Psammophylax rhombeatus (LINNAEUS, 1758)

Higher Taxa Lamprophiidae, Psammophiinae, Serpentes (snakes) 
Common Names E: Spotted Skaapsteker, Rhombic Skaapsteker
G: Gefleckter Shaapsteker, Rhomben-Skaapsteker 
D: Gevlekte skaapsteker

Comment: its common name, meaning 'sheep stabber' or 'sheep stinger', is misleading as its small teeth are set so far back in the jaw and its neurotoxic venom is so mild, that it is incapable of killing any large animal. See Wikipedia.

Synonym ?Coluber rhombeatus LINNAEUS 1758: 220
? Dipsas rhombeatus — DUMÉRIL & BIBRON 1854: 1154
Psammophylax rhombeatus ocellatus [BOCAGE 1873] (fide FITZSIMONS 1966)
Psammophylax rhombeatus — FISCHER 1881: 228
Psammophis longementalis ROUX 1907: 736
Psammophylax rhombeatus rhombeatus — BOYCOTT 1992
Psammophylax rhombeatus — MATTISON 1995: 225
Psammophylax rhombeatus — MATTISON 2007: 249 
Distribution S Namibia, Republic of South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, SW Angola.

The following map is taken from Cottone, Amanda M.  and Aaron M. Bauer, 2010. Many localities correspond to multiple specimens. Circles and triangles denote mesic and xeric zones, respectively. Shaded portion represents winter rainfall zone and non-shaded portion summer rainfall zone.


Description It is a small, attractively patterned snake, usually measuring between 45 and 85 centimetres in length, though occasionally reaching 140 cm.
Colour: greyish to yellowish brown or olive-brown, with 3-4 rows of dark, rhombus-shaped spots along its back, which may merge to form a zig-zag pattern. The colour and patterning may be quite variable. Its underside is yellowish-white, with the top of the head being uniform brownish.

Photographs: see page.

Males tend to reach a slightly (some 12%) larger adult size than females (Cottone/Bauer 2010).

Picture by Tyrone James Ping (Facebook, Snakes of South Africa): this colour variant is common in the regio of Glen Austin, Johannesburg.


Food Cottone and Bauer (2010) investigated the diet of specimens along the west coast: "The diet of P. r. rhombeatus included a wide spectrum of taxa, incorporating two mammalian families, three anuran families, and four lizard families, with 64% of all items extracted being ectothermic." And: "Specimens of Psammophylax r. rhombeatus exhibited an ontogenetic shift in prey type. Snakes of smaller SVL fed more frequently on arthropods, amphibians, and/or lizards while larger snakes fed more often on mammals."
Concerning seasonable shifts in choice of prey: "This species did not display any significant difference in feeding frequencies across winter, spring, summer, or fall collection dates."

Captive bred juveniles are regrettably reluctant in accepting standard prey items like nestling mice. For instance, one of two juveniles in my possession accepted after some weeks pieces of nestling mouse, and later on dead complete pinkies. The other one still needed to be forcefed after 11 months.
In South Africa owners regularly hatch found eggs or have breedings successes. Hatchling are sometimes fed with small gecko's of gecko parts. Vipernhunter: 'I feed them with parts from small baby mice. I do this in past and this is super. Small fish are good too. After some month they eat baby mouse self'.

Behaviour Aan interesting example of behaviour is given by Cottone and Bauer (2008) who observed a case of prey excavation.

In captivity, this snake is normally quiet and non-agressive.
In 1987 I wrote an article about my experiences with this snake in captivity. In 1996 an article appeared from Bert van de Pijpekamp about his experience and his breeding succes.

Reproductive biology Male Psammophylax r. rhombeatus mature around the same size as females (34.9 and 36.3 cm SVL, respectively (Cottone-Bauer 2010). Males from the Free State reportedly experience testicular regression during the South African winter months, while producing sperm throughout the rest of the year (Flemming and Douglas, 1997). Based on our data (with winter months containing lowest frequency males with sperm in their efferent ducts, males throughout the entire range of the species probably follow similar spermiogenic patterns (Cottone-Bauer 2010).
There is no temporal separation between vitellogenesis (which begins during winter/spring) and mating. Mating immediately follows vitellogenesis.
Clutch sizes for P. r. rhombeatus were in the research of Cottone and Bauer no greater than 12 eggs. On the other hand, Broadley (1983) reported that up to 30 eggs could be laid at a time, and other specific accounts (Bates, 1985; Creighton and Haagner, 1987; DeVilliers, 1995) report clutch sizes of 11–17 eggs.
The high counts could be attributed to communal laying of two or even more females. On the other hand, Tyrone says: "The eggs are small and some skaapstekers can reach up to just over a metre. These specimens were small (+-60cm) and the smaller individual laid 13 eggs. I've seen a large specimen lay 22 eggs in captivity."

Dustin Henrico: "Communal nesting sites are something I find quit frequently with Spotted/Rhombic Skaapstekers in a number of locations. I have found as many as 6 females under a slab of concrete around their individual clutches of eggs. I have also they also seem to use the same sites regularly each season . Your photo above seems to show evidence of this behavior . Would be interesting to find out if the same individual snakes return to the same nest sites each season?" (Facebook group Snakes of South Africa, June 27, 2016).
Tyrone James Ping posted a picture in this Facebook group that same day of a communal nesting site hr found under a concrete slab in Golden Gate National Park, Free State. This is the picture:

For more wonderful pictures of this species do go to the website of Tyrone James Ping at
http://www.tyroneping.co.za/.../psammophylax-rhombeatus.../ (And have a look at all the other wonderful pictures of other species on his website.) For instance, click here.

