HAA Conference 2019

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/


Mind the Toads Poster

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 PsammophylaxPsammophylax 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,
Psammophiinae, taxonomy



Fort Brown Primary School

On Tuesday the 11th of February I did a snake talk at Fort Brown Primary School. The school which can be found 40km from Grahamstown, on the Fort Beaufort Road road, is quaint but lovely. The students were attentive and the setting was nothing short of scenic.

The talk was attended by approximately 40 students, ranging from 10 to 13 years of age. Although scared at first, many took the opportunity in their stride, with many of them handling a snake for the first time in their lives. All in all it was a good day. Thank you to Albany Museum, and more specifically Kayakazi Citwa for facilitating the talk.

On Friday the 10th of February I did a snake talk at Carlisle Bridge Farm Primary School. The school which can be found 40km from Grahamstown, on the Bedford road, is quaint but lovely. The students were attentive and the setting was nothing short of scenic. The talk was attended by approximately 50 students, ranging from 7 to 13 years of age. Although scared at first, many took the opportunity in their stride, with most of them handling a snake for the first time in their lives. All in all it was a good day. Thank you to Albany Museum, and more specifically Kayakazi Citwa for facilitating the talk.

Probus Grahamstown

On the 30th of September I attended the Highlander restaurant and bar to deliver a snake awareness talk to members of the the Grahamstown Probus Club. The talk was incredibly well received with only a handful of pensioners falling asleep on the day. The talk was followed by a vigorous array of questions and then a lovely lunch. All in all, it was a lovely day which both I, and hopefully my audience, enjoyed.

ECPTA Rangers Day 2019

On August the 23rd I attended at the ECPTA (Eastern Cape Parks Tourism Association) Field Rangers Day at Thomas Baines Nature Reserve, to showcase some of the reptiles found in the Albany area. I represented ZEML (Zoology and Entomology Molecular Lab) along with my supervisor; Dr Shelley Edwards and my lab colleague Anthony Evlambiou. We were also joined by members of CBC (Centre for Biological Control), who showcased some of the invasive plants found in the area.

The day was a great success and our stand, that comprised of snakes and lizards, was well received by all who attended, with most of the rangers in attendance taking the opportunity to handle their first snake.

On the 16th of August, I delivered a snake demonstration for students of Shaw Park Primary School. Although young, the students were incredibly attentive and took every opportunity to ask questions about the snakes on display. At the end of the demontration, almost all the kids took the opportunity to handle some of the non-venomous snakes, some of them for the first time. All in all it was a great experience, and the first time I had delivered a snake talk at the school, which is always a bonus.

On the 16th of August I traveled to Sibuya Private Game Reserve, about 10km from Kenton-on-Sea, and presented a snake talk for the rangers working there. The talk focused on the ‘Snakes of Albany’ and discussed snake biology, snake identification and snakebite treatment. The talk was well received and was followed by a short snake handling tutorial, in which I showcased the correct management strategy for problem snakes. Following this, all the rangers took the opportunity to handle some of the non-venomous species on display.

The whole event was filmed by a British film crew, whom were filming a documentary segment about British expats working in South Africa. Thanks goes to Sibuya Private Game Reserve for inviting me. It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, I look forward to seeing the final film segment on TV next year.

On 14 August, I delivered a snake talk to Grade 9 learners at Victoria Girls High school. The aim was to expose the girls to the amazing world of reptiles, and more specifically snakes. The talk ran for 30 minutes and consisted of general information about Grahamstown reptile diversity, followed by a short breakdown of snake biology and the common snakes of the area.

The talk was followed by a 15 minute show-and-tell session, in which I showcased some some live specimens to the grade. Overall, it was a great experience, with everyone thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to interact with live snakes, a first for some of the students. Special thanks goes to Chad Emslie (VG teacher) for organising it and to Victoria Girls High school for hosting me.