The research paper that my colleagues and I published last year, in which we described both a new genus and species of snake, was recently featured in the Grocott’s Mail. The animals in question belong to a large group of snakes called Psammophiinae, that can be found from the Cape of Good of Hope all the way to Uzbekistan. The work of our group helped clarify many taxonomic problems within the group. This resulted in new two new snake taxa, both of which were named in honour of local giants of the African snake world, Dr Christopher Kelly and Professor William (Bill) Branch. The findings of our paper have been featured in five separate newspapers, in the form of two different stories, one written by a professional journalist and one written by me. The first article covered by Daily Dispatch, The Herald, Talk of the Town and The Rep is discussed in detail here: https://nextgenherpetologist.co.za/2020/07/02/eastern-cape-researchers-discover-new-snake-species/. The second article that I wrote myself, and which was featured in the Grocott’s Mail, can be found below.
Werner Conradie, V Deepak, Chad Keates, David J Gower
The African natricine genus Limnophis is represented by two species: Limnophis bicolor Günther, 1865 and Limnophis bangweolicus (Mertens, 1936). They are stout-bodied, semi-aquatic snakes that mostly feed on fish and amphibians, and occur from Botswana and Namibia in the south throughout most of Zambia and Angola to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the north. We gathered new material from the ranges of both species in Angola and Zambia in order to examine their taxonomic status and identify any overlooked diversity. We constructed a phylogenetic tree, based on three mitochondrial genes (16S, cytb, ND4) and one nuclear gene (cmos), which includes the first DNA sequence data for Limnophis. Three well-supported lineages were identified, each representing separate species. The taxonomic status of the two currently recognised species is validated, and we describe a new species of Limnophis from north-eastern Angola. The new species is distinguished from the others by the combination of distinct ventral and lateral head colouration and patterning, differences in head and ventral scalation, and uncorrected pairwise genetic distances to both L. bicolor and L. bangweolicus of 5.4–8.1% in cytb, 6.1–8.4% in ND4 and 2.7–8.3% in 16S.
Africa, cryptic species, geometric morphometrics, integrative taxonomy, Serpentes, swamp snake
The Eastern Cape region plays host to a wide range of interesting and exciting snake species. Among the most fascinating of these, include the vipers and the adders of the viperidae family. South Africa plays host to 14 of these snakes, two night adders (Causus spp.), two large vipers (puff adder and gaboon adder) and 10 dwarf adders. In the Eastern Cape you can find seven of these snakes, two of which can only be found in the Eastern Cape. These two snakes are the Albany adder (Bitis albanica) and the plain mountain adder (Bitis inornata), both of which are considered among the most rarely encountered snakes in Africa. This list covers all the vipers and adders found in the Eastern Cape, except for the red adder (Bitis rubida).
Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)
Size: 90 – 100cm.
Habits: A sluggish ambush hunter that can be found in virtually every habitat, it prefers to be on the ground in bushy habitat, but can be found in low bushes sunning itself, or even swimming. They can be found basking during the day, but they tend to move at night, and are often hit by cars while crossing the road. When calm, puff adders tend to move in caterpillar-like fashion, but when agitated they will quickly switch to the conventional serpentine movement method and can move off rapidly. When concealed puff adders are less likely to bite and can often be trodden on without due reaction. When exposed however, puff adders can be become very aggressive and will often let out a deep hiss. If ignored, the snake will coil into an S-shape, and drop its head, a clear indication that a strike is imminent. Although slow moving, these snakes strike quickly and rapidly.
Danger to Life: A potentially deadly snake that is responsible for the second most serious venomous snakebites in South Africa, after the Mozambique Spitting Cobra. Due to their camouflage and preference to freeze instead of fleeing, lots of people unsuspectingly place themselves within striking range daily. Deaths are rare because the venom is slow acting, giving victims time, but professional medical treatment should be sought immediately for both humans and pets.
Prey & Feeding: A sit-and-wait predator that spends much of its time immobile, concealed beneath bushes and long grass (sometimes for weeks), awaiting passing prey. With their large retractable fangs (12-18mm) and enormous muscle tone, the snake injects its venom deep into unsuspecting prey. Once injected, the snake will release the animal (Minimize harm to itself) and allow it to flee. The snake will then follow the scent trail of dead/dying prey item. Prefers to prey on rats, mice and other small mammals, but will take lizards, birds, lizards and frogs, with juveniles showing an acute preference for toads.
Similar Species: A large charismatic species that is quite distinct. When younger, it may be confused with other dwarf adders such as the berg adder and plain mountain adder, but it is easily distinguishable from non-venomous snakes.
Berg Adder (Bitis atropos)
Size: 30 – 40cm.
