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Photo: KANO Tatsuhiko

Habu is one of the five most poisonous snakes in the world. Like the mamushi1, habu belongs to the Viperidae family. However, the mamushi only live in Hokkaido and Kyushu, and the mamushi are replaced with habu anywhere south of the Tokara Strait. The habu species inhabit other areas of Southeast Asia, and thus according to zoogeography, the area south of the Tokara Strait in Kagoshima prefecture and all of Okinawa should be considered as part of the tropical region of Asia. There are four sub-species of habu on the Ryukyu archipelago: the tokara habu can be found on the Takara and Kodakara islands. Habu can be found in Amami Oshima, Tokunoshima, and the main island of Okinawa. The hime habu is distributed in a similar manner to habu. Sakishima habu can be found on the Yaeyama Islands. 

The snakes of the habu family have an organ between the eyes and nose that acts as an infrared sensor to locate their prey. The venom, which is its most powerful weapon, is a high protein that is created in the poison gland, located in the back of the upper jaw. The gland is equivalent to a specialized human salivary gland. Once a habu bites its prey, the poison is injected into the body through its fangs, which have a similar mechanism to a hypodermic needle. The poisonous fangs are the teeth located at the front of the mouth on the upper jaw.

The active extermination of habu and Okinawan land development have robbed the habu of its habitat. It is almost impossible to encounter any habu during travels anymore. In fact, I would consider myself lucky if I were ever bitten by a habu. Only the dangers of the habu have been emphasized so far, but the habu also make a significant contribution to the islands’ ecosystem by eating the mice that spoil sugarcane and pineapple, which are important Okinawan produce.

Editor’s Note:

  1. A type of pit viper