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Timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Family: Viperidae
Subfamily: Crotalinae
Oppel, 1811
  • Crotalini - Oppel, 1811
  • Crotales - Cuvier, 1817
  • Crotalidae - Gay, 1825
  • Crotaloidae - Fitzinger, 1826
  • Cophiadae - Boie, 1827
  • Crotaloidei - Eichwald, 1831
  • Crotalina - Bonaparte, 1831
  • Bothrophes - Fitzinger, 1843
  • Crotalinae - Cope, 1860
  • Teleuraspides - Cope, 1871
  • Crotalida - Strauch, 1873
  • Bothrophera - Garman, 1884
  • Cophiinae - Cope, 1895
  • Lachesinae - Cope, 1900
  • Lachesinii - Smith, Smith & Sawin, 1977
  • Agkistrodontinii - Hoge & Romano-Hoge, 1981
  • Agkistrodontini - Hoge & Romano-Hoge, 1983[1]
Common names: pit vipers,[2] pitvipers.[3]

The Crotalinae, or crotalines, are a subfamily of venomous vipers found in Asia and the Americas. They are distinguished by the presence of a heat-sensing pit organ located between the eye and the nostril on either side of the head. Currently, 18 genera and 151 species are recognized:[4] 7 genera and 54 species in the Old World, against a greater diversity of 11 genera and 97 species in the New World. These are also the only viperids found in the Americas.



These snakes range in size from the diminutive hump-nosed viper, Hypnale hypnale, that grows to an average only 30-45 cm, to the bushmaster, Lachesis muta; a species that is known to reach a maximum of 3.65 m in length -- the longest viperid in the world.  

What makes this group unique is that they all share a common characteristic: a deep pit, or fossa, in the loreal area between the eye and the nostril on either side of the head. These pits are sensitive to infrared radiation, in effect giving the snakes a sixth sense that helps them to find and perhaps even judge the size of the small warm-blooded prey on which they feed.[3]

The pit organ is complex in structure and is similar to, but much more highly evolved than the thermoreceptive labial pits found in boas and pythons. It is deep and located in a maxillary cavity. The membrane is like an eardrum that divides the pit into two sections of unequal size, with the larger of the two facing forwards and exposed to the environment. The two sections are connected via a narrow tube, or duct, that can be opened or closed by a group of surrounding muscles. By controlling this tube the snake can balance the air pressure on either side of the membrane.[2] The membrane has many nerve endings packed with mitochondria. Succinic dehydrogenase, lactic dehydrogenase, adenosine triphosphate, monoamine oxidase, generalized esterases and acetylcholine esterase have also been found in it.[3] When prey comes into range, infrared radiation falling onto the membrane allows the snake to determine its direction.[2] Having one of these organs on either side of the head produces a stereo effect that indicates distance as well as direction. Experiments have shown that, when deprived of their senses of sight and smell, these snakes can strike accurately at moving objects that are less than 0.2°C warmer than the background.[5] It would seem as though the pit organs work like a primitive pair of eyes, although it is not known whether the snake experiences this sense as a visual image or in some other fashion.[6] Regardless, it is clear that these organs are of great value to a predator that hunts at night.[7]

Among vipers, these snakes are also unique in that they have a specialized muscle, called the muscularis pterigoidius glandulae, between the venom gland the head of the ectopterygoid. Contraction of this muscle, together with that of the m. compressor glandulae, forces venom out of the gland.[3]

Geographic range

This family of snakes is found in the Old World from eastern Europe eastward through Asia to Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, peninsular India and Sri Lanka. In the Americas, they range from southern Canada southward through Mexico and Central America to southern South America.[1]


This is a versatile group, with members found in habitats ranging from parched desert (e.g., the sidewinder, Crotalus cerastes) to rainforests (e.g., the bushmaster, Lachesis muta). They may be either arboreal or terrestrial, and one species is even semi-aquatic: the cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus. The altitude record is held jointly by Crotalus triseriatus in Mexico and Gloydius strauchi in China, both of which have been found above the treeline at over 4,000 m elevation.[3]


Although a few species are highly active by day, such as Trimeresurus trigonocephalus, a bright green pit viper endemic to Sri Lanka, most are nocturnal, preferring to avoid scorching daytime temperatures and to hunt when their favored prey are also active. The snakes' heat-sensitive pits are also thought to aid in locating cooler areas in which to rest.