Habits: A bad-tempered dwarf adder that will hiss loudly if disturbed. These snake’s frequent mountain fynbos and montane grassland from sea-level in the cape to 3000m in the Drakensberg. They are often encountered by hikers and nature enthusiasts, while basking on footrails, besides grass tussocks and on cliff ledges. While these snakes will move off quickly if disturbed, these snakes are not scared to bite and will strike rapidly if bothered.
Danger to Life: Berg adders are commonly encountered by hikers. Because of their aggressive nature and cryptic colouration (hampering identification), bites from these species are common and result in serious neurological symptoms. Although no human fatalities have been recorded, the bite should be treated seriously, and hospitalisation may be required.
Prey & Feeding: An ambush hunter that relies on its potent venom to incapacitate its variable prey. This snakes preys mainly on lizards and small rodents but will also take fledgling ground birds and amphibians (especially rain frogs) if encountered. Juveniles prey predominately on frogs and toads.
Similar Species: Easily confused with other adders (Bitis genus), especially juvenile/sub-adult puff adders because of their similar body shape and profile. Can also be confused with whip snakes, grass snakes and juvenile mole snakes because of the presence of similarly shaped dorsal markings. These snakes are however elongate and easily distinguishable from the stout, chubby berg adder.
Albany Adder (Bitis albanica)
Size: 25 – 30cm.
Habits: A rare, incredibly secretive, little adder that can be found cruising at dawn or dusk, or inactive beneath rocks, shrubs and fallen debris. The snake has a very restricted habitat preference, being found only in Albany thicket and bontvold grasslands from 50-400m above sea level. Previously considered a sub-species of the many-horned adder (Bitis cornuta), the species was described in 1997 and only a handful of specimens have been found since. Unfortunately, all these specimens have been recovered from a heavily mined area, a strip of land only 10km long. Not much is known about the behaviour of this snake, but like other dwarf adders (Bitis genus), Albany adders become agitated when confronted, and will strike repeatedly if bothered.
Danger to Life: Although no human bites have been recorded, the venom of this snake is likely similar to that of other dwarf adders and thus unlikely to cause serious symptoms. In the unlikely instance of a bite, prompt medical treatment should be sought.
Prey & Feeding: Very little is known, but this snake likely feeds on small lizards such as sand lizards, geckos and skinks, and potentially small rodents.
Similar Species: May be confused with other dwarf adders, but none of them overlap in distribution. The snake may be confused with a juvenile puff adder.
Horned Adder (Bitis caudalis)
Size: 25 – 40cm.
Habits: A small yet common arid adapted adder that that prefers hot, dry open areas, with sparse vegetation in the western arid regions, from 300-1600 masl. Usually active at dusk and dawn, this snake can often be found on warm nights basking, where it often gets killed by motorists. During the day the snake can be found basking in low shrubs, beneath rocks and bushes, and sometimes buried in loose sand. If disturbed the snake will hiss loudly, inflate its body and strike furiously.
Danger to Life: This snake has the potential to inflict and incredibly painful bit that may require medical attention, but the venom does not pose a real threat to humans, but the effects may be more severe in smaller children.
Prey & Feeding: A sit-and-wait predator that ambushes prey from a concealed position. Once bitten the snake tends to hold onto their prey. These snakes feed predominately on lizards such as geckos, lacertids and skinks, but will also take small rodents, ground living birds and frogs. In the presence of loose sand, the snake will bury itself, leaving only the eyes and horns exposed, making it virtually invisible to passing prey. The snake may use its black-tipped tail to lure prey closer.
Similar Species: May be confused with juvenile puff adders, dwarf adders such as the plain mountain adder, and grass and whip snakes. A single horn above each eye, a blotched underbelly and the presence of small head scales and a stocky body make horned adders distinguishable from these respective snakes.
Plain Mountain Adder (Bitis inornata)
Size: 25 – 30cm.
Habits: A uniformly coloured, secretive dwarf adder know from only a few sightings in north-western Eastern Cape. It can be found in Grasslands above 1500 masl, in areas that received heavy snow and frost in winter. They bask in early morning and late afternoon but can also be found inactive beneath stones and rock slabs and besides/in grass tussocks. When confronted the snake will hiss loudly, and will strike if provoked.
Prey & Feeding: An ambush hunter that feeds on small lizards such as skinks, sand lizards and geckos. Small rodents may be taken.
Danger to Life: Although no human bites have been recorded, the venom of this snake is likely like other dwarf adders and thus unlikely to cause serious symptoms. In the unlikely instance of a bite, prompt medical treatment should be sought.
Similar Species: May be confused with a young puff adder, but the lack of markings make it visually distinguishable from the vividly marked puff adder. Could be confused with the other dwarf adders, but none of these coexist with this species.
