If you’ve ever seen Kill Bill vol. 2, you know a little bit about black mambas. Still, there’s a lot more to these snakes than Elle Driver read off her little notepad in the movie. So lets talk about this super cool snake, and see what Elle missed.

Black mambas live in sub-Saharan Africa, most commonly in the east. They are found in wooded or rocky areas, in basically any place where they can find suitable shelter. Black mambas are mobile in trees or on the ground, but prefer to stay earthbound. They generally have a home lair that they return to each day.

The inside of a black mamba’s mouth. I would not want to be the person taking this picture… Image by Tad Arensmeier, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Black mambas, as you probably know, are quite venomous. They are also quite big, and are in fact the longest venomous snakes in Africa. They can reach lengths of two to three meters. The ‘black’ part of their name actually doesn’t refer to the mamba’s scales; these are usually grey, olive or brown. Their name comes from the terrifying black colour of their mouths.

The venom of black mambas is quite potent, and before antivenin was available, the death rate of bite victims was 100%. The venom contains lots of lovely neurotoxins and cardiotoxins, and without treatment death can occur within 20 minutes. Death usually results from asphyxiation, cardiovascular collapse, or respiratory failure. All fun things, I’m sure.

Black mambas are also very fast snakes — among the fastest in the world. This, combined with their size, means that mambas can easily strike an adult human at chest height. So yes, black mambas are big, super-fast, and highly venomous. But should we be afraid of them? Not particularly. Black mambas are intensely shy animals, who use their speed more for running away than for hunting.

When black mambas can’t run away, they rear up in a defensive posture, like this one. Image by Bill Love/Blue Chameleon Ventures, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, they are ambush predators, waiting in their lairs to strike prey that amble by. They generally eat small mammals, including rodents, squirrels, and hyraxes. The snakes usually bite their victims only one or twice and then sit back and wait for the deadly toxins to take effect. It seems like a pretty lazy style of hunting, but it works for the mambas.

Black mambas have a fearsome reputation, and much of it is deserved. But they are not a scary as some people think, and if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone too.

Cover image by TimVickers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped to fit