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Oversized fangs in Australian elapids - the consequences.

Raymond Hoser
PO Box 599
Doncaster, Victoria, 3108, Australia
Phone: +61 3 9812 3322, Fax: +61 3 9812 3355, Mobile: +61 3 0412-777211, E-mail:

Originally Published in Monitor – Journal of Victorian Herpetological Society, 16(1)(June 2007):6-9. Reprinted in Herptile - Journal of the International Herpetological Society 32(3)(September 2007):112-115


This paper reports on oversized fangs in five very different species of Australian elapid snake, namely Taipans (Oxyuranus scutellatus), Tiger Snakes (Notechis scutatus), Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus), Desert Death Adder (Acanthophis pyrrhus) and Golden-Crowned Snakes (Cacophis squamulosus).  Oversized is defined here as fangs penetrating though the lower jaw of the snake at the time the mouth is closed.  Unlike other venomous snakes, the fangs of elapids are essentially fixed and immobile and hence if over-sized must penetrate through the flesh of the lower jaw.

Adverse consequences of oversized fangs in live snakes include making sloughing more difficult and the added provision of anchor points for parasitic ticks and mites in and around the lesions that form where the snakes penetrate the lower jaw.

Both have been observed in captive and wild snakes where fangs penetrate the lower jaw.


The first published photo of an elapid with fang penetrating through the lower jaw was in Hoser (1989).  That snake, an adult Golden-crowned Snake (Cacaphis squamulosus) was thought to be unusual, but in the decade following, at least two more similar specimens have been seen by myself (all from West Head/Cottage Point, NSW).

The same trait has been seen in adult Taipans (Oxyuranus scutellatus) by myself (see photo to right - snake with lighter snout and tongue out) and reported on the internet by other herpetologists, the latter not including specimens sighted by myself.

The same trait has also been seen in some very large Tiger Snakes (Notechis scutatus), all from Melbourne.   What follows is an appraisal of what's been observed in these and other elapid taxa by myself to date.

Golden-Crowned Snakes

The cases involving this species have involved wild-caught adults.  There is no available information in terms of when this fang-penetration manifested in the snakes (see below) or any adverse health consequences as a result of the fang penetration seen.

While the first photo of this was published in Hoser (1989) in an adult C. squamulosus, interest in this event was minor until observed in Taipans. 


Taipans are medically significant snakes in that any envenomation may be fatal to humans (Hoser 2002a).  Hence the prospect of having an effective fang penetration of human skin by a snake with a closed mouth is noteworthy, bearing in mind that people often hold these snakes by the head and with the mouth forced shut.

In 2004 I observed two adult Taipans (male 210 cm total length, female 180 cm total length), both from Proserpine Queensland.

Both were seen to have lesions under the lower jaw and both had large ticks (species unknown) lodged in them.  At the time the ticks were removed, it was noticed that the lesions had been formed by the fangs penetrating the lower jaw.  The snakes had been in captivity for some time, but in an outdoor pen, explaining the ability of the ticks to move onto the snakes.

One of the Taipans laid 9 eggs on 2-4 December 2004, which hatched on 16 Feb (2 eggs) and 19 Feb (2 eggs).  The eggs were incubated at 30°C and the other five were apparently infertile. No neonate Taipans had fangs penetrating the lower jaws.  None developed such a condition in the two and a half years following hatching.

The relative size of fangs in this species is large by Australian standards and this is not widely known, or reported in the literature.

Other notes of relevance in terms of Taipan Fangs (with general reference to the taxa “O. scutellatus” as opposed to “O. microlepidota”, unless otherwise noted) follows.

The literature reports that the striking nature of this snake is “snap and release”, see for example Barnett (1999), his earlier papers (see sources within Barnett 1999) and papers that refer to Barnett’s.  Barnett’s statement to this effect is also based on direct experience of the captive snakes referred to in his paper (beyond about a month of age).

However my own experience of this taxa involving different specimens indicates that they prefer to hang onto their prey items (rodents) after biting them.

