Psammophylax tritaeniatus (GÜNTHER, 1868)

Subspecies Psammophylax tritaeniatus tritaeniatus (GÜNTHER, 1868)
Psammophylax tritaeniatus subniger LAURENT 1956
Psammophylax tritaeniatus vanoyei LAURENT 1956 
Psammophylax tritaeniatus fitgeraldi (colour variant)? (see Uetz et al. 2006)
P. t. festivus, subniger, vanoyei fide Jirka Schmidt (pers. comm.). The status of the subspecies seems unclear.
IUCN Category: least concern. Motivation: "Psammophylax tritaeniatus has been assessed as Least Concern due to its wide distribution throughout eastern and southern Africa with the absence of any major threats. Furthermore, this species has been described as common. No conservation measures are required."
Common Names E: Striped Skaapsteker, Three-lined grass snake, Thite-bellied grass snake
G: Gestreifter Shaapsteker.
Broadley 1959: "Native name of Three-lined Grass-Snake. N'shwazi (Sinde-bele), but also applied to Psammophis s. subtaeniatus."
Synonym Rhagerrhis tritaeniatus GÜNTHER 1868: 423
Rhagerhis tritaeniata — BOCAGE 1896: 112
Psammophylax tritaeniatus — AUERBACH 1987: 163
Psammophylax tritaeniatus — BROADLEY 1998

Psammophylax tritaeniatus tritaeniatus (GÜNTHER 1868)
Rhagerrhis tritaeniatus GÜNTHER 1868: 423
Psammophylax tritaeniatus — PETERS 1869: 661
Coronella tritaeniata GÜNTHER 1881: 329
Trimerorhinus tritaeniatus — BOULENGER 1896: 139 (part.)
Cerastes tritaeniatus tritaeniatus — MERTENS 1930: 14
Psammophylax tritaeniatus tritaeniatus — BROADLEY 1959
Psammophylax tritaeniatus tritaeniatus — FITZSIMONS 1966 

Synonymy partly after FITZSIMONS 1966. 

Description Broadley 1959:
"Variation. (56 specimens.) Midbody scale rows 17; ventrals 150-168; anal divided; subcaudals 54-67; upper labials 8, the fourth and fifth entering the orbit; lower labials 9-11, the first five, rarely four or six, in contact with the anterior sublinguals; preocular 1; postoculars 2; temporals 2+3, rarely 2+21. Tail length .19 to .22 of the total."

"Colouration. Top of head light brown; vertebral scale row dark brown, the superior halves of' the scales flanking it are black, forming a sharp-edged vertebral stripe 2 scales wide; this is tianked by a pale brown, grey or yellowish stripe 3 scales wide followed by another dark brown, black-edged stripe 3 scales wide, which begins at the snout and runs through the eye; outer l½ scale rows white, with a broken orange or pinkish line running through the outer row. Upper labials, chin and throat white; underside white, cream or lemon yellow, with somo salmon or pink flecking at the ends of the ventrals.
Size. Largest (SM/R.70) 851 (680+171) mm. from Salisbury. Smallest 172 (140+32) mm. from Essexvale.


Distribution NE Namibia, N Botswana, Zimbabwe, NE Republic of South Africa, Angola, S Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, S Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Zambia, Mozambique

Type locality: Southern Africa.

subniger: SE Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Burundi, Rwanda; Type locality: “Kipiri, 2000 m [elevation], plateau des Marungu, Terr. de Baudouinville, Tanganika”

vanoyei: NE Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire); Type locality: “Blukwa, Terr. de Djugu, Ituri”

Region according to the TDWG standard, not a precise distribution map:

On S.A. Reptiles, Mitton states: "This is the snake I have found the most of in the areas I used to go looking for snakes, have found up to 6 in 1 day." And Snake-5: "I have caught 17 in one day at the sand pan in Benoni before they started developing it."

Food Feeds on rodents (e.g. rats and mice) and occasionally nestling birds. Young specimens feed on frogs and lizards (particularly skinks). 

Broadley 1959:
"Diet.The huge Salisbury specimen, recorded above, contained a partially digested rat. Captive specimens took mice (Rhabdomys and Leggada sp.) ; lizards (Chamacleo d. dilepis juv.; Mabuya s. striata; Mabuya v. varia; Mabuya q. margaritifer: Agama h. distanti), and frogs (Kassina senegalensis; Breviceps mossambicus; Rana spp.)."

