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The Stiletto Snake (Atractaspis bibronii), previously known as a Mole Adder, is a highly venomous but harmless-looking snake that accounts for numerous snakebites during the summer months in Southern Africa.
This fossorial snake spends most of its life underground where it hunts for other snakes and lizards. It does come to the surface, usually in the early evening, and especially after rain. To effectively bite within the limited space of burrows, the Stiletto Snake has particularly long fangs which it can protrude independently and ‘stab’ its prey. Whereas most snakes can open their mouths up to around 170 degrees, this snake can only open its mouth as wide as 55 degrees. If gripped behind the head, the Stiletto snake just protrudes a fang and twists its head sideways to inflict a bite from a single fang.
The venom of this snake, though not generally considered potentially fatal, is potently cytotoxic causing severe pain, swelling, blistering and in many cases tissue damage. Many victims lose a digit. As there is no antivenom, doctors can only treat for pain, rehydrate the patient and then wait a few days to see how extensive the tissue damage is. In a paper on the treatment of Stiletto snake bites, Tilbury and Branch caution doctors not to resort to surgical intervention in the first few days following a bite, nor to lance blisters, as early surgical intervention seldom has a good outcome. There is no evidence that the early administration of antibiotics has any benefit.
This snake is quite difficult to identify and is often mistaken for one of the harmless snakes. There are a few features one can look for in order to identify a Stiletto snake. The body and belly may be the same dark brown to blackish colour but in many areas the body is brown to blackish and the belly white. When on the surface this snake will often try to escape by digging its head into the sand and this will result in an arch being formed as illustrated in one of the photographs. They also tend to thrash around in jerky movements when threated.
Another important feature of this snake is the relatively short and stubby tail with a distinct spike on the end – this snake may press the sharp spike into the hand of the person capturing it. It averages around 30 – 40 cm in length but may exceed 70 cm.
Whatever you do, do not handle any dark snake with your hands – rather contact a snake remover.