Hungarian meadow viper
Hungarian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis Méhely, 1893) is an inhabitant of steppe remnants. Recent populations occur on grasslands formed by a mosaic of drying marsh-meadows and sandy pastures, where the relatively diverse features of terrain and grass cover provides high prey-abundance and several different microclimatic options. Vipers spend winter hibernated in rodent burrows of local elevations. During spring as mating season starts males moves significantly more, this time is the most likely to see one of them. Young vipers are born late summer, early September, depending on the number of sunny days. On average 6-14 viper is born, with 12-16 cm length and weighing only 2 g. They become fertile at their third-fourth year. According to our measurements the biggest male was 47,1 cm in length, while the biggest female was 59,8 cm. Young individuals feed mainly on Orthopterans (locusts, grasshoppers, crickets), while adults consume lizards, young birds and rodents. The venom of Hungarian meadow viper is not lethal for humans, its bite – although due to the species’ cautiousness and rareness nowadays it is very infrequent – causes quickly disappearing, bee-sting-like symptoms. (Despite this, in case of being bitten we suggest to visit a doctor!) The cautiousness of this small snake is not accidental as, especially newborns are on the menu of several other species. The so called predators are storks, herons, harriers, roller, pheasant or even the strictly protected great bustard. Wild boar, badger or red fox can even dig them from their burrow.
Former distribution is described by Lajos Méhely in 1912 on the pages of Természettudományi Közlöny: “In our country it occurs on the surroundings of Budapest, on Rákos, on Angyalföld, on Rákoskeresztúr, on Pusztaszentmihály and on Babád-puszta, furthermore on Örkény, on pusztas of Bugacz and Tázlár next to Kecskemét, on Szénafüvek of Kolozsvár, sporadically on flatland of Vasmegye and around Fertõ,and like last summer it was observed in numbers on Hanság in Mosonmegye. Outside our country it is spread mainly in Vienna basin, on the plains between forest of Vienna and river Lajta and it is very common in the surroundings of Laxenburg.”
Recent populations only occur on two places in Hungary: in Hanság and in Kiskunság, as from all other former habitats it can be claimed extinct. Olivér Dely mentions 31 different occurrences in Fauna of Hungary (Magyarország Állatvilága) -, while nowadays there are 2 populations in Hanság and less than 10 in Kiskunság. The total population is estimated under 500 individuals.
Hungarian meadow viper is protected in Hungary since 1974, strictly protected since 1988, and was raised to the highest conservation category since 1992, with a conservation value of 1.000.000 Ft (roughly 4000 Euro). Its critical situation was recognized internationally as well, as it had been included in Bern Convention Appendix II., IUCN categorized as ‘threatened’, it is listed in CITES Annex I. and B&HD II list. The Bern Convention has two recommendations to Hungary regarding the Hungarian Meadow Viper. The species is listed in Natura 2000 II. list and all occurrences were included into Natura 2000 Network. On these sites management must subordinated under the habitat needs of the vipers.
Causes of decline
The severe decline was mainly caused by cultivation of habitats. Méhely wrote in 1912: “Formerly on flatlands surrounding Budapest it was more common, but during recent years it started diminishing and due to the advancing culture it is pushed further away. Pusztas become populated by humans or cultivation starts there, the place becomes loud, it will be changed forever, and viper will become extinct due to the regular disturbances, or move to places where human is not present with its permanent, subversive attitude.” Previously unpredictable water movements were diminished by building of canals, making these places suitable for agricultural cultivation, meaning ploughing of most of the grasslands. Remaining grasslands were mowed intensively, which was intolerable for the species. Collection for trade purposes and intentional killings further reduced its numbers. Remaining small and isolated populations became vulnerable and small, local catastrophes can fully destroy them.
