published in two parts in 1990 in Litteratura Serpentium 10
(2), pp. 82-92 and 10 (3), 122-145. Later republished in Monitor
- Journal of the Victorian Herpetological Society. This is a text
only (no italics) version only.
By: Raymond T. Hoser,
1996 Address: 41 Village Avenue, Doncaster, Vic, 3108, Australia. Fax:
+61 3 9857-4664. Phone: +61 3 9812 3322
To see photos of Melbourne's snakes (all kinds)
Melbourne is the second largest Australian city, and the state capital
of Victoria. It has a population of between three and four million people,
the exact number depending on which outer suburbs and nearby satellite
cities are included in the population count. At the time of writing (1989),
the population of Melbourne is increasing by about 60,000 people a year
as a result of natural increase and immigration from elsewhere (mainly
other countries). Melbourne is about 900 km (by road) to the south-south
west of Sydney, Australia's largest city with a population about 600,000
more than Melbourne's. According to the 1982 YEAR BOOK AUSTRALIA, Melbourne
was on average 35 m above sea level. The climate is by Australian standards
cool, with more overcast weather than most other parts of the country.
Melbourne city's rainfall is not high in terms of mm's that fall, but this
hides the fact that a large portion of the rainfall is in the form of drizzle,
and not heavy downpours like what dominates the rainfall of other parts
of the country. The average annual rainfall is 659 mm, with a range between
331 and 939 mm. Although rainfall is fairly evenly spread throughout the
year, slightly more falls in winter months, and that which falls in warmer
months has a greater tendency to be of the heavy thunderstorm variety.
The year round average maximum temperature is 19.7'C with an average
minimum of 9.9'C. The highest recorded temperature is 45.6'C whilst the
lowest ever recorded is -2.8'C. The weather in Melbourne is highly erratic
and changeable, not only on a seasonal basis, but also on a daily basis.
The locals here have a saying 'If you don't like Melbourne's weather, wait
five minutes and it will change. That's often true. Most of Melbourne is
relatively flat, with few if any rugged hills in the near vicinity (within
50 km of the city centre). The Dandenong ranges some 30 km to the east
of the city are easily the largest and steepest hills in the area. These
hills represent the eastern edge of the urban sprawl, and are still mostly
covered by dense forests, and gullies with tree ferns. As one moves, westwards
towards the city and beyond, the countryside is relatively flat and undulating.
Along with a westwards decrease in rainfall, the natural vegetation
gradually changes from dense forests to open grasslands with very few trees
by the time one reaches the outer western suburbs about twenty km from
the city. Directly south of the city is Port Phillip Bay, which opens into
Bass Strait some 60 km further south. For about 10 km to the north of the
city there is a general rise to open basalt plains which are found to the
north and north west of the city. These plains run into the plenty river
gorge in the north east and then into hillier more wooded country after
that. Most native grasses have been eliminated and replaced by introduced
varieties. Rainfall not only decreases in an east west direction, but also
in a north-south direction to a lesser extent.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE SNAKES
Herpetologically, Melbourne is relatively devoid compared to other parts
of Australia, principally due to it's relatively cool climate. Sydney has
well over 20 species of snake found within 50 km of the city centre. Melbourne
has only seven species found within 50 km of the city centre. All but one,
the Little Whip Snake Unechis flagellum also occurs around Sydney. No Blind
Snakes (Family: Typhlopidae), have been recorded within 50 km of Melbourne,
but due to their cryptic nature they may occur in this area.
Some other snake species occur within 80 km of the city, typically north
of the Great Divide, but they are not included in this paper. Legless lizards,
(Family: Pygopodidae) occur around Melbourne, with Delma species the most
common. These lizards and some small skinks with reduced limbs are sometimes
killed by locals in mistake for snakes. Conserving snakes is still regarded
by most Victorians as a ridiculous idea. The seven species of snake found
around Melbourne are all widespread throughout the south-eastern part Australia's
and all belong to the family Elapidae. The seven species are:
1: Copperhead (lowland) Austrelaps superbus
2: Small-eyed Snake Cryptophis nigrescens
3: White-lipped Snake Drysdalia coronoides
4: Eastern Tiger Snake Notechis scutatus
5: Red-bellied Black Snake Pseudechis porphyriacus
6: Eastern Brown Snake Pseudonaja textilis
7: Little Whip Snake Unechis flagellum
All species are found in reasonable numbers where habitats are suitable,
although the least frequently caught species around Melbourne are the Small-eyed
and Black snakes. Both of these types become more abundant in coastal areas
of New South Wales. The Copperhead, Eastern Tiger and Eastern Brown snakes
are all deadly and claimed numerous lives before the advent of antivenoms.
Deaths are recorded from the bites of the Small-eyed and Red-bellied Black
snakes, but in all cases have been in exceptional circumstances, (such
as severe alcohol inebriation of the victim), but should still be treated
as potentially dangerous.
The other two species, though venomous, have venoms too mild to be more
than a minor irritant if one is bitten.
When I quote average lengths and maximums for snakes, these figures
are not based on specific museum or other specimens, and the lengths are
estimated as a result of my experience with specimens (not necessarily
measured) in the field, captivity and from other people's reported measurements.
