Close encounters with the Father of Death

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Yes, more snakes: after yesterday's horned snake article (thanks to everyone who chipped in with ideas and comments) I've decided to stick with snakes for a while. I can knock these articles up in a few minutes, and unfortunately I just don't have time at the moment to finish the backlog of planned and semi-complete articles. And I've had 'snake guilt' for a while now: for a massive tetrapod group encompassing round about 3000 extant species, snakes are still under-represented at Tet Zoo. Those of you who keep track of such things will remember the atractaspidid article, titled Side-stabbing stilleto snakes, from May 2008. I knew that atractaspidids - which are venomous colubroids, and possible close relatives of elapids - are also sometimes called mole vipers, burrowing asps, stiletto snakes or side-stabbing snakes. I didn't know that they also go by the name Father of Death snakes in some regions (thanks to Memo Kosemen for this) - wow.

While I was in Morocco during late November last year, a new comment was added to my atractaspidid article. I found it totally gripping and immediately starting telling everyone about it. While it's been on the site since that time, you might not have seen it, and in the interests of bringing it to wider attention, here it is again. It was posted by Eugene Smit: I've edited it for style reasons, but other than that it's as submitted. Many, many thanks Eugene for passing this on... [the images are unconnected to Eugene's text and only included to pretty things up].



Firstly I would like to thank and congratulate you on a fantastic article. I live just outside Durban in South Africa and recently I decided to move a large amount of soil and tree stumps that had been piled in a corner of my garden. Finding snakes around the garden is not uncommon, and I have handled a few, hot or not, driven mainly by my passion not to kill. It was an interesting find, as I was unfamiliar with these "soil dwellers", finding three in the first afternoon. One was kept for identification purposes, and in hindsight.... had I only known.

Mistakenly identified as an Eastern Worm Snake, and busy shedding its skin, I decided to allow my daughter of 11 years to keep the snake for a few days. The snake was handled by me and my daughter, then it all went wrong. The morning of the second day, while holding the snake, my daughter was struck on the middle finger. Believing that it was harmless, with my heart pounding in my throat, I watched as the symptoms quickly progressed. We were in the car, taking my wife to work, and then to drop my daughter at school. Within 10 minutes I realised that this was serious. I drove straight to the hospital, by the time we reached there, her hand was puffed up and fingers looking almost deformed from the swelling. I stood next to the ER doctor looking at a snake chart, I couldn't see the Eastern Worm Snake - but the Stiletto Snake with a big "H" was the closest resemblance. The doctor said "You don't want it to be that one..."


We decided to have closer look at the snake, which was still in a container in the car. Nobody was sure. I took it back to the car, and then decided, we have to know what snake it is. I removed the snake from the container, by hand, and when I took hold of the snake behind the head... strike two. Hit me on the tip of my index finger, so quickly, I didn't even see it happen. I returned to the ER, and mentioned this to the nurse. Minutes later a clerk entered and said that they can not get hold of the snake expert to identify the snake. That is when they mentioned that they can not administer an anti-venom until they have positive identification.

Immediately I walked out of there, got into my car and drove approximately 30 kilometres to a snake park that we had visited 6 months earlier. As I approached the reception area, there he was - Tim, the snake expert. I said to him "You have to help me; I need you to identify this snake. My daughter is in the ER, I have been bitten, and we need to know what snake this is so that they can administer anti-venom". I have never seen a live person go so white so quickly. We walked out to a sandy patch and he dropped the snake out of the container, he pressed it behind the head with a twig and instinctively it pushed its head downward. Then Tim started, like reading from an encyclopaedia, "It's a Stiletto snake aka Burrowing Asp. Highly venomous, a Cytotoxic poison, no anti-venom - but don't worry, you won't die......" That's when I interrupted him and said, "Hold on", I phoned my wife in the ER and asked for the doctor, I handed Tim the phone and said "OK, now please tell him what you just told me". Immediately they decided to transfer my daughter to another hospital with higher care, and Tim told me to take it easy and get to the same hospital and get myself checked out [image below, from Kochva (2002), shows effects of burrowing asp bite on a finger. Gross oedema and blistering are characteristic, and local necrosis has developed in some cases].


When I arrived back at the ER the ambulance was waiting to do the transfer. My daughter was swollen to just below the elbow, my finger was rock hard and throbbing. I drove the 20 kilometres to St. Augustine's hospital and waited at the entrance of the ICU. I hated myself at that moment, how could I have been so stupid. How would I ever forgive myself if Bianca lost a finger, her hand, and arm, her life? I was freaking out. She was checked in to the ICU, drips put on, medicines checked and more given and then we waited. Where would the swelling stop, it was half way above her elbow. Circulation to her fingers was the biggest concern, the plastic surgeon was right there, waiting. Should he cut to relieve the pressure? Then he made a phone call, minutes later a specialist was looking at Bianca's arm, "Let's get her down there now" he said. Then he turned to me and explained, Bianca was going for treatment in a Hyperbaric Chamber. Miracles do happen [the image of the swollen arm below is NOT connected to Eugene or Bianca's story, but shows another person's encounter with a burrowing asp. They were bitten in 2007 on the index finger: full story here. Note the times written on the different parts of the swellings].


The swelling stopped progressing after the first session of two hours, and even her wrist looked as if the swelling had subsided a little. She spent the night in high care and the next morning she was back in the chamber, and again in the afternoon, and again the next morning. Four sessions in the Hyperbaric Chamber, three days in ICU. Thank God, a full recovery. I have learnt many lessons from this experience, and I hope through this informative article by Mr. Naish and my record of events that people would become more aware. Not just learning about snakes, but learn from the mistakes that I have made.

