Every Australian raised in a regional or rural area would be able to give a detailed account of their death defying escape from a snake. I can remember when I was still at school, I would sit with my friends at lunch and we’d try to one up each other with our snake stories. Kids from dairy farms always won…
It is no small secret that people kill snakes. Usually the reason is because they fear them. I am not about to preach to you about why you should rethink your actions with the ’22 or long-handled shovel. Instead, I would like to continue to teach people a little bit more about wriggly things.
The Bloody Browns
It’s probably fair enough to say that browns are the most hated snake in Australia. Who are these browns though? Depending on who you talk to and where you are in Australia, a brown could be an: eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis); mulga snake/ king brown (Pseudechis australis) or taipan (Oxyuranus sp.). Many other snake species, often harmless, can get mistaken for being one of these simply quite terrifying individuals. On the east coast of Australia though, when we say, “another bloody brown got in the house on tuesd’y”, we’re usually referring to the eastern brown.
I have encountered many browns in my life due to living in bushland. It was not until university, when I was studying snakes, that I wondered, how many of these ‘browns’ were in fact eastern browns? Were any of them just a harmless species that sort of looked like an eastern brown?
Brown black snake???
Let me introduce you to the genus, ‘Pseudechis’ which, is commonly referred to as the, ‘black snakes’ (red-belly black and relatives). If I have taught you anything so far, let it be that common terms make no sense. The poster child of the ‘black’ snakes is the Mulga (Pseudechis australis). The mulga is also known as the king brown…. Thanks you nature for making the most famous black snake brown…. Although it’s best not to argue with a Mulga about why they’re grouped with the black snakes because you may risk offending them, and they’re incredibly dangerous.
What makes a brown a brown?
A brown is well… it’s brown right? Unfortunately wrong… Have you every heard the phrase, “elephants are grey but not all grey things are elephants”? Well the brown snake situation is similar but instead, the elephants come in a variety of colours and grey just happens to be one of them. I think a series of photographs of eastern browns may help dispel the confusion…
Now to complicate matters… The following images are of snakes that are also brown but are not eastern browns.
Okay, we’ve determined so far:
- brown snakes can be:
- any colour they feel like really
- black snakes can be brown
- not all snakes that are brown are eastern browns
Dammit science…. Feel free to take a moment to adjust to your brain trying to strangle itself.
Who else is brown then?
So many, many snakes are brown. Even individuals within the same species come in a variety of colours and that colour is often brown. Why? Well, brown is a great colour to be if you’re avoiding being eaten by kookaburras and eagles. This means that the brown that you just killed may have in fact been harmless.
How can you be sure if you’re killing an eastern brown brown or is it another brown?
Snakes are devilishly tricky to identify correctly. Primary reason being that we know very little about the majority of them. Even within a species there can be a huge degree of variation in: colour, size, scale counts and behaviour. This indicates that one species may in fact need to separated into several species. So unless you’re an expert on the subject it’s really hard to know precisely what it is you’ve just stepped on. As someone who has stepped on an actual eastern brown, knowing its species was not a comfort.
There are however a few things you can look for to determine the possible species (note: that’s the possible not definitive species). I use the same technique for identifying snakes as I do birds. This technique is known as ‘Jizz’ or ‘GISS’. Jizz is a birding term that refers to the feel of the thing, the overall impression and appearance. GISS was adapted from jizz to teach recruits how to correctly differentiate between German and Allied Force aeroplanes in WWII. GISS stands for general information size and shape. What is the size? What is the shape? What other key identifying features does it have?
There is a snake. I know it is a snake because it is slithering, has no legs and no visible external ear openings. Size: it is approximately 1.5m long. Shape: the body is thin and long. The tail is tapered to a thin point. The head is small in comparison to its body. I can clearly see the eye. General information: The snake is moving fast across the ground. The snake has bent the front section of its body into ‘s’ bends and thrashing it from side to side.
