TAIPANS NUMBER ONE ...
Beyond Their bite, these snakes are like other Australian elapids.
Originally Published in Reptiles (USA), August 2008.
Perhaps the worst snake to be bitten by is the taipan (Oxyuranus spp.). Even with advent of antivenom the prognosis for survival from a bite isn't good. Experiments with mice show an average taipan bite is potent enough to kill about 50,000 mice or 50 people. They’re considered the world’s deadliest snakes, and snakekeepers everywhere covet them.
But getting past taipans deadly number-one status, what really separates these snakes from other Australian elapids? The reality is not all that much.
Taipans are large and thin snakes. Mature males average 210 cm in total length, and females measure 180 cm. Most are brownish.
With large eyes, they’re generally presumed to be one of the most intelligent snakes because they rely to a greater extent on both sight and smell to detect objects rather than essentially just smell like many other snakes.
Brown snakes (Pseudonaja spp.) and taipans are unusual among Australian snakes because their bellies are yellowish and sport distinct flecks or squiggles, especially on the forebody. Other “brown” snakes from the genera Cannia, Panacedechis and Pailsus lack this trait.
Currently there are three named taipan species: Oxyuranus scutellatus, O. microlepidota and O. temporalis. Although taipans are deadly, they would rather run away than fight or bite. They can move backwards at high speed and thus have a good “reverse gear.”
Unless you try to catch or kill a taipan, the risk of bite is slight. Remember, these snakes should only be caught or handled by people with experience in handling deadly snakes. Even experienced handlers must be prepared to risk the consequences of an unexpected bite (i.e. death).
More often than most snakes, taipans will flick their body or "jump" when approached or touched. This behavior instills fear in the handler and may be a precursor to a bite. However, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the rapid flick is mistaken for aggression when it's not.
In the wild taipans are like most other large diurnal elapids. They are adaptable to various habitats so long as their basic requirements are met. These include shelter, a basking spot for warmth and proximity to a water source. They like a drink every two days or so.
Wild taipans seem to prefer rodents, but smaller members will eat lizards and rarely frogs. These snakes’ partiality to rodents as opposed to frogs has given them a recent relative advantage and numbers increase over competitors such as red-bellied black snakes (Pseudechis porphyriacus) and Papuan blacks (Cannia papuanus). Both prefer frogs, and many have died trying to eat cane toads (Rhinella marina, formerly known as Bufo marinus), which produce a toxin for self-defense.
Taipans may actively run down their prey. This gives you an idea as to how fast they can move. They are also “ambush” predators that wait under cover for food items to pass.
Snakekeepers should keep taipans like any other elapid. I keep my 2-meter-long adults in 60 cm plastic tubs in a rack system. They don’t nose rub, which is the most obvious sign a cage is too small, so I assume the space suits them. I don’t change cage size according to age, but larger snakes go in larger cages.
If snakes do rub their snouts, enlarge the cage, reduce the number of transparent surfaces or both. Although snout rubbing has been seen in other elapids, such as copperheads (Austrelaps spp.), I have not seen it in my taipans, and reports of it are rare.
Provide the snakes with a basking area of about 30 to 35 degrees C, and aim for a cooler refuge of about 20 degrees C but allow for anything between 10 to 26 degrees depending on seasons and other factors. Also provide a hide and a water dish. Captive taipans never swim — not that I’ve seen anyway — so the size of the water container need not be huge, but it should be deep and not spill. Other cage accessories are optional.
In terms of cage access, you need to be aware of bite risks and plan accordingly. Taipans can be agreeable, but even so, it is not uncommon for me to see snakes kept in standard top-opening cages lunge out to strike their owner every time the cage is opened.
Coastal taipans (Oxyuranus scutellatus) and inland taipans (O. microlepidota) are found in similar numbers in captivity. In terms of demeanor, O. microlepidota is the more civilized species. For the most part it's unusual to have an aggressive inland taipan. Juveniles or wild snakes when they’re first caught are the exceptions. Aggressive coastal taipans seem common, especially if they are wild caught or mishandled.
Captive taipans roam about their cages and generally are active and alert. They show their relative intelligence by recognizing different handlers and reacting differently to them.
Wild-caught specimens start out aggressive (most likely because of fear) and will bite if given a chance. However, a taipan’s intelligence actually works in its favor under captive conditions. The snakes tend to settle down within weeks. More intractable ones may take a few months. Taipans remaining "aggressive" beyond this time are usually exposed to improper management or bad handling.
Keeping and handling venomous snakes requires skill, but this expertise isn't just necessary to avoid a bite. It also includes being able to handle a snake so it has no fear of its handler and thus loses all inclination to bite.
