms)

Perform a compressive bandage (7 cm high and 6 meters long), starting from the fingertips and extending up to the elbow (ensuring it does not impede arterial circulation; the pulse should be perceptible). If a higher margin of safety is desired or if the bite is near or above the elbow, it is necessary and advisable to bandage the entire arm up to the shoulder. Proceed with complete immobilization using a splint, securing the arm to the trunk.

Bite to the trunk, neck, head

In this case (fortunately much less common), the goal is also to delay the spread of venom. It is advisable to apply a rigid pad over the bitten area, holding it in place with an elastic adhesive bandage. Transport the affected person, if possible without allowing them to walk, to the nearest emergency room as quickly as possible.


WHAT NOT TO DO in case of a viper bite?

  • Avoid applying a tourniquet; the tourniquet slows or blocks venous outflow, creating undesirable venous stasis, while it does not block the lymphatic flow, responsible for venom spread.
  • Do not suck the blood from the wound with your mouth, as it is very easy for the rescuer to ingest venom through micro-wounds in the mouth, which are often unknown. Secondly, to adhere to basic hygiene standards, direct contact with another person’s blood in the mouth is a significant means of transmitting any type of disease, even if the injured person is a healthy carrier, such as Hepatitis B or AIDS/HIV. Instead, a venom suction pump available at pharmacies should be used for this purpose. There are various types, but in general, it looks like a large syringe. One end, instead of a needle, has an enlarged part that will rest on the injured area, and the other end has a plunger, which, through a spring or screw mechanism, creates a vacuum, effectively sucking blood from the bite holes in a completely painless manner. It is advisable to suction a few milliliters from the bite area as soon as possible.
  • Avoid suction or mechanical removal procedures of the venom (suctions, incisions); their effectiveness is not proven, and they can cause further damage.
  • Alcoholic beverages such as grappa, whisky, beer, or wine should not be administered, as alcohol is a vasodilator, promoting a decrease in blood pressure.
  • Regarding the use of antivenom serum, it is better to avoid it for several reasons. Firstly, the serum must be stored at a consistently low temperature between 2° and 6° Celsius, as it loses its effectiveness at higher temperatures, even by a few degrees, becoming potentially toxic. Secondly, it can cause a more severe and difficult-to-manage allergic reaction than the viper bite itself (it is known that many deaths are caused by anaphylactic reactions to antivenom serum).

Preventing Viper bites

  • Wearing high footwear or heavy woolen socks: smaller vipers will have difficulty biting effectively, and in any case, the bite will not contain an excessive dose of venom.
  • Walking with a rhythmic and heavy step, beating the grass and stones with a stick: vipers have poorly developed hearing but are more sensitive to movement.
  • Avoid instinctively picking up objects from the ground: before picking up anything, stir the grass and stones with a stick to ward off any potential threats.
  • Carefully inspect the area where you plan to sit.
  • Do not lean on logs covered with leaves, on straw, or on woodpiles.
  • Do not put your hands under rocks, stones, or ground crevices.
  • Pay attention when drinking from a water source and when walking on a stony surface.

Vipera Aspis (asp)
Widespread in the Alps and the Apennines, it prefers warm and dry places, has a mild temperament, and usually flees when disturbed.

Vipera Berus, or Common European Adder
Found in mountainous regions, especially in Northern Italy, it is quite aggressive. It can also be encountered in water. It readily attacks if provoked.

Vipera Ammodytes, or Long-nosed viper
Mainly found in the northeast of Italy, including the Dolomites. Easily recognizable by a small horn on the tip of its nose. Prefers habitats consisting of dry areas, slopes, and rocky terrain. It is not very aggressive, but its venom is the most dangerous among the species in Italy.

Vipera Ursinii, or Orsini’s Viper
Present in the Abruzzo and Umbro-Marchigiano Apennines, particularly on the Gran Sasso. Relatively small in size, it is the least dangerous.

Walser Viper
Belonging to the Viperidae family, the Walser Viper is found in the western Alps, in the area of Biella and the upper Valsesia.