Meadow viper (Vipera ursinii)

Also known as: field adder, Orsini’s viper, Ursini's viper
Synonyms: Acridophaga eriwanensis, Acridophaga uralensis, Acridophaga ursinii, Pelias berus ursinii, Pelias ursinii, Vipera macrops
  
French: Vipère des steppes, Vipère d'Orsini
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderSquamata
FamilyViperidae
GenusVipera (1)
SizeLength: 35 – 60 cm (2) (3)

The meadow viper is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (4). Subspecies: Vipera ursinii rakosiensis (Hungarian meadow viper) is classified as Endangered (EN) and V. u. moldavica is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The meadow viper (Vipera ursinii) is a small, venomous snake (5), with a beautiful and intricate zigzag pattern marking the length of its back (6). The basic body colour is a light grey to brown along the sides, usually with a paler band down the centre of the back, within which a dark zigzag with black edging appears (2). Occasionally, strongly yellow-coloured scales can occur around these markings. A dark ‘V’ shaped mark appears on the top of the head and there is a dark stripe behind the eye (2). The underside of the body ranges from black to dark grey or even reddish, often with grey-white speckles (2). Females grow larger than males and as with most vipers, this species have hinged, hollow fangs, which inject poison into prey or as a defence mechanism.

The taxonomic status, and therefore distribution, of the meadow viper has been widely debated (2). Although formerly thought to spread from Central Europe to Central Asia, latest scientific thought is that the Asian subspecies should be elevated to separate species status (7). Under these classifications, the meadow viper (Vipera ursinii) is found only in Italy and France (V. u. ursinii), Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and northern Albania (V. u. macrops), central Greece (V. u. graeca), Hungary (V. u. rakosiensis) (possibly extinct in Romania and Austria), Romania and possibly Bulgaria (V. u. moldavica) (7).

The meadow viper inhabits meadows, farmlands, mountain pastures, rocky hillsides, and open, grassy fields, up to 8,000 feet above sea level (6) (8).

The meadow viper feeds upon a variety of animal species, most commonly orthopterans (such as grasshoppers and crickets), followed by rodents, lizards, birds, spiders and beetles. However, significant seasonal variations in the diet exist, with invertebrates predominating only between July and September, and vertebrates playing a more important role at other times of the year (9). One poisonous bite is usually enough to kill the prey (2).

Mating occurs from April to May and females give birth to four to eight (sometimes up to 12 or 15) live young from August to September (2). Clutch size appears to be positively correlated with female body size (10).

The precise threats facing the meadow viper across its range are unknown, but habitat destruction is likely to have played an important role in the decline of the species (5). Recent studies have been made of the Hungarian meadow viper (V. u. rakosiensis) subspecies, which is estimated to have only a very small remaining population and is in imminent danger of extinction (10). The decline of the Hungarian meadow viper has been largely attributed to the growth in agricultural land, which has caused a great reduction and fragmentation in the habitat of the meadow viper. Even small barriers of farmland are thought to reduce movement and outbreeding with other populations. Small, isolated populations are not only more vulnerable to extinction through events such as disease epidemics, or storms, but they are also more likely to suffer from loss of genetic diversity through inbreeding, massively increasing the risk of extinction. Loss of genetic variation can result in a high percentage of stillbirths or deformities, which have been recorded for this subspecies, and low genetic diversity is currently considered the prime threat to the Hungarian meadow viper (5). The Hungarian meadow viper is also thought to have suffered from over-collection from the wild, both for the pet trade and scientific purposes (5).

Meadow vipers appear in a number of protected areas, including the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve in Romania (V. u. moldavica) (11) and Bjelasica Mountain National Park (V. u. macrops) in eastern Montenegro (10). Attempts are being made to preserve the very small Hungarian population through a four year programme funded by the Ministry of Environment and Water Affairs and the EU LIFE-Nature fund, which focuses on four major tasks: habitat reconstruction, monitoring and related studies, a publicity campaign and the establishment of the Viper Conservation and Breeding Centre (10). This Centre started operating in 2004 with ten adult snakes collected from different populations (10) and, as of August 2005, four females had produced a total of 69 offspring, 25 the first year and 44 the second (3). These vipers will hopefully be released into selected habitat in the future (10). Should the release of these snakes into the wild prove successful, captive breeding could be a viable option for the effective conservation of the other subspecies, especially the Critically Endangered V. u. moldavica. The fact that the Hungarian meadow viper appears to breed well in captivity is therefore extremely encouraging and provides new hope for the future survival of the meadow viper.

For more information on the meadow viper:

Authenticated (01/10/08) by Dr. Luca Luiselli, Senior Researcher in Ecology/ Institute Demetra, Rome, Italy.
http://www.intecol.net/pages/002_personal.php?id=lucamlu

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Reptilien (January, 2008)
    http://www.reptiles.de/Europ%C3%A4ische%20Viperiden/Vipera%20ursinii.htm
  3. Rakosivipera (March, 2006)
    http://www.rakosivipera.hu/hirek_en.htm
  4. CITES (January, 2006)
    http://www.cites.org
  5. Ujvari, B., Madsen, T., Kotenko, T., Olsson, M., Shine, R. and Wittzell, H. (2002) Low genetic diversity threatens imminent extinction for the Hungarian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis). Biological Conservation, 105: 127 - 130.
  6. Aircav: Poisonous Snakes of Europe (March, 2006)
    http://www.aircav.com/survival/appe/asappe10.html
  7. Nilson, G. and Andrén, C. (2001) The meadow and steppe vipers of Europe and Asia - the Vipera (Acridophaga) ursinii complex. Acta Zoologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 47: 87 - 267.
  8. Reptitalia (March, 2006)
    http://www.kingsnake.com/reptilia-italia/My_HomePage_file/viperaorsini.htm
  9. Agrimi, U. and Luiselli, L. (1992) Feeding strategies of the viper Vipera ursinii ursinii (Reptilia: Viperidae) in the Apennines. Herpetological Journal, 2(2): 37 - 42.
  10. Societas Europaea Herpetologica. (2005) Programme and Abstracts, 13th Ordinary Meeting. Societas Europaea Herpetologica, Bonn, Germany. Available at:
    http://www.gli.cas.cz/seh/files/SEH_Abstracts_Final_20-09.pdf
  11. UNEP-WCMC: Protected Areas Programme (March, 2006)
    http://www.unep-wcmc.org/protected_areas/data/wh/danubed.html