REPTILIAN MAGAZINE - PUBLISHED ARTICLE
THE AUSTRALIAN BROAD-HEADED SNAKE (Hoplocephalus bungaroides).
BY RAYMOND HOSER, 41 VILLAGE AVENUE, DONCASTER, VICTORIA, 3108, AUSTRALIA.
This paper first appeared in THE REPTILIAN MAGAZINE IN 1995, What follows is a text only version of the same article (no italics) and without the photos and other material that appeared in the original magazine. Please download the entire article if desired, however if the article is later referred to, please cite The Reptilian Magazine as the original published source. Publication details are that it was published in Volume 3, number 10, pp. 15-27 and cover.
A similar version of the same paper earlier appeared in two parts in the journal Litteratura Serpentium, published by the Dutch Snake Society.
The Australian genus Hoplocephalus includes three species of smallish snakes. All are restricted to eastern New South Wales and Queensland. These snakes are The Stephen's Banded Snake (Hoplocephalus stephensi), Pale-headed Snake (H. bitorquatus) and Broad-headed Snake (H. bungaroides).
All are slender bodied snakes with distinct broad, somewhat flattened heads set off from the neck. Adults average somewhere between 50 and 70 cm (total length), although 100 cm specimens are known. All have smooth dorsal scales. The keeled ventrals are an adaptation for climbing. Other diagnostic characters for the genus are: 19-21 mid-body rows, over 190 ventrals, the frontal shield is longer than broad, internasals present, suboculars absent, anal and subcaudals are single, and two to three solid maxillary teeth follow the fang (Cogger, 1992).
These snakes are relatively unusual for mainly nocturnal species in that they have a round pupil. Most nocturnal species have elliptical pupils.
The three species are easily distinguishable and can be separated at a glance or from photos. Pale-headed Snakes are greyish in colour without spots or bands on the body. The back of the nape is light in colour. Stephen's Banded Snakes are usually banded (or a variant thereof), except for a distinctive unbanded morph. They can always be separated from Pale-headed Snakes by the generally dark head and blackish colour at the back of the nape.
Broad-headed Snakes have an unmistakably black body with numerous scattered white or yellow scales, usually forming irregular cross-bands, which rarely exceed one scale in width.
For general details of all three species see Cogger (1992), or Hoser (1989).
THE BROAD-HEADED SNAKE (HOPLOCEPHALUS BUNGAROIDES)
Broad-headed Snakes are effectively restricted to sandstone habitat within a 200 km radius of Sydney city, New South Wales, Australia. The approximate limits to the distribution of the species is the sandstone escarpment west of Nowra to the south, and outlying sandstone escarpment near Lithgow and Mudgee to the west and North-west (see Swan 1990). They are unknown outside of sandstone habitat, except near Bathurst, NSW, where recently specimens were found some distance from sandstone. Here they were found in forest growing on shale adjacent to conglomerate slopes and bluffs. It should be noted that the conglomerate mentioned here is a common formation on the western edge of the Sydney Sandstone formation in the transition zone to a larger granite belt. The rock also exfoliates in a similar manner to the nearby sandstone formations.
Broad-headed Snakes are most commonly confused with the (potentially much larger) Diamond Python (Morelia spilota spilota) which occur in the same areas. However the two snakes may be easily separated by the fact that Diamond Pythons have numerous irregular head shields and labial heat-sensing pits - Broad-headed Snakes don't. Furthermore Broad-headed Snakes are an even greyish-black colour ventrally, whereas Diamond Snakes have unevenly coloured belly markings.
It has been suggested that young Diamond Pythons have evolved in a manner to mimic Broad-headed Snakes. Such mimicry by non-venomous species to look and act like venomous species is well known. Certainly young Diamond Pythons are more pugnacious than the adults, a habit more in line with that of similar sized Broad-headed Snakes. A more widely accepted scenario however is that similarities in appearance and habits between the two species are due to convergent evolution to cope with similar environmental problems and so on, rather than a non-venomous species mimicking a venomous one.
IN THE WILD.
The overwhelming majority of Broad-headed Snakes are found during the day, sheltering under large exfoliating slabs of sandstone and rock crevices in areas of undisturbed bushland during autumn, winter and spring (sometimes excluding the coldest parts of mid-winter). During Summer these snakes are rarely found during the day.
It is very rare (in cooler months) to find these snakes under cover that is not "rock-on-rock". "Rock on rock" in this context also includes crevices in cliff faces and so on. These snakes are rarely found under rocks which have a soil substrate.
