Snakes on Table Mountain


Sightings of snakes on Table Mountain are rare.


I don’t know how many hundreds of times I have walked Table Mountain over the decades. But I can count how many snakes I've seen while doing so. Four. A mole snake, cobra, puff adder - and March 2017, a berg adder.

That this note on local snakes is poorly illustrated with photos, is partial evidence of that. On the one instance that I did have a camera on me, the puff adder was eyeing me with threatening intent as it slithered down the embankment and across my path. It was the kind of look that makes you forget about cameras. I backed off fast. 

In the last month I've seen three berg adders - in Jonkershoek, Stellenbosch; and on Mont Rochelle, near Franschhoek; and then most recently this one, caught on video high up Kasteelspoort, Table Mountain. It looks like it is hunting lizard.


Initially I thought the type of snake on those last three occasions were young puff adders. But after taking more of an interest I notice their markings are subtly different. And by comparison, the Berg Adder, sometimes called a Mountain Adder, is a relatively small snake, around 30 - 50 cm in length.  (10 - 20 inches.) You could almost say cute.

Cuteness factor is probably not strong reason for the species' mysterious evolution.   Interestingly, although adders' embryos develop inside eggs, the mother snake bares her eggs within her, giving birth to live young. This is reckoned to be a potent factor in the adders’ survival - a brilliant achievement in the face of humanity's deadly fear of snakes, and the Anthropocene's assault on biodiversity.

Berg Adders enjoy relaxing in the sun. If you disturb them they’ll hiss. Step too close and there’s a good chance you’ll get bitten.

Their venom is unusual. Other vipers, like the gaboon adder and puff adder, release a mainly cytotoxic venom, which damages the tissue cells, causing pain, swelling, blisters.  However Berg adders release a combination of this with neurotoxic venom, like that of some cobras and mambas, and which affects the respiratory system.

Their victims struggle with pain and swelling; there's some tissue damage, though not too severe. Quite often they may have difficulty breathing. Vision is impaired, eyelids droop. Temporary blindness is also a symptom. Death in humans is highly uncommon.   

If the bite goes unnoticed at first, a bit later it may seem like an scratch or small superficial wound. Small children bitten by a berg adder are at higher risk of being seriously affected.

Get medical attention ASAP.

As you can see from the video, this snake didn't seem bothered by me. It must have been aware I was there. I'd like to think that it didn't feel threatened. But who knows? I guess the thing is, respect them when you see them. And just let snakes be snakes.   

MAIN VISUAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BERG ADDER AND PUFF ADDER

  • The puff adder’s markings form chevron shapes.

  • Berg adder’s eyes are set slightly more forward than a puff adder

  • It has more of a lance-shaped head.

  • It’s nowhere near as big.



Why humanity sees so well

Since taking more of an interest in snakes I have read that the long stretch of humanity's early development is thought to have been significantly influenced by our relationship to them.  I guess that much is obvious from the first few pages of the bible.   

More recent, secular thinking is that humanity's most dominant sense, that of eyesight, may have adapted specifically to detect snakes. This happened back when snakes were probably far more predatory towards primates. Humans would have been more preyed upon than predator.

Our first proto-words, like those alarm calls still made by some monkeys, may have been sparked by warnings of snakes.  Our almost universal aversion to snakes is a remnant reaction to that time.

Consider how nowadays, although a nasty run-in with a snake is a far, far rarer occurrence than other accidents, snake sightings set our nerves jangling. 

Since those early days of humanity the evolutionary table has turned, and snakes have become shy and mainly retiring. While some communities still react by killing them on sight, other people who live on farms or in the bush tell of having an understanding with their slithering neighbours. So long as there are no dogs or children living in close proximity, living near snakes is something one gets used to.

That doesn't stop most of us still getting huge surges of adrenaline if we see a snake. 

But why not cars? Statistically which is more more likely to cause us harm?

A car, right? 

Except, perhaps, on the mountain.