Vipers lose rep as snakes with the fastest strike


Vipers—venomous snakes such as rattlesnakes and cottonmouths—are commonly thought to possess the quickest strikes.

Not so fast, according to three researchers at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

David Penning, a doctoral student; Baxter Sawvel, a graduate student; and Dr. Brad Moon, an associate professor; have authored an article titled “Debunking the Viper's Strike: Harmless Snakes Kill a Common Assumption.”

The article was recently published in the international scientific journal “Biology Letters,” and sheds new light on this assumption. It challenges some popular notions about vipers, namely that their strikes may not be fastest among snakes.

“There’s a misconception, both in common lore, and popular documentaries and scientific literature. It’s always either an implied assumption, or a direct statement, about vipers being the fastest snakes on the planet. We just basically point out that isn’t necessarily true,” explained Penning, the paper’s lead author.

The discovery came in a roundabout way. While conducting a research project to determine how quickly snakes can strike in relation to their size, the researchers discovered something amazing.

While observing the strike speeds of nonvenomous Texas rat snakes, which were being filmed with cameras capable of capturing high-speed action, the researchers noticed that the rat snakes struck with about the same velocity and acceleration as the two vipers.

At first, Penning assumed that an error had been made in the calculations. However, “after checking multiple times, we kept producing the same numbers,” he explained.

Intrigued, the three researchers decided to conduct comprehensive tests. They studied the strike speeds of 14 Texas rat snakes, 12 western diamondback rattlesnakes, and six cottonmouths, which are also known as water moccasins.

They measured defensive strike performance by waving padded gloves, attached to long, wooden dowels, in front of snakes. The snakes were enclosed in customized aquariums. 

The nonvenomous rat snakes were consistently as fast, and in some cases faster, than cottonmouths and western diamondback rattlesnakes when striking a short distance.

“The primary conclusion is that vipers are not notably faster than other snakes,” Penning said. “Vipers strike incredibly quickly. That’s without a doubt. But so do others. That’s the kicker.”

The research found that, overall, rattlesnakes struck fastest, producing accelerations of 28 Gs, which is the force exerted due to acceleration or gravity. The rat snakes, however, weren’t far behind, clocking in at 27 Gs. “For comparison’s sake, it would be considered exceptional if a fighter pilot stayed conscious for even a brief time at 15 Gs,” Penning said.

The findings were detailed in “Biology Letters,” a peer-reviewed journal that publishes articles about the biological sciences. It is published by The Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s “national science academy, and a fellowship of some 1,600 of the world’s most eminent scientists,” according to its website.

The article and its findings are garnering notice from dozens of media outlets and scientific publications, including the "Los Angeles Times," "Discover," the Huffington Post," and "Yahoo."

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