In Broad-headed snake areas, collectors often go along the tops of cliffs lifting only rock-on-rock exfoliations, and ignoring any others. Thus the maximum number of likely rocks can be lifted over a given period of time, even though this means much greater distances are travelled. Although other species, including Small-eyed Snakes (Cryptophis nigrescens) and Red-naped Snakes (Furina diadema) also occur under rock-on-rock formations these species are likely to also be found under rocks with dirt substrate, which are usually found further behind the cliff-tops where these snakes occur. (Readers should note that sandstone ridges in the "Sydney Basin" run along valleys in a linear fashion, so a given ridge may often run continuously for several miles). The Copper-tailed Skink (Ctenotus taeniolatus) is a known food item of the Broad-headed Snake. It is particularly common under rocks on soil found at the back of and behind the outcrops where Broad-headed snakes occur.
It is thought that these snakes shelter under smallish and/or exposed rocks in winter to enable them better opportunities to "bask" while remaining under cover during the day. Clear sunny weather is typical of winter months where these snakes occur. To further support this assertion, this species been observed basking in the open in sunny winter weather (Adams, 1973). On 21 May, 1966, (late autumn) he found a male specimen basking at Kanangra Walls, National Park (about 100-150 km west of Sydney) on a track down a steep Mountain side. The weather was very cold and sunny and it had even snowed the night before.
It is also thought that Broad-headed snakes can and do move about under these rocks during the day to actively thermoregulate, indicating diurnal activity dominates during winter months, as opposed to nocturnal activity which is prevented by excessive cold at that time of year. The practice by which the snakes regulate their body temperature during the day, while remaining under cover is sometimes called "indirect basking". Usually these snakes are found under rocks with a fairly "tight fit" to the rock substrate below, indicating highly restricted micro-habitat requirements for this species.
Because this species is found under exfoliations immediately above cliff faces and sometimes above outlying outcrops surrounded by cliffs it is clear that these snakes can navigate up almost sheer cliff faces if necessary.
Broad-headed Snakes are largely nocturnal in warm weather.
Further corroboration of the above came from Shine's (1983) study of the genus Hoplocephalus, which found these snakes fed at all times of the year - hence the need to "bask" in cooler months. (Captives are mainly, but not entirely nocturnal). Captives also feed at all times of the year. White (1973), Wells, Wellington and Williams (1988) and others have actually noted that their captive specimens fed mostly in winter and spring. This could well be a reflection of ease in finding food during those months (in wild specimens), setting the biological "clock" to feeding mode at that time of year or perhaps related to breeding activity. You see vitellogensis (egg formation) commences in late autumn/winter and continues until mid spring (about September/October, with ovulation around October. This would necessitate a higher than usual food intake for females, particularly in view of the fact that they usually cease feeding for at least two months prior to giving birth. Acheson and Shearim noted year-round feeding in their Broad-headed Snakes but with no strong seasonal biases. Males tended to go off food when mating.
Shine's study of wild Pale-headed Snakes indicated that sexual maturity in that species occurred at 3-4 years of age. It is assumed that a similar situation occurs for wild Broad-headed Snakes. Captive specimens however are noted to mature far quicker when food intake and temperatures are raised.
Notwithstanding the above, a feature sometimes noted in wild and captive Broad-headed Snakes is the potentially low metabolic rate. This is reflected in a sometimes lower than usual food intake, when compared to other snake similar-sized species. Marian Anstis had a captive specimen fast for over 12 months - without apparent ill effect - remember this is only a small species of snake, so such a fast is of far greater significance than in a larger snake such as a ten foot python.
Wild snakes in this genus appear to reproduce only every second year. Those who have bred Broad-headed Snakes in captivity haven't indicated whether or not it is the same or different snakes reproducing each year, (they tend to hold several reproductive specimens). However a single large female held by Charles Acheson did reproduce in successive years. As yet, there is no indication as to how rare such a scenario (yearly reproduction) is in Broad-headed Snakes, although such clearly isn't the norm.
Whether reproduction every second year in this species (in the wild) is determined by genetic or environmental factors isn't known. Shine notes that less than annual reproductive frequency is fairly common in cold climate snakes, including species with relatively high survivorship of young. Broad-headed Snakes fit this pattern.
During the summer months, Broad-headed Snakes are usually found crossing roads at night in suitable areas. One such road is the Woronora Dam Road, near Darkes Forest, just south of Sydney. (Other snakes also found crossing that road at night are Bandy-bandy's (Vermicella annulata), Red-naped Snakes (Furina diadema), Diamond Pythons (Morelia spilota), Small-eyed Snakes (Cryptophis nigrescens), Death Adders (Acanthophis antarcticus) and Tiger Snakes (Notechis scutatus)). However the overwhelming majority of Broad-headed Snakes) caught by reptile collectors are during the cooler months in the conditions described above.
