Between the gold-glimmering cathedral domes of Kyiv and the haunting remains of Chernobyl power plant, there’s a vast nation of over 600,000 square kilometers to explore. It rolls from the steppes of the east to the Carpathian peaks of the west, and hosts all manner of amazing animals, from bears to wolves. And there are snakes in Ukraine to boot…
Yep, the country hosts plenty of serpents. Some of them even have venom that has the power to kill a human. Others are common European species that pose no danger to us at all. They live all over the nation, from the Black Sea coast to the mountains, but are mainly active in the warmer summer months between May and August.
This guide to the most intriguing snakes in Ukraine that every traveler should know about will run through just a handful of the slithering animals that make their home in this corner of Europe. It’s got a nod to the feared adder and info on slinking grass snakes alike, with plenty more besides. Let’s dive in…
Common viper (Vipera berus)
From the British Isles to the forests of Scandinavia, the rolling Russian steppes to the highlands of northern Italy, the common viper has a geographic range that covers much of Europe. It’s no different in Ukraine, where it’s known to inhabit the vast majority of the country, including the borderland bogs and forests of northern Polesia and the rising foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in the west. The only places you’re not likely to find one of these is along the Black Sea coast and on the Crimean Peninsula.
Often called by its better-known moniker, the adder, a Vipera berus is a quintessential member of the viper family. They have a stout, thick-set body that usually comes colored with shades of brown and tan, but can sometimes be darker and duskier, especially in juveniles. There’s often a clear geometric pattern of interlaced diamonds and zigzags running down the back, coming to a pointed tail at one end and a diamond-shaped head at the other.
Given how common they are all over Europe, not just in Ukraine, the adder is known to regularly bite humans. They’re venomous, too, although said venom is rarely enough to cause serious injuries in people. Usually, it’s a case of localized pain and inflammation. When deaths have occurred, it’s typically been in the very young or the very old, or when there have been complications such as anaphylactic shock.
The main times to watch out for common vipers in Ukraine is during the warmer season. From around May onwards, they’ll emerge onto open clearings and occasionally bask on hiking paths. They can survive and thrive in all manner of habitats, from sandy hills and moorland to thick forest. The species is thought to be more active at dusk and dawn than during the peak of the day.
Grass snake (Natrix natrix)
Just like the adder before it, the grass snake is a ubiquitous species of snake on mainland Europe. However, unlike the adder, this one’s known to be totally harmless to humans. They have no venom to speak of and rarely attack. The only damage they might be able to do is from the physical effect of a bite, although that’s often been described as little more than a pinprick. In fact, they usually meet danger by faking death (a process known as thanatosis) or by releasing a smelly liquid from their rear end. Urgh.
A medium-sized snake, Natrix natrix are able to grow to around one full meter in length. They’re typically colored greenish grey and can be distinguished by the clear yellow band around the neck, a mustardy line that can be around an inch thick in some individuals. Grass snakes famously molt a whole layer of skin once per season and go blind for several days after doing it.
Despite the name, grass snakes are actually big water lovers. They’re known to be highly adapted swimmers and rarely live anywhere that’s too far from a fresh source of H2O. That fits with their preferred diet, which is a mix of toads and small pond-skating insects, but also the larvae of frogs and worms. Similar to many snakes, these guys are always most active in the high summer and the autumn, which is their main mating season.
Nikolsky viper (Vipera nikolskii)
The Nikolsky viper is a unique snake that can only be found in the far south-eastern corners of Europe. It lives on the fringes of eastern Romania but also around the south-western mountains of Russia, along the banks of the Volga River and the city of Volgograd (a town they infamously flooded in the run up to the football World Cup in 2018). It’s also present throughout most of Ukraine and reigns as one of the most venomous snakes in Ukraine as a whole.
Yep, these guys are known to possess a pretty potent mix of toxins that’s capable of doing hefty damage to human victims. The active ingredient is a poisonous chemical known as phospholipase A2, which leads to high histamine release and holistic symptoms throughout the body. The good news is that bites are actually rarely fatal and there’s even a specific antivenin currently being posited to counter the bites by this species.
So, what do they look like? Small compared to many other European vipers and the vipers of East Asia, these guys usually only manage a length of about 27-30 inches at full adulthood. They resemble a common adder in shape and stature, apart from the coloring, which is typically dark and dusky black from tip to tail.
Nikolsky vipers were named in honor of the Russian-Ukrainian herpetologist Alexander Nikolsky. He lived from 1858 to 1942 and has been credited with codifying many of the native reptile and snake species of Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
Steppe ratsnake (Elaphe dione)
We mention the steppe ratsnake on our list of the most intriguing snakes in Ukraine because it’s a species that only lives in a small portion of Europe as a whole. And, here it is, on the eastern plains of the country, from the rolling hills of the Sumy Oblast to the borders with Russia in the Donbas. From there, it actually lives in much of Central Asia, throughout Iran, and all the way out to Mongolia and the start of the Hindu Kush.
They’re able to adapt to a whole range of various habitats. Mostly, they like grasslands and savannahs, but can also be found thriving in caves and rocky outcrops on mountain ranges that soar up to nearly 3,000 meters above sea level. You’re most likely to spot one during the peak of the mating season around July and August, typically during the cooler hours of dawn and dusk.
Just in case you’re wondering if they pose a danger. They don’t. Steppe ratsnakes are only really interested in hunting small mice and rodents. They don’t have venom behind their fangs and very rarely attack humans or even enter conflict modes. On top of that, they have a distinct look that means they can usually be easily avoided in the wild – think a reddish-brown color scheme and a length that can hit over 70cm in all.
Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus)
Last but most certainly not least on our list of the most amazing snakes in Ukraine comes what most herpetologists consider to be the joint largest snake in Europe. Dwarfed only by some members of the four-lined snake family, the Aesculapian snake can hit lengths of two full meters by adulthood. That’s a whopping 6″6 feet – a whole head and shoulders longer than the height of an average Ukrainian man!
The size alone should help you spot them in the wild. But there’s more. Look for the patterning, a mix of light green and brown patches that are interspersed with a mosaic of round spots picked out in a bright yellow or tan. It’s the perfect camo mix to help the snake fit into its natural habitat: Moderately forested areas with thick undergrowth and plenty of leaf coverage.
Aesculapian snakes have done rather well for themselves in Europe. They’re not only present all over Ukraine, but also in a huge swathe of Central and Eastern Europe, from the Bieszczady mountains of Poland to the truffle woods of France, all the way to the Atlantic coast. There are even some pockets of them living in South Wales, UK, thought to have originated from specimens that escaped in the 1970s!
Snakes in Ukraine – our conclusion
There are quite a few snakes in Ukraine. But then what would you expect of a country that covers over 600,000 square kilometers of land across such a diverse array of natural habitats. Yep, this country possesses undulating steppe and dense woodland, looming mountains and endless fields of cultivated wheat and grasses. It’s just about the perfect place for a bunch of famous species to make their home, from the venomous European adder to the long and slinking Aesculapian snake.