Black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis)

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Close up of a black mamba
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST
CONCERN

Top facts

  • The black mamba is Africa’s largest venomous snake.
  • Interestingly, the black mamba is a brown to grey colour, and is instead named for its blue-black mouth lining.
  • One of the fastest snakes in the world, the black mamba is an agile species that actively hunts warm-blooded prey.
  • Although widely feared for its lethal venom, the black mamba generally prefers to avoid contact with humans.
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Black mamba fact file

Black mamba description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderSquamata
FamilyElapidae
GenusDendroaspis (1)

The black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) is Africa’s largest venomous snake (2) and also one of its most feared (4) (5). This species is also one of the fastest snakes in the world and can slither at speeds of up to about 20 kilometres per hour (2).

The black mamba is an olive-brown to grey colour, with a blue-black colouration on the inside of its mouth which gives this species its common name (2) (3) (4) (5). The underside of the body is usually light grey (3) (5). Like other members of the Elapidae family, the black mamba has short, fixed fangs at the front of its mouth (5).

Although it can potentially reach up to 4.3 metres in length, the black mamba more commonly reaches around 2.5 metres (2) (3). Its body is long and slender, with smooth scales (3) (5), and it has a narrow, coffin-shaped head (3) (4). Two subspecies of the black mamba have been described, Dendroaspis polylepis polylepis and Dendroaspis polylepis antinori (6).

Synonyms
Dendraspis angusticeps, Dendraspis antinorii.
Size
Length: up to 4.3 m (2) (3)
Weight
1.6 kg (2)
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Black mamba biology

The black mamba is lethally venomous, and without treatment its bite can kill a human within 20 minutes. If cornered, the black mamba may adopt a defensive posture, raising its head, spreading its neck like a cobra, displaying its black mouth lining and hissing. If further provoked, it will strike repeatedly, injecting its attacker with large amounts of deadly neurotoxins and cardiotoxins, which affect the nerves and heart (2) (3) (4). The neurotoxins in the black mamba’s venom cause muscle paralysis, eventually killing the victim through respiratory failure (3). However, the black mamba is a shy creature and generally seeks to escape when confronted (2).

The diet of the black mamba consists of warm-blooded prey such as bushbabies, rock hyraxes, bats and other small mammals, as well as birds (3) (7). This snake is a fast and agile hunter with excellent vision, and actively pursues its prey, striking rapidly to inject its venom (3) (4). The adult black mamba has few natural predators apart from birds of prey, but juveniles are occasionally predated by other snakes (7).

The black mamba is active during the day (4) (8), often basking in the branches of a tree in the early morning before it goes hunting (4). This species usually occupies a favoured refuge such as a hole, hollow log, rock crevice or termite nest, to which it returns at night (4) (8).

The black mamba usually breeds between October and November (7), when the males compete for females by entwining their bodies and attempting to force their opponent to the ground (3) (4). The female black mamba lays a clutch of up to 17 white, elongated eggs (3) (4) (7), often inside a termite mound, and the eggs hatch after 80 to 90 days (3). In some studies, young black mambas have rarely been observed, possibly because they grow rapidly and can reach almost two metres in length in their first year (3) (8), and because they are likely to be more arboreal than the adults (8).

A relatively long-lived species, the black mamba may live for 11 years or more in the wild (2), or for up to 20 years in captivity (3).

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Black mamba range

The black mamba is extremely widespread across sub-Saharan Africa, with individuals sighted as far north and west as Senegal, and as far south as north-eastern South Africa (1). Most reports of this species come from eastern and southern Africa (2) (4). In certain areas there are relatively low numbers of recorded sightings, but this is more likely to be due to under-collection of data rather than a low abundance of individuals (1).

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Black mamba habitat

The black mamba occurs in a variety of different habitats, including well-wooded savannah and riverine forest, particularly in areas with an abundance of rocky hills and large trees. It also inhabits coastal bush, moist and dry savannah and woodland (1).

Although the black mamba is mostly found on the ground, it is also occasionally arboreal (1) (4) (7).

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Black mamba status

The black mamba is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Black mamba threats

There are currently no major threats to the black mamba that extend across its full range, and this large snake is believed to be common in suitable habitats. However, human population expansion and encroachment on the black mamba’s habitat may cause increased human interaction with the species, and as it is considered to be a shy species that avoids human contact this may have detrimental impacts on its populations in the future (1). Increased contact with humans may also lead to more conflict with this potentially dangerous snake (2).

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Black mamba conservation

The black mamba has a large range and is not believed to be undergoing population declines, so there are no specific measures currently in place concerning the conservation of this species. However, it may receive some indirect protection where it occurs in a number of protected areas (1).

There are gaps within the black mamba’s known distribution in areas of West Africa such as Chad, Nigeria, Mali and the Central African Republic, probably due to a lack of research. The lack of knowledge on this species in these areas could potentially lead to misdiagnosis and erroneous treatment of snake bites (9).

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Find out more

Find out more about the black mamba and other snakes:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

This species information was authored as part of the ARKive and Universities Scheme.
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Glossary

Arboreal
An animal which lives or spends a large amount of time in trees.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2013)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. National Geographic - Black mamba (October, 2013)
    http://animals.nationalgeographic.co.uk/animals/reptiles/black-mamba/
  3. Branch, B. (1998) Field Guide to Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  4. O’Shea, M. (2008) Venomous Snakes of the World. New Holland Publishers, London.
  5. Richardson, A.D. (2004) Mambas. Capstone Press, Mankato, Minnesota.
  6. The Reptile Database (October, 2013)
    http://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/search.php
  7. Haagner, G.V. and Morgan, D.R. (1993) The maintenance and propagation of the black mamba Dendroaspis polylepis at the Manyeleti Reptile Centre, Eastern Transvaal. International Zoo Yearbook, 32: 191-196.
  8. Phelps, T. (2002) A study of the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, with particular reference to long-term-refugia. Herpetological Bulletin, 80: 7-19.
  9. Håkansson, T. and Madsen, T. (1983) On the distribution of the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) in West Africa. Journal of Herpetology, 17(2): 186-189.
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Close up of a black mamba  
Close up of a black mamba

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