Secretive Snakes – The Rare and Illusive Hoplocephalus

In Australia, most venomous front fanged (Elapid) snakes are ground dwelling. When one thinks about Australian snakes, its most often the formidable terrestrial snakes come to mind, such as the Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilus) or the elegant and streamlined Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus). However there is an arboreal (tree-climbing) group of elapid snakes present in the Australia bush which are less well known, and much less seen. These snakes are collectively in the Hoplocephalus genus and have been the focus of scientific intrigue, due to their individualistic ecological habits. There are three of these peculiar but fascinating serpents; Broad-headed Snake, Pale-headed Snake and Stephen’s Banded Snake. In this article we shall briefly go over each species peculiarities.


The Broad-headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides)

The Broad-headed Snake is considered the king of Sydney sandstone rock escarpments. Found in open woodland on west facing slopes, this snake species feeds primarily on geckos and skinks which cohabitant the same craggy sand rock shelves. This snake primarily has been the focus of much research coming out of the University of Sydney, which has uncovered a very fascinating life history. It appears that during winter this snake will take shelter under rocks and in cliff crevices, and in summer it will pursue a life climbing trees. It chooses western facing rock slopes when sheltering preferentially due to its nocturnal nature. This is because western facing rock slopes will get sun light as the sun is setting which will warm up the Broad-headed Snake and give it energy before it goes forth that night hunting.

Broad-headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

Broad-headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

Broad-headed Snakes have anecdotally been confused for baby Diamond Python in the past. This is a deadly mistake to make. Thus far there has been a reported fatality from a Broad-headed Snake bite which was likely due to allergy to the venom. Broad-headed Snake venom can cause local pain, swelling, and severe drops in blood pressure causing dizziness and fainting.  This risks possible death. If you see a Broad-head out at night do not pick it up. They are a very agile and defensive snake species which is hard to contain.

One of the Broad-headed Snakes main food items: Lesueur's Velvet Gecko (Amalosia lesueurii) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

One of the Broad-headed Snakes main food items: Lesueur’s Velvet Gecko (Amalosia lesueurii) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

The Pale-headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bitorquatus)

The Pale-headed Snake is a tree dwelling assassin which spends much of its time living within the canopy, nestled in tree hollows and under bark exfoliation of River Red Gums and Coolabahs. Their distribution extends from NNSW right into QLD where their preferred habitat trees are most prevalent. They are rarely found far from a water course as their primary food is frogs, whom they ambush at night with silent stealthy strikes. Due to being found in areas which are most often far away from human habitance, this is the least known Hoplocephalus.

Pale-headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bitorquatus) | Copyright Stephen Mahony 2015

Pale-headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bitorquatus) | Copyright Stephen Mahony 2015

Stephen’s Banded Snake (Hoplocephalus stephensii)

Stephen’s Banded Snakes are considered more of a rainforest dweller out of the trio. This snake prefers its own company and will shelter in solitude in tree hollows high up in the moist canopy for extended periods of time. After lying in wait they descend to the forest floor and can travel over a hundred meters in search of prey and mates. They will explore alternative tree hollows in hopes of finding a nesting mammal such as a Pigmy Possum, Feather-tailed Glider or a Bush Rat. If the resident is home, the snake will strike immediately, if not, the snake will lie in wait of the resident to return home and then strike. In either scenario the unwelcome guest will devour the occupant and sleep in the occupants nest while the occupant digests.

Stephens Banded Snake (Hoplocephalus stephensii) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

Stephens Banded Snake (Hoplocephalus stephensii) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2016

What is common with all these snakes? They all have curious habitat requirements which makes them all vulnerable to population declines. The Broad-headed Snake is often poached and have their habitat destroyed by reptile collectors, and much of their habitat has been built on as the of their core distribution lies in the Sydney region. The Pale-headed Snake is threatened by tree removal and habitat destruction in areas dominated by farm developments. Due to the large home range and tree hollow usage of the Stephen’s Banded Snake, this snake species cannot exist in fragmented landscapes and requires expansive tracts of forests. All of these snakes are almost entirely eliminated with development as they depend on trees. Trees are vitally important for a host of animals.

For ways you can help save trees, especially in Sydney, please visit: Saving Sydneys Trees