Geographical Range Armenia and surrounding Near Eastern countries
Habitat Dry, sparsely vegetated rocky slopes at high elevations
Scientific Name Montivipera raddei
Conservation Status Near threatened

Mountain Dweller

The Armenian viper, along with seven other closely related species, belongs to a group called "mountain vipers." These venomous snakes have several things in common, including - you guessed it! - their mountain-dwelling lifestyle.

Same Snake, Different Colors

Don't expect all Armenian vipers to look alike! They can be various shades of gray, gray-brown, or black. Their backs are covered with round blotches that can be yellow, yellow-orange, brown-orange, or red - and often edged in black.

Their head is covered with small scales, except for the large scales above the eyes. The back of the head has two teardrop-shaped black spots.

Male Armenian vipers can grow up to 39 inches long, females up to 31 inches.

Flicking for Food

Armenian vipers like to eat insects, lizards and rodents. Like all snakes, the vipers flick their tongues to sniff out their next meal. How? As a snake hunts or senses a change in its environment, it will rapidly flick its forked tongue. Chemical molecules stick to the forks of the tongue. When the snake brings the tongue back into its mouth, the chemical particles are transferred to the Jacobson's organ. This special sense organ, located on the roof of the snake's mouth, helps interpret airborne smells.

So tongue-flicking helps snakes find food - and also avoid predators and locate mates!

Viper Love

May is the month of courtship among Armenian vipers. For courting and mating, these snakes like to find an out-of-the-way spot that's partly hidden by grass, shrubs or rocks. A willing female lies motionless while the male "woos" her, crawling along and over her body, flicking his tongue, and jerking his head. This behavior may continue for up to two hours before mating takes place.

Some three-and-a-half months later, the female gives birth to live young (rather than laying eggs, as many snakes do). The litter can have as few as three babies or as many as 18!

A Year in the Life?

As mating season ends, temperatures warm up and Armenian vipers head to their summer feeding grounds. With rising temperatures the reptiles become crepuscular (active at twilight or before sunrise, when it's cooler).

In fall, Armenian vipers head back to their den sites, usually rocky crevices on south-facing slopes. Many vipers share a den, and they usually return to the same den year after year. In these underground lairs, the snakes spend the coldest part of winter. Their bodies slow down and enter a hibernation-like state called brumation (in which they may have periods of wakefulness).

In late April, the snakes begin emerging from their dens. Initially, they come out to bask only during the heat of the day, then return to the dens during the cooler hours. They won't venture far from the dens until the mating season is over and the days warm up in late May. Then the year's cycle begins again.

Vipers in Trouble

Armenian vipers are in trouble in the wild. A decade ago, they were faring well enough to be considered common by IUCN (an organization that determines species' Conservation Status). But since then, their numbers have dropped alarmingly. Habitat loss, from farming and cattle pasturing, accounts for much of the decline. In addition, large numbers of Armenian vipers are collected for their venom, used as a blood-clotting agent in surgery.

Fortunately, help is at hand. The Saint Louis Zoo is working hard to save these animals through the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Western Asia.

Fun Fact

Male Armenian vipers "wrestle" for the opportunity to mate with females. During combat, the two rivals rear up and entwine the front portion of their bodies, each trying to push the other to the ground. Eventually, one of the snakes (usually the larger) will succeed in driving the other snake away. The victor can then mate with the female, who has remained coiled quietly nearby.

Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Family: Viperidae