COPPERHEAD, Austrelaps superbus (Gunther, 1858)
Colouration: see photo 3. Highly variable in dorsal colour, ranging
from yellows, browns, reds, greys or black. Specimens may or may not have
a different coloured nape region, (Hoser, 1989a).
The nape is more common in smaller specimens (Rawlinson, 1965). Examples
of four different colour variations of Copperhead are shown on page 148
of Hoser (1989a) (highland and lowland forms). Average Adult Maximum Length:
1.1m. Length of longest recorded specimens (approx. estimate) 1.9 m. Basic
scalation: smooth with 15 mid body rows, 140-165 ventrals, single anal,
and 40-55 single subcaudals. Distribution (lowland form only): found in
Victoria (most of the southern half only), Tasmania and South-eastern South
Australia. Around Melbourne, this species is absent in a line stretching
north from the city and nearby western suburbs, (the lower Yarra valley).
Copperheads apparently "fizzle out" to the west of Kinglake,
before re-appearing further west as part of the second population. The
South-North line of absence splits Victorian Copperheads into two distinct
populations, probably no more than 30 km apart at the closest point. This
division of populations probably pre-dates white settlement of the area.
Copperheads are most common in the Dandenong ranges and nearby hills, where
they are sometimes found in high population densities. Other notes: Copperheads
are among the more docile of the potentially dangerous species, and are
easily handled in captivity.
Wild specimens will always flee if given the opportunity. Occasionally
if cornered and agitated, a Copperhead will hiss and flatten the whole
body before suddenly moving for cover. In some areas where there is no
ground cover other than grass tussocks Copperheads will still occur in
large numbers, but are often hard to locate. Burn offs in these areas reveal
huge numbers of specimens. Copperheads are most common where food (mainly
frogs) are most common, and are not as common around Melbourne as they
are in some of the upland farming country to the east of Victoria, where
frogs are more numerous. Their cannibalistic behaviour and greater resistance
to cold than other snakes, usually leads to Copperheads eliminating most
other snakes in areas where they are most common. Such areas are typically
farming country with abnormally high populations of frogs. Over a period
of time, the frog numbers increase as a result of the construction of small
farm dams that provide drinking water for stock. The frogs breed in these
dams, which are effectively new breeding sites. As the Copperhead numbers
increase in line with their food supply, so they adversely effect the numbers
of competing snakes.
Mating occurs in early spring (I observed it in September/October in
captive specimens) with an average of fourteen live young being born around
January to March. The young average 18 cm at birth. Although Copperheads
are mainly diurnal, they become crepuscular or nocturnal in hot weather.
Male combat in the breeding season as been documented in this species,
(Shine and Allen, 1980). In captive specimens held by myself, mating activity
(dominantly) and birth of young both occurred during night hours. This
was for two females which bred in 1975-76. Both snakes gave birth five
days apart in the first week of March between midnight and 3 am (Eastern
Summer Time), in identical weather conditions. Although kept in an indoor
cage, the weather outside was cold and wet (post cold front), and would
have been noticeable to the snakes inside. Peters (pers. comm.) a former
reptile keeper at Sydney's Taronga Zoo, reported that the zoo had difficulty
in keeping this species. Apparently the zoo's reptile house was "too
hot" for this species, and specimens kept became emaciated before
later dying. Another Sydney herpetologist, Carey (pers. com.), reported
a similar problem when keeping this species.
Both Carey and Peters, held numerous other types of snake, and did not
report such problems with any. The specimens kept by the author in 1974-76
were housed (thrived) in a cool room under his parent's house without artificial
heating. All other species kept in this room required some form of heating,
at least in the winter months. Although I never experienced cannibalism
or attempted cannibalism in this species, Weigal (1988) warns about problems
of captive cannibalism in Copperheads. The highly neurotoxic venom of Copperheads
is neutralised by Tiger Snake (Notechis) antivenom, which is administered
to bite victims.
SMALL-EYED SNAKE Cryptophis nigrescens (Gunther, 1862)
Colouration: see photo 4. Average adult maximum length: 50 cm. Length
of longest recorded specimens (Victoria only) (approximate estimate) 75-80
cm. Basic scalation: smooth with 15 mid body rows, 165-210 ventrals, single
anal and 30-45 single subcaudals. Distribution: found along the coast,
ranges and nearby slopes, from Cape York, North Queensland to the vicinity
of Melbourne, Victoria. Around Melbourne, Rawlinson (1965) reports this
species as being restricted to some rocky areas to the north and east of
the city, and not abundant in any locality. Turner (pers. comm.) reported
this species as being common (abundant) in the Plenty River Gorge to the
north east of the city. Specimens had also been caught in the Churchill
National Park, near suburban Dandenong, and there were also a number of
unconfirmed reports of specimens being caught in some hills to the south
west of the city.
Other notes: although a nocturnal species, most specimens are found
during the day when resting under cover; particularly in the colder months.
