The mountain’s slithery serpents: which to watch, and which to watch out for

The mountain’s slithery serpents: which to watch, and which to watch out for

image A puff adder seen at the nearby Cape of Good Hope. Photo courtesy Lip Kee

Table Mountain is home to 22 species of snake and more than half of them are venomous, but there’s no need to fear these lithe creatures as you explore the summit’s various pathways – just be sensible and cautious!

Snakes are shy, retiring reptiles that are probably as (or more) afraid of humans than we are of them. They’re unlikely to behave aggressively unless they feel threatened; most will turn tail and move off when they hear people approaching. If you’re lucky enough to spot one, try to ignore any instinct you may have to run and spend some time watching it from a safe distance.

These animals, with their scaly bodies, bright gimlet eyes and often beautiful patterns, can be mesmerising. If you can get close enough, try to spot the rise and fall of the snake’s body as it breathes – all species have an elongated right lung, while some have a smaller left lung; a few even have a third lung along the trachea! Snakes can’t breathe in the same way we do as they don’t have a diaphragm. Instead, they constrict their ribcage to breathe out and create a vacuum, then widen it to suck air back in.

Gopher snakes (Pituophis catenifer) are among the harmless species on the mountain. They are generally good-natured, but can be mistaken for dangerous rattlesnakes when they’re agitated because they puff up their bodies, flatten their heads and shake their tails while hissing loudly.

If you’re snake watching, keep a careful eye out for the five most dangerous species that are found on Table Mountain: the Cape cobra (Naja nivea), puff adder (Bitis arietans), boomslang (Dispholidus typus), rinkhals (Hemachatus haemachatus) and berg adder (Bitis atropos).

Puff adders are regarded as especially dangerous to humans – as they’re sluggish creatures that don’t move out of our way as quickly as other species and are willing to bite. These vipers are normally about one metre in length, but can grow to almost double that and weigh as much as six kilograms. Their venom is potent and produced in large amounts; it’s delivered through long fangs, meaning it’s often injected deep into human tissue.

The Cape cobra is also quick to strike, delivering a powerful neurotoxin to its prey, but – as a snake that spends a lot of its time climbing trees – is less likely to pose a danger to people. The boomslang is quite small, and also spends most of its time in trees. It is highly venomous but very timid – tending to steer away from humans whenever it can.

The rinkhals is a type of spitting cobra, which spreads its hood when it feels threatened – giving you plenty of warning before aiming its venom in your eyes. The berg adder is a short, fat creature (only growing to about 40cm in length) and, while its venom is powerful, it’s not deadly to humans.

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