The Rhinoceros Viper
Rhinoceros viper Name: Rhinoceros viper
Scientific name:
Bitis nasicornis
Range: Central and western Africa
Habitat: Wetlands and tropical forest
Status: Not threatened 
Size: 2 to 4 feet in length
Location in the zoo:  Herpetarium

Physical Description:

The rhinoceros viper, also called the river jack, can grow to be somewhat large in size.  Adults normally grow to be 2 to 4 feet in length.  One source even cites them as being able to reach up to 7 feet in length!  The head of this animal is considerably smaller in size than its body.  The rhinoceros viper's head is one of its most distinguishing characteristics.  The rhino viper's head is in a triangular shape.  There are 2 or 3 "horns" above each nostril.  The coloration of the rhinoceros viper is incredible.  Because of the various patterns and colors, the rhino viper has often been regarded as one of the most beautiful snakes in the world (see the above picture).  Coloration in the rhinoceros viper is an adaptive feature.  The degree of light and dark colors of this snake depends on its habitat.  This wetland species of adders has darker colors which allow it to blend well with the jungle floor where it would most likely be found. 

General Information:

The rhinoceros viper is one of three species of puff adders.  Some reasons these venomous snakes are called puff adders are that, when excited, they have the ability to enlarge their size considerably by inflating their bodies.  This creates the "puffed" look that is approximately twice the normal size of the snake's body.  These adders also make a sort of hissing noise through their nose as part of their respiratory function.

Fangs and Venom:

Bitis nasicornis is considered to be one of the most dangerous snakes of Africa.  Small doses of the snake's hemotoxic venom can be deadly.  This is unlike the gaboon viper, the largest of the vipers, who uses a considerably larger amount of venom.  Bitis nasicornis has both neurotoxic, as well as hemotoxic venom, as do most other venomous snakes.  The hemotoxic venom in rhinoceros vipers is much more dominant.  This venom attacks the circulatory system of the snake's victim, destroying tissue and blood vessels.  Internal bleeding also occurs.  When not in use, the rhino viper's fangs are folded up into the roof of the snake's mouth.  The snake has the ability to control the movement of its fangs.  Simply because the rhino viper may open its mouth does not mean that the fangs will flip down into place.  These fangs penetrate deep into the victim and the small doses of venom flow through the hollow fangs into the wound.

Movement and Habits:

The rhinoceros viper is generally somewhat slow in locomotion.  This snake will not usually bite unless provoked or hungry.  When the rhino viper does get excited it can strike faster than the blink of an eye with extremely deadly accuracy. Bitis can strike in any direction with equal speed.  "Their striking range is surprisingly long, sometimes as long as half the snake's length."  As with other snakes, the rhino viper uses its scales for movement.  Stretching its skin across its ribs, then releasing tension gives the rhino viper the ability to slither across the jungle floor quite efficiently. 

Personal observations:

Although most people would never see the rhino viper in the wild there are many who breed this extremely dangerous animal domestically.  Seeing as how this is one of the most dangerous snakes in the world because of its quick strike and fatal hemotoxic venom, I seriously wonder why anyone would want to have this snake as a pet.  Information on this snake is hard to come by.  I am especially interested in the adaptive feature of Bitis' coloration.  An animal with such extremely bright and diverse colors that can blend so well with its surroundings has a definite advantage over both its predators and prey alike.  Even with every advantage the snake displays, it tends to keep to itself unless provoked or hungary.  This snake is definitely an impressive specimen. 

Page author: Jason S. Lipsett
E-mail me at

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Printed sources of information:

Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. volume 6: pp. 455-457. Copyright 1975.
Poisonous Snakes of the World. Dept. of the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery: p. 102.

Internet sources:

Striking Beauties

University of Michigan

California Academy of Sciences