Colours of Wildlife: Eastern Tiger Snake

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Eastern Tiger Snake

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Eastern Tiger Snake by Willem

I offer to you another photo taken on my trip with Ruan, Luke and Chad to the Pafuri region, December 2020. I promise to soon be back to drawing and painting! But I'm happy with how this photo came out. It is an Eastern Tiger Snake, Telescopus semiannulatus. A very pretty little snake, small, and well-behaved! Our method is to catch them, get them to pose, photograph them and then release them where we found them. So I'm very indebted to my herpetologist friends for catching this little pretty and posing him so I could take a snap!

The genus Telescopus, the Old World Cat Snakes, belongs to the Colubridae, the largest of the snake families, which has members all over the world. Other members of this family in South Africa include the Boomslang, the Vine (or Twig) Snake and the Egg Eaters. The family tends to be mostly harmless, with a few exceptions. There are currently fourteen species of Telescopus recognized, found in Africa, Asia and southern Europe. The largest ones reach 180 cm/6" in length.

Eastern tiger snakes, sometimes called Tiger Cat Snakes, must rank among the prettiest of snakes, with their vivid salmon pink to yelow-orange colour marked by the neat black half-rings. They also have cute, large-eyed, short-snouted faces. Their pupils are vertical slits like those of a cat, that can open up to admit more light when it's dark. At an average adult length of 60-90 cm/24"-36" they're not very large, and have quite slender bodies. Their heads are noticeably wider than their necks. And are they dangerous at all? They do have venom, but it's not very strong, and is delivered by fangs in the back of their mouths, unlike the front-fangs of snakes such as adders and vipers. The fangs have grooves in them down which the venom seeps, unlike the hollow hypodermic-needle-like venom injections system of viper fangs. This means they can only inject venom with a very well-placed bite. The venom is neurotoxic, working on the nerves. Such a bite in a human will cause swelling and some pain, like a bee sting. But a few people may actually be allergic to tiger snake venom, just like some are allergic to bee stings, and this can of course complicate matters. When threatened, a tiger snake will flatten its head, almost like the hood-spreading behaviour of a cobra, drawing its head back and then striking with an open mouth, but it is largely for show.

This is quite a common and widespread snake species in South Africa. It occurs mostly in the north-eastern parts of the country, inhabiting wooded habitats ranging from arid savannah to moist woodland and forest. It also occurs further to the north in Central and Eastern Africa as far north as the DRC and Kenya. There is also a subspecies, the Damara Tiger Snake, that is confined to the arid Northern Cape and Namibia. It is a nocturnal species, hiding and sleeping by day in various crevices in rocks or trees. It comes out to hunt at night, slithering over the ground or climbing into trees and bushes. Its large eyes enable it to hunt even in dark nights. It feeds mostly on other reptiles, especially geckoes. But it also eats small birds, bats, rodents and other small mammals. It strikes and grabs its prey in its mouth, chewing at it to ensure that the venom is delivered, and coiling itself around it to prevent it from escaping. It then swallows its prey whole. It is itself often hunted by other, larger snakes.

So far we don't know much else about these handsome snakes. They reproduce by eggs, the female laying 3-20 in leaf litter, in the summer. They've been recorded as living a bit over seven years, but might reach 10 under good circumstances. They are most vulnerable when crossing roads at night; this is generally the case with snakes. We found a large number of pancaked specimens of various different snake species during our survey. But despite this and other threats, eastern tiger snakes are common and not considered endangered.

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