not all snakes are poisonous
A snake is a scaled reptile from the Order Squamata, (otherwise known as reptiles), Suborder Serpentes (Ophidia). Other reptiles found in Namibia include crocodiles, lizards, geckos and turtles. Scientists believe that snakes developed from lizards millions of years ago, resembling them more than any other reptiles. This likeness to lizards is because of similar eye structures snakes are believed to have developed from lizards that burrowed underground, action that is believed to have resulted in the loss of their legs.
Snakes have long, legless bodies covered by a scaly skin with a (outer) thin, dry, horny lay that is shed in bits or in one whole piece. They move about on land by sliding on their bellies and because of this flexibility they can curl up into a ball. All snakes can swim but a sea snake’s body shape make them especially good in the water.
In sympathy with other reptiles, snakes maintain a regular body temperature. This is possible by behavioural traits such as lying in the sun or by crawling into shade to raise and lower body temperature. Mammals and birds on the other hand have internal procedures that regulate their body temperature.
The eyes of a snake are covered by clear scales which replace eyelids. As a result their eyes are always open. They have a narrow forked tongue, which brings odours to a unique sense organ in the mouth every time the tongue is flicked. Senses of sight and hearing are poor but an eye on each side of the head affords a wide field of view. Over 25% of snakes have a black tail tip.
Some snakes are poisonous. Venom (poison) is injected (when they bite) through 2 hollow or grooved fangs in the upper jaw. This is one of the reasons that humans fear and dislike snakes as well as their appearance and reptilian lifestyle. Most snakes are harmless to people and assist in rodent control.
Only poisonous snakes have fangs and venom glands. They bite their victim with their fangs and inject venom into the wound chiefly to kill their prey. A snake's venom glands produce enzymes and other substances that can kill. Most snake venoms contain 2 types of poisons in addition to enzymes - neurotoxins and hemotoxins. Neurotoxins affect the nervous system, causing breathing and swallowing difficulties that disrupt the working capabilities of the heart. Hemotoxins damage blood vessels and body tissues. The venom of a sea snake directly affects the muscles. Distinguishing between a poisonous and non-poisonous snake can be difficult at the best of times. The only way to be certain is to recognize features of a specific species or see whether the snake has fangs or not.
All snakes reproduce sexually. Male snakes have a pair of sex organs called hemipenes that lie inside the tail and can be pushed out through the vent. Most females lay soft-shelled eggs in shallow holes, tree stumps, rotten logs numbering up to 100 at the same site. Large pythons are the only species that incubate their eggs. Male and female snakes do not stay together after mating.
Most snakes eat fish, birds, frogs, lizards and small mammals such as rabbits and rats. A large number of snakes have highly specialized feeding habits which depend on their jaw and mouth structures. Capturing prey is varied. Some snakes will wait to ambush, others stalk and some species of snake will pursue their intended victim. The exact moment a snake strikes is a photographer's dream and the victim's nightmare. The strike can only be effective though from as far away as one and a half body lengths. Prey is usually swallowed alive although poisonous snakes tend to wait until the venom has killed an animal before they swallow it. Constrictors also kill their prey before eating it. Boas, bull snakes, king snakes, pythons and rat snakes are all constrictors who suffocate to cause death, as opposed to the more widely believed cause of death of crushing bones and internal organs. Snakes like to lie in the sun after feeding (who doesn't!) as it raises its body temperature which speeds up the digestion process. Meals last for many months and large snakes such as boas and pythons can go without food for 12 months or more. Some small snakes can fast for between 6 and 12 months between meals. Snakes are predators but many kinds of animals prey on snakes such as large birds, mongooses and pigs as well as other snakes. There are 143 species of snakes in southern Africa. Of these 37 have fangs and venom that cause clinical symptoms. Only 15 snakes have ever killed people in southern Africa. They are:
- Bird snake
- Cobra (5 x species)
- Gaboon adder
- Mamba ( 2 x species)
- Namibian coral snake
- Puff adder
- Rock python
- Shieldnose snake
Camouflage in the form of skin colour patterns that match their surroundings help conceal snakes in times of ambush or if being threatened by a predator. Others can escape by slipping down a burrow, into a pond or other place that they cannot be followed. Snakes hiss loudly. This is a threatening noise used as a deterrent when a predator approaches. Other snakes, such as cobras, change their appearance by forming a broad hood, a feature that makes it look larger and fiercer. A characteristic of some species of snake is to feign death. This defence mechanism is used because many predators have no use for a dead snake.
Snakes form an integral part of the environment, helping to preserve the balance of nature. Snake venom has a number of medicinal uses and antivenin is used to treat snakebites. Certain pain killing drugs are prepared from neurotoxins in venom and powerful enzymes in venom are used for biochemical studies. Most snakes are not aggressive and will only bite when they feel threatened, so play safe and leave them alone!
African adders are the largest group of African vipers which includes both the largest and smallest viperines. They are terrestrial and sturdy, with many species reaching huge sizes. They have characteristic short tails, especially in females.
Adders ambush their prey, holding a small victim in their mouth and released until it dies from the effects of venom. They can then be eaten at ease. There are 7 species of adder found in Namibia.