Snakekeepers should avoid startling their taipans when opening up cages, and they should avoid aggressively pinning snakes or doing much else that may cause pain, stress or reason to bite. These snakes have plenty of strength and ability to squirm if “necked,” grabbed by the neck in a pincerlike or grabbing-type restraining hold, and handlers should be aware of this before attempting such a move.
Taipans adapt to being handled with a hook quite quickly, and most keepers soon find the day-to-day keeping and moving of the snakes to be quite easy.
As a rule, feed rodents to taipans from the time they hatch, and merely up the size as the snakes get bigger. Although elapids cannot distend their mouth and jaws as wide as pythons, taipans can do so to a greater degree than any other Australian elapid. Hence a rodent’s size can be slightly greater than the width of an unfed snake but no larger.
Besides rodents, I have fed my larger taipans other food items without apparent ill-effects to the snakes. These include lumps of meat, fish and chicken necks.
Hatchlings and smaller snakes often don't feed voluntarily, especially if live food is unavailable, so force-feeding very young taipans is routine at my facility. A common mistake of elapidkeepers is to try to get their snakes to voluntarily feed, but the result is that snakes get too emaciated to recover before force-feeding begins, or they starve to death.
Taipans pull back when pinned near the head or neck, in a “retract response”, which is essentially a defensive move. This habit makes young snakes easy to pin and neck in order to force-feed them. Always be wary of their fangs. In the absence of voluntary feeding I force-feed hatchlings dead mice every few days, including when they’re eyes are clouded, until they grow to about 60 cm (about 5 months old). Then they are assist-fed and eat readily.
Usually about one to three months later the snakes commence voluntary feeding on whatever you have been feeding them. In my case this includes mouse legs, lumps of beef and chicken, and fish.
Adult Taipans are usually voracious. It is unlikely to have one that doesn't feed voluntarily — even on dead food — unless it's very sick.
Compared to other large Australian elapids, taipans pass food considerably slower. For example, brown snakes (Pseudonaja spp.) under 24-hour heat may take 24 hours to digest a mouse. Taipans under similar conditions may take two to three days to pass the same size mouse. Only death adders (Acanthophis spp.) have slower digestive rates, which may have something to do with their being ambush predators.
Breed taipans like you would for most other snakes. Separate the sexes and cool for "winter." There is no compelling need to keep seasons in line with either the northern or southern hemisphere. Even at our facility in Australia we run our “seasons” about four months ahead of the natural cycle.
Contrary to what many people say, in most parts of Australia, including north Queensland, taipans hibernate as much as they are inactive during the winter months. In the wild their activity ceases at the end of the northern wet fall season (April/May), and they don't become active again until about late winter (August). Activity peaks a month or two later in spring.
In captivity, breeding success is achieved by keeping taipans under 20 degrees C, but a diurnal temperature range between 14 and 20 degrees C is best. Photoperiod does not seem terribly relevant as the movement of snakes in their cages seems mainly temperature dependent and it is temperature that regulates breeding cycles. Notwithstanding light coming through windows and my own activity in the snake’s room, room lights tend to run 12 hours a day all year due to the fact that not all snakes in the room may necessarily be in “hibernation mode”. Run the “winter” period for about seven weeks minimum. Then increase the temperature at the warm end of the cage to 30 degrees for another 12 weeks with 12 hours of heat. One part of the cage should remain at 20 degrees C (or thereabouts) at all times.
Introduce males and females at the end of this period, and as a matter of course most males mount the females immediately. Connection usually ensues within 12 hours and generally lasts 12 to 20 hours. More than one successful mating in succession, such as two to three during the course of a month, increases chances of a female developing fertile eggs.
In a recent world first, Snakebusters engaged in artificial (or assisted) insemination for various squamates, including taipans. We collected semen from males and transferred it via straight glass capillary tubes into female snakes. The process was developed for specific snakes that were fertile but didn’t mate, but it has since been expanded to enable mating of snakes in different facilities without the need to transport animals or do breeding loans. Although some of these inseminations produced young, the taipans weren’t among them. The world first was successful artificial insemination in numerous species of squamates using a single technioque to produce healthy offspring, including Tiger Snakes and Bluetongues. The latter is important as the Adelaide Zoo has not been able to breed the endangered Tiliqua adelaidensis using “natural” means.
Most snake breeders will do well with just one male taipan. It's rare to have a dud, and males engage in combat during the mating season.
To incubate eggs, the standard 30 degrees at 100 percent humidity works fine. Do not supersaturate the eggs, or they will sweat and go off. If the incubation medium, such as coarse-grade vermiculite, appears too wet, add more dry vermiculite to the mix.
