Rattlesnake Vs Puff Adder: How Are They Different?

Written by Gabrielle Monia
Published: April 5, 2022
© iStock.com/S_Lew
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Both venomous vipers, the rattlesnake, and the puff adder, have unique features and geographical ranges. The rattlesnake is named for the distinctive-sounding rattle at the end of its tail, used to warn of a potential strike. Similarly, the puff adder is named for defensive behavior. If threatened, it will puff up its body to appear much larger than it is. Both can inject powerful venom into their prey with fierce fangs, but one tends to be a riskier bite for humans. Let’s take a detailed look at rattlesnake vs puff adder, and decide what factors set these fanged serpents apart.

Comparison of a Rattlesnake and a Puff Adder 

The venom of the puff adder has a higher fatality risk than that of the rattlesnake.
RattlesnakePuff Adder
Scientific ClassificationFamily: Viperidae; Genus: Crotalus, Sistrurus; 30+ speciesFamily: Viperidae; Genus: Bitis; Species: B. arientans
Range & HabitatThe Americas, southern Canada to Argentina; grassy areas, rocky hills, swamplands, meadows, and brushy areasThroughout Africa, aside from Sahara and rainforest regions; savannas, open forests, and rocky grasslands
Sizeaverage 1.5-6.5 ft, up to 8 ft, up to 10 lbsaverage 3 ft long, up to 6 ft, up to 13 lbs
AppearanceDark diamond patterns or other geometric shapes on a lighter colored bodyTan, brown, gold, and sometimes gray, with irregular wavy or chevron patterns of dark and light along the side of the body
HuntingAmbush predator, fangs deliver venom, use heat-sensing pit organsAmbush predator, fangs deliver venom, se lingual luring & caudal luring mimicry strategies
Venom & Bite RiskDangerous; Bites are medical emergencies but very rarely fatal if treatedVery dangerous; Responsible for more snakebite fatalities than any other African snake

Key Differences between a Rattlesnake and a Puff Adder

puff adder with tongue out
The puff adder can be as long as five feet.


The key differences between Rattlesnakes and Puff Adders are in terms of classification, size, range, and habitat.

Let’s explore these differences below.

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Rattlesnake Vs Puff Adder: Scientific Classification

Rattlesnakes are venomous, fanged pit vipers of the family Viperidae. They derive their family name Viperidae from the latin vivus, “alive” and parere, “to bear.” This refers to their method of bearing live young. As pit vipers, they belong to the subfamily Crotalinae. The members of this subfamily are distinguished by their heat-sensing pit organs. There are over 30 rattlesnake species, and most fall into the genus of Crotalus. This genus name is derived from the word for “castanet.” There are a couple in the genus Sistrurus, meaning “tail rattler.” This name shares its root with the sistrum, a type of rattle that is an ancient Egyptian musical instrument.

The puff adder is also a venomous viper of the Viperidae family. It belongs with rattlesnakes in the subfamily Crotalinae. It is of the genus Bitis with the full species name of Bitis arientans. The latter part of this name is derived from the Latin word arieto, meaning “to strike violently.” The African puff adder and the Somali puff adder are the two recognized subspecies.

Rattlesnake Vs Puff Adder: Range & Habitat

Rattlesnake species live throughout the Americas.

©Viktor Loki/Shutterstock.com

Rattlesnakes are native to the Americas, from southern Canada to Argentina. The highest concentration of rattlesnakes live in the southwestern United States and northern parts of Mexico. Many rattlesnakes live in the dry desert climate of the southwest United States, but many thrive elsewhere. These snakes do well in grassy areas, rocky hills, swamplands, meadows, and brushy areas.  

Puff adders are likely the most common and widespread snake species in Africa. They live throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Arabia, and Morocco. They exist in the semi-arid environments of savannas, open forests, and especially rocky grasslands. They’re generally not found in the rainforest habitats of central Africa, but they do like to live with a source of water and good coverage nearby.

Rattlesnake Vs Puff Adder: Appearance

puff adder in aggressive pose
The puff adder has a distinct triangle-shaped head and a wavy or chevron-patterned body.


