17 Interesting Facts about Black Mamba Snakes

I was reading up on an article about Africa the other day and came across a section talking about the black mamba snake. I realized I didn’t know much about it, so I did some research about it. Here’s what I found. 

#1: A Deadly Description

The black mamba snake is considered to be one of the deadliest snakes in the world. It’s also considered to be one of the longest venomous snakes. It primarily lives in Africa, where it is very near the top of the food chain, due to its low amount of predators.  

#2: Shaped Like a Coffin

The black mamba is a long, slender, cylindrical snake with a “coffin-shaped” head and a somewhat pronounced brow ridge and a medium-sized eye. The adult snake’s length typically ranges from 2–3 m (6 ft 7 in–9 ft 10 in) but specimens have grown to lengths of 4.3 to 4.5 m (14.1 to 14.8 ft). It is the second longest venomous snake species, exceeded in length only by the king cobra.

The black mamba is a proteroglyphous (meaning to have fangs at the front of the maxilla) snake, with fangs up to 6.5 mm (0.26 in) in length located at the front of the jaw bone. The tail of the species is long and thin and is 17–25% of its body length. Black mambas weigh about 1.6 kg (3.5 lb) on average.

#3: What’s in a Name?

Although the black mamba had been known to missionaries and residents, before 1860, the first formal description was made by German-British zoologist Albert Gunther in 1864. A single specimen was one of many snake species collected by Dr. John Kirk, a naturalist who accompanied Dr. David Livingstone on the Second Zambezi expedition.

The specific epithet polylepis is derived from the Ancient Greek poly (πολύ) meaning “many” and lepis (λεπίς) meaning “scale”. The term “mamba” is derived from the Zulu word “imamba“. A local Ngindo name in Tanzania is ndemalunyayo “grass-cutter” as it supposedly clips grass.

In 1896, Belgian-British zoologist George Albert Boulenger combined the species (Dendroaspis polylepis) as a whole with the eastern green mamba (Dendroaspis angusticeps), a lumping diagnosis that remained in force until 1946, when South African herpetologist Vivian FitzSimmons split them again into separate species.

The black mamba is an elapid snake within the genus Dendroaspis. A 2016 genetic analysis showed that the black and eastern green mambas were each others’ closest relatives, and more distantly related to Jameson’s mamba.

#4: Black Mambas Love Sun Tanning

The black mamba is both terrestrial (earth-inhabiting) and arboreal (tree-inhabiting). It moves on the ground with its head and neck raised and typically uses termite mounds, abandoned burrows, rock crevices, tree cracks as shelter. It may share its lair with other snake species like the Egyptian cobra. Black mambas are diurnal-  awake during the day, and in South Africa, they are recorded to bask from 7–10 am and again from 2–4 pm. They may return to the same basking site daily. The black mamba is graceful but skittish and often unpredictable. It is agile and can move quickly.

#5: Black Mambas Live All Over Africa.

The black mamba has a wide range within sub-Saharan Africa. Specifically, it has been observed in:

The Northeast- Democratic Republic of the Congo, Southwestern Sudan to Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Eastern Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, south to Mozambique, Swaziland, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana to KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and Namibia; then Northeast across Angola to Southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The black mamba prefers moderately dry environments such as light woodland and scrub, rocky outcrops, and semi-arid savannah. It also inhabits moist savanna and lowland forests. It is not commonly found at altitudes above 1,000 meters (3,300 ft), although its distribution does include 1,800 meters (5,900 ft) in Kenya and 1,650 meters (5,410 ft) in Zambia. It is rated as a species of least concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Endangered species, based on its huge range across sub-Saharan Africa and no documented decline.

#6: Tricky to Identify Bites.

The black mamba’s distribution contains gaps within the Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, and Mali. These gaps may lead physicians to misidentify black mamba bites and administer an inappropriate antivenom. In 1954 the black mamba was recorded in the Dakar region of Senegal. However, this observation, and a subsequent observation that identified a second specimen in the region in 1956, has not been confirmed and thus the snake’s distribution in this area is inconclusive.

#7: Hunters of Birds

The black mamba usually goes hunting from a permanent lair, to which it will regularly return if there is no disturbance. It mostly preys on birds, particularly nestlings and fledglings, and small mammals like rodents, bats, hyraxes, and bushbabies. They generally prefer warm-blooded prey but will consume other snakes. The black mamba does not typically hold onto prey after biting, and instead releases its quarry and waits for it to succumb to paralysis and die. It has a potent digestive system and has been recorded to fully digest prey between eight and ten hours.