As ambush predators, crotalines will typically wait patiently somewhere for unsuspecting prey to wander by. At least one species, the arboreal Gloydius shedaoensis of China, is known to select a specific ambush site and return to it every year in time for the spring migration of birds. Studies have indicated that these snakes learn to improve their strike accuracy over time.[8]

Many temperate species (e.g. most rattlesnakes) will congregate in sheltered areas or dens to overwinter (see hibernation), the snakes benefitting from the combined heat. In cool temperatures and while pregnant vipers also bask on sunny ledges. Some species do not mass together in this way, for example the copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix, or the Mojave rattlesnake, Crotalus scutulatus.

Like most snakes, crotalines keep to themselves and will strike only if cornered or threatened. Smaller snakes are less likely to stand their ground than are larger specimens. Pollution and the destruction of rainforests has caused many viper populations to decline. Humans also threaten vipers, as many vipers are hunted for their skins or killed by cars when they wander onto roads.


With few exceptions, crotalines are ovoviviparous; that is, females give birth to live young. Among the oviparous (egg-laying) pit vipers are Lachesis, Calloselasma, and some Trimeresurus species. It is believed that all egg-laying crotalines guard their eggs.

Brood sizes range from two for very small species, to as many as 86 for the fer-de-lance, Bothrops atrox: a species among the most prolific of all live-bearing snakes. Many young crotalines have brightly coloured tails that contrast dramatically with the rest of their bodies. Used in a behavior known as caudal luring, the young snakes make worm-like movements with their tails to lure unsuspecting prey within striking distance.


Genus[4] Authority[4] Species[4] Subsp.*[4] Common name Geographic range[1]
Agkistrodon Palisot de Beauvois, 1799 3 9 Moccasins North America from the northeastern and central USA southward through peninsular Florida and southwestern Texas. In Central America on the Atlantic versant from Tamaulipas and Nuevo León southward to the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize and Guatemala. Along the Pacific coastal plane and lower foothills from Sonora south through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to northwestern Costa Rica.
Atropoides Werman, 1992 3 2 Jumping vipers The mountains of eastern Mexico southeastward on the Atlantic versant and lowlands though Central America to central Panama. On the Pacific versant, they occur in isolated populations in east-central and southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama.
Bothriechis Peters, 1859 7 0 Palm vipers Southern Mexico (southeastern Oaxaca and the northern highlands of Chiapas), through Central America to northern South America (Colombia, western Venezuela, Ecuador and northern Peru.
Bothriopsis Peters, 1861 7 2 Forest vipers Eastern Panama and most of northern South America, including the Pacific lowlands of Colombia and Ecuador, the Andes Mountains from Venezuela and Colombia to Bolivia, the Amazon Basin and the Atlantic forests of Brazil.
Bothrops Wagler, 1824 32 11 Lanceheads Northeastern Mexico (Tamaulipas) southward through Central and South America to Argentina; Saint Lucia and Martinique in the Lesser Antilles; Ilha da Queimada Grande off the coast of Brazil.
Calloselasma Cope, 1860 1 0 Malayan pit viper Southeast Asia from Thailand to northern Malaysia and Java, Indonesia.
Cerrophidion Campbell & Lamar, 1992 3 0 Montane pit vipers Southern Mexico (highlands of Guerrero and southeastern Oaxaca), southward through the highlands of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, northern Nicaragua, Costa Rica) to western Panama.
CrotalusT Linnaeus, 1758 27 43 Rattlesnakes The Americas, from southern Canada to northern Argentina.
Deinagkistrodon Gloyd, 1979 1 0 Hundred-pace viper Southeast Asia.
Gloydius Hoge & Romano-Hoge, 1981 9 9 Russia, east of the Ural Mountains through Siberia, Iran, the Himalayas from Pakistan, India, Nepal and China, Korea, Japan and the Ryukyu Islands.
Hypnale Fitzinger, 1843 3 0 Humpnose vipers Sri Lanka and India.
Lachesis Daudin, 1803 3 1 Bushmasters Central and South America.
Ophryacus Cope, 1887 2 0 Mexican pit vipers Mexico.
Ovophis Burger, 1981 3 3 Asian mountain vipers and South Asian pit vipers Nepal and Seven Sisters (Assam) eastward through Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, West Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan (Okinawa) and Indonesia (Sumatra and Borneo).
Porthidium Cope, 1871 7 3 Hognose pit vipers Mexico (Colima, Oaxaca and Chiapas on the Pacific side, the Yucatan Peninsula on the Atlantic side) southward through Central America to northern South America (Ecuador in the Pacific lowlands, northern Venezuela in the Atlantic lowlands).
Sistrurus Garman, 1883 3 7 Massasaugas and pigmy rattlesnakes Southeastern Canada, eastern and northwestern USA, isolated populations in northern and central Mexico.
Trimeresurus Lacépède, 1804 35 11 Asian pit vipers and palm vipers Southest Asia from India to southern China and Japan, and the Malay Archipelago to Timor.
Tropidolaemus Wagler, 1830 2 0 Temple vipers Southern India and Southeast Asia.

