By Anders Nielsen, Ph.d.
No snake is more feared than the black mamba snake. That is, in Africa, as it is only found in East and Southern Africa and in some isolated locations in West Africa. Because of its reputation, the black mamba is also called “the shadow of death” in some parts of Africa.
African myths about the black mamba overestimate its abilities, and the mamba is not intelligent, shrewd, or anything else that would normally be attributed to humans.
Also, if black mambas were as vicious as some people believe, no one would dare go into the bush.
Its venom is highly effective at inhibiting cardiac contraction; the victim's heart will stop beating due to the venom, and death will occur because of respiratory failure.
Before the antidote was found, only a few people survived black mamba snake bites. However, in contrast to popular belief, some did survive its bite.
Black mambas are tremendously agile, and for short distances, they can travel along the ground at 14 miles per hour (23 km/t); for longer distances, they can travel at up to 7-12 miles per hour1.
The interior of the grey black mamba is black, and it is from that fact that the black mambas get their name. In Africa, some people think that black mambas actually chase people, which is of course not the case, but the myth is difficult to get rid of. They are very fast and can reach a speed of up to 16 miles per hour for a very short time.
The black mamba is a nervous and timid snake that will defend itself at the slightest sense of danger. However, as it is not a robust snake, it cannot tolerate close encounters, and it will lash out at anything coming too close, relying on its speed and extremely toxic venom.
Most people believe that there is only one type of mamba snake and that it is black. In fact, there are four species of mambas, none of which are black. The black mamba is brown or grey and only black in the inside of its mouth.
Female and male black mamba snakes differ very little in the way they look. In fact, there are no visible differences, and only experts can tell whether a mamba is a male or female on closer inspection. Black mamba snakes can grow up to 13 feet and are capable of lifting one third of its body into the air.
The black mamba is a tree snake, but it is equally at home on the ground where it hunts. When in a tree, the black mamba is usually resting or basking in the sun. Mambas are diurnal; they hunt during the day and return to their burrows or rock crevices during the night.
It prefers to spend its time in rockier hill areas, in scrublands, or in plantations, such as sugarcane plantations. The black mamba does not like altitudes of more than 4,000-5,000 feet. They are good swimmers too.
It is a long slender snake with a characteristic coffin-shaped head. It is neither robust nor strong as it seems physical strength has been replaced by a highly venomous and fatal poison that kills its prey before it can inflict any damage to the snake.
It has large, round eyes and round pupils. Its sight is better than most other snakes, and its forked tongue helps it smell its prey. Its main food source is small birds, reptiles, and small rodents. As its body is rather fragile, it lets its venom work its effect before it actually ingests its prey.
The mating season for black mambas in Africa begins in September. In this period, the males fight over females. Mating begins with the male inspecting the female with his forked tongue.
Females lay an average of 15 eggs in a nest underground or in a hollow tree. The eggs hatch after three months, and the baby mamba snakes have a length of 1-2 feet. Newborn mamba snakes grow rather rapidly and are capable of catching mice and other small rodents immediately after hatching. The female leaves the eggs immediately after they hatch.
Other species include the Eastern Green Mamba (Latin: Dendroaspis angusticeps) and the Western Green Mamba (Latin: Dendroaspis viridis). Both are smaller than the black mamba and spend much more time in trees and canopies than the black mamba. Also, they are said to be less aggressive and to have slightly less poisonous venom. They are slightly smaller than the black mamba. A fourth species of the mambas is the Jameson's Mamba (Latin: Dendroaspis jamesoni). It is usually found in trees, and its venom is also less venomous that the venom of the black mamba.
According to WHO2, most bites occur in plantations and in many such places where antivenin is available. In most cases, antivenin is administered in time. In fact, the number of deaths from black mambas has decreased significantly since an antivenin against its venom was developed.
November 29, 2012
The French company Latoxoan is suffering from the current crisis in Europe, as its biggest client, Sanofi, has chosen to buy less snake venom for research as it used to. Even at a price of $5100 per gram of black mamba venom, the company cannot generate a surplus from milking black mambas.
October 13, 2012
A group of scientist has recently found that normal symptoms of Captopril (blood pressure medicine) such as coughing and swelling can be alleviated by small doses of snake venom. In the coming years the research group will accelerate their work so that medications can come into mass productions as soon as possible.
October 6, 2012
In the October 3, 2012 issue of nature a group of scientists reveal that thay have found a compound in venom from black mamba snakes (mambalgin) that works the same way as morphine, that is as a strong and effective pain-killer. The advantage of mambalgin is that it doesn't seem to have the same side-effects as morphine. Read more here.
September 25, 2012
Recently a team of scientists from the UK discovered that there are a bunch of fast evolving proteins in black mamba snakes. These toxic substances are changing rapidly, and what is a lethal toxin at one point may be a harmless molecule few moments later. It is among these compounds that the scientist believe the key to new types of drugs are found.
According to local newspapers (Miami Herald and Sun Sentinel), a Comcast worker was bitten by a green mamba snake. He was bitten in the leg and was paralyzed in his right side immediately after the bite. People licensed to keep or sell green mamba snakes in the area have been contacted in order to find out if any green mambas have escaped captivity lately.
Although the green mamba is the least toxic of the mamba snakes, any bite from a mamba is potentially deadly and can cause serious harm.
A Scottish businessman, by the name of Garrick Wales, apparently died after being bit by a black mamba. He had ordered a package of snakes from a dealer in Florida and was bitten while he was opening the package.
In South Africa, a 39-year-old man was bit by a green mamba snake in Umdloti. Normally, a green mamba will get away as soon as it perceives a person, but in this case, the green mamba snake apparently had been caught in a pay phone, where it was curled up and trapped. Accidently, this guy walks in and is bitten.
In another incidence in South Africa, a farmer was bitten by a black mamba three times after he drove over it with his tractor. It bit him in his jacket. Luckily, the snake's fang couldn't penetrate his jacket.
Walking through a dense bush, a 44-year-old man was bitten by a green mamba. He became so terrified that he tried to remove the wound area with his teeth. However, that caused the poison to spread throughout his body. He was able to walk 3 kilometers (2 miles) to a nearby clinic where he was already hallucinating on arrival. Paramedics were able to stabilize his condition, and he survived.
A canoe marathon participant was bitten by a black mamba. He was portaging his canoe when a black mamba struck and bit him. He was quickly transferred to a hospital, where doctors had to put him in a coma and on a respirator for a few days. He survived.
A soldier from Northern Ireland was bitten by a black mamba snake (BBC News, UK) during a training mission. He received immediate treatment and was rushed to a hospital in Nairobi for further treatment. Doctors ascribed his survival to his physical fitness.
1. Richardson, A. Mambas (2004)
2. Chippaux. Snake-bites: Appraisal of the global situation. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 76(5) pp. 515-524 (1998)
Thanks to Tad, Richard, and Ted for allowing me to use their photos.