Kikuchi’s Habu or Mountain Pit Viper

Yesterday was my lucky day. Kikuchi’s habu or Taiwan mountain pit viper (Trimeresurus gracilis) is an endemic species of snake that is very rarely seen, mainly because it only lives in less populated altitudes of over 2,000 metres above sea level. It is a related but separate species from the much more common Chinese habu (which is allegedly responsible for more snake bites than any other snake on the island). Unlike its nocturnal name sake, Kikuchi’s habu, named after a Japanese researcher who studied the pit viper in the early 20th century, is diurnal and also much smaller, reaching only about 60 centimetres at best. It is venomous.

Kikuchi's Habu (Trimeresurus gracilis)

We observed this rare species at the Siangyang National Forest Recreation Area (向陽國家森林遊樂區, coordinates 23°14’53″N 120°59’7″E) at an altitude of 2,340 metres above sea level. It was near the country’s famous Southern Cross-Island Highway that links the city of Tainan on the west side of the island with Taitung by passing through the central mountain range. The highest point of the highway is the Yakou tunnel at 2,731 metres, but sadly, this part of the road has been inaccessible since 2009 when typhoon Morakot caused massive landslides in the area. At this time the Siangyang park is the last place that can be reached on four wheels when arriving from the east.

Kikuchi's Habu (Trimeresurus gracilis)

The pit viper was in the process of traversing a wide paved road, so it had little chance of escaping to safety when we arrived at the scene. Unfortunately it had just started raining heavily and it was a tough act trying to photograph a deadly animal while protecting the camera from heavy water drops. In the end the photos didn’t come out as nicely as I had hoped – the combination of low light, rain and my unsteady hands made the pictures somewhat blurred and the unfortunate background doesn’t offer a good contrast between the patterns of the snake’s skin and the road’s surface. Still, it was a rare occasion to witness this gorgeous reptile and observe its obvious preparations for an attack in case I wanted to get too close for its comfort.

Kikuchi's Habu (Trimeresurus gracilis)

To learn more about this snake species (and to see better photos), please visit this page on Hans Breuer’s excellent Snakes of Taiwan website.

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