For the 2004-2005 season statistics for my coastal taipans were as follows. Eggs were laid in December 2004. Eighty percent covered in vermiculite, they were incubated between 28.5 and 30.5 degrees C at 100 percent humidity. They hatched in February 2005 after 77 days. Young averaged 36 cm in total length, and they passed 60 cm in June 2005. Kept as warm as they could tolerate (they straddled their heat mat), they were fed as much as they could eat.
A growth rate of about 5 cm a month is about as good as one can get for taipans. This is far lower than some growth rates quoted in literature, and some of these rates could be exaggerated, mismeasured or amazingly freakish. However, short-term growth rates of 10 cm per month are definitely possible.
Young taipans of both species kept in captivity are known to drop dead suddenly and without obvious explanation. Outside of these cases, the snakes are not particularly difficult to raise.
Males and females have similar growth rates. Females are generally more slender in build, including their heads. They are also usually more placid than males, which is the trend seen in most Australian elapids where males engage in combat. Although it is possible to accurately guess the sex of adult taipans based on their builds or relative tail thickness (tail sexing), probing is the only reliable way to sex these snakes.
Although drably colored, taipans aren’t particularly aggressive by snake standards, and their general intelligence and number-one status in venom potency/yield makes them a welcome addition to a collection of deadly snakes.
Battle of the Browns
Historically, taipans were found across most of Australia and New Guinea until probably within the past 30,000 years. This included most of the northern two-thirds of continental Australia. At some recent time, king brown snakes (Cannia spp.) or their precursors moved across northern Australia and literally outcompeted taipans and other species of similar size. The end result has been a general contraction in the taipan’s range. In modern times these snakes are scarce or extinct where king browns are common, which helps explain the disjunct distribution of taipans across most parts of northern Australia except the Queensland coast, where king brown snakes are generally absent and taipans are common.
Taipans are native to Australia, but a reovirus has adversely affected snakes in Australian collections. It has led to a shortage in the country. In the United States, taipans are imported from Irian Jaya, Indonesia. The best place for people living outside Australia to get these snakes is from Indonesian-based exporters. Most specimens are shipped from Merauke, and they come from the immediate vicinity. Assuming legal and safety hurdles are covered, the snakes aren’t too expensive to obtain.
Watch the Fangs
Snakekeepers force-feeding taipans food or medicine should always be wary of the fangs. These snakes sport 1.5 cm long fangs and large venom glands (by Aussie standards anyway). Taipan fangs tend to flex somewhat, so they may move slightly and accidently prick and envenomate an unsuspecting handler. Sometimes they even penetrate the snake’s lower jaw. These fang characteristics make taipans more dangerous during necking than the average elapid, and that's before you realize they are the deadliest snake on earth.
Plagues on a Killer
Because so many taipans are wild-caught, your new charge might have some health issues. Here are three problems and their treatments.
2. Tapeworms, nematodes and lungworms are common in wild adults. Treat these parasites with the usual drugs: Droncit (PO), Panacur (PO) and Ivermectin (IM). PO is “orally” and “IM is intamuscular injection.
3. Skin lumps, caused by an internal parasite migrating through the snake’s body and ending up encysted under the skin, are also seen sometimes. Snakes eating infested skinks (and occasionally other animals) encounter the problem. External lumps may be literally “cut out” through incisions between scales, while the unseen internal ones are heard to deal with. The use of tapeworm treatments has a level of success.
Know Your Taipan
Currently there are three named taipan species: Oxyuranus scutellatus, O. microlepidota and O. temporalis. With its ghost-white snout and coffin-shaped head, the coastal taipan (O. scutellatus) is found along the coast of Queensland and nearby areas of Australia. However, as one moves outside this range into northern New South Wales, the Northern Territory or northwest Western Australia, populations are scattered and scarce.
The species also occurs in New Guinea. Two distinct races are found there. Coastal taipans from Irian Jaya and nearby are essentially similar to the northern Australian animals. Those from east Papua New Guinea, such as Port Moresby, are distinctly grayish-black. Known as O. scutellatus canni, they often have orange coloring along the middorsal line.
Coastal taipans from northwest Australia (O. scutellatus barringeri) are usually more reddish than their eastern cousins. But no matter what their color, coastal taipans tend to darken during the winter.
The inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidota) varies in color, but it usually has a darkish head and snout. Snakes from eastern Australia’s inland areas of black soil and floodplains are usually brownish, but the color varies seasonally. The darker winter color includes a blackish head.
These snakes are superficially similar to some western brown snakes (Pseudonaja nuchalis) found in the same areas. At a glance, it’s often impossible to tell the two species apart. But taipans have 23 midbody rows, and brown snakes have only 17 to 19.
Not much is known about the newly named taxon Oxyuranus temporalis from inland Western Australia. The original diagnosis for the species was weak and in parts erroneous, and it was based on a single dead museum specimen. The snake is similar in many respects to O. scutellatus.
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