Like many other snakes, this species won't hesitate to utilise man made
cover in the form of sheets of tin and similar. when caught this snake
will usually attempt to bite and may flatten its body while doing so. on
one occasion I caught a specimen inside a termite mound that I had dismantled
at Mount Kurringai, near Sydney. In the same mound I caught a half paralysed
Copper-tailed skink Ctenotus taeniolatus, that had presumably been bitten
by the snake and then fled. The skink died shortly after I had caught it.
Small-eyed snakes are dominantly skink feeders, but captive specimens have
also taken geckoes and mall frogs of the genera Pseudophryne and Crinia.
During early May 1977, I located an aggregation of 29 Small-eyed Snakes
at Darkes Forest (just south of Sydney). The snakes ranged in age from
juvenile to adult, with most specimens being adult. They were found in
a pile of sheets of corrugated iron (Hoser, 1980).
Other aggregations of this species have also been recorded by Covacevich
and Limpus (1973), Gow (1976). McPhee, (1979) documents a case of 28 specimens
being found knotted together presumably hibernating in winter.
Aggregation in this species is presumably fairly common. Mating occurs
in late autumn, winter and spring with two to eight (average five) young
being produced in late summer. Young measure 10-12 cm at birth. On 30 December
1981, Webb and Chapman, found two gravid females of this species and seven
gravid Golden Crowned Snakes Cacophis squamulosus on a six km stretch of
gravel road. It was between 9.00 pm and 10.30 pm (Eastern summer time),
in a NSW state forest. No males or other specimens were found on that night,
and they concluded that these snakes were "nocturnal road basking"
in order to facilitate the development of their embryos or eggs, (Webb
and Chapman, 1983). At 9.00 pm, the ambient air temperature had been 20
degrees Celsius, presumably warm enough for males to forage for food in
the forest. The two Small-eyed Snakes had no food in their stomachs, indicating
that this species probably doesn't feed in the latter stages of pregnancy.
In relation to the above case involving the gravid snakes, my own experiences
and conclusions differ slightly. Gravid snakes of various species including
Death Adders Acanthophis become unusually restless in the month or so preceding
parturition, and by this factor alone, are more likely to be found crossing
roads. In cases noted by myself, road basking was not evident; the snakes
found, merely crossing the roads. Also the ground temperature of the road
(as measured) did not significantly differ from open (exposed) rock outcrops,
and ground in the adjacent bush, (Principal studies in west Head, area,
NSW, and Pilbara W.A.). Captive specimens of this species are hardy, provided
one is able to maintain an adequate supply of skinks. Although it is hard
to quantify the exact number of skinks required on a weekly basis for skink
feeding snakes, due to a number of variable factors, I used to operate
on the principal that any given snake would need to be supplied with in
excess of three skinks per week on average and assuming that a small oversupply
in food stocks is maintained). Rawlinson (1965) noted that the Small-eyed
snake and the Little whip Snake Unechis flagellum emits a sharp "ant-like"
odour when freshly caught.
WHITE-LIPPED SNAKE, Drysdalia coronoides (Gunther, 1858)
Colouration: Highly variable in dorsal colour, ranging from greys, greens,'
reds, browns or even black. Average Adult Maximum Length: 40 cm. Length
of longest recorded specimens (approx. estimate): 70 cm. Basic scalation:
Smooth, with 15 mid body rows, 120-160 ventrals, single anal and 35-70
single subcaudals. Distribution: Found in colder parts of New South Wales,
Victoria (East and West) and all of Tasmania.
Around Melbourne this species is absent from the drier and more open
western suburbs. It is very common in the Dandenongs, and forested hilly
parts of the nearby Mornington Peninsula area. Other notes: This mainly
diurnal snake is usually found sheltering under ground litter including
well embedded rocks, when inactive. Active specimens are found during favourable
weather conditions. Where this snake occurs, it is not unusual to be able
to catch several specimens in a single afternoon's hunting. A skink feeder,
(Shine, 1981), it actively stalks it's prey.
About six young are produced from January to early March and unlike
most kinds of snake, White-lipped Snakes continue to feed throughout pregnancy.
Newborns measure about 10 cm. A favoured hibernation site is inside water
soaked logs in water soaked areas (Bartell and Jenkins 1980).
EASTERN TIGER SNAKE, Notechis scutatus (Peters, 1861)
Colouration: Highly variable in dorsal colour ranging through olives,
yellows browns, reddish, greys or even black, with or without cross bands
of varying intensity.
Numerous examples of variation in colouration of this species are provided
by Cogger (1986), Gow (1989a), Griffiths (1987), Hoser
(1989a), Mirtschin and Davis (1982). Mirtschin and Davis (1982),
page 42, have a photograph of a leucystic (white) specimen from Warrnambool,
some two and a half hours drive west-south-west of Melbourne. Anecdotal
evidence provided by Rawlinson (1965), indicates that banding (or non-banding)
in Tiger Snakes is genetically dictated by simple dominant or recessive
genes. Although the degree to which bands are visible on Eastern Tiger
Snakes varies, Chappell Island Tiger Snakes Notechis ater serventyl from
Bass Strait, only seem to come in two highly distinct morphs: Banded and
unbanded, with no intermediates. Mertens (pers. com.) who provided specimens
of both morphs of Chappell Island Tiger Snakes photographed in Hoser (1989a)
stated that breeding adults produced one or both morphs in their offspring,
indicating that they too have their bands or lack thereof dictated by simple
dominant or recessive genes. Further investigation is required. Average
adult maximum length: 1.3 metre.