Night Adder (Causus rhombeatus)
Habits: A widespread terrestrial snake that favours damp localities, often near dams, vleis, ponds and rivers. During the day, the snake can be found inactive beneath rocks, logs and among building rubble, and sometimes inside abandoned termite mounds. At night the snake can be found actively foraging, albeit slowly, for prey. The snake can often be found near human habitation because of its preference for water and will tend to move away if confronted. If aggravated however, the snake will flatten its body, coil into an S-shape and hiss loudly.
Danger to Life: Although no human fatalities have been recorded, a bite from this snake can be very painful and may require hospitalisation for both human and pet. Bites are also common (especially dogs) as the snakes is often found in close proximity to human habitation, in search of food.
Prey & Feeding: An active hunter that relies on its sense of smell to locate its food at night, this species tends to specialise on frogs and toads. Juveniles may take tadpoles.
Similar Species: This snake is very easily confused with the rhombic egg eater. It is also sometimes confused with the other species of adder.
My research on Psammophylax, that yielded both a new species and new genus, was recently featured in four dependent newspapers, from across the Eastern Cape. These newspapers include The Daily Dispatch (East London), The Herald (Port Elizabeth), Talk of the Town (Port Alfred) and The Rep (Queenstown). Whilst arduous to complete, the research that represents a large portion of my doctoral thesis, is a massive source of pride and I feel privileged that it was featured in not just one, but four high quality newspapers. The links to the prospective newspapers can be found below, along with a link to the article on the Rhodes University website.
From the 5th to the 10th of January, I attended the 9th World Congress of Herpetology in Dunedin, New Zealand. The conference draws the best herpetologists in the world, and as a young and upcoming scientist, it was a massive honour and a privilege. South Africa was well represented at the conference, with Mike Bates, Warren Schmidt, Gary Kyle Nicolau, Emily Jackson, Alan Channing, Shelley Edwards and Werner Conradie in attendance.
At the conference I presented my research on the Psammophylax genus, to an international audience, something that proved to be a new and exciting experience.
Whilst in New Zealand, I took the opportunity to see the limited herpetofauna at a local reserve. Although behind glass, I managed to see the fabled tuatara, something that many herpetologists only dream of. I also saw a handful of other reptilian species, but no amphibians, sadly. All in all, the conference was a great experience. I made loads of new friends, and expanded my horizons as a scientist. I look forward to the next conference with bated breath. Borneo, here I come.
From the the 9th to the 13th of September 2019, I attended the 14th Herpetological Conference of Africa in Cape St Francis, Eastern Cape. It was my second HAA, and my word was it fun. I got to meet old friends, and make new ones, I got to meet great herpetologists and for a brief moment, got to feel like a great when one the fans of Snakes and Their Mates asked myself and Luke Kemp to sign their t-shirt. The conference was well attended with researchers and enthusiasts, from around the country, flocking to the small coastal town to discuss ‘herps’ in all their majesty.
Unlike my first HAA, where I presented my Honours research in the form of a poster, this conference saw me presenting my PhD in the form of two presentations. I presented my Psammophylax Systematic Review in the form of a full presentation and my Psammophylax rhombeatus phylogeography in the form of a speed talk. The talks went well, and whilst one can never claim to pull off a perfect talk, I was happy with my performance. My Psammophylax Systematic Review has since been published in JZSER and my Psammophylax rhombeatus phylogeography is well on it’s way.
Whilst the conference represented an opportunity for colleagues to meet, it also represented a moment for members of the African herpetological community to remember the late Bill Branch, one of the greatest herpetologists to ever pick up a snake hook. In his honour, my brother and I designed an Endemic of the Eastern Cape herpetology poster to highlight all the phenomenal reptile and frog species in Bill’s home province. The poster was filled with photos from myself and various other young herpetologists strewn across South Africa. At the base of the poster there is a photo and a short paragraph, detailing the titan that was… Bill Branch.
All in all it was a great conference and I eagerly anticipate the next one. Kimberley, here I come.
At a celebratory function on Tuesday 25 September 2019, I received the Environmental Award (Individual Category) for my contribution to the Grahamstown environmental community through my snake awareness talks, critter walks and school demonstrations. In addition to my certificate I received a very unique and beautiful floating trophy that currently sits atop my shelf in my departmental office.
The award was presented to me by Prof Hugo Nel and Associate Prof. Michelle Cocks was the speaker at the event. Thanks go to Rhodes University and the Environmental Committee for considering me for this award. Thanks also goes to my amazing girlfriend, Megan Reid, for Nominating me for this prestigious award.
Award write-up from Rhodes University Environmental Committee.
The individual award winner, Chad Keates, has embarked on initiatives to conserve biodiversity and to promote greater environmental responsibility in the local community with great passion. His actions reflect the University policy’s commitment to the protection of biodiversity and enhancement of ecosystem functioning. His educational activities show strong evidence of increased awareness in the community of how vital animal conservation is.
