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Common names: pitless vipers, true vipers, Old World vipers, true adders.
The Viperinae, or viperines, are a subfamily of venomous viper found in Europe, Asia and Africa. They are distinguished by their lack of the heat-sensing pit organs that characterize their sister group, the Crotalinae. Currently, 12 genera and 66 species are recognized. Most are tropical and subtropical, although one species, Vipera berus, even occurs within the Arctic Circle.


Members of this subfamily range in size from Bitis schneideri, that grows to a maximum of 28 cm, to Bitis gabonica that reaches a maximum length of over 2 m. Most species are terrestrial, but a few, such as Atheris, are completely arboreal.

Although the heat-sensing pits that characterize the Crotalinae are clearly lacking in the viperines, a supernasal sac with sensory function has been described in a number of species. This sac is an invagination of the skin between the supranasal and nasal scales and is connected to the ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve. The nerve endings here resemble those in the labial pits of boas. The supernasal sac is present in Daboia, Pseudocerastes and Causus, but is especially well developed in Bitis. Experiments have shown that strikes are not only guided by visual and chemical cues, but also by heat, with warmer targets being struck more frequently than colder ones.

Geographic range

Europe, Asia and Africa. However, they do not occur in Madagascarmarker.


Generally, members of this subfamily are viviparous (ovoviviparous), although a few, such as Pseudocerastes, lay eggs.


Genus Taxon author Species Subsp.* Common name Geographic range
Adenorhinos Loveridge, 1930 1 0 Uzungwe viper Central Tanzania: Udzungwe and Ukinga Mountains.
Atheris Cope, 1862 8 1 Bush vipers Tropical subsaharan Africa, excluding southern Africa.
Bitis Gray, 1842 14 2 Puff adders Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula.
Cerastes Laurenti, 1768 3 0 Horned vipers North Africa eastward through Arabia and Iranmarker.
Daboia Gray, 1842 1 1 Russell's viper Pakistanmarker, Indiamarker, Sri Lankamarker, Bangladeshmarker, Nepalmarker, Myanmarmarker, Thailandmarker, Cambodiamarker, Chinamarker (Kwangsi and Kwantungmarker), Taiwanmarker and Indonesiamarker (Endeh, Floresmarker, east Javamarker, Komodomarker, Lomblen Islands).
Echis Merrem, 1820 8 6 Saw-scaled vipers Indiamarker and Sri Lankamarker, parts of the Middle East and Africa north of the equator.
Eristicophis Alcock and Finn, 1897 1 0 McMahon's viper The desert region of Balochistan near the Iranmarker-Afghanistanmarker-Pakistanmarker border.
Macrovipera Reuss, 1927 4 4 Large Palearctic vipers Semideserts and steppes of northern Africa, the Near and Middle East, and the Milos Archipelagomarker in the Aegean Seamarker.
Montatheris Boulenger, 1910 1 0 Kenya mountain viper Kenyamarker: moorlands of the Aberdaremarker range and Mount Kenyamarker above 3000 m.
Proatheris Peters, 1854 1 0 Lowland viper Floodplains from southern Tanzania (northern end of Lake Malawimarker) through Malawimarker to near Beiramarker, central Mozambiquemarker.
Pseudocerastes Boulenger, 1896 1 1 False horned viper From the Sinaimarker of Egyptmarker eastward to Pakistanmarker.
ViperaT Laurenti, 1768 23 12 Palearctic vipers Great Britainmarker and nearly all of continental Europe across the Arctic Circle and on some islands in the Mediterraneanmarker (Elbamarker, Montecristomarker, Sicily) and Aegean Seamarker eastward across northern Asia to Sakhalin Islandmarker and North Koreamarker. Also found in northern Africa in Moroccomarker, Algeriamarker and Tunisiamarker.
*) Not including the nominate subspecies.

T) Type genus.


Until relatively recently, two other genera were also included in the Viperinae. However, they were eventually considered so distinctive within the Viperidae, that separate subfamilies were created for them:

  • Genus Azemiops - moved to subfamily Azemiopinae by Liem, Marx & Rabb (1971).
  • Genus Causus - recognition of subfamily Causinae (Cope, 1860) was proposed by Groombridge (1987) and further supported by Cadle (1992).

Nevertheless, these groups, together with the genera currently recognized as belonging to the Viperinae, are still often referred to collectively as the true vipers.

Broadley (1996) recognized a new tribe, Atherini, for the genera Atheris, Adenorhinos, Montatheris and Proatheris, the type genus for which is Atheris.

See also


  1. Mallow D, Ludwig D, Nilson G. 2003. True Vipers: Natural History and Toxinology of Old World Vipers. Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida. 359 pp. ISBN 0-89464-877-2.
  2. U.S. Navy. 1991. Poisonous Snakes of the World. US Govt. New York: Dover Publications Inc. 203 pp. ISBN 0-486-26629-X.
  3. Stidworthy J. 1974. Snakes of the World. Grosset & Dunlap Inc. 160 pp. ISBN 0-448-11856-4.
  4. Spawls S, Branch B. 1995. The Dangerous Snakes of Africa. Ralph Curtis Books. Dubai: Oriental Press. 192 pp. ISBN 0-88359-029-8.

Further reading

  • Breidenbach CH. 1990. Thermal cues influence strikes in pitless vipers. Journal of Herpetology 4: 448-50.
  • Broadley DG. 1996. A review of the tribe Atherini (Serpentes: Viperidae), with the descriptions of two new genera. African Journal of Herpetology 45(2): 40-48.
  • Cantor TE. 1847. Catalogue of reptiles inhabiting the Malayan Peninsula and Islands. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Calcutta. 16(2): 607-656, 897-952, 1026-1078[1040].
  • Cuvier G. 1817. Le règne animal distribué d'après son organisation, pour servir de base à l'histoire naturelle des animaux det d'introduction à l'anatomie comparée. Tome II, contenant les reptiles, les poissons, les mollusques et les annélidés. Déterville, Paris. xviii, 532 pp.[80].
  • Eichwald, E. 1831. Zoologia specialis, quam expositis animalibus tum vivis, tum fossilibus potissimuni rossiae in universum, et poloniae in specie, in usum lectionum publicarum in Universitate Caesarea Vilnensi. Zawadski, Vilnae. 3: 404 pp.[371].
  • Fitzinger LJFJ. 1826. Neue classification der reptilien nach ihren natürlichen verwandtschaften. Nebst einer verwandtschafts-tafel und einem verzeichnisse der reptilien-sammlung des K. K. zoologischen museum's zu Wien. J.G. Hübner, Wien. vii, 66 pp.[11].
  • Gray JE. 1825. A synopsis of the genera of reptiles and Amphibia, with a description of some new species. Annals of Philosophy, new ser., 10: 193-217[205].
  • Günther ACLG. 1864. The Reptiles of British India. Ray Society. London. xxvii. 452 pp.[383].
  • Latreille PA. 1825. Familles naturelles du règne animal, exposés succinctement et dans un ordre analytique, avec l'indication de leurs genres. Bailliere, Paris. 570 pp.[102].
  • Lynn WG. 1931. The structure and function of the facial pit of the pit vipers. American Journal of Anatomy 49: 97.
  • Oppel M. 1811. Mémoire sur la classification des reptiles. Ordre II. Reptiles à écailles. Section II. Ophidiens. Annales du Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris 16: 254-295, 376-393.[376, 378, 389].
  • Strauch A. 1869. Mémoires de l'Academie des Sciences Impérial de St. Pétersbourg (7)14: 144 pp.[19]

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