Keresztes vipera (Vipera berus)

Source of the photo: 
http://www.khvsz.mme.hu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=90%3Akeresztes-vipera-vipera-berus&catid=49%3Ahazai-huellk&Itemid=90&lang=hu
Author of the description: 
Ádám Cecília

Vipera berus, the common European adder or common European viper, is a venomous viper species that is extremely widespread and can be found throughout most of Western Europe and all the way to Far East Asia.

Description

The head is fairly large and distinct, the sides of which are almost flat and vertical. The edge of the snout is usually raised into a low ridge. Seen from above, the rostral scale is not visible, or only just. Immediately behind the rostral, there are 2 (rarely 1) small scales. Dorsally, there are usually 5 large plates: a squarish frontal (longer than wide, sometimes rectangular), 2 parietals (sometimes with a tiny scale between the frontal and the parietals), and 2 long and narrow supraoculars. The latter are large and distinct, each separated from the frontal by 1-4 small scales. The nostril is situated in a shallow depression within a large nasal scale. The eye is relatively large—equal in size or slightly larger than the nasal scale—but often smaller in females. Below the supraoculars there are 6-13 (usually 8-10) small circumorbital scales. The temporal scales are smooth (rarely weakly keeled). There are 10-12 sublabials and 6-10 (usually 8-9) supralabials. Of the latter, the numbers 3 and 4 are the largest, while 4 and 5 (rarely 3 and 4) are separated from the eye by a single row of small scales (sometimes two rows in alpine specimens).

The color pattern varies, ranging from very light-colored specimens with small incomplete dark dorsal crossbars to melanistic individuals that are entirely dark and lack any apparent dorsal pattern. However, most have some kind of zigzag dorsal pattern down the entire length of the body and tail. The head usually has a distinctive dark V or X on the back. A dark streak runs from the eye to the neck and continues as a longitudinal series of spots along the flanks. Unusual for snakes, the sexes are possible to tell apart by the colour. Females are usually brownish in hue with dark-brown markings, the males are pure grey with black markings. The basal colour of males will often be a tad lighter than that of the females, making the black zigzag pattern stand out. The melanistic individuals are often females.

Conservation status

In the United Kingdom, it is illegal to kill, injure, harm, or sell adders under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. The common viper is categorised as "endangered" in Switzerland, and is also protected in some other countries in its range. It is also found in many protected areas. This species is listed as protected (Appendix III) under the Berne Convention.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species describes the conservation status as of "least concern" in view of its wide distribution, presumed large population, broad range of habitats, and likely slow rate of decline though it acknowledges the population to be decreasing. Reduction in habitat for a variety of reasons, fragmentation of populations in Europe due to intense agriculture practices, and collection for the pet trade or for venom extraction have been recorded as major contributing factors for its decline.

Habitat

Sufficient habitat complexity is a crucial requirement for the presence of this species, in order to support their various behaviors—basking, foraging, and hibernation—as well as to offer some protection from predators and human harassment. It is found in variety of habitats, including: chalky downs, rocky hillsides, moors, sandy heaths, meadows, rough commons, edges of woods, sunny glades and clearings, bushy slopes and hedgerows, dumps, coastal dunes, and stone quarries. They will venture into wetlands if dry ground is available nearby. Therefore, they may be found on the banks of streams, lakes, and ponds.

Behaviour

This species is mainly diurnal, especially in the north of its range. Further south it is said to be active in the evening, and it may even be active at night during the summer months. It is predominantly a terrestrial species, although it has been known to climb up banks and into low bushes in order to bask or search for prey.

Adders are not usually aggressive, tending to be rather timid and biting only when cornered or alarmed. People are generally only bitten after stepping on them or attempting to pick them up. They will usually disappear into the undergrowth at a hint of any danger, but will return once all is quiet, often to the same spot. Occasionally, individual snakes will reveal their presence with a loud and sustained hissing, hoping to warn off potential aggressors. Often, these turn out to be pregnant females. When threatened, the front part of the body is drawn into an S-shape to prepare for a strike.

The species is cold-adapted and hibernates in the winter. On mild winter days, they may emerge to bask where the snow has melted and will often travel across snow. About 15% of adults and 30-40% of juveniles die during hibernation.

Feeding

Diet consists mainly of small mammals, such as mice, voles, and shrews, as well as lizards. Sometimes, slow worms are taken, and even weasels and moles. They feed on amphibians, such as frogs, newts, and salamanders. Birds are also reported to be on the menu, especially nestlings and even eggs, for which they will climb into shrubbery and bushes. Generally, diet varies depending on locality. Juveniles will eat nestling mammals, small lizards and frogs as well as worms and spiders. Once they reach about 30 cm (1 ft) in length, their diet begins to resemble that of the adults.

Reproduction

Males find females by following their scent trails, sometimes tracking them for hundreds of meters a day. If a female is found and flees, the male follows. Courtship involves side-by-side parallel "flowing" behavior, tongue flicking along the back and excited lashing of the tail. Pairs stay together for one or two days after mating. Males chase away their rivals and engage in combat. Often, this also starts with the aforementioned flowing behavior before culminating in the dramatic "adder dance." In this act, the males confront each other, raise up the front part of the body vertically, make swaying movements and attempt to push each other to the ground. This is repeated until one of the two becomes exhausted and crawls off to find another mate. Interestingly, Appleby (1971) notes that he has never seen an intruder win one of these contests, as if the frustrated defender is so aroused by courtship that he refuses to lose his chance to mate. There are no records of any biting taking place during these bouts.

Females usually give birth in August–September, but sometimes as early as July, or as late as early October. Litters range in size from 3 to 20. The young are usually born encased in a transparent sac from which they must free themselves. Sometimes, they succeed in freeing themselves from this membrane while still inside the female. The neonates, measuring 14 to 23 cm (average of 17 cm; 7 in), are born with a fully functional venom apparatus and a reserve supply of yolk within their bodies. They shed their skins for the first time within a day or two. Females do not appear to take much interest in their offspring, but the young have been observed to remain near their mothers for several days after birth.