Meadow viper: Vipera ursinii


Regnum: Animalia Linnaeus, 1758
Phylum: Chordata Haeckel, 1874
Subphylum: Vertebrata Lamarck, 1801
Superclassis: Gnathostomata Gegenbaur, 1874
Classis: Reptilia Laurenti, 1768 - reptiles
Subclassis: Lepidosauria Haeckel, 1866
Ordo: Squamata Oppel, 1811
Familia: Viperidae Oppel, 1811
Subfamilia: Viperinae Oppel, 1811
Genus: Vipera Laurenti, 1768 - vipera
Species: Vipera ursinii Bonaparte, 1835 - meadow viper
Synonyms: Pelias ursinii Bonaparte, 1835, Pelias renardi Christoph, 1861, Vipera renardi - Boulenger, 1893, Vipera macrops Méhely, 1911, Coluber ursinoides Nikolsky, 1927

The taxonomy of the Viper ursinii complex is still not fully clear due to high genetic diversity and small isolated populations, so the number of subspecies varies from author to author. Some authors believe that there are as many as 9. However, four are generally recognized today: Vipera ursinii ursinii (Bonaparte, 1835), Vipera ursinii macrops Méhelÿ, 1911, Vipera ursinii moldavica Nilson, Andrén & Joger, 1993 and Vipera ursinii rakosiensis Méhely, 1893. Vipera ursinii graeca Nilson & Andrén, 1988 and Vipera ursinii renardi Christoph, 1861 are considered separate species in recent literature (V. graeca and V. renardi). The populations of Bosnia and Herzegovina belong to the subspecies Vipera ursinii macrops Mehely, 1911 and this is also the Balkan endemic species that inhabits the mountain meadows of the Dinarides and the Šar-Pindus mountains. Even within this subspecies, there are significant genetic differences between the populations east and west of the river Neretva, which only confirms the need for additional molecular research.

They can be confused with adders from which they differ in that they are smaller, have a narrower head with a pointed tip and a shorter "snout" and a difference in scales on the head - in meadot viper the upper preocular scales touch the nasal scales, while in adders this is not the case. Yet this latter character is not always reliable because there are exceptions.


Meadow viper is one of the most endangered snakes in Europe. It is a taxon with relict, postglacial distribution and is found in fragmented and limited populations in southeastern France, central Apennines, western and central Hungary, northern and southern Croatia, central and southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, southern Serbia, northern Albania, northwestern Macedonia, western Greece and central and eastern Romania. It is considered extinct in Austria and Bulgaria, and is close to extinction in Hungary and Moldova. It occurs up to about 2700m above sea level.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is a rare species associated with mountain meadows in the sub-Mediterranean part of the country.

Description of the species

Adults are usually below 50 cm, very rarely above 60, females are larger than males. This makes it the smallest viper in Europe. It's a small snake with a narrow head. The head is clearly separated from the rest of the body, and as with other vipers, the body is stocky with a short tail and the vertical pupils. It has a dark “V” pattern on the top of the head, and a dark stripe that extends from the eye to the neck that continues into spots along the sides. The dorsal scales look like waves in cross section, have a more pronounced ridge and are often short, so you can see the dark skin underneath. These determinants give a rough texture to meadow vipers. It is usually grayish, pale brown, or yellowish with a dark zigzag pattern on the back that is usually bordered with black and can sometimes be broken into spots. The sides are usually dark. The abdomen may be blackish, whitish or dark gray, even rosy, with or without freckles. The underside of the tail is sometimes dark or with a yellow pattern. Melanistic forms are possible with this species. There is a sexual dimorphism between males and females visible in the size and color and length of the tail. Females are larger than males, but still very rarely reach a length of over 55cm. Males are mostly light gray with a more pronounced zigzag pattern (sharp edges) and a slightly longer tail, while females are mostly yellowish with a slightly less pronounced zigzag pattern (mild edges) and a shorter tail. Males also have a larger number of submandibular scales than females. Males have a darker colored belly than females.

It is a diurnal animal (active during the day) that warms up quickly by sunbathing in habitat with southern exposure, they are very cautious and difficult to spot due to their behavior. Places where they sunbathe are usually near shrubs they use as shelter, and most of the time they look for food under vegetation. Meadow viper has a smaller homerange estimated at 100 square meters. It feeds mainly on spiders and insects, especially in the Balkans, where it relies on members of the order Orthoptera (glasshoppers, locusts, crickets) who are sensitive to pollution, so can me used as bioindicators. Adults can feed on both lizards and small mammals they swallow alive. With regard to their food course, the venom does not serve to kill the prey but to digest it more easily.

The venom itself is not particularly strong - it is the weakest of all the European viper venoms. It does not pose a danger to humans, but it can still cause unpleasant symptoms such as minor swelling and inflammation that passes quickly. No deaths have been reported so far. The first reaction in the face of danger is perhaps unexpected from such a small snake - it often takes a defensive position in the shape of the letter "S", hisses loudly, bites and is generally nervous. However, it calms down very quickly, has a mild and calm temperament compared to other vipera, and can be handled with ease.


It is primarily associated with open meadows and slopes. Some subspecies are associated with mountainous areas, while lowland subspecies are found in steppe, dry, or wet meadows. In the Balkans, the carp is a mountain faunal element that inhabits isolated mountain meadows at about 1,000-2,700 m above sea level, where it mainly finds its basic prey: locusts, crickets, and other insects. It lives on hills with good drainage, some vegetation, but more often on high, often dry, meadows with microhabitats rich in vegetation.

Reproductive biology

In winter, it hibernates in the ground, in burrows, under rocks or tree roots. After the snow melts, it wakes up and the mating season begins very soon. Males wake up before females and immediately go in search of good territory over which they fight with other males. Females wake up in April and May when mating begins. Females mate every two years and 2-8 juveniles hatch in late summer. The bigger and older the female, the more young she carries. The offspring is born 12-15 cm long and is immediately independent because the development takes place in the mother which makes them viviparous animals. This is the case with all vipers, which is why they got the Latin name Vipera. Juveniles become sexually mature during their third or fourth year of life.

Protection and vulnerability

It is listed in Annex II and IV of the Habitat Directive, Annex II of the Bern Covention and Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). According to the IUCN, it has the status of a vulnerable (VU) species because it occupies an area of ​​less than 2000km², with fragmented and declining populations. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, unfortunately, it has the status of an endangered (EN) species. The species is endangered by natural successions, mountain tourism, intensive (non-traditional) grazing and fires. In addition to the above, meadow viper is the least venomous viper and is adaptively inferior to adder and nose-horned viper, which, through natural selection, reduces the number of individuals in local populations.

Author: Tina Anić

Citation: BHHU-ATRA (2020). Meadow viper: Vipera ursinii. <> Herpetological Association in Bosnia and Herzegovina ATRA. Retrieved: <insert date>


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