Larry Slawson received his master's degree from UNC Charlotte. He has a keen interest in reptiles, insects, and arachnids.
The Black Mamba: Africa's Most Feared Snake
The black mamba is a species of highly venomous snake from the Elapid family (which includes cobras), and is native to sub-Saharan Africa. The black mamba is considered by many scientists to be one of the most venomous animals in the world, making it one of the most feared snakes on the African continent due to its aggression and potent venom.
Despite its fearsome reputation (and tendency to be killed by local humans), the black mamba’s population continues to thrive in its native habitat; a testament to the snake’s adaptability and remarkable sense of self-preservation in the face of danger.
This article provides an in-depth analysis of the black mamba by examining its behavioral patterns, characteristics, habitat, and venom toxicity. In doing so, it is the author’s hope that a better, more-developed understanding of the black mamba can be attained by his readers.
- Common Name: Black Mamba
- Binomial Name: Dendroaspis polylepis
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Subphylum: Vertebrata
- Class: Reptilia
- Order: Squamata
- Suborder: Serpentes
- Family: Elapidae
- Genus: Dendroaspis
- Species: D. polylepis
- Conservation Status (IUCN): “Least Concern” (LC)
- Current Population Trend: Stable
- Similar Species: Eastern Green Mamba; Western Green Mamba; Jameson’s Mamba
- Synonyms: Dendroaspis polylepis polylepis (Gunther, 1864); Dendraspis polylepis (Gunther, 1864); Dendraspis angusticeps (Boulenger, 1896); Dendraspis aninorii (Peters, 1873); Dendroaspis polylepis antinorii (Peters, 1873)
Black Mamba Behavioral Traits and Characteristics
The black mamba is a species of highly venomous snakes that are part of the Elapidae family. First named and categorized by Albert Gunther in 1864, the black mamba is the second-longest venomous snake in the world (after the King Cobra), and can reach lengths of nearly three meters (9 feet 10 inches).
The black mamba’s coloration varies between dark grey and brown, with juvenile snakes being paler than the adults.
Black mambas are considered both terrestrial and arboreal in that they spend much of their time on the ground as well as in the trees. They are also quite fast, and can travel at speeds of 16 km/h (or 10 mph) over short distances (nationalgeographic.com).
The snake gets its name from its threat display, which involves displaying an ink-black mouth to potential predators and attackers (sometimes hissing as well). Although the black mamba can be relatively timid, it can also be highly aggressive when threatened or cornered, and will deliver numerous bites in rapid succession. Coupled with its long striking range and powerful venom, the black mamba is an incredibly dangerous snake.
Despite their aggression and potent venom, the Black Mamba is widely regarded as a beautiful snake species. The snake possesses a long and slender body, topped by a coffin-shaped head, medium-sized eyes, and a relatively pronounced brow ridge.
Despite their name, specimens vary dramatically in coloration, and include yellowish-brown, khaki, dark grey, and olive. In more rare cases, some specimens have even been known to take on a purplish coloration. These beautiful colors are accentuated by the snake’s pale underbelly, which is often grey or white.
On average, the black mamba reaches lengths of approximately 6 feet 7 inches, to 9 feet 10 inches (with the longest specimen reaching an astounding 14 feet 9 inches). Nearly 25 percent of the snake’s body is comprised of its caudal vertebrae, which extends throughout most of the animal’s long and thin tail. In regard to weight, researchers have discovered that most black mambas reach an average size of 2.3 pounds (1.03 kilograms), with larger specimens reaching upwards of 5.3 pounds (2.4 kilograms).
Adding to its beautiful but menacing appearance, the black mamba is well-known for its medium-sized eyes with pupils that are often described as grey, dark brown, or black. Surrounding their dark eyes is a silvery-white (occasionally yellow) strand of coloration.
The black mamba is considered a proteroglyphous breed of snake, meaning that the animal is front-fanged (located at the front of its maxilla, or upper-jaw). The snake’s fangs grow to nearly 0.26 inches in length (approximately 6.5 millimeters), and are surrounded by an ink-black (occasionally bluish-grey) mouth.