Amazing stuff. Another message written by someone (Tabbitha) bitten by one of these snakes was also submitted, please read it here. If I wasn't already addicted to my own blog, I know that I would be now :) Many thanks to Eugene and Tabbitha for passing these stories on, I am honoured to have material like this on the site.

Ref - -

Kochva, E. 2002. Atractaspis (Serpentes, Atractaspididae) the burrowing asp; a multidisplinary minireview. Bulletin of the Natural History Museum, London (Zoology) 68, 91-99.

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so what happened to the father who was bitten on the index finger? And did the swelling just go down and everyone was fine? What kind of toxin?

Toxin type: little is known about burrowing asp venom, partly because it's difficult to collect, and partly because nobody obtained or studied it until recently. That of Atractaspis engaddensis contains enzymes, 'a quite powerful hemorrhagin and a group of low-molecular weight toxins, the sarafatoxins' (named after Saraf, the Hebrew name for this snake). Seven protein peaks were obtained following fractionation by molecular sieving: these contained, variously, high-molecular weight proteins (with a high haemorrhagic factor), phospholipase A2 activity, and low-molecular weight peptides. The peptides made up 40% of the venom protein and are highly toxic to mice. Safarotoxins have since been used quite a bit in cardiology and blood pressure studies, and the more potent ones exert a strong influence on the cardiovascular system and one is a particularly potent vascoconstrictor.

Most people bitten by these snakes suffer from oedema and systemic symptoms like fever, nausea, a rise in blood pressure, and fluctuations in consciousness, and those bitten by A. engaddensis eventually recover (no antiserum is available). However, about five deaths have been reported, all caused by A. microlepidota and A. irregularis.

Virtually all of this information is from the Kochva (2002) reference given above.

(named after Saraf, the Hebrew name for this snake)

"Saraf" (שרף) means "burn; scorch". It's also the word more usually spelled in English as "seraph", which did originally mean a burning/fiery angel.

The dictionary I am checking does not include the snake as one of the meanings, though...

Oh, wait. has it, as "שרף ×¢××-×××", which would translate as "Ein-Gedi saraf", which of course corresponds to the species name "engaddensis". ¹

The article mentions that Atractaspis engaddensis has another name in Hebrew: "צפע×× ×©××ר" (tsefa'on shachor), which could be "black viper" (or "black viperid", perhaps? My knowledge of scientific taxonomic Hebrew is nonexistent; I have to go with rough guesses from the word roots).

1: Of course, since "Gedi" means "kid" (as in "baby goat"), and "Ein" means "spring" (as in water-source), that could then be further expanded to "Kid Spring Burning Angel", except that that would be silly.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 25 Feb 2009 #permalink

I can't contribute to the present discussion, but feel compelled to express my thanks for a blog which has led me to identify myself and my congenerics as "secondarily venomless".

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 25 Feb 2009 #permalink

Nasty, yet cool, how nature can come up with all these little ways to kill you. My heart and swim bladder go out to the family who had to go through such terrifying times worrying if they would die of that snake bite.

By Metalraptor (not verified) on 25 Feb 2009 #permalink

The commonly used Hebrew word for snake in the Bible is I think na.chash' - however the expression sa.raph na.chash' is used for poisonous snakes. This literally means 'fiery snake' - thought to be a reference to the inflamation resulting from being bitten. It does come from the same source as the word from which we get seraph - apparently sera.phim' literally means 'burning ones' and relates to a role in preserving purity and 'holiness' (a reference to purifying metals etc by fire).

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 26 Feb 2009 #permalink

however the expression sa.raph na.chash' is used for poisonous snakes.

I think that's backwards. It should be "nachash saraf" (× ×ש שרף).

I checked my big dictionary, which does have "שרף" (saraph) alone as meaning a 'poisonous 'fiery' serpent', as well as meaning the type of angel. As long as I'm looking in there, I note that another generic term for poisonous snake is "× ×ש ×רס×" (nachash arsi).

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 27 Feb 2009 #permalink

Yes, on the matter of word order, my mistake, I think you right, that was my English language bias towards putting adjectives before nouns, rather than after. :)

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 28 Feb 2009 #permalink

Just to clarify comment number 4 and the translations of Seraph Ein Gedi from Hebrew to English.

Seraph' in ancient biblical Hebrew is a fiery angel etc, etc, but here the name is modern Hebrew which is spoken hebrew. Seraph is a type of snake, perhaps a viper.

While it is true 'Ein' in Hebrew is spring and 'Gedi' is a baby goat, here the two words together are referring to the region the snake is located in and not meant to be broken down further.

This small area of the Dead Sea (located on the Israeli side) is called Ein Gedi (the lowest point on Earth). It is a tremendous place, I hiked up the southern trail only yesterday.

The national park ranger there told us that this type of snake is one of the deadliest out there. I have read that (Atractaspis engaddensis) שרף ×¢×× ××× is ranked around #3 in the world for venom toxicity.

Dear readers: the following message was passed on by Derek Pollard. In the interests of providing as much useful information about burrowing asp bites as possible, I thought it appropriate to share his email here. Thanks to Derek for permission for this. Darren Naish


Dear Medical Staff,

I am a South African living in Beacon Bay (a suburb of East London). While replacing a corroded water pipe on my property I was bitten by a Burrowing Adder. I am not entirely sure what sub-species of Atractapsis it was. It bit me on my left hand and the pain was unbelievable. The only thing that I could think of was to try the same treatment we use for marine stings and bites.

I ran inside and immersed my hand in very hot water. After about 20 minutes the pain subsided and there was no swelling or necrosis.

The alternatives that I can think of to cover this are as follows:-

-- It was not a complete bite and not much venom was injected.
-- It was one of the less dangerous subspecies (maybe Bibron's burrowing adder).
-- The protein in the venom may be de-natured by heat.

I hope that this is of some assistance.

Best Regards,

Derek Pollard.