Black mambas have a pretty bad rap. Shrouded in myth and misinformation, the species is widely feared across much of southern Africa for its potent venom and alleged aggressiveness. But how much do we really know about this iconic species? From its coffin-shaped head to its uniquely flexible fangs, we’re zooming in on mamba anatomy to bring you seven facts you might not know about these unique snakes.

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Black Mamba Fangs 2015 08 26

Like all snakes in the Elapidae family, black mambas have fixed, hollow fangs at the front of their mouths that they use like hypodermic needles to inject venom into their prey. But what sets the mamba apart from many other elapids, like cobras and kraits, is that black mambas have an "articulating maxillary bone" that allows their fangs to rock back and forth. This slight movability in their fangs makes the black mamba a very efficient hunter, able to deliver large amounts of venom in almost every bite (dry bites are considered uncommon for the species).


Black Mamba Windpipe 2015 08 26

Snakes cannot bite or tear into their prey like many other predators, so instead they must swallow their meals whole. This adaptation makes breathing during eating a tricky task. So to avoid suffocation during supper, black mambas (like many other snake species) have an extendible trachea or windpipe that works kind of like a snorkel, allowing them to breathe while ingesting prey. The opening of the trachea, known as the glottis, either sticks out to the side or under the prey while it’s being consumed.


Black Mamba Saliva 2015 08 26

It’s no secret that the venom of the black mamba is extremely potent. Mambas usually deliver about 100-120mg of venom in a single bite – that’s enough to kill 8-14 people (but don’t worry, despite their fearsome reputation, black mambas are typically shy creatures and will usually not attack unless confronted). Venom is produced by a modified salivary gland and digestive enzymes in the saliva help soften the meal while the venom takes effect. So by the time the snake swallows its meal, the prey’s insides have already started breaking down.


Black Mamba Scales 2015 08 26

Widely considered to be one of the fastest snakes in Africa, black mambas have been clocked travelling at speeds of 11kmph (6.8mph) over short distances, and are able to navigate through thick vegetation thanks to shiny, smooth scales. Scales on the snake's belly (ventral scales) may also help the mamba move over flat surfaces. Research conducted in 2009 revealed how snake scales act as "friction hooks", gripping into rough points on the ground and helping propel the animals forward.


Black Mamba Black Mouth 2015 08 26

Black mambas aren’t actually black, despite a common name that suggests otherwise. Instead, the species is named for the deep blueish-black colouration on the inside of the mouth. Their bodies come in a variety of olive-grey shades with a grey-green underbelly. Juveniles are usually lighter in colour. If confronted, mambas will often put on a startling display by flaring their neck-flaps and opening their mouth to expose the black colouration. This "deimatic behaviour" serves to scare off attackers or distract them for long enough to allow the snake to slither away.


Black Mamba Eyesite 2015 08 26

Not all snakes were created equal. Some species can only just distinguish between light and dark, while others, particularly arboreal species such as the boomslang, were gifted with keen eyesight. Like most diurnal snakes in South Africa, black mambas are considered to have good vision. They are able to detect motion and may strike if they pick up any sudden movement perceived as a threat. Their keen eyesight also helps them hunt for the small mammals that typically make up their diet.

Head shape

Black Mamba Coffin Shape 2015 08 26

Not sure if that visitor in your garden is a harmless house snake or a potentially lethal mamba? Here's a clue. While most snake species have blunt, round or triangular-shaped heads, both black and green mambas have a distinctive, coffin-shaped head that helps form their streamlined shape.