Encounters with neighbours of a different kind!
Text Pat McKrill Photographs Pat McKrill and Nick Evans
Although they might be everywhere around us, snakes are the most unobtrusive of animals. Unfortunately however, they are needlessly killed on sight, with little or no thought going into the reasoning for this slaughter. There’s a huge amount of detailed information available on snakes at any reputable book store, but in this article I’m going to concentrate more on the behavioural side to try and put another perspective into the subject, giving the reader, I hope, a better understanding of these grossly misunderstood creatures – animals that I like to refer to as our ‘neighbours‘- because that’s exactly what they are. They see us every day, they know what car we drive, they know where our kids go to school, but fortunately for us, our domestic tribulations remain a secret – they’re deaf.
Snakes are natural predators, and amongst the 150-odd species in South Africa, there are diverse food preferences that include such things as other reptiles, amphibians, eggs, fish, birds, mammals, slugs and centipedes – all found in abundance in our space. It’s always seemed strange to me, that although we lay the tables (water features, bird feeders etc.) with sumptuous food, make the rooms (garden shed, compost heap, wood pile etc.) eminently inviting for the guests, we then beat them to a pulp when they arrive to take us up on our invitations. Snakes themselves are preyed upon by just about anything with a mouth, and they’re solitary creatures, found only in larger aggregations during hibernations, hatchings or mating parties.
Despite the grossly unfounded but legendary stories of their inclination to attack everything in sight, snakes are not naturally aggressive, in fact they’re extremely shy, and although they have the ability to bite, they’re unlikely to do so unless roughly handled or directly threatened. For the purposes of this article, I’ll briefly discuss my top ten of those species that Highway residents could come across in their local surrounds or gardens. Not all snakes have venom, and of our Southern African species, probably only about 15 or so will have venom that could be considered medically important to humans, and Highway area readers might be interested to note that they enjoy a fair representation from that category!
As we’re now at the height of the ‘snake season’ let’s look at some of those we might come across; and whilst doing that, don’t ignore what reptiles have contributed to medicine, and more importantly, let’s not forget the primary reason they’re here – they’re a biological control, without which we’d certainly be living in an environmental nightmare.
The Big 5: highly venomous
Mozambique Spitting Cobra
Very common in the Highway region, growing up to about 1.5m in length, and fairly robust in stature. A major contributor to the national bite statistics, often getting trodden on as evidenced by the number of bites to the lower extremities, this snake is a ground forager with a liking for toads, rodents and other snakes. Like most snakes, it will readily hide, but it will not hesitate to spit at its aggressor if it feels threatened. Although cobras would generally display a warning hood as soon as they are disturbed, this snake is an exception, and can spit from the prone position, giving no warning display. The venom can be sprayed for anything up to about 3 metres. Scales range in colour from a light through to a reddish brown, separated by dark interstitial skin, and it can be confused with a few other snakes at first glance, so take extra care if approaching it. Apart from getting spat at to confirm your diagnosis, identity can be further confirmed by the throat bands that it displays if it shows a hood. Which also tells you by the way, that you’re too close.
Mozambique Spitting Cobra photos: Nick Evans
Probably South Africa’s best-known snake for all the wrong reasons, Mambas have an unfortunate reputation that with few exceptions, is undeserved. That being said, they can still be dangerous if cornered or roughly handled. More common in the gorge areas and on the periphery of heavily populated areas, where their primary diet of rodents and birds can be found. Growing to in excess of 4metres, Black Mambas are shy but skittish, and will defend themselves if harassed. Because of their size, they become fairly territorial, but if left to their own devices, they will pose no threat. If they are aware of a presence, human or animal, they will retreat into their hiding places. Black Mambas will enter human dwellings in search of food, and there are often sightings of mambas near so-called informal settlements, where rat infestations are known to occur.
Black Mamba photos: Nick Evans
The Little 5: mildly venomous or non-venomous
Rhombic Night Adder
This common Highway forager eats amphibians, mainly toads, and the common name is to some extent a misnomer as it looks for food at any time of the day or night. In the frog season you can expect to receive the occasional visit, and if the accommodation is really good – terraced wall, pool pumphouse etc. – there’s a chance you might acquire a permanent resident. They might hiss and mock strike if a close encounter ensues, but will always try to hide, so before you rush out and trash the water feature, bury the garden gnome and concrete in the flower bed, try to understand that casual visits by snakes to your spot are probably taking place all the time, it’s just that for most of the time, you’re unaware of them.
They can grow up to about 800mm, slightly longer than an adult arm measuring fingertip to shoulder, and unlike the typical adders, they are not as ‘squat’, having no defined neck. Their scales are very lightly keeled and their skin has a satiny sheen to it. The base colouration ranges from light brown through to almost blue/ grey between different specimens, superimposed upon which is a series of diagnostic, evenly spaced rhomboid shapes from whence they get their name. There is a very distinct arrowhead marking on the top of the head, pointing forward. A bite is painful but the venom is not known to be life-threatening.
Bibron’s Stiletto Snake
Brown House Snake
Spotted Bush Snake
About the author
Pat was born in the UK, educated and brought up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and came to South Africa in 1983. He developed an early interest in the study of the behavioural aspects of insects and animals, rather than the deeper scientific side, and he’s worked with snakes for most of his life. Pat conducts educational walks and talks throughout SA and into neighbouring countries where snakes are grossly misunderstood and needlessly killed. He writes articles for a number of publications, and has written the book ‘Getting to Know the Neighbours’, which is all about understanding snake behaviour and is aimed at teaching others how to come to terms with them.