In the last few years Chad, who is completing his PhD in genetic herpetology, has organised and presented countless presentations and demonstrations about reptiles and amphibians in Makhanda. With these interactions he educates the public and dispels myths about these creatures. Many people resort to killing these animals because they do not understand them. Through his educational talks, and also because he is on call to remove and release reptiles safely, he has reduced the number of reptiles killed by the community. He organises “critter walks” to show the community the diversity of native reptiles in the town, and highlights issues posed by habitat destruction and pollution. A previous environmental awards winner had the following to say about her experience at one of these presentations:
I have attended one of his talks, and he really does go above and beyond his duties as a researcher. His passion for snakes and reptiles shines through and his efforts to educate and enhance understanding of our indigenous snakes is truly commendable.
A fellow researcher in the department of Zoology and Entomology also attests to the positive effects of his community engagement and the infectiousness of his love for snakes and reptiles:
I have attended many of his talks and events, and have heard and seen how adults and children alike have admitted to completely changing their perspective of reptiles. Many people who were terrified of snakes before, touch and hold a snake for the first time at his demonstrations, and people who admitted to killing snakes before prefer to call him to remove them instead.
Most of Chad’s work is completely voluntary, as his main goal is to do as much as he can to conserve the animals he studies and loves. Besides presentations and demonstrations, our winner runs his own website, which not only documents these events, but also acts as a database for one to identify reptiles in South Africa. Furthermore, he distributes posters on reptiles – currently he is collaborating with the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA) to create placards and signs aimed at educating and reminding people about frogs and how to conserve them.
His work has continuity. Chad has sparked the interest of other students at Rhodes University who have learned from him and are available to remove snakes in Makhanda when he is not available and his collaboration with WESSA has helped to highlight the importance of those reptiles which are not well known by the general public.
For more information, check out the link provided: https://www.ru.ac.za/environmentalsustainability/awards/2019awards/
Last year, I noticed that two roads running parallel to a dam in the center of Grahamstown had high toad traffic during the rainy evenings of the summer months. The rain and dark tar coupled with high evening traffic load made for a very treacherous journey, resulting in many frogs losing their lives. To combat this I approached the Wildlife Society of Southern Africa (WESSA), and with the help of Ariana Watkins (designer), we designed a poster highlighting the two most prominent toads in the area, and their importance to the ecosystem. The sign was funded by donors and was erected on the corner of Wincanton and Templeton Drive, where it stands as a warning for motorists to… MIND THE TOADS. The article about the poster can be found at the link provided: https://www.grocotts.co.za/2020/03/16/mind-the-toads-you-need-them/#prettyPhoto
Last year, Dr Shelley Edwards and I were interviewed for an article entitled ‘Reptile Detectives’, for the prestigious Rhodes Research Report. The Report that comes out annually highlights all the research that took place over the year, with anecdotes about key researchers strewn throughout the book. In the 2018 edition, that came out late last year, the editors sought out young researchers who were conducting cutting edge and/or novel research. Given mine and Shelley’s focus on herpetology and molecular systematics, we were approached for a story that focused on new species, how to find them, where to look and how to conserve them. The article can be found in the link below. The piece is incredibly well written and a testament to the high quality of the journalist’s that were contracted to write the article. Thank you to Rhodes University for considering myself, my passion and my research for this article, it is a privilege and an honour to be represented in such an awesome representation of Rhodes University’s insatiable appetite for knowledge.
Chad Keates, Werner Conradie, Eli Greenbaum, Shelley Edwards
Psammophylax (Fitzinger 1843) is a widespread yet poorly studied genus of African grass snakes. A genetic phylogeny of six of the seven species was estimated using multiple phylogenetic and distance‐based methods. To support the genetic analyses, we conducted morphological analyses on the body (traditional morphology) and head (geometric morphometrics) separately. Phylogenetic analyses recovered a similar topology to past studies, but with better resolution and node support. We found substantial genetic structuring within the genus, supported by significantly different head shapes between P. a. acutus and other Psammophylax. Psammophylax a. acutus was recovered as sister to its congeners, and sequence divergence values and morphometrics supported its recognition as a new genus. Increased sampling in East Africa (Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia) revealed that Psammophylax multisquamis is polyphyletic, necessitating the description of a new, morphologically cryptic species from northern Tanzania. The distribution of P. multisquamis sensu stricto is likely restricted to Kenya and Ethiopia. The study has further resolved multiple aspects of Psammophylax systematics, including the taxonomic validity of two central African subspecies, P. variabilis vanoyei (Laurent 1956) and P. tritaeniatus subniger (Laurent 1956). Inclusion of specimens from the more remote parts of Africa, in future analyses, may result in the recovery of additional diversity within Psammophylax.
geometric morphometrics, grass snake, molecular biology, phylogenetic analysis,