Smitten by snakes: That branch just moved…

Close-up of a boomslang snake through glass at a snake centre.

Issued by Rian Viljoen

(083 306 3787)

MANY hobbies, and jobs, require people to work around trees and bushes on a regular basis. Many people also tell stories of a branch moving when there is no wind. As far-fetched as this this may seem, there are living branches all around.

Stick insects are renowned for their ability to blend into grass or twigs, because they look exactly like the habitat they live in. Snakes are not so different. Take the Boomslang (Dispholidus typus) for example.

When they hatch out of their eggs, all babies are usually very cryptically marked in browns and greys, with huge emerald green eyes, changing color once they reach about 1 meter in length. If the snake is a male, they usually turn a beautiful green , often mixed with yellows, blues, and blacks. Females, on the other hand, usually change to a dark uniform brown coloration, although cross-dressers (dull brown males and bright-colored females) are known from several localities. Adult Boomslang eyes are usually the same color as their skin, with black pupils. Boomslang are designed to live in low shrubs, and trees, eating mainly chameleons, small birds, and their eggs and nestlings. Rodents are occasionally taken. They rarely venture to the ground, unless to catch prey, or to move to another tree or shrub that isn’t close to their current foliage hideout. To see a Boomslang in its natural environment is not easy, as they blend in so well with their surroundings, and are often never noticed, and overlooked, until it moves in the open, making it visible, but is quick to disappear and blend in with the environment again. Spotted Bush Snakes, Natal Green Snakes, and Green Water Snakes are often misidentified as Boomslang, and are needlessly killed, even though they bear no real resemblance to Boomslang, they are green, and are killed as such. If you ever come across a green snake, just remember that if it is under 1m in length, and bright green, then it is most likely not a Boomslang, but have it identified by a capable person in any case.

Until the mid to late fifties, it was thought that Boomslang were harmless, and were often kept, and free-handled, without any major consequence, up until an American herpetologist, Karl P Schmidt, died from the bite of a juvenile that he thought couldn’t inject enough venom to be dangerous. He died a few days later from the effects of the venom, and then people started to realise that these previously ‘harmless’ snakes, were not to be trifled with.

Bomslang are classed as rear-fanged, which is a bit of an understatement, as their venom-injecting fangs are situated just under the back of their massive eye, and although their venom-delivery-system is primitive (grooves on the outer side of the fang curve to allow the venom to drip slowly into the wound), they bite repeatedly, and can easily open their mouths 170 degrees, and land a full bite to even the chest. Even one drop of this potent haemotoxin can cause hemorrhaging, and death. Symptoms of a bite may not occur for several hours after a bite, such as headaches and nausea. Later symptoms include bleeding from old cuts and wounds, as well as other orifices on the body. There is a monovalent anti-venom that is available for their venom, but it is expensive, and not easily obtained at times.

Boomslang are moving around now, looking for mates, as well as food, after these rains, and have been recorded around town, but to date, none have been caught and relocated from within the town borders.

They are extremely shy creatures, preferring to rather slip away unnoticed, and several cases have been reported where they have lived in harmony around human dwellings (in bushes right next to bedroom windows) with no bites on the adults, children, or even their pets. These passive snakes will only bite if provoked, and handled, and are therefore best left to professionals that are qualified to handle these dangerously beautiful snakes.

If you have a reptile in your yard, please do not hesitate to contact me on 083 306 3787 at any time of the day or night, and I will be able to assist you to identify, and remove it if necessary.

Rian Viljoen

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