Evolution and Systematics

Functional Adaptations

Functional adaptation

Receptors create thermal image: pit viper

Thermoreceptors found in pits in a viper's face provide it with a bifocal thermal image of prey because the fields of thermal sensitivity overlap.

  "The pit viper's ability to register heat is so sensitive that they can feel the temperature variation produced by a mouse from 6 inches (15 cm) away. The heat sensors are located in the pit-shaped holes on their faces that give them their name. Positioned on each side of the snake's head between the eye and nostril, these small, shallow pits point forward, and their tiny, pinhole openings are supplied with a grid of 7,000 nerve endings from a branch of the trigeminal nerve leading to the head and face. Toward the base of this pit is a membrane, similar to the retina of the eye, which has minuscule thermoreceptors, numbering 500-1,500 per square millimeter. Because the fields of sensitivity of the two pits overlap, a pit viper can see heat in stereo. This bifocal thermal vision provides the snake with a fiery infrared image of its prey and enables it to judge how far away it is. The pit viper's sensory awareness is coupled with quick reactions, allowing it to respond to a heat signal in under 35 milliseconds." (Shuker 2001:17-18)

  Learn more about this functional adaptation.
  • Fang J. 2010. Snake infrared detection unravelled. Nature News [Internet],
  • Gracheva EO; Ingolia NT; Kelly YM; Corder-Morales JF; Hollopeter G; Chesler AT; Sánchez EE; Perez JC; Weissman JS; Julius D. 2010. Molecular basis of infrared detection by snakes. Nature. 464: 1006-1011.
  • Shuker, KPN. 2001. The Hidden Powers of Animals: Uncovering the Secrets of Nature. London: Marshall Editions Ltd. 240 p.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

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"Viper" redirects here. For other uses, see Viper (disambiguation).

The Viperidae (vipers) are a family of venomous snakes found all over the world, except in Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Madagascar, Hawaii, various other isolated islands, and north of the Arctic Circle. All have relatively long, hinged fangs that permit deep penetration and injection of venom. Four subfamilies are currently recognised.[2] They are also known as viperids.


A rattlesnake skull, showing the long fangs used to inject venom.

All viperids have a pair of relatively long solenoglyphous (hollow) fangs that are used to inject venom from glands located towards the rear of the upper jaws, just behind the eyes. Each of the two fangs is at the front of the mouth on a short maxillary bone that can rotate back and forth. When not in use, the fangs fold back against the roof of the mouth and are enclosed in a membranous sheath. The left and right fangs can be rotated together or independently. During a strike, the mouth can open nearly 180° and the maxilla rotates forward, erecting the fangs as late as possible so as the fangs do not become damaged, as they are brittle. The jaws close upon impact and the muscular sheaths encapsulating the venom glands contract, injecting the venom as the fangs penetrate the target. This action is very fast; in defensive strikes, it will be more a stab than a bite. Viperids use this mechanism primarily for immobilization and digestion of prey. Secondarily, it is used for self-defence, though in cases with nonprey, such as humans, they may give a dry bite (not inject any venom). A "dry bite" allows the snake to conserve their precious reserve of venom, because once it has been depleted, it takes time to replenish, leaving the snake vulnerable.

Almost all vipers have keeled scales, a stocky build with a short tail, and, due to the location of the venom glands, a triangle-shaped head distinct from the neck. The great majority have vertically elliptical, or slit-shaped, pupils that can open wide to cover most of the eye or close almost completely, which helps them to see in a wide range of light levels. Typically, vipers are nocturnal and ambush their prey.

Compared to many other snakes, vipers often appear rather sluggish. Most are ovoviviparous, giving birth to live young, but a few lay eggs; the word "viper" is derived from Latin vivo = "I live" and pario = "I give birth".[3]

Geographic range[edit]

Viperid snakes are found in the Americas, Africa and Eurasia. In the Americas, they are native from southern Canada, through the United States, Mexico, Central America and into South America. The adder branch of the Viperidae family contains the only venomous snake found in the United Kingdom.[1] Wild viperids are not found in Australia.


Viperid venoms typically contain an abundance of protein-degrading enzymes, called proteases, that produce symptoms such as pain, strong local swelling and necrosis, blood loss from cardiovascular damage complicated by coagulopathy, and disruption of the blood clotting system. Death is usually caused by collapse in blood pressure. This is in contrast to elapid venoms that generally contain neurotoxins that disable muscle contraction and cause paralysis. Death from elapid bites usually results from asphyxiation because the diaphragm can no longer contract. However, this rule does not always apply: some elapid bites include proteolytic symptoms typical of viperid bites, while some viperid bites produce neurotoxic symptoms.[4]

Proteolytic venom is also dual-purpose: firstly, it is used for defense and to immobilize prey, as with neurotoxic venoms; secondly, many of the venom's enzymes have a digestive function, breaking down molecules in prey items, such as lipids, nucleic acids, and proteins.[5] This is an important adaptation, as many vipers have inefficient digestive systems.[6]

Due to the nature of proteolytic venom, a viperid bite is often a very painful experience and should always be taken seriously, though it may not necessarily prove fatal. Even with prompt and proper treatment, a bite can still result in a permanent scar, and in the worst cases, the affected limb may even have to be amputated. A victim's fate is impossible to predict, as this depends on many factors, including (but not limited to) the species and size of the snake involved, how much venom was injected (if any), and the size and condition of the patient before being bitten. Viper bite victims may also be allergic to the venom and/or the antivenom.