Black mambas hunt and are active during the day and return to the same place every night to sleep. According to Widescreen’s ARKive Initiative, they are often seen “basking in the branches of a tree in the early morning” before going hunting. Black mambas are sometimes found in pairs or small groups, though Viernum emphasized their fundamental shyness. She said that they are “shy and secretive snakes that prefer to escape confrontation.” Nevertheless, “black mambas can become highly aggressive if threatened. Their defensive behavior is their most distinctive behavioral characteristic

#8: They are Oviparous

Black mambas breed from April to June. During the mating season, rival males may compete by wrestling. Opponents attempt to subdue each other by intertwining their bodies and wrestling with their necks. Some observers have mistaken this for courtship. During mating, the male will slither over the dorsal side of the female while flicking his tongue. The female will signal she is ready to mate by lifting her tail and staying still. The male will then coil around the posterior end of the female and align this tail with hers ventrolaterally. Intermission may last longer than two hours and the pair would stay motionless apart from occasional spasms from the male.

Oviparous: egg laying

The black mamba is oviparous; the female laying 6–17 eggs in a clutch. The eggs are oval-shaped and elongated, measuring 60–80 mm (2.4–3.1 in) long and 30–36 mm (1.2–1.4 in) in diameter. When hatched, the young range from 40–60 cm (16–24 in) in length. They may grow quickly, reaching 2 m (6 ft 7 in) after their first year. Like the adults, juvenile mambas can be deadly. The black mamba is recorded to live up to 11 years, possibly longer.

#9: Abandoned at Birth

The black mamba, unlike other animals, does not stay to protect her young once they are born. Because they are oviparous, they give birth to already mature snakes. So the mother leaves almost immediately after they are inhibiting, and the baby snakes begin living independently. 

#10: Mongoose- Mortal Enemies

There are few predators of adult mambas, aside from birds of prey. Young snakes have been recorded as prey of the Cape file snake. Mongooses, which have some immunity to the venom, and are often quick enough to evade a bite, will sometimes tackle a black mamba for prey.

#11: Mambas Rarely Attack but are Dangerous

The black mamba is popularly regarded as the most dangerous and feared snake in Africa. However, attacks on humans by black mambas are rare, as they usually try to avoid confrontation, and their occurrence in highly populated areas is not very common compared with some other species. Additionally, the ocellated carpet viper is responsible for more human fatalities due to snakebite than all other African species combined. 

A survey of snakebites in South Africa from 1957 to 1963 recorded over 900 venomous snakebites, but only seven of these were confirmed black mamba bites, at a time when effective antivenom was not widely available. Out of more than 900 bites, only 21 ended in fatalities, including all seven black mamba bites.

In 2015, the proteome (complete protein profile) was assessed and published, revealing 41 distinct proteins and one nucleoside.

The black mamba’s venom is composed of neurotoxins (dendrotoxin) and cardiotoxins as well as other toxins such as fasciculins. 

In an experiment, the most abundant toxin found in black mamba venom was observed to be able to kill a mouse in as little as 4.5 minutes. Based on the murine median lethal dose (LD50) values, the black mamba’s toxicity from all published sources is as follows:

  • (SC) subcutaneous (most applicable to real bites): 0.32 mg/kg, 0.28 mg/kg.
  • (IV) intravenous: 0.25 mg/kg, 0.011 mg/kg.
  • (IP) intraperitoneal: 0.30 mg/kg (average), 0.941 mg/kg.

#12 Venom Travels Quickly and in High Dosages

This venom is extremely toxic. A bite from a black mamba can deliver about 100–120 mg of venom on average and the maximum dose recorded is 400 mg. It is reported that before antivenom was widely available, the mortality rate from a bite was nearly 100%. The bite of a black mamba can potentially cause a collapse in humans within 45 minutes or less. Without effective antivenom therapy, death typically occurs in 7–15 hours.

A bite from a black mamba causes initial neurological and neuromuscular symptoms that may commonly include a headache and a metallic taste in the mouth, which may be accompanied by a triad of paresthesias, profuse perspiration and salivation. Other symptoms may include ptosis and gradual bulbar palsy. Some localized pain or numbness around the bite site is common but not typically severe; therefore, application of a tourniquet proximal to the bite site is feasible and may assist in slowing the onset of prominent neurotoxicity. 

Without appropriate treatment, symptoms typically progress to more severe reactions such as tachydysrhythmias (dangerously fast heart rate) and neurogenic shock, leading to death by asphyxiation, cardiovascular collapse, or respiratory failure.

