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Related to Viperidae: Elapidae, Colubridae


(vertebrate zoology)
A family of reptiles in the suborder Serpentes found in Eurasia and Africa; all species are proglyphodont.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a family of poisonous snakes, close to the rattlesnake family. Characteristically they are short and have movable articulated upper jaws, in the front part of which are one or two large tubular teeth whose canals are connected to strongly developed venom sacs. Most of the vipers have vertical eye pupils. The basic respiratory organ is the so-called tracheal lung, formed from the final section of the trachea. There are ten genera uniting about 60 species.

Viperidae are distributed only in Europe, Asia, and Africa (they are absent from Madagascar). The family apparently originated in Africa. Vipers are known from the Miocene era. The majority are terrestrial snakes; several lead a burrowing life or live in trees. They are active primarily at twilight and night. When frightened, they coil into a “plate” shape, puff up, and hiss strongly, prepared for a lightning-like strike and bite. Mainly they feed upon small vertebrates, but several feed upon insects. The majority of vipers are ovoviviparous; that is, their offspring are brought into the world fully developed but encased in a leathery egg shell from which they hatch immediately.

The genus of Vipera proper includes 11 (or 13) species, six of which are found in the USSR. The common adder (V. berus) reaches a length of 75 cm and is grey or brown with a dark serrated stripe along its back; not infrequently, some are entirely black (usually females). It is distributed in Europe and Asia from the Pyrenees Peninsula to Sakhalin Island, characteristically in the forest zone. It feeds upon small ro-dents, frogs, and rarely lizards; the young feed upon insects. In autumn the female bears from five to 18 young. They winter in deep burrows, sometimes several dozen together. The steppe viper (V. ursini) is smaller in size and lighter in its coloration; it is distributed from the southern countries of Western Europe through steppe and semidesert areas to the eastern part of Kazakhstan and also in the Caucasus and Tien-Shan. The Caucasian viper (V. kaznakovi) has a ser-rated black stripe along a reddish orange back and breeds in the western parts of the Caucasus. The long-nosed viper (V. ammodytes) is found in the Balkan Peninsula, Asia Minor, and in the Transcaucasus. Radde’s viper (V. raddei) breeds in Armenia and contiguous parts of Turkey and Iran. The larger and extremely venomous Levantine viper is distributed in North Africa, Transcaucasia, and the southern parts of Middle Asia.

The genus of African vipers (Bitis) contains eight (or ten) species and is distinguished by its thick body. The genus Echis is characteristic of the deserts of North Africa and southwestern and southern Asia. The genus of earth vipers (Atractaspis) is distributed primarily in Africa and has a number of species which live in the soil.

The venom of Viperidae acts mainly on the blood and destroys the red corpuscles. The venom of several species, such as the genus Bitis, also attacks the nervous system. The bite of many species of vipers can be fatal for humans and large animals. The bites of adders, steppe vipers, and several other small vipers are not as dangerous, but they are sometimes very painful and can cause a long-lasting lethargy. In several localities of the USSR vipers are harmful to cattle breeding since the bitten animals frequently become seriously ill. Vipers are hunted to obtain snake venom.


Terent’ev, P. V. Gerpetologiia. Moscow, 1961.
Zhizn’ zhivotnykh, vol. 4, ch. 2. Edited by L. A. Zenkevich. Moscow, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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