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Europe's most venomous snakes

Europe is generally not the dream destination for snake enthusiasts and herpetologists. The venomous species there are also not so numerous and far from being the most dangerous in the world. There is, for instance, only one venomous species in the United Kingdom, and no snake at all in Ireland (thanks to St Patrick!).
Yet, Europe does host a very nice variety of snake species. Many of them belong to the large and varied Colubrid group, and are either non-venomous or only slightly venomous and by no means a danger to humans. The only truly venomous snakes in Europe therefore all belong to the Viper family and, unlike their American counterparts, are all true vipers - as opposed to pit vipers-.

Vipers possess a very sophisticated venom delivery system with large tubular hinged fangs placed in the front of their mouth which can be folded back when not in use. They are known to inflict very deep and painful bites.

Following is an overview of the main viper species found in Europe.

- Common Adder or European Adder (Vipera berus)

This small viper - 45 to 60 centimeters, or 18 to 27 inches- is very common throughout much of Europe. It is also the only poisonous snake occurring in the United Kingdom. It can be found in a variety of habitats, from grassy fields to rocky slopes, and on farms and cultivated lands.

The Common Adder's color is variable: males are light brown to steel gray, and female are more colorful, ranging from yellow to brown or even brick red. Some individuals are completely black, while most have the striking dark zigzag stripe pattern running the length of their bodies above a line of oval spots. The Common Adder also bears a distinctive "X" or "V" black marking on its head.

The Common Adder is reputed for its irritable disposition and can strike without warning when startled or handled. Its venom haemotoxic, destroying blood cells and causing tissue damage. Most bites are inflicted on campers, hikers, and field workers..

- Asp Viper or Asp, Aspic viper, European Asp, European Viper, Jura viper (Vipera aspis)

The Aspic Viper, which name - "aspis" means "viper" in Greek, is found in south-western Europe: northeastern Spain, Andorra, most of France- inckuding in the Ile de Re and Oleron islands -, Monaco, Italy, the islands of Elba, Montecristo and Sicily, San Marino, Switzerland; northwestern Slovenia and extreme southwestern Germany - southern Black Forest-.
In 2006, a number of individuals were discovered in a wooded area south of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. It is likely that one or more escaped or were set loose in the area since the Asp Viper is not native in this country.

The Asp Viper likes warm areas that are exposed to the sun, with some plant cover and comparatively dry soils. In Italy and France, it is often found in areas with low mountains or hills, notably in limestone regions, though it sometimes occurs in lower plains. It can be found in scrublands, glades, mountain meadows, forest clearings, in areas bordering woods, in mesic chestnut/oak woodlands, near streams or even in rubbish dumps and stone quarries. Though not specifically a snake of high altitudes, the Asp Viper has been found in the Pyrenees mountains as high as 2,100 m - 6,500 feet - above sea level.

This 60 to 65 cm long - roughly 25 inches - viper has a distinctive very short tail and a broad, triangular head with a slightly upturned snout. The dorsal markings are highly variable, but only rarely take the form of a clear zigzag, as in the Common Adder.

Bites from this species can be more severe than those from the Common Adder (Vipera berus); not only can they be very painful, but they are fatal, if untreated, in about 4% of all cases. It is considered the most dangerous snake in France and it is responsible for 90% of all cases of snakebite in Italy.

Envenomation symptoms include rapidly spreading acute pain, followed by edema and discoloration. Severe haemorrhagic necrosis sometimes occurs after a few hours. Vision may also be severely impaired, probably because of the degradation of blood and blood vessels in the eyes. The venom has both coagulant and anticoagulant effects and may also affect glomerular structure, which can lead to death due to renal failure. In some cases, the victims develop neurotoxic symptoms, including difficulty in breathing and swallowing, as well as paralysis of the bitten limbs.

Five subspecies are currently recognized.

- Long-nosed Adder or Nose-horned Viper (vipera ammodytes)

Occurs in south-eastern Europe, from Hungary and Austria to Italy, Romania, former Yugoslavia, and northern Albania.
This small viper - 45 to 90 cm, or 18 to 36 inches - is commonly found in much of its range in habitats varying from farms, open fields and cultivated land to rocky slopes.

The name "long-nosed" or "nose-horned" comes from the projection of tiny scales it has on the tip of its nose. This gray to reddish viper also bears a distinctive dark brown or black zigzag pattern running the length of its back.

The Long-nosed Adder is responsible for many bites which can be fatal, though chances of survival are good with medical aid. Its venom is haemotoxic, causing severe pain and massive tissue damage.

- Pallas' Viper (Akistrodon halys)

This gray to yellow snake is a close relative of the American copperhead, which it resembles. The Palls' Viper occurs throughout southeastern Europe where it is found in farming regions, open fields or hillsides.

It is a shy snake which seldom strikes. It has a haemotoxic venom that is rarely fatal to humans.

- Ursini's Viper, or Orsini's Viper, or Meadow Viper (Vipera ursinii)

This snake can be found in south-eastern France, central Italy, west Balkans (former Yugoslavia), northern Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Germany.
It inhabits meadows, grassy fields, farmlands or rocky hillsides.

Ursini's Viper has the same coloration and dorsal zigzag pattern as the Common Adder and Long-nosed Adder. This little snake - 45 to 90 cm or 18 to 36 inches - is known to have an irritable disposition. It will readily strike when approached. It has an haemotoxic venom which is quite potent and has caused human deaths, though on rare occasions.

- Lataste's Viper or Snub-nosed Viper, Snub-nosed Adder
(Vipera latastei)

This viper occurs in the extreme southwestern Europe - France, Portugal and Spain- and northwestern Africa - the Mediterranean region of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia-.

It grows to a maximum length of about 72 cm - 29 inches -, but is usually shorter.

Lataste's Viper had the specificity of being classsified as "Near Threatened" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (2001). Indeed, it is believed to be in significant decline mostly because widespread habitat loss - but also persecution - throughout much of its range. As further population declines are likely, this species could locally become extinct, notably in Tunisia.

- Seoane's Viper or Baskian Viper, Iberian Cross Adder, Portuguese Viper (Vipera seoanei)

This venomous viper species is found in extreme southwestern France and the northern regions of Spain and Portugal (Basque country, mountains of Galicia and Cantabrici).

The Seoane's Viper is normally shorter than 75 cm - 30 inches - and has very variable colorations. It can have well-developed, brown zigzag pattern down the back set against a beige or light-gray to brownish ground color;
The pattern can alternatively be a fragmented zigzag, a roughly twin-striped, or it can have no back marking at all.

- Ottoman viper or Turkish Viper, Rock Viper, Coastal Viper, Near East Viper, Mountain Viper (Vipera xanthina)

The Ottoman Viper is a widely distributed species which occurs in northeastern Greece and European Turkey, as well as in some Aegean Sea islands (Simi, Kos, Kalimnos, Leros, Lipsos, Patmos, Samos, Chios and Lesbos). Its population is presumed to be quite large.

This snake is light in color, varying from gray to white with a black zig-zag pattern running along its back. It is a fairly big viper usually measuring some 70 to 95 cm - 28 to 38 inches-, but reaching up to 130 cm - 52 inches - on some Greek islands.

- Nikolsky's Adder or Forest-steppe Adder (Vipera nikolskii)

This venomous viper is endemic to central Ukraine.
Adults are short and thick-bodied, growing to a maximum length of 68 cm - 27 inches-.

- Milos viper (Macrovipera schweizeri)

This Greek viper is limited to the islands of Milos, Kimolos, Polyaigos, and Sifnos.

Poisonous Snakes of Europe
Venomous Snakes of Europe