Dec 302009
photo provided courtesy of wwarby on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSub-Saharan Africa
Nichearboreal predator
Favorite Foodchameleons
Body Lengthbetween 4 and 6 feet

One of Africa’s deadliest snakes doesn’t lurk in rock crevices or along the ground. Instead, the venomous boomslang spends most of its time in trees, slinking along the leaves in search of dinner. In fact, the word “boom” is Dutch for tree. Although it has no limbs, it propels its muscular body with ease over branches and can anchor itself with its tail when ambushing small animals, especially chameleons. Living nearly everywhere in Africa south of the Sahara Desert, these are among the most successful snakes on earth.

Boomslangs belong to the largest group in the snake family, the colubrids. Members of this group have very flexible skulls, allowing them to tackle prey much larger than their head. Although they have fangs, boomslangs don’t chew their food. Instead, they use specialized teeth in their throat to pull their paralyzed prey into their gullet, whole. Like other snakes, the boomslang has a specialized sensory organ called the Jacobson’s organ, allowing it to detect smells gathered from the air on its tongue. This remarkable organ lets them to “smell through” the main defense of chameleons, their ability to blend in visually with their surroundings. If the boomslang gets close enough, it can detect exactly where the chameleon is sitting by smelling the air around it.

Boomslangs are deadly because of the venom they deliver through their fangs. It belongs to a family of poisons called hemotoxins, attacking the blood and causing internal bleeding in the victim. The venom is so powerful that it is potentially deadly to humans, and deaths from boomslang strikes are reported yearly in many regions of Africa. But like most snakes, boomslangs do not generally attack people unprovoked. Usually they strike out of self-defense when threatened or cornered.

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