Evolutionary History of Vipers


Vipers are venomous snakes characterised by having two enlarged highly mobile fangs. They comprise more than 300 species belonging to the Viperidae, which in turn includes viperines (or ‘true vipers’), azemiopines and crotalines (or ‘pitvipers’). They first radiated in the Old World more than 50 million years ago and later rapidly diversified in the New World. Several interesting traits emerged during their evolutionary history, including thermosensitive loreal pits and parental care in crotalines and specialised sound production in rattlesnakes. Vipers are currently found in almost every available habitat on earth and occupy diverse ecological niches. Ancestrally, they evolved the ability to eat unusually heavy, bulky prey and exhibit an impressive range of diet specialisations. Although vipers represent an interesting and successful radiation, many species are threatened with extinction and several aspects of their evolutionary history still need investigation.

Key Concepts

  • Vipers represent one of three extant groups of snakes in which a front‐fanged venomous system evolved.
  • Vipers belong to the family Viperidae comprising the subfamilies Viperinae, Azemiopinae and Crotalinae.
  • Oldest viper fossils are from the lower Miocene, but molecular phylogenies suggest an older origin for Viperidae, dating back to the early Eocene.
  • Vipers originated in the Old World with pitvipers later invading the New World and rapidly spreading throughout North, Central and South America.
  • Besides an advanced venom delivery system, other key features emerged during the evolution of vipers such as loreal pits characterising all pitvipers and the rattle of rattlesnakes.
  • The several unique features characterising vipers allowed them to diversify into a wide range of ecological niches.
  • Vipers evolved into different diets, comprising both generalists and those specialised in specific prey types, such as lizards, mammals, birds or frogs.
  • Arboreal habits, nocturnal and diurnal activities and different reproductive modes also evolved in several lineages of vipers.

Keywords: Viperidae; snakes; true vipers; pitvipers; venomous animals; Old World; New World; evolutionary radiation; biogeography; ecological diversification

Figure 1. (a) Trimeresurus albolabris, an arboreal Asian pitviper exhibiting the front fangs under the sheath. Image by K. Caldwell. (b) One of the two loreal pits, located between the eye and the nostril, of all pitvipers, here illustrated by Bothrops insularis, a South American pitviper endemic to the Queimada Grande island, Southeastern Brazil. Image by M. Martins. (c) and (d) Crotalus adamanteus, a North American rattlesnake, and its rattle. Images by P. Oxford.
Figure 2. (a) Causus bilineatus, an African viperine specialised in eating frogs and toads. Image by P. Wagner. (b) Vipera berus, a widespread European viperine. Image by K. Mebert. (c) Azemiops feae, one of the two species belonging to the Asian subfamily Azemiopinae. Image by D. Rosenberg. (d) Lachesis muta, a South American pitviper specialised in eating small mammals. Image by R. Gaiga. (e) Bothrops pauloensis, a South American pitviper endemic to the Cerrado biome in Brazil. Image by M. Martins. (f) Gloydius brevicaudus, an Asian pitviper belonging to the sister group of New World pitvipers. Image by K. Messenger.
Figure 3. Phylogenetic relationships among vipers (as suggested by Alencar et al., ) and their ecological aspects. Numbers following genera indicate current species richness. Nocturnal and diurnal species can also have crepuscular activity. The present figure lacks the monotypic genus Montatheris which is suggested to have a diet based on small mammals, lizards and frogs, and to be viviparous. Abbreviated geological eras correspond to Pliocene, Pleistocene, Holocene and Quaternary.
Figure 4. Compilation of viper fossils available in the literature and at The Palaeobiology Database (http://paleobiodb.org). Panel (a) shows all the available fossils, panel (b) shows only fossils identified at least to the genus level and panel (c) shows only fossils identified to the species level. In panels (b) and (c) orange triangles correspond to fossils restricted to extant Eurasian vipers genera (e.g. Vipera, Daboia, Macrovipera and Montivipera), purple squares correspond to fossils from extant genera restricted to North America and black circles comprise other types of fossil not included in the latter two categories (e.g. other viperines and crotalines, South American taxa, extinct genera). Red arrow denotes the moment vipers started to radiate according to molecular phylogenies (based on Alencar et al., ). Geological eras depicted in the figure are Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene and Holocene.


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Further Reading

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Schuett GW, Höggren M, Douglas ME and Greene HW (eds) (2002) Biology of the Vipers. Eagle Mountain: Eagle Mountain Publishing.

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Alencar, Laura RV, Martins, Marcio, and Greene, Harry W(Jan 2018) Evolutionary History of Vipers. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027455]