Both Dustin and Tyrone observed the females still coiled around the eggs, a behaviour that has been described of this snake.
In a forum on the internet someone advises: 'Just for fun leave the female with the eggs and put all of them in the incubator. She wraps around them and gets aggressive if you try to take them away.' And: 'in the wild they stay with the eggs most fo the incubation period seldom leaving them' .


Toxicity Not considered dangerous for humans.
  • Bates, M. F. 1985. Notes on Egg Clutches in Lamprophis inornatus and Psammophylax rhombeatus rhombeatus Jour. Herp. Ass. Afr. (31): 21-22
  • Bauer, A.M., and Branch, W.R. 2003. The herpetofauna of the Richtersveld National Park, Northern Cape Province, Republic of South Africa. Herpetological Natural History 8:111-160 [2001]
  • Bauer, Aaron M.; Branch, William R. & Haacke, Wulf D. 1993. The herpetofauna of the Kamanjab area and adjacent Damaraland, Namibia. Madoqua (Windhoek), 18 (2): 117-145.
  • Bocage,J.V.B. 1873. Melanges erpetologiques. II. Sur quelques reptiles et batraciens nouveaux, rares ou peu connus d‘Afrique occidentale. Jorn. Acad. Sci. Lisboa 4: 209-227
  • Boycott, R.C. 1992. An Annotated Checklist of the Amphibians and Reptiles of Swaziland. The Conservation Trust of Swaziland, 1992; online at http://www.sntc.org.sz/checklst/sdreptam.html. Note: his taxonomy is rather outdated.
  • Branch, William R. 1993. A Photographic Guide to Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 144 S.
  • Broadley, D.G. 1977. A revision of the African Snakes of the Genus Psammophylax Fitzinger (Colubridae). Occ. Pap. natl. Mus. Rhod. 1976 B6 (1): 1-44.
  • Daan, S. & Hillenius,D. 1966. Catalogue of the type specimens of amphibians and reptiles in the Zoological Museum, Amsterdam. Beaufortia 13: 117-144
  • Duméril, A. M. C., BIBRON, G. & DUMÉRIL, A. H. A., 1854. Erpétologie générale ou histoire naturelle complète des reptiles. Tome septième. Deuxième partie, comprenant l'histoire des serpents venimeux. Paris, Librairie Encyclopédique de Roret: i-xii + 781-1536
  • Fischer, J. G. 1881. Herpetologische Bemerkungen vorzugsweise über Stücke des Naturhistorischen Museums in Bremen. Abhandlungen des Naturwissenschaftlichen Vereins in Bremen, 7: 225-238 [Nov. 1881]
  • Knox, Andrew and Kate Jackson 2010. Ecological and phylogenetic influences on maxillary dentition in snakes. Phyllomedusa 9 (2): 121-131
  • Linnaeus, C. 1758. Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata. Laurentii Salvii, Holmiæ. 10th Edition: 824 pp.
  • Mattison, Chris 1995. The Encyclopedia of Snakes. New York: Facts on File, 256 pp.
  • Mattison, Chris 2007. The New Encyclopedia of Snakes. Princeton University Press
  • Roux,J. 1907. Beiträge zur Kenntnis der Fauna von Süd-Afrika. VIII. Ophidia. Zool. Jahrb., Abt. Syst., Geogr. Biol. Tiere (Jena), 25: 732-741
  • Amanda M. Cottone, Aaron M. Bauer, 2008a
    Prey excavation by Psammophylax rhombeatus rhombeatus (Colubridae: Psammophiinae) from South Africa.
    Herpetological Bulletin, 103.

  • Cottone, Amanda M. and Aaron M. Bauer. 2008b. Tail autotomy. Psammophylax r. rhombeatus (Linnaeus, 1758) and Psammophis spp. Rhombic Skaapsteker and Sand Snakes. African Herp News 44, April 2008.
  • Cottone, Amanda M. and Aaron M. Bauer. 2008c. Psammophylax r. rhombeatus (Linnaeus, 1758). Rhombic Skaapsteker. Behaviour. African Herp News 44, April 2008.
  • Cottone, Amanda M.  and Aaron M. Bauer, 2010. Sexual Dimorphism, Diet, Reproduction, and Their Geographic Variation in Sympatric Psammophiids, Psammophis crucifer and Psammophylax rhombeatus rhombeatus, from Southern Africa. Copeia, Volume 2010, Issue 4 (December 2010)
  • Cottone, Amanda M. & and Aaron M. Bauer, 2011. Variably occurring parietal pits in psammophiid snakes (Squamata: Serpentes): convergent expression of ancestral skin traits? Herpetology Notes, volume 4: 381-385 (2011) (published online on 7 November 2011)
  • Bert van de Pijpekamp. Een kweek met de gevlekte skaapsteker, Psammophylax rhombeatus.  Het Terrarium 14/6 (december 1996), p. 26-28
External links  

CB 2011, adult Hugo de Wet, Facebook group Snakes of South Africa: "About 30 cm long, Montagu W Cape." April 2015.
CB 2011, adult, click for video Bazil Kirton, Facebook group Snakes of South Africa, Sept. 22, 2016.
Bazil Kirton, Facebook group Snakes of South Africa, Sept. 22, 2016 Bazil Kirton, Facebook group Snakes of South Africa, Sept. 22, 2016


A nice video from LB Wildlife on Youtube: https://youtu.be/QwZELpx7g0Y