Skinny Snakes and Gaunt Geckos

As an erratic and unusually warm 'winter' merges into spring, it is encouraging to see many wild species resuming their seasonal cycles of regeneration. Plants starting to flower from sticky buds and putting out new leaves. They need to flower first, to provide visibility for optimum pollination, before the leaf cover dominates.

For certain plants with a strong scent, that rely less on colour, this sequence is not as important. One species of Albizia (False-thorn) that has been particularly 'showy' recently is the 'Worm-bark false-thorn' or Albizia anthelmintica. This is a 'scrubby', multi-stemmed species with quite obvious 'spines', that is restricted, in South Africa, to the north-eastern regions as far south as Swaziland.

It is starting to fade after a prolific display of 'fuzzy', white'pom-pom' flowers, common to other species of the genus. The dried and powdered bark of this species was, and still can be, used as an effective treatment for worms and other intestinal parasites in domestic stock.

The specific name is derived from - anti - (against) - 'helminth' (the group of worms - including tape worms - that are intestinal parasites), thus an 'anthelmintic' is a worm remedy. Some other species of Albizia contain similar and other medicinal properties.

With the aloes turning to seed, Erythrinas (coral or 'lucky-bean' trees) and mainly E. lysistemon in this region, are taking over, with their showy, red flowers, as a source of nectar for sunbirds and other species.

After another poor 'rainy season', the Acacia nigrescens (Knob Thorn) are not to be putting on the dramatic show they gave last year. Many individuals of that species appear not to have even produced buds while others are in full bloom.

Thank goodness for those individuals who have weathered a few hard seasons to encourage us with their blooms. Among the human community there are also those who have weathered hardship to 'flower' again and bring joy and encouragement to those around them.

A Time To Feast

At this time of year one will notice 'Goway birds' (grey louries) and occasionally vervet monkeys in the tree canopies, feasting on the new flower and leaf buds. In and around our houses a variety of geckos and other reptiles are becoming active after an absence of insect food during the 'cold season'.

One wonders whether they have been 'hibernating' (hiding from the cold) or 'aestivating' (hiding from the heat)! Grey treefrogs (chiromantis), many of which have desiccated or starved during the dry, warm winter, will not start to move until humidity is much higher with the first rains.

Some of the 'toads' are active with the warm temperatures and have already 'produced' tadpoles in wet areas. In most cases the geckos look gaunt and half-starved and the snakes look quite skinny. Snakes are eager to track down or ambush prey species and thin-tailed geckos gather where there are sources of insect life.

Well fed geckos store excess 'food' in the swollen base of their tails (rather like a camel uses its 'hump' for storage), and they will have used up their 'store' during the dormant period.

It is interesting to note how they fatten as the season progresses and how they dominate their 'territories' according to species and size. Geckos, like most reptiles, will stay in their chosen area until chased out by competitors or removed by some predator, and it is most interesting to watch their behaviour and progress.

One of their main predators is the, largely nocturnal and beautifully coloured (orange/buff with black bands) tiger snake, which often inhabits thatched roofs and is harmless to humans.

Skinny Snakes

Because snakes may be hungry and active after their dormant period, they may be encountered more frequently in and around our dwelling areas. They do not
consider humans as a food-species and pose no threat to 'well behaved' human beings.

Their objective is food and they are more liable to search productive places where their prey may be hiding.Where possible, leave them alone and give them a chance to move away. They can be very single-minded when pursuing a located meal and will ignore humans in close proximity.

If you have the self-control, stay and watch their predatory technique - often more interesting than a lion kill! Reptile 'psychology' and their instinctive behaviour is fascinating. Some while ago I was handed a box of recently hatched olive grass snakes, by Don Strydom of the Khamai Reptile Park, for release on a suitable part of the farm.

This species, like most, is not venomous to humans but is commonly encountered in this area. They grow to a good length and are often mistaken for black mambas.
The young snakes were all twined together in the box and had not yet had a chance to feed. They were in a particular 'psychological' state and could be touched without much reaction.

I took the box to a suitable spot, turned them out onto the ground and stood back to watch their behaviour. They untangled themselves and in an 'uncanny' fashion, spaced themselves and each set off in a different direction, like the divergent spokes in a wheel, to seek their fortune. There was nothing to indicate any 'psychological' change in their tiny minds - but there had been a great change.

An intrepid photographer unfortunately approached too close and disturbed their divergent progress. As two or three diverted from their track they came into close contact with some others. Immediately the 'predator instinct' took over and they started attacking each other like demons, with all the biting and constricting behaviour of their species.

We had quite a job to part them without damage and 'fling' them out of sight of each other, otherwise they were intent on attack as long as they could see 'their prey'.

What was interesting was how a tangle of newly hatched snakes, that were totally compatible, suddenly clicked into 'killer mode' as soon as they had 'chosen' and started out the dispersal path.

The same must apply to most reptiles and other animals. Those that rely on their parents for sustenance and care appear to be different. We know but a fraction of what we can learn from nature! Beware when your children start to disperse! - You may be lucky to escape with the loss of some of your hard-earned savings!

By Dave Rushworth

Africa Reptiles Guide

African reptiles guide to the reptile species found in Kruger National Park. This Africa Reptiles guide includes information and photographs...more
Kruger National Park - South African Safari