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Difference Between East & West African Gaboon Vipers

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When hiking an African rain forest, you may never see an African gaboon viper until you feel it squirming under your foot. The vipers lie motionless with perfect camouflage among the leaf litter, waiting for curious prey to get within striking distance. Two subspecies live in the eastern and western portions of the continent, with little to differentiate them to the casual observer.

What's In a Name

While the scientific name Bitis gabonica refers to either species, each has a third name that distinguishes the two subspecies. The West African gaboon viper goes by the scientific name Bitis gabonica rhinosceros because of prominent hornlike extensions on its snout. The East African variety is known by Bitis gabonica gabonica. Hornlike extensions on the snout of the East African viper are either not present or are noticeably smaller than those on the West African gaboon viper.

The Eyes Have It

Both the East and West African gaboon vipers have heart-shaped heads characteristic of vipers. A brown line down the center of the head makes the head look distinctly like a leaf when it is lying motionless waiting for its prey. The snake's eye color is nearly the same as the coloring on the head, blending in with fallen leaves. A black triangular marking under each eye is solid in the Western African gaboon viper, while in the eastern species, lighter scales divide the triangle into two segments.

Size Matters

The West African gaboon viper is the larger of the two species, growing between 6 to 7 feet long. The East African gaboon viper grows to between 4 and 6 feet, with the females growing to the greater lengths. The wide-bodied snakes weigh up to 25 pounds for the West African subspecies or 18 pounds for the eastern variety. The East African gaboon viper thrives on small or medium-sized rats in captivity, while the larger western species eats a large rat or rabbit. The largest gaboon vipers have been known to eat fully grown antelopes.

Where they Live

Both species occupy the rainforests along the equator in Africa. The West African gaboon viper ranges from Guinea to Ghana and is found along the Ivory Coast. The East African gaboon viper is found in the south and eastern parts of the continent, including the coastal regions. Both species prefer cool, moist leaf litter but are sometimes found in agricultural areas as human habitation encroaches on their environment.