Viper Queens (2016) - full transcript

Vipers are the Mike Tyson's of the serpent world - short, stocky, and they pack mighty punches laced with hardcore venom - at lightning speed. From the stark American Wild West, to steamy jungles in the heart of Africa, old and new world orders of Vipers have merged to create a super family of snakes. Within their ranks, some have adapted skills and weapons like heat-sensing pit organs and the longest snake fangs of all the species. But while Vipers may be iconic coldblooded killers, they have a softer side when it comes to family. Velvet the Gaboon viper and Therma the rattlesnake, are two mothers, who face different challenges, in extreme, contrasting landscapes, but their goal is the same: to grow their families and keep ahold of their Viper Queen titles. But there's a newcomer on the scene... she's not as showy as Therma, nor does she have Velvet's good looks and heavyweight class, but she's quickly and quietly climbing the ladder of survival success. Can she trump the current queens and beat them at their own game of survival?

Narrator: They're the Mike
Tyson's of the serpent world.

Short and stocky, they
move at lightning speed,

packing mighty punches
laced with hardcore venom.

From the American Wild West to
the steamy African jungles,

vipers are notorious for
their bad attitudes,

diamond-shaped heads

and the longest
snake fangs on earth.

But these super-snakes
aren't just a family

of coldblooded killers.

The females have a softer
side when it comes to family.

Thelma, Velvet and Nala
are three species of Viper

with one thing in common
a basic maternal instinct.

But is this what makes
them so successful

in the game of survival?

Enter the lab to experiment
with snakebites and venom,

dissect specimens,
and study anatomy

as we explore the lives
of these Viper Queens.

Scavengers with a
taste for flesh

have picked up the scent
of new life in the air.

Born into the wilds
of New Mexico,

these western diamond-back
rattlesnake babies

are instantly at the
mercy of the elements,

and other creatures they
share their home with.

Only minutes old,

their survival instincts
are already firing up

even if they don't achieve
the desired effect just yet.

With no way to
defend themselves,

newborns are easy
targets for predators...

like this king snake.

But they've got back up.

This is Thelma, and
she is one mean mama.

Unusually for most
snake species,

but characteristic for vipers,
their mother's still around.

Thelma and her offspring

will only remain together
for a few weeks,

until they're strong enough

to head off into the
wilderness on their own.

In the meantime, the family's
keeping a low profile,

and her presence
alone does a good job

of discouraging
would-be predators.

Eastern King snakes
hunt other snakes

and baby rattlesnakes
make for easy prey.

Thelma's not shy to let her
enemies know she's around.

A rattled warning
is a rattlesnake's

first line of defense.

It's the signature
sound of the desert.

Synonymous with danger,
it's the reason for Thelma

and her family's infamous status

as symbols of the
American Southwest.

Young snakes shed their entire
skin every few months.

But rattlesnakes are
born with a tiny button

at the end of their tails,

and this becomes the
matrix for their rattles.

Each time they shed,
a modified scale remains behind

and adds another
segment to the rattle.

Operating at up to 2000
cycles per second,

the shaker muscles used
to vibrate the segments

are some of the
fastest known to man

and they have an
all-or-nothing function

the muscles work only
at full capacity

and they don't get tired.

It's a similar level
of muscle control

that links Thelma to
her African cousin,

but in quite the opposite way.

Velvet is a West African
Gaboon viper, or adder.

She's silent, solitary,
and is rarely seen.

Her beautifully
tapestried scales

render her invisible
on the forest floor.

But her quiet demeanor
and incredible loveliness

belies her deadly nature.

Velvet's like a highly
trained assassin,

capable of infinite patience
and extreme muscle control.

She can wait motionless for
days, weeks, or even months,

and then unleash a
sudden, powerful attack.

Armed with fangs up
to 2 inches long,

Gaboon vipers not only have
the longest snake fangs,

they're also the largest

and heaviest viper
species in existence.

But Velvet's not aggressive,
and prefers to stay hidden.

She rarely attacks and then only
to predate or defend herself.

Most of the time, no one
even knows she's around

until it's too late.

Velvet, and Thelma the
rattlesnake, live worlds apart,

but they share a simple
mission in life

to stay alive, and
grow their families.

It's a game of survival,

but what happens
if you don't have

Thelma's early warning system,

her badass attitude
and legendary status?

Or Velvet's size, stealth,

lethal patience, and
immense weaponry?

Meet Nala.

