The reptiles and snakes of Finland are a pretty impressive bunch. There’s no getting around that. They live in a country that spans arctic and continental climate zones, which means contending with snow-doused winters and balmy summers, but also snowdrifts and exposed tundra. For that, they’ve honed unique adaptations and habits, along with intriguing body shapes and colorings.
This guide will focus in on the five most amazing reptiles and snakes in the whole country. It will scour from the edges of the Arctic Circle in the north to the sloshing beaches of the Baltic Sea in the south, all on the hunt for the critters worthy of having the microscope on them.
It’s not too hard a task. There are only three snakes and a couple of lizards that are even native to Finland. Some are well-known across Europe while others are more unique inhabitants of this Scandi country at the edge of the continent. Let’s begin…
European adder (Vipera berus) – the only dangerous snakes in Finland!
Let’s cut to the chase: The European adder is basically the only snake you need to be cautious of in Finland. Of the multiple species that inhabit this corner of Scandinavia they are the only ones capable of doing harm to humans. We’ll get to how a little later on but suffice to say that you need to be extra careful if you happen to come across one during your hiking trips amid the lake lands of Linnansaari National Park or the coastal reaches of the Helsinki Archipelago.
Vipera berus can be spotted by their unique camouflage patterning. It’s often quite bold; quite discerning – or at least it is when the snake isn’t tucked into the undergrowth somewhere deep in the woods. It’s usually described as a zigzag-style geometry that runs the whole way from the start of the neck to the tip of the tail, however it can also have dark blotches and concentric lines thrown in. The coloring of an adder is typically dark brown and beige, but some specimens can be fully matt black.
Venom wise, these guys aren’t a king cobra or a mamba. However, they can be deadly to humans in some cases and are estimated to have killed numerous people on the continent in the last 100 years. Deaths are rare, though, and of the 68 people who were reportedly bitten in Finland from 1995 and the turn of the millennium, a grand total of zero actually passed away.
Symptoms of being envenomated by a European adder tend to be quite local. Most victims get blistering and necrosis of the flesh around the site of contact. There can also be pulsing pains and spasms. It’s the complications of the bite that you really want to watch out for. Anyone susceptible to anaphylaxis or shock should be particularly wary because that’s what usually proves fatal.
European grass snake (Natrix natrix)
Cue the largest of all the snakes in Finland: Natrix natrix. Also known as the European grass snake, these guys can grow to over a meter in length. Some of the bigger specimens found on the continent belong to Finland, too – we’re talking in the region of 133cm long, which is about 30cm past the average length of the average adult.
Despite the name, grass snakes are actually water lovers. Their other name, the ringed water snake, is probably more apt. These guys rarely live more than a few meters from a constant source of H2O, whether that comes courtesy of a babbling creek or a big lake, something Finland, you might have noticed, has no shortage of!
Now, European grass snakes aren’t venomous. However, we’d definitely counsel avoid, avoid, avoid. The reason? Whenever they feel threatened, these guys are known to dispense a pungent, garlic-scented secretion from their anal gland (yes, that does say anal!). They can also fan a hood to mimic a cobra and sometimes feign death in order to avoid contact with humans.
These guys also harbor a special place in the ancient mythology of the Baltic region. They were held as sacred by the pagans here in ancient times and even inspired national epics in Lithuania and Latvia just across the sea. They are still regularly kept as pets to this day, mainly because they pose little harm to humans. Still though…pungent, garlic-scented secretions. Not for us, thanks!
Smooth snake (Coronella austriaca)
The smooth snake is only found in one corner of Finland. Yep, you’ll have to hop on a ferry and scoot across to the salt-washed Aland Islands to even be in with a chance of finding one. The good news is that means hitting a pretty enthralling part of the country, with pebble beaches, wooded bays where there’s hardly ever another person on the hiking trails, and rugged rock-reef islets known as skerries in abundance. Summertime jaunts here can be truly fantastic for getting off the beaten path.
But back to the snake…Growing to an average of 60cm from top to tail, they’re a small-to-medium specimen within the Colubridae genus – that’s the largest snake grouping in the world, found on every continent. The body clocks up around 160 ventral scales and 21 dorsal scales, usually with a light brown-grey color scheme running the whole way along. The name comes from the fact that smooth snakes have no texture to the touch. They’re smooth, if you will.
Sigh of relief incoming: Smooth snakes are non-venomous. They usually prey on large bugs or smaller reptiles, which they hunt and kill using a method of constriction that’s similar to the infamous boa of the tropics. They must be pretty successful at it in Finland, too, since two of the largest specimens have been found in the Scandinavia-Russia borderland regions, measuring around 80cm a pop!
Though there aren’t the same numbers of these as there once were, smooth snakes can still be found across pretty hefty tracts of Northern Europe, from the south of England through to the Baltic states. They’ve even managed to colonize northern Turkey and the Caucuses. But, still, in Finland, it’s only visible on the Aland Islands, so get those ferry tickets handy, folks!
Slow worm (Anguis colchica)
Okay, so this isn’t technically a snake at all. However, it is one of the rare reptile species that make their home in the chilly northern reaches of Scandinavia. It’s also very commonly found in Finland and even more commonly mistaken for a full-(cold)-blooded snake.
We can see why. It looks like one. It moves like one. It even has the nickname the “deaf adder”. But it’s not one. Nope. It’s technically a legless lizard. Semantics, semantics. The point is there’s an animal that can be found all across the warmer areas of southern Finland that’ll have you yelling if you happened to cross one on the path.
Slow worms can grow to something like 45-50cm long at full adulthood. They are smooth all over with a musky brown color scheme that glints like a sort of hologram as the creature slides through the undergrowth. The underbelly is entirely black. The head contains up to nine loose and narrow teeth that bend back in on themselves, hiding a forked tongue. Beginning to sound like a snake yet?
Thankfully, slow worms aren’t at all dangerous to humans. Most will attempt to wriggle away if they get startled. They have no attack that can pose a danger to us but do manage to gobble down plenty of snails and slugs (hence why they’re a friend to gardeners), along with all manner of smaller insects.
Viviparous lizard (Zootoca vivipara)
The viviparous lizard is also often known as the common lizard. But we don’t think there’s really anything that common about them at all! For starters, they are the only non-marine reptile that’s known to reside in countries like Finland this far north from the tropics. Oh, and what other lizard could freeze itself for up to two months only to thaw out and resume life as normal once the cold season is over? Gnarly, eh?
These guys have done very well for themselves, too. They’re not only native to most of Europe, the UK, and Scandinavia, but also have populations as far afield as East Asia and the Russian Steppe. They usually don’t grow to more than 70mm across and are often even smaller than that, at something like 50mm. They can have an extremely varied coloring, which can be anything from zingy yellow to dusky brown. The tail is the predominant feature – it takes up a larger proportion of the body than all of the other parts combined.
But it’s the thermoregulation abilities of these incredible reptiles that really draws the eye. Capable of living in pretty extreme sub-arctic regions such as you find in northern Finland, they can enter what’s known as a “supercooled” state. It’s akin to a cryogenic state that sees the whole animal frozen only to be woken up back into consciousness when the thermometer says so a couple of months down the line.
The most intriguing reptiles and snakes in Finland – our conclusion
There are actually only three native snakes in Finland, along with two lizards – one with legs, one without. We’ve run through the whole shebang in this guide, outlining the sorts of places you can expect to find them in the home of Santa Claus, along with which ones, if any, are dangerous to humans. We’ve also taken a look at some of their more curious and intriguing abilities, like a certain reptile’s habit of freezing themselves for the whole duration of the Scandinavian winter!