Worrell (1970) and others have stated that these snakes shelter in trees during the summer months. However this assertion has recently been (in part) challenged by some herpetologists. The alternative assertion is that Broad-Headed Snakes still tend to disperse away from open exposed (to maximum sunlight) rock outcrops, but may tend to utilise similar cover (if available) when resting. The only significant difference being that the snakes must rest under larger and more inaccessible rocks and crevices in order to escape the heat of the day when resting. Such seems to be a similar scenario for other nocturnal species in the Sydney area including Small-eyed Snakes (Cryptophis nigrescens) and Red-naped Snakes (Furina diadema). This tends to make principally nocturnal snakes less accessible to daytime collectors during the warmer months, (a common trend in warm-temperate areas world-wide). Small-eyed snakes in particular are found in similar areas to Broad-headed Snakes and sometimes shelter under similarly exposed rocks during winter. They do not however have keeled ventrals or any known predisposition to arboreality.
Rick Shine and a student of his, Jonathon Webb, at the University of Sydney, have recently commenced a detailed study into Broad-headed Snakes, including radio-telemetry. They hope to further establish where these snakes go during warmer weather. Certainly some specimens range a substantial distance from rocks. Furthermore some are known to have taken shelter in hollow limbs of large Eucalypts (Eucalyptus sp.) some distance above ground. This habit is in line with known habits of the closely related Pale-headed Snake. That species is caught by collectors near Rockhampton in Queensland who drive along roads at night shining strong lamps onto adjacent tree trunks.
Besides the habitat requirement for exfoliating sandstone in undisturbed habitat, Broad-headed Snakes usually only seem to be found in areas with large numbers of Lesueur's Geckos (Oedura lesueurii), which according to a number of sources including Wells, Wellington and Williams (1988) are this snake's preferred food in the wild. Areas of apparently suitable habitat without this food lizard rarely appear to have Broad-headed Snakes, even though they are known to opportunistically feed on other reptiles. In my own experiences, the best spots for Broad-headed Snakes are those areas which have absolutely HUGE numbers of Lesueur's Geckos.
Captive specimens freely take mice and birds. However Shine's dissection of 52 museum specimens only revealed lizards in the diet of (what were presumed to be) wild specimens (inside 4 snakes only - the other 48 had empty guts). Although Shine suggested that this paucity of food items reflected a low metabolic rate in this species, it has since been suggested that the method of sourcing the snakes themselves (how they came to be in the museum) could offer a partial explanation. A disproportionate number of snakes could have been sourced from captivity (after death), which would perhaps explain the empty stomachs.
Early references such as Anstis (1973), Hosmer (1952), Kinghorn (1969), Ormsby (1947) and White (1973) only tended to give vague information as to what wild Broad-headed snakes eat, using broad categories such as "frogs", "lizards", etc. Other Hoplocephalus are known to opportunistically feed on frogs, agamid and skink lizards, small mouse-like mammals (including mice), bats and birds when in the wild.
THE DECLINE AND DISTRIBUTION OF BROAD-HEADED SNAKES.
This species was once common over a wide area that has now been built upon. The Australian Museum in Sydney hold specimens from heavily built up inner Sydney suburbs such as Randwick, which now lack anything resembling natural bushland. Krefft (1869), stated that in 1869 Broad-headed snakes were still common along the rocky coastline from the entrance of Port Jackson to Botany Bay. This includes the suburbs of Watson's Bay, Bondi, Bronte, Coogee and Maroubra which are all totally built out. Although multi-story units are built over the sandstone cliffs overlooking the Pacific ocean, it is clear that prior to European settlement the habitat near these cliffs, with their associated "seas of rock" immediately adjacent, would have closely paralleled that in the hills/cliffs of Yalwal (near Nowra) which is probably one of the best remaining locations for large numbers of Broad-headed Snakes. Furthermore similar habitat exists in the Royal National Park (south of Sydney), which still has Broad-headed Snakes.
Krefft also stated that the species occurred along the shores of Middle Harbour, Lane Cove and Parramatta Rivers, all of which have since also been built over. Without offering any direct facts to dispute what Krefft said in 1869, I have my doubts as to how far north (if at all) of Port Jackson/Parramatta River, Broad-headed Snakes spread in light of the present day distribution of the species.
Bushland remaining in the above water catchments is all but destroyed for many species of reptile with the exception of the upper reaches of Middle Harbour, much of which remains largely intact. This area directly connects with the Kurringai Chase National Park between St. Ives and Terry Hills along with the Oxford Falls/Deep Creek reserve to the north.
These reserves are huge and bushland within them is virgin. There is no evidence at all of decline in reptiles within these reserves and all existing populations of all species appear to be stable and healthy. Other than Port Jackson/Parramatta River itself, which acts as a significant north/south boundary (having it's source in the flat clay-based Cumberland Plain which totally lacks sandstone), there are no other natural barriers to sandstone dependent wildlife. Within Kurringai Chase and other unnamed reserves which also run onto it there are no Broad-headed Snakes. However there is no evidence of or records of herpetological collecting within the Kurringai Chase or adjoining National Parks in any way capable of wiping out just this one species. Furthermore, Hersey (1980) documented minimal impact on this species' numbers by collectors in any area.
