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Snakes: understanding the warning signs

Mozambique cobra

By Pat McKrill

Hey! Load-shedding again. Despite promises to the contrary, the nostalgic aroma from flickering paraffin lamps permeates the air once more. Such is life.

As we again battle to adapt to the new lifestyle, perhaps we might begin to understand that the way in which nature deals with adversity is, in fact, a whole lot smarter than ours, which seems to be to ignore the problem and move on.

Limbless ones

Spiders manufacture, on demand, their primary life-support material, the silk that is stronger than steel, through a process that doesn’t require massive investment in mining, manpower, heat and transport. Frogs can speed up or slow down their egg-to-adult metamorphosis to compensate for seasonal differences in the natural water temperature. My (our?) friends the limbless ones can, if need be, store live sperm for extended periods, long after the transfer thereof (if you get my drift), to bring forth progeny in times of abundance, not drought.

It’s time humans accepted, before it’s too late, that conditions are certainly changing for the worse, and started to address that which will undoubtedly impact upon us if we’re not careful.

When feeling threatened, Black mambas and cobras will normally raise the head high, widening the throat to form a hood, often hissing loudly.

Sadly, just when I thought we’d finally started to understand the devastating effect our human ways are having on our environment, I read that some Americans have decided it’s more cost-effective, therefore rational, to build with timber rather than bricks and mortar. The net result should this startling revelation catch on, will be a surge in commercial afforestation and, with it, the consequent negative effects on our rapidly dying environment.

Right, so now we’ve got the message, time to sharpen up.

Now read, please folks put the shovel back in the shed

On to happier things. I regularly receive enquiries and war stories regarding the way snakes react to what they might consider a threat, so I thought I’d remind those of you who’re interested what sort of reaction to expect in such situations.

Freeze or flee

As we’ve come to understand, the initial reaction of the snake would be to freeze or flee, but should that tactic fail, the fun will start. Next, you’re likely to get warnings. Out and out attacks are uncommon.

Heralds will adopt their threatening pose, with body coiled, head flattened and upper lip (sometimes red, orange or white) prominent, followed by simultaneous striking out and hissing if we keep moving.

Now read, all things S-s-s-s-s-lithery

The adders, Berg, night and puff variety, will hiss loudly and often strike out, open-mouthed.

Boomslang and vine snakes will need some winding up before they do this, but if they get to that point, they’ll inflate their brightly coloured throats and look at you, sometimes with tongue extended, sometimes hissing.

Black mambas and cobras will normally raise the head high, widening the throat to form a hood, often hissing loudly.

Mozambique spitting cobras won’t always display a hood, but will hiss and spray venom towards you if you’re too close. Rinkhals will hood, then might spray from that position.

Contact information: You can reach Pat at 083 303 6958, or email:


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