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Today we feature one of Australia’s best-known and best-dressed snakes, the red-bellied black snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus).  This exceedingly handsome reptile lives all along the eastern coast of the island continent and grows to lengths of 1.5 to 2 meters (5.5 to 6.5 feet).   It is a generalist predator which eats small mammals, reptiles (including fellow red-bellied black snakes) arthropods, and above all, frogs.  This fetching snake is a member of the elapidae family—a group of toxic snakes which includes such famous genera as coral snakes, cobras, and kraits.

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The red-bellied snake is indeed venomous: its venom is a complex mixture of neurotoxins, myotoxins, and coagulants.  However, when the snakes bites people (which they are loath to do) they rarely inject a lethal dose of venom.  When threatened they try to hide in the urban woodlands, billabongs, or scrublands where they live.  If backed into a corner they will make a threat display by extending their cobra-like hood and hissing.  Australians, who live with many horrifying venomous snakes, seem to regard red-bellied black snakes as comparatively benign although I certainly wouldn’t want one to bite me!).

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Snakes of this species are ovoviviparous—they hold their eggs inside their body until the young hatch.  This is no mean feat, since mother snakes can give birth to litters of up to 40 little baby snakes!

Red-bellied black snake, Lota.

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) assuming defensive posture (a fearless photo by Stephen Zozaya)

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) assuming defensive posture (a fearless photo by Stephen Zozaya)

Ah, lovely Australia…the land down under is famed for its magnificent coral reefs, its dreamlike wastelands, its proud citizens, and, above all, its innumerable toxic animals. Although the hordes of poisonous jellyfish, spiders, snails, centipedes, and octopi are alarming, humankind is particularly hardwired to be afraid of snakes and it is in this reptilian realm that the island continent especial shines.  In fact, the most venomous land snake in the world, the inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus) lives in Australia.  A single bite from an inland taipan has enough poison to kill up to 250,000 mice!  Yet the inland taipan is far from the most formidable snake in Australia (indeed, it is a very shy and retiring serpent which lives in the inhospitable dry scrubland of central/southeast Australia).  The snake which Australians truly fear is (slightly) less toxic, but vastly more numerous and also far more prone to bite first and ask questions later (insomuch as snakes ever examine their actions).

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

Brown snakes (Pseudonaja) constitute an entire genus of venomous elapid snakes which are found throughout almost the entirety of Australia. There are nine different species of brown snakes which vary somewhat from location to location, however almost all brown snakes can be aggressive and they are apt to bite or even attack a much larger animal when provoked (although hopefully they will overlook the occasional fear-mongering blog post).  The eastern brown snake is the second most toxic land snake in Australia (and arguably the world) and, appallingly it lives all sorts of places—scrubland, eucalyptus forests, woodlands, grasslands, and farmlands (though not swamps, rainforests, or true deserts).  Because it is so adaptable, the eastern brown snake easily thrives in gardens, suburban lawns, and even in urban habitats.  Eastern brown snakes live along the highly populated southeast of Australia, up the coast to the York peninsula and into Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.  They also range through the Northern territories to Western Australia.

Speckled Brown Snake (Pseudonaja guttata) from "Reedy's Reptiles"

Speckled Brown Snake (Pseudonaja guttata) from “Reedy’s Reptiles”

The venom of the eastern brown snake is a heady cocktail of neurotoxins and blood coagulants.  Bites begin by causing diarrhea, dizziness, and collapse—which can then develop into convulsions, renal failure, paralysis and cardiac arrest (symptoms which hold true—although to a lesser degree for the other brown snakes). Fortunately all species of brown snakes have tiny fangs and they do not usually deliver much venom per bite.  Additionally, the snakes can control how much venom they inject per bite and they frequently give a venom-free warning bite out of good sportsmanship (although if you are bitten by one of the world’s most toxic snakes, the fact that the snake might not have injected you with a lethal amount of poison will be scant comfort).   A person’s weight matters greatly when it comes to surviving bites—so small children are particularly at risk.

Gwardar (Pseudonaja nuchalis)

Gwardar (Pseudonaja nuchalis)

Brown snakes eat rodents (which were introduced to Australia), small mammals, amphibians, birds, eggs and other reptiles.  They are a helpful (albeit scary) part of the ecosystem, although considering their honed deadliness, they could afford to be a bit more flamboyant.  Also, humans have effective antivenins for all the brown snakes (so if you are bitten by a modestly colored but oddly insouciant snake while you are down under, you should probably contact some health-service providers).

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