The black mamba is one of the fastest and deadliest snakes in the world. Two drops of its venom can kill a person.
Credit: Andre Coetzer | Shutterstock
The black mamba has quite a reputation. It is one of the world’s deadliest snakes; it is the fastest land snake in the world; and it is Africa’s biggest poisonous snake. This snake’s potential danger has been the subject of many African myths and it has been blamed for thousands of human deaths.
The black mamba's reputation is not undeserved. These snakes are fast, skittish and highly aggressive when threatened. Their venom is potentially lethal, and though antivenom exists, it is not widely available in the black mamba’s native habitat of southern and eastern Africa. For this reason, they are considered a top killer in a land where nearly 20,000 people die from snake bites every year.
The black mamba is one of four species of mamba. Others are Jameson’s mamba, eastern green mamba and western green mamba. Mambas are slender, agile and active, with smooth scales and powerful venom. They all live throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Contrary to what its name would suggest, black mambas are actually brownish in color, ranging from olive to greyish tones, with paler bellies. The snake gets its name from the blue-black color of the inside of its mouth, which it displays when threatened.
Black mambas have coffin-shaped heads and are lithe, athletic snakes. They can grow to be 14 feet long (4.25 meters), though their average length is around 8 feet (2.4 m). Black mambas can live up to 11 years in the wild.
Black mambas reside in South and East Africa’s savannas, rocky hills and open woodlands. They like low, open spaces and enjoy sleeping in hollow trees, rock crevices, burrows, or empty termite mounds.
These speedy serpents can move faster than most people can run, a fact that partly explains why they are so feared. Black mambas can reach speeds of up to 12 mph (19 kph), making them the fastest snake on land — but still slower than the myths of them outrunning horses would suggest. Over longer distances, they average about 7 mph (11 kph).
They slither quickly in short bursts over level ground, and can zoom along with about one-third of their bodies off the ground and their heads proudly held high. The black mamba racing along with its head nearly 4 feet (1.2 m) in the air is a terrifying and amazing sight. However, black mambas use their incredible speed to escape threats, not to hunt.
Black mambas hunt and are active during the day and return to the same place every night to sleep. They are often found in pairs or small groups, though they are fundamentally shy around humans. They get nervous and will run away quickly if a human approaches — unless, of course, they feel threatened. In that case, they may become aggressive.
If they feel threatened, black mambas will lift the front third of their bodies 3 to 4 feet (0.9 to 1.2 m) off the ground, open their mouths, hiss and expose the dark, foreboding interior of their mouths. They spread their flat cobra-like hoods and shake their heads. This is a defensive posture aiming to scare away the threat. If black mambas need to attack to defend themselves, they will strike quickly several times then scurry away as fast as possible.
The black mamba has no specific predators. Its greatest threat is habitat destruction.
Black mambas typically eat small mammals and birds, though there have been reports of mambas found with whole parrots or full-grown cobras in their stomachs. Black mambas hunt small animals by biting them and holding on until the prey becomes paralyzed. If hunting a larger animal, black mambas strike their prey and then release it. They then follow it until it becomes paralyzed or dies, at which point they eat it. It doesn’t usually take prey very long to die after being bitten by a black mamba. Black mambas devour their food whole. They have flexible jaws that they can dislocate in order to fit food up to four times the size of their head into their mouth.
Black mambas usually mate during the spring or summer. Males fight for the affections of females. After mating, females lay between 6 to 25 eggs in a damp, warm burrow. The female then leaves her eggs and never sees them again. Babies hatch about three months later and are born measuring between 16 and 24 inches.
Just two drops of potent black mamba venom can kill a human. Black mambas have a neurotoxic venom, which shuts down the nervous system and paralyzes victims. Without antivenom, the fatality rate from a black mamba bite is 100 percent. Victims can die within 20 minutes to 4 hours, and if antivenom isn’t administered within 20 minutes, it can be a death sentence. [Countdown: The World's 6 Deadliest Snakes]
The other mamba species are all smaller and slightly less venomous than the black mamba, though still very poisonous. These snakes are all brilliant green. They are also all arboreal species, residing in trees. They are known to drop from branches onto their prey below. All are solitary snakes.
This is a slender snake that lives in trees and actively and speedily pursues its small animal prey during the day. It can grow up to 8 feet long (2.4 m) and lives in West and Central Africa.
Eastern green mamba
This is the smallest mamba, usually measuring about 4 or 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 m). It is common in the forests throughout East Africa.
Western green mamba
The largest green mamba, this snake can reach 10 feet (3 m). It is the second-longest venomous snake in Africa, after the black mamba. As its name suggests, it lives in West Africa.