Grains Research and Development

Date: 29.08.2016

Snakes – a risk, but also a bio-control

Author: Melissa Branagh

Photo of Common Death Adder

Common Death Adder

PHOTO: Daniel Rabosky

How to be snake safe

  • Never attempt to catch or kill a snake.
  • Don’t put your hands where you cannot see them.
  • Wear boots and trousers when walking through crops, pastures or leaf litter.
  • Watch where you walk.
  • Take a torch if outside on warm nights.
  • Teach children about snake safety.
  • Keep cats or guinea fowl (they help to keep snakes away from houses and sheds).

In the event of a bite

  • Do not wash the bite site.
  • Do not apply a tourniquet.
  • Place a firm pad over the bite and apply a compression bandage, starting
    at the bite and wrapping it the full length of the limb then back to the bite site.
    Keep the limb as still as possible (ideally use a splint to reduce movement).
  • Get help quickly and attend the nearest medical facility.
  • Remain calm.
  • You do not need to catch the snake to identify it. Most hospitals have kits
    to test the bite site and identify the correct anti-venom.

Children and animals may not realise
they have been bitten

Act quickly if:

  • there are neurological symptoms (for example, eyelids closing);
  • they are having difficulty breathing; and
  • they experience pain around the bite site, nausea and lethargy.

Note: fang marks are often not obvious.

SOURCE: SnakeSense; Managing Grain Production Safely, RIRDC

Snakes are essential predators in the agricultural ecosystem, but close encounters can be uncomfortable – and potentially fatal

Australia is home to almost 200 species of snakes, some with venom regarded as the most toxic in the world. But while they can be dangerous, snakes try to avoid confrontation and most bites are a last response to being cornered or threatened.

Experts say the widespread aversion to snakes is therefore unfounded, that coexistence is normal and, in the Australian grainbelt, highly beneficial, provided people are aware of snake habits and know how to minimise the chances of a confrontation.

Snakes and other reptiles actually constitute a significant proportion of the middle-order predators that keep Australia’s agricultural ecosystem in check. Without them, rodent numbers could quickly escalate to plague proportions.

Behavioural biologist and snake-handler Georgina Covington, a director of the non-profit conservation and education organisation SnakeSense, says the ecosystem is a delicate web of essential organisms which, if unbalanced, can affect farm production.

Most grain growers are well aware of the damage that can be done by rodents and Ms Covington says this would be even worse if it wasn’t for the native snake population, particularly in stubble-retention systems that provide habitat for mice.

“The value of snakes on grains properties is massive because their primary food source is rodents,” she says.

Identity crisis

Ms Covington says most snakes are naturally timid and will, given the opportunity, retreat rather than attack. But their eyesight is poor and they will react if they perceive they cannot escape a threat. This is especially the case in windy conditions in which grass and vegetation are creating a confusion of movement.

Ms Covington says snakes give plenty of warning; puffing up or flattening their head, even standing upright, to frighten off a threat. “Biting is a last resort because it takes time and energy for their bodies to produce venom and they cannot hunt again until their glands have been replenished.”

While many farmers reach for the shovel, Ms Covington says putting yourself at shovel-length distance from a snake is a huge risk.

University of Queensland herpetologist and venom expert Associate Professor Bryan Fry says most bites occur when people are trying to kill a snake “or show off”.

Snakes are more prevalent than most people believe, particularly on Australian farms. “Where there is grain, there are mice … and snakes,” Ms Covington says. “But mostly we don’t see them because they don’t want to be seen.”

They avoid open ground, where they are exposed to birds of prey, and prefer to travel through long grass, among leaf litter, or under shrubbery or debris. Many snakes are also attracted to dams, creeks or other waterways.

Ms Covington says the risk to people can be greatly reduced by simple common sense: “We need them and we need people to be smart enough to stop killing them. When left alone, snakes present little or no danger,” she says.

The most venomous

Eastern brown snake

  • Responsible for most snakebite deaths in Australia.

Found: Eastern half of mainland Australia; thrives in agricultural areas.
Appearance: Brown, from greyish to bright caramel. Small head.
Behaviour: Anxious and fast moving. If disturbed, raises its body ready to strike.

Western brown snake

Photo of Western Brown Snake

PHOTO: Andy Mitchell

Found: Throughout mainland Australia; thrives in agricultural areas.
Appearance: Brown, from greyish to bright caramel. Small head.
Behaviour: Anxious and fast moving. If disturbed, will rush for cover. Strikes if cornered.

Coastal taipan

  • Australia’s deadliest snake.

Found: East coast from northern NSW to Brisbane and northern WA.
Appearance: Light to dark brown with cream/yellow belly and pink/orange flecks. Long fangs.
Behaviour: Nervous and alert. Prefers to escape threat, but in self-defence freezes, hurls body forward and bites.

 

Mulga snake

  • Also known as king brown snake
  • Largest recorded venom output of any snake worldwide.

Photo of Mulga Snake

PHOTO: Andy Mitchell

Found: Throughout Australia, except in Victoria, Tasmania and southern WA.
Appearance: Mid-brown, some with coppery tinge. Large head. Is part of the black snake family.
Behaviour: The southern mulga is shy and quiet; the northern mulga becomes agitated if disturbed, throws its head about and hisses loudly.

 

Tiger snake

Found: East and south coast of Australia, south-western corner of WA, islands along the south coast. Attracted to agricultural areas.
Appearance: Brown, caramel, grey, black or golden. Only some have stripes. Large head.
Behaviour: Calm and intelligent. Nocturnal hunter. When under threat, flattens neck and strikes low.
Warning: Can easily be trodden on in the dark.

 

Highland or alpine copperhead

  • Also known as yellow-bellied black snake

Found: Upland areas in north-eastern Victoria and south-eastern NSW.
Appearance: Dark grey to matt black, white/creamy yellow ventral scales, narrow copper ‘collar’, white bars around lips.
Behaviour: Nervous. Non-aggressive. Disappears quickly if disturbed.

Red-bellied black snake

  • Also known as common black snake

Photo of Red-bellied black snake

PHOTO: Paul Looyen

Found: Central and eastern Victoria and NSW, south-eastern Queensland, central to northern Queensland coast, south-eastern South Australia.
Appearance: Glossy, jet black snake; bright red or pink belly. Elegant head.
Behaviour: Calm. Does not startle easily and flees from humans if possible. If threatened, flattens body and hisses loudly.

Lowland copperhead

Found: Southern Victoria, Tasmania, King and Flinders islands. Attracted to agricultural areas.
Appearance: Variable colour (black to brown to dull brick red). Small coppery head; white bars along lips.
Behaviour: Active in cold weather. Shy. Avoids humans, but if cornered, hisses loudly, flattens body and thrashes about. May strike if provoked.

Common death adder

Found: Eastern Australia (except far north and south), southern SA and WA.
Appearance: Short, squat body; triangular head. Exhibits banded pattern in brown or
grey shades. Different-coloured tail tip (often bright).
Behaviour: Sits motionless, concealed in leaf litter, gravel or soil. Does not flee from humans.

SOURCE: SnakeSense, Australian Reptile Park

More information:

Georgina Covington, SnakeSense,

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