Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The boomslang, Afrikaans for “tree snake” as the term suggests is predominantly a tree and shrub dweller. It’s commonly found in northern Sub-Saharan Africa and along the east and south coast of the region, as far as Cape Town. Not to be confused with the newly opened Boomslang Canopy Walkway that “snakes” through Kirstenbosch Gardens, the boomslang is found on practically every African deadliest snake list.

Doesn’t eat humans

According to Cape Snake Conservation, “drop for drop the boomslang has the most potent venom of any South African Snake”. In fact, it’s considered by experts to be the deadliest protereoglyphous (fancy term for rear-fanged) snake in the world. However, having rear fangs makes it a lot more difficult for random biting and, it’s unlikely that a snake will bite something it doesn’t plan on eating, such as humans, unless aggravated.

Shy retiring types never pounce

In some communities, locals believe the boomslang hides in trees waiting to pounce and bite human prey in the face. The opposite is true. While the boomslang is common in Southern Africa, human deaths from bites are incredibly rare. This beautiful creature is, in fact socially modest, quite shy in fact, and almost all bites occur as a result of handling or ignorant tinkering.

They seldom leave the safety and camouflage of their habitat unless provoked, to hunt small vertebrates such as birds, chameleons, frogs, and eggs, or to loll in the warm sun. The boomslang is a prolific climber and is adept at escaping detection. With no sinister ulterior motive, other than it’s timid personality, it deliberately blends in to its environment.

Literature’s fanciful boomslang encounters

Popular culture has boosted the boomslang’s scary reputation. You might remember the Polyjuice potion from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. One of the ingredients is shredded boomslang skin. In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, Hercule Poirot discovers the murder weapon, a boomslang venom tipped dart. In Stephen King’s short story, “Autopsy Room 4” boomslang venom paralyses the victim who somehow has to convince doctors that he’s not dead before they slice into him. Oddly enough, the boomslang in this story was Peruvian.

Boggle-eyed cartoon babies

In contrast to its bashful nature, there’s nothing timid about it’s appearance. Dorsal colour ranges from almost-always brown females to light green males with a creamy, yellow or caramel coloured underbelly. But colouration does vary. Some may be grey, yellow, black or even rust or scarlet red with a pinky orange underbelly.

In breeding season, females lay between 10 and 20 eggs and, following an incubation period of up to 100 days; gangly, colourful babies emerge with bold green eyes that make up most of the total head size hence their comical appearance. If left alone, the boomslang grows to approximately 1.5 metres in length and lives for around 15 years.

A word of caution

Like most creatures in the wild, perhaps even more than most, the boomslang will do its best to avoid you. In the unlikely event of encountering a boomslang, it’s best to give it the respect it deserves by ignoring it and walking away. Boomslang venom is haemotoxic. This means it has coagulapathic properties, which causes severe haemorrhaging. Even though the venom can take hours to manifest it is critical that the victim gets to a hospital as quickly as possible for 48-hour observation and possible antivenin treatment.

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