Southern Vine Snake

Thelotornis capensis


Text and photographs Nick Evans

In this edition of The Leopard’s Echo, we take a look at a very interesting and highly venomous species, the Southern Vine or Twig Snake.

Each Vine Snake has its own unique colouration

Identifying the Vine Snake

Some snakes can be tricky to identify, but in my opinion, the Vine Snake must be one of the easiest, as no other snake looks like it. The only thing that does, is a vine or twig! Their grey and brown-coloured body works absolutely brilliantly for camouflage. They heave a narrow, pointed head, and the top of their heads is a light green colour. They have a narrow band going across their face, and another stemming down from the eye.

One interesting feature, is their long, bright red/orange, black-tipped tongue, which they’ll stick out for a longer period of time than usual, when threatened, analysing how much danger it is in. However, I know many of you may not want to be close-enough to look at its tongue!

A Vine Snake showing off its tongue

Another interesting feature that you may see, if you accidentally surprise a Vine Snake, or intentionally threaten a Vine Snake (don’t do the latter), is they’ll puff their neck up. So much so, that it looks like they have an egg in their throat! This is an intimidation tactic, when it really wants you to go away.

A Vine Snake puffing its neck up – warning, leave me alone!

Where do they occur?

Vine Snakes are quite common many parts of Durban, and further north and south. In the Greater Durban Area, many are seen in and around the Krantzkloof Nature Reserve, Shongweni Dam, Palmiet, Roosfontein, North Park and Silverglen Nature Reserves. They are found around other green belts as well too.

These are arboreal snakes, spending most of their time in trees and shrubs, where their camouflage works best. During storms or very windy days, I do get calls for them on the ground, or in homes. Snakes generally don’t like the wind! They are often seen on fences and driveway gates as well.

A Vine Snake is easier to spot if it is moving

Mating season for this species is in spring, and they are frequently seen throughout the summer months. I don’t get many calls for them at all in winter, but they will still be around. I remember, one winter, going almost daily, to look at a massive Vine Snake that spent two weeks on branches next to a foot bridge, in Westville.

In the 2021/2022 season, I had more calls than I have ever had for this species, just under fifty! At one call, I captured four! In a hedge and adjacent tree. Two males, two females. A few days later, a pair together. I didn’t have that this season.

Multiple Vine Snakes at once is quite unusual

What do they eat?

Vine Snakes aren’t too fussy. Another name for them is ‘Bird Snake’, due to the fact that they eat birds. My first ever sighting of one was in the Palmiet Nature Reserve, and it was raiding a Paradise Flycatcher nest!

The day before writing this article, I removed one off a fence in Kloof, that had just eaten a Green Water Snake! Yes, they will feed on other snakes, especially those of the Philothamnus genus, Spotted Bush Snakes, Green Water Snakes, Natal Green Snakes etc.
They will also eat lizards, especially chameleons and Agamas, as well as rodents.

A Spotted Bush Snake, the most common snake in the Greater Durban Area, and completely harmless. Vine Snakes will feed on them and their similar-looking relatives.

Vine venom

A fact that is quite commonly known, is that there is no anti-venom for Vine Snake bites. It does sound pretty scary. I experienced the fear of this fact when I was bitten, when I was about nineteen years old.

One morning, in the Palmiet (yes, I spent a lot of time there growing up!), I was photographing a Vine Snake with some friends, or shall I say, attempting to. It wasn’t cooperative, it just wanted to get away. Instead of allowing it to, without putting much thought into it, I grabbed the tail.

There’s a popular myth stating that these snakes, and Boomslang, struggle to bite you because they are back-fanged. Not true, as I learnt. This snake spun around and bit me in a flash.

I went whiter than paper, wondering how I’d survive, as a friend rushed me to hospital. After 24 hours and a bunch of tests, it was concluded I experienced a dry bite.

Dry bites are relatively common, especially from this species. I have spoken to a few people who have been bitten, and none were envenomated. I remember seeing a photo of one chewing on someone’s hand (no, I don’t know why he let that happen), that was apparently a dry ‘chew’.

HOWEVER! This is by no means a suggestion that you should go and push your luck. DO NOT threaten this snake, because if you do get a proper bite, you are in trouble. There have been bites where they have injected venom.
So, if anyone is ever bitten, they need to be transported to a hospital immediately.

Vine Snakes have a potent haemotoxic venom, much like the Boomslang (there is antivenom for Boomslang bites, which is not effective for Vine Snakes). According to Johan Marais latest edition of ‘The Snakes of Southern Africa, symptoms include pain, swelling, headaches, nausea and eventually blood-clotting, bleeding from nose. Yes, rather unpleasant, I know. I don’t like mentioning the venom and its effects, but facts are facts. I don’t want people to now hate these snakes.

Juvenile Vine Snakes are very cute, and are perfect replicas of their parents. Juvenile snakes have the same venom as their parents.

The good news is that these snakes are extremely shy and very reluctant to bite, unless you irritate one, like I did. I’ve spoken to a few people who have bumped into these snakes, some even touched them, by accident, while gardening or while walking through the bush. Your chances of being bitten by this snake are incredibly slim.

Should you encounter a Vine Snake, like with anyone other snake, please move slowly away from it, and you’ll be absolutely fine. If it is in your property, you can leave or phone a snake-remover. If it’s out in nature, take some photos- with zoom, not how I did it!

Vine Snakes are very agile

To conclude, if you ever do come across this snake, please just move away from it slowly. If you are in a reserve, enjoy the sighting! Take a pic or five, from a distance. Usually, they disappear before you get that opportunity, but you might be in luck. If it’s in your property, and you want it removed, don’t try it yourself. DO NOT get anyone to kill it. Call a snake-catcher in to remove and relocate it, where it can fulfil its role in the environment elsewhere.

Author photo: Pat McKrill

About the author

Nick Evans runs KZN Amphibian & Reptile Conservation. He spends most of his time teaching people about snakes across the province, and removing unwanted snakes from homes in the Greater Durban Area. But he has always had a love for chameleons, and spends many evenings looking for them, whether it’s just for ‘fun’ or whether its to survey populations. You can also watch Nick in the series “Snake Season” on People’s Weather (DStv 180 and Openview 115).

Website: KwaZulu-Natal Amphibian & Reptile Conservation

Facebook: @KZNHerpConservation

Instagram: @nickevanskzn

Twitter: @nickevanskzn

Youtube: Nick Evans – Snake rescuer