Black Mamba Snake Facts: Separating Myth From Reality

Black mamba poisonous snake in the wild
The Black Mamba Is a Long, Slender, Snake. tirc83 / Getty Images

The black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) is a highly venomous snake found in sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from northern South Africa up to Senegal. Legends associated with the black mamba have earned it the title of "world's deadliest snake."

Fast Facts: Black Mamba Snake

  • Common Name: Black Mamba
  • Scientific Name: Dendroaspis polylepis
  • Distinguishing Features: Extremely long olive, gray, or brown snake with a black mouth.
  • Size: 2 to 4.5 meters
  • Diet: Small mammals and birds
  • Lifespan: 11 years
  • Habitat: Savannahs and woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Elapidae
  • Fun Fact: Components of black mamba venom may be used to prepare a pain reliever that is as strong as morphine, yet safer for the patient.

The black mamba's bite is called the "kiss of death," and it's said to balance on the end of its tail, towering over victims before striking. The snake is also believed to slither faster than a man or horse can run.

However, despite this fearsome reputation, many of the legends are false. The black mamba, while potentially deadly, is a shy hunter. Here's the truth about the black mamba.

The Black Mamba Isn't Black

This snake's color ranges from olive to gray to dark brown with a yellow underbody. Juvenile snakes are paler in coloration than adults. The snake gets its common name for the inky black coloration of its mouth, which it opens and displays when threatened. Like its relative, the coral snake, the black mamba is covered with smooth, flat scales.

It Doesn't Balance on Its Tail

The black mamba is the longest venomous snake in Africa and the second-longest venomous snake in the world, following the king cobra. Black mambas range from 2 to 4.5 meters (6.6 to 14.8 ft) in length and weigh, on average, 1.6 kg (3.5 lb). When the snake rises to strike, it may appear to balance on its tail, but this is simply an illusion created by the fact that its body is so unusually long, as well as the fact that its coloring blends into its surroundings.

Its Speed May Be Exaggerated

While the black mamba is the fastest snake in Africa and perhaps the fastest snake in the world, it uses its speed to escape danger, rather than hunt prey. The snake has been recorded at a speed of 11 km/h (6.8 mph), for a distance of 43 m (141 ft). In comparison, the average female human runs 6.5 mph, while the average male human jogs at 8.3 mph. Both men and women can run much faster for a short distance. A horse gallops at 25 to 30 mph. Black mambas don't pursue people, horses, or cars, but even if they did, the snake couldn't maintain its peak pace long enough to catch up.

The Mamba's Venom Lives Up to Its Reputation

When food is plentiful, the black mamba maintains a permanent lair, venturing out in the daytime to seek prey. The snake feeds on hyrax, birds, bats, and bushbabies. It is an ambush predator that hunts by sight. When prey comes in range, the snake rises off the ground, strikes one or more times, and waits for its venom to paralyze and kill the victim before consuming it.

The snake's venom is a potent cocktail containing the neurotoxin dendrotoxin, cardiotoxins, and muscle-contracting fasciculins. Early symptoms of a bite include headache, a metallic taste, excessive salivation and perspiration, and a tingling sensation. When bitten, a person collapses in under 45 minutes and can die within 7 to 15 hours. The ultimate cause of death includes respiratory failure, asphyxiation, and circulatory collapse. Before antivenom was available, the mortality from a black mamba bite was nearly 100%. Although rare, there are cases of survival without treatment.

Bites are uncommon because the snake avoids humans, isn't aggressive, and doesn't defend its lair. First aid includes application of pressure or a tourniquet to slow the progression of the venom, followed by administration of antivenom. In rural areas, antivenom may be unavailable, so deaths still occur.

It's Not Known for Its Parenting Skills

Newly hatched black mamba snakes have to fend for themselves.
Newly hatched black mamba snakes have to fend for themselves. Katlyn Zeker / EyeEm / Getty Images

Black mambas mates in the early spring. Males follow a female's scent trail and may compete for her by wrestling each other, but not biting. A female lays a clutch of 6 to 17 eggs in the summer and then abandons the nest. Hatchlings emerge from the eggs after 80 to 90 days. While their venom glands are fully developed, the young snakes rely on nutrients from the egg yolk until they find small prey.

Black mambas tend not to interact much with each other, but they have been known to share a lair with other mambas or even other species of snakes. The lifespan of the black mamba in the wild is unknown, but captive specimens have been known to live 11 years.

It's Not Endangered

The black mamba is not endangered, with a classification of "least concern" on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. However, the snake does face some threats. Humans kill the snakes out of fear, plus the animal has predators. The Cape file snake (Mehelya capensis) is immune to all African snake venom and will prey upon any black mamba small enough to swallow. Mongooses are partially immune to black mamba venom and quick enough to kill a juvenile snake without getting bitten. Snake eagles hunt the black mamba, particularly the black-chested snake eagle (Circaetus pectoralis) and brown snake eagle (Circaetus cinereus).

Sources

  • FitzSimons, Vivian F.M. (1970). A Field Guide to the Snakes of Southern Africa (Second ed.). HarperCollins. pp. 167–169. ISBN 0-00-212146-8.
  • Mattison, Chris (1987). Snakes of the World. New York: Facts on File, Inc. p. 164. ISBN 0-8160-1082-X.
  • Spawls, S. (2010). "Dendroaspis polylepis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN. 2010: e.T177584A7461853. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2010-4.RLTS.T177584A7461853.en
  • Spawls, S.; Branch, B. (1995). The dangerous snakes of Africa: natural history, species directory, venoms, and snakebite. Dubai: Oriental Press: Ralph Curtis-Books. pp. 49–51. ISBN 0-88359-029-8.
  • Strydom, Daniel (1971-11-12). "Snake Venom Toxins". Journal of Biological Chemistry. 247 (12): 4029–42. PMID 5033401