I was invited to go live on TV for RTHK 31 All Being Well with Alyson Hau and Ben Cullen. The entire team and the production are so professional. There’s no script and I didn’t have much prepared in advance. That’s fun! They learned about animals. I learned how a live TV show is produced smoothly. My panther chameleon and Dominican mountain boa were doing a great job as well!
The Formosa kukri snake is also known as Taiwan kukri snake or beautiful kukri snake.
In spite of its name, the natural range of this species is not limited to Taiwan but also Vietnam, Japan (Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama), China including Hong Kong, and Hainan.
It is a small snake growing to usually 60 – 70 cm and rarely over 90 cm.
It is one of the 81 species of kukri snakes.
Kukri snakes are ovivores (egg-eaters) from Asia. They were named after the kukri knife, which is similar in shape to their curved, broad, flattened, enlarged rear teeth. With that said, they are not venomous and usually not aggressive. They got such strong teeth because of their ovivorous (egg-eating) diet. The teeth only help these small snakes cut open eggshells for easier digestion.
This 4-inch noodle I found in my backyard is a fully-grown blind snake — one of the smallest snakes in the world.
Eyesight is never an important sense of snakes. But most snakes do see and have exposed, visible eyeballs. However, as the name suggests, blind snakes are completely blind. The eyes can’t form images, but can still register light intensity, and are barely discernible as tiny dots under head translucent scales. In some blind snakes, you even can’t see the dots, like this one in my picture.
Pretty common but you don’t often see them because they are totally fossorial animals living underground. That’s why being blind won’t bother them at all.
There are 3 blind snakes in Hong Kong:
Brahminy blind snake or locally called Common blind snake (Indotyphlops braminus) is native to most of Asia and Africa. It has been introduced to Australia and throughout most of the Americas. 鉤盲蛇
White-headed blind snake (Indotyphlops albiceps) is a less common species of blind snake. 白頭鈎盲蛇
Hong Kong blind snake or Lazell’s blind snake (Indotyphlops lazelli) is a little-known species endemic to Hong Kong, first described in 2004. 香港盲蛇
Many Kiwis, Hawaiians, and Europeans who recently moved to Asia like to tell me how wonderful Asia is and how much they love living in Asia. But there is this one specific nightmare that is bothering them – snakes.
I say it’s fair enough to have snakes here. As the largest continent on earth and being warm and bushy, why would you not think there would be snakes in here? Not trying to scare you but I can easily name some venomous snakes in Asia – King cobra and many other cobras, kraits, coral snakes, sea snakes, Russell’s viper, and saw-scaled viper – all deadly. If you believe bright-colored snakes are more dangerous then I have to tell you, no. Most of the deadly snakes I mentioned are in dull colors from brown, gray to black. Ironically, the bright-colored venomous snakes in Asia are usually not deadly, such as the Asian pit vipers of the genus Trimeresurus. Here are a few I have encountered:
Most of the species are bright green like this:
An unusual one can be blue like this:
There are also a few exceptional dark ones like this:
The Komodo dragon is not the only animal in Komodo Island that makes me visit over and over again. This snake has always been the second sought-after species in my previous trips to Komodo Island.
The Sunda Island pitviper (a.k.a. Lesser Sunda Island pit viper, White-lipped island pit viper, or Blue insularis viper) is native to Komodo and some nearby Indonesian islands such as Bali, Flores, Lombok, Padar, Rinca, eastern Java, Adonara, Alor, Romang, Roti, Sumba, Sumbawa, Wetar, and also Timor of East Timor.
Although mostly turquoise or blue, some snakes of this species can be bright green or bright yellow. Interestingly, some blue individuals are born green and turn into blue in a year or two. No doubt, this species has the most outstanding colors of all 50 species of Asian pit vipers (Trimeresurus) while 90% of the species in the genus are green such as the Bamboo pit viper. A few species are very dark to almost black such as the Mangrove pit viper.
Ouroboros (or uroboros) — an ancient symbol depicting a reptile eating its own tail. It symbolizes fertility in some religions. The tail is a phallic symbol (an erect penis). The mouth is a yonic (vagina) or womb-like symbol.
In real life, it happens.
Although not common, I have seen snakes eating themselves. Scientifically, autocannibalism (self-cannibalism) in snakes is not normal. Well so, snakes get disoriented when overheated, and their metabolism goes into overdrive. It makes the snakes feel so hungry to the point that they will try to eat the first moving thing they see, and that’s usually their own tail. When the feeding mechanism starts, snakes will have their focus fully on consuming the prey. The feeling of pain will be overridden. Many snakes will keep going even if they’re bit, mauled, and even beheaded.