From this information I conclude it is an Eastern Brown snake. This is because eastern browns are long, thin and have tiny heads for their body length. Also, the head thrash is the signature dance move of the eastern brown.
You are walking through the bush. Suddenly a snake is looking at you in the eye. It is dangling off an overhead branch and is bent into s’s. Size: This snake is approximately 1.5m in length but it’s hard to tell just how long, due to its body being wound around the branch. Shape: the head looks too big for the body. The eyes are angled slightly forward, and sit out from the side of the head. The body is thin and the tail appears long. General information: It has begun to throw the front of its body back and forth in an attempt to strike you.
The head and eye shape immediately tells us that it is a brown tree snake/doll’s eye snake/ night tiger snake/ banded cat snake (Boiga irregularis). The strike behaviour is similar to an eastern brown’s head thrashing but in this case, it is a definite strike attempt, not a simple thrash from side to side. It is also wrapped around a tree branch 2m off the ground which, is something I’m yet to see an eastern brown do.
Note: Both of these snakes were identified without reference to their scale colouration.
A lot of snakes think twice before hurling their teeth at something aka. striking/ biting something. Why? Well imagine Donald Trump has just walked into the room (i’m sorry for infecting your imagination). He has you cornered and won’t stop talking about why climate change is a conspiracy concocted by the Chinese. Are you going to do a Luis Suarez (footballer known for biting his opponents) and launch yourself at his leg and start gnawing at it in an attempt to escape? No… First of all, you don’t want to do that because his skin is probably toxic (glowing orange is not a healthy sign). Also, the idea is to get away from him, rather than to get so close that your teeth are in his dermis (skin). Instead, you jump back and forth and throw your arms about wildly whilst simultaneously showing him how big your teeth are. You might even throw in some hissing. Splendid, he is running away…. Same goes for snakes when you corner them. Biting you is a last resort. It takes a lot of energy to produce venom and they don’t want to waste it on you. You are also all bony, nothing like the nice, soft and juicy mice and frogs they usually sink their fangs into.
There are subtle differences between bluff behaviour and the, ‘I can’t take this any more, I’m going to bite you’ behaviour. These behaviours vary between species and individuals. I’m not going to go into the specifics of this topic. Mainly because it’s really complicated and hard to explain but also because I do not particularly feel like being blamed when you get bitten, because according to me it looked like the snake was just bluffing. Just remember that the majority of snakes want to get away. One of their escape strategies is to make themselves look really big and scary and force you to run away because they want to get back to working on their tan.
Snakes under friendly fire
There are snakes that are harmless (mostly) to humans and are in fact advantageous for us to keep around. Due to the fear surrounding snakes, they are often attacked anyway because well… they’re snakes.
Cane toad exterminator
The keelback (Tropidonophis mairii) is my favourite example of an amazing snake that we should keep around. Keelbacks like to kick back and chill in you
r dam and eat your cane toads. Are they dangerous though? Well they’re certainly dangerous to cane toads. Are they venomous? Not at all, they are classed as harmless to humans, including children. If you see one of these little guys (body length between 50 and 100cm) just let him slither on by and deal with the cane toad situation. Best not to pick it up though because they are easily confused with the rough-scaled snake (venomous and a little tetchy).
Monster Buried under Mount Etna
In greek mythology, the last child of Gaia (anthropomorphic personification of the Earth) was Typhon, a monstrous giant. Anyway, Zeus decided Typhon was a real bad guy and decides to destroy him. Zeus manages to defeat Typhon and buries him deep below the earth under Mount Etna. It is said that when Mount Etna erupts it is Typhon trying to free himself from his prison.
Anything that is named after Typhon must be really scary right? Wrong… There is a family of snakes known as the Typhlopidae or blind snakes. They were named after Typhon due to their preference for burrowing beneath the soil and the fact they look slightly monstrous in the eyes of humans.
Typhlopods are snakes, despite looking like worms. They enjoy feasting on ants and termites so, if you keep them around, your house is less likely to be condemned.