*) Not including the nominate subspecies (typical form).
T) Type genus.[1]


In the past, the pit vipers were usually classed as a separate family: the Crotalidae. Today, however, the monophyly of the viperines and the crotalines as a whole is undisputed, which is why they are treated here as a subfamily of the Viperidae.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T. 1999. Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, vol. 1. Herpetologists' League. 511 pp. ISBN 1-893777-00-6 (series). ISBN 1-893777-01-4 (volume).
  2. ^ a b c Mehrtens JM. 1987. Living Snakes of the World in Color. New York: Sterling Publishers. 480 pp. ISBN 0-8069-6460-X.
  3. ^ a b c d e Campbell JA, Lamar WW. 2004. The Venomous Reptiles of the Western Hemisphere. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca and London. 870 pp. 1500 plates. ISBN 0-8014-4141-2.
  4. ^ a b c d e Crotalinae (TSN 634394). Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Accessed on 26 October 2006.
  5. ^ Parker HW, Grandison AGC. 1977. Snakes -- a natural history. Second Edition. British Museum (Natural History) and Cornell University Press. 108 pp. 16 plates. LCCCN 76-54625. ISBN 0-8014-1095-9 (cloth), ISBN 0-8014-9164-9 (paper).
  6. ^ Bullock, T. H. and Diecke, F. P. J. (1956). Properties of an infrared receptor. Journal of Physiology 134, 47-87.
  7. ^ Stidworthy J. 1974. Snakes of the World. Grosset & Dunlap Inc. 160 pp. ISBN 0-448-11856-4.
  8. ^ Shine R, Sun L, Kearney M, Fitzgerald M. 2002. Why do Juvenile Chinese Pit-Vipers (Gloydius shedoaensis) Select Arboreal Ambush Sites? Ethology 108:897-910. ISSN 0179-1613. PDF at University of Sydney School of Biological Sciences. Accessed 26 October 2006.

Further reading

  • Gumprecht, A. & F. Tillack (2004) A proposal for a replacement name of the snake genus Ermia Zhang, 1993. Russian Journal of Herpetology 11: 73-76.
  • Wright & Wright (1957), Handbook of Snakes Volume II, Comstock Publishing Associates, Seventh Printing 1985.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Crotalinae". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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