You can see why ancient Egyptians chose snakes to symbolize the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
Taking close-up photos of venomous snakes is always my kind of adrenaline booster. This one was even more exciting with me knowing the fact that there’s no antivenin specifically made for this snake. Bites are treated with polyvalent antivenin in SE Asian hospitals.
The Mangrove pit viper (a.k.a. Mangrove viper, Shore pit viper, or Purple-spotted pit viper) is a small venomous snake growing to 66-90 centimeters (26-35 in). It is native to Singapore, West Malaysia, Sumatra and Java of Indonesia, Thailand, India, Burma, and Bangladesh.
You don’t always have to be the brightest one to stand out from the crowd. Take a look at this dark horse.
It may look black to the untrained eye. But if you look carefully it is a very dark purple hue, hence its Latin name purpureomaculatus. You may think that with such a dark color this must be a subtle snake trying to look just like most other snakes. But it is in fact so special being the darkest species in its genus (Asian pit vipers – Trimeresurus).
Being dark is rare, while all its cousins are bright.
Although few exceptional ones can be bright yellow or bright blue such as the Komodo Island pit viper, over 90% of species in this genus are bright green, including the Bamboo pit viper which is the most common species in the genus and was also described by British zoologist John Edward Gray. Even though it is more well-known than other Asian pit vipers nowadays, back then it was first known to science a good decade after the much more subtle-looking Mangrove pit viper was. The dark color didn’t help much from being discovered. This is the fifth species to be described (1832) in the entire genus of 50 species of Asian pit vipers.
There used to be 2 subspecies – this one (Trimeresurus purpureomaculatus purpureomaculatus) and another one that is endemic to the Andaman Islands of India (Trimeresurus purpureomaculatus andersoni) which is now separated and classified as a full species named Andaman pit viper (Trimeresurus andersonii) a.k.a. Nicobar mangrove pit viper or Anderson’s pitviper.
The Wolf Snake is native to a large range of South Asia and Southeast Asia. Individuals of the same species from different locations appear to be very different. Patterns can be variable from patches, collars to bands. Coloration also varies from black, brownish, grayish, olive, to yellowish, pearl white and iridescent. It’s a result of divergent evolution.
It’s similar to how pet snakes got all the non-normal patterns and colors (morphs) generations after generations.
Every time I ask the boys, from young boys to teenagers to young men, “What’s your favorite snake?” I definitely hear King cobra more than any other snakes! Despite the fact that it doesn’t have the deadliest venom comparing to the Inland taipan, the King cobra still holds a special place in many boys’ hearts as “the most dangerous snake in the world”. It could even be prior to the hottest pop star or the coolest car because all those will become obsolete from time to time. But the realm of the King cobra just never gets dated.
Arguably the largest venomous snake
Some Gaboon vipers (even though obviously shorter) could be heavier than King cobras. So the King cobra is sometimes not considered the largest venomous snake (in weight), but it is undoubtedly the longest venomous snake in the world – commonly grow to over 10-12 feet, with the longest record over 19 feet. It is much longer than the second-longest venomous snake, the Black mamba, which generally won’t exceed 9 feet.
Do we call the females Queen cobras, like queen bees? No. We also don’t call the young Prince cobras or Princess cobras. King is an honor to refer to its top danger level and its snake-eating habit.
Oh, Hannah! Hey, all the Hannahs out there! Did you know that you share the name with the King cobra? Ophiophagus hannah in Greek means arboreal snake-eater. The name was given by Danish naturalist Theodore Edward Cantor in 1836.
As its name suggests, the Kings are ophiophagous. They specialized in eating snakes. In Hong Kong, I’ve seen them preying on young Burmese pythons, Oriental ratsnakes, deadly Banded kraits and Many-banded kraits. Having snakes as the staple diet doesn’t mean the Kings will never ever eat anything else. Not common at all, but I’ve also seen them eating Water monitor lizards. In captivity, some Kings can be converted into chowing down rodents or birds. To make that happen it will require some tricks to confuse the Kings which will make things pretty messy. I ain’t gonna describe it here..
What? King cobra is not a cobra?
Even such a popular snake has its little secret that most people don’t know. Sorry to be a killjoy. The King cobra is not a cobra. True cobras are smaller and they are all in the genus Naja such as the Chinese cobra.