Length of longest recorded specimens (approx. estimate; this form of
Tiger Snake only): 2.2 metre.
Basic scalation: Smooth with 15-19 mid body rows, 146-185 ventrals,
single anal and 39-65 single subcaudals.
Distribution: Throughout mainland south-eastern Australia, except for
the most arid parts, which it only penetrates along the river valleys.
In parts of South-east South Australia where the Western or Black Tiger
Snake Notechis ater occurs, the Eastern Tiger Snake Notechis scutatus is
absent. Although found throughout Melbourne, this snake occurs in largest
numbers in the lower Yarra Valley, where it is still common (Studley Park),
and the low lying swamp lands to the west and south-west of the city between
Altona and Geelong. Other notes: More white Australians have died as a
result of bites from this snake than any other. This is due to it's presence
in large numbers in heavily populated areas, and of course it's deadly
Typically the Eastern Tiger Snake Notechis scutatus will flee if approached.
When cornered it will flatten it's neck and body, lunging foreword in various
directions, and striking when the opportunity arises. Despite the wide
range of habitats occupied by this snake, preferred habitats are those
with large numbers of frogs, such as river flats, and grassy areas adjacent
to beaches, including those around Port Phillip Bay.
Tiger snakes are usually diurnal, but become crepuscular or nocturnal
in hot weather, particularly juveniles (Hoser, 1989a). Frogs are the dominant
component of their vertebrate diet. Worrell (1970) plate 57, shows an Eastern
Tiger Snake swallowing an eel, tail first. Barnett, (pers. comm.) reports
captive Tiger Snakes, Death Adders Acanthophis spp. and other Australian
elapids readily feeding on goldfish dropped in front of them when hungry.
Tiger snakes in Queensland are rapidly disappearing as a result of the
predations and poisoning's of the Cane Toad Bufo marinus. (Hoser
1989a, Rook and Charles, (pers. comm.). I believe that it is probable
that the Melbourne environment could support permanent and viable populations
of Cane Toads, and so Cane Toads pose a long term threat to Melbourne's
Tiger Snakes, if the Toads continue to spread southwards along the New
South Wales Coast. If the 'Greenhouse effect' takes place as predicted
and Melbourne's average temperature rises by between two and four degrees
Celsius, then Bufo marinus would have an even better chance of becoming
established in Melbourne. Withstanding the above, it is unlikely that Bufo
marinus pose a threat to Melbourne's Tiger Snakes in the next fifty years.
Mating of Tiger Snakes is usually in early spring (September to November),
and a pair of copulating Tiger Snakes from Melbourne's outskirts is shown
on page 192 of Hoser (1989a).
17-109 (average 35) young are produced in late summer (late January-April).
Newborns measure about 18 cm, often having distinct bands hat fade in later
Captive Tiger snakes are 'durable' and tend to thrive, even in conditions
considered unsuitable for most other snakes, (e.g. too dirty or too moist
cage). They tend to become fairly docile and this is their danger. Experienced
snake handlers who keep this species fall into the trap of trusting this
snake, and get bitten when it decides to bite it's keeper. This unpredictable
streak in the Tiger Snake's nature leads to a disproportionately large
number of experienced snake handlers falling victim to this snake's bite.
RED-BELLIED BLACK SNAKE, Pseudechis porphyriacus (Shaw, 1794)
Colouration: See photo. Changes little with age, sex or other factors.
Belly colour ranges from whitish to red, and is usually most red at the
edges of the ventral scales. Average adult maximum length: 1.5 m. Length
of longest recorded specimens (approx. estimate): 2.5 m. Basic scalation:
Smooth, with 17 mid body rows, 180-210 ventrals, divided anal, 40-65 single
and divided subcaudals.
Distribution: Found in coastal areas of South-eastern Australia and
wetter parts of the Queensland coast. Also found in inland areas along
the Murray/Darling river system. Around Melbourne. this species is usually
absent from drier parts of the northern and western areas, and patchily
distributed elsewhere. Near Melbourne, this species is most common along
the Plenty River Gorge, an area now under threat from urban development.
Like the Small-eyed snake, the Red-bellied Black Snake becomes more
common further north in New South Wales.
Other notes: Although the Red-bellied Black Snake has killed people,
it's venom is not as potent as most Australians seem to think. Average
venom yields kill about five hundred laboratory mice, (compared to 23,529
for a Taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus), 833 for Copperhead (Austrelaps superbus),
5,832 for a Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus), or 2,285 for a Death Adder
(Acanthophis antarcticus) (Worrell, 1972). This snake is not however a
pleasant one to be bitten by. Typical bite symptoms are severe local pain
and swelling, nausea and general sickness. The Red-bellied Black Snake
is however very inoffensive and rarely bites, even if trodden on. (On one
occasion I stood on a 1.2 m. specimen at Govett's Leap, NSW, and the snake
tried to squirm away from me, without attempting to bite my foot).
