The Nose-horned viper is a snake found in southern Europe through to the Balkans and parts of the Middle East. Did you know that it is actually reputed to be the most dangerous of the European vipers due to its large size, long fangs (up to a whopping 0.5 inches) and high venom toxicity?
Because it is often found in private collections, I feel it’s important to make sure people who decide to keep these snakes have access to the proper care information for this species. Here is a great article written by Miqe Erikzén of Terrarium Morbidum.
I’ve been asked to write an article about something that’s close to my heart; successful keeping and breeding of the Nose-horned Viper, Vipera ammodytes. I’ve tried to put together the most important information about the species based on my own experiences and some literature that I’ve read (bibliography at the end of the article).
The species name ammodytes comes from the Greek words “ammos”, that means “sand” and “dytäs” that means “diver”. This name “sand-diver” is not really a good name as the snake is not a sand-diver at all. It has until rather recently been called “Sand viper”, but is now called Long-nosed viper, although you will find the names “Sandviper”, “Sandadder” and “Long-nosed viper” in literature too.
The Nose-horned viper is a strong and heavily built snake that becomes up to 80 centimetres long in the wild.
Individuals kept in captivity may reach even over 95 centimeters. I have in fact seen specimens in captivity that is slightly more that 110 centimeters. Specimens from some populations in the Greek archipelago rarely exceed 50 centimeters though. Males often grow longer than females, but are on the other hand more slender built than the females are. It has a typical triangular head that sets off clearly from the slim neck. Both males and females have a diagonally forward arranged horn on the snout. The horn is soft, and can easily be bent in all directions. The purpose of the horn is yet unknown.
Both males and females have a dorsal zigzag-band, running from the neck to the cloaca on the back and both genders have spots on both sides of the body, often in the same colour as the zigzag-band.
Males are brighter in colouration than females and have sharper markings on the dorsal zigzag-band and on the face, making it fairly easy to see the gender of a snake. The species have a large variety of colours, from ligh tgray to almost black in the ground colour to really beautiful colours ranging from beige, lemon yellow and orange to red and brown. The tail is red, green, orange or yellowish and sometimes tells the subspecies. Menalistic and patternless snakes have been recorded as well as striped ones, and even albinistic specimens have been found.
Subspecies and spreading
European nose-horned viper Vipera ammodytes ammodytes: (Linnaeus 1758) Austria, north-eastern Italy and Slovenia.
Southern nose-horned viper Vipera ammodytes meridionalis: (Boulenger 1903) Southern Macedonia, southern Albania and Greece to western European Turkey.
Dobrudja nose-horned viper Vipera ammodytes montandoni: (Boulenger 1904) Romania, Northern Bulgaria (to the Black Sea) to European Turkey.
South Tyrol nose-horned viper Vipera ammodytes ruffoi: (Bruno 1968) Only found in the surroundings of Bolzano, Alto Adige Italy.
In older literature, the subspecies Transcaucasian nose-horned viper Vipera ammodytes transcaucasiana is mentioned, but it is now more or less accepted as an own specie Vipera transcaucasiana.
Please note that the taxonomy regarding the subspecies is still under investigation.
The species prefer warm, sunny and dry areas, like rocky and bushy slopes, old stonewalls surrounding cultivated fields. It can also be found on the edge of woods or in glades. The species is living in coastal areas as well as in mountainous regions and can be found from the sea-level and as high as 2000 meters above sea-level.
They are active during daytime from dawn to dusk, except during the warmest hours at mid day when they retire into a hole under a stone, in a wall or under some bushes.
The snake is not normally aggressive in the wild, but will in case of disturbance defend themselves by hissing loudly and sometimes bite.
In the terrarium they are quite calm and seem to be curious, coming forward to look when you walk up to them. They’re often stretched out in full body length of curled up fully visible on a flat stone, and not in a defensive “s”-shaped way.
These vipers should be kept in medium sized cages, a terrarium measuring 70 X 50 X 50 centimetres (length X depth X hight) is sufficient for a pair. A substrate of a mixture from sand, loam and forest earth will work fine. Put dry leaves in the back of the cage, on top of the substrate, as it will make the snakes feel safe. The leaves also help to make a “micro habitat”. An interior with heavy stones/slabs/slates and large roots/branches make the setup look natural together with stalks of dried grass.
Live plants work fine with these snakes because they don’t tend to dig as many colubrids do. I have successfully used Chlorophytum comosum, “Spider plant” or “Helicopter plant” in the terrariums. They are cheap and can be found almost everywhere where plants and flowers are sold and propagation of the plant is also very easy.
I’ve made pots for the plants out of concrete because I think that most flowerpots don’t look natural. It’s easy putting a little fresh concrete on a flat surface, put a flowerpot of plastic on it, and throw concrete around the sides of the pot so that it’s covered. Then form it until you are satisfied and let it dry. Let it harden for 24 hours, then take the pot away. You don’t need to paint it with lacquer or seal it with anything if you have had enough concrete around the pot. The concrete will hold rather large amounts of water in itself, helping the flower to stay properly moistened for several days after watering. Now you can put a plant of your choice in it. Besides the fact that it looks more natural and blends in well with the rest of the terrarium’s interior, it’s also hard enough to use as support for large slabs and slates.
Make sure that there are hiding places.
A drinking container with fresh water is needed at all times.
Temperatures between 24-26ºC / 75,2-78,8ºF, with a basking spot under which 32-35ºC / 89.6-95ºF are reached. A temperature dropping at night to about 20ºC / 68ºF is recommended.
Spray gently with water in the morning, a little extra in the evening when the animal/s is shedding.
