Death adders are easily distinguishable from other snakes by the very short, squat bodies, rapidly tapering tail and the broad triangular head. Colouration varies widely but most species exhibit some form of banded pattern in shades of brown or grey. The tail tip is usually a different colour to the rest of the body, often brightly coloured and is used as a lure by wriggling it to attract potential prey. Adult death adders are rarely longer than a metre in length. Despite their short size they possess the longest fangs of any Australian snake.
The common death adder occurs over much of eastern and coastal southern Australia. In central Australia it is replaced by the desert death adder (A. pyrrhus) while to the north the northern death adder (A. praelongus) takes over. There are also several other species around the country with more restricted ranges. Common death adders inhabit open woodland, scrub and heathland areas.
Small mammals and birds are the primary diet, the snake lying in wait often for many days until a meal passes. This ambush hunting makes the death adder more of a threat to humans. Most other snakes will move away from the first sign of danger whereas death adders tend to sit tight and rely on their camouflage. A stray foot in the wrong place can lead to an extremely rapid strike (probably the fastest of all Australian snakes) and a serious bite. However, death adders really are reluctant to bite unless the threat is very close to them. The name death adder was probably originally ‘deaf’ adder referring to the inability of this and all other snakes to hear airborne sounds.
Female death adders produce large litters of live babies in late summer. Over 30 young have been recorded in a single litter, though 10-20 is the norm.