Vipera ursinii species group
Hungarian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis Méhely, 1893) is a small, steppe-form member of the so called Vipera ursinii species group. It was described as subspecies according to morphologic and biochemical data. First the French or Italian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii ursinii Bonaparte, 1835) was described, that occurs in Abruzzi Mountains of Italy and on Mont-Ventoux and Montagne de Lure in South-France. The Hungarian meadow viper is the closest related to this mountain subspecies according to morphology. Other mountain subspecies is the Carst viper (Vipera ursinii macrops Méhely, 1911), wich occurs in Dinari-mountains and the Greek meadow viper (Vipera ursinii graeca Nilson & Andrén, 1988) from Pindos-mountains. The Moldavian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii moldavica Nilson, Andrén et Joger, 1988) has an interesting distribution as some populations occur in plains of Danube-delta, with higro-halophyl vegetation, while others on steppe habitats in the surrounding hills of Iasi. Most probably those specimens from Bulgaria that were previously described as Hungarian meadow vipers are Moldavian meadow vipers. Some other recently emerged species, previously listed as subspecies, has to be mentioned here. The Steppe viper (Vipera renardi Christoph, 1861), which has a distribution from the Black-sea to the Tien-San, occurring on plains and mountain habitats as well. Some other mountain-species: the Anatolian steppe viper (Vipera anatolica Eiselt & Baran, 1970), Armenian steppe viper (Vipera eriwanensis Reuss, 1933), Iranian steppe viper (Vipera ebneri Knoeppfler & Sochurek, 1955) and Caucasian meadow viper (Vipera lotievi Nilson, Tuniyev, Höggren et Andrén, 1995). All of these species or subspecies are declining on its distribution, forming small, isolated populations, which are vulnerable to anthropogenic effects.
The story of Hungarian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis Méhely, 1893) had started in 1892, and today, after 112 years we have to evaluate the fact that this small “aristocrat” – as Lajos Méhely described the viper – will disappear from our fauna. On the 28th April 1892, Ottó Hermann hold a presentation about the distribution of Pelias berus or the Common Adder at the Zoological Subdivision of the Royal Society of Hungarian Natural Sciences, and he presented two specimens of vipers caught by his dog close to the rill called Rákos.
The two specimens have aroused Lajos Méhely’s interest, one of the greatest zoologists of his time, and he found that those two vipers differ from the Common Adder, so he categorized them as Vipera berus var. rakosiensis. He published his revelations on the 29th May 1893 and a few months later Boulanger, a herpetologist of British Museum, has expressed his opinion that the vipers described by Méhely were rather Vipera ursinii described earlier by Bonaparte in 1835. After a hard discussion, Méhely has eventually accepted Boulanger’s opinion. As he wrote later; “The Vipera rakosiensis have to give way to the priority of Vipera ursinii, although it is his merit that the never appreciated V. ursinii have revived, or more likely, was born due to the Hungarian meadow viper”. The author here points out to the fact that Bonaparte, while describing Pelias (Vipera) berus, mentioned one specimen from Gran-Sasso that had differed from the others, and he suggested that in case it would turn out to be a member of a new species, than it should be named Pelias (Vipera) ursinii.
Despite this Méhely hardly accepted that the Hungarian meadow viper, which inhabited the plains, is the same species described by Bonaparte from the mountains, and he emphasised this until his death. In a wy he was right. Although Hungarian meadow viper is still not an individual species, scientists described it as a distinct subspecies in the ’60s.
We should stay a bit longer at the name of this hungaricum:
” The Hungarian name of the species should remain viper of Rákos (Rákosi vipera), not only because it occurs the most diversely near Rákos, but for historical reasons, which connects to this name.” - Lajos Méhely wrote in his publication in 1893. Later for political reasons – because of Mátyás Rákosi, leader of the Communist Party – it was renamed as Fallow viper (Parlagi vipera), which is misleading in a way, as the main habitat of the species were not fallow lands. From this point the English name of Meadow viper or the German Wiesenotter are far better. During recent years some authors named it as Rákos meadows viper (Rákosréti vipera), following Dely, who used this and Fallow viper in the Fauna of Hungary – Volume Reptiles (Magyarország Állatvilága – Hüllők). We think that we should appreciate the wish of its describer – Lajos Méhely – to use the original Hungarian name of the species. One more interesting fact about the name of the species is that people living on the plains between river Danube and Tisza call them sand vipers, which is not similar to real sand vipers (Vipera ammodytes Linnaeus, 1758), that is not occurring in recent Hungary.