Rule # 1: NEVER interfere with a snake in any way if you are not 100% sure what it is.
Cape cobras are easily and often mistaken for mole snakes, and if you are at all familiar with the distinction between these two snakes you’ll know exactly why this could be a serious problem. Cape cobras are Africa’s most venomous cobra and mole snakes, although they can give a painful bite, are non-venomous.
Unless there is the potential for conflict there is no reason to prod, poke or harass a snake in any way. Doing so is literally asking for trouble.
If you find a snake while walking outdoors, enjoy the encounter by taking some photographs but give the animal some respect and leave it be.
If however the snake has found itself in the unfortunate company of people then to avoid conflict on both sides it may be best to move it. In this case if you recognise it as a non-venomous mole snake then you could leave it be – which will not only mean less time and stress for people and the snake but your local snake rescuer will be burning a little less fossil fuel.
WARNING: If you think you know because you recognise the colour, leave the snake alone!
Many people make the mistake of relying on colouration alone when trying to work out what type of snake they have seen. This is a BIG mistake. DON’T do it please!!!
You must be 100% sure!! I cannot stress this enough.
Colouration is rarely a diagnostic feature and should never be used in isolation but instead to support other distinguishing features.
A snakes behaviour is in some cases a dead giveaway. If I were to ask anyone in South Africa what the snake above is I’m sure that the majority would easily be able to tell me that it is a cobra. The cobra’s hood is probably one of the most documented behaviours worldwide finding its way into myths, legends and your TV screen. Because of the hood we can easily establish that this is a venomous cobra because we are familiar with the behaviour.
But what happens when there is no hood?
If you see a snake the colour of a mole snake, it is found in an area where mole snakes have been seen before and it doesn’t stand up or spread a hood – well then it must be a mole snake right?
In the compilation below there are three individual snakes of two different species, all originating within a 10km radius of each other. Can you tell the difference?
Looking at colouration alone and body covering wont get you very far. They are often strikingly similar in colour, they both have smooth scales and they both hiss when approached too closely. So what else is left?
The trick with these two species is to look at the size and shape of the head. The mole snake spends much of its life underground; it’s a burrowing species with a relatively small elongated head and pointed snout perfect for this lifestyle. The cape cobra has a broad head and an almost rounded ‘cheek’ or temporal area.
If you look closely at the images above the top left and right are of a mole snake and a Cape cobra respectively while the bottom two images are closeups of their heads; the bottom left is a Cape cobra and the bottom right is a mole snake.
Notice the difference in head size and shape? Notice the elongation in the mole snake’s head when compared with the Cape cobra? Another feature is the distance from the eye to the nostril. If you look closely the mole snakes is further away than the Cape cobra’s (count the scales between the eye and the nostril) adding to the elongated appearance of its head.
A&D = Mole snake (Pseudaspis cana)
B&C = Cape cobra (Naja nivea)
Still not sure? Here is a video where I use a live Cape cobra to explain the difference
Can you tell the difference?
Excellent! Now you are able to help. Not to go out catching snakes, remember this is only a last resort and should be left to a trained and legally permitted snake rescuer (snake removal service), but to educate. Many snakes are needlessly killed because people think that they are going to kill them.
- you know the difference between a Cape cobra and a mole snake
- you know where to find a snake rescuer and
- you know that people are only usually bitten when trying to hurt or interfere with a snake.
Questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you!