Meadow viper (Vipera ursinii)


It is one of the few species of venomous snakes in Europe. It is represented by a group with a wide but extremely fragmented range which spreads from Europe to western and central Asia. The majority of the populations are found at relatively long distances one from another and in case these groups are close to one another they are separated by relief forms such as mountains and deep valleys. Their habitats are represented by meadows which can be found at different altitudes [20].

Numerous present phylogenetic and systematic studies have sown that Vipera ursinii only comprises European populations with five subspecies which are accepted at the moment: Vipera ursinii ursinii (Italy and France), Vipera ursinii macrops (Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania), Vipera ursinii greca (Greece), Vipera ursinii rakosinensis (Hungary, Austria, Romania – Transylvania) and Vipera ursinii moldavica (Romania – Moldavia and the Danube Delta, the Republic of Moldova, Bulgaria).

The meadow viper (Vipera ursinii) is represented by small and isolated populations throughout its entire European range. It is considered that the species is completely extinct in Austria, Bulgaria and the Republic of Moldova [20].

The Geographic Range of the Vipera ursinii complex in Europe [6]

The Geographic Range of the Vipera ursinii complex in Europe [6]

Three subspecies of this complex have been initially noted in Romania, respectively:

Vipera ursinii rakosinensis is known in Transylvania, more precisely in the “Fanetele Clujului” Reservation in Cluj County. This population became extinct and for almost 50 years, this taxon has been considered extinct from the territory of Romania [16]. Recent research have revealed the presence of a new population of Vipera ursinii rakosinensis on a meadow in Alba County [7; 23; 16; 18].

Vipera ursinii moldavica has been initially considered a hybrid between Vipera ursinii renardi and Vipera ursinii rakosinensis [4]. Vipera ursinii moldavica ceased being considered a hybrid once a revision regarding its taxonomic statute was published thus becoming a subspecies within the Vipera ursinii complex. The species has been described based on a holotype collected from the “Valea lui David” Natural Reserve in Iasi County [19].

Meadow viper populations are also present in few habitats in the Danube Delta. These have been initially considered as belonging to the Vipera [ursinii] renardi [4]. A series of further studies consider these populations closer to moldavica than to renardi [13] or they consider them as a “sister” group of the populations in Moldova [20]. Thus, in the studies which followed, the populations in the Delta were either assimilated to the moldavica [8; 9; 21] group or they were considered an intermediary group but assimilated under the name of moldavica [3]. However it is uncertain if these populations belong to one group or another [14; 15; 27].

The Geographic Range of the Vipera ursinii in Romania [2]

The Geographic Range of the Vipera ursinii in Romania [2]

Vipera ursinii is the smallest viper species in Europe, 40-60 cm in length, having a triangular head with a sharp snout which is not upturned [4, 5].

Its colour is relatively similar to the rest of the European vipers. The zig-zag stripe is made of a series of dark brown spots, edged with black. The main colour on the middle area and on the two rows of external scales is yellowish. They often present a dark V shaped mark on the upper part of the head. A dark stripe goes from behind the eye to the neck area. The inferior part of the head and of the neck is white-yellowish and the abdomen is grey or black [4, 5].

Ecology. It lives in meadows with xerophyte gramineous (Stipa) but it can also be found on salty lands or sandy terrains as well as in the scarce woods or thick bushes of Juncus maritimus in the Danube Delta [4, 5]. The altitude where meadow vipers can be found varies very much from one species to another. Thus, Vipera ursinii ursinii, Vipera ursinii macrops and Vipera ursinii graeca live in mountain meadows with scrubs while [1; 20; 22] Vipera ursinii moldavica, Vipera ursinii rakosinensis and Vipera [ursinii] renardi populate xerophyte meadows at low altitudes [24; 15; 20; 17; 7; 26; 27; 28].

Meadow vipers usually feed on insects, especially orthopters, but also on lizards, mice and rarely on birds [3; 26]. One viper feeds in 3-4 annual stages. It was experimentally observed that they do not feed daily. An adult viper eats 3-4 mice in a few days lapse and then it fasts for almost a month. Growing juveniles which gather provisions can have up to five feeding stages while adult males only have two stages. Pregnant females spend most of the day basking in the sun and they only need one feeding stage [4, 5].

