Tale of African Snakes


  • Author Peter Philip
  • Published February 13, 2011
  • Word count 868

Many people are scared of snakes and to many, a snake is a snake, all are dangerous and deserve death. However, most snake species are completely harmless! In fact, about 80% of all snakes’ species in the world are non-venomous and perform important ecological functions as controllers of rodent- pest populations. Thus knowing how to identify snakes is a vital part of our lives and conservation education.

The wilds of Africa are often associated with snakes and rightly so, but, unfortunately, usually for the wrong reasons. Africa is well known amongst herpetologists and snake lovers for the interesting variety of species of which some are unfortunately highly priced in the pet trade.Although many of the African snakes’ species are completely harmless to humans, this region also hold some of the worlds most deadly snakes.

The Black and Green Mamba, Puff Adder, Cobra, Boomsland, and Saw-scaled Vipers are some of the worlds most deadly snakes and deserve a great deal of respect.In east Africa, there are close to 200 species of snakes. Of these 200, 47 are considered dangerous to humans, 45 are venomous and two are large constrictors (two species of pythons very similar in appearance). Of the 47 dangerous species mentioned, 18 species are known to have killed people.

Kenya is home to several of the most dangerous species for example, the Puff Adder (Bitis arietans), Black-necked Spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis) and Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis). However, Kenya is also home to many harmless species that feed on rats and mice that consume maize, millet and rice, the stable diet of the people of Kenya.The simplest way of describing snakes is whether a snake is Harmless, Mildly Venomous or Dangerous.

Some snakes have no venom and are completely harmless like the Brown House Snake. Others like large pythons may be non-venomous but are still considered dangerous.Sand snakes (genus Psammphis) are considered mildly venomous. This means that the venom is strong enough to subdue or kill its prey, like a small lizard, but not strong enough to kill an adult human. However, one should still be careful around these fast moving serpents.

Young children or adults that have allergic reactions could suffer severe symptoms from the bite of a sand snake!In general, African is home to an abundance of different snake species. From its deserts to savannahs, the African landscape is home to an enormous variety of extremely beautiful and potentially dangerous snakes. Below are some of the most popular snake classification;

Colubridae / Colubrids – A Colubrid is a snake that is a member of the Colubridae family.

It is a broad classification of snakes that includes well over half of all snake species on earth. While most colubrids are non-venomous (or have venom that isn't known to be harmful to humans) and are normally harmless, a few groups, such as genus Boiga, Coluber and Rhabdophis, can produce medically significant bites. In addition, the Boomslang and African Twig Snake have both caused human fatalities.The venom-injecting fangs associated with venomous colubrids are almost always in the back of the mouth, compared to vipers and elapids.

In North America, all snake species in the colubridae family are generally harmless to humans. Please note: This list does not currently include sub-species.

Elapidae/ Elapids (Venomous) – The cobra family is thought to have evolved from Colubrid snakes and many appear very similar in appearance with long, slender bodies and large scales (plates) on the head. They differ in having more advanced venom delivery systems than the venomous Colubrids. Elapids have fangs that are "effectively tubular" in that the fangs contain grooves that are enclosed by an infolding of the edges.

The fangs are in the front of the mouth rather than the rear as is seen in venomous Colubrids. The Elapidae contains some of the world's most dangerous snakes including cobras (Naja), mambas (Dendroaspis) and sea snakes (Hydophinae and Laticaudinae). Elapids are found worldwide and in Ausralia is the predominant family. In North America, three species of elapids are found, two species of coral snakes and one sea snake. The coral snakes are relatively small snakes that spend most of their time underground. Their primary food is other snakes. Despite their small size and small fangs, their venom is extremely toxic.

Viperidae / Vipers (Venomous) – The vipers are generally considered to be the most advanced family of snakes since they possess a very sophisticated venom delivery system. Large tubular fangs are placed in the front of the mouth and they are hinged, allowing them to be folded back when not in use. Their heads are covered with numerous small scales and their eyes have vertically eliptical pupils.

What to do when you meet a snake?

First of all, except for the slow-snakes like puff adders, you will generally see a snake swiftly pass by you, not even enough time to take a photo. That being a general rule, always leave snakes alone, don’t touch them unless you are a professional snake handler. Like all wildlife, they deserve their respect and distance from our interference. Except for cases where human-pet life is in danger, leave them alone, unless it is absolutely necessary to have them moved. Have a wonderful day and enjoy these earths’ beautiful creatures.

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