When agitated and cornered, this snake may flatten it's neck and raise
it's head in a Cobra Naja-like fashion. This snake is diurnal, even in
warm weather, when it restricts it's activity to early mornings and dusk.
Most specimens are caught in the vicinity of water, which it may frequently
enter in search of food, or to hide from potential predators. Roberts (1983),
documents a case where a Red-bellied Black Snake hid from a potential predator
in a cool creek. The 'specific heat' of the water ensured that the snake's
body temperature dropped rapidly when it entered the water. This enabled
the snake's metabolic rate to slow sufficiently to allow it's breathing
rate to slow down enough to let the snake remain totally submerged for
When searching for food, this species won't hesitate to climb small
trees and shrubs. Diet is varied, but frogs tend to dominate, meaning that
Cane Toads are exterminating this snake in northern areas (Qld and NSW).
Worrell (1970), plate 59, shows a Red-bellied Black snake consuming an
eel head first. I once had a 1.3 m. captive male specimen attempt to consume
a 1 m. male Keelback Amphiesma mairii, who shared the same cage. The Black
Snake was unable to completely swallow the Keelback, and after a period,
the now dead Keelback was regurgitated.
Also on plate 59, Worrell (1970), is a photo of two male Red-bellied
Black Snakes fighting. The snakes engage in these spectacular 'wrestling'
displays in spring, by biting one another and twyning their bodies around
each another. Rarely do the opponents hurt one another. When fighting one
another the snakes become oblivious to all that may go on around them,
and they may make a substantial amount of noise as they crash over dry
Springtime breeding aggregations of this species do occur. At late afternoon
on a mild and clear sunny day, during October 1976, when driving along
a bitumen road near Macquarie Marshes, NSW, I found a pair of Red-bellied
Black Snakes copulating in the middle of the road. As I approached them
on foot, after alighting from the car, the two snakes broke off and fled.
The two snakes measured about 1.5 m. each and the ambient air temperature
at the time was about 20 degrees Celsius. In summer from eight to thirty
live young are produced in membranous sacs, from which they emerge minutes
after birth. Newborns measure about 18 cm. Captive specimens are easy to
maintain, being voracious feeders and resistant to most ailments.
EASTERN BROWN SNAKE, Pseudonaja textilis (Dumeril, Bibron and Dumeril,
Colouration: Typically brown dorsally, but may range from near white,
through various shades of brown to jet black. Some Black specimens result
from a specific allele (type of gene), and black and non-black specimens
may result from a single clutch of eggs. Juveniles from Melbourne and nearby
areas have black bands on the head which fade with age (Usually within
three years). Coastal NSW specimens are banded as juveniles. In some areas
banded and non-banded juveniles occur, and both forms are known to have
emerged from a single clutch of eggs. Obviously one variant gene is dominant
over the other. However which one is dominant, hasn't been ascertained
Average Adult Maximum Length: 1.5 metre. Length of Longest Recorded
Specimens (approx. estimate): 2.4 m. Basic scalation: Smooth with 17 mid
body rows, 185-235 ventrals, divided anal, and 45-75 divided subcaudals.
Distribution: Found throughout the eastern half of Australia, its distribution
becoming patchier as one moves westwards. To date only one specimen has
been recorded from Western Australia. That specimen was caught in the South-east
Kimberley, at Gordon Downs (Storr, Smith and Johnstone, 1986). Found in
all areas around Melbourne, and very common everywhere except for the wetter
parts of the Dandenong Ranges. Other notes: Brown Snake venom is extremely
toxic, but fortunately this snake has a relatively poorly developed biting
apparatus (small fangs and venom glands). However this snake can be easily
agitated, is fast moving and must be regarded as highly dangerous. When
aroused, the Brown Snake will hold its neck high, slightly flattened in
an S-shape, and strike at it's aggressor at every opportunity. It will
even chase off a person who has aroused it. This diurnal snake is found
in all types of habitat, but is most common in open grassy habitats and
open woodlands. It is active at relatively high temperatures, compared
to other snakes.
Large numbers are found in agricultural areas. When resting Brown Snakes
are commonly found under man made rubbish such as sheets of metal.
The varied diet incudes introduced pest rodents. As well as relying
on it's venom to kill it's prey the Brown Snake constricts and holds it's
prey while it is repeatedly biting it. The coils are wrapped around the
prey as soon as it bites at it. A typical Brown Snake feeding sequence
is documented on page 187 of Hoser (1989a).
The feeding of this snake is very rapid, with the mouse eating sequence
shown by Hoser (1989a) taking only about
60 seconds. After biting it's prey towards the rear of it's body, and it
dying almost immediately, the Brown Snake released it's prey and then proceeded
to eat it head first, (a typical feeding pattern). Large winter aggregations
are known, with Gary Webb, finding one consisting of thirty individuals
in Sydney's outer western suburbs. These aggregations are maintained in
spring for mating purposes.
