Mangshan pit viper (Protobothrops mangshanensis)

Also known as: Chinese pit viper, ironhead pitviper, Mang Mountain pit viper, Mangshan pitviper, Mt. Mang pit viper
Synonyms: Ermia mangshanensis, Trimeresurus mangshanensis, Zhaoermia mangshanensis
GenusProtobothrops (1)
SizeLength: 1.4 - 2 m (2) (3)
Weight3 - 5 kg (3)
Top facts

The Mangshan pit viper is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix II of CITES (4).

The Mangshan pit viper (Protobothrops mangshanensis) is a large, venomous Asian pit viper (3) (5) only discovered as recently as 1989 (3). It is reported to be the only non-cobra to spit venom (2).

Named for the Mangshan Mountains in Hunan, China, in which it is found (5), the Mangshan pit viper is grass-green to yellow-green with large, dark, irregular saddle-like markings along its back and sides (2) (3). This dark colouration is reported to become more dominant in adult individuals. It is said that the Mangshan pit viper resembles the green dragon totem of the Yao people in Hunan Province (3).

The Mangshan pit viper has a large, triangular head with green eyes. The last ten centimetres of the tail are white, and male Mangshan pit vipers tend to have slightly longer tails than the females, which are generally a bit heavier and more robust. This species’ fangs are large and tube-like, growing to about two centimetres in length (3).

The scientific name of the Mangshan pit viper, Protobothrops, comes from the Greek words for ‘before’, ‘pit’ and ‘eye’, and alludes to the heat-sensitive depressions on each side of the head between the eye and nostril. These special organs allow the snake to sense heat and detect prey (3).

As its name suggests, the Mangshan pit viper is found in the Mangshan Mountain area of Hunan Province, China (1) (2) (3) (5). This species is only known from one other location, in Ruyuan, Guangdong Province. It is thought that the Mangshan pit viper is only found in a total area of 300 square kilometres (1).

Found at elevations between 700 and 1,300 metres (1) (2) (3) (5), the Mangshan pit viper occurs in montane, subtropical mixed needle-leaf and broadleaf forest (1) (2). This species tends to prefer steep, wet terrain in mature, undisturbed areas of forest containing plants such as maple, camphor, oak and bamboo. Within the Mangshan pit viper’s range, temperatures drop down to freezing during the winter (3).

A largely inactive species, the Mangshan pit viper is a terrestrial ambush predator, lying in wait along trails used by its mammalian prey (3), particularly rodents (1) (2) (3). The Mangshan pit viper is also known to feed on birds (1), frogs and insects (2) (3).

It is thought that, like other similar species, the Mangshan pit viper uses its white-tipped tail as a lure to attract potential prey. Viperids such as the Mangshan pit viper use a ‘strike and release’ strategy when hunting, rapidly injecting venom deep into the prey animal with their long fangs before letting go. The snake then locates its dying prey by using the special receptors on its flicking tongue. Toxins in the venom break down the proteins in the muscles and organs of the prey, gradually digesting it, and Mangshan pit viper venom is known to cause clotting, haemorrhaging and muscle damage in humans and cattle. The Mangshan pit viper itself has few predators in the wild, although young snakes may be vulnerable to certain carnivores (3).

The Mangshan pit viper is an oviparous species (1) (2) (5), laying up to 27 eggs per clutch (1) (3), usually in June and July (1). Each egg is about 3 centimetres in diameter and weighs up to 40 grams. The eggs, which have a soft, leathery shell, are laid within leaf litter on the ground, and in captivity they hatch after a period of 49 to 51 days. Although the Mangshan pit viper is generally known to be a relatively calm and shy snake, females of this species will aggressively defend their eggs when necessary, until the 40-centimetre-long hatchlings emerge. The lifespan of the Mangshan pit viper is not currently known, but other similar species live for around 25 years (3).

Although the Mangshan pit viper is considered to be a terrestrial species, it is able to crawl into trees (3).

The Mangshan pit viper is a highly threatened species, with a small range and an extremely small population (1) (2). There are thought to be only about 500 individuals of this species in existence, and the population is continuing to decline (1) (3).

In addition to being threatened by the destruction of its forest habitat due to illegal logging (1) (2) (3), which reduced this species’ range significantly between the 1950s and 1980s, the Mangshan pit viper is at risk from illegal collection for the international pet trade (1) (3). This species is also hunted for food (3), and the combination of all these factors is contributing to the Mangshan pit viper being pushed to the edge of extinction (2).

The Mangshan pit viper receives some protection through its presence in Mangshan Natural Nature Reserve (1), and it is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that trade in this snake should be carefully monitored and controlled (4). In addition, captive breeding programmes are in place in countries including Germany, China and the USA, and these programmes produced 100 captive-bred individuals between 1994 and 2010 (1).

San Diego Zoo is currently working to establish a breeding programme and studbook for the Mangshan pit viper, and it is also helping to sponsor a conservation programme in the species’ native range in China. This will involve conducting surveys of critical viper habitat (3).

Find out more about the Mangshan pit viper and other viper species:

Find out more about reptile conservation:

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:

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2013)
  2. O’Shea, M. (2008) Venomous Snakes of the World. New Holland Publishers, London.
  3. San Diego Zoo - Factsheet: Mangshan Pit Viper (October, 2013)
  4. CITES (October, 2013)
  5. The Reptile Database (October, 2013)