Getting to know the reptiles in our neighbourhoods

2013-11-11 00:00

IT’S not often that I write about reptiles, but a recent experience with a blind snake prompts me to do so. The two reptiles I want to talk about here are very different, but are both reasonably well-known to wildlife enthusiasts. The first is a terrapin, the second a blind snake.

The marsh terrapin is our most commonly encountered terrapin. Before talking about it, you should know that the common names tortoises, terrapins and turtles frequently confuse people. However, it is really quite simple as the names merely separate species on the basis of where they live. Tortoises live on land, turtles in the sea and terrapins in fresh water. Terrapins are the most diverse of these groups, with some 23 African species. There are two main groups of terrapins — the soft-shelled and flap-shelled terrapins, which have exposed heads that can’t be retracted, and the much bigger group of side-necked terrapins, so named because they pull their heads sideways into the shell for protection. The marsh terrapin (Pelomedusa subrufa) is a typical side-necked species. These are found throughout South Africa. My photo was taken in the Botanical Gardens in Pietermaritzburg. They prefer shallow, temporary water bodies, even those without much aquatic vegetation. They are sometimes seen basking in the sun on rocks and logs, but this tends to happen when the water isn’t warm enough. They become inactive below a temperature of about 17° Celsius and can live for extended periods buried in moist soil when dams dry up during droughts. They can move over land for considerable distances seeking suitable ponds. Unfortunately, they cross roads and can be run down by passing traffic. Unlike tortoises, which are almost entirely vegetarian, terrapins eat just about anything. Their usual diet is made up of aquatic vegetation, insects and frogs, but they are also known to behave somewhat like crocodiles and can ambush, drown and eat doves and other birds that go to drink at their ponds. I kept a young terrapin in an aquarium for some weeks and know that they are happy eating earthworms and pieces of meat. They are also known to “clean” hippos as they rest in water by nibbling at their hides — but enough of terrapins.

The family was enjoying splashing about in a swimming pool when suddenly there was a shriek and everyone leapt out shouting “snake!”. A minute later, and I was holding a small Bibron’s blind snake (Afrotyphlops bibronii), not much longer than my hand and utterly harmless. This is our most commonly encountered blind snake, being found throughout the eastern parts of our country. The one shown here was photographed in Pietermaritzburg. Blind snakes and their cousins, called worm snakes, are interesting snakes which, as their names suggest, are burrowers, living most of their lives underground. These snakes are primitive animals with cylindrical bodies, highly polished, close-fitting scales and small heads. The heads, which lack prominent eyes, are so poorly developed that the tail end looks similar to the head end. While they are called blind snakes they do have eyes and can at least detect light from dark, and so know when they are exposed on the surface of the ground. Like many air-breathing, burrowing animals they can drown when the ground is waterlogged and so may be forced to emerge after heavy rain. These snakes feed on small invertebrates, including ants and termites, and their main enemies are other snakes. Like many snakes, they are oviparous, producing between two and 14 thin-shelled eggs. Eggs hatch in less than a week and the young measure about 10 cm. I returned home with my swimming blind snake in order to photograph it. Once it had recovered from its swim, it became very active and I was forced to put it in the fridge to ”slow it down”. This worked well and soon the creature was more manageable. I posed it on a dish of sand outside and took a photo. The snake suddenly sprang to life and thrashed about, making it impossible to grasp. Next moment it was on the ground and within seconds had burrowed into the soil with me trying to pull it out again. I failed as the snake is so smooth I could not get a grip on it. So now I am privileged to have a blind snake burrowing its way around my garden — let’s hope it eats cutworms.

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