As with all snakes in the Elapidae family, the black mamba’s fangs are both fixed and hollow (earthtouchnews.com). A key characteristic that sets the Mamba apart from other elapids (such as cobras), however, is their possession of an articulating maxillary bone within their upper jaw.
This allows the snake to gently rock their fangs “back and forth” upon biting. This rocking motion, in turn, helps the animal to deliver large quantities of venom in nearly all of its bites (earthtouchnews.com). This aspect, alone, is one of the main reasons that Black Mamba bites are so potent and deadly, as “dry bites” (bites that fail to produce envenomation) rarely occur with this particular species.
Due to the fact that black mambas are incapable of tearing into their prey like other predators and must swallow their food whole, the snake possesses a unique adaptation that allows for easier breathing during ingestion. Located in the bottom portion of the snake’s mouth is an extendable windpipe (or trachea) that works in a manner similar to a “snorkel” (earthtouchnews.com).
While swallowing its prey, the black mamba is able to extend its trachea underneath (or to the side) of its meal, allowing the opening of this pipe (known as the glottis) to breathe in fresh air. With this ability, the snake can consume large meals with relative ease, as its respiratory system remains fully intact and clear of obstruction during the ingestion process.
The black mamba’s scalation is essential for identification (as with other snake species as well). In total, the snake possesses nearly 23 to 25 rows of dorsal scales (or longitudinal plates that encase its mid-body), along with nearly 281 ventral scales, 109-132 subcaudal scales, and a divided anal scale.
Surrounding the black mamba’s mouth is a series of 7 to 8 supralabial scales in the upper quadrant, along with 10 to 14 sulabial scales in the lower quadrant. The snake can also be distinguished by its 3 to 4 postocular scales that surround its eyes.
The possession (and placement) of these scales are vital to the black mamba’s movement, and provide the snake with remarkable agility and speed. Their sleek and rigid design also provide the animal with the ability to navigate the most rugged terrains with ease. Research conducted in the early 2000s has provided researchers with additional insight into the snake’s movement.
According to numerous studies, the black mamba’s scales act as “friction hooks” along “rough points on the ground,” thus, helping to “propel the animals forward” (earthtouchnews.com). If true, this helps to explain why the black mamba is one of the fastest known snakes in the world, reaching speeds of over 10 mph.
Distribution Area and Natural Habitat
The black mamba is known to inhabit a large portion of sub-Saharan Africa, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Angola, and Namibia.
In more recent years, there have also been black mamba sightings in West Africa; however, such claims have never been proven with certainty. If true, such reports are troubling as they indicate that new populations of the black mamba may be developing, or that the snake’s geographic (and migratory) patterns are beginning to shift over time.
This is problematic as a western shift in their population will put the snake in greater contact with humans; leading to an increase in bites and higher chances of death for the animal.
Preferring dry environments, the black mamba tends to reside in woodlands, rocky outcrops, as well as Africa’s large savannas. Despite being spotted in Kenya and Zambia (elevations above 5,000 feet), the black mamba tends to inhabit low altitude regions of Africa (below 3,000 feet).
As both a terrestrial and arboreal species, the black mamba is known to make use of termite mounds, rock crevices, as well as tree cracks for shelter. Unlike many snakes, the black mamba is also known to establish permanent lairs. If undisturbed, the snake will regularly return to this lair “when not hunting, basking, mating, or seeking refuge elsewhere” (animaldiversity.org).
Prey and Natural Predators
Black Mambas are diurnal (active during the day), and stalk their prey from a permanent lair to which they regularly return. The snake’s primary food sources include small birds, as well as small mammals that include rodents, hyraxes, bushbabies, as well as bats. In times of starvation, the black mamba is also known to eat other snakes, despite a clear preference for warm-blooded animals.
Using their powerful venom to incapacitate prey, the black mamba does not latch onto their prey after biting (like larger snakes), but waits for paralysis and death to occur before attempting to swallow their food (remaining in the shadows nearby).
Once paralysis or death occurs (usually within minutes), the black mamba swallows their prey whole, using flexible jaws that are capable of expanding upwards of four times their standard size. After swallowing, “powerful acids digest the prey” within a span of eight to ten hours (animaldiversity.org).