No UV-B vitamins/lightning is required for the species.
Recommendations about security
Make sure that the terrarium is set up in a way, which allows you to see the whole interior area just from changing your angle of view without opening the terrarium. That way you can always “count-in” your animal/s. You don’t want to be surprised by a hiding snake.
Always handle this species with hook or tong. Do never “free handle”, as it is really powerful!
The species requires an 8-10 weeks hibernating period in order to trigger mating behaviour. They need to hibernate at temperatures ranging from +3ºC / 37,4ºF to +7ºC / 44,6ºF, in a dark and relatively dry environment. Too much moisture can cause scale-rot (Ulcerative dermatitis). No food should be given during the hibernation, but give a gentle spray of water every fortnight to give the animal a possibility to drink.
Males usually wrestle in combat with each other before the winner of the combat is mating with the female. You can choose the winner of this combat fairly easy. To control colours and sharpness of patterns on the offspring, you choose the one that looks the most spectacular in colour or has the most sharpness in the pattern and letting him stay in the terrarium with the female, while the other male is removed to another cage.
Mating season in the nature is April to May, in captivity 1-3 weeks after hibernation is over and the males have shed their skin.
They are livebearers, and 5-18 babies measuring 15-22 centimetres are delivered after about three months of gestation. The young ones shed their skin real soon after birth, and are often more aggressive then the adults. Teasing them to feed is normally not difficult. Most often, they manage to take pink mice after a week.
They can, when they are semi-adult or adult be housed together. I’ve had four adult specimens in the same terrarium without problems, but I strongly recommend that no more then two adult animals are housed together because of difficulties when feeding.
Sexual maturity will occur in about 2½ – 3 years for captive bred animals, and will produce one clutch of young snakes every year if all requirements are met. In nature, sexual maturity take up to 5 years, and the species mate only every second or even third year.
The venom is probably the strongest of the European vipers, except maybe for Macrovipera schweizeri and Montivipera xanthina. Vipera ammodytes venom is used in the production of antivenin for the bite of other European vipers. The snake is farmed for this purpose. The venom has both proteolytic (directed degradation of proteins by cellular enzymes), neurotoxic components (a toxin that acts specifically on nerve cells). It contains hemotoxins (toxins that destroy red blood cells, disrupt blood clotting, and/or cause organ degeneration and generalized tissue damage) with blood coagulant properties. These are similar to, and almost as powerful as crotalid venom. Other properties include anticoagulant effects, hemoconcentration and hemorrhage.
In some areas the snake is at least a significant medical risk. In the past, fatalities were relatively frequent in the Balkans because the peasants there had a habit of walking barefoot and working with naked hands.
Life threatening or deadly bites are expressed rare today, usually it comes to local symptoms of intoxication. Pain is usually strong, a swelling occurs within 2 hours of time.
General symptoms of intoxication: vomiting, beating of the heart, cramps, (anaphylactic) shock, possibly swindles and unconsciousness.
There are less than 10 recorded deaths by bites of this species since 1970 in Europe according to information collected by Mario Schweiger.
Snakes in captivity will eat mice, young rats and Gerbils and will easily adapt to eat frozen (thawed) pray. In the nature they eat rodents, and sometimes lizards and birds.
Feed young animals with 1-2 pink mice once every 10-14 days, and adults with 1-2 adult mice once every 14-21 days. Feed more in the autumn because they need to put on some weight before hibernation, especially females as they ovulate in the autumn.
My own specimens
I have kept and bred this species of viper since 1997, and the gray breeding pair that I started with, still give litters. The breeding pair has until today delivered somewhere between 5 to 24 babies in the litters almost every year.
The oddest male-baby came in June 2001, in a litter of 13 babies. It was almost completely black and white with a “copperish” coloured head. All the other babies were gray as the parents. I now use this male in breeding, trying to get vipers with the same colours and markings. He is the origin of the morph I call “Zokadelic” since his name is in fact “Zok”. He was so beautiful, I had to name him. My pride and joy…
Recommended further reading
DE SMEDT, J (2006) The Vipers of Europe, JDS Verlag, 348 pp. ISBN: 3-00-019113-5
TOMOVIC, L (2006) Systematics of the Nose-horned viper (Vipera ammodytes, LINNAEUS, 1758), Institute of Zoology, Faculty of Biology, University of Belgrade, Belgrade, Serbia. HERPETOLOGICAL JOURNAL, Vol. 16, 191-201
MALLOW, D, LUDWIG, D, and NILSON, G (2003) True Vipers: Natural History of Old World Vipers Krieger Publishing Company. Melbourne, FL. 359pp. Hardcover. ISBN 1-89464-877-2
SCHUETT, G. W., HöGGREN M., DOUGLAS M. E. and GREENE H. W (2002) Biology of the Vipers, Eagle Mountain Publishing, 592 pp. ISBN 0-97-20154-0-X
Hotsnakes. Finnish based site for all venomous snake discussions, some very competent people are using the forum. http://www.hotsnakes.org
Club 100. A site where a group of Swedish fieldherpetologists have stored many of their fieldpictures. http://www.club100.net/
VipersGarden. Homepage of Mario Schweiger, an Austrian herpetologist. Contains a lot of good information and pictures. http://www.vipersgarden.at
Terrarium Morbidum. Swedish based homepage of Miqe Erikzén, author of this article. http://www.terrariummorbidum.se
DE SMEDT, J (2006) The Vipers of Europe, JDS Verlag.
Collected information from inhabitants during field trips in Bosnia.
“VipersGarden”. Homepage of Mario Schweiger, http://www.vipersgarden.at