Broad-headed Snakes also do not occur in the vast National Parks immediately to the north of the Hawkesbury River (just beyond Kurringai Chase). This is in spite of almost the entire areas of all these reserves containing excellent Broad-headed Snake habitat (including the obligatory Lesueur's Geckos).
I therefore conclude that Broad-headed Snakes have not occurred in the near coastal National Parks north of Port Jackson as far as the New South Wales Central Coast since prior to European settlement. Any previous records from these areas should therefore be treated as either doubtful or possibly based on individual released specimens.
Furthermore I note here that the Royal National Park and adjoining Heathcote State Park to Sydney's South is of similar area and of identical habitat to that of Kurringai Chase. It has been demonstrably more heavily collected by reptile people in the last 30 years, and suffered far more intensive recreational development, but still holds populations of Broad-headed Snakes.
A number of people have speculated that Hoplocephalus is a relictual genus. Such may be the case and it may be in long term decline as evidenced by the patchy distribution of all three species.
Returning to the Broad-headed Snake, the answer to the distribution question may in fact lie with another species; namely the Brown Tree Snake (Boiga irregularis). This species is a relatively recent immigrant to the Australian herpetofauna. It is found commonly in the National Parks to the north of Sydney (including Kurringai Chase) but not to the south (Royal National Park). Port Jackson is the southern distribution limit for the species. Around Sydney the two species appear to have similar habits (similar diets, live in and climb sandstone outcrops, etc).
Brown Tree Snakes may in fact be part of the reason for the absence of and/or demise in Broad-headed Snakes to the immediate north of Sydney if they ever occurred in the area. To Sydney's north-west the two species also appear to be mutually exclusive, with the possible exception of a small area in the vicinity of the Colo river in the north-west (an apparent limit in the range of Broad-headed snakes).
Directly west of Sydney and in the colder sandstone ranges there are only Broad-headed Snakes. Along the Hawkesbury River (both sides) and adjacent suburbs there are only Brown Tree Snakes at least as far along as Wiseman's Ferry.
That the National Parks to the North of Port Jackson and those to the south have different herpetofaunas is obvious to the careful observer - even though the species are generally the same. For example Death Adders (Acanthophis antarcticus) from either side tend to have a minor difference in colour pattern. Furthermore, white and/or yellow tail tips don't exist in North Shore specimens, but are common in those from the South. Blue Mountains (due west of city) herpetofauna appear to have closest affinities with the southern herpetofauna. The areas are continuous to the south-west.
In non-reptilian terms there are other interesting anomalies. The native plant the Gymea Lily (Doryanthes excela) is in plague proportions in the National Parks to the South of Sydney and again to the north of the Hawkesbury River. However it was at the time of European settlement absent from the area in between (including Kurringai Chase), in spite of identical (suitable) habitat.
Another point worth noting is that the Stephen's Banded Snake is common in sandstone habitat about 30 km north of the Hawkesbury River at Ourimbah and also further north. No sympatry between Broad-headed Snakes and other Hoplocephalus is known, nor is it expected. Large tracts of bushland around Ourimbah have Stephen's Banded Snakes, but no Broad-headed Snakes, in spite of apparently suitable habitat.
As far back as 1869, Krefft noted that gardeners taking sandstone exfoliations from the bush appeared to be causing a decline in numbers of this species. In spite of this pressure, urbanisation, and the possible threat of collection by hobbyists, most remaining populations of this species do not seem to be in decline. They also tend to be within National Parks and other government controlled land.
No feral animals are believed to place undue pressure on the species, nor do they appear to be overly vulnerable to bushfires. Parts of the Blue Mountains and Royal National Parks subjected to repeated and fierce bushfires still have stable populations of Broad-headed Snakes.
Based on records of previous collections of specimens by hobbyists from the Royal National Park on Sydney's immediate southern boundary, the Blue Mountains National Park to the west and sites near Nowra, responsible hobbyists clearly don't threaten populations.
According to Cogger, Cameron, Sadlier and Eggler (1993), the Government needs to spend about $132,000 in order to find out enough about the species in order to be able to prepare a proper conservation plan. This included, a comprehensive survey of all likely areas the species occurs in order to estimate numbers; research into basic biology and ecology, including assessing threats and the preparation of a detailed long term management strategy. This should include maintaining a viable gene pool in captivity in order to guard against some unforeseen calamity in all wild populations. The government hasn't yet committed these funds.
Broad-headed Snakes are highly strung and won't hesitate to attempt to bite. When agitated a snake will raise the forepart of it's body in an s-shape, flatten and broaden it's head and strike repeatedly at any object brought within range.
Although one fatality is known from the bite of this snake, it isn't usually regarded as dangerous. The bite is however painful. Severe bites can be neutralised with Tiger Snake (Notechis) anti-venom, although this is rarely indicated because the effects of the horse-serum may well be worse than those from the venom itself.
