Beware! Snakes and spiders to watch out for

2013-08-26 16:39
While snakes, spiders and creepy crawly bugs tend to be a bush holiday turn-off for many, the truth is that not all of them are as evil as you think. We're of the opinion that if you know what to look out for, your next bundu bashing break needn't be shrouded in fear of the unkown. Check out this list of dangerous snakes and spiders you should be aware of. 


Black Mamba 

Fast, large and deadly, the Black Mamba is probably the most feared snake in all of Africa. They grow up to 2 metres long and can move at a speed of 20km/hour. 

Distribution & habitat: They occur in North West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Northern KwaZulu-Nata. They are not found in desert areas and are only found along the coastline up to around Port St Johns. They dwell mostly in grass and bushes, but can be found in trees.

Identification: Olive coloured to dark brown, they get their name from the colour of the inside of their mouth which is black. The head is large but narrow and elongated, with the shape of a coffin.

Kind of venom: Its venom is the most rapid-acting venom of any snake species and consists mainly of highly potent neurotoxins. 

What to do if bitten: If bitten, severe neurotoxicity often ensues. Symptoms rapidly begin to manifest, usually within ten minutes or less and include a rapid onset of dizziness, drowsiness, coughing or difficulty breathing, convulsions, and an erratic heartbeat. Isolate the bite as much as possible by applying a pressure bandage and transport the victim to the hospital with the greatest possible speed.

Puff Adder 

While the black mamba is arguably the most feared snake in Africa, the puff adder should really hold that title, as it causes more human deaths on a yearly basis. Notoriously lazy and well-camouflaged, the puff adder does not sail away when sensing a person approaching, making it far too easy to step on it and get a nasty surprise. 

Distribution & habitat: They are widespread throughout Africa and are found from the Southern Cape all the way to the Sahara desert.

Identification: They are thick, heavy bodied snakes that are seldom over 1 meter long. The head is large, flattened and triangular in shape. They vary in colour widely from blackish to brown and have a row of backward pointing dark brown pale edged chevrons along their backs.

Kind of venom: Cytotoxic and haemotoxic. It causes severe pain and swelling in the bitten limb, haemorrhages and nausea. One of the effects of the venom is that it causes the flesh near the bite to die and fall away. 

What to do if bitten: Apply a loose-fitting bandage starting at the bite site and working up the limb. Do not apply a tight bandage or tourniquet. Keep the limb lower than the victim's heart and get medical help as soon as possible. 

Cape Cobra

While they may not be the largest among the cobra species, these snakes are considered to be highly dangerous due to their nervous and aggressive nature. 

Distribution & habitat: They are one of the most common snakes in the Southern regions of South Africa and are found throughout the Cape Provinces, Free State and South Western regions of the Eastern Cape. They prefer fynbos, bush, Karooscrubland and dry savannah regions.

Identification: They vary in colour from reddish brown to olive brown, yellowish and black and grow up to 1.6meters in length. When aggravated it is known to raise the forefront of its body off the ground, spreading its hood and making a hissing sound.

Kind of venom: The Cape cobras venom is made up of potent postsynaptic neurotoxins and might also contain cardiotoxins that affect the respiratory system, nervous system, and the heart. 
What to do if bitten: Apply a pressure bandage and transport the person to hospital as fast as possible. Breathing may need to be supported. Death can occur within 1 to 10 hours of being bitten. 


As the name suggests the Boomslang (directly translated into English ‘tree snake') is very rarely seen on the ground, as they prefer to dwell in trees or shrubs. They are extremely shy and wouldn't attack unless provoked. 

Distribution & habitat: It is found throughout most of the country except the Northern Cape and part of the Free State. It has a wide habitat range including lowland forest, savannah, grassland, fynbos and Karoo scrub.

Identification: The average adult boomslang is 100-160 cm in total length, but some exceed 183 cm. The eyes are exceptionally large, and the head has a characteristic egg-like shape. Coloration is very variable. Males are light green with black or blue scale edges, but adult females may be brown. Boomslangs are able to open their jaws up to 170 degrees when biting.

Kind of venom: The venom of the boomslang is primarily a hemotoxin; it disables the blood clotting process and the victim may well die as a result of internal and external bleeding. The venom has been observed to cause hemorrhage into tissues such as muscle and brain. Other signs and symptoms include headache, nausea, sleepiness and mental disorders.

