Puff adders are probably responsible for more dangerous bites than any other highly venomous snake in Zimbabwe. They are heavy bodied and relatively slow-moving snakes that have a habit of lying on footpaths. They do this to ambush their prey, which is mainly rodents and who also use footpaths. When they hear someone coming, the snake will move off the path, but because they are slow-moving, not very far. If a person does not keep to the footpath they stand a good chance of standing on or next to a puff adder and consequently getting bitten.
Although slow-moving they are extremely fast striking and if you are in range, within half the snakes’ body length, you will get bitten! They have the reputation of being able to strike backwards, but this is not true – the strike is so fast that they sometimes end up on their back which gives the impression that they have struck backwards. The venom has very potent cytotoxins and will result in a lot of pain and gradual swelling which can become extreme. It is vitally important not to use a tourniquet as this will severely aggravate the symptoms.
The snake invariably gives a very loud explosive hissing sound if you stand anywhere near them, hence the name ‘puff’ adder. Normally, a good enough warning before biting! The fangs are very long and very sharp and fold back when the mouth is closed. They have the potential of penetrating leather boots and shoes.
They usually move in a straight line pulling themselves along with their belly scales, but if startled and need to move quickly will resort to a serpentine movement. They are mainly terrestrial but will sometimes climb into low bushes especially if it is very hot. Like most snakes they are good swimmers.
Puff Adders seldom grow longer than 1m but can get up to 1,2m. In East Africa they have been recorded up to 1,8m. As already mentioned, they are heavy-bodied with short tails, slightly longer in males. The scales are heavily keeled above and smooth underneath. The head is broad and flat and the eye is vertical indicating a nocturnal snake. They give birth to live young, sometimes as many as 30. One snake sin a Czech zoo had 156 young!
They are found throughout Africa except for desert and mountainous areas. In Zimbabwe they are absent from the Eastern Highlands where they are replaced by the berg adder.