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Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal

There are two species of snakes in the genus ๐˜—๐˜ด๐˜ข๐˜ฎ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฉ๐˜บ๐˜ญ๐˜ข๐˜น in South Africa that are well-known by the unfortunate name โ€˜skaapstekerโ€™ (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 (๐˜•๐˜ข๐˜ซ๐˜ข ๐˜ฏ๐˜ช๐˜ท๐˜ฆ๐˜ข) or Puff Adder (๐˜‰๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ช๐˜ด ๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ฆ๐˜ต๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ด). And unfortunately for both of our โ€˜skaapstekersโ€™, 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 โ€˜skaapstekerโ€™. Two of the six species in this genus occur in South Africa, namely the Spotted Grass Snake (๐˜—๐˜ด๐˜ข๐˜ฎ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฉ๐˜บ๐˜ญ๐˜ข๐˜น ๐˜ณ๐˜ฉ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฆ๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ถ๐˜ด) and the Striped Grass Snake (๐˜—๐˜ด๐˜ข๐˜ฎ๐˜ฎ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฑ๐˜ฉ๐˜บ๐˜ญ๐˜ข๐˜น ๐˜ต๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ข๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ๐˜ช๐˜ข๐˜ต๐˜ถ๐˜ด). 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 ๐˜ˆ๐˜ต๐˜ญ๐˜ข๐˜ด ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ ๐˜™๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ ๐˜“๐˜ช๐˜ด๐˜ต ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜™๐˜ฆ๐˜ฑ๐˜ต๐˜ช๐˜ญ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜š๐˜ฐ๐˜ถ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ ๐˜ˆ๐˜ง๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ค๐˜ข, ๐˜“๐˜ฆ๐˜ด๐˜ฐ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฐ ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ ๐˜š๐˜ธ๐˜ข๐˜ป๐˜ช๐˜ญ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ (2014), the adoption of the name โ€˜Grass Snakeโ€™ 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 โ€˜grass snakeโ€™ 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:ย  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)

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