Males, which also tend to be the larger sex, engage in combat. The ten
to thirty eggs produced in early summer hatch about eighty days later.
Hatchlings measure about 27 cm.
LITTLE WHIP SNAKE, Unechis flagellum (McCoy, 1878)
Colouration: See photo. Little variation known. Average adult maximum
length: 40 cm. Length of longest recorded specimens (approx. estimate):
Basic scalation: Smooth, with 17 (or rarely 15) mid body rows, 125-150
ventrals, single anal, 20-40 single subcaudals. Distribution: South-eastern
New South Wales, most of Victoria and far south-east South Australia, (Gow,
1989b). A near identical species, Unechis spectabilis is found in adjoining
areas of Victoria, New South Wales (most of that state), southern South
Australia and southern inland Queensland.
Around Melbourne, the Little Whip Snake (Unechis flagellum) is most
common in rocky localities to the north and west of the city, particularly
on and adjacent to the basalt plains, (James, 1979; Fyfe and Booth, 1984).
Other notes: The relationship between the Little Whip Snake Unechis
flagellum and Unechis spectabilis is uncertain. They may turn out to be
races of the same species (sub-species) rather than differing species.
Unechis spectabilis typically has 15 mid body rows, whereas the Little
Whip Snake usually has 17 mid body rows. I have inspected a number of specimens
of both snake types, and on external inspection have noticed little difference.
Certainly their biological habits don't appear to differ either. If they
turn out to be the same species, then the name used will be Unechis flagellum,
as it was described first.
The Little Whip Snake Unechis flagellum was the only type of snake to
be originally described from Melbourne. Like a number of other Unechis
sp. that possess black markings on their head, the Little Whip Snake Unechis
flagellum, is often mistaken for juvenile Brown Snakes Pseudonaja spp.
(Some Pygopodids also have these types of markings on their head). Believed
to be nocturnal, most specimens are caught during the day hiding under
cover, or in loose soil under cover. Not a very fast moving species; when
discovered it adopts a defensive pose, then moves off seeking cover (Rawlinson,
Turner (1984), describes three distinct categories of defence mode employed
by this species. 1: The snake will attempt to frighten off the aggressor.
It raises the forepart of it's body, expands it's head and neck, and thrashes
it's body about in a whip-like fashion (hence the name flagellum). The
snake may also hiss in a low but audible sound, increasing in volume when
the snake moves. Lunging foreword in an apparent attempt to strike is usually
bluff. 2: Usually triggered by handling, this snake will emit an 'ant-like'
odour from the anus (Rawlinson, 1965; Turner, 1984). The smell may be in
the form of a milky liquid, or as a penetrating gas. Both are effective
and rely on the sensitivity of the predator's olfactory senses. Defecation
may also occur in these circumstances, and this second method of defence
is often used in conjunction with the third.
Tight coiling, twisting or knotting of the body is a posture assumed
when Unechis flagellum is prodded or overturned. The ribs are expanded
to assist in attaining a rigid pose and the snake superficially resembles
a shallow cone (Bartell and Jenkins, 1980). The head may or may not be
hidden, but by my experiences is more likely to be concealed. The snake
remains motionless when in this position, feigning death, probably to appear
non-edible, and minimise the risk of being eaten by a predator.
Some individuals of this species consistently utilise the same defence
method while others will make use of any of the three methods on different
occasions (Turner, 1984). Fyfe and Booth (1984), note that females are
more likely to bite a captor than a male, although both sexes may do so.
Like some other types of elapid, there is a readily observable sexual
dimorphism which may be observed, in terms of size and shape of the tail.
Females have an evenly tapering tail with 20 to 29 subcaudal scales, while
males have a bulging tail with 29 to 40 subcaudal scales, (Rawlinson, 1965).
This dimorphism is even apparent in newborns, where males have tails 50
per cent longer than females.
The most detailed captive breeding records on this species have apparently
been made by Turner, of Bundoora, Vic, although Fyfe and Booth have also
kept very detailed records of captive breeding. The breeding activity of
Turner's Little Whip Snakes, was not necessarily in line with wild specimens
as he apparently manipulated cage temperatures and photoperiods, not strictly
in line with outside (natural) variations. Mating in long term captives
was consistently recorded in October, and young were born in February (Turner,
1985). Fyfe and Booth (1984) had a captive mating in May with young born
in September. Connection in mating was estimated to have lasted between
four and six hours,' (as observed - Turner, 1985); in excess of one hour
with pre-copulation and breaking not observed (Fyfe and Booth, 1984).
Turner recorded two females giving birth to young 151, and 148 days
after mating/ copulation was observed. Fyfe (1980), reported a 108 day
gestation period for a single specimen of this species, and Fyfe and Booth
(1984), reported a 121 day gestation period for another specimen. Turner
(1985) attributed the time difference in gestation to temperature factors
affecting the females, however I suspect that whilst temperature factors
no doubt played an important role, the possibility of unrecorded matings
by either Fyfe, Booth, or Turner could explain the huge variation in reported
Turner (1985), noted that prior to giving birth the females had a distinct
affinity for warmth, basking during daylight hours directly under the heat
source. This behaviour continued throughout gestation, ending abruptly
with the birth of the young. Feeding by females during gestation, whilst
it may occur, is minimal. Fyfe and Booth (1984), Turner, (pers. comm.),
report never finding a wild specimen in the open during daylight hours
in spite of their collection of a large number of specimens.
