Following on the success of the Common Snakes of Durban post that was compiled here is a much broader spectrum to cover South Africa.
This insert below will touch on these medically insignificant snakes, which include harmless (non-venomous) as well as the common mildly venomous snakes which the average South African may come across on a day-to-day basis.
There are 72 species of non-venomous snakes and 50 mildly venomous(bites which do not require hospitalisation) snakes found in Southern Africa.
These snakes can be found right across the country, from Fynbos Biome; Succulent Karoo Biome; Desert Biome; Nama-Karoo Biome; Grassland Biome; Savanna Biome; Albany Thicket Biome; Indian Ocean Coastal Belt; Forests as well as heavily developed land in the suburban and city environments. Many of these species have adapted well to these developed habitats and it is not uncommon to find a variety of species in well built up areas across South Africa.
Brown House Snake – Non Venomous
Arguably one of the most common and widespread snakes in South Africa. Easily distinguishable by the two white lines running down the side of the head. These snakes can be found in almost every environment from suburban gardens, forests, grasslands and including the drier arid regions of the Karoo. Excellent at pest extermination, these snakes feeding mainly on rats, mice, lizards, birds and even bats have been recorded as prey. When first caught they may bite and strike out readily which may draw blood but only superficial bite marks. A commonly kept pet snake by many amateur snake enthusiasts.
Aurora House Snake (Lamprophis aurora) – Non venomous.
In stark contrast to the Brown House Snake the Aurora House Snake is one of the most exquisite looking harmless snakes in the country. Favouring grasslands and fynbos these snakes are abundant in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Free State and Gauteng elsewhere they are less commonly seen due to their fossorial nature. Feeding mainly on small lizards, nesting rodents, frogs and on occasion fledgling birds. A shy snake often not exceeding 60cm reluctant to beet although will emit a foul-smelling musk when handled.
Olive Snake (Lycodonomorphus inornatus) – Non venomous
Previously called the Olive House Snake these snakes have since been renamed and are part of the Lycodonomorphus genus which includes the Brown Water Snake, Dusky Bellied Water Snake and the uncommon Floodplain Water Snake here in South Africa.
A variable species which can range in colour from dark olive, light olive, olive green, almost pitch black and light brown. A snake that favours damp localities and can often be found under logs, stones and other debris along rivers and the edges of forests. A powerful constrictor these snakes can attain an impressive length and girth of close on 1.3 m in some cases. An opportunistic feeder and will take, rodents, frogs, lizards, birds and often other snakes.
Herald Snake (Crotaphopeltis-hotamboeia/) – Mildly venomous
Another prolific snake found across most of South Africa occurring in all 9 provinces. A variable snake which may have bright orange/red, white, yellow or black colouration on the upper lip adding to its common name of the Red-Lipped or Herald Snake. Primarily a frog feeder but are known to take geckos and small lizards. Favouring damp localities these snakes are a common sight in suburban gardens amongst garden ponds and water features. Larger specimens can reach close to 1m in length and as they age may appear a gun-metal grey colour and are often thought to be Black Mambas due to their impressive threat display.
Rhombic Skaapsteker (Psammophylax rhombeatus rhombeatus) – Mildly venomous.
A misleading common name, these snakes got a bad wrap from the original sheep farmers in the Karoo who upon discovering dead livestock thought to be attributed to snake bite would find these snakes commonly in the paddocks. It is more likely such deadstock would be attributed to the Cape Cobra. A fast moving snake common in grasslands, fynbos and montane environments where it preys on small rodents and lizards. They bite readily when handled and bites will often bleed freely for a few minutes – there is much thought behind the anticoagulant properties in the venom. These snakes are boldly patterned in the Western and Eastern Cape but in Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Free State they typically lack such bold patterns.
Olive Grass Snake (Psammophis mossambicus) – Mildly venomous.
An impressive Grass snake which can often exceed 1.8m in some parts of Mpumalanga and Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. Often seen shooting across roads during the heat of the day and subsequently larger numbers are killed on roads. One of the most robust species of Psammophis in South Africa, these snakes feed on a variety of prey such as rodents, birds, lizards, frogs and often other snakes are taken.
These snakes will bite readily when handled and often if held by the tail will thrash and spin in a dramatic fashion and will break off a section of the tail tip to avade its capture.
Short Snouted Grass Snake (Psammophis brevirostris) – Mildly venomous.
A snake that is commonly confused with the Olive Grass Snake but the former has a distinctive white-dotted line of scales down the length of the spine which allows for an easy identification. As the name suggests these snakes are typically found in grasslands as well as montane grasslands. Common sight on the highveld and often see crossing paths on hiking trails or basking in tufts or grass. Much like the Olive Grass Snake these snakes will not hesitate to bite. Their mild venom may cause small superficial bite marks that will bleed freely for a few minutes. Swelling and irritation is not uncommon at the bite site if the snake is left to chew on the victim.
Karoo Sand Snake (Psammophis notostictus) – Mildly venomous.
A common snake found throughout most of the arid regions of Northern Cape, Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Southern Free State. A fast moving snake which is often active during the hottest part of the day where it actively chases down prey. Often seen crossing roads subsequently many are killed. Like the other Sand/Grass snakes mentioned above they have a mild venom and will not hesitate to bite when handled. Bites are superficially and mild itchiness and swelling may occur in some cases.
Spotted Bush Snake (philothamnus-semivariegatus) – Non venomous.