The venom is powerfully coagulant and neurotoxic. It also has weak blood destroying properties (Mirtschin and Davis, 1992). Severe bite symptoms include drowsiness, slurred speech, lack of muscle control and local swelling.
Broad-headed Snakes are easy to maintain in captivity.
As captives they are very easy to maintain, so handling them is rarely necessary. They are also long lived. Captives held in excess of ten years are common. Wollongong herpetologist Marion Anstis successfully kept a specimen on a diet of mice for over 19 years. That was the same specimen that didn't eat at one stage for over 12 months.
I have never kept this species myself, so the following account in relation to keeping these snakes is in effect second-hand.
No keeper has ever indicated problems with these snakes. The general consensus is that they are among the easiest and most durable Australian elapids to keep. They don't seem to be prone to any particular ailments and breed readily.
Probably the most expedient method to keep these snakes is in shoe-box style accommodation used successfully with small colubrids and other reptiles. Most keepers however seem to house these snakes in modified fish tanks and/or wooden snake cages set up with rocks and other natural artifacts, the mandatory water bowl and so on. The most common substrate used is gravel.
Temperatures should not go below 10 degrees Celsius or above about 30. The cage should always have a temperature gradient so that the snake/s can select their preferred temperature. Captive snakes will actively thermoregulate. Seasonal/overwinter cooling is recommended and probably essential for breeding success. Three separate breeders regularly achieved success without separation of the sexes prior to breeding. There has never been a need to attempt to induce mating in Broad-headed Snakes. Hayes (1973a) documented a case of a male Broad-headed Snake mating with a female Stephen's Banded Snake in the same cage. The male snake apparently chases and "corners" the female before mounting her. Mating has been observed at as low as 12 degrees Celsius.
Male combat hasn't been documented for Hoplocephalus and according to Shine (1983) is unlikely as the females tend to be the larger sex...it is when the males are usually the larger sex that male combat is a common behaviour. Certainly keepers of Broad-headed Snakes have not yet documented fights between co-habitants of cages or similar behaviour.
Adams (1973) stated that, based on his experiences keeping the genus, he thought Broad-headed snakes weren't cannibalistic, but that the other species in the genus were.
In spite of the above statement, there have since been documented cases of cannibalism in this species. Herpetologist Greg Sinclair had a large adult Broad-headed snake eat a cage co-habitant of the same species that was less than half it's length. It was later regurgitated partially digested. In a similar incident a large specimen (s-v 53 cm) ate another individual (s-v 41 cm) which was not regurgitated. White (1973), also reported an adult consuming two large Small-eyed Snakes (Cryptophis nigrescens) whilst in captivity. Wells, Wellington and Williams (1988) also reported on a captive Broad-headed Snake feeding on an immature Yellow-faced Whip Snake (Demansia psammophis). Captive Broad-headed Snakes have also been induced to eat young Bluetongue Lizards (Tiliqua scincoides) and even live fish dropped onto the cage substrate. How much of this behaviour was unusual to captive specimens, as opposed to what takes place in the wild is yet to be established. Where these snakes occur in the wild, tadpoles/frogs of several species are sometimes available and may constitute food in some circumstances. For obvious reasons (risk of parasites) keepers haven't experimented feeding captive snakes anuran food.
When feeding, these snakes will usually sit and wait for food to approach as opposed to actively forage for it, although this in part depends on the set-up of the cage. This behaviour may also explain why not many wild-caught (museum held) snakes had food in their stomachs and the winter sheltering patterns. When snakes bite their food, they tend to hang on to it and immobilise it by using their body to push it against a restraining surface such as a rock. Using coils to restrain prey (like constriction) has also been observed. Food is eaten only when the prey is completely subdued by venom.
Shine and Fitzgerald (1989) documented mating in captive snakes in spring (September/October) with live young being born in January to March (4 breedings). This correlates with what is seen in terms of reproduction in wild specimens. However I have been advised by other keepers that male Broad-headed snakes will mate, and mate repeatedly at any time of year. The Autumn and spring periods were however the periods of most intense mating activity. However offspring were only produced in the period Summer/Autumn. Mark Fitzgerald got litters of between 4 and 12 young in four breedings. Including other documented cases, all litters for the species range between 2 and 12 and in the period January to April. All breedings to date have been in Eastern Australia which is where the species occurs naturally. However there is nothing to suggest these snakes won't reproduce just as successfully if kept elsewhere.
The actual mating act in Broad-headed Snakes has only been observed once by myself (when visiting a keeper of this species). Mating appeared no different to that observed by myself in other Australian Elapids. The male had aligned his body over that of the female and was rubbing himself (in particular the head and chin) over the female. He was trying to raise the female's tail with his own. Both snakes moved their tails vigorously when this was done. I've been told that observed copulation usually lasts from one to several hours (often seeming to go on all night). See Hoser (1983) for a description of mating behaviour in Death Adders (Acanthophis antarcticus). The main observed difference between the two species is that the female Broad-headed Snake does not rapidly twitch her tail in the same "end-shaking" manner as the female Death Adder, when first mounted by the male. Hayes (1973a) documents five repeated copulations between a male Broad-headed Snake and a female Stephen's Banded Snake. No offspring were reported.
