Utilization of man-made telephone pits as winter hibernacula.
First published in hard copy in Victorian Naturalist 122(5) October 2005, cover and pages 249-250 with two photos (incl. Cover shot).
488 Park Road
Park Orchards, Victoria, 3114, Australia.
On Wednesday July 20, 2005, I received a phone call to remove a snake from a man-made pit at the Heritage Golf Club, Chirnside Park North, Victoria, on Melbourne's northern outskirts.
Upon arrival I was directed to a grassy knoll (top of a slight rise) in a treeless area, generally surrounded by mainly manicured grass and tracts of longer uncut grass.
Underneath a plastic cover measuring about 40 cm X 65 cm was a rectangular hole about 60 cm deep. At the bottom was some pipe or cable. The hole was lined with standard sized bricks that were not cemented togeather.
Seen at the bottom was a 40 cm (total-length) male Copperhead (Austrelaps superbus) (the size class indicating it had been born in the summer of 2003-4). It was facing out into the hole from a crack between two bricks
In the same pit were 17 Frogs (Limnodynastes tasmaniensis) of varying sizes, but all more-or less mature. These were merely sitting at the bottom or partially under the bricks lining the sides of the pit.
There was no water in the pit and most of the bottom was lined with moist sandy dirt.
The top of the pit (the plastic cover) was sited in an area exposed to the full day's sunlight and hence would be useful in terms of attracting heat.
The depth of the pit was also such as to enable the inhabitants to escape consequences of severe frosts if they occurred.
In two other similar pits within 2 metres of the first other animals were found. One pit contained a skink (Pseudemoia sp.) and 10 Limnodynastes tasmaniensis, while the other contained 7 Limnodynastes tasmaniensis and 3 Pseudemoia sp. All were more-or-less adult in size.
While the grounds staff at the golf club had not noticed the presence of the frogs and lizards in the first pit, they said that the Copperhead had been "living there" for at least a month, indicating it was overwintering in the site.
That snake was released the same day a few kms west of where it was caught.
As a licenced snake catcher (DSE controller's permit), I have in the last 2 years been called to remove an Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) from a Telstra Pit at Mickleham on Melbourne's north-west edge and a Copperhead from another Telstra Pit at Arthur's Creek on Melbourne's northern fringe (plus about another hundred snake removals). Both were similar situations to that given in the Chirnside Park case and both cases were in the cooler inactive season, indicating that the snakes had taken up semi-permanent refuge in the pits. Those snakes were first uncovered by Telstra linesmen who opened up the pits to repair the phone network.
In all cases, the pits inhabited were in open grassy situations in flat to undulating country with little if any other "hard cover" on the ground,
On another occasion in winter 2003, a young Copperhead was seen in a similar situation in a Telstra pit on a diary farm at Boorool Road, Mirboo North (about 100 km south-east of Melbourne) in early winter.
Evidently the thermal properties of these pits is conducive to reptiles and frogs overwintering in them.
Based on the positions of the animals seen in these pits when found, it is clear that the animals do move about in these pits as time of day and weather conditions vary, indicating that overwintering in these species in the relevant parts of Victoria is better defined as brumation, rather than hibernation in the stricter sense.