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Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Family: Viperidae
Subfamily: Viperinae
Genus: Atheris
Cope, 1862
  • Chloroechis - Bonaparte, 1849
  • Atheris - Cope, 1862
  • Poecilostolus - Günther, 1863[1]

Common names: bush vipers.[2]  
Atheris is a genus of venomous vipers found only found in tropical subsaharan Africa, excluding southern Africa.[1] Confined to rain forest areas, many members have isolated and fragmented distributions.[3] In an interesting example of convergent evolution, they show many similarities to the arboreal pit vipers of Asia and South America.[2] Eight species are currently recognized.[4]


Relatively small in size, with adults ranging in size from 40 cm (A. katangensis) to a maximum of 78 cm (A. squamigera).[2]

All species have a broad, triangular head that is distinct from the neck. The canthus is also distinct and the snout is broad. The crown is covered with small imbricate or smooth scales, none of which are enlarged. The eyes are relatively large eyes with elliptical pupils. The eyes are separated from the supralabials by 1-3 scale rows and from the nasal by 2-3 scales.[3]

The body is slender, tapering and slightly compressed. The dorsal scales are overlapping, strongly keeled and have apical pits. Laterally these are smaller than the middorsals. Midbody there are 14-36 rows of dorsal scales. There are 133-175 rounded ventral scales. The subcaudal scales are single and number 38-67.[2][3] The tail is strongly prehensile and can support the body while suspended from a branch or a twig.[5]

Members of this group come in an amazing variety of colors and patterns, often within a single species. A. ceratophora and A. squamigera are particularly variable.[6]

Geographic range

Found only in tropical subsaharan Africa, excluding southern Africa.[1]

Some species have only isolated populations, surviving in small sections of ancient rainforest. This is a sign that they once had a much a much wider distribution, but have since been in declined.[2]


Rainforest regions, mostly in remote areas far from human activity. Some species are threatened by habitat destruction.[2]


All species are strictly arboreal, although they can sometimes be found on or near the ground.[6]


Atheris species have been known to prey upon a variety of small amphibians, lizards, rodents, birds and even other snakes. Some species or populations may specialize in eating frogs, but most have been described as opportunistic feeders.[3][6] Prey is typically ambushed from a hanging position, held until it has succumbed to the venom and then swallowed.[6]


All Atheris species are ovoviviparous.[5] Food may be refused during the African "winter" months of July and August. Mating takes place in September-November and the females give birth to live young in March and April.[7]


A. squamigera is reported to do very well in captivity, needing only something to climb on and having no particular temperature requirements. Captive specimens take mice and small birds.[3] However, there have been reports of cannibalism.[6]


Not much is known about their venom except that it is strongly hemotoxic, causing pain, swelling and blood clotting problems.[2] Until recently, their venom has often been regarded as less toxic than that of many other species, perhaps because bites are uncommon,[3] but this turned out not to be the case. There are now a number of reports of bites that have lead to severe hemorrhaging.[8][9][10] One case was fatal.[3] Atheris-specific antivenin does not exist[2] and antivenins meant for bites from other species seem to have little effect, although Echis antivenin has been reported to have been of some help in a case of A. squamigera envenomation.[3]


Species[1] Authority[1] Subsp.*[4] Common name Geographic range[1]
A. anisolepis Mocquard, 1887 0 West central Africa: Gabon, Congo, west DR Congo, north Angola.
A. ceratophora Werner, 1895 0 Horned bush viper The Usambara and Uzungwe Mountains in Tanzania.
A. chlorechisT (Pel, 1851) 0 Western bush viper West Africa including Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, isolated locations in Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
A. desaixi Ashe, 1968 0 Mount Kenya bush viper Two isolated populations in Kenya: in the forests at Chuka, south-eastern Mount Kenya, and Igembe in the northern Nyambeni range.
A. hispida Laurent, 1955 0 Bristly bush viper Central Africa: DR Congo, south-west Uganda, west Kenya.
A. katangensis Witte, 1953 0 Upemba bush viper Restricted to Upemba National Park, Katanga Province in eastern DR Congo.
A. nitschei Tornier, 1902 1 Great Lakes bush viper Central Africa from east DR Congo, Uganda and west Tanzania southward to north Malawi and north Zambia.
A. squamigera (Hallowell, 1854) 0 Variable bush viper West and central Africa: Ivory Coast and Ghana, eastward through southern Nigeria to Cameroon, southern Central African Republic, Gabon, Congo, DR Congo, northern Angola, Uganda, Tanzania (Rumanika Game Reserve), western Kenya and Bioko Island.

