School of Life Sciences

Television Show Features UKZN Researchers’ Work with Snakes

An eight-part television series titled Snake Season, produced by People°sWeather for their DStv channel 180 focusing on weather, environmental and lifestyle news, features two researchers from the School of Life Sciences (SLS) who are working with local reptile and amphibian expert Mr Nick Evans.

Head of the Conservation Genetics Lab in the SLS, Dr Sandi Willows-Munro, and postdoctoral researcher Dr Cormac Price appeared in two of the show’s episodes, filmed largely in the Durban area and focusing on the diverse snake species that live alongside the area’s population of nearly 4 million people.

‘Durban is home to many of the world’s most venomous snakes and yet very few people actually get bitten each year. The question is why,’ said Willows-Munro.

Working with Evans, who runs KZN Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Willows-Munro and Price are investigating this question by looking at ways in which snakes have adapted to urban areas, likely drawn to human habitations by the promise of food and shelter. They are also exploring urban snakes’ breeding behaviour, movements, territoriality and more by collecting data about the genetics and ecology of venomous Mozambique spitting cobras and black mambas captured in the city by Evans.

Evans, who responds to calls to remove snakes and conducts educational activities on the important role snakes play in ecosystems, records the creatures’ basic biological statistics including their length, sex, general health and precisely where they were found. He then takes a genetic sample from the snake via a tail snip and in some cases inserts microchips, like those used to tag domestic dogs and cats, to monitor the snakes’ movements and determine if snakes being captured, have been caught previously.

This data will help Willows-Munro and Price determine if the same snakes are repeatedly drawn to properties, or if they are simply caught as they move through the urban matrix to gain access to green spaces. Willows-Munro will be focusing on the reptiles’ genetics and will perform low-coverage genome sequencing of the two species, while Price’s research focuses on telemetry, exploring the snakes’ distribution, abundance and movements, and their run-ins with humans and domestic animals.

The combination of their data will contribute to a better understanding of the population genetic structure of these snakes in the city, and provide insight on how to manage the wildlife-human conflict in the city. It will also contribute to maintaining rich, resilient urban biodiversity.

‘This work is a bridge between research, welfare and conservation,’ said Price. ‘Durban is a fascinating place where urban wildlife is concerned. If we can understand how these snakes have adapted to live around humans, with snakebites being rare, Durban could be an international example to other cities globally regarding resident dangerous snakes.’

•    One of the filming locations for the documentary was the Frank Bush Zoology Museum on the University’s Pietermaritzburg campus, home to zoological specimens housed in the museum since 1903 and used for teaching purposes.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Brendan Price, Cormac Price and Nick Evans