I have been putting it off forever, but Halloween is rolling in and we need the A-list material… let’s talk about the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis). Not only do black mambas have the scariest & sexiest name in herpetology (and maybe beyond), they fully live up to their fearsome reputation. Black mambas are among the fastest snakes in the world—indeed they may be the fastest (it is apparently difficult to make deadly poison serpents run on a treadmill). Their venom is a horrifying cocktail of neurotoxins including an exceedingly effective dendrotoxin which attacks the ion channels which allow nerve cells to communicate with muscles.
Black mambas are diurnal ambush hunters. They inhabit a giant swath of sub-Saharal Africa from the northern Sahel down to Namibia and Mozambique in the south (although they are absent from certain deserts and rainforests within this vast territory). The snakes live on small intelligent mammals like hyraxes and bushbabies…but surely they must eat other creatures as well. In turn mambas are preyed on by the fearless yellow mongooses, snake eagles, and cape file snakes–which are seemingly immune to the poison. Africa has some really intense inhabitants. It goes without saying that people kill them too, out of dread.
Speaking of which, according to lore, black mambas are highly aggressive and attack with no provocation, but this does not seem to be borne out by evidence. Knowledgeable herpetologists assert that black mambas are wisely afraid of humans (we are, after all, the most terrifying invasive aggressive species from Africa) and they try to flee us when possible. Still if you happen upon one of these snakes it might be wise to avoid it rather than trying to impress it into submission with a list of our atrocities. They can strike with extreme speed and sometimes bite multiple times (which is bad news considering that a person bitten even once can keel over in less than 45 minutes and nearly all untreated bites are fatal).
In gentler moments mambas mate once a year in early spring. Females lay clutches of 6-17 eggs which hatch in about ninety days. Baby black mambas emerge from their eggs with fully functioning venom glands, so don’t pick up the baby snakes no matter how cute they are (?).Black mambas are not black! They are diurnal hunters and are thus the nondescript color of dust or contemporary office furniture–the better to blend in to scrublands, forests, and grasslands which they inhabit. Their name comes from the insides of their mouths which are indeed as black as Goya’s nightmares. I knew a girl in junior high school who said “Oh mamba!” when she was impressed, which I thought was really endearing. The word is apparently Nguni in origin (although the snake is more broadly known than the tongue it is named in). Mambas are elipsids–close relatives of cobras. The other species of mamba are arborial, but black mambas stay closer to the ground. Black mambas seem to have faintly mocking smiles–so at least they are enjoying themselves .