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Venomous Snakes

Photo of Eastern Brown SnakeEastern Brown Snake
(Photo: P. Woodard)
Snakes are reptiles and as such unable to actively control their body temperature. Instead they rely on sunbathing. No surprise that in hot Australia snakes exist in large numbers. There are around 140 species of land snakes of which around 100 are venomous and more than 30 species of sea snakes all of which are venomous.

Given these numbers I am obviously unable to write about every snake here and will only introduce a few species for which the likelihood of encountering them is not minimal. If you are interested in snakes, I can highly recommend some books (see box on the right).

In spite of the large number of snakes, since antivenom became available only one fatal case occurs every 2-3 years, not counting of course bites causes by handling domestic snakes or deliberately provoking them.

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

This snake is also refered to as Common Brown Snake and unfortunately it is not only the second most venomous snake in the world, it also has a habitat that is close to human settlement. It lives all along the east cost and on the inland ranges of Queensland and New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, the most densely populated part of the continent. It can be found in most kind of habitats from dry scrublands over savannah woodlands and grasslands to eucalypt forests but not in wet areas like rainforests.

Brown Snakes are typically 1.1 to 1.8 metres in length, highly variably in colour and very agile. If provoked they can be very aggressive and in rare cases have been reported to even pursue the intruder.

Mulga Snake (Pseudechis australis)

Photo of Mulga SnakeMulga snake
(Photo: Allen McCloud)
This is the second longest venomous snake in Australia and can reach a length of 2 to 3 metres. Its common name 'King Brown' is misleading, because it belongs to the black snakes. The colour ranges from light brown in desert regions to dark brown colour that is almost black in cooler regions of Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. They occur in all Australian states except Victoria and Tasmania.

While the venom is not particulary powerful, it is produced in huge quantities. With a single bite a large Mulga snake can deliver more than 150 mg of venom.

Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus)

Photo of Red-bellied Black SnakeRed-bellied Black Snake
(Photo: Wikipedia)
One of Australia's best-known snakes because it lives close to urban areas along the east cost of Australia. The natural habitat encompasses forests, woodlands and swamplands.

It has an average length of 1.5 to 2 metres and is easily identified by the glossy black colour of top and a red or pinkish colour of underside and belly.

The good news is that although encounters with this snake are relatively frequent, fatalities are rare. Not only is the snake not very aggressive and given a chance prefers to retreat rather than to attack, it also typically choses to inject only a small amount of venom. Nevertheless, if bitten immediate medical attention is required.

Coastal Taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus scutellatus)

Photo of a Costal TiapanCoastal Taipan
(Photo: Denise Chan)
This is the third most venomous snake in the world and one of the longest venomous snakes in Australia, reaching up to 3 metres in length. Typical length is 1.5 to 2 metres and the colours range from uniformly olive or reddish-brown to dark gray or almost black. The underside is typically lighter in colour, ranging from creamy-white to a pale light yellow.

It occurs along the cost of northern Australia as far south as the northern border of New South Wales. Especially in the sugarcane fields of Queensland this snake is very common and has caused many deaths when cane was cut by hand in the last century.

The coastal taipan is usually not confrontational and will attempt to retreat, but if provoked it can become very aggressive and strike repeatedly. If bitten, seek medical help immediately, because the snake always delivers a lethal dose of poison and death will typically occur within only 90 minutes.

Death Adders

Photo of a Death AdderDeath Adder
(Photo: Dough Beckers)
Death adders are a group of highly venomous snakes of viper-like appearance with a short, robust body and triangular shaped heads. Colours are very variable depending on location, but almost all death adders have large bands around the body. They are easily distinguished from other snakes by a worm like lure at the tip of their tails which they use to attract prey.

Death adders do not actively hunt their prey but burry themselves in leaves, soil or sand and once they have lured prey within range, they strike with incredible speed. It takes less than 0.15 seconds from strike position over striking and envenoming the prey back to strike position.

I admit, so far this sounds pretty bad, because you are unlikely to see the snake before it strikes. However, there are some good news. Unlike most snakes, the venom is neurotoxic only, meaning there is no component that coagulates the blood or directly affects the heart. It causes a paralysis which at first might not seems too bad but can ultimately result in respiratory shutdown. As symptoms progress only slowly, it takes about 6 hours before it comes to this, so there is usually plenty of time to get to a hospital where the chances of survival and full recovery are excellent, because antivenom is available.

Copperheads

Photo of a Copperhead snakeCopperhead Snake
(Photo: John Langsford)
While sharing the same name, this group of 3 species of snakes is not related to the American snake of the same name. They are native to the temperate southern and eastern parts of the continent. Depending on the actual species, size varies between only 60 centimetres and 1.80 metres and colour varies just as much. Shades range from a coppery mid-brown over yellowish and grey to almost black. The name giving copperhead colouring is not always present.

They love frogs and while they are moderately uncommon elsewhere tend to accumulate in places where many frogs live. Where copperheads are common, other snakes tend to be rare.

These snakes are not aggressive and will usually retreat if given the chance. Their venom is only moderately toxic by Australian standards, but is still in the toxicity range of the Indian cobra and a single bite can deliver a substantial amount of venom which - if untreated - can result in a fatal outcome. While there is no specific antivenom available for copperheads, tiger snake antivenom is effective.

Tiger Snakes

Photo of Tiger SnakeTiger Snake
(Photo: Wikipedia)
This is a group of snakes that is highly variable in size and appearance. Most sub-species show a pattern of darker bands ranging from strongly contrasting to indistinct and can range from pale to very dark in colour. The rest of the body is olive, yellow, orange-brown or black with a light yellow or orange underside. The largest specimen can reach up to 2.1 metres in length and they can be found across the south of Australia including costal islands and Tasmania. The natural habitat consists of coastal environments, wetlands and creeks.

The venom is very strong and symtoms typically include localised pain near the bite and in the neck region, tingling, numbness, sweating which is followed quite rapidly by paralysis and breathing difficulties. Photo of a DugiteDugite
(Photo: Rob Ahern)
Before antivenom became available, the fatality rate was around 50 % but nowadays the death rate is much lower. The venom varies a bit with sub-species and if there is some venom on the skin near the bite, this can actually help to find the right antivenom. Only if the encounter was in Tasmania, this is not necessary as there is a universal antivenom available covering all Tasmanian snakes.

Dugite snake (Pseudonaja affinis)

Dugites can grow up to 2 metres and are native to Western Australia, where they inhabit sandy areas and bushlands in the south of the state. They have also been found inremote coastal areas of south-western South Australia. Colours vary widely between indivual specimen and are therefore not reliable means for identification.

Generally dugites avoid biting humans and if they bite at all, they usually don't inject venom and most people bitten will therefore not require antivenom. The odds of an unpleasant encounter are highest during the mating season between October and November, when these snakes become a bit more aggressive. If it choses to use its venom, the result can be fatal. As members of the family of brown snakes, the venom is extremely potent. Venomous bite symptoms include abdominal pain, breathing and swallowing difficulties, convulsions, drop of blood pressure and kidney failure.

 

Want to know more?Books and DVDs I can recommend

Dangerous Creatures of Australia

On almost 100 pages the author gives an introduction to the most dangerous creatures in Australia. Given the limited space this book can only provide a brief overview.


Spiders of Australia: An Introduction to Their Classification, Biology & Distribution

A comprehensive guide to Australian spiders, their identification and classification.


Spectacular Snakes of Australia

The book presents the snakes of Australia and unlike other books has a particular focus on the photographic presentation. Ideal for every friend of snakes and reptiles.

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