#13: Pharmaceutical Applications

Peptides in black mamba venom have been found to be effective analgesics. These peptides, part of the ‘three-finger’ family of snake venom toxins (mambalgins), act as inhibitors for acid-sensing ion channels in the central and peripheral nervous system, causing a pain-inhibiting effect. While this effect can be as strong as that of morphine, mambalgins do not have a resistance to naloxone, suffer less from induced tolerance, and cause no respiratory distress.

#14: Reported Bite Cases

Danie Pienaar, now head of South African National Parks Scientific Services, survived the bite of a black mamba without antivenom in 1998. Although no antivenom was administered, Pienaar was in a serious condition, despite the hospital physicians having declared it a “moderate” black mamba envenomation.

At one point, Pienaar lapsed into a coma. Upon arrival at a hospital, Pienaar was immediately intubated, given supportive drug therapy, put on mechanical ventilation and placed on life support for three days, until the toxins were flushed out of his system. He was released from the hospital on the fifth day. Pienaar believes he survived for several reasons. In an article in Kruger Park Times he said, “Firstly, it was not my time to go.” The article went on to state, “The fact that he stayed calm and moved slowly definitely helped. The tourniquet was also essential.”

In another case, 28-year-old British student Nathan Layton was bitten by a black mamba and died in March 2008. The black mamba had been found near a classroom at the Southern African Wildlife College in Hoedspruit, where Layton was training to be a safari guide. Layton was bitten by the snake on his index finger while it was into a jar, but he didn’t realize he’d been bitten. He thought the snake had only brushed his hand.

Approximately 30 minutes after being bitten Layton complained of blurred vision. He collapsed and died of a heart attack, nearly an hour after being bitten. Attempts to revive him failed, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

#15: Fast Like The Black Mamba

Black mambas are well-known for their uncanny and terrifying speed. Although the black mamba’s reputed speed has been exaggerated it can still slither at 12 mph! Everything about the Black Mamba is quick: venom speed, mobility. No wonder the speedy NBA legend, Kobe Bryant, was nicknamed, “The Black Mamba”.

#16: Defensive Behavior

When it senses a perceived threat, it retreats into brush or a hole. In the wild, a black mamba seldom tolerates humans approaching more closely than about 40 meters. When confronted it is likely to gape in a threat display, exposing its black mouth and flicking its tongue. It also is likely to form a narrow hood by spreading its neck-flap. The threat display may be accompanied by hissing. During the threat display, any sudden movement by the intruder may provoke the mamba into a series of rapid strikes leading to severe envenomation.

The size of the black mamba, plus its ability to raise its head well off the ground, enable it to launch as much as 40% of its body length upwards, so mamba bites in humans may occur on the upper body. The black mamba’s reputation for being ready to attack is exaggerated and usually is provoked by perceived threats, such as blocking its movements and ability to retreat, accidentally or otherwise.

#17: Coloring

Specimens vary considerably in color; some may be olive, yellowish-brown, khaki or gunmetal, but are rarely black. Some individuals may a have a purplish glow to their scales. Occasionally they may display dark mottling towards the posterior, which may appear in the form of diagonal crossbands. They have greyish-white underbellies while the inside of the mouth is dark bluish-grey to nearly black. Mamba eyes are greyish brown to shades of black while the pupil is surrounded by silvery white or yellow color.

Juvenile snakes are lighter in color than adults, typically grey or olive green in appearance, and get darker as they age. The black mamba is named for the color of the inside of its mouth, which is black. This is clearly displayed when it is threatened.

In the News 

The Indianapolis Zoo is adding the black mamba, which is typically found in southern and eastern Africa, in May 2019. The serpent will join the zoo’s Deserts Dome exhibit, which will feature the black mamba and other exotic snakes.

Aside from the black mamba snake, the Indianapolis Zoo will also welcome the reticulated and Burmese pythons, two of the largest snake species in Asia, according to the Associated Press.

Related Questions 

How many different types of mamba are there? There are four different species of mamba. They are the Eastern green mamba, Jameson’s mamba, Western green mamba, and the black mamba. 

Will a black mamba chase and attack me on purpose?  Black mambas are fairly shy, and would much rather stay close to home than chase a human. However, if you provoke or startle it, it will attack in self-defense.

Are all mambas venomous? All mambas are highly venomous. A bite can be fatal to humans without access to proper first aid and subsequent antivenom treatment, as it shuts down the lungs and heart.