WildChina > Destinations > Hangzhou > The Most Interesting Snakes in China

As one of Earth’s most biodiverse countries, China is known for its variety of unique biomes and wild animal species. Amongst these are many iconic Asian mammals like the giant panda, golden snub-nosed monkeys, and snow leopards. However, another group of animals can also be found across China in mass diversity: snakes. Historically misunderstood in the West, these reptiles find a place of reverence in Chinese mythology and culture. The snake holds a place as the sixth Chinese zodiac animal and snake form is also a revered piece of Shaolin martial art, which is based on the animal’s movement. These are just a few examples, of many.

Beyond the facade of celestial serpents in Chinese lore, a whole range of real-life snakes call China home today. Here is a list of the most interesting snakes in China, all of which we will be searching for on our upcoming herpetological expedition in China.

Mangshan Pit Viper
Mangshan Pit Viper

The Mangshan Viper

Amongst China’s rarest and most coveted reptiles, the Mangshan Viper (Protobothrops. mangshanensis) is adorned with some of Mother Nature’s most exquisite camouflage patterns and can reach lengths of 6.5 feet (2 meters).

First officially described by the famous Sichuanese herpetologist, Zhao Ermi, in 1990, this snake became an overnight sensation amongst herpetologists for its fascinating colors, cryptic nature, and rarity. Found only in the high-elevation forest habitats above 1,200 meters that surround Mount Mang, the entirety of this species lives in a home range of approximately 120 square miles (300 square kilometers). Blending into the leaf litter and hunting near limestone caves, this serpent utilizes a brightly colored tail tip to attract prey close enough to be struck. The snake’s head is large and shaped like a spear to accommodate their fangs which fold back into the animal’s mouth when closed; this has earned them the name (莽山原矛头蝮) or the Mangshan Lance Head Pit-Viper.

Little is truly known about this snake in their natural habitat As a result, the animal became a designated endangered species under the IUCN and has CITES protection under Appendix ii. These snakes are also protected by Chinese law and are among the 40 reptile species with special protection nationally.

Recent population studies estimate that roughly 500 adult Mangshan Vipers remain in the confined range of their mountain home. These statistics reinforce the importance of sustainably documenting this animal in its sole habitat. On our upcoming herping expedition, we will stay in Mangshan to search for this cryptic beauty.

The Most Interesting Snakes in China
Burmese White Headed Mountain Viper

The Burmese White Headed Mountain Viper

Distinct amongst all vipers, the Burmese White Headed Mountain Viper (Azemiops. kharini) represents an ancient epoch in the evolution of this snake family. Their genus (Azemiops) is the sole member of a primitive subfamily of proto-vipers marked by a variety of attributes that starkly contrast their more modern relatives such as rattlesnakes and tree vipers.

When observing this animal, many features stand out as being abnormal. For example, typical vipers have keeled scales and proportionately long fangs, whereas this species is covered in smooth scales, and their fangs are short and compact. Another key difference is that White Headed Mountain Vipers will lay eggs, as opposed to vipers that give birth to live babies – the family name for vipers, “Viperidae” even refers to “live birth”.

This species has a widespread range within China on the eastern side of the Red River but is nonetheless cryptic and understudied in its wild habitat. Two excellent spots to target this snake include Mangshan National Forest Park, as well as Tianmushan.

The Most Interesting Snakes in China
King Cobra

The King Cobra

Some might find it fascinating to learn that planet Earth’s longest species of venomous snake can be found in the tropical forests of Southern China. The King Cobra (Ophiophagus. hannah) is an animal whose reputation as “king” is well earned. These snakes preside over ecosystems as reptilian apex predators, feasting almost solely on other snakes (including smaller cobras of the same species).

China’s King Cobras are known for typically having bright golden bands and even feature a distinct venom composition that is geographically distinct from individuals in other extents of their range (I.e. Thailand, India, etc.). These snakes appear to be unbothered by human settlement, and King Cobras are often relocated from urban areas across their range.

Our search for King Cobras and the Chinese Cobra (Naja. alta) will begin on the outskirts of Hong Kong, one of Asia’s largest metropolitan areas, and will continue north as we venture to Mangshan.

The Most Interesting Snakes in China
Horned Pit Viper

The Fi-si-pan Mountain Horned Viper

Southern China’s rugged topography of mountainous forests and towering karsts is conducive to harboring bizarre endemic snakes. A close relative of the Mangshan Viper, China’s Fi-si-pan Mountain Horned Viper (Protobothrops. cornutus), is one of Asia’s strangest-looking venomous snakes.

At first glance, this animal’s most poignant feature is their subocular scales and horn-like scale on the tip of their nose – two qualities that almost make them superficially resemble Triceratops. Very little is understood about this snake species and their known range is specific to high-elevation forests in southern China and northern Vietnam, however many herpetologists speculate the strong possibility of their presence on other mountains.

During our search for the Mangshan viper in Hunan, we will also be in range for this species. We hope to document this mysterious snake against the backdrop of its native forest home as every instance of documentation lends itself to a better understanding of these creatures.

The Most Interesting Snakes in China
Bai Shuzhen and Xiao Qing

Notable Snakes in Chinese Legend and Mythology

Snakes hold a special place amongst a plethora of indigenous folklore stories from communities across China. In one well-known creation story, humanity is painstakingly hand-crafted by a half-snake, half-woman goddess named Nüwa. Nüwa persists into the modern day as an emblematic cultural hero more than a worshipped deity, however, you can still visit temples dedicated to her in Gansu and Shanxi provinces. Additional snake goddesses occur within China’s other local indigenous groups such as the Qiang minority who consider encounters with wild snakes as an auspicious omen.

Another famous serpent in Chinese folklore is Bai Suzhen (白素貞), also known as “Lady White Snake“. This snake spirit disguises herself as a beautiful woman and falls in love with a human man before being trapped underneath Leifeng pagoda by a treacherous Daoist monk (we will visit this pagoda on our upcoming expedition when we stop in Hangzhou). Ultimately, Lady White Snake breaks free and reunites with her lover and the two have a child, illustrating mankind’s fusion with the natural world.

In short, China not only has a variety of fascinating snakes, but it has a fascination with snakes that spans back into antiquity. As far as field herping destinations, it is far less explored by herp enthusiasts and is host to an impressive portfolio of unique endemic reptiles. If you are interested in learning more about the itinerary for our upcoming herping expedition, follow the link below:

By Michael Ring (one of the experts leading our upcoming Herpetological Expedition in China)

An avid conservationist and anthropologist, Michael excels at highlighting the intersectionality between natural and cultural heritage in the expeditions he leads. He started his guiding career in China, having worked domestically in Sichuan for years, leading trips ranging from tracking snub-nose monkeys to trekking with Tibetan nomads. Michael received a Bachelor of Arts in ethnographic studies and Chinese culture before studying mandarin at Southwest Minzu University (西南民族 大学). In addition to acting as media spokesperson for the largest reptile sanctuary in the United States, Michael is a prolific field-herper and spends his free time documenting wild reptiles. He is featured as co-host for the field-herping program, Serpentine, and his footage is featured by Apple TV+. To him, field-herping and travel are ways to provide clients with mediated experiences in the natural world while empowering them to engage in conservation. His favorite animals include elephants, great apes, monitor lizards, tree vipers, hornbills, and crocodilians.

The Most Interesting Snakes in China