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Africa Geographic Travel
puff adder, venomous snake, reptile
A puff adder © Vaughan Jessnitz
SPONSORED CONTENT by Katie Adams, Bushwise

It is that time of year again in southern Africa where summer is on the horizon and the bush is starting to come alive again with all the amazing creatures that hid from us during the cold and dry winter. Among those coming out of hiding are the fascinating reptiles species.

An often overlooked group of animals with an inaccurate reputation for being scary and strange, these cold-blooded creatures are an extraordinarily diverse group with truly unique adaptations. Reptiles, although formidable predators with an extensive armoury, are still potential prey for other species, and as such have adapted to have at least one way of defending themselves.

Mildly venomous marbled tree snake in a defensive position, reptile, snake
A mildly venomous marbled tree snake in a defensive position © Kayla Geenan

SO HOW DO THEY DO IT?

The class Reptilia consists of four orders, of which three are found here in southern Africa: Squamata (snakes and lizards), Crocodylia (crocodiles) and Testudines (tortoises, terrapins and turtles). With so many different species it is safe to assume that their defensive strategies are quite comprehensive and diverse.

Testudines are unique in having a strong shell that is fused to their skeleton, providing them with protection from physical harm. Without the advantage of speed, some Testudines – such as tortoises – must rely on concealment, so like a toddler playing ‘peek-a-boo’ they are adept at hiding themselves by withdrawing their heads and legs within their very own shell, thus protecting their bodies.

Nile crocodile, reptile
Nile crocodile sunbathing on the bank of a river © Francios Malano

It may be hard to believe that a crocodile can become a victim of predation, but until they reach maturity they are extremely vulnerable. Only 2% of hatchlings will make it to full maturity, but before that, they are at risk of predation from birds, fish, lizards and other crocodiles. Smaller crocodiles rely on their ability to camouflage and blend into their environment, and combined with their exceptional hearing and eyes (that are positioned on top of their heads) they can stay almost fully submerged in water while keeping an eye out for potential danger.

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With approximately 151 snakes and 338 lizards identified in southern Africa, the order Squamata is abundant with fascinating evasion strategies of which there are too many to delve into here. However, there are a few worth mentioning, for example, the chameleon. These reptiles are known for their slow, deliberate movements and as such must rely on camouflage through their pigmented-containing cells (chromatophores) to blend with their environment. In an aggressive encounter a chameleon will usually adopt a darker pigment.

A flap-necked chameleon in a defensive pose, reptile
A flap-necked chameleon in a defensive pose © Sophie Barrett

Snakes may be renowned for their ability to envenomate, however this is not their only defensive strategy. Species such as the rinkhals (ring-necked spitting cobra) will play dead (thanatosis), and will usually remain hanging limp if handled – though can also ‘come back to life’ and bite quickly with little warning. There are also some snakes that can ‘smell dead’ by emitting a foul smell to make itself unappetising as a potential meal.

Many lizards such as geckos and skinks can divert their predator’s attention by dropping their tails (caudal autotomy). These tails usually regenerate, however they may not be able to use the strategy again.

Snouted cobra, reptile, venomous, snake
A snouted cobra © Pierre Alain Dupont

There is still so much that we do not know or understand about this diverse group, but what we have seen so far is that they are not to be underestimated nor undervalued. The more we learn about these fascinating creatures the more we are able to understand the natural world around us, and how every organism plays a vital role.

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