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.

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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

Snakes are Friends – The Break Down to Dispel Serpent Hysteria

Snakes have a fearsome reputation for being among the worlds most dangerous animals, with numerous species being the cause of death of many human lives. This reputation has created a hysteria and has generated a far reaching snake phobia. This phobia is especially evident in Australia, which is known to be home to some of the most venomous snakes in the world. This hysteria surrounding snakes has led to many common myths and fears which simply are not true. This article will debunk common myths, identify the most common situations of how people get bitten, how to stay safe, and we will also delve into the snakes mind of how it is perceiving each situation so you understand its reactions and behaviors in response to your actions.

 

Eastern Marsh Snake (Hemiaspis signata) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Eastern Marsh Snake (Hemiaspis signata) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

 

Disclosure: All photos of snakes being handled were for scientific or rescue orientated purposes and were preformed by experienced snake handlers that have undergone venomous snake handling training courses. Please do not try any of the mentioned techniques of venomous snake handling. If you wish to learn the skills mentioned, please apply to do a venomous snake handling course. Email gumnutnaturalist@gmail.com for information. Even the most experienced snake handlers are putting themselves at risk when handling venomous snakes so do not handle them if there is no need to!

 

Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

 

The biggest myth is: Venomous snakes are aggressive.

This statement implies that the snake is out to get you. This simply is not true. Snakes are not aggressive they are defensive. They will defend themselves against a perceived threat. A snake will only strike you for one reason: If it feels its life is in danger. If a venomous snake bites you there is a chance it will give a dry bite. A ‘dry bite’ is a bite where the snake does not inject any venom as venomous snakes can control the amount of venom it injects. But once again the more in danger it feels, the more likely it will strike to envenomate. The fact of the matter is that a venomous snake will only use its venom in self defense if it feels there is no other way, as it is incredibly costly to the snake to waste its venom. The reason behind this is because venom is essential in the process of digesting food and takes a lot of time and energy to create.

The most common scenarios people get bitten by a snake are:

1. When attempting to kill the snake – Of course the snake will try to bite and envenomate you if you are attempting to kill it. It has perceived that it is in a lie or death situation and will proceed accordingly: by trying to bite and pump as much venom in you as possible. Wouldn’t you expend all the resources you had if you were faced with a life or death situation? This is the most common way people are bitten.

2. When attempting to pick up the snake – Once again the snake feels it is in a life or death situation. It isn’t aware that your intentions are to simply pick it up. How would you feel if a lion grabbed you in its paws? The lions intentions may only be to play with you and not kill you but you would regardless have a large shot of Adrenalin pumping and rightly so feel like you are in a life or death situation, and defend yourself accordingly.

Snake handling needs to be left to the professionals. If you don’t need to pick up the snake, then don’t. Even the professionals usually get bitten one day. There are techniques which snake handlers use to capture venomous snakes which include ‘heading’ or ‘necking’, ‘tailing’ and ‘hooking’. The risk is greater when heading a snake (grabbing it behind the head) than tailing a snake (grabbing it by the tail). Snakes like the Death Adders should never be tailed but can be caught with a snake hook. Catching a snake is incredibly risky and requires intensive venomous snake handling training to properly master. If you want to learn this skill it is highly recommended to attend a snake handling course before attempting to handle any venomous snakes.

 

George Madani demonstrating the heading or necking technique of snake handling. Small-eyed Snake (Cryptophis nigrescens) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

George Madani demonstrating the heading or necking technique of snake handling. Small-eyed Snake (Cryptophis nigrescens) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Chad Beranek using the tailing technique of handling a snake. Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2014

Chad Beranek using the tailing technique of handling a snake. Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2014

Chad Beranek demonstrating how a Death Adder can be picked up with a hook. Please excuse the excited look on my face, Death Adders are exciting | Copyright Brooke Thompson 2015

Chad Beranek demonstrating how a Death Adder can be picked up with a hook. Please excuse the excited look on my face, Death Adders are exciting | Copyright Brooke Thompson 2015

 

3. When accidentally disturbing the snake – This one sometimes can’t be avoided but can be minimised by paying particular care when working out doors or strolling in the bush. The most common scenario of accidentally disturbing a snake is when you step on a snake. When this occurs it is often that the snake could sense you approaching and decided to stay still to avoid your attention, sometimes though the snake is oblivious to your approach. Both instances are very frightening to the snake and often warrant them to attack in self defense, often striking the object that lands on them: your foot. The easiest way to prevent this from happening is to wear protective shoes.

Other instances of accidentally disturbing a snake include while gardening or lifting up an object a snake is under. Both of these can, once again, be avoided by ensuring to wear proper safety apparel and being careful and perceptive in areas that are known to be home to snakes.

4. Cornering a snake – Many people often accidentally corner a snake and then interpret the snakes reaction as being aggressive. The snake in this situation feels it is a life or death situation as it is cornered, or it’s main escape route is being blocked, and feels it has to fight for its life. Once again you behave in a similar manner if put in the same situation. If you encounter a snake, ensure to step back to give it plenty of room so that the snake doesn’t feel cornered.

 




 

Southern Death Adder (Acanthophis antarcticus) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

Southern Death Adder (Acanthophis antarcticus) | Copyright Chad Beranek 2015

 

So what should you do if you encounter a snake in the bush, or better yet, in your backyard?

In most scenarios the solution with the least amount of risk and danger is to leave it alone. If you are in the bush and run into a snake, if you keep your distance an just leave it alone it will just go on and keep doing its own thing. If a snake enters your garden, ensure that you inform all persons in the residence of the snakes presence and make sure to keep kids and pets away from the snake. Monitor the snakes movements from a distance. Almost every time the snake will leave at its own accord. Occasionally snakes can accidentally find themselves wandering indoors. If this occurs, once again inform all residents and keep an eye on the snake from a distance. Call a wildlife rescue organisation or a professional snake wrangler and be sure to show them where exactly the snake is.

Some last tips and summary

  • Don’t try to identify the snake if you have limited experience. Treat all snakes as potentially deadly and be cautious. It’s only a white facial marking that can determine a Whip Snake from a Brown Snake!
  • Don’t attempt to kill or pick up the snake if you don’t have to. These are by far the most risky actions you can take!
  • Be aware of accidentally cornering a snake or blocking off it’s escape route if you encounter one
  • In almost all scenarios it’s best to leave it alone
  • If it enters your house: alert residence, keep kids and pet away, watch where the snake is at all times and call a professional to handle it

 

Snakes are friends! Not the kind of friend you hug but they hunt pests like rats and mice, and often form an important link in the food chain. I have a challenge for you for the next time you encounter a snake: Simply keep a far distance and follow it around and watch its behaviour. They really are fascinating creatures which deserve more respect and less fear. Many of them are cute! Surely you can’t say this Bandy Bandy isn’t cute?

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Comment below on any close encounters you have had with snakes that tried to bite you and see if you can categorise it in the four categories above. I am confident every situation where a snake is attempting to bite you falls into one of the four categories. In a months time we shall look in depth at venomous snake identification and shed light on other less known species which are otherwise harmless and cop harsh punishment for being wrongly identified as Brown Snakes!