King Brown. Mulga Snake. Pseudechis australis. The most strine (or strayan) of the Jo Blakes. Almost any snake of size in western Queensland is by default thought to be a King Brown and invariably spoken of with a mixture of fear and deference – the yarn generally ending with how it was killed with a shovel.
But snakes are wonderful creatures. In Australia, they are a significant large predator in a country lacking many large predators. Tiger Snakes instead of Tigers. Species such as Woma Pythons and Inland Taipans evolved to selectively prey on mammals such as Bilbies and Long-haired rats. As such, snakes are a key component of our ecosystems and their health. They should not be thoughtlessly harmed.
About 20 years ago, the future of Mulga Snakes was a bit uncertain. Cane Toads, as they made their way across northern Australia, wrought havoc on animals that like to chow on small vertebrates such as frogs. The legacy of that careless attempt at a biological control of cane beetles lingers on, with Northern Quolls the most brutalised, and goannas and snakes copping a battering too. Fortunately, many of these predators survived and recovered having learned to avoid the toads. Mulga Snakes are now one of the more common large elapids that we see on our Queensland reserves. (Elapids being the family of poisonous front-fanged species.)
Edgbaston is a small reserve in central Queensland renowned for its unique Great Artesian Basin springs, and the significant and endemic fauna that live in them, like the Red-finned Blue-eye and Edgbaston Goby. However, the 9000-hectare reserve has many other exciting terrestrial habitats that are largely unexplored. Bush Heritage Ecologist Dr Pippa Kern has commenced biannual surveys to document the species of those areas. We use this information to monitor the success of our property-wide management so we can improve it to better protect all species on the reserve.
In our surveys we target reptiles by spotlighting, using pitfall traps, and especially with funnel traps. Funnel traps are an ingenious repurposing of a fish or yabby trap into a longer, smaller form. We place these beside the low mesh fences that we use to guide animals into our pitfall traps. We capture a lot of skinks and geckos but the serpents are the prize – and funnels are particularly adept at snake snaffling. Snakes enter the funnel-shaped entrance and once inside on the bottom of the trap they're unable to find the exit, which is raised about 10 cm off the ground. So they then curl up and wait for the ecologists to collect them.
Snakes are largely harmless – even the large elapids. If treated with veneration and care, they're more interested in staying away from humans than biting them. Most, if not all, snake bites occur due to people trying to kill the reptiles, thereby harassing them, making them upset and fearful, and getting into striking range. Or it happens when someone accidentally treads on one, prompting it to strike out. Think about someone treading on your foot – you reflexively react too. And the fangs of most Australian snakes are tiny and cannot penetrate jeans or trousers or boots or gloves.
In this video there are some key behaviours to note. The flaring and hissing of the snake is not some sort of vicious offensive attack, but bluff and “get me the hell out of here” fear. If you stand still, snakes will ignore you and go about their business – humans are not snake food, snakes are more interested in snake-mouth-sized prey. You can see that the snake ignores Bush Heritage Ecologist Dr Pippa Kern as she stands quietly and it calmly passes by to escape into the Spinifex.
And be assured that Bush Heritage ecologists are experts in their field, with training in snake handling. Animal care and welfare is a highly important thing for us. We don’t actively go out to fiddle with snakes unless we must. Rather, we just trap them, treat them with care, photograph them and release them after identification.
I hope this blog gives people pause for thought – snakes are a wonderful component of our biodiversity.
- Dr Alex Kutt, Senior Ecologist, North Australia