While it could be argued that either situation may be “normal” my view is that the Barnett snakes are the aberrant ones in terms of the wild state, notwithstanding that most reports on wild snakes have them striking and releasing items.

Wild snakes as a rule are seen striking at humans and hence their strike release bites can be seen as defensive as opposed to feeding.

Furthermore the size of the fangs (almost sabre-like) indicates that they are designed to hold onto the prey.  This is different to other snap-release snakes with much smaller fangs, including for example the Brown snakes (Pseudonaja).

Taipans held by myself typically strike at their prey and then pull them under cover whereupon the food is eaten.

While this is true for both the Coastal Taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus) and the Inland Taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidota), the trend is strongest in the Coastal Taipan which also has pro-rata far larger fangs.

Tiger Snakes

Fang penetration of lower jaw in this species has been well-studied by myself.

Around late 2003 and early 2004, I acquired 10 mainly young Tiger Snakes (Notechis scutatus) from the Melbourne region, (Victoria, Australia).

When acquired, no snakes had any evidence of fangs penetrating the lower jaw.  However as snakes matured, this trait became evident in some snakes.  The snakes most affected were generally the largest and most heavily built (over 120 cm total length).

When the fangs began to penetrate the lower jaws, lesions would form around the puncture marks.  These wounds would scab up and over several months would alternate between being apparently healed pockmarks and slightly festering wounds.

As a rule, the condition eventually settled down without treatment to become a healed pair of holes in the lower jaw, through which the fangs permanently penetrated.

While the snakes never showed any apparent concern for their condition, one drawback did become evident.

At the time sloughing was due, affected snakes sometimes were unable to shed the skin on their lower jaw. In some cases this lower jaw skin was retained, while the snake otherwise shed without problem.  But in other cases this "blockage" in the shedding process stopped the process continuing, the result being the snake was unable to slough at all.

The blockage was caused by skin sticking in the region of the lesion and failing to peel off, hence preventing the normal sloughing process proceeding beyond this point.

Those snakes were dealt with quite easily by soaking in luke warm water (about 30°C) until the skin covering the body was sufficiently loose to either flake off or be easily manually shed by myself (by simply using my hands to gently rub or peel off the skin).

Notable is that fang penetration of the lower jaw seems to be relatively uncommon in wild Tiger Snakes (which I see large numbers of through my "controller" catch-release permit), but relatively common in captive snakes.

Red-bellied Black Snake

One (then immature) male Red-bellied Black Snake acquired at end 2003 measuring 60 cm had no evidence of fang penetration of the lower jaw.  By May 2005, the snake measured nearly 150 cm and had fangs penetrating the lower jaw.  On at least one occasion this snake was unable to slough due to an inability to remove skin from the lower jaw, stopping the process from continuing.  The snake's slough was removed using the process described above.

Desert Death Adder

I have never observed fangs penetrating the lower jaw of any Acanthophis species, with the exception of a single adult male Desert Death Adder (A. pyrrhus) from Goldsworthy, Western Australia.  This is noteworthy as I have inspected hundreds of specimens from all 15 described taxa from Australia and islands north of Australia (taxonomy of Hoser 2002b).

Copperheads (Austrelaps Superbus)

Fang penetration is seen on specimens ranging up from half grown.  Notwithstanding the fact that it is reasonably common in the taxa around Melbourne (my crude estimate is about 1 10 adults), I have never seen it to a degree that is so obviously noticed as for example seen in Tiger Snakes.


In terms of snakes kept by myself, I am very proactive in terms of sloughing difficulties.

Snakes are not left alone beyond the timing of non-sloughing, if it is evident that the snake should have sloughed.  Snakes with any retained skin are soaked until the skin either flakes off, or is easily removed by myself.  This is due to the fact that beyond the correct sloughing time, retained skin dries, becomes harder to remove and can encase the snake like a straight jacket.  If too much skin is retained to long, the condition may cause stress or even death.

The preceding is mentioned only in as much as to make the point that some snakes that retained skin in the captive situation at my facility may in fact have shed if they had been left.