Carpenter and Ferguson (1977) discuss stereotyped mating behaviour in reptiles in detail.
According to Sydney breeder Charles Acheson, the actual act of giving birth is very quick, with the young snakes being expelled from the female at great speed, making photographing the act fairly difficult. He also noted the young snakes rapidly moved away from the female shortly after birth. He has bred these snakes many times.
Like the adults, young snakes are also pugnacious. Shine and Fitzgerald quoted snout-vent lengths of newborns ranging from 21.8 to 22.7 cm. A problem indicated by Shine and Fitzgerald, Acheson and another breeder, Richard Shearim has been stillborn young and unfertilised ova (eggs). An identical scenario seems to commonly occur in Death Adders (Acanthophis antarcticus) another live-bearing Australian elapid. It also probably occurs in other reptiles. Shine is now investigating the cause/s of this phenomenon.
Mirtschin (1985) has speculated that a cause of stillborn young in captive snakes may be due to overheating of the gravid female. When he altered the substrate of his cages to make them cooler, he reduced the rate of stillborn young. However the reduction in stillborn young may also have been a result of some other factor such as the female snake/s increasing in age/maturity.
Also in line with Death Adders (Acanthophis antarcticus), Broad-headed snakes will feed prior to sloughing while the eye scales are clouded. There are no accurate records of growth rates or sloughing frequencies in either captive or wild snakes although Shine, Webb and others are presently attempting to address these issues.
Since 1973, the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has, as a policy, not issued licences to anybody to collect or keep reptiles unless they held reptiles prior to 1973 or were associated with a museum or university. Only rarely has this policy been waived to grant new licences. Consequently the majority of snake keepers in that state have done so illegally and continue to do so. Most reptile keepers who were licensed on the basis that they held reptiles prior to 1973 were generally harassed by NPWS officials, with illegal break ins, thefts, raids, etc, to such a degree that the majority of those licences have now been handed in or cancelled.
Throughout the late 1970's and 1980's a large number of snake keepers in Sydney held Broad-headed Snakes, most seeming to have been caught near the Blue Mountains townships of Lawson and Linden (where they remain in numbers) and west of Nowra (where they also remain in numbers). Many of these keepers have breed these snakes successfully and in substantial numbers. Much of this effort was unfortunately wasted. For example in 1980, NPWS only granted permission to seven individuals to hold this species (Hersey, 1980). Most breeding of this snake was done by people without permits and was thus totally illegal.
There were a number of problems caused by this breeding of Broad-headed snakes being illegal. The breeders were unable to publish or disseminate information for fear of retribution by officials who may find out. Thus knowledge about this species was being restricted. Excess young were sometimes released due to the inability to legally pass them on. You see, in NSW most keepers tend to be either totally legal (on the books) or totally illegal (off the books). While releasing these specimens may have done good for the hearts of the people releasing the snakes, the reality was that the species would have been better served by the snakes remaining in captivity. Where the snakes were released was invariably in areas of stable populations not needing further snakes. Furthermore more snakes are still needed in the event of some unforseen extinction in wild populations necessitating the need for a large captive resource.
To make things worse some keepers actually separated their snakes to prevent further breedings due to the inability to offload young and reduce potential stresses on long-term captives! Now this is for a species the NPWS has put on it's state endangered list!
In order to deflect criticisms in my (then new) book Australian Reptiles and Frogs, the NPWS did in the late 1980's declare a short-term amnesty on illegally held reptiles. This led to a number of people licensing formerly illegally held Broad-headed Snakes. This included snakes that been held for up to ten years. Consequently there are now more legally held Broad-headed snakes in New South Wales than there has been for some time.
Although the species is listed as "Endangered" (Schedule 12) by NPWS, myself and most other reptile people don't believe that listing accurately reflects the status of the snake. Shine's preliminary investigations indicate the snake is more common and widespread than had been thought. A more accurate listing for the species would probably be "vulnerable" as indicated by Cogger, Cameron, Sadlier and Eggler (1993).
The current "Endangered" listing of the snake by NPWS probably unnecessarily draws attention to the snake (when it doesn't need it) and further devalues the status of those reptiles that truly are endangered; such as the Western Swamp Tortoise (Pseudemydura umbrina) which has less than 100 left. Remember, a huge proportion of the Broad-headed Snake's remaining habitat is now in conservation areas and under no foreseeable threat.