Typically 2-4 live young are produced (Fyfe and Booth, 1984), although
Turner (1987) records at least one case of a female giving birth to six
young. Newborns at birth measure between 12 and 14 cm in total length,
10.6-12.5 cm snout-vent (Turner, 1985). Fyfe and Booth (1984), record mating
in the wild for this species as occurring in Autumn and Winter (as based
on location of aggregations of mated pairs and later birth of young), and
newborns were found from July to early November. An aggregation of seven
specimens was found under a single large flat rock, on 12th September 1980
(Fyfe and Booth, 1984). It consisted of four newborns, a thin 'hollow'
female (obviously the parent of the young), a heavy still gravid female,
and a large adult male. Interestingly, during winter months ' it was usual
to this species in groups of two or more snakes, (average three), with
both sexes usually present (Fyfe and Booth, 1984). These snakes were either
found under the same rock or under nearby rocks (within 3 m). I found similar
aggregations in Unechis monachus near Dubbo, NSW, in early September 1986.
On sunny days the Little Whip Snakes found under cover weren't torpid,
in fact they were quite active, so Fyfe and Booth (1984), concluded that
these snakes actively mate under cover during daylight hours. The small
groups of these snakes found in the wild, were maintained all year, (average
of two specimens in summer). This 'pairing' behaviour probably acts to
minimise the risk of snakes being ambushed by predators when in the open
looking for a mate. Captive and wild specimens forage about as soon as
night falls. This is in line with most other small nocturnal elapids including
Small Eyed Snake Cryptophis nigrescens and Golden-crowned Snake Cacophis
squamulosus. The only record that I could find of this species being caught
at night was, Fyfe and Booth (1984), who caught four specimens at night
in mid March, on a 'typical good snake night', (that included seasonally
warm air temperature, falling air pressure,. no moon).
Diet consists almost exclusively of skinks, (Shine, pers. comm.), including
species of Lampropholis, Lelolopisma, Hemiergis, Ctenotus, Morethia, and
Lerista, but in exceptional (captive) circumstances has been known to include
frogs (Gow, 1976), new born mouse (Fyfe and Booth, 1984), and even a member
of it's own species (Turner, 1987).
Cannibalism in wild specimens of this species is probably unknown, and
definitely not a normal occurrence (Fyfe and Booth, 1984). Turner (1987),
reported an unusual case of cannibalism in this species.
In March, 1983, after giving birth to six young, a captive female consumed,
head first, a male cage mate some 8 cm shorter. The female was no doubt
very hungry after her long gestation, during which feeding had been minimal.
For the following fifty plus hours that the female had the male snake inside
her, the cage temperature was maintained at 17-32 degrees Celsius to aid
digestion. The female was observed to wriggle her body apparently involuntarily,
and also to yawn for several minutes at a time. Three days later the male
snake was regurgitated and still alive. Apart from superficial and minor
damage to some scales, the snake was still in good health, (unharmed).
This is the first such case known to Turner (pers. comm), myself and others
of a snake managing to survive such an ordeal. Typically regurgitated snakes
are dead. It was assumed that the male snake had somehow been able to breath
when inside the female's body, and that for some reason her digestive enzymes
were insufficiently powerful enough to adversely affect the male snake.
The mouth gaping (yawning) by the female may have assisted the male snake
Fortunately at this stage none of the seven species of snake found around
Melbourne are seriously at risk from collecting, habitat destruction, commercial
exploitation or from introduced pests. The worst conceivable threat to
any Melbourne snake species is localised extinctions of populations most
likely resulting from the spread of Melbourne's urban sprawl.
The Victorian wildlife authorities have enacted so-called protective
legislation that effectively prevents most people from being able to legally
keep specimens for any reason. People are still apparently allowed to kill
snakes on sight should they so desire. The 'prohibition' on keeping the
seven Melbourne snakes is counterproductive to the herpetological cause,
as it discourages 'new' people from taking an interest in our native wildlife.
The administering of licences, central registers and similar, for most
snake keepers in Victoria, represents a gross misdirection of our 'conservation
dollar', with the money being better spent elsewhere. It can be argued
that the money spent by the Victorian wildlife authorities in relation
to 'policing' herpetologists, should be redirected to allow further herpetological
research, in the form of grants (hand outs of money to the relevant people)
The general thrust of the conservation argument, also involves removing
government corruption, misinformation including lies, etc, and is covered
elsewhere, including Cumming, (1981); Hoser, (1988, 1989b); Whitton (1987).
(Further material on this topic (wildlife corruption
and licensing laws) can be found in the books Smuggled - The Underground
Trade in Australia's Wildlife and Smuggled-2 : Wildlife Trafficking,
Crime and Corruption in Australia).