Also the husbandry regime employed by myself may have also been suboptimal in terms of sloughing of snakes.  This regime included bone dry cages, lined with newspaper which provide various health benefits, but not necessarily pre-slough, and perhaps more importantly frequent handling pre-slough during live reptile shows.  This preslough handling does cause more emaciation of the snake and drying of the skin than would otherwise occur if the snake was left sitting in a cage.

The surface emaciation process is also sometimes accelerated by feeding pre-slough snakes.

This is generally not advised for captive snakes, but is routinely done here, due mainly to the fact that snakes are fed between snake shows at times that allow for maximum time to digest food between shows

Having said this, it is an inescapable conclusion that the sloughing problems seen at my facility in snakes with fangs penetrating the lower jaw would also occur in wild snakes with oversized fangs.

The other issue of ticks (or mites if present) seizing on the lesions to lodge is obviously something that would be seen in wild snakes and hamper sloughing in wild snakes.

It is also clear that the tendency of fangs to penetrate the lower jaw is increased in large adult snakes of a given species.

While it appears to be most commonly seen in Tiger Snakes and Taipans of the Australian elapids, this trend may merely reflect the amount of observation by myself and others.

It is likely that fang penetration of lower jaws is common in many large elapid species.  In terms of small elapids, I am of the view that the trait is probably less common, but still occurs.

Notable is that while Death Adders (Acanthophis) pro-rata have the largest fangs of the Australasian elapids, fang penetration of the lower jaw in these snakes is not as common as seen in other taxa such as Notechis and Oxyuranus.

In other words, the physical dynamics of head shape also have a bearing on the likelihood of fang penetration of the lower jaw.

Large fangs are essential to Acanthophis species that tend to hang onto their prey.  Large fangs are not as important for "snap-release" species or "Chew when feeding" species like Tiger Snakes.  The Inland Taipan also appears to “Chew” when it bites prey (or people), as opposed to (my) Coastal Taipans that hang onto their prey and then pull back.  These differences may have given rise to a noticeably smaller fang size (relative) in the Inland Taipans.

However this may not be the full picture as evidenced by an apparently undeniable trend for the elapid snakes to develop fangs as large as their mouth will accommodate (or even larger).

Noting the physical limitations of elapid snakes in terms of their relatively fixed to bone fangs and flesh on the lower jaw, there appears to be an evolutionary equilibrium point where fangs may be allowed to penetrate the lower jaw.  The equilibrium point is presumably where the advantages of the slightly larger fangs are outweighed by the disadvantages caused by the permanent lesions on the lower jaw surface.  The disadvantages may include infection risks that are not treatable for wild snakes.

A final point of note that is that larger snakes and those in better physical condition appear to have relatively larger and better developed venom apparatus in the form of venom glands and fangs.  This trend has been noted when doing venomoid surgery on snakes.

The trend also appears to manifest in terms of the greater apparent frequency of large captive snakes having fangs penetrating the lower jaws, when compared to wild snakes.

There is therefore a possibility that fang penetration of lower jaw may be more common in overfed captive snakes than their wild counterparts.  This theory could be easily tested with a series of controlled experiments.


Reptiles subject of this paper were supplied by several individuals in several states over many years and under permits issued by the relevant authorities.  All are thanked.


Barnett, B. 1999. Keeping and Breeding the Coastal Taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus). Monitor – Journal of the Victorian Herpetological Society 10 (2/3):38-45.

Hoser, R. T. 1989. Australian Reptiles and Frogs. Pierson and Co., Sydney, NSW, Australia. 238 pp.

Hoser, R. T. 2002a. A review of the Taipans Genus Oxyuranus (Serpentes:Elapidae), including the description of a new subspecies. Crocodilian 3(1):43-50.

Hoser, R. T. 2002b. Death Adders (Genus Acanthophis): An Updated overview, including descriptions of 3 New Island species and 2 New Australian subspecies. Crocodilian 4(1): 5-11,16-22,24-30, front and back covers.

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