Scaling down a Scaly Conflict

Figure 1: The Eastern Brown (Pseudonaja textilis) is one of the most abundant venomous snakes on the East Coast of Australia. As these snakes are highly adaptable occurring in suburban areas and highly venomous, they have become the deadliest snake in Australia killing around 1 person every year.
Figure 1: The Eastern Brown (Pseudonaja textilis) is one of the most abundant venomous snakes on the East Coast of Australia. As these snakes are highly adaptable occurring in suburban areas and highly venomous, they have become the deadliest snake in Australia killing around 1 person every year.

Australia is well known to support a diverse and large fauna of potentially deadly animals, and when people think about Australia it is only natural to think about snakes. Containing 228 species of snakes, Australia has one of the highest snake species counts of any country in the world (The Reptile Database, 2020). It is, therefore, a given that human interests come into conflict with snakes regularly. Even with the regularity of contact and an abundance of species Australia has a low bite and death rate compared to other countries of similar population and snake densities. These low incident numbers are mainly due to a good education and healthcare system, as well as an abundance of snake catchers in densely populated areas.

Figure 2: The Coastal Carpet Python (Morelia spilota mcdowelli) is by far the most common snake I relocate in the Townsville region. This relatively large python species thrive in human-altered habitat because of the abundance of rodents that follow human development.
Figure 2: The Coastal Carpet Python (Morelia spilota mcdowelli) is by far the most common snake I relocate in the Townsville region. This relatively large python species thrive in human-altered habitat because of the abundance of rodents that follow human development.

Up until quite recent times, successful treatment of snakebites from highly venomous species in Australia was scarce, and the attitude towards snakes reflected this with the phrase “The only good snake is a dead snake” often surfacing. After the introduction of efficient antivenom and modern health care, fatalities from snakebites have declined and information on snakes have been distributed resulting in a healthier attitude towards these animals. Today Australia has around 3000 snakebite incidents yearly, with a fatal outcome in 1-2 of those cases (Johnstone et al., 2017).

Figure 3: Australia has a range of lesser-heard of venomous snakes, like this Collared Whip Snake (Demansia torquata). This snake species is slender, fast, and quite rare around the Townsville region. They are not considered lethal, but a bite from this species can result in local swelling and pain for several hours, if not days.
Figure 3: Australia has a range of lesser-heard of venomous snakes, like this Collared Whip Snake (Demansia torquata). This snake species is slender, fast, and quite rare around the Townsville region. They are not considered lethal, but a bite from this species can result in local swelling and pain for several hours, if not days.

The negative attitude towards snakes have unfortunately not fully disappeared, and it seems to linger in the older percentage of the population, as well as in the rural areas of the country where medical help is far away. It is also in these rural areas where most snakebite incidents occur, often when people try to handle the problem on their own by approaching the animal either trying to catch or dispose of it. But in the more densely populated areas, we see a positive trend where the public, more often than not, call a snake catcher to assist them with problem animals.

Figure 4: The Spotted Python (Antaresia maculosa) is another non-venomous and very common species in northern Queensland. These snakes live of lizards and smaller mammals meaning they thrive in suburban areas having high populations in local parks and forest patches.
Figure 4: The Spotted Python (Antaresia maculosa) is another non-venomous and very common species in northern Queensland. These snakes live of lizards and smaller mammals meaning they thrive in suburban areas having high populations in local parks and forest patches.

In Townsville, a small city in Northern Queensland, we are around 10 active snake catchers with roughly 100 relocations per catcher per year. Around 30 different species of snakes occur in this region, where most are harmless to humans, but to the untrained eye, a harmless species can look highly venomous as many Australian snakes sport the same colouration. Snake catchers, and ID-groups on social media, therefore, provide an important service to help maintain a healthy human-snake relationship by relieving frightened people by either identifying a snake or relocating it. Incidents involving venomous snakes have thus declined over the years as information and assistance from trained professionals have become more accessible.  

References:

Utez, P., Hallermann J., & Hosek, J. (2020, June 29). The Reptile Database: Advanced Search, Zoological Museum Hamburg. http://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/advanced_search?taxon=Serpentes&location=Australia&exact%5B0%5D=location&submit=Search  

Johnston, C. I., Ryan, N. M., Page, C. B., Buckley, N. A., Brown, S. G., O’Leary, M. A., & Isbister, G. K. (2017). The Australian Snakebite Project, 2005–2015 (ASP-20). Medical Journal of Australia, 207(3), 119-125. doi:10.5694/mja17.00094

Halvard Midtun
About Halvard Midtun 1 Article
Halvard Aas Midtun is a Norwegian biologist, hobby photographer and snake catcher currently studying invasive species, parasites and reptiles at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. He started working with reptiles at a young age as a zookeeper in Oslo Reptile park and from there moved through to the academic world completing a BSc in Biology from NMBU, Norway, and enrolling in an MPhil at JCU. Upon arriving in Australia, he commenced snake catching activities on the side of his studies to both rescue wildlife and relieve the public of potentially dangerous situations. Where the road will take him from here, no-one knows, but after the completion of the MPhil degree he will travel Australia to explore the vast country and its wildlife.
Contact: Twitter

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