Rattlesnakes vary significantly in size by species but are generally 1.5 to 6.5 feet in length. Some, like the eastern diamondback, can grow up to 8 feet in length and weigh up to 10 pounds. They have thick bodies and exhibit sexual dimorphism, with males typically growing slightly larger than females. Their coloration varies, but they typically have dark diamond patterns or other geometric shapes on a lighter-colored body. Their distinctive tail rattles are made of hollow keratin chambers that knock together to produce sound. These snakes have triangular heads and hinged fangs. Rattlesnakes have pit organs beside their nose and eyes, which detect the heat signatures of animals nearby like an infrared camera. 

The puff adder is a thick, medium-sized snake that averages 3 feet long. Large specimens over 6 feet long and 13 pounds have been reported. It has a distinctive, triangle-shaped head. Coloring varies by species. The puff adder often exhibits body colors of tan, brown, gold, and sometimes gray, with irregular wavy or chevron patterns of dark and light along the side of the body. Their coloring helps them to camouflage, blending into their surroundings. Females generally show a slightly shorter tail than males.

Rattlesnake Vs Puff Adder: Hunting & Diet

Tiger rattlesnake with large rattle
The rattlesnake has pit organs and warns of a strike with its distinctive tail rattle.

©Vladislav T. Jirousek/Shutterstock.com

While they are both ambush predators who lie in wait for unsuspecting prey to pass by, the rattlesnake has pit organs, and the puff adder doesn’t. These pit organs act like infrared cameras to detect the body heat of animals nearby. When prey appears, rattlesnakes strike out quickly and sink their fangs to deliver venom. The venom immobilizes their prey, which includes rodents, birds, rabbits, and small creatures like frogs and lizards. They typically don’t need more than one meal every few weeks in adulthood.

The puff adder hunts in a similar ambush fashion, patiently waiting days or even weeks for prey to pass by. They eat a diet of primarily rodents, birds, frogs, other reptiles, and even small deer. Interestingly a study in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology found that they use two distinctive mimicry signals to lure prey. This is unique, as most species that exhibit mimicry use only one type of signal. They extended their tongues in an act called lingual luring and waved their tails in a deceitful maneuver called caudal luring. This mimicking of invertebrate actions works to lure their prey into striking distance.

Rattlesnake Vs Puff Adder: Venom & Danger

Rattlesnakes live in many areas where humans live and work, so the risk of exposure is fairly high. They produce a warning rattle before a potential strike. Attention to this distinctive warning rattle sound can help prevent a strike. The long fangs of the timber rattlesnake deliver venom that’s potent enough to kill a human. A defining characteristic of the timber rattlesnake is crotoxin, or “canebrake toxin.” This is a potent neurotoxin that can lead to paralysis. Rattlesnake bites should be treated as medical emergencies as the hemotoxin in their venom kills red blood cells and leads to tissue damage. Antivenom is widely available, and human deaths are rare as long as treatment is delivered.

Puff adders are extremely dangerous snakes, one of the most dangerous snakes in Africa. They have a wide geographic range and a tendency to bask on footpaths. Their tendency for camouflage makes it so that people often stumble upon them. These snakes would rather stand their ground than flee when threatened. Their name comes from their tendency to puff up their bodies to appear much larger than they are. They’ll also give a warning hiss before striking. Their venom is cytotoxic, meaning that it is toxic to cells. They have one of the most poisonous venoms of all viper species. Although highly dangerous, the prognosis is usually good for those bitten who receive antivenom in time. Without it, the fatality rate can exceed 15 percent. 

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The Featured Image

puff adder with tongue out
The puff adder, on average, is about three feet long, but it can be as long as five feet.
© iStock.com/S_Lew

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About the Author

Gabrielle is a freelance writer with a focus on animals, nature and travel. A Pacific Northwest native, she now resides in the high desert beneath towering ponderosa pines with her beloved dog by her side. She often writes with a coyote call or owl hoot backdrop and is visited by the local deer, squirrels, robins and crows. A committee of turkey vultures convenes nightly in the trees where she resides. Here, the flock and their ancestors have roosted for over 100 years. Her devotion to the natural world has led her to the lifelong study of plants, fungi, wildlife and the interactions between them all.

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