Habu Snake

Protobothrops flavoviridis

Last updated: August 8, 2023
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© reptiles4all/Shutterstock.com

Unlike most pit vipers, the habu snake lays eggs instead of giving birth to live young.


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Habu Snake Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Reptilia
Order
Squamata
Family
Viperidae
Genus
Protobothrops or Trimeresurus
Scientific Name
Protobothrops flavoviridis

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Habu Snake Conservation Status

Habu Snake Locations

Habu Snake Locations

Habu Snake Facts

Prey
Small mammals, snakes, frogs, and birds
Name Of Young
Snakelets or neonates
Fun Fact
Unlike most pit vipers, the habu snake lays eggs instead of giving birth to live young.
Estimated Population Size
Unknown
Other Name(s)
Okinawa Habu, Kume Shima Habu
Temperament
Aggressive
Litter Size
1-18 snakelets
Habitat
Transitional zone between cultivated fields and palm forests
Diet for this Fish
Carnivore
Favorite Food
Mice and rats
Common Name
Habu snake

Habu Snake Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Yellow
  • Green
Skin Type
Scales
Lifespan
7 to 10 years
Length
4 to 8 feet
Venomous
Yes
Aggression
High

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The habu snake is most famous for its use in “medicinal” habu sake (habushu), or snake wine.

The habu snake, also called the Kume Shima or Okinawa Habu, is a venomous snake from Japan. Its bite can cause serious injury, though it is not usually fatal. Habu snake numbers are decreasing, perhaps due to habitat loss and overhunting. It is one species of Japanese snake used in the making of snake wine.

4 Amazing Facts About Habu Snakes!

  • It’s very rare but habu snakes have been known to revive (and bite!) after fermenting in the wine for months!
  • These snakes can only be found on a small group of islands in Japan.
  • These snakes are pit vipers, similar to the much-feared fer-de-lance of South America.
  • While most pit vipers give birth to live young, the habu lays eggs.
A glass jar of Habu-Shu-Sake with two snakes in it

On very rare occasions, habu snakes have been known to revive after fermenting in wine.

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©Marco Elettrico/Shutterstock.com

Scientific Name

The habu snake has several common names, including Okinawa Habu and Kume Shima. It also has several scientific names. Most often, it is listed as Protobothrops flavoviridis. Other sources list it as Trimeresurus flavoviridis. Both classifications indicate its relationship to other pit vipers. The Latin flavoviridis means “yellowish green” and describes the snake’s color. It is of the class Reptilia (reptiles) and the family Viperidae (viper snakes).

Historically, scientists have struggled to classify the habu snake effectively. Other scientific name synonyms include Bothrops flavoviridis, Trimeresurus riukiuanus, and Lachesis flavoviridis.



In the past, two subspecies were recognized: P. flavoviridis tinkhami and P. flavoviridis flavoviridis.

A Habu Snake hunting at night

Most often, this snake is classified as

Protobothrops flavoviridis

.

©feathercollector/Shutterstock.com

Evolutions and Origins

The habu snake is a type of pit viper belonging to the Viperidae family. The oldest fossil evidence of vipers dates back to the early Miocene 23.03 million years to 15.97 million years ago, although some scientists believe vipers are even older and their lineage can be traced to the early Eocene 56 million years to 47.8 million years ago.

Vipers evolved to include the loreal pits characteristic of all pit viper species as well as adapting to their environments in ways including generalist and specialized diets, nocturnal and diurnal lifestyles, and differing reproductive methods β€” with the habu snake being oviparous unlike most pit vipers, which give birth to live young.

Mangrove Pit Viper

The oldest fossil evidence of vipers, including the habu and mangrove pit viper above, dates to the early Miocene.

©Kurit afshen/Shutterstock.com

Appearance

The habu snake is a large pit viper; in fact, it is the largest snake in its genus. Its average length is 4 to 5 feet, but individuals 7.9 feet in length have been observed.

This snake has a large head and a slender body. Its scales are small. Its background color is brown or olive green, with dark green or darker brown blotches on top. The edges of the blotches are yellow, and yellow spots may also occur. Often, the blotches fuse to form a wavy line down the back. The snake’s belly is white with dark edges.

How to identify habu snakes:

  • 4 to 5 feet in length
  • Blotchy olive green or brown pattern
  • White belly edged in darker colors.
Closeup of a Habu Snake head

The habu snake is the largest snake in its genus, measuring from 4 to 8 feet in length.

©reptiles4all/Shutterstock.com

Behavior

These snakes are aggressive when disturbed, resulting in a relatively high number of snake bites. Decades ago, hundreds of people were bitten by habu snakes each year. Today the numbers are lower at about 2 bites per 1,000 people. However, this rate is still considered very high.

People may encounter habu snakes when visiting cemeteries or historic structures, as the snakes like to rest along rock walls. People may also be bitten if they step on the snake, as it is a terrestrial or ground-dwelling species. Bites are more likely to occur at night since the snake is nocturnal. It may enter homes in search of food sources, namely mice or rats.

Venom: How Dangerous Are Habu Snakes?

The venom of the habu snake is highly toxic. It contains hemorrhagic components and cytotoxins. The bite causes symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and hypotension (low blood pressure).

People do not usually die from habu snake bites. However, if you are bitten, you should seek medical care immediately. Even after receiving treatment, 6 to 8 percent of bite victims suffer permanent disability, losing motor function in the hands or legs due to the venom’s effects.

A wild habu snake in Amani Island displays its blotchy brown pattern

Habu snakes are aggressive when disturbed and their venom is toxic.

©Yuya Wakita/Shutterstock.com

Habitat

These snakes have a very limited range, living on the islands of Okinawa, Amami, Amakarima Island, Kerama-Retto Island, and Okinawajima Island, of the Ryuku Archipelago in Japan.

