Rodger McPhail

Is the adder slithering towards extinction?

[Photo: Rodger McPhail]

In early April, when the chiffchaff sings its drab little song in the leafless hawthorns, something is stirring in the dead bracken. Having spent the winter months underground, one of our most fascinating creatures slithers into the weak spring sunshine: the adder.

The emerging adders haven’t eaten for six months, but food is not on their minds; it is the mating season. Rival males indulge in spectacular ritual combat, rearing up side by side and twisting and wrestling at great speed. After mating the snakes disperse and spend the summer in solitary pursuit of mice, voles, lizards, frogs and fledglings.

Adders never use more energy than is necessary and spend a lot of their time basking. These living solar panels get a great deal of their energy directly from the sun, and so efficient is their metabolism that they only require six to ten meals a year. The adder should be the symbol of green power.

Most snakes live in climates that are hot enough to incubate their eggs. The adder insures against our northern summer by basking at every opportunity and incubating the developing embryos inside her body, eventually giving birth to between six and 20 live young in August or September. This adaptation has allowed the adder to range further north than any other reptile.

The young adders are dark brick-red, except for the end of the tail which is lime yellow. This pale tail tip can be wriggled like a little maggot to entice froglets and baby lizards. This ruse, known as ‘caudal luring’, is found in many snakes, and reaches its pinnacle in the astonishing spider-tailed horned viper, which lures birds into striking distance with the spider-like appendage on its tail tip.

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