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African Burrowing Snakes: Atractaspididae

Behavior And Reproduction

Also known as mole vipers or burrowing asps, members of this family are known best for their underground lifestyles. Some African burrowing snakes only crawl through tunnels that other animals make, but some can force their heads through loose sand and "dig" their own tunnels. Most of these snakes (except the burrowing asp) have fangs at the rear of the mouth, and so they must take a full bite to get any benefit from their fangs.


Among the African burrowing snakes, the yellow and black burrowing snakes have an unusual color pattern that helps them survive. An attacking animal could end the life of one of these snakes with a well-aimed bite to its head, but the snake is able to persuade the attacker to bite its tail instead. The snake does it by curling up its body into a coil and hiding its bright yellow head inside the coil. Then it raises its tail, which is also colored yellow, and waves it back and forth. When the attacker takes a bite of the snake, all it gets is the tail. The snake can often slither off, injured but still alive.

A burrowing asp, on the other hand, has two long, hollow fangs at the front of the mouth that it uses to inject venom into a prey animal or to protect itself from a predator. This unusual snake holds just one of its two backward-curving fangs outside its mouth and, keeping its mouth closed, stabs sideways and backward with its head to hook the bare fang into the prey or predator. This unusual backward-curved fang can make the snake quite dangerous to humans who mistakenly believe that they can safely hold the snake behind the head. With a quick backward flick of the head, the snake can force its fang into a human's hand. This unique venom-delivery system has given several other common names to the burrowing asp, including side-stabbing snake and stiletto snake. A stiletto is a type of thin, sharp knife.

During breeding time, many species come out of their underground tunnels to find mates. The females of all except one species of African burrowing snake lay eggs. Typically, the female will lay two to fifteen oblong-shaped eggs, either in moist soil or inside an old and unused termite nest. The eggs hatch in six to eight weeks into young snakes that are about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 centimeters) long. The exception is the Jackson's centipede eater, which gives birth to two or three live young that are about 4 inches (10 centimeters) long.

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceDinosaurs, Snakes, and Other ReptilesAfrican Burrowing Snakes: Atractaspididae - Physical Characteristics, Diet, Behavior And Reproduction, African Burrowing Snakes And People, Southern Burrowing Asp (atractaspis Bibronii): Species Account - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE, HABITAT, CONSERVATION STATUS