Various people assisted in the information gathering specifically relevant
to the preparation of this paper. They include, Brian Barnett, David Carey,
Neil Charles, Ted Mertens, Uwe Peters, Bill Rook, John Scanlon, Richard
Shine, Grant Turner, Gary Webb, and the library staff at the National Museum
Australian Bureau of Statistics (1982) Yearbook Australia Government
Bartell, R. and Jenkins, R. (1980) A field guide to Reptiles of the
Australian High Country, Inkata Press, Melbourne.
Cogger, H. G. (1986) Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia Reed books
Pty Ltd, Frenches Forest, NSW.
Covacevich, J. and Limpus, C. (1973) 'Two large winter aggregations
of three tree-climbing snakes in South Eastern Queensland. Herpetofauna,
6 (2) 16-21.
Cumming, F. (1981) 'Snakies feel the bite of tough new stand' The Australian,
pp. 1-2. Aug, 25.
Fyfe, G. (1980) 'Breeding of the Little Whip Snake (Unechis flagellum)
in captivity. Victorian Herpetological Society Newsletter no. 20.
Fyfe, G. and Booth, P. (1984) 'Some notes on the habits of the Little
Whip Snake, Unechis flagellum' Herpetofauna 16 (1) pp. 16-21.
Gow, G. F. (1976) Snakes of Australia, Angus and Robertson, Sydney.
Gow, G. F. (1989a) Australia's Dangerous Snakes, Angus and Robertson,
Gow, G. F. (1989b) Graeme Gow's Complete Guide To Australian Snakes
Angus and Robertson, Sydney.
Griffiths, K. (1987) Reptiles of the Sydney Region Three Sisters Productions
Pty Ltd, Winmalee, NSW.
Hoser, R. T. (1980) 'Further records of aggregations
of various species of Australian Snakes' Herpetofauna, 12 (1) 1980,
Hoser, R.T. (1988) 'Conservation of Australian Snakes, Other Reptiles
and Frogs' Litteratura Serpentium (English edition) 8 (1) pp. 12-40.
Hoser, R. T. (1989a) Australian Reptiles And
Frogs, Pierson and Co., Sydney. 238 pp.
Hoser, R. T. (1989b) 'Smuggling snakes out of Australia ... How the
system works' Litteratura Serpentium (English edition) 9 (1) pp. 15-35.
James,G. (1979) 'The Little Whip Snake in the Melbourne area., Victorian
Herpetological Society Newsletter no. 13, pp. 12-13.
McPhee, D. R. (1979) The Observer's Book of Snakes And Lizards of Australia
Mirtschin, P. and Davis, R. (1982) Dangerous Snakes of Australia Rigby,
Rawlinson, P. (1965) 'Snakes of the Melbourne Area' Victorian Naturalist
vol. 81, Jan, pp. 245-54.
Roberts, B. (1983) 'An observation of the Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechis
porphyriacus) utilising water as a refuge.' Herpetofauna 14 (2) p. 95.
Shine, R. (1981) 'Venomous snakes in cold climates: ecology of the Australian
genus Drysdalia (Serpentes: Elapidae). Copeia 1981: 14-25.
Shine, R. and Allen, S. (1980) 'Ritual combat in the Australian Copperhead,
Austrelaps superbus (Serpentes: Elapidae). Victorian Naturalist. 97: 188-90.
Storr, G.M., Smith, L.A. and Johnstone, R.E. (1986) Snakes of Western
Australia Western Australian Museum.
Turner, G. (1984) 'Defence mechanisms in Unechis flagellum (McCoy)'
Herpetofauna 16 (1), 1984. pp. 28-29.
Turner, G. (1985) 'Captive breeding of Unechis flagellum.' Herpetofauna
16 (2) pp. 53-54.
Turner, G. (1987) 'Unusual case of cannibalism., Herpetofauna 17 (2)
Webb, G. A. and Chapman, W.S. (1983) 'Nocturnal road basking by gravid
female Cacophis squamulosus and Cryptophis nigrescens (Serpentes: Elapidae).'
Herpetofauna 15 (1), 1983.
Weigal, J. (1988) Care of Australian Reptiles in captivity Reptile Keepers
association (RKA), Gosford, NSW.
Whitton, E. (1987) Can Of Worms. A Citizen's Reference Book to Crime
and the Administration of Justice. Fairfax library, Australia.
A number of photos of mentioned snakes
as well as their habitats were published with the paper and later reprint.
Excellent colour photos of these snakes and habitats have also been published
in the book Australian Reptiles and Frogs. Click here for further
details about that book including how to obtain a copy.
Raymond Hoser has
been an active herpetologist for about 30 years and published over 150
papers in journals worldwide about snakes in Australia, the USA, Africa and elsewhere. He has written nine 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".
Click on the text below for details about his latest book that is of major
interest to herpetologists everywhere.
Papers about reptiles and frogs
- list of papers that can be downloaded via the internet.
Australian Reptiles and Frogs
- The Definitive book on the subject.
Non-urgent email inquiries via the Snakebusters bookings page at:http://www.snakebusters.com.au/sbsboo1.htmUrgent inquiries phone:Melbourne, Victoria, Australia:(03) 9812 3322 or 0412 777 211