Different realms, different Kings
These in my photos are the Kings I encountered in SE Asia unofficially known as “Malaysian king cobras”. The King cobras in Hong Kong, unofficially known as “Chinese king cobras”, have much darker coloration from tan to almost black with indistinct yellow bands all over the body. The yellow bands start off bright yellow when young and fade into a pale color close to the body color when old. They are the same species though. No subspecies have been distinguished within the species. That is always only one recognized King.
Gentle giant – the Burmese python is the largest native species in Hong Kong (in length) which I feel more comfortable catching than many smaller snakes. Not saying they won’t bite though.
Size does matter, but length or girth? Wild pythons in Hong Kong used to be much larger back in the 50s. The record-holder was 5.74 m (18’10”). Nowadays the ones found rarely exceed 3-4 m. But length is not what makes the Burmese python a true giant. Weight is. The heaviest record is 182.8 kg (403 lb). A few species could grow longer (such as the Reticulated python) but probably only one single species can grow heavier – the Green anaconda.
The Big 5
The Burmese python is the largest snake in Hong Kong and the second-largest (in weight) in the world after the Green anaconda. Together with the Reticulated python (the longest snake in the world), African rock python, and Indian python, they make the big 5 of snakes. But the size ranking of these giant snakes should not be considered definitive. There is considerable variation in the maximum reported size of these species, and most measurements are not truly verifiable.
The 5 largest snakes in the world (not listed in order):
Green anaconda (Eunectes murinus)
Burmese python (Python bivittatus)
Reticulated python (Malayopython reticulatus)
African rock python (Python sebae)
Indian python (Python molurus)
Has Burma separated from India a decade ago? What?
Surprisingly, such an iconic snake did not get to become a full species until 2009. Before that, the Burmese python was considered just a subspecies of the Indian python (Python molurus). Asian rock python was the name for both on the species level.
It swallows more than just swallows
When keeping backyard poultry was still allowed in Hong Kong back in the day, before 2006, chicken was the python’s favorite item on the menu. After 2006, its diet has been back to natural which consists of birds, rodents, feral cats, dogs, monkeys, barking deers, calves, goats, and wild boars.
Overgrown in the West; Protected in the East
Despite the fact that the Burmese python has become a very “successful” invasive species on the other side of the globe in the Florida Everglades, it is locally protected in Hong Kong. As apex predators of Hong Kong, these giant snakes contribute to ecosystem services by controlling the overpopulation of rodents, boars, and especially feral cats which kill a large number of local species every night.
Due to their large mass and the amount of self-confidence, when we encounter them chances are they can be moving very slowly. Roadkills happen often. I have had them crossing the road slowly (or barely moving) right in front of my car when driving in suburbs or rural areas. I had to block the road with my car until they finished crossing. Even had to move those not willing to move to the roadside.
They travel by day, too
Mainly nocturnal, but they are often found hanging out during the day in the warmer days in Hong Kong. They travel a lot – have a large home range. It is recorded that there’s a radio-tracked adult female which covered an area of more than 12 hectares within 24 hours on Lantau Island.
Not only in Burma
In Hong Kong, it is widely distributed including all major islands. Outside Hong Kong, in spite of the name, the distribution of the Burmese pyhton is not limited to Myanmar but throughout southern and Southeast Asia, including India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and southern China in Fujian, Jiangxi, Guangdong, Hainan, Guangxi, and Yunnan.
Many-banded krait (Bungarus multicinctus), or Multi-banded krait, is much smaller than its cousin Banded Krait (Bungarus fasciatus) but is surprisingly deadlier – the most venomous krait in the world!
Distribution In Hong Kong, it’s widely distributed in New Territories and on some islands. Outside Hong Kong, it’s found in much of central and southern China and Southeast Asia.
Habitat These kraits dwell in a diversity of habitats including shrublands, forests, agricultural areas, mangroves, and marshes. They prefer humid lowlands. I often found them inside catchwaters. Uncommon in drier grasslands and woodlands.
Behavior Just like other kraits, it is strictly nocturnal. The ones I found during the day were all very timid and didn’t try to bite. But at night they will become highly alert.
Diet Kraits are ophiophagous, preying primarily upon other snakes (including venomous and harmless snakes) and can be cannibalistic, feeding on their own kind. I have also seen few of them eating small rodents, frogs and lizards.
Reproduction Oviparous. 4-8 eggs per clutch.