Meadow viper populations at low altitudes begin their activity in March-April. Mating takes place from March till May and the cubs hatch in July-August. The number of youngsters varies between 3 and 17 (depending on the size of the female). Sexual maturity begins in the third year of life. They hibernate in shelters made by rodents or in trees cavities starting with October up to March-April [4; 5; 25]. They are hunted by different birds (crows, storks, pheasants, birds of prey) and mammals (hedgehogs, polecats) [10; 11].

It is the least venomous viper in Romania.

Legislation. In our country, this species is protected under the Law 13 from 1993 through which Romania ratifies the Berne Convention, European Directive 92/43/EEC, Natura 2000, and under the Law 462/2001 regarding the network of protected natural habitats, preserving natural habitats, wild fauna and flora. The species is also listed in Annex IVA of the Emergency Ordinance of the Government 57/2007 regarding the network of protected natural habitats, preserving natural habitats, wild fauna and flora, approved with further modifications and completions. It is considered a species of community interest, needing strict protection [29; 30; 31; 31].


1. Baron J.P., (1997): Demographie et dynamique d’une population francaise de Vipera ursinii (Bonaparte, 1835). These de doctorat, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes.

2. Cogălniceanu D., Rozylowicz L., Székely P., Samoilă C., Stănescu F., Tudor M., Székely D., Iosif R., (2013): Diversity and distribution of reptiles in Romania, ZooKeys 341: 49-76.

3. Edgar P., Bird D. R., (2005): Action Plan for the Conservation of the Meadow Viper (Vipera ursinii) in  Europe. Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and   Natural Habitats Standing Committee, 26th meeting, Strasbourg, 27-29 November 2006, T-PVS/Inf (2006) 21, 38 pp.

4. Fuhn I. E., Vancea Şt., (1961): Fauna R.P.R. Reptilia (Ţestoase, Şopîrle, Şerpi). Vol. XIV, fasc. 2, Ed. Academiei R.P.R., Bucureşti, 338 pp. [in Ro]

5. Fuhn I.E., (1969): Broaște, șerpi, șopârle. Ed. Ştiinţifică, Bucureşti. [in Ro]

6. Gasc J.P., Cabela A., Crnobrnja-Isailovic, Domen D., Groessenbacher K., Haffner P., Lescure J., Martens H., Marinez Rica J.P., Maurin H., Oliveira M.E., Sofianidou T.S., Veith M., Zuiderwijk A., (1997): Atlas of Amphibians and Reptiles in Europe. Societas Europaea Herpetologica & Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle Paris.

7. Ghira I., (2007): Rediscovery of Vipera ursinii rakosiensis in Transylvania. Herpetologica Romanica 1: 77-71.

8. Halpern B., Major A., Pehcy T., Marinov E.M., Kiss J.B., (2006): Vipera ursinii moldavica populations of the Romanian Danube Delta. Scientific Annals of the Danube Delta Insitute for Research and Development 12: 33-38.

9. Halpern B., Major A., Pehcy T., Marinov E.M., Kiss J.B., (2007): Genetic comparison of Moldavian Meadow Viper (Vipera ursinii moldavica) populations of the Danube- Delta. Scientific Annals of the Danube Delta Insitute for Research and Development 13: 19-26.

10. Iftime A., (2001). Lista roşie comentată a amfibienilor şi reptilelor din România. Ocrotirea Naturii şi a Mediului Înconjurător, 44-45:39-49. [in Ro]

11. Iftime A., (2005): Reptilia. In: Botnariuc & Tatole (eds): Cartea Roşie a Vertebratelor din România. Ed. Acad. Române, Bucureşti. [in Ro]

12. Joger U., Kalyabina-Hauf S. A., Schweiger S., Mayer W., Orlov N. L., Wink M., (2003): Phylogeny of Eurasian Vipera (subgenus Pelias), in Programme & Abstracts, 12th Ordinary General Meeting, Societas Europaea Herpetologica (SEH), Zoological Institute ofthe Russian Academy of Sciences, Saint-Petersburg, Russia, 12-16 August 2003, Saint-Petersburg, Societas Europaea Herpetologica: 77.

13. Kotenko T. I., Mazorov-Leonov S. Y., Mezhzherin S. V., (1999): Biochemical genetic differentiation of the steppe viper (Vipera ursinii group) in Ukraine and Romania. 10th Ordinary General Meeting of Socetas Europaea Herpetologica, Irakleio, pp. 88–90.

14. Kotenko T., (2000): Herpetofauna of the Danube Biosphere Reserve (Ukraine) against the background of the lower Danube region herpetofauna Analele Ştiinţifice ale Instutului-Delta Dunării, 8: 111–123.

