Little Whip Snake Unechis flagellum (McCoy, 1878)
The following was from a paper originally
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.
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 100
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works " Australian Reptiles and Frogs
", "Endangered Animals of Australia"
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