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Facts About Stiletto Snakes

Ashmeet Bagga
It is a well-known fact that almost all predatory animals have to open their mouth to kill or stab their prey. But there are certain species of snake which can attack their prey with their mouth closed. This story sheds some light on the habitat, diet, fangs, and other weird facts about stiletto snakes.

Did You Know?

Stiletto snakes are also known as Bibron's stiletto snake, side-stabbing snake, mole viper, burrowing asp, and burrowing adder.
New type of shoe? No, it's another type of snake species. Africa and the Middle East are home to this snake, and humans are lucky because most of the time these snakes stay underground. These snakes have a glossy body and like to burrow and dig tunnels preferably under the rocks.
There are certain controversies surrounding this snake regarding its threat to humans. Researchers are still gathering information on this aspect, but a few cases of the snake attacking humans have been reported.
Confused as to why this particular snake is named after a woman's shoe? As you read further, the following facts about stiletto snakes might help clear the confusion.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Infraorder: Alethinophidia
Family: Lamprophiidae
Subfamily: Atractaspididae Gunther, 1858

Physical Characteristics

✦ Stiletto snakes are usually dark on the top, generally they can be purple-brown to black, while their underside is in shades of cream, brown, or even black. When they shed their skin, the front half of their body may appear blue. The scale count on mid-body region are 21 to 23 in rows, along with 196 to 260 ventral scales and 18 to 28 subcaudals.
✦ They have shiny scales, small heads, short tails, cylindrical bodies, small eyes with round pupils, and countersunk lower jaws. They have an arch near their neck, but this usually occurs when they assume a defensive position.
✦ The average size of stilettos snakes is around 20 inches (40-50 cm). While their maximum length can reach up to 40 inches (70 cm).
✦ Their fangs are unique because they have long fixed fangs that are positioned backwards along the upper jaw line. They do not have to open their mouth to bite or attack a prey. Their fangs are also flexible, this enables these snakes to attack their prey sideways with one fang. They are also known to stab their head backwards into the prey.
✦ They have fewer teeth as compared to other snakes, because their retractable fangs occupy most of the space in their heads. These fangs are very thin, narrow just like a stiletto heel, hence the name stiletto snakes. The fangs lie horizontal when not in use.


✦ The southern stiletto snakes are mostly found in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and the Middle East. They inhabit moist savanna, dry savanna, Karoo-scrubland, lowland forest, grassland, fynbos and the Namib desert. In South Africa, they can be mostly seen in the eastern and northern parts.
✦ They can be found under rocks or logs, they seldom come out of their burrows or tunnels, and when they do, it is at night after a rain as rain destroys their homes. They come out even to find a mating partner for themselves.


Since stiletto snakes spend a major part of their lives underground, they prey on below-ground animals such as rodents, frogs, reptiles, lizards. They also can be a meal for other snakes, but that happens very rarely when these snakes decide to show up outside their burrows.

Behavior and Hunting

✦ They have a different way of hunting, normally any animal would open their mouth to kill their prey, but if these snakes follow the same tactic underground, they will get nowhere near their prey.
✦ While attacking their prey, these snakes place their heads completely over their prey. One of their fangs rotate outward like a switchblade, passed through their closed mouths. They then bite their prey by moving their heads backwards and sideways. One of their fangs acts like pinion to hold their prey still for the venom to take effect.
✦ Stiletto snakes do not pose any threat to humans, nor is their venom poisonous. However, due to their trait of stabbing backwards, they can be dangerous to grasp them from behind their heads.
✦ They are considered mild-tempered and harmless, unless any human tries to pick them up―it is obvious they will attack. Their venom contains strong toxins, absent in other snakes, which is not fatal to humans, but if the bite has been infected, then an individual may experience excruciating pain and swelling.
✦ Nausea, disorientation, and severe swelling of the affected area are the most common symptoms of the bite being infected.
They are oviparous (egg-laying) and tend to lay around 7-8 eggs in summer. Troubling or manipulating a stiletto snake should be avoided, there have been cases where people who lost a digit of their fingers due to a stiletto sting.