15. Krecsak L., Zamfirescu S., (2001): Ecological situation and morphological characteristics of Vipera ursinii moldavica in the “Valea lui David” Natural Reserve. Russian Journal of Herpetology 8 (1): 69–73.

16. Krecsak L., Zamfirescu Ş., (2008): Vipera (Acridophagaursinii in Romania: historical and present distribution. North-Western Journal of Zoology 4 (2): 339-359.

17. Krecsák, L., Zamfirescu, S., Korsós, Z. (2003): An updated overview of the distribution of the Moldavian Steppe Viper (Vipera ursinii moldavica Nilson, Andrén and Joger, 1993). Russian Journal of Herpetology, 10 (3): 199–206.

18. Méhely L., (1894): Vipera ursinii, eine verkannte Giftschlange Europas. Zoologischer Anzeiger, 17(440): 57–61; 17(441): 65–71.

19. Nilson G., Andrén C., Joger U., (1993): A re-avulation of the taxonomic status of the Moldavian steppe viper based on immunological investigations, with a discussion of the hypothesis of secondary intergradation betweenVipera ursinii rakosiensis and Vipera (ursinii) renardi. Amphibia-Reptilia, 14: 45–57.

20. Nilson G., Andrén C., (2001): The Meadow and Steppe Vipers of Europe and Asia – The Vipera (Acridophaga) ursinii complex. Acta Zoologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 47 (2-3): 87–267.

21. Strugariu  Al.,  Zamfirescu  Șt.R.,  Gherghel  I.,  Sahlean  T., Moraru  V.,  Zamfirescu  O., (2011):  A  preliminary  study  on  population  characteristics  and  ecology  of  the critically  endangered  meadow  viper  (Vipera  ursinii)  in  the  Romanian  Danube Delta, Biologia, Section Zoology, 66 (1): 175-180.

22. Tomovic L., Crnobrnja-Isailovic J., Ajtic R., (2004): A preliminary study of the population ecology of Vipera ursinii macrops from eastern Montenegro. Amphibia-Reptilia 25: 316-320.

23. Török Z., (2007): GIS technique used for managing data on potential Natura 2000 sites. Case study: areas inhabited by Vipera ursiniii. Scientific Annals of the Danube Delta Institute for Research and Development, Tulcea-Romania, 13: 241–250.

24. Ujvari B., Korsos Z., (1997): Thermoregulation and movements of radiotracked Vipera ursinii rakosiensisin Hungary. În: Bohme W., Bischoff W., Ziegler T. (eds.): Herpetologia Bonnensis: 367-372.

25. Ujvari B., Korsos Z., Pechy T., (2000): Life history, population characteristics and conservation of the Hungarian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis). Amphibia-Reptilia 21: 267-278.

26. Zamfirescu Şt.R., Zamfirescu O., Ion C., Popescu I.E., (2007): Research on the habitats of Vipera ursinii moldavica populations from Iaşi County. Analele Ştiinţifice ale Universităţii „Al. I. Cuza” Iaşi, s. Biologie animală, 53: 159-166.

27. Zamfirescu Şt.R., Zamfirescu O., Popescu I.E., Ion C., Strugariu A., (2008): Vipera de stepă (Vipera ursinii moldavica) şi habitatele sale din Moldova (România). Editura Universităţii „Alexandru Ioan Cuza” Iaşi.

28. Zamfirescu Şt., Zamfirescu O., Popescu I.E., Ion C., (2009): Preliminary data on population characteristics ofVipera ursinii moldavica from “Dealul lui Dumnezeu” (Iaşi County, Romania). North-Western Journal of Zoology 5 (1): 85-96.

29. ***Legea 13 din 1993 prin care România ratifică Convenţia de la Berna. [in Ro]

30. ***Directiva Europeana 92/43/EEC. [in Ro]

31. ***Legea nr. 462/2001 privind regimul ariilor naturale protejate, conservarea habitatelor naturale, a florei şi faunei sălbatice. [in Ro]

32. ***Ordonanţa de Urgenţă a Guvernului nr. 57/2007 privind regimul ariilor naturale protejate, conservarea habitatelor naturale, a florei şi faunei sălbatice, aprobată cu modificări şi completări ulterioare. [in Ro]

One thought on “Meadow viper (Vipera ursinii)

  1. Pingback: Specii care dispar sub ochii noștri: Vipera de fâneaţă – o specie superbă, ce merită protejată