What to do if bitten: The venom is very slow acting and it can take up to 24 hours for symptoms to appear. If bitten by a Boomslang, bandage the area and get to the hospital and receive anti-venom.


While it does not technically belong to the cobra family, the Rinkhals has the ability to raise its upper body, spread its hood and spit its venom like a real cobra. 

Distribution & habitat: This species is found in the Southern Cape province, northeast through the Free State, Lesotho, Transkei, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, Western Swaziland and parts of Gauteng. An isolated population is centered around Inyanga on theZimbabwe-Mozambique border.

Identification: Coloration varies throughout its distribution area, but a characteristic of the species is the belly is dark with one or two light-coloured crossbands on the throat. Their average length is 90-110 cm.

Kind of venom: The venom of the rinkhals is neurotoxic and partially cytotoxic. When confronting a human, it generally aims its venom at the face. If the venom enters the eyes, it causes great pain.

What to do if bitten: If you get sprayed with venom in the eyes wash the poison out with lots of water and seek medical help. If you are bitten, bandage the affected area and seek medical help. The bites are rarely fatal.


Black Widow

Also known as a Button Spider, the Black Widow is probably one of the best known and most widely distributed spiders in South Africa.

Distribution & habitat: Button spiders are found all over South Africa, and they usually reside in quiet, dark places. While they rarely venture into houses, they do tend to lurk in less-used domestic spaces like garages and sheds. 

Identification: They have a trademark red hourglass on a very round, black abdomen.

Kind of venom: Button spiders have neurotoxic venom, which means that it attacks the central nervous system. Only female spiders have fangs large enough to pierce human skin. Symptoms include severe muscle pain, abdominal cramps, hyperhidrosis, tachycardia, and muscle spasms and usually last for 3-7 days, but may persist for several weeks.

What to do if bitten: A person who has been bitten by a black button spider needs to be hospitalised and treated with anti-venom.

Violin Spider

Violin spider bites are extremely rare and mostly only occur at night while the victim is sleeping.

Distribution & habitat: They occur right across South Africa.

Identification: These spiders are brownish with dark markings on their bodies, as well as a characteristic violin-shape on the front part

Kind of venom: They have cytotoxic venom, which means that it destroys tissue. Bites are small and painless, but after a few hours the site swells up and becomes discoloured, which is followed by blistering and peeling of the skin – leaving an open wound.

What to do if bitten: It's hard to detect a violin spider bite at first, until the skin starts rotting away. There is no anti-venom and the best way to treat the wound is to have the dead flesh surgically removed. Yup, it's kind of gross.

Sac spider

These are considered to be the most dangerous spiders in South Africa. They are particularly aggressive and implicated in 70-75% of reported spider bites.

Distribution & Habitat: Sac spiders are found right across the country and are known to make themselves very comfortable in homes. As with Violin spiders, most bites occur at night while the victim is sleeping.

Identification: They're a pale yellow colour with a large abdomen and a black head.

Kind of venom: Sac spiders have cytotoxic venom, which destroys tissue. Initially bites are small and painless, however after a few days it is swollen and painful and eventually forms a large lesion. There is no anti-venom for sac spider bites, but antibiotics are needed to treat the infected tissue.

What to do if bitten: Get to a doctor as soon as possible if you suspect you've been bitten by a Sac spider. The longer you wait to be treated, the more infected the flesh will get and the longer it will take to heal. Plastic surgery is sometimes needed to remove the damaged tissue.

Baboon spider

More commonly known as tarantulas in other parts of the world, these large, hairy spiders are actually gentle giants. They aren't particularly venemous, but have been known to give nasty bites if they felt threatened.

Distribution & habitat: Baboon spiders are found right across the country, however the one to be most careful of is found in the Western Cape.

Identification: Large, hairy, mostly brownish, but with black accents on legs and body.

Kind of venom: Neurotoxic - victims normally develop a burning pain in the area of the bite and a few hours later start to vomit and show marked signs of shock, become pale and have difficulty walking.

What to do if bitten: While victims may feel awfully ill for a while, bites are never fatal. Head to a doctor for advice on how to treat symptoms.

Know of any other spiders and snakes or even plants to add to this list? Or have a creepy bush story to share? Tell us in the comment section below or send an email to

Read more on:    animals  |  travel south africa  |  bush

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