Playing with Pit Vipers

Playing with pit vipers

One thought does cross ones mind when hacking through Bornean jungles. Snakes… and elephants.

One primed up pachyderm might come charging out of the scrub and dance a fandango on your chest and leave you as a throw rug- all for no apparent reason, but at least you can’t accidentally step on one. It’s snakes you really have to look out for. Don’t get me wrong, I love the things (let’s face it, who wouldn’t) but they demand respect.

The locked on gaze of a Wagler's pit viper

The locked on gaze of a Wagler’s pit viper

There are king cobras that reach several meters long, making them the largest venemous snakes on the planet. With a frightening venom yield, they specialize in hunting down and eating other snakes and are big enough to stand up, flare their hood and look you right in the eye. But they’re not such a worry, you’re not likely to step on one of those either, they’re intelligent and fast. Gigantic reticulated pythons here have eaten people as they allegedly grow to the double figure mark, but such enormous examples are as rare as honest politicians. Spitting cobras are remarkably common, but will gladly turn the other way and do the Houdini act rather than hang around for a discussion or enact their specialty – a sprayed jet of venom in your eyes. It’s the pit vipers that you keep an eye open for.

Pit viper weaponry

Legless death machines complete with camouflage cloaking they are equipped to deal out all kinds of inconvenience to those that get too close. These are snakes I will not handle bare handed. Give me a cobra any day. At least cobras aren’t nearly so flexible or fast…

Pit vipers have the most advanced weaponry of any reptile, or so far as we know of any animal at all it could be argued. OK, so I’ll argue in favor of it. Check out the stats:

A close up of the face. Notice the heat sensitive pit between the eye and nostril.

A close up of the face. Notice the heat sensitive pit between the eye and nostril.

Heat sensitive pits between the eye and the nostril that can detect the tiniest change in temperature, to a fraction of a degree. These are also directional, so the snake can ‘see’ warm blooded prey in total darkness only by its heat signature. Seriously, what other animal can see in total darkness? Bats can’t, they use sound. Owls can’t either, they need some light, just a whole lot less than us. What’s more, pit vipers can strike out and hit their target with incredible precision.Camouflage is also on the list of cool things pit vipers have. It seems just about all of the species are incredibly hard to see in their preferred environment.

The Bornean species are so well camouflaged I can’t even find some of them, and no doubt they are far more common than we realize. The brown species of pit viper are incredibly camouflaged and tend to prefer life in the leaf litter while not surprisingly the green species tend to dwell in trees. Common on coffee and banana plantations, many a worker has lost fingers and hands to these well hidden snakes. A super incredible awesome sense of taste. No, we’re not talking wine and cheese connoisseur taste, or interior decorating either. Snakes, including pit vipers have a forked tongue, a trait they share with monitors. This isn’t just to scare you, though the sight of a forked tongue flicking out of a snake’s mouth up close might make many an adult scream like a six year old schoolgirl. The forked tongue is a marvelous contraption, it can taste in stereo. Kinda makes our rounded tongues lame.

A wagler's pit viper displays the forked tongue

A wagler’s pit viper displays the forked tongue

Though I must correct myself, the tongue itself doesn’t taste, instead, the pit viper (or any snake or monitor) waves it about in the air and takes it back into the mouth. On the roof of the mouth is an organ that analyzes the particles the tongue has collected to figure out what is going on. If the pit viper is following the trail of prey, as it moves along it can detect if the scent is stronger on one side of the mouth than the other and adjust accordingly. It’s fiendishly accurate, so the pit viper can do what it’s best at. No matter the species of pit viper, they are experts at ambush…


A Pope's pit viper

A Pope’s pit viper can be hard to see in the trees

Folding hypodermic needles of death are what await the prey of the pit viper. They fold simply because they are too big to fit in the mouth normally, so like a switchblade they fold backwards so the mouth can accommodate them. When the snake strikes they hinge outwards so the target is ‘stabbed’ rather than ‘bitten.’ But with firing strikes all over the place with teeth sticking out in front, wouldn’t they get broken. The short answer is yes. The rest of the answer is that they grow back anyway. Backing up the fangs are glands of hideous venom, many species have a sort that will turn human flesh black and make it fall away dead and cause horrible deformities. Losses of fingers, toes and even limbs can follow a bite, but when it comes to prey it simply won’t last long enough to lament the loss of digits, prey simply dies veryquickly. Just watch the BBC’s Life in Cold Blood to see how quickly the pit viper (in this case a rattlesnake) kills.