Kaa and friends
While many people have objections to venomous snakes, the negativity should not extend to pythons. Pythons are not venomous and get rid of the mice for you.
Depending on the species of python (looking at you scrub pythons) they may still bite if you provoke them and it will undoubtedly hurt. Like any wound, it has the potential to get infected which, is why python bites can look slightly… disgusting… The best way to avoid getting bitten by a python, is to not touch it. I met a python once that was rescued from a party where party goers had been trying to crack it like a whip…. Apparently after the ordeal it had ‘grown’ considerably due to its spine being severely stretched. Aren’t people lovely? In that instance any bites it dealt would be very well deserved. Don’t want to get bitten by a python? Don’t touch it.
Python diets vary between species but many of them eat mice and rats. Loosely speaking, more pythons equals less chance of mouse plague. Has to be a good thing right?
When Gerald Durrell travelled to South America on a collecting trip, he remarked on how the local people did not exhibit the same Western prejudices against snakes. In fact, he noted that pythons filled the role of the cat in a Western household. Meaning, pythons were the rodent control. Pythons were also worn as accessories by certain tribes. Durrel felt that the astounding natural beauty of South American pythons surpassed that of the finest gem stones. So, not only can a python deal with your mice situation, you can wear it as a stylish bracelet.
Deadly yet necessary
As much as the general population hate browns, they do have an ecological purpose. Eastern browns for example, are excellent at keeping down your rodent population. Large snakes will include rabbits and feral cats in their diet. By killing off a snake you are by extension increasing your pest populations. I think we can all agree that we don’t want more mice around (introduced house mice that is).
How to beat snakes (no not with a cricket bat)
In Australia our snakes have small fangs. Well… at least compared to some of the snakes overseas. Our most dangerous snakes are what are known as front-fanged snakes (elapids). Australian snakes are a bit weird actually because 60% of our snakes fit into this group. They also have a really primitive method of injecting venom into their prey. Anyway that’s a story for another time…. Basically, if you wear a good pair of sturdy, loosely fitted pants (denim or cotton drill ideal) and leather boots, you’re lowering your probability of death by snake bite considerably. It is by no means guaranteed of course but it’s an excellent preventative measure. If you are regularly undertaking activities that may disturb or provoke snakes (i.e. brush-cutting, hiking through grassland, handling venomous snakes, etc…) I would suggest looking into a pair of snake-proof gaiters.
The US produces excellent snake proof gear due to the prevalence and grumpy nature of their rattle snakes. Rattle snakes have much, much larger fangs and a more refined venom injection system than Australian snakes. If you wear rattle snake proof gear, it would take a very unfortunate sequence of events (I mean extremely unlikely to ever happen) for you to be envenomnated by an Australian snake.
Myth tackling time
There are many, many myths about snakes out there. Let’s just deal with the most popular for the time being…
Myth 1: I checked my yard for snakes when we moved in so there are no snakes here (said 10 years after moving in)
First off, snakes do this thing called wriggle. They move all over the place to hunt for food and to find a nice lady snake to take out to dinner. I can not give you an exact distance a snake will traverse in its lifetime but it will be greater than the area of the average back yard.
Second of all, snakes are crafty B@$%^#ds. In the majority of cases they have evolved to be able to really, really good at hide&seek. They are amazing at blending into their environment and are capable of accessing the minutest of spaces. Even if you think you’ve searched everywhere they will be inside the log that to you looks solid.
Myth 2: pythons will eat my children
Australian pythons, on the whole, are simply not big enough
to consume a human child. Carpet pythons however, have been known to attempt it. I am not sure if there are recorded cases of them being successful or not. It is possible but it is very unlikely for your children to be eaten by an Australian python. It is much more likely for children to find a python and try playing with it and receive a bite for their actions. Definitely not pleasant but at least they weren’t eaten.
Myth 3: Children’s pythons eat children
Children’s pythons were named after zoologist, John George Children. They were not named after their taste for children. Another common misinterpretation of their name, is that they are a good python for children to have. Funnily enough, they do make great pets due to their mild temperament and small size.
