Suburban Serpents: Be Aware, Not Alarmed

Melbourne is home to an array of fascinating animals. From the sulfur-crested cockatoo that chews on your windowsills to the common brushtail possum that lives above your bedroom, none of them are as unwelcome and misunderstood as the wild, venomous snake.

The thing that makes these snakes so formidable is not their fangs, but their venom glands. These modified salivary glands produce venom: a toxic secretion that is intended to immobilize, partially digest, or kill the snake’s prey. When biting into its subject, a venomous snake will squeeze its venom glands. In the case of snakes with grooved fangs, the venom will run down the grooves and into the subject’s flesh. In Victoria, our venomous snakes fall into the family Elapidae, which means that they have grooved, fixed fangs at the front of their upper jaw, with the venom gland sitting just behind them, below the eye. Their venom is mainly neurotoxic, which means that it primarily affects nerve function. So if you get the shakes around these serpents, just imagine how their prey feels!

However, Victoria is also home to a few species of non-venomous snakes. These snakes, such as pythons, lack venom glands and fangs, and so kill their prey by other means. In regards to pythons, these snakes will bite onto their subject and wrap around them in order to constrict them. Two species of pythons (Pythonidae) are found in Victoria: the Murray-Darling carpet python (Morelia spilota metcalfei) and the diamond python (Morelia spilota spilota). Unfortunately (or luckily, depending on who you talk to) these beautiful pythons are not found around our city, and are only found in much wilder areas. Blind snakes of the family Thyphlopidae are also found in Victoria, but these are mostly subterranean and are rarely encountered.

The distinct pattern of the diamond python is what gives it its name. Image: Peter Robertson

The distinct pattern of the diamond python is what gives it its name. Image: Peter Robertson

In regards to Melbourne’s locals, several different species of elapid snakes (that’s right, the venomous, potentially deadly kind) call Greater Melbourne home. The three most commonly encountered snakes in Melbourne are the eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis), the lowland copperhead (Austrelaps superbus) and the tiger snake (Notechis scutatus).

Eastern brown snakes grow to around 1.5 metres long, and are responsible for more deaths than any other snake in Australia. Commonly found in the northern and western suburbs of Greater Melbourne, this species is true to its name and is known to range from a light faun to near black in colour. This elapid prefers open woodlands, scrublands and grasslands, and feeds mainly on small vertebrates and their eggs. Additionally, this species is also the neighbourhood pest control: their diet consists mostly of invasive mice and rats. The eastern brown often reacts defensively and will strike readily if threatened.

Lowland copperheads are usually found in the northern and eastern suburbs of Greater Melbourne, and can grow to approximately 1.45 metres in length. They are blackish to grey-brown in colour, with their name referring to the orange-brown colouring in some individuals. Lowland copperheads usually inhabit grassland, heathland, woodlands and open scrubland, but are often found close to a water source, feeding on ectothermic animals such as reptiles and amphibians. You can think of this species as the hermit that lives around the corner and likes to keep to themselves.  Secretive and reluctant to strike, this species will hiss loudly and flatten its body to intimidate its threat, and will even thrash about. Further provocation will cause the snake to bite. 

Although most likely a juvenile lowland copperhead, this photo shows the difficulty in identifying some species of snake based on their often subtle markings. Image: Emma Walsh

Although most likely a juvenile lowland copperhead, this photo shows the difficulty in identifying some species of snake based on their often subtle markings. Image: Emma Walsh

The tiger snake is most commonly encountered in the western suburbs of Greater Melbourne and gets its name from the yellow and black bands across the body of some individuals, although the most common form is dark- to blackish-brown with off-white to yellowish bands. The average length of this species is 1.2 metres, but individuals can range in length from one to two metres. Tiger snakes are garbage guts, and feed on a wide variety of vertebrates including fish, frogs and tadpoles, lizards, birds, and mammals, and will even feed on carrion. This elapid is generally quite shy, but is capable of exhibiting an impressive threat display. It hisses aggressively at its threat whilst inflating and deflating its body, and if provoked further it will strike.

Snakes are crucial to the ecosystems found around Melbourne and act as mid-level predators. They control prey numbers, including invasive species such as invasive mice and rats, but they also provide a food source to higher-level predators such as birds of prey.  Although these snakes are formidable and potentially dangerous, it is important to remember that they will only strike a human in defence. They do not see us as a food source, but rather as a huge animal that could potentially harm or prey on them. They are trying to defend themselves against us, just as we are trying to defend ourselves against them!

From left to right, the eastern brown snake, the lowland copperhead and the tiger snake. Images: Peter Robertson

There are many ways to minimise the chance of having an encounter with one of these fascinating and largely misunderstood creatures. When working or bushwalking outdoors in the warmer months, wear long pants, thick socks and sturdy shoes to protect your legs and feet. When lifting any object that a snake could shelter under, such as a log or a sheet of metal, make sure you lift the object in a way that provides an easy, unhindered escape by lifting the edge furthest away from you. If you are exploring the great outdoors, always take a first aid kit with pressure bandages, and stick to the paths – it is much easier to see a snake on a dirt track than it is amongst thick vegetation.

If you do encounter a snake, do not attempt to move or kill the snake. Most snake bites occur because someone has unsuccessfully tried to interact with the snake and has frightened it. It is important that if you do encounter a snake that you understand its behaviour. Tongue flicking, hissing, a raised head or a neck bent back in an s-shape are all signs that the snake feels threatened, and that it is best to leave it alone. Of course, if a snake bite does occur, call 000 immediately and apply pressure to the bite site.

Snakes have a reputation for being aggressive and ruthless, but in reality the slithering serpents feel threatened by us and are ready to defend themselves the only way they know how. By respecting them and giving them their space, we can share our habitat and maybe lose some invasive rodents in the meantime!

 

Banner image courtesy of Stephen Zozaya