Incredibly supple and flexible necks allow the pit viper to bunch up, straightening out in a flash to strike if needed.

Since they cannot use a knife and fork to cut up dinner politely, the various species of pit viper like most snakes will simply ‘walk the mouth’ down its food, stretching the mouth to unbelievable proportions to fit it all in.

Pit viper powers combine

A Pope's pit viper sits with its head down ready to strike

A Pope’s pit viper sits with its head down ready to strike

So, for the reasons stated above, a pit viper, whatever the exact species is a really cool snake. Like a character from Captain Planet, but unlike in so many ways, they combine their powers to form a death machine capable of targeting, near instantly killing and swallowing their victims and dismantling the body parts of enemies or the overly curious. Using their sense of taste, they find an area that their likely prey seems to use a lot. If it’s small mammals, they use frequent runways, so finding an optimal, well visited spot is fairly easy. Then the pit viper waits, body configured like a jack-in-the-box of pure death, but not triggered by winding a handle- the prey just has to be in the right spot. The thing is, the metabolism of reptiles is such that they can afford to wait, some have been seen in the same position for days or even weeks- they just don’t burn through energy like we do. The tree dwelling species may hang head-down over a likely trail as shown in the picture. Either way, when prey comes close, the heat sensing pits alert the pit viper of the position, size and distance of the target in question, and when the moment is right… well, you get the drift.

Before signing off for another night, I must tell you of the fun I had with a white-lipped pit viper in Baluran NP in far eastern Java, Indonesia. I had been looking and looking to find my first pit viper ever after the head ranger told me they were common in the park. He simply said to look on the roads at night. I had walked kilometers down the road through the savannah and coastal forest but seen no pit viper. Getting a ride to the guesthouse within the park from a guy on a motorbike, he stopped suddenly and jabbed a finger in the direction of a discarded green piece of rope, except that it had fangs and was a snake – a white lipped pit viper. I had a long stick and nothing else, so I poked at the pit viper and it glared at me. This was like no other snake I had ever seen. It locked on and executed a strange sidewinder motion in one spot, sending curves down its body though keeping its head still. I scooped it up and it obligingly wrapped around the stick. My first pit viper! For unknown reasons I was not allowed to re-board the bike while I had the snake, so I had to run back to the guest house. Park rangers saw me sprint past in the dark, and as they were hard at work (which means sitting around smoking) they decided to see what was the matter. I ran into the living room with about six uniformed men right behind me (the crack anti-poaching squad in fact) and once in the open I swung around. They saw what was on the end of the stick and squealed like little children and evaporated into the night. Here’s a question, have you ever put a pit viper in a pillowcase? This was my next mission, as I needed to have it securely in a bag so I could ready the camera. A pillowcase simply flops to the ground uselessly unless it’s propped up. I was not volunteering my hands for the task and only had one stick, so I opened the pillowcase up and left it open bunched up on the ground and tried to coax the pit viper onto it so I could lift a corner of it with the stick. This was no easy task as this snake side-wound all over the place, but I finally did get it in the bag and took it outside for some pictures. One thing does make the claret run cold, and that’s the feeling of the said pillowcase momentarily brushing one’s leg while walking to the photo site…

The white lipped pit viper on the road

  People ask what camera I use for these and other pictures. The Canon EOS 60D is what I currently use. For tips on how to take closeups of reptiles and the like, read this article

2 comments on “Playing with Pit Vipers

  1. Francesco Banda Jasso on said:

    Finally a person that puts some real work into a blog. I do like what you have done with the blog.

  2. Nathan on said:

    Thanks Francesco,

    I really appreciate feedback and am glad you are enjoying reading about the adventures.


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