It is not unusual to hear my dog Snezhka barking, in fact, she frequently likes to wake me up. But one morning, there was an extra kerfuffle going on in the garden. Apart from the dog barking, the three cats sat motionless, staring at something, and of course, it was a snake. It is not the first time we have received unexpected guests, a tortoise came to visit the other day, and that got barked at rather a lot too. So, this is a story about Balkan snakes and if they are a threat to anyone, and the various types. If the whole subject gives you the screaming habdabs, switch off your computer right now!
The Balkan Whip Snake – Hierophis Gemonensis or Coluber Gemonensis – is a medium sized snake, which is commonly found. It can reach a length of 1m, but is usually much shorter.
It is completely harmless for humans, as it’s non-venomous. When caught and feared, it may bite fiercely, but cannot cause any trouble. It usually lives in rocky areas near sea level, as it prefers warm places, but has also been observed at altitudes up to 1400m. Whip snakes are diurnal and usually like sunning during the day.
It preys mainly on other reptiles, large insects, small mammals and, occasionally, young birds. It hunts mostly on the ground, but climbs very skillfully on bushes and low trees. In fact its Greek name Dendrogalia – meaning tree cat – is due to its cat-like climbing of trees. When hanging it stands still, and it is very difficult for someone to distinguish the snake from the branches. The whip snake mates in late spring and females lay 3-10 eggs in midsummer. In winter, it hibernates, like all snakes.
The cat snake – Telescopus Fallax – is the only snake in the Balkans with venom. However, the poison is too weak to hurt humans and is excreted in the back of its mouth, making it actually harmless. The snake feeds on small lizards and uses the poison for relaxing their bodies.
The Cat Snake, contrary to the other snakes in the Balkans, hunts during night, when the lizards are sleepy and slow. For this reason, meeting a Cat Snake is rare. Its eyes look like cat’s eyes, hence its name. Females lay 5-9 eggs, which usually hatch in mid-August. They usually “whistle” if caught and pretend to attack, but they bite very rarely.
Cat Snakes in Kefalonia an island in the Ionian Sea, are called holy snakes, as they are linked to a religious tradition dating back in ancient times. A ceremony takes place every year at the church of Virgin Mary in Lagouvardo, known also as Virgin Mary of Snakes.
According to tradition, when the nuns were once threatened by the Turks, they prayed to the Virgin Mary, whereupon, snakes appeared miraculously everywhere and surrounded the monastery, scaring the Turks off. Since then, every year between 6-16 August, small snakes with a small cross on their head appear in the rocks of the belfry. The snakes are believed to bring good fortune and their non-appearance is perceived as a bad omen. It happens that the snakes did not appear in 1940 and 1953, the years of the Second World War in Greece, and the catastrophic earthquake in Kefalonia.
The Leopard Snake – Elaphe Situla or Zamenis Situla – is the most beautiful species of snake in the Balkans, with characteristic orange-red markings on its back. Often called Ochentri in Crete – which means viper – it is incorrect, as the snake is completely harmless. This false impression has been caused by a V sign on its head, which is similar to that of vipers.
The Greek name is Spitofido, or house snake, originates from Cyclades Islands, where people deliberately brought leopard snakes in their cellars and storage areas, so as to control the mouse populations.
It has similar behaviour with the whip snake, but prefers wetter habitats. It reaches up to 1.2m in length and prefers places up to 1600m altitude. It feeds on rodents, lizards and sometimes young birds, ambushing them among rocks and in bushes. They mate in late spring and females lay 2-8 eggs. If caught, it is very likely to bite, but still it is harmless.
The Dice Snake – Natrix Tessellata – is a kind of water snake, which occurs frequently in the permanent wetlands, in and around sea shores and rock pools. Many call it as water snake, but this name actually belongs to the relative species of Natrix Natrix. Finally, there is the suspicion that the dice snake of Crete, belongs to a separate species, but it hasn’t been confirmed yet.
The dice snake passes much of his time hunting in the water (both fresh and salty), up to 1000m altitude.Within water it moves very fast, and cleverly. Its main diet consists of fish, frogs and toads.
If picked up, this snake will rarely bite, but it can and does emit a strong-smelling fluid and make a whistling sound in an attempt to put its tormentor off. It also pretends to be dead by turning upside down, with open mouth and its tongue out. It is non-venomous and usually reaches 80cm in length. It mates in the spring and females lay 5-25 eggs in the summer.
Nose-horned Viper – Poskok Vipera Ammodytes.
Adults are usually between 60-80 cm, males larger than females and can reach 100 cm. The only eastern European snake with a distinct nose-horn. Body relatively stout. Males are grayish, females are brownish, grayish-brown, reddish-brown. Rarely yellow (1), pinkish or greenish. Melanism or entirely black individuals, are is very rare.
A dark (black, brown-black) line that forms a zig-zag on the back (doesn’t have to be continuously connected). Only in rare cases is the zig-zag pale or more as a line. Belly is pink, grayish, spotted (darkly). Underside of tail is red, orange, pink, green, yellowish. Back scales are keeled. Most favorite is dry, sunny habitats with some vegetation and rocks, rock-piles, dry-stone walls, meadows with dense low bushes..
Europe’s most venomous snake, in the past caused regular human deaths, but today that possibility is rare, normally involving about a week’s stay in hospital, with severe symptoms of poisoning. Fangs can be up to 1 cm long. The dramatic swelling of the bite site, hurts a lot.
Well, that’s all I know, and I am still unsure which brand of snake, we had in the garden, because, by the time I arrived, it had gone. I think it lives under the decking, but I’m not sure.