8 Enthralling Black Mamba Facts

Close up of black mamba snake on branch

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The black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) is a sleek and slender poisonous snake that's common in sub-Saharan regions in Africa. Its name derives from the Zulu word imbamba. The black mamba belongs to the same family as cobras and shares its name with three other species: western mamba, green mamba, and Jameson's mamba. The other three are bright green in color and dwell mostly in tree branches. While their venom is just as potent, they are considered more timid and don't share the same deadly reputation as their infamous relative.

According to the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species, black mambas maintain the status of "least concern" and their populations are stable. On average, mambas can live for a decade or longer in the wild. That's a decent lifespan for a snake, but there are some boa constrictors that can live for as long as 50 years. Black mambas seek out shrubby grasslands, forests, and savannas with plenty of places to hide. They are cold-blooded creatures, so they wait for the heat and light of day before making their way into the wide open. Here are a few more little-known facts about this feared, awe-inspiring, and often misunderstood, snake.

1. Black Mambas Are Actually Brown

Close up of black mamba's face

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Contrary to popular belief, the "black" in the name black mamba doesn't actually refer to its body color. Instead, it's a reference to the color inside the snake's mouth. Since the mamba doesn't have much in the way of vibrant coloring or design on its body, this is a good way for humans and animals alike to identify what kind of snake they've encountered. Much like a rattlesnake's rattle or a king cobra's hood, this dark coloring is a warning sign and how a black mamba prepares to protect itself. When in danger, the snake opens its mouth before striking, giving its enemies time to escape. Black mambas' bodies generally range from a light tan or olive to a darker brown tone. Young mambas are usually slightly darker and lighten as they age. The other green mambas generally have white mouths.

2. They Move Fast

Black mambas are the fastest moving snakes in the world. On a smooth surface, they have been known to slither as fast as 10 to12 mph. For a creature without legs that's very impressive. To put that in perspective, a black mamba can move faster than a Komodo dragon. Since mambas are also able to swim, they can move smoothly and easily in the water, too.

Though green mambas spend more time up in trees, black mambas do occasionally climb trees and have been known to drop on their predators if they feel threatened. Their speed definitely adds to their reputation as a fierce and ferocious killer; however, most mambas are more inclined to get away than engage in an attack. Mambas won't necessarily provoke an attack, especially with a human or an animal that's bigger in size. Many times, attacks from black mambas only occur because they have been caught off-guard or cornered, they were defending themselves, or they were provoked first.

3. Their Bite Is Known as the 'Kiss of Death'

Black mamba with mouth open

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Though it's rare for a black mamba to attack a human unprovoked, they are nevertheless reputed to be one of the most dangerous snakes on the planet. In Africa, they are both feared and respected, and a legendary lore surrounds the larger-than-life reputation of the snake. Their venom is the deadliest and from day one, baby mambas are born able to attack and spew poisonous venom from their two fangs. While a young snake only has a few drops of venom per fang, an adult has anywhere from 12-20 drops per fang. It requires very little venom, barely two drops, for a human or animal to get a lethal dose. It's a neurotoxic venom, as opposed to hemotoxic, which means it attacks the nervous system and brain.

Once bitten, an average human adult can die in as quickly as 20 minutes. Symptoms from the bite begin immediately and include convulsions, respiratory failure, and ultimately a comatose state. Anti-venom treatment is available in some places if the victim can get to help quickly. Interestingly, scientists and medical professionals are studying the effects of the natural painkiller found in black mamba venom as a potential option for pain treatment, alongside morphine.

4. Black Mambas Are Diurnal

Black mamba in the dirt

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Black mambas do most of their sleeping at night, retreating to their hiding places, safe from predators and humans. Once daylight hours arrive, these snakes are up and active. This behavior is mostly the result of their cold-blooded nature, as they rely on the warmth and heat of the sun to regulate their bodies. They seek out rocks and other sunny spots to bask and raise their internal temperature; however, if temperatures are too hot, they may seek shade and go inactive.

Black mambas have excellent vision, which helps them track and stalk prey when they're on the hunt. They are patient hunters that will wait for just the opportune moment to make a strike. Their sense of smell is also highly developed, which is primarily used to find female snakes during mating season. That is also the time black mambas travel the farthest, up to several miles of day, in search of a potential mate.

5. Females Lay Up to 20 Eggs

Breeding season usually happens during the spring and is a highly active time in which males show their aggression and strength against other males in competition. Male black mambas follow scent trails, often for miles, to locate potential female mates. Once they've mated, the snakes go their separate ways and continue with their solitary lives.

The female locates a safe place to lay her eggs, which take about three months to hatch. Interestingly, the mother abandons the eggs, but baby mambas are able to fend for themselves and have poisonous venom shortly after hatching. Each fang is equipped with a few drops of venom, enough to hurt and kill anything that might try to attack it. They are also able to eat on their own and survive without help.

6. They Sleep in Lairs

Unlike the other types of mambas which are arboreal, black mambas don't usually spend much time up in trees. They are terrestrial reptiles that choose underground or covered lairs to sleep. Rocks, downed trees, shrubs, and dense vegetation provide the ideal places for mambas to hide and take cover. Sometimes they even take over abandoned termite mounds. It's not uncommon for some mambas to stay in the same lair for years at a time. During the day, they leave their lairs to go hunting, and by dusk, they return and retreat to the camouflage and safety of their homes.

7. Black Mambas Are Carnivores

Mambas don't have many predators, so they spend most of their waking hours hunting for their own food to eat. Because of their incredible speed, black mambas are quite adept at lying in wait until the right moment and speeding up towards their prey to strike. A typical diet for black mambas consists of birds, rodents, and small mammals. The snake will bite the prey, leaving it paralyzed, and devour it whole once it's dead. Their mouths are designed to be able to hinge open widely in order to facilitate the swallowing process. On average, an adult snake only has to eat once or twice a week and they can go without water for several months.

8. They Can Grow to 14 Feet in Length

Black mamba crossing a road

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Black mambas aren't the longest snakes in the world but they are the longest venomous snake in Africa.On average, they can be between 6-9 feet in length, though there have been reports of 14-foot black mambas. To put it in perspective, a fully stretched out black mamba would be twice as long as a queen-sized bed.

In addition to their impressive length, the black mamba is also a very strong snake. Though they don't use their bodies to constrict their prey like other snakes, they can hold their own in a fight with much larger animals.

View Article Sources
  1. Diochot, Sylvie., et al.  “Black Mamba Venom Peptides Target Acid-Sensing Ion Channels to Abolish Pain.” Nature, vol. 490, 2012, pp. 552–555, doi:10.1038/nature11494

  2. Dendroaspis Polylepis Black Mamba.” University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.