Experiments have shown these snakes are capable of making decisions on how much venom to inject depending on the circumstances. In all cases, the most important determinant of venom expenditure is generally the size of the snake, with larger specimens being capable of delivering much more venom. The species is also important, since some are likely to inject more venom than others, may have more venom available, strike more accurately, or deliver a number of bites in a short time. In predatory bites, factors that influence the amount of venom injected include the size of the prey, the species of prey, and whether the prey item is held or released. The need to label prey for chemosensory relocation after a bite and release may also play a role. In defensive bites, the amount of venom injected may be determined by the size or species of the predator (or antagonist), as well as the assessed level of threat, although larger assailants and higher threat levels may not necessarily lead to larger amounts of venom being injected.[7]

Prey tracking[edit]

The Western diamondback rattlesnake Crotalus atrox, the venom of which contains proteins allowing the snake to track down bitten prey

Hemotoxic venom takes more time than neurotoxic venom to immobilize prey, and so viperid snakes need to track down prey animals after they have been bitten,[7] in a process known as "prey relocalization." Vipers are able to do via certain proteins contained in their venom. This important adaptation allowed rattlesnakes to evolve the strike-and-release bite mechanism, which provided a huge benefit to snakes by minimizing contact with potentially dangerous prey animals.,[8] However, this adaptation then requires the snake to track down the bitten animal in order to eat it, in an environment full of other animals of the same species. A 2013 study found that Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox) responded more actively to mouse carcases that had been injected with crude rattlesnake venom. When the various components of the venom were separated out, the snakes responded to mice injected with two kinds of disintegrins. The study concluded that these disintegrin proteins were responsible for allowing the snakes to track down their prey.[9]


Subfamily[2]Taxon author[2]Genera[2]Species[2]Common nameGeographic range[1]
AzemiopinaeLiem, Marx & Rabb, 197111Fea's viperMyanmar, southeastern Tibet across southern China (Fujian, Guangxi, Jiangxi, Kweichow, Sichuan, Yunnan, Zhejiang) to northern Vietnam
CausinaeCope, 185916Night addersSub-Saharan Africa
CrotalinaeOppel, 181118151Pit vipersIn the Old World from eastern Europe eastward through Asia to Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, peninsular India and Sri Lanka, in the New World from southern Canada southward through Mexico and Central America to southern South America
ViperinaeOppel, 18111266True or pitless vipersEurope, Asia, and Africa

Type genus = Vipera—Laurenti, 1768[1]


That Viperidae family as attributed to Oppel (1811), as opposed to Laurenti (1768) or Gray (1825), is subject to some interpretation. However, the consensus among leading experts is that Laurenti used viperae as the plural of vipera (Latin for "viper", "adder", or "snake") and did not intend for it to indicate a family group taxon. Rather, it is attributed to Oppel, based on his Viperini as a distinct family group name, despite the fact that Gray was the first to use the form Viperinae.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T. 1999. Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, vol. 1. Herpetologists' League. ISBN 1-893777-00-6 (series). ISBN 1-893777-01-4 (volume).
  2. ^ a b c d e "Viperidae". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 10 August 2006. 
  3. ^ Schuett GW, Höggren M, Douglas ME, Greene HW. 2002. Biology of the Vipers. Eagle Mountain Publishing, LC. 580 pp. 16 plates. ISBN 0-9720154-0-X.
  4. ^ http://snakesuntamed.webr.ly/viperids
  5. ^ Slowinski J. 2000. Striking Beauties: Venomous Snakes[dead link] at California Wild. Vol. 53:2. Accessed 2 December 2006.
  6. ^ Smith SA. 2004. Did Someone Say... SSSSnakes? at Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources. Accessed 2 December 2006.
  7. ^ a b Hayes WK, Herbert SS, Rehling GC, Gennaro JF. 2002. Factors that influence venom expenditure in viperids and other snake species during predatory and defensive contexts. In Schuett GW, Höggren M, Douglas ME, Greene HW. 2002. Biology of the Vipers. Eagle Mountain Publishing, LC. 580 pp. 16 plates. ISBN 0-9720154-0-X.
  8. ^ Saviola et al. 2013.
  9. ^ Saviola, A.J.; Chiszar, D.; Busch, C.; Mackessy, S.P. (201). "Molecular basis for prey relocation in viperid snakes". BMC Biology 11. doi:10.1186/1741-7007-11-20. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Gray JE. 1825. A synopsis of the genera of reptiles and Amphibia, with a description of some new species. Annals of Philosophy, new ser., 10: 193–217.
  • Laurenti JN. 1768. Specimen Medicum, Exhibens Synopsin Reptilium Emendatam cum Experimentis circa Venena et antidota reptilium Austriacorum. J.T. de Trattnern, Wien.
  • Oppel M. 1811. Mémoire sur la classification des reptiles. Ordre II. Reptiles à écailles. Section II. Ophidiens. Annales du Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris 16: 254–295, 376–393.
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