Bringing to life spectacles of natural wonder on our doorstep

Dancing Adders

Adder c/o Natural England Peter Wakely

Adders (Vipera berus) are Britain’s only poisonous reptile. They’re divided into four sub-species and Vipera berus berus is the one found in Britain. It’s not however found in Ireland.

The Adder has a dark zigzag stripe down its back and dark spots on its sides. There’s also a characteristic V shape at the back of the head. It’s quite short (55-60cm) and has a relatively large head with a rounded snout. The eyes have vertical elliptical pupils which is a feature of all venomous snakes.

Colours vary although males are usually greyish with black markings while females are brown with coppery coloured markings that are less obvious than the males. Adders have black undersides and it’s not uncommon to find one which is completely black (melanistic).

They can be distinguished from the more slender Grass Snake by the dark zigzag stripe and their eyes, Grass Snakes have round pupils not the vertical slits of the Adder.

In the mating season the male Adders look for females and when they find one the male flicks his tongue along her back and sides, both snakes vibrate their tails and the male moves along her back and follows her movements. After mating the male will sometimes remain coiled around the female.

The males are very territorial and if another male tries to move in there may be a ‘dance of the adders’. Obviously they’re not really dancing… it’s more a duel, a way of establishing who’s superior without being injured. The snakes never attempt to bite each other.

The two snakes raise half their bodies off the ground in an attempt to push their rival down. This maybe done belly to belly or back to back or they may become entwined together. The pair topple to the ground and then rise again several times. They continue wrestling coiled around each other and moving from side to side.

The winner of the fight is almost always the larger and stronger snake. Sometimes the winning male will stay with the female for several days and mate with her several times.

Find out more about Adders...


Reptiles and Amphibians from the UK

Forestry Commission

British Wildlife Centre

BBC Science and Nature - Adders

The Herpetological Conservation Trust who have provided some of the pictures in our gallery.

Other pictures in our photo gallery have been provided by Will Atkins from London, Essex and Hertfordshire Amphibian and Reptile Trust (LEHART). LEHART is a charitable trust which exists to promote the conservation of native amphibians and reptiles in London, Essex and Hertfordshire. You can find out more about them and their work at their website.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

Photo gallery

Watch and Listen

See what the 'dancing adders' look like as Iolo Williams finds out about the strange behaviour as the snakes fight for supremacy:

Watch the video clip


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Tips for viewing this species:

  • Thorne Moor in Yorkshire is something of an ‘Adder hotspot’ with several hundred living there. But Adders are widespread in countryside areas. They prefer undisturbed countryside.
  • Spring and summer are best times to see them because they hibernate from early October. On warm days they can be seen basking on paths.
  • Early morning is a good time to spot reptiles like Adders, when they like to bask in the sun.
  • Slowly creep around, walk carefully as they will pick up your vibrations. Be patient.
  • Seeing them at all requires stealth and persistence because they’re very secretive creatures. Look out for their zig-zag markings.
  • Remember snakes are timid and will flee from people and pets so stay quiet and try to remain inconspicuous.
  • Don’t handle the snakes…most people who’ve been bitten by Adders have been handling them. A bite from an Adder is painful and unpleasant but rarely fatal although it does usually result in hospitalisation. No-one has died from an adder bite in Britain for more than 20 years. If you are bitten seek medical help immediately. Do not attempt first aid.


Adders are quite common in various habitats, areas of rough open countryside, woodland, hedgerows, sand dunes, moorland and bogs. Adders eat small rodents, frogs, lizards and newts and can take young from birds nests which are on the ground. They inject poison into their prey and then wait for it to die. This may take some time and the prey can struggle some distance before finally dying. The snake will then follow the scent to where the corpse lies.

Adder c/o Natural England Peter Wakely

It’s an efficient way of hunting avoiding any damage that could be caused to  the snake by struggling with its prey. The Adder will then, like other snakes, swallow its victim whole. The jaw is linked by connective tissue in such a way that the four main jaw bones can move independently thus enabling the snake to swallow things that are wider than its own head.

It eats only occasionally and one meal can last it a week.

Adders hibernate in the winter, often using deserted rabbit or rodent burrows, or going under logs to escape the frost and ice. In the autumn they follow the scent of other snakes back to the hibernation site. The severity of the winter weather tends to be the factor which determines whether they survive hibernation. In the spring they emerge and by the middle of April the males have shed their winter skin and are ready to mate. The Adder is one of very few snakes which give birth to live young. The eggs actually hatch within the females body.

It is illegal to kill, injure, sell or trade an Adder.

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