Sunday, October 24, 2010

Uninvited house guests

Last Wednesday was an evening for unexpected visitors.

And unwelcome ones.

I was alerted to my first caller by the dogs. I could tell that they weren't just indulging in their usual nightly spat with the porcupine: they sounded threatened.

Dashing outside, to drag them away from whoever might be about to do them in, I wondered whether I'd run headlong into a leopard (they're forever leaving their paw prints round about). But what I discovered was the back half of a very large African rock python (Python sebae) disappearing into my outside bathroom. The dogs were too afraid to attack (ahh, thank goodness for the salutary effects of an eyeful of cobra venom), but were creeping after it, hackles raised and necks outstretched. Wobbly Cat was standing nearby looking like a feather duster who'd suffered electric shock therapy.

The python, hissing stridently (I've never heard a snake actually hiss before), slithered in among the boxes and paraphernalia I store in this unused bathroom, before wrapping itself around the sink plumbing. At around 2.5 - 3 metres (7-9 ft), it wasn't as big as the one that plagued us last summer, but it'd still see my cats as nothing more than appetite-piquing hors d'oeuvres.

I quickly bundled the pets into the house, to prevent any mishaps, and left the snake to entertain itself amongst my worldly goods.

I'd no sooner got all the animals safely shut in the house, than I turned round to see Wobbly staring transfixed at something under the dining table.

Oh God, another snake!

After a scuffle, I managed to drag, shove or carry everyone (except the snake) into my bedroom and squeeze shut the door. Step one complete. I then fetched my tried-and-true snake removal equipment: the kitchen broom and a poster mailing tube.

Well, at least this one was small. In fact, it was only around 0.5 metres (1.5 ft) long, strangely two-toned (glistening black above and white below) and entirely new to me. With great presence of mind (something I tend to relinquish in the presence of snakes), I snapped a couple of blurry photos as it coiled and uncoiled nervously on the concrete floor. Actually, it looked pretty innocuous; after all, it wasn't hissing or puffing, spitting or threatening to strike. In fact, when I got a bit closer I realised that what I'd assumed was its head, upraised and ready in defence, was actually its stumpy tail (as you can see in the photo). It had tucked its head safely away undercover. Aww, the poor little creature; I could almost see it covering its eyes with its hands and trying to be invisible.

Bibron's burrowing asp (Atractaspis bibronii) also labours under the names of southern stilleto snake, mole viper and side-stabbing snake. Living underground, they like to dine on burrowing reptiles, frogs and little baby rodents. When they encounter a nest of these little cuties, they slither about incapacitating several before indulging in their feast.

Any normal person, I told myself, would just pick it up and carry it outside. But I'm not a normal person. I'm the product of a childhood of indoctrination (by a mother determined to keep her animal-loving offspring alive in a land where almost all snakes are lethal). As a concession, I put aside my poster tube and gently shoved the little creature toward the open door with the broom. It writhed about with weird jerky movements, its head flicking sideways, so rapidly and frequently, it looked as if it had some awful nervous palsy. I'd never seen any snake behave like this.

After I'd persuaded it out the door (and had released the jostling pets), I sat down to identify it.

Oh. It wasn't harmless after all.

In fact, it was quite extraordinary.

It was a Bibron's (or southern) burrowing asp and - I was startled to learn - it and its kin (other burrowing asps) have the longest fangs, relative to skull size, of any venomous snake.
Their huge venom glands (which extend for up to 20% of their bodies) churn out a highly toxic brew that zaps your heart and blood pressure, and induces arterial spasms (now there's a symptom you don't see every day). North African species regularly kill people, but the bite of my common, under-the-table variety just leads to pain, severe swelling, blistering, necrosis, nausea, dryness of the throat and vertigo. You can read, here, the stressful story of someone (sans snake phobia) who made the same mistake as me. But read it LATER, because the really interesting bit is still to come!

You see, what's fascinating is that the impressive fangs of these little snakes are designed for underground use. And you can't rise up and strike in the tight confines of a burrow. So how do they prepare dinner? They've opted for the method favoured by street thugs the world over: they sidle up beside their victim and, without so much as opening their mouths, stab them in the ribs.

Their long fangs, located in the front of their upper jaw, actually lie horizontally in the mouth, pointing back toward the corner of their lips. To make room for this weird arrangement, they've had to sacrifice virtually all their other choppers (making swallowing food a pain - well, actually, a series of wriggles – in the neck). Their fangs have a hollow central tube (like a hypodermic syringe) and the tips are keeled for slicing flesh (all the better to get the venom in). When they want to stab a victim, they only have to shift their jaw a bit to one side, so a fang protrudes from their lips, and then jerk their heads down and sideways: POW!
So when my little house guest appeared to be suffering dreadful trembling palsies, it was actually biting the Hell out of the fluffy nylon bristles of the broom. Just shows, you never can tell.

