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Live Displays

Showcasing Unusual Animals

The live displays were established to showcase unusual animals, known only by name to many people, and rarely seen.  These animals also serve as living examples for lessons provided by the Education Department for school groups, helping to stimulate a keener interest.

Vertebrate live displays

Herpetology Hall

The National Museum vertebrate live displays, which are some of the most popular exhibits in the Museum, include the following:


Some of the most popular displays in the Museum are the live displays, and in particular the snake display. The nearly 4-m-long female African Rock Python (Python natalensis) that was on display for many years was a great attraction, particularly among visiting school groups. Unfortunately she died in July 2010 after refusing to eat for some time. Owing to her popularity with the public it was decided to replace her with some other large constrictor. Other constrictors, such as the African Rock Python (P. natalensis), Burmese Python (Python molurus bivittatus), Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus) and Anaconda (Eunectes murinus), were considered unsuitable as they would eventually become too large for the existing cage and would also be a problem to feed later on.

It was therefore decided that Boa Constrictors would be ideal for the display as neither their size nor feeding would be a problem. A male and a female Red-tailed Boa were duly purchased. The Boa Constrictor (Boa constrictor) is one of the few animals whose common name is the same as its scientific name. Boa Constrictors usually grow to about 2,5 m in length, although females may grow to 4 m, and weigh up to 27 kg.

All boas and anacondas belong to the Family Boidae, as opposed to pythons who belong to the Family Pythonidae. Until more recently pythons were considered a subfamily (Pythoninae) of the Boidae and hence boas and pythons were referred to as boids. Generally pythons are found in the Old World (Africa, Asia, Australia) while boas live in both the Old World and the New World (North, Central and South America). There are 10 subspecies of Boa constrictor which live in a variety of habitats from tropical rain forest, to savanna, to desert. However, most occur in tropical rain forests due to their preference for high humidity and temperatures. They are semi-arboreal and nocturnal, preying largely on smaller mammals and birds, with the bulk of their prey comprising rodents. Lizards may also be taken.

Characteristically, the females of both Families attain greater lengths than males, with the males and females of both Families exhibiting the primitive characteristic of a vestigal pelvic girdle. The hind-limbs of the pelvic girdle are visible externally as pelvic spurs, located on either side of the vent, with male spurs being much larger than female spurs. A clear distinction between boas and pythons is that boas give live birth (viviparous), while pythons lay eggs (oviparous).

The distribution of the species Boa constrictor extends from northern Mexico, southwards to Argentina north of 35° S. They also occur on many islands along the coast of Mexico and South America. Some subspecies have only very subtle differences in markings and colouration, and their status as separate sub-species is controversial. On the other hand, colour and pattern variations within a particular subspecies may be sufficient to lead to the assumption that a specimen may well be a different species or subspecies. Captive cross-breeding has made matters even more complicated and it is often very difficult to determine which subspecies a specimen may be, particularly in the Red-tailed Boa group. This is the most commonly kept captive species.

It is sincerely hoped that the public will get many years of pleasure from viewing our two new acquisitions.

The other occupant of this display is a large American Yellow Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta).

Common Platannas

(Clawed Frog) (Xenopus laevis)

These unusual amphibians spend their entire lives in water, although they may move overland for brief periods in search of an alternative habitat. The way in which Platannas stuff food into their mouths with their front limbs is fascinating for visitors. Common Platannas, originally from Africa, have now established themselves in many parts of the world.

Yellow-bellied Terrapin

(Pelusios c. castenoides) (freshwater)

There is presently one Yellow-bellied Terrapin on display and it has been a popular exhibit for many, many years. The extended periods of time this Terrapin spends resting on the bottom of its tank often has visitors worried.

Cichlid fish

A large tank contains various cichlid fish, mainly colourful Malawian species, which brighten up this corner of the Herpetology Hall. Fish may appear out of place in this Hall, but were included here to provide a valuable resource for the Education Department to illustrate their lessons to school groups.

Invertebrate live displays

Invertebrate Hall

African Freshwater Crabs

(Potamonautes warreni)

The African Freshwater Crab display is relatively new. Although referred to as an aquatic species, the African Freshwater Crab is amphibious and can spend considerable time on land, breathing air. These crabs have well developed lungs but retain gills. Freshwater crabs are seen as environmental indicators, reflecting the quality of their habitat, and are useful in biomonitoring.


There are two live cockroach displays, one containing Madagascar Hissing Cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa), the other Common House Cockroach (Blattella germanica). Unlike other insects, the Hissing Cockroach female (up to 7 cm long) does not lay eggs but retains the developing embryos inside her body, giving birth to live young. Despite the human loathing of cockroaches, the public are fascinated by these displays.

Bee Hive

A functional African Bee (Apis mellifera) hive has been established in the Museum behind glass, where the daily activities of bees can be observed at close range. This display holds visitors spellbound for ages while they try to locate the Queen bee.

Contact details

For any queries or information regarding the Live and Herpetology displays please contact Dr Mike Bates herp@nasmus.co.za

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