There are few natural predators of the black mamba, due to its highly potent venom. However, brown snake eagles, as well as tawny eagles, martial eagles, honey badgers, and mongooses have been known to kill the snake on occasion. Younger mambas have also been discovered in the stomachs of Nile crocodiles, and are occasionally hunted by various owls and vultures.
Currently, the greatest threat to black mambas are humans. As one of the most feared snakes on the African continent, contact with humans is often fatal. Researchers attribute this fear to a variety of sources. Aside from the snake’s lethal venom, African mythology can also be blamed for this widespread fear as African myths often exaggerate the black mamba’s capabilities.
Quote by Mahatma Gandhi
"The snakes have their place in the agricultural economy of the village, but our villagers do not seem to realize it."
— Mahatma Gandhi
Black Mamba's Venom
The black mamba is one of the most-deadliest snakes in the world. Its venom is composed primarily of neurotoxins, and can induce symptoms within ten minutes after biting. Black mamba bites are often fatal if antivenom is not administered rapidly, as the venom quickly attacks both the central nervous system and heart of its victims.
For this reason, the mamba is widely considered to be Africa’s most feared snake, with nearly 2,553 bites recorded in South Africa alone (between 1957 and 1979). A single bite (delivering between 100 to 120 milligrams of venom on average) is capable of killing nearly 14 humans.
As human populations in the region continue to grow, researchers believe that bites from the black mamba will continue to rise in the decades ahead. This is due, in part, to the expansion of human dwellings in the black mamba’s territory (nationalgeographic.com).
Venom Characteristics and Properties
The black mamba’s venom is unique in the realm of venomous snakes as it is predominantly neurotoxic, but does not contain protease enzymes. It wasn’t until 2015 that the snake’s venom was researched in an in-depth manner, with scientists discovering nearly 41 distinct proteins and one nucleoside within the animal’s venom.
Currently, the snake’s venom is believed to derive from two separate toxic agents, including dendrotoxins, and three-finger toxins. The presence of these toxins helps to explain the venom’s ability to produce excitatory effects in its victims (such as extreme sweating), as well as paralysis and muscle spasms.
Remarkably, the black mamba’s venom is also devoid of haemorrhagic and procoagulant properties. Despite these unique qualities, research has found that the animal’s lethal venom dose is approximately 0.33 mg/kg, with average bites yielding nearly 100 to 120 milligrams of venom (and upwards of 400 milligrams in extreme cases).
Signs and Symptoms of a Black Mamba Bite
Symptoms of a black mamba bite are severe, and include extreme tingling, a metallic taste in the mouth, neurological issues, drooping eyelids, blurred vision, and complete paralysis of the respiratory system.
Other bite symptoms include extreme nausea and vomiting, fatigue, total collapse of motor skills, as well as extreme sweating. Humans bit by the black mamba are often completely incapacitated within 45 minutes, and typically die within seven hours if proper medical treatment is not undertaken.
Medical Treatment and Care
Treatment for the black mamba’s deadly bite includes pressure to the wound site, minimization of movement, and the application of a tourniquet. Polyvalent antivenoms are the main source of treatment for the Mamba’s bite, along with the administering of Tetanus Toxoid.
As of 2017, a new antivenom is currently in development by the Universidad de Costa Rica. In spite of advancements in treatment, however, fatalities from the snake are incredibly common within Africa as many individuals are incapable of receiving proper medical care in a timely manner (following a bite).
Moreover, lifelong complications from the snake's venom are also extremely common, with muscle paralysis, motor-skill dysfunction, and organ damage being among the most cited complaints from survivors.
Reproduction and Lifespan
The black mamba’s mating season is believed to occur between September and February, following the drop in local temperatures. After mating, the female lays a clutch of approximately six to seventeen eggs (upwards of twenty-five in extreme cases) inside a warm burrow.
Unlike other animal species, however, the female black mamba is not known to remain with her young, and abruptly leaves once all her eggs have been delivered. For eggs that avoid the attention of local predators, hatching occurs nearly three months later.