She's not as showy as Thelma,
nor as beautiful as Velvet,

but she belongs to a group
of tough little vipers

the puff adders.

They're small, but
formidable killers,

and they're going about
the survival game

a little differently.

They've built a fearsome
name for themselves,

through sheer numbers
and tenacity.

Spread throughout Africa
and southern Arabia,

puff adders occupy one of
the widest distributions

of all viper species.

They're adaptable, and hardy,

and can survive in a wide
range of habitats

in the wild, and
alongside humans.

Puff adders are
masters of disguise.

Their skins come in a
range of color variations,

sometimes making them
hard to identify.

But for one
distinguishable feature

the chevron markings
on their backs.

Displaying such blatant warning
signs on their own bodies,

and living so close to humans,
puff adders have had to learn

to operate
under the radar.

Velvet has few, if any natural
predators as an adult

and rarely comes into
contact with humans.

While Thelma does,
she plays fair,

giving her enemies a chance,

warning them before
they get too close.

But puff adders don't
run from fights.

[dog barking]

When faced with danger,
they hunker down,

a classic viper ambush tactic.

Nala has attitude,
she fights dirty

and it's earning her
a bad reputation.

For Nala the puff adder,

life in an African village
is fraught with danger.

Dogs don't like her,
and neither do people.

When she senses a
potential threat nearby,

like most vipers, fleeing
isn't her first reaction.

While Thelma the rattlesnake
warns off her enemies,

Nala prefers to draw
as little attention

to herself as possible.

She freezes, her
camouflage allowing her

to blend into her surroundings.

She waits for the
threat to pass.

In this way, Nala
conserves her energy

and venom for when
it's really needed.

It's a good strategy,

if discovered she could be hurt
or even killed by the villagers.

But sometimes she's
so well camouflaged,

perceived threats
unknowingly get too close,

and are often bitten when they
accidentally step too near

sometimes even on top of
a puff adder.

This shoot first ask
questions later attitude

has earned puff adders
a bad reputation.

But it's not
entirely undeserved,

because puff adders
kill humans every year.

Death from a Western
diamond-back rattlesnake bite

is virtually unheard of,

and no fatalities from
a Gaboon viper bite

have ever been recorded.

So in comparison, Nala
the puff adder is deadly.

Yet her motives are
usually misunderstood.

Puff adders often live
in close proximity

to human settlements.

Because their prey do.

But venomous snakes lurking
about are a hazard to humans.

In most cases, puff
adders bite in defense

or when they've mistaken
a limb for prey!

The results of such an
error can be horrific.

Puff adder venom is
predominantly cytotoxic.

It destroys cell tissue with
devastating efficiency.

But it's not only humans

that fall victim to these
feisty little vipers.

In the wild, animals create
pathways through the bush

known as game trails.

For creatures like tiny rodents,

to the world's largest
land mammals,

these trails provide
easier movement

and often lead to waterholes
or good feeding grounds.

And it's along paths like these

that puff adders will position
themselves, to wait for prey.

But when unsuspecting victims

weighing thousands of pounds
tread too close for comfort,

a little 13-pounder puff adder

can defend itself
in a mighty way.

It doesn't seem possible that
a bite from a tiny snake

could pierce the
skin of a rhino,

let alone do any serious damage.

But here's evidence
to the contrary.

A bite caused such
severe necrosis

on the leg of this black rhino,

that her entire foot rotted off,

leaving behind just
bone fragments

and flaps of decaying flesh.

Trauma like this would render
most animals immobile,

ensuring a slow
and painful death

due to starvation
and septicemia.

It's an extreme example
of what happens

when a puff adder bite
is left untreated.

With cases like these and
human deaths on their hands,

surely puff adders must be more
dangerous than their cousins?

They are, but for reasons
other than we think.

When tested Thelma the
rattlesnake's venom

proves to be
primarily haemotoxic,

which attacks the blood.

It can be rapidly
lethal to natural prey,

but it's not nearly as dangerous

to the average
healthy adult human,

which is why fatalities
are virtually unheard of.

In contrast to hers,

Nala the puff adder and
Velvet the Gaboon viper

each produce their
own individual mix

of tissue-destroying venom
containing cytotoxins,

and when compared,
puff adder venom

proves to be more potent -
than a Gaboon vipers' -

drop for drop.

But Gaboon vipers have a much
more complex array of toxins

which makes it more deadly

due to the devastating effects
it has on cells of the body.

A puff adder bite will
cause immense pain,

inflammation, bleeding
that can't be stopped,

and skin cells to self-destruct.

