There are plenty of misconceptions about the differentiation between non-venomous and venomous snakes – and we’re going to explore this process in detail below!
For starters, it’s worth noting that this process is far more complicated than most people believe. There aren’t any actual quick rules of thumb to see whether a snake is venomous or non-venomous in Southern Africa; there are plenty of people each year that receive a bite from snakes they’ve mistakenly deemed harmless. This is what we’d call “learning the harder way”.
While the best possible thing to do would simply be to stay in areas that are clear of snakes; that’s not always possible while traversing South Africa. Luckily, in this day and age, the internet represents a positive treasure trove of all kinds of information regarding snakes; their usual habitats, as well as the kinds you should stay away from – all with pictures and videos so you can see which types to stay away from. Keeping this in mind, though – we’ll dispell some of the worse misconceptions regarding snakes in South Africa!
As we’ve mentioned, you can find information on pretty much everything regarding the differentiation of nonvenomous and venomous snakes online. And that wealth of information is bound to breed some issues; namely, the fact that almost anyone can publish an article online these days. And that is a great source of many misconceptions – which, in the case of this particular topic, could prove to be quite dangerous.
For instance – one piece of information which is usually quoted when it comes to snakes is that you can differentiate them based on their eyes. More specifically, if they have round pupils, they’re considered harmless; while those with a more elliptical shape (akin to a cat) are supposed to be venomous. We cannot stress this enough – such information is completely false, specifically for South Africa.
There is only one thing you can learn from the shape of a snake’s pupils; whether they’re diurnal (awake and active in the daytime) or nocturnal (awake at night). A quick look at some of the more venomous South African snakes is enough to let you know they have extremely varied pupil shapes; regardless of their threat level. Plus, let’s not disregard an important point – if you’re close enough to a snake that you can see its eyes clearly; you’re definitely too close to it if it’s a dangerous one! So, this is a trial you should avoid altogether.
Snake Head Shapes
Next up, we’ve got another brazenly touted misconception about snakes; the fabled rule that all snakes that are venomous have adder-like triangular heads. This is false, additionally because many snakes that aren’t venomous will imitate dangerous adders by striking out emptily and making their heads flatter; the herald snake and the rhombic egg eater are completely harmless, and yet exhibit such behavior.
In the case of truly dangerous venomous snakes, you’ll find that many of them actually have heads which you can’t discern from their bodies; making them no less capable of giving you mortal or hideous bites – just like the horrific stiletto snake. Still, people following the ridiculous rules on snake head shapes may get fooled by the seemingly timid outline of these snakes’ heads
Moving on with the wrong ways in which people differentiate nonvenomous and venomous snakes; we must talk about their color as well. While snakes can have wildly different color palettes, we can largely divide them into two common types: those with cryptic or dull colors, and those with extremely bright and visible colors. With animals in general, this is a good rule of thumb; in nature, most things that are brightly colored have such a look as a warning for others to stay away.
However, you should bear in mind that in South Africa, you’ll find plenty of brightly-colored snakes that just imitate their more dangerous cousins; while still remaining pretty much harmless. On the other hand, animals that have cryptic colors largely use them to blend into their habitats in order to survive or hunt their prey more easily by being indistinguishable from their surroundings.
So, many dangerous snakes put stock in their external looks as camouflage while ambushing unsuspecting prey; or to just avoid becoming prey themselves. And both harmless and venomous snakes make use of this tactic, so don’t put too much stock into that; the best thing you can do if you want to identify snakes is to research which species live in the area, and memorize their traits specifically.
Dealing With a Snake Encounter
Is there something you can do when you actually encounter a potentially dangerous snake? Actually, there is an entire host of behaviors that will make the likelihood of a snake attack far smaller. First of all – make sure not to panic. Regardless of what you’ve seen in movies, snakes won’t just attack you for no reason at all.
Under no circumstances should you pick this snake up; particularly not by the head or the neck. There’s nothing that will rattle a snake more, and you could end up with a deadly bite if you do it incorrectly. Also, don’t try to kill it. Keep in mind that if you’re near enough to attack the snake with something, you’re also near enough for it to bite you. In fact, it doesn’t have to be a bite at all; there are snakes capable of spraying or spitting venom across 3 meters! So, try to maintain this safe range to avoid danger.
While you’re encountering the snake, keep your eye on it the entire time. After the danger passes or you evacuate out of the area, contact the nearest snake catcher (you can find them on Google). If it’s safe enough to do so, try to capture a photograph of the snake so that the catcher may identify it before going out.
As you can see, the snakes that live in South Africa are a fairly complicated animal group; there aren’t many rules that are universally applicable to all of them. So, if you want to remain as safe as possible from snake attacks, our advice is to learn all you can about the dangerous species in the area before you go out – and invest some money into a proper field guide to find your way!