An extremely common snake along the East coast Eastern Cape, Kwa-Zulu Natal, into Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West and Gauteng. Well adapted to suburban gardens where these snakes actively hunt geckos, frogs and small lizards. Often making their ways into homes in search of prey – these snakes are persecuted being mistaken for Green Mambas and Boomslang. These skittesh snakes will often move off quickly when disturbed up the nearest wall or tree. They are excellent climbers and well adapted and hunting their prey amongst the trees or roof beams. Prey is often swallowed whilst the snake is suspended. They will bite readily if handled but the bites are superficial and of no concern.
Eastern Natal Green Snake (Philothamnus natalensis natalensis) – Non venomous.
These snakes are far less common in Durban than the Spotted Bush Snake, and they tend to prefer dense coastal forests and thick bush along the coastline. They occasionally enter homes built in and around natural vegetation. They are a robust snake, typically a bright emerald green with a yellow underside, but can also have a few black transverse bars on the dorsal side of the body. Much like the Spotted Bush Snake (Philothamnus semivariegatus) the Eastern Natal Green Snake (Philothamnus natalensis natalensis) is mistaken for the much larger Green Mamba or Boomslang and is needlessly killed.
Green Water Snake (Philothamnus hoplogaster) – Harmless
This is the lesser-seen of the harmless green snakes found in Durban. The Green Water Snake is much smaller than the Spotted Bush Snake (Philothamnus semivariegatus) and Eastern Natal Green Snake (Philothamnus natalensis natalensis) and only averages around 60cm in length. They prefer to live in damp areas around ponds and rockeries, as well as in dense bush. They feed largely on frogs, small lizards, and geckos. They can sometimes be seen sleeping in low bushes and shrubs near water. They are placid snakes which seldom—if ever—attempt to bite, and many people see these snakes when bought into the house by domestic cats.
Cape Wolf Snake (Lycophidion capense) – non venomous
A small (averaging 40cm) nondescript looking snake which is often brown with white edging on the scales or black with white edging. Often confused with the venomous Stiletto Snake. When accosted the Wolf snake will move in small jerky motions often hiding it’s head beneath the coils of its body. They feed almost excusiley on smooth scaled skinks which are often taken at night when these skinks are asleep in rock crevices. These snakes do not bite even when first handled.
Rhombic Egg Eater (Dasypeltis scabra) – non venomous.
Along with the Brown house Snake the Rhombic Egg Eater can be found just about anywhere in South Africa. From the arid regions in the West, the coastal forests in the Eastern half of country, grasslands and montane fynbos. These snakes feed exclusively on birds eggs and can go many months without a meal when the birding season comes to an end. Being virtually defenseless these snakes put up an impressive threat display by rapidly rubbing its scales together coiling and uncoiling which produces a rasping sound. These snakes average around 50-60cm but can reach over 1 m in certain areas large enough to consume an adult chicken egg.
Common Slug Eater (Duberria lutrix) – Non venomous.
Another widespread species which favour damp localities and suburban gardens where it hunts slugs and snails. A real benefit to any budding horticulturist. Small snake soften not exceeding 30/40cm, they can be found under logs/stones beneath pot plants and in and around compost heaps where their prey occur. A rather variable and attractive looking snake in some parts and drab and nondescript in others. Easily distinguishable by its small head and stocky body. When threatened these snakes will emit a foul smelling musk and may roll up into a tight spiral as part of their defencive posture.
Black Headed Centipede Eater (Aparallactus capensis) – Mildly venomous
Another common—although not often encountered—snake. These small, thin snakes seldom exceed 40cm in length and can easily be identified by their pitch-black heads and brown/reddish-brown/grey bodies. Being a fossorial snake, they spend most of their time beneath the ground, under rocks, and in old termite mounds in search of their prey, which is exclusively centipedes. After heavy rains, they often come to the surface. They can be seen on roads and often drown in swimming pools. They have a mild venom and an incredibly small mouth, so they do not often bite people; their venom is of little consequence to people.
Brown Water Snake (Lycodonomorphus rufulus) – Harmless
A relatively small snake, the Brown Water Snake averages around 60cm and is a shy, nocturnal, semi-aquatic snake. They swim well and are far more aquatic in nature than the Green Water Snake (Philothamnus hoplogaster). They often catch prey in water. They are powerful constrictors that readily feed on frogs, tadpoles, small fish, and occasionally rodents or nestling birds. They can often be found in suburban gardens at night, actively hunting near fish ponds; and, uncovered during garden cleanup operations while sheltering under rubble and rotting logs.
Southern African Python (Python natalensis) – Can inflict a nasty bite.
The largest snake in Kwa-Zulu Natal, it can grow close to 6m, however, specimens of this size are uncommon. They are non-venomous but are capable of inflicting damaging bites as they have around 100 strongly recurved teeth in their mouth. These large snakes can often be found in the eco-housing estates along the coast, where human conflict can create issues for these animals, as pets like small/medium-sized dogs can easily be eaten by pythons. These snakes don’t pose any real threat to people, and records of humans being eaten by pythons in South Africa in recent history are non-existent.
Mole Snake (Pseudapis cana) – Can inflict a nasty bite.
A highly successful snake that is most common in the Western Cape, Free State and Mpumalanga. These snakes come in a wide variety of colours from pitch black on the West Coast, to reddish brown, grey, light orange, ashy grey and salmon in some areas. As juveniles they are heavily patterned but these patterns typically fade with age. A robust powerful constrictor and can be aggressive and will not hesitate to bite when handled. Bites from large individual may require stitches, in some areas these snakes reach close to 2 m in length. They feed largely on rodents which are actively sought after in their burrows but birds and lizards are readily taken.
The African Snakebite Institute has produced a great series of posters featuring snakes found across South Africa, in neighbouring countries, and in major towns and cities.