Of course it has been repeatedly suggested that NPWS like to list non-endangered and in some cases common and commonly kept species (e.g. Diamond Python Morelia spilota), as endangered solely to enable them to extract bigger fines from people they take to court for keeping protected fauna without a permit issued by themselves. For example as recently as December 16th, 1994, Wollongong man David Macintosh was fined $2,500 for keeping Diamond Pythons without a NPWS permit (See the book Smuggled-2 for details of this and similar cases). He had repeatedly applied for the relevant permit and been refused. The snakes had been rescued by himself for nearby houses and would have been killed had he not saved them. As it was, the snakes had been injured and were being rehabilitated by himself on behalf of a local wildlife rescue service. See Hoser (1993) for similar cases to above.
Provided there are enough licensed reptile keepers allowed to keep Broad-headed Snakes in NSW and elsewhere, the species most certainly will never be threatened in captivity. That of course is due to the ease of keeping and breeding the snake. Current populations of this snake in the wild are thought to be between 10,000 and 100,000 (Hoser, 1991). More recent studies indicate that the true number is likely to be nearer the high figure.
Not many Australian snakes have been the subject of so much misinformation. Much that is published about Broad-headed Snakes is quite simply wrong and/or based on exaggerations, so readers here are warned to take care when reading about the snake. For example McPhee (1963) stated that Broad-headed Snakes (Hoplocephalus bungaroides) occur in South-east Queensland. Such simply isn't so. Likewise for a statement by Hayes (1973b) that the species occurs near Murwillumbah on the far north coast of NSW. Specimens lodged with the Queensland Museum as Broad-headed Snakes from near Brisbane have all been mis-identified Stephen's Banded Snakes.
In a later publication, McPhee (1979) stated that the species produced up to 20 young. Shine doubts that assertion on the basis of current records not going that high, and the relatively large size of young, making twenty young even more unlikely. Acheson's breedings suggested from 5-7 young being an average litter. (Brian Barnett on one occasion had a Pale-headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bitorquatus) produce 17 young, the record known for that species. However all other recorded litters have been substantially smaller).
McPhee (1979) stated that the reason for the decline in Broad-headed Snake numbers was "due to indiscriminate collecting". The following year, NPWS themselves (Hersey, 1980) refuted this assertion. Furthermore as of last year, only 78 specimens had been "pickled" for museum collections in Australia over the previous 200 years...hardly an excessive number.
That of course hasn't stopped Canberra wildlife officials or the Queensland NPWS running with this false assertion to further their own bureaucratic agendas (Burbidge and Jenkins, (1984), Anonymous (1993). As recently as last year the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service put out a one page leaflet on reptile trafficking which stated the following about the Broad-headed Snake:- "Collecting by amateur snake keepers has resulted in the elimination of this species from areas in which it was once common". Such is simply unmitigated crap!
The aim of the leaflet was to justify why snake keeping (licensing) laws in Queensland had to be urgently tightened. I suppose it's just a case of never let the truth get in the way of an argument!
Finally a number of publications state that Broad-headed Snakes may get to five feet (150 cm)(e.g. McPhee 1963). The largest recorded museum specimen to date is a female a little over two and a half feet (75 cm). Wells (1981) stated that the largest he saw out of 105 adults was 86 cm (snout-vent), probably a little over three feet in total.
P.S. I'll pay $1,000,000 for a 33 foot python!
Anonymous (1993), Wildlife Information - Reptile Trafficking, Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service, Australia. 1 p.
Adams, D. (1973), 'Broad-headed Snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides', Herpetofauna, 5 (4), pp. 19-22.
Anstis, M. (1973), Hoplocephalus bungaroides (Broad-headed Snake) in captivity', Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Bulletin of Herpetology, 1 (1), pp. 5-7.
Burbidge, A. A. and Jenkins, R. W. (1984), Endangered Vertebrates of Australia and it's Island Territories, Report of the working group on Endangered Fauna of the Standing committee of the council of Nature Conservation Ministers, Canberra, ACT, Australia. 34 pp.
Carpenter, C. C. and Ferguson, G. W. (1977), 'Stereotyrped behaviour in Reptiles', pp. 335-554, in Biology of the Reptilia, Vol. 7, Academic Press, USA.
Cogger, H. G. (1992), Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia, (Fifth Edition), Reed Books, Sydney, Australia. 775 pp.
Cogger, H. G., Cameron, E. E., Sadlier, R. A. and Eggler, P. (1993), The Action Plan For Australian Reptiles, Australian Nature Conservation Agency, (Endangered Species Plan, Project number 124), Canberra, Australia, 254 pp.
Hayes, D.(1973a), 'Observations on mating of Male Broad-headed Snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides (Boie) and female Stephen's Banded Snake Hoplocephalus stephensii (Krefft)', Herpetofauna, 6 (1), pp. 23-24.
Hayes, D. (1973b), 'Observation on distribution of the Broad-headed Snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides (Boie)', Herpetofauna, 6 (1), p. 27.
