South Africa’s elusive plain mountain adder


In September 2018 a group of scientists and field herpers set out to find and photograph one of the most elusive dwarf adder species, the plain mountain adder (Bitis inornata). Before their trip there had been only eight confirmed sightings of this species in its natural habitat, since its discovery in 1838. The area under survey was the Sneeuberg mountain range, in the same region where a previous group of scientists found a single specimen during a survey trip in 2015.

Until recently the plain mountain adder was still grouped within the horned adder complex. It only received full species status in 1998, and was afforded an endangered conservation status through the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2017. It has subsequently been listed as Data Deficient.

plain mountain adder

Photo: Bionerds

Plain mountain adders are endemic to the Sneeuberg region of the Eastern Cape, where they occupy high elevation grasslands in inhospitable and treacherous mountain terrain. They are small
viperids, reaching a maximum recorded length of 310mm. Drab brown in colour, they have faint markings on the back and sides, resembling crosses drawn lightly with a piece of charcoal. Their colouring affords them incredible camouflage. They are believed to give birth to 6–8 live young. This is the extent of the knowledge of this species.

They have not been studied in-depth and researchers therefore lack knowledge on their feeding habits, mating and breeding habits, or how venomous this species is (there are no recorded bites). From previous sightings it can be inferred that they inhabit terrain where they can find refuge in grass tussocks and under rock slabs. Potential threats to this species include frequent fires, habitat degradation, and poaching for the illegal pet trade.

This recent trip was most successful. A total of three snakes were found in three days and this extended the range of the species to the east of the recorded distribution. Subsequent community education on how to distinguish this species from the more common puff adder and common egg-eater snakes that also occur in the Sneeuberg has led to two more records being submitted in the past three months. This brings the total confirmed sightings in the wild to 13.

Involving local communities in their protection gives landowners custodianship over these endemic and endangered species. It also makes landowners aware of the potential risk of poaching of natural
species on their properties, and promotes citizen science.

This is extremely valuable, as their involvement and reporting of more of these sightings positively contributes to our knowledge of this, and many more, species in South Africa, and internationally.

plain mountain adder snake

Photo: Bionerds

Plain mountain adder facts

  • The plain mountain adder is one of nine dwarf adder species occurring in South Africa.
  • Conservation status: Endangered and Data Deficient.
  •  Only 13 confirmed sightings in the wild.
  • Under threat of illegal poaching for the pet trade.
  • Endemic to the Sneeuberg mountain range of the Eastern Cape.

Herpetology Glossary

Herping: the act of searching for reptiles and amphibians.
Field herper: someone who actively participates and photographs reptiles and amphibians in the wild without removing them from their natural habitat.
Viperids: a family of venomous snakes with hinged fangs.

Written by Alouise Lynch 

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