Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spitting in the face of adversary

Today a cobra spat in my face.

It was my own fault really.

We met on the back doorstep; the snake was coming into the house as I was going out.
It was only a juvenile (about 0.5m long) and the colour of flour, which left me unsure of its species. Around here, most Mozambique spitting cobras are either muted terracotta or yellowish tan. Foolishly, I stepped between it and the hole it was fleeing toward, in an attempt to get a better look at it. The instant I blocked its retreat, it went on the defensive, rearing up, flattening out its striped hood and spitting venom like a mad thing.

These very young cobras go quite berserk once they start spitting. While keeping their bodies still, they jerkily swivel their heads back and forth in a semi circle, spitting in every direction. Try to imagine an over-excited machine-gun operator firing from a gun turret.

I felt a spray of venom on my cheeks but fortunately it didn't reach my eyes. The venom is harmless unless it enters a cut or sore, or contacts a mucus membrane. While most cobras' venom is neurotoxic (i.e. targets the nervous system), this species' is primarily cytotoxic (it destroys cells at the site). Get it in your eyes (which is where the snake is aiming) and it's excruciatingly painful; it can even cause permanent blindness if not rinsed out immediately. I'm forever having huge fights with the pets, trying to squirt water into their eyes when they're already going crazy from the pain.

The Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica) produces 200-300mg of venom; 50mg is fatal to humans. Photo by Ben Tupper and borrowed from here.

It was a snake-filled day all round.

Our brief dalliance with winter weather has ended, and temperatures are now back in the 30's (Celsius). Everyone is shucking off their overcoats and becoming active again. I mean this literally. On my walk with the dogs, I came across four newly shed snake skins. And then, when we were almost home, we met yet another African rock python (Python sebae). This one was young and small (1.5m), which was most reassuring.

Bad photo of tonight's python. Pythons are an ancient group; they used to slither about with the dinosaurs. Their bodies still carry the remnants of their long, lost hind limbs, with the bones from their once-upon-a-time pelvis forming small 'pelvic spurs'.


  1. What a day you had Lynda!! I am glad it missed your eyes. For all my years in the bush I am happy to say this has never happened to me. I think I have come across more snakes here in town than during those years. Here we have the Bergadder, or so I have been told they are called. I am not too well up on snakes. I LOVE that python. What a beaut it is.

    If you ever come to Pretoria, let me know as I would love to get together for coffee or something. I have been lucky to meet quite a few of my fellow bloggers now and what wonderful people they have all turned out to be.

  2. Sounds like a close call. Glad you are OK.
    You seem like a snake magnet!

  3. Joan,
    Your town-dwelling snakes are obviously more sophisticated than my uncouth bush ones. You'd never catch a Berg adder spitting in public...

    It would be fun to meet, but - in true hermit style - I go to extreme lengths to avoid visiting Pretoria (and even more so, Joburg). I loathe cities!

    I think snakes must be like cats: they're attracted to people who don't like them. From now on I'm going to put out little saucers of milk and play alluring melodies on my Indian snake-charmer's pipe. Hopefully that'll do the trick.

  4. Lynda - a tip for you. Dont narrow your eyes at unwelcome tabbies. Cat's love that slit-eyed look we send their way... it's the feline equivalent of fluttering lashes ;-)

    A wide eyed direct glare will do the trick. I love cats - but since i'm an allergy sufferer, i practise what I preach on long haired ones.

  5. Chanti,
    Thank you for your advice. Wide-eyed glaring from now on!


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