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Bush Viper (Atheris squamigera): A Highly Poisonous Ambush Predator

By: C.M.Shorter

The African Bush Viper is one snake in the many genus of Atheris snakes deserving the Viper name. This snake is highly poisonous. Ambush predators, the many tree-swelling species of Bush Vipers are largely nocturnal hunters throughout the Rainforest and its bordering swamp and open woodland habitats. The Bush Viper, typically reaching lengths averaging just over 2 ft in length, has beautiful coloration ranging from pale greens to darker olive, brown or a rust color. Primarily arboreal, living in the tree top canopies, the African Bush Viper descends frequently to feed on small rodents, frogs & lizards. This snake often hunts by using its tail to hang from the low lying branches and waits for an unsuspecting target victim to make a meal!

Bush Viper
Pictures of Bush Vipers
Pictures of Bush Vipers

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The Bush Viper uses its prehensile tail in a coil-like fashion, similar to an arboreal mammal, the Kinkajou - a relative of the raccoon which sports up to a 20 inch prehensile tail equivalent to its body length, to anchor itself to branches. The African Bush Viper is native to most of Africa ranging throughout the rainforest, the Congo Basin, including Angola, Cameroon, Uganda, Kenya and Zaire. The Bush Viper exhibits polymorphism in body color achieving a wide range of body shade coloring. Although the green body color of some Bush Vipers is well-known, it is a dangerous assumption to presume all Bush Vipers are green. This species cannot be readily identified solely from body color with such a wide range of colorization of the species known to include even shades of yellow, orange, red, blue & grey. It is this natural adaptation for survival and it is these many color hues that gives this snake excellent camouflage in arboreal tree top habitats and has earned them the common name of "Leaf Viper". Very pronounced keeled scales give this snake an almost "Hairy" look and there are species so named "Hairy Bush Vipers".

This species ranges through equatorial Africa including the Congo Basin, a unique ecosystem covering over one million square miles of rich tropical rainforest, second in size only to the Rainforest of the Amazon Basin. The Bush Viper makes it homes in the same territory as the wild African Lions, Bongos, Cheetahs, African Golden Cats, Mountain Gorillas, Lowland Gorillas and the great African Elephants, the sole survivors of the family of trunk-bearing mammals. These wild elephants are directly descended from the now extinct Mastodons and prehistoric Wooly Mammoths that once ranged the entire planet. Very little is known about the venom composition of the Bush Viper with no specific Antivenom and medical professionals are usually advised to administer a polyvalent inoculation.

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Mostly snakes in the genus Atheris are nocturnal, however some species in the Viper sub-family Trimeresurus such as the Green Pit Viper, endemic to Sri Lanka and the Ceylonese Palm Vipers are highly active by day. Not known to be overly aggressive or carrying the fierce reputation of the
Bushmaster Snake - the largest Viper in the New world, the African Bush Viper is much smaller but will stand its ground and defend itself if disturbed in its habitat. Sexually dimorphic, females tend to be much larger than the males with some reaching up to 32 inches in length.

Breeding in the wild takes place in the fall from September to November. Captive breeders replicate the wet/dry seasonal cycle of the jungle rainforest throughout the year to induce breeding. Once the Bush Vipers are paired, copulation is also a nocturnal affair and often times occurs instantly upon introduction of the male & female. Bush Vipers are viviparous, or live-bearing, reptiles giving birth to anywhere from 4-16 young after a 6-7 month pregnancy cycle. Similar to baby Copperhead Snakes, the young Bush Vipers have a brightly colored tail which they use as a worm-like lure to attract small prey and the whole of their body coloring often changes with age.

Common Name(s): African Bush Viper, Common Bush Viper, Green Bush Viper, Leaf Viper and Variable Bush Viper
Scientific Name: Atheris squamigera
Snake Family: Viperidae
Sub-Family: Viperinae (Vipers)
Description: Larger of the arboreal Viper snakes with broad triangular shaped head varying in colors, exhibiting polymorphism including shades of light greens to darker olive, brown and rust colors also known in colors of reds, blues, yellows and greys. Use prehensile tail, particularly for feeding. These species have scales so strongly keeled that it gives many species the appearance of being "hairy".
Characteristics: Not known to be aggressive but will defend themselves when threatened.
Reproduction: Viviparous (bearing live young) and breed in the fall, typically giving birth to 4-16 young following a 6-7 pregnancy cycle.
Length: 45-75 centimeters (Approx. 1.5-2.5 ft). Females are larger and may reach lengths up to 32 inches.
Habitat Distribution: Equatorial Africa in the Rainforest habitat of the Congo Basin, ranging through the countries of Angola, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Zaire. Subspecies throughout wide range including Sri Lanka.

Subspecies - There are several subspecies in the "Atheris" family of Bush Vipers:
African Bush Viper (Atheris squamiger)
Acuminate Bush Viper (Atheris acuminata)
Barbour's Short-Headed Viper (Adenorhinos barbouri)
Bristly Bush Viper (Atheris hispida)
Broadley's Bush Viper (Atheris broadleyi)
Horned Bush Viper (Atheris ceratophora)
Great Lakes Bush Viper (Atheris nitschei)
Lowland Swamp Viper (Atheris superciliaris)
Lowland Viper (Proatheris superciliaris)
Montane Viper (Montatheris hindii)
Rungwe Bush Viper (Atheris rungweensis)
Southwest Cameroon Bush Viper (Atheris subocularis)
Tai Hairy Bush Viper (Atheris hirsuta)
Upemba Bush Viper (Atheris katangensis)
Western Bush Viper (Atheris chlorechis)

See also:
How to Avoid Snake Bites
| Poisonous Snake Bites Effects | Snake Venom | Snake Fangs
Other Snakes:
Diamondback Rattlesnake
| King Cobra | Spitting Cobra | Kingsnakes & Milk Snakes

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