*) Not including the nominate subspecies (typical form).
T) Type species.


Other species may be encountered in literature, such as:[11]

  • A. acuminata - Broadley, 1998 - western Uganda
  • A. broadleyi - Lawson, 1999 - Cameroon (East Province)
  • A. hirsuta - Ernst & Rödel, 2002 - Ivory Coast
  • A. rungweensis - Bogert, 1940 - south-west Tanzania, north-east Zambia, north Malawi
  • A. subocularis - Fischer, 1888 - Cameroon (Southwest Province), extreme east Nigeria

Until relatively recently, the following species, all of which are terrestrial, were also included in the genus Atheris:[3]

Together with Atheris, these four genera are sometimes referred to as the tribe Atherini.[11]

See also

Cited references

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T. 1999. Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, vol. 1. Herpetologists' League. 511 pp. ISBN 1-893777-00-6 (series). ISBN 1-893777-01-4 (volume).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Spawls S, Branch B. 1995. The Dangerous Snakes of Africa. Ralph Curtis Books. Dubai: Oriental Press. 192 pp. ISBN 0-88359-029-8.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Mallow D, Ludwig D, Nilson G. 2003. True Vipers: Natural History and Toxinology of Old World Vipers. Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida. 359 pp. ISBN 0-89464-877-2.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Atheris (TSN 634419) at Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Accessed 18 March 2007.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Mehrtens JM. 1987. Living Snakes of the World in Color. New York: Sterling Publishers. 480 pp. ISBN 0-8069-6460-X.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Overview at The World of Atheris
  7. A General Overview of the Captive Husbandry of African Bush Vipers at The World of Atheris. Accessed 26 March 2007.
  8. Mebs D, Holada K, Kornalik F, Simak J, Vankova H, Muller D, Schoenemann H, Lange H, Herrmann HW. 1998. Severe coagulopathy after a bite of a green bush viper (Atheris squamiger): case report and biochemical analysis of the venom. Toxicon (Great Britain) 36(10):1333-40 (Abstract at NCBI. Accessed 9 August 2006.).
  9. Top LJ, Tulleken JE, Ligtenberg JJM, Meertens JHJM, van der Werf TS, Zijlstra JG. 2006. Serious envenomation after a snakebite by a Western bush viper (Atheris chlorechis) in the Netherlands: a case report. The Netherlands Journal of Medicine, vol. 64 no. 5:153-6 (PDF at The Netherlands Journal of Medicine. Accessed 9 August 2006.).
  10. Bitten by a Sedge Viper! at
  11. 11.0 11.1 The World of Atheris at

Other references

  • Broadley DG. 1996. A review of the tribe Atherini (Serpentes: Viperidae), with the descriptions of two new genera. African Journal of Herpetology 45(2):40-48.
  • Freed P. 1986. Atheris chlorechis (West African bush viper): Herpetological Review (Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles) 17(2): ß47-48.
  • Lanoie L, Branch W. 1991. Atheris squamiger: fatal envenomation. Journal of the Herpetological Association of Africa, Stellenbosch, 39:29.
  • Love, W. 1988. Bush vipers (Atheris): Experiences in breeding and maintenance. Vivarium. 1(3): 22-25.
  • Pareti KS. 1994. Cannibalism in a captive West African bush viper (Atheris chloroechis). Herpetological Review (Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles) 25(1):17.
  • Pitman CRS. 1974. A Guide to the Snakes of Uganda. London: Codicote, Wheldon & Wesley, Ltd. 102 pp. ISBN 0-85486-020-7.

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