If you want to see one of these snakes in the wild, look for it on the larger volcanic islands in this region, where it is relatively common. It is generally not found on the smaller coral islands.

Its favorite habitat is in the transitional zone between cultivated fields and palm forests. You may also see one of these snakes if you visit old tombs, caves, or structures with rock walls.

Sadly, the most common place that people may spot these snakes is in marketplaces highly trafficked by tourists. However, these snakes are no longer living and have been used to create habu sake, or snake wine, a supposedly medicinal drink with a whole snake coiled in the bottle. Though snake wine has been made and used for centuries, its sales have recently increased. Why? Because tourists want to take home the fearsome-looking snake in a bottle.

The entrance to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium within the Ocean Expo Park.

Habu snakes can be found on the islands of Okinawa, Japan.

©Yangxiong/Shutterstock.com

Diet

Habu snakes hunt small mammals, including rats and mice, as well as birds, frogs, and other reptiles.

As pit vipers, habu snakes have heat-detecting pits on their faces. They use these to sense the body heat of birds and mammals. This is especially helpful for this nocturnal snake. It hunts at night, so it can not rely on its vision in the low light. When the habu snake finds prey, it strikes quickly. This snake has a long reach compared to other snakes. Once bitten, the venom kills the small animals. After they cease to struggle, the snake can swallow them safely.

House mouse

The habu snake eats small mammals such as mice.

©iStock.com/Víctor Suárez Naranjo

Predators and Threats

People collect the snake for use in habushu or snake wine, leading to overhunting and a decline in population at least since the 1970s.

Additionally, the small Asian mongoose, a well-known snake predator, was introduced to Okinawa in 1910 specifically for the purpose of reducing habu snake populations.

Jars filled with habu snakes in awamori, a liquor similar to sake on a shop's shelves

Habu snakes are caught to make snake wine purported to have medicinal qualities.

©iStock.com/simarts

Reproduction, Babies, and Lifespan

Unusually for a pit viper, the habu snake lays eggs instead of giving birth to live young. The breeding season occurs early in the spring months and the female lays up to 18 eggs in the middle of summer. After around 5-6 weeks of incubation, the snakelets emerge and measure around 10 inches long. They are independent and fully venomous from birth.

The lifespan of habu snakes in the wild is on average 7-10 years, with some known to have reached 15 years of age.

Population and Conservation

The total population of these snakes is unknown, but researchers believe that the population is in decline. One reason is an observable decrease in the number of bites each year. On Okinawajima Island, around 300 people were bitten by these snakes each year in 1970. By the 1990s, 100 were bitten each year. In 2015, fewer than 30 bites occurred.

The pattern is similar on Amamaioshima Island, where 300 bites per year in 1950 dropped to less than 100 bites per year by 2000.

The habu is currently rated as an animal of Least Concern by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This rating was assigned in 2016.

IUCN

The IUCN Red List classifies the habu snake as of Least Concern.

©Tobias Arhelger/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Catherine Gin has more than 15 years of experience working as an editor for digital, print and social media. She grew up in Australia with an alphabet of interesting animals, from echidnas and funnel-web spiders to kookaburras and quokkas, as well as beautiful native plants including bottlebrushes and gum trees. Being based in the U.S. for a decade has expanded Catherine's knowledge of flora and fauna, and she and her husband hope to have a hobby farm and vegetable garden in future.

Habu Snake FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are Hhabu snakes venomous?

Yes, habu snakes are venomous. They are pit vipers. Their venom contains cytotoxin and hemorrhagic components. The bite causes symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and hypotension (low blood pressure). People do not usually die from habu snake bites, however, if you are bitten, you should seek medical care immediately.

How do habu snakes hunt?

As pit vipers, habu snakes have heat-detecting pits on their faces. They use these to sense the body heat of birds and mammals. This is especially helpful for this nocturnal snake. It hunts at night, so it can not rely on its vision in the low light.

When the habu snake finds prey, it strikes quickly. This snake has a long reach compared to other snakes. Once bitten, the venom kills the small animals. After they cease to struggle, the snake can swallow them safely.

Are habu snakes aggressive?

Yes, habu snakes are considered aggressive. Habu snake bites occur at a high rate compared to other snake species.

Where do habu snakes live?

Habu snakes live in Japan, specifically on the islands of Ryukyu, which includes Okinawa and the Amami islands. They like rock walls and the edges of forests and cultivated fields.

What do habu snakes eat?

Habu snakes hunt small mammals, including rats and mice, as well as birds, frogs, and other reptiles.

How venomous is a habu snake?

Most bites from habu snakes are not deadly. However, the venom is destructive. It causes nausea, vomiting, and low blood pressure. A small percentage of people permanently lose the ability to control the movements of their hands and legs.

Is the habu snake endangered?

The habu snake is not currently considered endangered. However, its population has been in decline at least since the 1970s. People collect the snake for use in habushu or snake wine, and it may be overhunted. Additionally, the small Asian mongoose, a well-known snake predator, was introduced to Okinawa in 1910 specifically for the purpose of reducing habu snake populations.

Can you buy habu snakes in the U.S.?

Occasionally, online retailers or international importers sell habu sake in the United States. Travelers may also bring habushu back to the States with them. Snake wine itself is not illegal there.

However, not all snake wine will be permitted to enter the country. It depends on the type of snake used to make the habushu. If the habu snake was used, it will be permitted, since it is not considered an endangered species. Others, like those made from the king cobra, will be confiscated as an illegal import of an endangered species.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. BBC, Available here: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20151113-the-wine-that-comes-with-added-bite
  2. Atlas Obscura, Available here: https://www.atlasobscura.com/foods/snake-wine-china-vietnam
  3. IUCN Redlist, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/96265495/96265515

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