Blind snakes belong to the Family Typhlopidae. Their eyes are situated below the head shields and are often not seen, hence the name. They are also known as earth snakes as they are burrowers. Characteristic features include an elongated, cylindrical body covered above with smooth scales and a small head. They are not venomous. Beaked blind snakes have the distinguishing feature of a beaked snout, which separates them from other blind snakes. All blind snakes are very similar in appearance and colour. There are 4 species of blind snakes found in Namibia.
There are 4 subfamilies of burrowing snakes found in Namibia. They are:
- Burrowing asps (Atractaspis)
- Centipede eaters (Apparallactus)
- Purple-glossed snakes (Amblyodipsas)
- Quill-snouted snakes (Xenocalamus)
Boas and pythons belong to the Family Boidae, a large and historic family that contains all the large and heavy snakes worldwide. Characteristics include minute limb bones and small spurs on either side of the cloaca. Pythons are medium to large snakes with small, smooth scales and the head is covered with enlarged scales.
All (female) pythons lay eggs and the female will coil tightly around them, sometimes shivering to generate extra body heat in periods of incubation. Pythons can 'see' warm-bloodied prey in the dark because they have triangular pits on or between the lip scales which can detect infra-red radiation. All pythons constrict their prey. There are 2 species of python found in Namibia.
Cobras, mambas and their relatives belong to the Family Elapidae and more often than not are large in size, with a very impressive set of fixed fangs at the front of the mouth with associated venom glands. Large shields cover the head and the eyes have round pupils. This family is mostly terrestrial, although some species live in trees, other in water. Many of the most poisonous snakes belong to this family and do not hesitate to stand their ground and share their rather generous amounts of venom with you if you overstep the mark. A characteristic of these snakes is their well-known defensive performances. Members of this family found in Namibia are:
- Coral and shield-nose snakes (Aspidelaps)
- Garter snakes (Elapsoidea)
- Cobras (Naja)
- Mambas (Dendroaspis)
- Sea snakes (Subfamily Hydrophinae)
Colubrines are a subfamily of snakes found mostly in the northern hemisphere. Distinguishing features include an asymmetrical hemipenis and developed back fangs. There are 7 subfamilies of colubrines found in Namibia. They are:
There are a number of species of snake that are not related to any other group, or the origins and relationships has not, or cannot be resolved. Most of them are endemic to southern Africa.
Sand snakes belong to the subfamily Psammophinae. They are mainly active during the day, with terrestrial and tree living (under tree bark) species as well as others that burrow in loose sand. Rarely seen in thick bush or forest regions, they prefer a savannah or semi-desert type habitat. Others can be found in mountain grassland. Breeding consists of females usually laying eggs. All sand snakes have large back fangs and although some species possess toxic saliva, only a few can deliver fatal bites. There are 6 categories of sand snake found in Namibia. They are:
- Bark snakes (Hemirhagerrhis)
- Beaked snakes (Rhamphiophis)
- Dwarf beaked snakes (Dipsina)
- Olympic snakes (Dromophis)
- Sand and grass snakes (Phammophis)
- Cape sand snake and the Namib sand snake (Psammophis leightoni)
- Dwarf sand snake (Psammophis angolensis)
- Jalla's sand snake (Psammophis jallae)
- Karoo sand snake or whip snake (Psammophis notostictus)
- Leopard and short-snouted grass snake (Psammophis brevirostris)
- Olive grass snake (Psammophis mossambicus)
- Stripe-bellied sand snake (Psammophis subtaeniatus)
- Western sand snake (Psammophis trigrammus)
- Skaapstekers (Psammophylax)
The tiny and secretive thread snakes are found throughout Namibia, including Etosha National Park. They are very small, thin burrowing snakes that are without teeth in the upper jaw. Other features include a blunt head and short tail. As the eye is nothing more than a black spot beneath the head shields, all thread snakes are blind. They are active thoughout the day and night, gaining or losing heat by moving up and down in layers of soil.
This species eats mainly small insects. They follow the scent trails of termites and ants to their nests and swallow them whole. Larger prey have their abdomens sucked out. Thread snakes also eat fleas and will enter birds nests attracted by bird fleas. Their main predators are snakes, large scorpions and bigger spiders.
Female thread snakes lay between 1 and 7 elongated eggs that are laid in a 'sausage' line configuration. Colours vary from pink-grey to black. There are 5 species of thread snakes found in Namibia. They are:
Typical snakes belong to the Family Colubridae. They are a large, common group of snakes that are predominately medium-sized reptiles with a characteristic 'typical' arrangement of 9 enlarged and symmetrical head shields (hence the name). Some of these groups have back fangs, whilst most species do not have any fangs at all. Most of members of this family are harmless although there are exceptions such as the venomous twig snakes and boomslang who belong to the subfamily Colubrinae. There are 6 genus' of Typical Snakes found in Namibia. They are:
- File snakes (Mehelya)
- House snakes (Lycodonomorphus)
- Brown House Snake
- Spotted House Snake
- Marsh snake (Natriciteres)
- Mole snake (Pseudaspis)
- Swamp snake (Limnophis)
- Wolf snakes (Lycophidion)
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