Image Credit : Klaus Roemer
Bitis nasicornis is a viper species known for its striking coloration and prominent nasal “horns”. The head is narrow, flat, triangular and relatively small compared to the rest of the body.
The color pattern consists of a series of 15–18 blue or blue-green, oblong markings, each with a lemon-yellow line down the center. These are enclosed within irregular, black, rhombic blotches. A series of dark crimson triangles run down the flanks, narrowly bordered with green or blue.
- Scientific name : Bitis nasicornis
- Distribution : West-Central Africa
- Average Size : 0.85 m (2.8 ft)
- Life Span : 20 years or more
- Difficulty : Advanced
Bitis nasicornis are a problematic species that are difficult for most keepers to maintain past about 2 years of age. While still an enigmatic species, we have been fortunate to have had some success keeping and repetitively breeding this species over 3 generations and have had longevities approaching 10 years of age. A lot of trial and error, frustrating failure, and building on the experiments and success of others have allowed this success. Caging, temperature ranges, and humidity are the 3 key factors.
Neonates – 12 months of age : At this age, Bitis nasicornis appear bulletproof and easy to maintain, assuming well-hydrated animals are available and selected (usually imports). They tolerate a wide range of temperatures, stress, and usually feed quite well. Rest assured, this is a short-lived illusion. We maintain snakes within this age range in a standard rack system, 0.25 x 0.45 x 0.15 meters (0.8 x 1.5 x 0.5 feet).
12 months – 2 years of age : This is where these snakes begin to get tricky, and many simply die for unexplained reasons. At this point, we move the snakes into custom rack systems, 0.6 x 1 x 0.2 meters (2 x 3.3 x 0.65 feet). These racks are kept very dark, cool (as outlined below) and we interact with the snakes as little as possible with as little foot-traffic through the room as possible. Low stress is key.
2 years – 5+ years of age: At this point Bitis nasicornis are a very delicate snake and do not tolerate seemingly minimal stress. They prefer fairly tight, dark, dry enclosures. Each snake is maintained in a custom 1.2 x 0.6 x 0.6 meters (4 x 2 x 2 feet) enclosure, alone, and with the heavy plantings of Pothos vines and dense logs. During breeding season, September – November in Florida, USA, we have a simple system of 0.15 meters (feet) PVC pipe that can be connected between enclosures to allow males and females cages to be accessed by each, as they wish. Originally, we believed that male-male combat was required for successful breeding, as is sometimes the case with Gaboons. We no longer subscribe to this theory, though it may be helpful if all else fails to induce breeding. These cages are kept cool, dark, with very minimal interaction – a quick glance 2 times per day to check status, spot cleaning, and water introduction, as outlined below. Again, we understand these protocols do not immediately appear logical for a rainforest-dwelling species, yet they work, whereas the common “Gaboon Thinking” tends to kill these magnificent snakes by 24 months of age.
We do not provide hide boxes for Bitis nasicornis, instead we allow them the ability to burrow into deep substrate, back up against wood/logs, and/or “disappear” within heavy plantings of Pothos vines. In our experience, this is not a species that uses standard hide boxes.
Neonates – 12 months of age : We prefer dry cypress mulch at a depth of 0.07 – 0.1 meters (0.2-0.3 feet).
12 months – 2 years of age : At this point we change to a fast-draining substrate of 0.1-0.15 meters (0.3-0.5 feet) of organic potting soil/sand at a 50/50 ratio, topped by a loose peat moss/perlite plant mix, topped by large-chunk hardwood mulch, which dries very quickly and does not soak up excess water. Pothos vines are free to grow and proliferate within these cages.
2 years – 5+ years of age : Our substrate is as follows, from base to surface : A base layer of chicken-egg sized rocks, pea-gravel, a window-screen barrier, 0.02 meters (0.06 feet) of course sand, 0.1-0.15 meters (0.3-0.5 feet) of organic potting soil/sand at a 50/50 ratio, topped by a loose succulent plant-type mix of 50/50 soil/course Perlite and large-chunk hardwood mulch.
Lighting – Heating
Neonates – 12 months of age : Lighting consists of a 12/12 day/night cycle, with lighting coming from the indirect lighting of the room. The temperature is regulated for the entire room, no supplemental heating for individual racks/boxes. Daytime high does not go above 24 °C (75 °F) with a night-time drop to 20.5-21 °C (69-70 °F).
12 months – 2 years of age : Cages are kept very dark – think pre-dawn or dusk light levels. Temperatures become critical at this point, going forward. The entire room is maintained on a 12/12 day/night cycle. Temperatures NEVER exceed 24 °C (75 °F), and dip as low as 20 °C (68 °F) during the night. It is reiterated that cages are kept dry with no spraying or water introduction other than the large, shallow water bowl in each cage. (watering is outlined below). Interaction/stress are kept to a bare minimum.
2 years – 5+ years of age: Lighting and heating are maintained as outlined above.
Bitis nasicornis originate from regions of frequent, heavy rainfall, with high humidity. Logic would dictate that we – the collective keepers of this magnificent species – replicate the same conditions to induce breeding and for long-term maintenance of healthy captives. Decades of trial and error and continued failure frustratingly, and paradoxically, shunt us in another direction that has yet to become scientifically clear. All of the previously outlined parameters being met, we now proceed with a watering protocol well-established with European keepers, yet frustratingly rejected by American keepers. It is our hope that this will change based on empirical, observatory, and real-world experience/evidence.