These snakes are particularly problematic because you can't hold them safely behind the head; they just stab you out of the corner of their mouths. You can see a photo of one stabbing a baby mouse here. The Bibron's burrowing asp is also unusual because it has a sharp spine sticking out of the end of its tail (actually a continuation of its... well, spine). Browsing herpetological websites (oh, the shame), it seems that this anatomical feature further complicates things because care-givers of captive beasts (the species is popular for venom studies) often can't be sure whether they've been spiked by a tail or a tooth!

I included these photos, just in case you don't believe that African rock pythons can kill and eat large beasts (such as heedless huskies). This one has constricted to death an imprudent impala.
Photo by Arno and Louise Meintjes.

And this one is just finishing off a tasty steenbok.
Photo by Alex Griffiths.


  1. O M G.

    That is one of the most FASCINATING posts I have EVER read. WOW! SO glad I found this blog. Am presently going to go to kitchen to show it to all the friends we're visiting with. I'm SO interested in that unusual snake!! And that boa pic is NUTS.

  2. I came from biobabbler's site and so glad I did. I am afraid of snakes, so this takes the cake. Poisonous and constrictors? Both in one day? I could not handle living in your country. I would be afraid to go to sleep.

    Once in Costs Rica, my friend and I almost crossed paths with a 23 foot python. It was crossing a road we were on and making it's way to grab a sheep for lunch. A truck driver saw us and the snake and raced to run it over. He killed it and probably saved my little friend's life. She was tiny and I am 5'7". So I guess which one of us would have gotten constricted.

    Your story had me breathless. Great read.

  3. "the really interesting BIT [emphasis added] is still to come!" hahahaha, very good.

  4. In Camps Bay on the mountain we had boomslangs and next door had a Cape cobra in the roof. But here in Porterville we have only seen tabakrolletjies. We did see a few snakes when we went to the West Coast Park to see the spring flowers. BTW also from Biobabbler ;>)

  5. I added myself to follow your blog. You are more than welcome to visit mine and become a follower if you want to.

    God Bless You :-)


  6. Oh. My. Goodness! (Not my first reaction, you understand.) That asp is astonishing. How fortunate you opted for the poster tube solution.

    Now I'm off to read more about this extraordinary snake.

  7. Oh my word, Lynda, what a fascinating post. I followed you here from Joan's blog and am I glad I did. I've just returned from living in North Africa for the past year and didn't come across the dangerous variety of Bribron's burrowing asp although I did (sadly) see skins of large rock pythons for sale in the souqs/markets. Have a great day. Jo

  8. Sorry I've been off-line for a while, but I've been stuck in bed with a bout of malaria.

    Burrowing asps sure are weird little critters. I guess we should be glad they don't get any bigger...

    While I'm not fond of snakes (especially 23ft ones!), I'm appalled that the truck driver ran it over 'for you'. Attacks on humans by these creatures are soooo soooo rare, I'm sure neither you nor your little friend were in any danger. I don't know about Costa Rica but here, only snakes that are very cautious of people survive to reach a large size (as your example illustrates).

    Very astute of you! Why are my unintentional puns always better than the ones I devise? A bit depressing really...

    Elephant's Eye,
    Nice to hear from you. I must admit if I have to find a snake snuggled up in my house I prefer these big or weird snakes to your classic (and lethal!) cobras and boomslangs (although I find the big, soft-toy eyes of boomslangs quite cute...).

    The Old Geezer,
    Thank you for dropping by.

    Sadly there was one casualty of the evening. While dashing about removing snake-habitable clutter from the floor, I picked up a bag of shopping and placed it on the table. Unfortunately I didn't notice it also contained one of my (many) red toads, and he was trapped under 5kg of maize meal overnight! I've been plying him with TLC and mealworms ever since but he's still hopping about on three legs!

    Yes, I think the rock pythons have a pretty hard time of things; around here too. Traditionally, their fat is supposed to be good for all sorts of ailments.

  9. What with snakes and monitor lizards, you seem to be having an exciting start to your summer Lynda. :)

    This is an excellent series of pictures and brilliant information!!

    I have never seen that burrowing snake before so that was very educational for me.

    How are the mongoose doing? I hope you have had some rain and that things are starting to green up there. We have hade only one shower sofar and like you, need lots and lots more. It also keeps on building up to look like a good one, then just blows over. What a waste!!

  10. Joan,
    Educational for me too!
    The mongooses are all giving birth at the moment, but I've yet to see any of the pups (something to look forward to).
    With regards to rain, its the same situation as you're experiencing. Very frustrating!

  11. I have forgotten what it is like having to contend with snakes - it certainly adds some spice to life, but spice you can probably do withoout. There are no snakes were we now live.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...