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Common Adder (Vipera berus): A True Viper Common in Europe

By: C.M.Shorter

Common Adders are venomous snakes, small but true Vipers, very common throughout much of Europe, Vipera berus is the only poisonous snake found in the United Kingdom. Common Adders are known to have short tempers and may strike without warning when startled or handled. Skin coloring varies with males of the Adder species light shades of brown to steel grey with female Adders more colorful in tones of yellow, browns and even a brick red. Some adult specimens are completely black, while most have the striking dark zigzag stripe pattern running the length of their bodies. Sides or flanks typically have a line of oval spots positioned almost centered underneath the zigzag pattern and also running the full length of their bodies making this snake a very attractive one. Another identifying feature on the Common Adder is a very distinct "X" or "V" black shaped marking prominently place on its head.

Common Adder
Picture of Common Adder
Pictures of Common Adders

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The Common Adder prefers wooded terrain, grassy fields, and rocky cliff slopes. Known to frequent farms and cultivated fields, this snake presents the most danger actually to people walking pets. More pets are the victims of Common Adder envenomation every year than humans. The Common Adder hibernates like a Grizzly Bear and, also many other reptiles, returning to the same den or lair year after year to winter-over this terrain. Most pet fatalities result in the Spring and many veterinarians attribute this to the high concentration of potent Hemotoxic venom accumulated in the snake's venom glands during the hibernation period. Statistics show most recorded snake bites in human victims are reported from campers, hikers and farm workers. Human envenomation from the Common Adder tends to be about 100 individuals each year, averaging a dozen deaths. Some of these fatalities actually result from a severe adverse reaction to the Antivenom treatment and not the snake bite itself. In comparison, India records an annual 10,000 human deaths from the Cobras (Naja species) envenomation but it is the Carpet Viper's bite strike that is responsible for killing more people than any other snake in the world annually in its home range in Africa, India and throughout the Middle East.

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Common Adders reach 50-70 centimeters in length and like the African Bush Viper, females of the species may achieve a much larger size than the males. A frequent case of mistaken identity happens when people confuse the non-poisonous Grass Snake, which is more dark green in color, for the venomous Adder. The poisonous Adder is much thicker bodied and shorter in length with its often grey to brownish skin tones. When a Common Adder is about to molt or shed its skin, both the pattern markings and skin color become lighter in tone and almost take on a dull appearance. Snakes move against rocks or branches to help remove the old skin, shedding completely from the lips to the tail with molted snake skin coming off inside out, including the two scales that cover the snake eyes.

Even though this snake is venomous and should be approached only by experienced herpetologists, or individuals familiar with extensive Wilderness Survival techniques, it has several natural enemies. Common Adders are beneficial to man consuming large amounts of small rodents, voles, lizards, bird eggs, insects and even snails. On the other end of the food chain, the Common Adder is a prized prey itself for foxes, Badgers and the larger bird species, particularly Owls. The Common Adder normally hunts and becomes most active just after sunset looking for meals right after dusk then returning to their lair after feeding.

Common Adders are viviparous, bearing live young. Males emerge from hibernation in the Spring about a month before the females and are extremely territorial during mating season, often sparring with each other to defend territories. Eggs developing and hatch within the body of the female Adder. Young Adders are born in mid-summer, with typically 8-10 babies born averaging lengths of 6 to 7 inches at birth. Common Adders have a slow reproduction rate, only reproducing once every other year. Common Adders are also known as the European Viper, the Common Viper, Gad or Northern Viper and is more prevalent throughout the southern portion of their European range.

Common Name(s): European Viper, the Common Viper, Gad or Northern Viper or Southern Viper depending on range.
Scientific Name: Vipera berus
Snake Family: Viperidae
Sub-Family: Viperinae (Vipers)
Description: Medium size poisonous snake. Compact and thick bodied narrowing at the tail with dark zigzag pattern running the full length of their grey-brown bodies with oval spots centered in between this pattern on their flanks. Some of this species are completely black . Easy to recognize as poisonous with vertically shaped pupils.
Characteristics: Not known to be aggressive, some say with a placid disposition, but with a nasty temper and quick to strike especially if disturbed or caught off guard, particularly while in the process of thermoregulation or basking in the sun along its terrain paths.
Reproduction: Viviparous (bearing live young) with typically 8-12 live young born averaging 6-7 inches in length.
Length: 45-60 centimeters (Approx. 1.5-2.0 ft). Females are larger than males of this species, much like the African Bush Viper & may reach lengths up to 28-30 inches.
Habitat Distribution: Common throughout Europe and the only Poisonous snake native to the United Kingdom and the British Isles.
Conservation Status: Common Adders are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 and may not be removed from the wild, killed or harmed in any way.

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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