Hersey, F. (1980), 'Broad-headed Snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides', Parks and Wildlife, Endangered Animals of New South Wales, Ed. C. Haegl, National Parks and Wildlife Service of New South Wales, Australia.
Hoser, R. T. (1983), 'Mating behaviour in Australian Death Adders - Genus Acanthophis (Serpentes: Elapidae)', Herptile 8 (1), pp. 25-33.
Hoser, R. T. (1989), Australian Reptiles and Frogs, Pierson and co., Sydney, Australia. 238 pp.
Hoser, R. T. (1991), Endangered Animals of Australia, Pierson and co., Sydney, Australia. 240 pp.
Hoser, R. T. (1993), Smuggled - The Underground Trade in Australia's Wildlife, Apollo Publishing, Moss Vale, NSW, Australia. 149 pp.
Hosmer, W. (1952), 'The Broad-headed Snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides (Boie)', North Queensland Naturalist, 20 (100), pp. 14-16.
Kinghorn, J. R. (1969), The Snakes of Australia, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, Australia. 197 pp.
Krefft, G. (1869), The Snakes of Australia, Thomas Richards, Government Printer, Sydney, Australia. 112 pp.
McPhee, D. R. (1963), Snakes and Lizards of Australia, Jacaranda, Brisbane, Australia. 125 pp.
McPhee, D. R. (1979), The Observer's Book of Snakes and Lizards of Australia, Methuen, Sydney, Australia. 157 pp.
Mirtschin, P. J. (1985), 'An overview of captive breeding of common Death Adders, Acanthophis antarcticus (Shaw) and it's role in conservation', pp. 505-509 in Grigg, G., Shine, R. and Ehmann, E. (eds), Biology of Australasian Frogs and Reptiles, Surrey Beatty and Sons, Pty. Ltd, Sydney, Australia. 527 pp.
Mirtschin, P. J. and Davis, R. (1992), Snakes of Australia - Dangerous and Harmless, Hill of Content, Melbourne, Australia. 216 pp.
Ormsby, A. I. (1947), 'Notes on the Broad-headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides)', Proceedings of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales (1946-7), pp. 19-21.
Shine, R. (1983), 'Arboreality in Snakes: Ecology of the Australian Elapid Genus Hoplocephalus', Copeia, 3 (1), pp. 198-205.
Shine, R. and Fitzgerald, M. (1989), Conservation and Reproduction of an Endangered Species: Broad-headed Snake, Hoplocephalus bungaroides (Elapidae)', Australian Zoologist, 25 (3), pp. 65-67.
Swan, G. (1990), A Field Guide To The Snakes And Lizards Of New South Wales, Three Sisters Productions Pty. Ltd, Winmalee, NSW, Australia. 224 pp.
Wells, R. W. (1981), 'Remarks on the prey preferences of Hoplocephalus bungaroides', Herpetofauna, 12 (2), 1981.
Wells, R. W., Wellington, C. R. and Williams, D. J. (1988), 'Notes on Stephen's Banded Snake Hoplocephalus stephensii Krefft, 1869', Australian Herpetologist, 512, pp. 1-17.
White, G. (1973), 'The Broad-headed Snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides (Boie)', Herpetofauna, 6 (1), pp. 7-8.
Worrell, E. (1970), Reptiles of Australia (Second edition), Angus and Robertson, Sydney, Australia. 169 pp.
SLIDES AND CAPTIONS FOR BROAD-HEADED SNAKE ARTICLE.
There are 17 slides in total. All are by Raymond Hoser.
1a-1c/ Broad-headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides), young adult from Lawson, NSW.
2/ Broad-headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides), captive-bred offspring prior to first slough. Parents from Linden, NSW.
3a-3c/ Stephen's Banded Snake (Hoplocephalus stephensi), adult from Mount Glorious, Qld.
4a-4d/ Pale-headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bitorquatus), adult from Moonee, Queensland.
5a-5b/ Small-eyed Snake (Cryptophis nigrescens), adult. This species is commonly found inhabiting the same areas as Broad-headed Snakes. This specimen from West Head, NSW.
6a/ Lesueur's Gecko (Oedura lesueurii) - the main food of Broad-headed Snakes. This specimen from Pearl Beach, NSW.
6b/ Lesueur's Gecko (Oedura lesueurii) - the main food of Broad-headed Snakes. This specimen from Ourimbah, NSW.
7a-7b/ Broad-headed Snake habitat. Blackheath/Blue Mountains, NSW.
Raymond Hoser has been an active herpetologist for about 30 years and published over 130 papers in journals worldwide. He has written seven books including the definitive works "Australian Reptiles and Frogs", "Endangered Animals of Australia" and the controversial best seller "Smuggled - The Underground Trade in Australia's Wildlife".
Raymond Hoser has been an active herpetologist for about 30 years and published over 150 papers in journals worldwide and nine books.
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