Caucasian viper (Vipera kaznakovi)
|Also known as:||Caucasus viper|
|French:||Vipere du Caucase|
|Size||Body length: up to 60 cm (2)|
Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The Caucasian viper is famous for its venom, which is more potent than that of most other vipers and has unique medicinal properties, having been used for thousands of years to stop heavy bleeding (2) (3) (4). The body of the Caucasian viper, which is longer and wider in females, can vary in colour considerably, from yellow to dark red. Very occasionally it can be entirely black, although intricately marked individuals are more common; the most distinctive marking is a black or brown stripe, sometimes barred, which runs the entire length of the snake’s back (2). As a result of accommodating large venom glands, the head is wide, short, and spade-shaped, and visually distinct from the neck (2) (4). The head usually bears a dark V-shaped marking and a stripe runs from the eye to the mouth (2). The mouth houses hollow fangs which are used to inject the strong venom into prey (2) (4).
As its name suggests, the Caucasian viper is found only in the Caucasus region of eastern Europe, along the Black Sea Coast, where it occurs in north-east Turkey, Georgia and Russia (1) (5).
Like most vipers, the Caucasian viper is terrestrial and found in a range of forest habitats, both in ravines and on mountainsides. These habitats include mixed subtropical forests with evergreen underwood, coniferous forest, chestnut and cherry groves, and beech and willow woods (1). It may also be found in disturbed habitats including areas of cleared forest and tea cultivation (1). The Caucasian viper inhabits an altitude range up to 900 metres above sea level (1).
Vipers are one of the largest and most highly evolved groups of snakes (4). The camouflaged skin of these reptiles allows them to lie in wait for prey, which consists mainly of small mammals (2). Although usually slow moving, once they spot their prey, they will strike in a blink of an eye. The fangs are typically folded back against the roof of the mouth, allowing the jaw to be closed (2) (4), but can be erected by muscles when needed (2). After biting, the prey is often released, leaving it to seemingly escape (2); however, the venom then acts on the prey’s blood or nervous systems, and the snake can track down and consume the dead or dying animal (2).
Snakes play an important role in their environment, and the Caucasian viper is no exception as it controls pest populations, especially rodents, through predation (2). However, this beneficial role is often overlooked due to fear, as the Caucasian viper’s bite is known to be deadly to humans (2).
The Caucasian viper hibernates from November to March, after which it reproduces between March and May, with the young emerging from the end of August to September (1). Like most vipers, the Caucasian viper is viviparous (6), that is, it gives birth to fully-formed young, surrounded by a thin envelope of membrane which they must break through (2).
For centuries, fear-driven human persecution of the Caucasian viper has diminished population numbers (2). Today, this snake is also threatened by illegal capture for the international pet trade, habitat loss to urbanisation, agriculture, dam construction in Georgia, and increased tourism-based development on the coast of the Black Sea (1). As a result of these threats, populations have declined significantly and some have been lost altogether. If this rate of decline continues, the Caucasian viper population is likely to be halved by 2018 (1).
The Caucasian viper is subject to state and regional level legal protection (7) and some areas of its habitat are protected, such as Soci National Park, which contains Russia’s largest population of the Caucasian viper. Other protected areas, such as Kackazsky State Biosphere Reserve, Russia, are home to small populations, but these remain threatened as these reserves are also tourist destinations. Education of visitors and park staff is therefore vital in areas such as these to allow conservation of the Caucasian viper (7). A few individuals of the species also occur in small protected areas in Turkey and Georgia, although, overall, most Caucasian viper populations remain unprotected (1) (7). Therefore, it is thought an increase in the extent and quality of reserves is needed, including international cooperation to establish a network of protected areas along the coast of the Black Sea (7).
To find out more about conservation in the Caucasus region see:
Caucasus Protected Areas Fund:
Conservation International: Biodiversity Hotspots:
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- Evergreen: a plant which retains leaves all year round. This is in contrast to deciduous plants, which completely lose their leaves for part of the year.
- Glands: organs that make and secrete substances used by the snake, in this case, venom.
- Hibernates: hibernation is a winter survival strategy in which the animal passes the winter in a resting state. This period of inactivity is characterised by specific biological and biochemical changes including lowered blood pressure and respiration rate.
IUCN Red List (May, 2010)
- Hildyard, A. (2001). Endangered Wildlife and Plants of the World: Volume 12. Tarrytown, New York: Marshall Cavendish.
- Mayor, A. (2010) The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
- Khanna, D.R. and Yadav, P.R. (2004) Biology of Reptiles. Discovery Publishing House, New Delhi.
- Ananjeva, N.B., Orlov, N.L., Khalikov, R.G., Darevsky, I.S., Ryabov, S.A. and Barabanov, A. (2006) The Reptiles of Northern Eurasia: Taxonomic Diversity, Distribution, Conservation Status. Pensoft Publishers, Sofia.
- Thorpe, R.S., Wüster, W. and Malhotra, A. (1997) Venomous Snakes: Ecology, Evolution and Snakebite. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Zazanashvili, N. and Mallon, D. (2009) Status and Protection of Globally Threatened Species in the Caucasus. WWF, CEPF, Tbilisi.