Let’s say that you see a small dark snake in your house or in your garden. What do you do? Leave it alone? Or pick it up? Unfortunately, many people choose the latter option, and they often soon regret it.
The rainy season is here, and now is the time of year when a particular small, dark and inoffensive-looking snake becomes active, especially on those really humid evenings, before or after rain. I’m talking about the Stiletto Snake. More specifically, the Bibron’s Stiletto Snake (Atractaspis bibronii).
Since September, I’ve already had six reports of people bitten, in the Greater Durban Area, as well as four reports of dogs being bitten. Again, that’s just around Durban. So yes, ‘Stiletto Season’ is in full swing! I should mention that all of the bites on people occurred when the snakes were picked up.
“Why is this snake so aggressive?“, I’ve had people ask. Can we really blame the snake for biting people or dogs?
When some people see this little snake, with somewhat innocent features, they assume that it’s harmless, or, they mistaken it for a Brown House Snake, or the like. To be fair, it’s not a large, intimidating Black Mamba or Mozambique Spitting Cobra, nor a hissing Night Adder. Judging that the snake is harmless based on appearance is a painful error to make, because this is when many people decide to pick it up, and this is, of course, is when they get bitten.
Now is that the snakes fault? No, not at all. Snakes see human as danger, they don’t know if one is trying to help. And like any snake (apart from spitting cobras), Stiletto’s only have one way to defend themselves, and that’s to bite. They bite out of fear, with the hope the seemingly threatening human will drop it. If a dog goes up to it and sniffs it or bites it, the snake will react in the same way as it does to people. It wants to be left alone.
The Stiletto Snake is an interesting snake for many reasons, but one is the way in which they strike. They don’t strike out like the typical snake, in a forwards-fashion. Instead, they swipe their heads from side to side. This is because their exceptionally long fangs (in comparison to their body) protrude out of the sides of their mouth. It doesn’t even open its mouth to bite, really. This ability of theirs mean that one can’t simply grab it behind the head, to pin it down. It barely has to twist its head to sink a fang into a finger. A lot of people learn this the hard way. If handled, it may swipe its head and bite multiple times.
I remember hearing of a classic case on the Bluff, where a group of three friends encountered a Stiletto. One of them picked it up, got bitten, and passed it to one of his mates. He then got bitten, and passed it onto the other mate, who also got bitten. So there they were, all three of them sitting in a hospital.
“Is the bite fatal?”
Fortunately not. I’ve also not heard of any fatalities in dogs either. However, from what I’ve heard from everyone who has been bitten, the pain is excruciating. The main symptom that the cytotoxic venom causes is swelling. In some cases, though, there may be blistering as well as necrosis (tissue damage). Some bites have resulted in severe necrosis, leading to the loss of a finger tip, for example.
The most extreme case I’ve heard of was actually my friend. He was driving at night, when he spotted a small snake on the road. He wasn’t sure what it was but he couldn’t resist in grabbing it. Unfortunately for him, it was a Stiletto Snake. The venom caused excessive swelling all the way up his arm. He went to some dodgy hospital (I think it was somewhere in the Transkei) where the doctors wanted to amputate his arm. He straight out refused, thankfully. Instead, the doctors made incisions along his arm, to relieve the swelling. This was not the right treatment, and it could have cost him his arm. He has recovered, but he’s left with massive scarring on his arm. Below is a pic after he was cut. Remember, that was made by doctors, NOT the venom. I’m sorry if you’ve just eaten lunch or dinner, but this must be shared to discourage people from picking up snakes they don’t know, or snakes they think they know.
Patients who go to hospital (which is exactly what you should do if you are bitten by any snake) are usually put on a drip and given a good few painkillers. Antivenom is not required nor effective.
The below pics are of the same man’s finger. The first pic was taken soon after the bite. The second 48 hours later. Ouch!
Right, so, you get the picture- DO NOT TOUCH THIS SNAKE, or a snake that looks like it! “But how do you identify it?”, is what you may ask next.
Adult Stiletto Snakes are usually less than half a meter long, so yes, they are small. Colour-wise, they’re a brownish/black colour, and a pale brown colour underneath. The head isn’t very distinctive- small and rounded, with beady little eyes. The tail ends in a sharp tip, which you could also look out for. It uses this to dig into an attacker (e.g, a persons hand). It can’t harm anyone/anything, nor does it break the skin. It’s more to give you a fright into dropping it.
Another feature to look for, is behavior. If threatened, Stiletto Snakes arch their necks up, with their head against the ground. This is their ‘striking position’, where they swipe from side to side. That sideways-swiping movement is something else to look for. However, you shouldn’t be irritating one!
Similair looking snakes…
Stiletto Snakes are fossorial, meaning they spend most of their time underground. At this time of year, though, the rain and humidity brings them out. It’s the mating season, but they also come out to look for food as well. They feed on small lizards as well as other snakes. They love Thread/Worm Snakes! My mum actually removed one from a property (I was away!) which regurgitated a hatchling Night Adder. Impressive!
I do hope that this post has helped you in identifying the Stiletto Snake. Please note it is not a snake we need to fear, just a snake we need to be wary of. If you don’t pick them up, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
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