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  • Writer's pictureBushwise Student

Slither, crawl, hiss: All about reptiles

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

This blog was by Bushwise student Kutlwano Mahube. As part of their training, each student submits a researched blog based on a topic of their choice. Opinions contained in these blogs are the student’s.

What is a reptile? A reptile is a vertebrate animal of a class that includes snakes, lizards, crocodiles, turtles and tortoises. They are distinguished by having a dry scale skin and typically laying soft-shelled eggs on land.

Key characteristics of reptiles

  1. They are vertebrates, meaning they have backbones.

  2. Their bodies are completely covered with scales.

  3. They either produce shelled eggs or bear live young.

  4. Most reptiles have a Jacobson’s organ in the roof of their mouth.

  5. They all have at least one lung.

A flap-neck chameleon balanced on someone’s hand, as it’s safely moved off a busy road in South Africa.

Interesting facts about reptiles

  1. They evolved from amphibians.

  2. There are three orders of living reptiles in South Africa.

  3. Chelonia (shield) = Tortoises, terrapins and turtles.

  4. Squamata (scaled) = Worm lizards, lizards, skinks and snakes.

  5. Crocodylia = Nile crocodile.

  6. They have scaly skin.

  7. There are very few plant-eating reptiles.

  8. Most have three chambered hearts.

  9. In some reptiles, sex (male or female) is determined by temperature during egg incubation.

  10. They are cold blooded (Ectothermic).

Difference between Reptiles and Amphibians

The biggest distinction between reptiles and amphibians is the way in which they are born into the world. Reptiles hatch from tough, hard-shelled eggs. When they are born, they look like smaller versions of their adult selves. They are capable of basking and hunting for food right away. 

Amphibians come from jelly eggs, although there are some species that reproduce through live birth. These creatures have three stages of development – except newts, which have four. Generally, they lay their eggs in large groups in water, while some lay them in water-filled plants or puddles on leaves throughout the year and others breed at the same time of year in a mass.

What reptile species do we see in South Africa?

A spotted bush snake making its way through the branches of a tree.

In South Africa there are roughly 517 described species – which include 151 snakes, 338 lizards, 14 tortoises, six terrapins, five turtles and one species of crocodile.

In the Lowveld, visitors are bound to come across a range of reptiles during their walks through their gardens. Regular sightings here include snakes, ranging from the commonly recorded Mozambique spitting cobra and black mamba to the spotted bush snake and twig snake.

You can spot swimming tortoises– the leopard tortoise – which is part of Africa’s small five as well. You can also find the slow-moving chameleons with its lightning-fast tongue that is accurate over a relatively long distance.   

Are there any venomous reptiles?

Some reptiles, mostly snakes do have venom which they use to subdue and digest their prey. These are the types of venom they possess.

  1. Haemotoxic: This venom causes continued bleeding because it stops blood from coagulating. These snakes have grooved back fangs. One such snake is the boomslang.

  2. Cytotoxic:The venom leads to tissue destruction around the site of the bite, with localised bleeding. The snakes have hollow hinged front fangs. One such snake is the puff adder. 

  3. Neurotoxic: This type of venom affects the nervous system and causes paralysis of the muscle – difficulty in breathing, nausea and vomiting. These snakes have fixed front fangs. One such snake is the rinkhals.

What role do reptiles play in the ecosystem?

A snouted cobra during a reptile demonstration at our Mahlahla campus.

Reptiles form an important component of the food web in the ecosystem. They fill a critical role both as predator and prey species. Some of the important functions they perform include seed dispersing, controlling insect populations like ants, among other things. Crocodiles also prevent the overpopulation of fish in coastal regions and wetlands, which is pivotal in keeping the aquatic ecosystem healthy and balanced. Antivenom is also developed from taking the venom from snakes processing and modifying it and then turning it into a drug.

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