Venom left to run its
course could cause death.

A Gaboon viper's venom
will do something similar,

but in extreme,
because it works faster,

and comes with extras.

Tiny blood clots form
throughout the body

and can cause organ failure.

A powerful array of neurotoxins

to attack
the nervous system,

myotoxins the muscular tissue,
and cardiotoxins the heart

these are just
some of the extras

to be found in the
Gaboon's venom cocktail.

But that's not all.

Because Gaboon
fangs are so long,

and their venom glands so large,
they dispense much more venom,

much deeper into the
bodies of their victims.

A bite from a Gaboon would
be considered an urgent,

life-threatening medical
emergency for a human

and certain death for prey.

Yet puff adders are
considered more dangerous

to humans than Gaboon vipers
for a very simple reason.

Gaboons favor forest habitat,

so it's not often they come
into contact with people,

and as adults, they don't
have many, if any, predators,

so they're not
naturally aggressive

because they usually
have no need to be.

But life for a puff adder like
Nala is totally different.

With a number of
natural predators,

and living in a
range of habitats,

including human settlements,

puff adders have learnt
to stand their ground,

with fight before flight.

But meeting an enemy
head-on is risky,

so Nala sticks to the shadows.

It's just safer that way.

Lucky for Thelma, her
rocky outcrop home

is far from humans on the
ranches in the valley below.

It's a peaceful
place to live...


Trouble in the shape of a

strapping young
green-colored male rattlesnake

is brewing down in the valley
and he's slowly heading her way.

In these circumstances,
the sound of her rattle alone

isn't going to keep the peace.

Narrator: Far below Thelma
the rattlesnake's

rocky outcrop home,
trouble's brewing.

Living in this American
Southwest valley

isn't for the faint-hearted.

[animal sounds]

A rattled warning
means nothing here;

the sound is lost in the mayhem.

[animal sounds]

The only way to
survive this place

is to keep a low profile.

But it's not that easy.

Everyone's watching,

everyone's on constant
alert for danger.

His reputation alone
makes Cody the male rattlesnake

an unpopular guy
round these parts!

But hanging around the
ranch has its rewards.

All Cody's favorite treats
are readily available,

whenever he wants them.

So what if he's got
to duck and dive

and keep things low-key?

It's well worth the effort.

And he's really good at it.

But Cody's real party
trick is something else.

He doesn't need to worry
about humans catching him

because he can operate under
the cover of darkness.

To the naked eye, the inside
of the barn is pitch black.

But Cody and his
rattler group members

are equipped with
a particular skill

that many of their cousins like
Velvet and Nala don't have.

It's like having the coolest
super power on earth.

Cody has thermal
imaging abilities.

Snake species sharing this skill
are also known as pit vipers.

On either side of their snouts

right at the very end between
their eyes and nostrils,

are tiny little pits.

These house their
heat-sensing organs,

which are always 2 to 3
degrees cooler

than the rest of their body,

keeping their sensitivity
maxed at all times.

A small membrane
lines these pits,

hanging in a bony chamber,

which allows it to
heat and cool rapidly,

in doing so making
it hyper sensitive

to changes in temperature

in the snake's
immediate vicinity --

at any time of day or night.

The nerve cells of the membrane

produce a protein that
is only activated

when temperatures of around
82 degrees Fahrenheit

or higher are detected.

Which is roughly the
measure of body heat

of a warm-blooded animal
within a meter of the snake.

When this happens,
nerve impulses

based on the
temperature readings

sent to the brain
create thermal images

of the prey item on offer.

Cody can single out living
creatures in the darkness.

Without them even
realizing he's there.

But something's up.

He has complete advantage
of the situation,

but he's not taking the
opportunity for a meal.

Is it possible for a
rattlesnake to turn vegan?

While Cody ignores his dinner,
on the other side of the world,

in her African village home,

Nala the puff adder has no
such dietary inhibition.

Like Cody, she's weighed
up the pros and cons

of hanging around humans
and their snarly watchdogs.

[dog barking]

But even that's not
enough to put her off.

Not when the place is crawling

with ready-made
meals at all hours.

She's still got to
be careful though.

Once she's in position,
it's easy pickings.

[rat squeals]

A quick stab of her fangs
injects enough venom

to ensure the rat
doesn't get far,

making it easy to follow,
find and eat.

But one isn't enough.

Nala is going to make the most
of her visit to this village.

