Spotted or striped: What you need to know about skaapstekers

People often confuse the spotted skaapsteker with the striped skaapsteker or even other sand and grass snakes. Despite the name (an Afrikaans word meaning sheep-stabber), chances of either of these snakes killing any sheep are highly unlikely, writes Johan Marais of the African Snakebite Institute (ASI).

Psammophylax is the genus (similar to your surname) name of widespread African snakes commonly referred to as spotted or striped skaapstekers, so named for the incorrect belief that they regularly bite and kill sheep.

While both species have a mild cytotoxic venom that poses little threat to large animals, as well as relatively small fangs set quite far back in the jaw (which means it is highly unlikely that they have ever killed a sheep), they are abundant grassland species that may be found in the vicinity where a sheep is found dead from snakebite, either before or after the event.

This, of course, has led to the unfortunate name, which often sees them being killed on sight. The culprit in these cases would more than likely be a highly venomous species such as a Cape cobra (Naja nivea) or puff adder (Bitis arietans). Neither the spotted nor the striped skaapsteker poses a threat to humans as their venom is very mild and will have virtually no effect (apart from mild swelling in some cases).

Spotted skaapsteker

Occurring from sea level to mountain tops, the spotted skaapsteker is one of the most commonly encountered snakes in the Eastern Cape, but is widely spread across most of South Africa. It is a fast-moving diurnal snake that inhabits grasslands, fynbos, moist savannas, and semi-desert areas. It is a nervous snake and is quick to escape into a bush or grass tuft or under a rock.

This attractively patterned greyish to yellowish brown or olivebrown snake measures an average of 40-60cm, though occasionally reaches up to 1.4m. Its underside is cream to white, with the top of the head being brownish, with scattered dark dots and bars along its side (which may merge to form a zig-zag pattern). The colour and patterning may be quite variable, adding to the confusion with is striped sibling.

The spotted skaapsteker feeds on rodents, lizards, birds, frogs and other snakes. It digs into soft sand, scooping bits out by turning its head sideways in search of frogs. The species falls between oviparous and ovoviviparous as it lays its eggs partly incubated and it is also one of the few snakes that coils around and protects its up to 30 eggs (the southern African python being the other).

Stripped skaapsteker

Occurring throughout a similar habitat and displaying similar habits as its spotted sibling, the striped skaapsteker is a beautiful, mediumsized snake with a small head and a pointed snout. Other discerning features include small, orange-coloured eyes and a shortish tail. Survival behaviour includes dashing for cover and then freezing – an action that complements its ability to become well-camouflaged and bypassed by potential predators. It is quite skittish and reluctant to bite, even when captured.

Found in central and northern Namibia from Windhoek extending northwards through Etosha National Park to the border with Angola, its range includes the Caprivi Strip, Victoria Falls, the Okavango Delta, and Moremi Game Reserve. Closer to home, it can be found in the Free State and Limpopo.

From a colouring perspective, this snake sports a black/grey to pale grey-olive back, with three decorative, black-edged, dark brown vertebral stripes (sometimes separated by yellow dots). The upper lip and belly are white to cream, and it has a dark band extending over the eyes to the tip of the nose. It is an average of 65cm in length, with a maximum length recorded at 93cm. During summer, females lay between five and 18 eggs in a hole and its lifespan is between five to ten years.

Skaapstekers and grass or sand snakes are easily confused. Always check the distribution and make sure the snake occurs in the area when attempting to make a positive identification.

About the ASI

The African Snakebite Institute (ASI) is the leading provider of training in Snake Awareness, First-Aid for Snakebite and Venomous Snake Handling in Africa. These courses are presented by Johan Marais, one of Africa’s leading herpetologists, with over 40 years of experience, and/or Luke Kemp, a zoology graduate that has been working with the ASI for the past five.

Fact file

Full Name: Spotted skaapsteker (Psammophylax rhombeatus)

Other Names: Spotted grasssnake | Rhombic skaapsteker | Gespikkelde skaapsteker

Classification: Mildly venomous

Fact file

Full Name:

Striped skaapsteker (Psammophylax tritaeniatus)

Other Names: Striped grasssnake | Gestreepte skaapsteker

Classification: Mildly venomous

Course enquiries: +27 73 186 9176 |

Product enquiries: +27 60 957 2713

Snakebite emergencies: +27 82 494 2039

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