The Two Oceans Aquarium’s resident mole snake (Pseudaspis cana), affectionately known as Harry, arrived here on 29 September 2011. We spoke to Ayrton King, the Aquarist responsible for Harry’s care, to learn more about this beautiful creature and what it takes to care for him.

Ayrton started working with Harry in the "ecosystem" of the Penguin Exhibit, and has since grown to love working with him. “It took me a while to get comfortable with him. I was nervous at first but one day just decided to put him around my neck and we’ve been best friends since,” says Ayrton.

 
Ayrton and Harry have been working together so long that they are incredibly comfortable in each other's company. Credit: Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium

Does Harry have a daily routine?

Ayrton: We try to keep Harry to a daily routine so that he always knows what’s going to happen. In the morning we open his terrarium and, because he burrows underground, he always uncovers his heat pad so we cover it back up. His heater helps to keep him between 29˚C and 31˚C. We change his water every day - he gets reverse osmosis water because there is too much chlorine in tap water.

Nothing Harry likes better than taking a quick dip in lovely fresh water. Credit: Ayrton King/Two Oceans Aquarium

What do you feed Harry, and how often does he get fed?

Ayrton: Harry eats white mice, which are defrosted and fed to him with special tongs. In the wild, mole snakes’ diets consist of rodents such as moles and mice, so we feed Harry the type of food that he would typically hunt. It takes him about 10 minutes to swallow one medium-size mouse (probably the size of a phone that fits comfortably in your hand), and we feed Harry one a week.

We have a huge team dedicated to keeping our animals healthy and well fed. Here's what goes on behind the scenes every morning before our doors open.

Because mole snakes are constrictors, Harry bites onto his food and coils himself around it. He’s able to open his mouth 120˚, allowing him to eat prey up to five times the size of his head by unhinging the bottom part of his jaw. It would be like us humans trying to eat a basketball.

Credit: Ayrton King/Two Oceans Aquarium

Are mole snakes harmful to humans?

Ayrton: Mole snakes are not venomous, but can deliver a pretty nasty bite - often requiring stitches and leading to infection. In the wild, they can be very aggressive if threatened. They have about 120 teeth in their mouths, when they bite they chew like a cow!

Harry is yawning to help loosen his skin in preparation of a moult, but this is also a great chance to point out that he doesn't have fangs. Instead, mole snakes have lots of small teeth without venom injectors. Credit: Tamlyn Christians/Two Oceans Aquarium

How do you tell the difference between a female and male mole snake?

Ayrton: Male mole snakes are normally a lot darker compared to females when it comes to their colouration. Also, if you look at the base of the tail you’ll see that females have more divided plates compared to males.

Mole snakes display very little sexual dimorphism, so both males and female display similar characteristics and behaviours - like laying claim to a Halloween jack'o'lantern. Credit: Ayrton King/Two Oceans Aquarium

Do mole snakes appear in any other colours apart from what we see Harry as right now?

Ayrton: Normally when they’re younger, they’ll be a light yellowy-brown and as they grow up they become darker. Some even have bands of brown and red on them.

Mole snakes display some wide colour variation. Those of us in Cape Town might be most familiar with the dark grey-brown variety, but the one pictured here is a typical juvenile from the Kalahari. Credit: Bernard Dupont

How do mole snakes reproduce?

Ayrton: Mating usually takes place during late spring. They give birth to live young and I think the highest record was 80 at once, but the average is anything between 25 and 50 young. Young snakes are born between 20cm and 30cm long, and they grow to up to 2m long.

What is moulting, and how often does it happen?

Ayrton: Moulting is what happens when snakes and other animals grow out of their skin. It’s like if your skin didn’t grow and expand, you would need a new layer of skin in order to grow. Their eyes begin to look cloudy at the beginning stages of their moult and this happens because the scales over the eyes slough off with the rest of the skin.

Did you know that penguins moult too?

Harry's eyes turning milky is a sign that his moult is beginning - but he can still see well and continues to display hunting behaviours without any problem. Credit: Devon Bowen/Two Oceans Aquarium

If you visit us during Harry’s moult you may also notice him yawning. This isn’t because he’s tired, he is loosening the skin around his head to start shedding. The frequency of moulting depends on how much they eat, but I think the most Harry’s shed has been twice in one month. It can happen as frequently as eight to 12 times a year. You can see the skin that Harry sheds next to his display at the Aquarium when you visit us.

When his moult is complete, Harry loves to show off this shiny new scales. Credit: Ayrton King/Two Oceans Aquarium

Do they get mistaken for different snakes?

Ayrton: Yes, all the time! The most common snake they get mistaken for is the Cape cobra (Naja nivea), mainly due to the shape of its head and their similar colour. Many people who don’t know the difference between mole snakes and Cape cobras often end up trying to kill them or hurt them as a way to try and protect themselves.

Without expanding its hood, Cape cobras like this can be very easily confused for mole snakes, and vice versa. Mole snakes do not have a hood like cobras do. Credit: Jon Richfield

Does human activity harm mole snakes’ habitat in any way? Are they an endangered species?

Ayrton: Urban development threatens their habitats because it leaves an area completely destroyed and built up for human use, with no “Plan B” for the snakes. Mole snakes are not endangered but they are protected under the Western Cape Nature Conservation Act.

Learning to appreciate the beauty of nature, even common animals like the mole snake, is just one part of every Aquarium experience. Credit: Tamlyn Christians/Two Oceans Aquarium

How can humans protect snakes?

Ayrton: As people, the best we can do for snakes is to learn more about them. It’s because they’re different from us that we fear them, and by educating ourselves about them, we’re able to understand what they need and are able to live harmoniously with them.

The only question on our minds now is whether Harry is Gryffindor or Slytherin…

 

Be sure to visit Harry and learn all about the lives of Cape Town's mole snakes at his terrarium in our Penguin Exhibit on your next Aquarium visit.

Credit: Karin Schermbrucker

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