Venom Bites can be deadly to humans. The venom is highly toxic with LD50 values of 0.09 – 0.108 mg/kg. Clinical effects include vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and dizziness. Severe envenomation can lead to respiratory failure and death may occur due to suffocation. I have been super careful when catching the one in my photo together with every single one I caught by hand. They are smaller, more wiggly, more slippery, and harder to get a hold of.
This kind of black-and-yellow rarely bites, but if it does it’s gonna kill.
The Banded krait (Bungarus fasciatus) is a large, venomous snake growing to anywhere from 100 up to 210 cm (3’3″ to 6’11”). It is larger but less venomous than its cousin, the Many-banded krait (Bungarus multicinctus). But who cares? Bites are still toxic enough to kill humans!
Distribution In Hong Kong, it’s distributed in some particular parts of the New Territories, Hong Kong Island, and Lantau. Outside Hong Kong, it’s widely distributed from India to southern China, and from Malay Peninsula to Indonesia.
Habitat It prefers living in lowlands with much vegetation and water like shrublands, cultivated fields, and marshes. Uncommon in drier grasslands and woodlands.
Behavior Just like other kraits, it is strictly nocturnal. The ones I found during the day were all very timid and didn’t try to bite. But at night they will become highly alert.
Diet Kraits are ophiophagous, preying primarily upon other snakes (including venomous and harmless snakes) and can be cannibalistic, feeding on their own kind. Banded kraits in Hong Kong mainly feed on rat snakes (Ptyas sp). I have also seen few of them eating frogs and lizards.
Reproduction Oviparous. 6-14 eggs per clutch.
Venom The Banded krait rarely attack. But when it does defensively its bites can be deadly to humans. The venom mainly contains neurotoxins with LD50 values of 2.4 – 3.6 mg/kg. Clinical effects include vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and dizziness. Severe envenomation can lead to respiratory failure and death may occur due to suffocation.
Where in HK? Very common – low hilly areas, grasslands, cultivated fields
Size: 50 – 90 cm / 1’8″ – 2’11” Distribution: Southern Asia Habitat: Arboreal Diet: Carnivore Behavior: Nocturnal Conservation status: Least Concern
The Bamboo pit viper or White-lipped pit viper (or occasionally called Green pit viper, Bamboo snake, or Bamboo viper) is the most common venomous snake species in Hong Kong and is responsible for over 90% of the reported snake bites. It can be found in forests, mountains, wetlands, and many different habitats. This species can also be found in Southern China, Indonesia, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam.
A small to medium-sized snake growing to 50 cm (1’8″), up to 90 cm (2’11”). Females get bigger than males. Only males have white ventrolateral stripes.
This is a nocturnal species. Even in total darkness, they can catch their prey by using the heat-sensing pits below their eyes which most snakes don’t have. That’s why they’re called pit vipers.
Bites are painful and can cause swelling. The venom is a hemotoxin that attacks red blood cells and causes tissue damage. It may not be deadly to most healthy humans (few fatalities recorded though) but is strong enough to kill or paralyze their prey such as frogs, lizards, and small mammals.
Why did Kobe Bryant choose Black Mamba when there are cobra, viper, rattlesnake, tiger snake, krait, and 600 other venomous snakes in the world?
Let me recap a few cool things about this snake probably most people didn’t know:
Why “Black” Mamba When It’s Not Black? Its body is not black but olive, yellowish-brown, khaki or gunmetal. It has a coffin-shaped head. When this coffin opens shows an unusually dark bluish-grey to nearly black mouth. Most other snakes have a regular pinkish mouth.
The Most Venomous? No, the Black mamba is not the most venomous snake. Actually far from it. It’s only the 53rd most venomous snake in terms of toxicity of venom (0.264). That is 264 times weaker than the most venomous snake (0.001).
The Largest? No, the Black mamba is a very long snake (up to over 14 feet) but is still much smaller than the king cobra, not to mention the pythons and anaconda.
Eats Big Prey? Not at all. It mainly feeds on small birds, bats or rodents that weigh only less than 6% of its body mass.
Then Why So Deadly? It’s the speed. The Black Mamba is the fastest snake on earth. Even though its venom is far from the most toxic ones but still its bite can kill a human in less than 30 minutes.
I find this species harder to catch and handle than most other venomous snakes especially when in trees. Deadly offense and unbeatable defense at the same time. I’d say encountering/catching a King Cobra is a deadly experience. But when it comes to a Black Mamba in tree, IMHO, it’s an even worse nightmare…