After hatching, baby black mambas are already nearly two feet in length, and grow rapidly over the next year (reaching nearly six feet in length). Juveniles are just as deadly as the adults, and are capable of delivering fatal bites to animals and humans, alike.
Although the exact lifespan of the black mamba is unknown, researchers believe that they may live upwards of 11 years. However, unconfirmed reports have also cited black mambas living upwards of 20 years in captivity.
The black mamba primarily uses its eyes to detect sudden bursts of motion, causing the animal to instinctively strike (animaldiversity.org). As with most diurnal species, the snake possesses a keen sense of vision, allowing it to spot the smallest of animals with relative ease (earthtouchnews.com).
The black mamba’s primary sense of direction, however, derives from its tongue. Extending it outwards in a “flicking” motion, the snake is capable of collecting various air particles that are “deposited in the vomeronasal organ” within the roof of its mouth (animaldiversity.org). This organ acts as a chemosensory device, allowing the animal to pick up on various scent-trails of prey and predators, alike.
Despite having no ears, the black mamba is also capable of detecting vibrations in both the air and the ground, alerting it to nearby dangers. This allows the snake, in turn, to display warning signals to potential threats in a timely manner.
An Extraordinary Creature
In closing, the black mamba is one of the most fascinating snakes in the world due to its aggression, natural beauty, and potent venom. Despite widespread fear and apprehension towards the mamba, its population numbers continue to flourish throughout Africa, and was listed by the IUCN in 2010 as having a conservation status of “least concerned.”
Although researchers have been able to formulate a wide array of theories and hypotheses concerning the behavioral patterns of the black mamba, there is still much to be learned about this extraordinary creature.
With new and exciting research projects already underway throughout Africa, it will be interesting to see what new forms of information can be learned about the black mamba in the years and decades that lie ahead.
- “Black Mamba.” National Geographic, September 24, 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles/b/black-mamba/.
- “Black Mamba Facts.” LiveScience. Purch. Accessed November 23, 2019. https://www.livescience.com/43559-black-mamba.html.
- Earth Touch News. “Anatomy of a Black Mamba.” Earth Touch News Network, September 8, 2015. https://www.earthtouchnews.com/natural-world/how-it-works/in-photos-anatomy-of-a-black-mamba/.
- Marais, Johan. “True Facts about the Black Mamba.” African Snakebite Institute, May 31, 2019. https://www.africansnakebiteinstitute.com/articles/true-facts-about-the-black-mamba/.
- Slawson, Larry. "The Top 10 Deadliest and Most Dangerous Snakes in the World." Owlcation. 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Larry Slawson
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on December 17, 2019:
@Kari I totally agree! Pretty incredible!
@Devika I'm glad you never had to deal with the Black Mamba personally haha. That would be scary!
Devika Primic on December 17, 2019:
Hi Larry Slawson I didn't encounter a Black Mamba we lived on a farm and encountered other types of snakes living under the stone of the old Victorian home we lived in and that was my closest encounter I had with snakes in South Africa. Thank you for writing about this extremely dangerous snake.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on December 15, 2019:
I never knew that black mamba have an articulating maxillary bone that allows them to rock their fangs. What an amazing adaptation!
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on December 12, 2019:
@Eric Haha, that's funny my friend. I think that I might have seen that movie before. Can't think of the name either though haha.
@Pamela I completely agree! I am so glad this snake is nowhere near my home haha.
@Devika I'm glad you enjoyed the article! So have you ever personally encountered one where you live? That would definitely be terrifying!
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 11, 2019:
As a South African I know of the Black Mamba and it has scared of many people. A terrifying experience to confront one and on farms people have the common encounter and they run from it.An interesting insight of the Black Mamba.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 11, 2019:
I had heard of this snake but knew nothing into reading your well-researched, interesting article. These snakes sound very scary to me as they are so long and their venom is fatal. I'm glad they do not reside near me.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on December 10, 2019:
This is great. We were watching a Kung Fu movie -- I do not remember the title or actor. But we looked it up and was a black mamba that he mesmerized with his skill. How fun is that?