Myth 4: If I kill a snake and hang it on the fence other snakes will stay away
Snakes do not exhibit empathy they same way humans do. I doubt very muc
h that other snakes would even notice the dead snake, let alone correlate that with the need to stay away. This method of deterrent has been utilised for multiple species including: feral cats, wedge-tailed eagles (sheep farmers believed that they ate their lambs), wild dogs and pirates. It is yet to be a scientifically proven method of discouraging the presence of any of these organisms.
Myth 5: snake deterrents
They don’t work. I know there are a variety of them out there and they all work in different ways but they won’t work. By all means have a go and try them but they will not work. If you do notice a decline in snake presence, it will be from another unseen factor (i.e. poor season for snake breeding) and not because you have snake deterrents. A better way to deter snakes from your property is to:
- keep the grass cut short
- remove any debris (i.e. washing machines and car parts)
- elevate outdoor structures and objects so you can clearly see underneath them
- if you have chickens, only put out enough food for a day at a time. This discourages rodents which, lowers snakes presence
- block up any access points to your house. Even if the house is brand new there can be access points. For example, there is often a space between the wall and the garage roller door.
Myth 6: it is good to have black snakes around because they eat brown snakes
This one is true but I included it as a myth because there is more to the story. Yes, black snakes will eat browns given half a chance. What is often not known is, pretty much any snake will eat another snake. For humans this is hard to understand because we area social species. Snakes tend to be much more focused on the self. If they’re hungry and see a potential food source they will eat it. They don’t need to worry about moral qualms such as: infantcide, siblicide, any of the other ‘-cides’ or cannibalism. The general line of snake thinking is, “am I bigger than him? Hmm, alright I reckon I can take him”. Not only does this practice expand the immediate food options but it is also taking future competitors out of the picture.
Myth 7: if a snake is there you will see it
You’re probably more likelyto not see a snake than see it. They are experts at blending into their environment. If you’ve ever gone bush walking you have probably walked past several snakes without even realising it.
Myth 8: if a snake sees you it will attack
I know you’re sick of hearing it by now but Australian snakes really are more interested in staying far away from you than attacking. You are big, scary and taste gross. That being said, I have had a few experiences with eastern browns that were to the contrary… Will an Australian snake actively seek out humans and attack? No, they won’t. Are eastern browns tetchy and likely to stand their ground and give chase if you do anything to provoke them even unknowingly? Yeah… that is a definite possibility…
Myth 9: all Australian snakes are venomous
Australia is home to some very, very venomous snakes but not all of our snakes are venomous. In fact, even some of our venomous snakes are not considered a danger to humans. One reason for this is because many of them have tiny heads that are simply not capable of opening wide enough to get their fangs into your leg (or other body parts).
Myth 10: if you get bitten by a snake you should kill the snake and take it to the hospital with you
If you get bitten by a snake, there is nothing you can do to reverse
having been bitten. That extends to killing the snake that injected you with venom. What you should do instead is apply a bandage and call an ambulance.
Taking the snake to the hospital is also not a good idea. Doctors are trained in medicine and not at snake identification. To determine your treatment plan, the hospital will chemically analyse the venom found at the bite site. This avoids the inaccuracy of correctly identifying the snake. As previously mentioned, brown snakes can be black and black snakes can be brown.
More? YOU WANT MORE!
If you want to learn more about venom, I suggest checking out the Venom Doc. He is a fascinating man filled to the brim on snake stories as well as knowing everything there is to know on venom. If you want to learn about snakes, take a look at, ‘Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia’ by Harold Cogger. This is a comprehensive “field guide” (it’s too big to cart around in a backpack, keep it on the coffee table) with accompanying keys to help you identify animals. For a bit of casual, yet factual, information take a look at the Australian Museum’s website.
Eastern brown photos were taken from the Goldcoast Snake Catcher’s album, “EASTERN BROWN… THEY ARENT ALWAYS BROWN”.