There are two species of snakes in the genus 𝘗𝘴𝘢𝘮𝘮𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘺𝘭𝘢𝘹 in South Africa that are well-known by the unfortunate name ‘skaapsteker’ (Afrikaans word meaning sheep-stabber). However, both species have relatively small fangs set extremely far back in their jaw, and mild neurotoxic venom that poses little threat to large animals (the venom is often considered harmless to humans). It is therefore extremely unlikely that they have ever killed a sheep. However, they are abundant grassland species that may be found in the vicinity before or after a sheep is found dead from snakebite. The culprit is likely to be a highly venomous species such as a Cape Cobra (𝘕𝘢𝘫𝘢 𝘯𝘪𝘷𝘦𝘢) or Puff Adder (𝘉𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘴 𝘢𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘵𝘢𝘯𝘴). And unfortunately for both of our ‘skaapstekers’, the name has brought with it a prejudice that often sees them killed on sight, supposedly to protect livestock despite their inability to harm these animals.
It is therefore more responsible to use a better name for these snakes than ‘skaapsteker’. Two of the six species in this genus occur in South Africa, namely the Spotted Grass Snake (𝘗𝘴𝘢𝘮𝘮𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘺𝘭𝘢𝘹 𝘳𝘩𝘰𝘮𝘣𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘶𝘴) and the Striped Grass Snake (𝘗𝘴𝘢𝘮𝘮𝘰𝘱𝘩𝘺𝘭𝘢𝘹 𝘵𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘢𝘦𝘯𝘪𝘢𝘵𝘶𝘴). The Spotted Grass Snake is found in South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho and Namibia. In South Africa it is found in all nine provinces, though it is absent from much of North West Province, western Free State, and central and eastern Northern Cape. In contrast, the Striped Grass Snake is found more widely and its range extends from Tanzania to Angola, western Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. The South African distribution is restricted to Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Gauteng, North-West Province and western Free State. Adult grass snakes feed on rodents, nestling birds, frogs, other snakes and lizards. The Spotted Grass Snake is one of very few snake species where the female coils around and protects her eggs.
Although the two species were re-named Spotted and Striped Grass Snake in the 𝘈𝘵𝘭𝘢𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘙𝘦𝘥 𝘓𝘪𝘴𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘙𝘦𝘱𝘵𝘪𝘭𝘦𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘚𝘰𝘶𝘵𝘩 𝘈𝘧𝘳𝘪𝘤𝘢, 𝘓𝘦𝘴𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘰 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘚𝘸𝘢𝘻𝘪𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘥 (2014), the adoption of the name ‘Grass Snake’ has been met with resistance by some members of the general public and even by some herpetologists, despite the obvious mis-information in the name. We strongly recommend the use of the name ‘grass snake’ to combat the spread of mis-information that leads to stigma.
If you spot a grass snake or other reptile or amphibian in the Free State, we would love to add a photo of it to our records! Please join us on Free State Reptiles and Amphibians (including adjacent areas and Lesotho) at https://www.facebook.com/groups/FreeStateHerps
Text: Dr Cora Stobie l Department of Animal and Plant Systematics l National Museum
Photos: Courtesy of Tyrone Ping.
Image 1: Spotted Grass Snake (Psammophylax rhombeatus) from Golden Gate Highlands National Park, eastern Free State. (Photo: Tyrone Ping)
Image 2: Striped Grass Snake (Psammophylax tritaeniatus) from Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga. (Photo: Tyrone Ping)