Reptile Awareness Day – Europe’s rarest venomous snake

21st of October is Reptile Awareness Day! Although reptiles might not come to mind when thinking of wildlife in Europe, there are many beautiful species living there. They are a highly diverse class, but are in dire need of protection. As reptiles mostly rely on external sources of body heat, they are very sensitive to the effects of climate change. Compared to other vertebrates however, conservation of reptiles like snakes receives less attention. This is in part due to cultural biases which paint them as creepy or cruel. 

Small snake in big trouble

For Reptile Awareness Day, let’s highlight a protected snake you may not have heard of. The meadow viper (Vipera ursinii) is the smallest viper in Europe and its various subspecies can be found from France to Ukraine. It is probably extinct in Austria and has a very patchy distribution in other areas. The species lives in alpine meadows and low-lying grasslands, and spends its day eating insects and basking in the sun. While it does have venom, with a bite a bit like a bee-sting, it doesn’t pose a real threat to humans. 

The species is sadly classed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. As with other European reptiles, the main threats to the meadow viper are habitat loss and fragmentation. Changing land management practices, as well as climate change, are leading to serious declines. Other risks are the presence of game species and the illegal pet trade. The subspecies native to Hungary, V. u. rakosiensis, may number fewer than 500 individuals. 

Hope for snake survival

Since 2000, different EU programmes have successfully increased snake numbers in many areas. The EU Hungarian meadow viper LIFE project, starting in 2019, is working to conserve the rare subspecies. This includes restoring its former range, creating wildlife corridors, and boosting the population with captive breeding. Restoration of viper habitat also benefits other protected species such as the rare European ground squirrel. 

A reintroduction to Austria is possible, as there are a few sites, at the Neusiedler See National Park for example, that may be suitable. A 2011 survey showed that Austrians would support the snake’s return. However, there would need to be more talks with locals in the proposed areas before this could take place. This Reptile Awareness Day, more people will hopefully see the value of the meadow viper, and reptiles in general, to landscapes and biodiversity in Europe.

Reptiles being very different from humans are generally ranked behind mammals and birds when it comes to their likeability. However, certain animals also attract people exactly because they are dangerous and different from humans.

Veronika Kovács
Co-author of ‘Public attitudes towards snakes in Hungary and Austria’

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