It may look like Nala's
being a glutton,

but she's preparing
for a big event

one that's going to put her
out of action for a while.

So she's taking full advantage
of this opportunity.

Deep in the forest, Velvet the
Gaboon viper is also hungry.

But she's got a whole different
way of doing things.

It might not look like
she's doing much

but that's all part of the plan.

When the time is right,
all hell will break loose.

Velvet settles in to wait.

As predators, snakes
aren't exactly armed

with the best hunting equipment.

They don't have legs
to chase down prey,

claws to grip, nor teeth
for tearing flesh.

So they've had to come up
with a different strategy

to find their niche as
sophisticated predators.

Velvet and her Gaboon
viper relatives

have outdone themselves.

They aren't
particularly graceful

when climbing trees

so they stick to the ground.

The forest floor
is their domain,

and they've made it their own.

Intricate patterns and
colors on Velvet's back

allow her to disappear
into the leaf litter.

Once settled, she doesn't move.

Just the slightest motion
can betray her position.

It may look like Velvet's
just chilling out,

but to keep this still

actually takes an extreme
amount of muscle control.

While waiting in ambush,

Velvet keeps firm
responsive muscles,

practicing what's called
active stillness.

While she needs to remain
absolutely motionless,

her muscles need to be ready

for a sudden burst of activity
at any given moment.

To do this, alternate
muscle bundles

are either active or relaxed,

continually rotating to
maintain muscle tone

and prevent one group
from getting tired.

In this way, Velvet conserves
her energy and muscle power,

so she's always ready
to launch an attack.

She only gets one chance.

If she loses the
element of surprise,

it could be weeks

before another potential
prey animal comes along.

She's got to get it
right the first time

and if she gets the strike
right, the rest is easy.

Narrator: Velvet the Gaboon
viper is lying in wait for prey.

She's kept still for days.

Her muscles are like
a hair-trigger,

ready to strike in
a split second.

But that's not all
she's relying on

to make a successful kill.

Velvet may not have any limbs,

but she's equipped with one of
the most advanced hunting

and defense systems in
the animal kingdom:


It's Velvet's ultimate weapon,

allowing her to kill or at
least immobilize prey

before they have any
chance to escape.

But to dispense this
modified, toxic saliva,

she needs a specialized
injection system.

And Velvet's just happens

to be the
deadliest in the world.

She's capable of injecting

up to 600mg of venom
in a single bite.

It takes only 100 to
kill an adult human.

Like all vipers,
her fangs lie flat

against the roof of
her closed mouth.

When hunting, as she
opens her mouth,

they unhinge and swing down,
ready to stab into a victim.

But it's not easy to
bite and then release

when you have rows of long,
backward-pointing teeth.

To get them in, and back
out of a victim's body,

it sometimes looks as
if they're chewing.

This lethal combination of
hardware and chemicals

make her a deadly predator,

but she's got one more
trick up her sleeve

to guarantee success:


Any number of potential
prey could venture past.

Velvet isn't picky --

she'll eat anything from rodents

and birds to small
antelope and monkeys.

A slight miscalculation
makes no difference.

Once she's set her
sights on a target,

there's no chance for escape.

Her strike isn't the fastest
in the snake world,

but at over 20 feet per
second, it does the job.

The shock of the
attack stuns the bird,

while the complex venom cocktail
rapidly floods its body.

As she waits for
her prey to die,

Velvet adjusts her fangs.

They can really get
in the way sometimes.

Within 10 minutes, it's all
over, and lunch is ready.

Eating is a specialized process.

Velvet unhinges her jaw

to allow her to open her
mouth wide enough.

Using rows of teeth to latch on,

she drags her prey
to a safe place

where she can eat in peace.

Back at the ranch,

it turns out that Cody
the male rattlesnake

hasn't turned vegan after all.

But he's clearly
not hungry either.

Snakes are able to control the
volume of venom they inject

even withholding it completely

when dishing out a
warning to stay away.

This rat has had a lucky escape
with only a dry bite from Cody.

There's only one reason
he would decline

the opportunity
of a meal once again.

With a very slow metabolism,

it could take him days,
if not weeks,

to digest a meal as
big as that rat.

Cody can't afford
to be out of action that long

'cause he's on a mission.

It's not a meal he's after

he's looking for a mate.

And he's heading straight
for Thelma's rocky outcrop.

But someone's beat him to it.

Cody's arrival on
the rocky outcrop

has thrown him headlong
into a love triangle,

with a huge, pink-colored
male as the competition.