On S.A. Reptiles, Bushviper states about hatchlings: "I would not even try to raise these guys. Far easy to wait till they have shed and then release them back where the parents came from.
I have tried with hatchlings that I found but they want a steady supply of baby skinks. This means they get taken back rather rapidly."

In captivity: a P. t. t. was reported to feed entirely on fish (minnows and barbel). They were not taken in the water, but when they had jumped out of the water and died. They were even eaten when dried out. Eating of fish was also observed in the wild, with a P. t. variabilis. See Newman, 'Some African Folk-lore regarding snakes'

Habitat "This snake inhabits open grassland and savanna (Branch 1998, Spawls et al. 2002). Marais (1992) also reports that it favours vleis (seasonal water bodies) and is commonly found under building rubble and other debris near towns. In grassland areas, it is found in moribund termitaria and under rocks (De Waal 1978)."(IUCN)

Oviparous (egg laying), lays between 5 and 18 eggs in summer.
Snake-5 on S.A. Reptiles: "They also protect their eggs but i have found they move off when disturbed then return a while later. One of the best moments in my life was finding a nest of eggs busy hatching one early morning about 5years back on a farm next to the R21 highway at the benoni off ramp where they are developing now i still have it on vhs cassette somewhere. i have also been nailed many times and the worst thats happened was a swolen finger and some pain for the next 2-4 days."

Broadley 1959:
"Breeding. A captive 9 froni West Nicholson, 728 mm. in length, laid 4 eggs between 27th and 30th November, when she died with 10 eggs still in her ovaries."

Venom The venom of this snake is weak and unlikely to have any effect on maN.
Broadley 1959: "This species rarely attempts to bite when captured."
Behaviour Broadley 1959: "When basking, this snake's body becomes kinked in a most unnatural manner. The first time I observed this phenomenon was when I found a 20" specimen basking on a sand-bank of the Himyani River at Sinoia. I thought that the snake was dead and it made 110 movement until I picked it up, appear-ing to be completely oblivious of its surroundings. I have since observed the same behaviour in many snakes both in captivity and in the wild state. This habit may account for many of the Striped Grass-Snakes killed on the roads and must make the species very vulnerable to the numerous birds of prey."

Remarkable is an awkward way of locomotion, illustrated in this picture:

Notes from a discussion on Facebook in the Psammophidae group (July 12, 2020), quotes from Toy Todbijl:

"… honestly, its been half a century ago, I can't remember all the details anymore. The OP jogged my memory a bit. But, yes, that is what Psammophilax tritaeniatus & P. rhombeatus do. I have not observed it in any of the Psammophis species in South Africa.

The 'Psammophylax' movement pattern in the OP is evident when they are just ambling along in a straight direction without being in a hurry; a 'homologue' of the rib/ventral scale ambulation seen in Puff Adders or Gaboon Adders when they are just unhurriedly moving along in a straight direction. The Psammophylax exhibit their squiggly motion on tarmac roads as well as soil. When they realise they've been spotted, they freeze in that squiggly pattern to escape detection, but if pursued, they dart forward in wide, sweeping movements before disappearing in rank herbaceous vegetation where they'll stop; or if on tarmac roads where there is no cover, they speed up their pace by making wide, sweeping movements like Psammophis do. In captivity, you don't get to see the characteristic 'Psammophylax lateral undulating' movement. Another snake that alters its movement are Male Gaboon Adders during the mating season. Being nocturnal & largely sedentary, you never get to appreciate how this changes when they actively search for females! I followed a male with a radio-transmitter implant for 800 m in one day & instead of winding around grass tussocks, he chose to go over them at pace, resembling a dolphin riding waves.

... they MOVE in that position. The faster they move, the more exaggerated the pattern, with fewer horizontal undulations until the pattern becomes more sweeping. I catch snakes, so I know what I've seen... "


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External links  


Picture by Marlize Engelbrecht Brickhill‎, in the Facebook group Snakes of Namibia, March 2015. Picture by Marlize Engelbrecht Brickhill‎, in the Facebook group Snakes of Namibia, March 2015.
"Striped skaapsteker i removed from sesriem street kleine kuppe a few minuts ago." Francois Theart in the Facebook group Snakes of Namibia, April 2015. Photo by Ethne Engelking, Namibia.
Photo by Ethne Engelking, Namibia. Photo by Ethne Engelking, Namibia.
Picture by Jürgen Cronje in the FB group ‎Snakes of Namibia, 4 May 2015. Namibia. Windhoek.