A large, shallow water bowl should be maintained at all times, filled to the very top. With imported/newborn babies – soak, soak, soak daily in clean water. This cannot be emphasized enough. They can also be sprayed with commercial greenhouse sprayers to mimic rainfall and will drink and drink for long periods. They can also be gently hooked over to a shallow water dish, with the head gently tipped into the water, where they will drink large amounts of water. After a series of exposures, most will eventually recognize standing water as such and seek it out. When in doubt, soak, spray, or tip into the water. Commonly cited literature suggests using an aquarium air-stone to roil the water surface of a water dish to attract the snake and atomize water particles as an alternative. While we don’t discount this as it works very well for many tree viper species, we have never had success with this approach with Bitis nasicornis. All of this should be performed with the least amount of stress and may require watering outside of the primary enclosure to avoid excessive and potentially fatal wet conditions within the primary caging.
For animals 12 months + we prefer to use a common greenhouse water sprayer to individually spray a stream of water over the mouth area of each animal. If they are thirsty, they will drink aggressively, and we do this until they are satiated and stop drinking. If they huff and puff and “run” from the water, we assume they are self-hydrating to an adequate level and discontinue efforts for that day. A thirsty Bitis nasicornis will drink no matter the noxious external stimuli.
While we fully realize that it goes against logic for a rain forest animal to require anything but very high humidity, you will surely kill your Bitis nasicornis if kept at high humidity levels for an extended period of time. We are talking years here. These snakes are very slow to react to inappropriate husbandry (for the most part) and the failures of today may not manifest until 6-12 months down the line. Cage/room humidity of 60-70% is perfectly adequate, with elevations during shed cycles as outlined below.
From day one, Bitis nasicornis, like Gaboons, will frequently eat as much food as is offered – as it is with many humans. The long-term ramifications of this practice will always prove catastrophic, much as with humans. Adopting a practice of feeding relatively small meals, never offered until the previous meal has been defecated, will ensure longevity. It’s as simple as that, though so many lack the patience to feed these snakes appropriately. Weekly soakings in tepid water may be required to induce defecation.
Appropriately sized mice, rats, quail, chicks, etc., are usually accepted vigorously with healthy snakes and held firmly after the initial strike, as with Gaboon Vipers. Resist the urge to feed large, frequent meals, and half of the battle is won. Bitis nasicornis make efficient use of prey items. Except immediately after a meal, or when gravid, you should not be able to see the skin between the scales while the snake is at rest.
As mentioned previously, Bitis nasicornis, especially from about 12 months onward, are extremely susceptible to stress and should be handled as gently and as infrequently as possible. While bites are rare, they possess an extremely potent venom and envenomations are a life-altering emergency and not to be taken lightly. Appropriate antivenin should be maintained on site at all times.
Young animals are easily handled by standard methods. Large, heavy-bodied adults are best handled with wide hooks that spread the weight and bulk of a heavy animal over the largest surface area possible.
While these snakes may appear slow and sedentary, they are capable of astoundingly fast movement and accurate strikes – usually when they are least expected. Snakes should always be removed to a secure location prior to cage cleaning. Daily spot-cleaning with regular deep cleaning is essential to long-term success with this species. We employ heavy plantings and micro-organisms such as springtails to establish a bioactive substrate that minimizes full cleanings. Anoles, skinks, etc., can be established for symbiotic fly control in large rainforest enclosures with excellent success.
During shed cycles, misting with water may be increased, though soggy, wet conditions are to be avoided. Soaking may be required.
Potential Health Problems
Respiratory infections are occasionally an issue with high humidity and poor air circulation, though this is rare. More common are Protozoan infections/proliferations, as well as roundworm and lungworm infections/proliferations. While we will never advocate against routine fecal exams and wormings, we, for one, do not routinely worm imported Bitis nasicornis unless symptoms or problems present. This is for a few reasons: As mentioned previously, these snakes tend to come in dehydrated and many wormers heavily tax the kidneys and/or liver. If the animal is already at a metabolic disadvantage, the addition of wormers may tip the snake over the edge and kill it. We prefer to set the snakes up as outlined above and observe. After a period of establishment, proper temperatures, and solid feeding, with a 6-month quarantine period away from the main collection, we then evaluate the need for worming. While not a popular opinion, we find that prophylactic worming is only necessary in 25% of cases. If required, standard doses of Panacure (100mg/kilo, x 2 doses, 14 days apart) and Flagyl (150mg/kilo, x 2 does, 1 week apart) are employed per standard doses and norms easily available in a Google search.
To recap: Bitis nasicornis are a magnificent species that do well in captivity if a small but seemingly in-congruent set of parameters are followed over the long term.
It’s highly recommended for every venomous species that you keep or interested to keep to have the bite protocol. Each species has a dedicated bite protocol that includes general information regarding the species, information about their venom and signs and symptoms of envenomation if bitten. It also includes a detailed information about first aid (what to do and what not to do), specific treatment recommendations for medical personnel to provide appropriate care including information about the antivenom or antivenoms required for treatment. Finally it includes a list of people who specialize in snakebites and their contact information so they can be consulted to assist with the care if needed and a list of all the references used for the create the protocol.
The information contained in this care sheet reflect the opinions and methods of the mentioned breeder, based on their expertise and long-established experience.