Cody has no idea
of who Thelma is,

nor that this is her home,
but the fact that another male,

with a really bad attitude
is hanging around,

tells Cody all he needs to know.

He's found a female
worth fighting for.

Like boxers meeting in the ring,
Cody sizes up his pink opponent.

It's all about moves,

making the first

and dominating with each.

With no limbs to
make things awkward,

they fight with
their whole bodies.

But it's not about
throwing punches.

Neither intends to hurt
or maim his rival.

It's merely a ritual,

a dance of domination.

The twists and turns and thrusts
are a show of strength.

A power struggle meant to
single out the stronger male.

But he needs to leave
the fight unharmed

and ready to claim his prize
of mating with the female.

The other male may
be pink in color,

but he doesn't
fight like a girl.

Pinned to the ground by
the weight of his rival,

Cody knows he's out of the game.

Defeat means eating
dirt and a humiliating exit.

It's a devastating
blow for Cody.

He's foregone food,
traveled long distances,

and risked injury
through fighting,

but it's all been for nothing.

He didn't get the girl.

But Thelma's not
just not into him,

she's not into anyone
at the moment.

Cody the male rattlesnake has
just lost his fight for Thelma.

But while the other has
male won the battle,

it doesn't mean he's
won Thelma's heart.

She's just had her babies

and isn't interested
in mating right now.

It will take time for
Thelma's body to recover

from giving birth.

While the youngsters are around,

she gets no alone time to
stage an ambush for food.

But once they leave home,
she'll rebuild her strength,

and maybe consider mating
again in the spring.

For now, no amount of
nudging and rubbing

from the pink male is
going to turn her on.

Coiling against him, her
flicking tail dismisses him.

He has no choice but
to leave reluctantly.

He'll have to try
his moves elsewhere.

Snakes mate in a ritual of
gently rubbing bodies.

The male nudges the
female with his snout,

bumping her lightly
as if to cajole her.

Their bodies caress,
and tongues flicker

as the male tastes the
female's pheromones,

testing if she's ready to mate.

When the female is aroused,

she'll lift the base of her
tail and they'll mate.

Like these puff
adders are doing.

The males tend to do
most of the work.

Perhaps the females pace
themselves during mating

because just one session
can sometimes carry on

for up to 3 hours.

Yet it's the coming months

they'll most need
their energy for,

as they have big
decisions to make.

Females hold all the cards when
it comes to making babies.

They can store sperm from
one mating session

for up to 5 years before
it starts to deteriorate.

When the female feels
the time is right

and conditions are good enough

to bring offspring
into the world,

she'll dip into her sperm-bank
and impregnate herself,

or 'become gravid.'

Fertilization will occur
and eggs will form,

but a female vipers' job doesn't
end with laying the eggs

and leaving them to
fate like most snakes.

Instead, their bodies
become living incubators!

When the young are
ready to hatch,

mothers give birth
to live snakelings.

Vipers are ovoviviparous
so they produce eggs,

but the eggs have a soft
membrane instead of a shell,

It's not clear whether
mothers share nutrients

with the developing embryos,

so it may seem like a
waste of time for Nala's

to have lugged over 20
eggs around for months.

It's a great sacrifice
on a mother's part

to carry the growing embryos.

As she gets heavier,
it gets harder to hunt

and her own body
loses condition,

just as Thelma's did.

But by carrying their
embryos as they develop,

instead of laying eggs,

Nala, and Thelma,
like most viper moms,

have given their offspring

the best possible
chance at life.

And hardships aside, viper moms
have the best of both worlds

in the animal kingdom.

Now that Nala has given birth,
her maternal duties are done.

She doesn't provide any
postnatal care like suckling,

baby-sitting, training.

Imagine doing that
for over 20 babies?

But it could have been worse,

the record number of offspring
born to a puff adder,

and any snake species, is 156!

Within two weeks of birth,

usually once they've
shed for the first time,

Nala's youngsters will
go their own way.

Equipped with fangs and venom,

they're fully independent

and perfectly capable of
surviving on their own.

Life in the wild is a
continuous battle for survival,

and vipers take it seriously.

They're a super
family of snakes,

each equipped with a
different set of skills

and sophisticated weapons

born ready to lead lives
as proficient killers.

But it's these traits combined

with the females' basic
maternal instincts,

their softer sides,

when it comes to family

that ultimately gives the
Viper Queens their edge

for success over many
other snake species.