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Snakes In Australia

For a long time, people have feared snakes. They have been portrayed as evil serpents, who seek out humans in order to kill them. Movie makers have played on the fears of people, and the media have often followed suit. But are these reptiles really that fearsome? Ecologists will say that snakes have a very important role in the ecosystem, and a majority of snakes are indeed not venomous. This article will look at snakes in Australia, where some of the deadliest species of snakes are found. It will also look at what you should do if you happen to cross paths with a snake, and also what you should be doing in the unlikely event of a snake bite.

General Biology

As aforementioned, snakes are classified as reptiles. They differ from the lizard family due to the fact that they are limbless. Snakes have evolved in a way that they require food less frequently compared to birds and mammals, and they are thought to have separated from the lizard family over 135 million years ago 1). All snakes are carnivorous and have since split into two distinct groups, constrictors, such as the python family who use a constricting method in order to kill their prey, and the venomous snakes, or vipers, who use venom which is contained in venom glands and delivered via their hollow fangs in order to paralyse their prey and then devour it 2). It is estimated that there are over 2,800 species of different snakes worldwide, with approximately 450 species of venomous snakes, being either in the viper family, or the elapidea family, such as cobras and coral snakes 3). Most snakes have excellent eyesight but rely more on their sense of smell and the use of receptors in their heads to detect ground vibrations in order to track their prey. Their forked tongue have smell receptors with the snake being able to detect the direction of their prey by analysing which side to which side of their tongue is receiving a stronger signal. Due to not having any external ears, snakes use their inner ears which they use to pick up the smallest of vibrations.

Australia

Due to the vast size of the Australian continent, there has been a large dispersal of both venomous and non-venomous snakes. There are approximately 140 species of land snakes and 32 species of sea snakes, with 100 of these being in the front or rear fanged venomous variety. Of these 100 species, there are only 12 species that can deliver enough venom to kill a human 4). Although Australia is home to some of the deadliest snakes in the world, snake bites are rare and fatalities from such bites are extremely rare, with approximately 4-6 deaths related to snake bites every year, compared to 50,000 deaths a year in India. Snakes are not naturally aggressive animals and do not see humans as food. In most cases snakes will leave the area when they detect humans, with most bites occurring either by accidentally stepping on a snake, or whilst trying to kill or show off with it 5). Of the ten most deadliest snake species in the world, Australia is home to five of the species, as per below:

Number 10: Rattlesnake (America)

Number 9: Death Adder (Australia) The Death Adder has earned its name due to its extremely toxic bite, which contains a neurotoxin which can cause paralysis and respiratory failure. The Death Adder hunts mainly other snakes and is short, thick and has a triangular head. There is antivenin available for this snake, however untreated bites have a 50% fatality rate.

death_adder.jpg

Death Adder

Number 8: Saw Scaled Viper (South East Asia)

Number 7: Philippine Cobra (Philippines)

Number 6: Tiger Snake (Australia) The Tiger Snake got its name by the distinct black and gold stripes on its body. This snake also uses a neurotoxin which can cause paralysis and respiratory failure. Tiger Snakes are not aggressive unless challenged, and often eat small rodents. An antivenin has been developed for its toxin and deaths from this snake are now very rare.

tiger_snake.jpg

Tiger Snake6)

Number 5: Black Mamba (Africa)

Number 4: Coastal Taipan (Australia) The Coastal Taipan, like its name suggests, is found closer to the coastal regions of mainland Australia. The toxin of the snake is highly neurotoxic and also causes clotting of blood cells. Even though there is an antivenin, sufferers of a Coastal Taipan bite usually need extensive hospitalisation. These snakes mainly hunt other snakes, reptiles, small rodents and marsupials.

coastal_taipan.jpg

Coastal Taipan7)

Number 3: Blue Krait (South East Asia)

Number 2: Eastern Brown Snake (Australia) The Eastern Brown Snake is one of most common venomous snakes found in Australia, however they are also one of the deadliest on the planet. Like the Taipan, brown snakes have neurotoxins and blood coagulants in their venom, and can be known to be territorial. Whilst highly toxic, most snakes will often give a warning bite without injecting any venom if threatened. Luckily a antivenin has been developed for this snake, however a toxic bite can leave the victim ill for many weeks or months. These snakes mainly hunt other reptiles and small rodents.

eastern_brown_snake.jpg

Eastern Brown Snake

Number 1: Fierce Snake or Inland Taipan (Australia) The Inland Taipan is by far the deadliest snake in the planet. It has enough venom in one strike to kill over 100 humans, however luckily it is only found in inland arid or semi arid areas which limits human contact. This is a very reclusive snake and there are no records of any fatalities since records were kept, however death can occur swiftly if bitten. The antivenin is similar as to the Coastal Taipan, and like its cousin it eats other snakes, reptiles, rodents and small marsupials.

inland_taipan.jpg

Inland Taipan 8)

How To Avoid Getting Bitten

Now that we have ascertained how dangerous these animals can be, it is important to follow some simple rules in order to avoid interaction with these reptiles. There are a number of things that you can do whilst out walking in the bush, such as:

Always wear covered footwear, preferably covered hiking boots or similar

Where possible, always wear long pants that are on the thicker side

If you encounter a snake, remain completely still and do not make any sudden movements. Any such movement could be interpreted as a act of aggression towards the snake. It is important to remember that a snake will not chase you as it is feels more threatened by you than vice versa. The snake on most occasions will be frightened and leave the area. If the snake does not move away, you can do so in a slow fashion.

Alert others. As aforementioned, snakes do not have an external ear so they cannot hear human voices. It is important that you tell other around you about the danger so they too can remain still.

Before entering any areas with long grass, find a long stick or similar and rustle the grass. If there are any snakes in the area, they will feel the vibrations and depart the area.

Step on top of fallen logs, not other them. Snakes will often be basking near fallen logs, so stepping on the log will reduce the risk of stepping on a snake on the other side.

Be extra alert during the mornings. Snakes use the sun to warm their blood, and they can often be sluggish in the mornings when they have little heat in their body. This will make the snake more likely to stand its ground and try to strike instead of slithering away.

Never under any circumstances try to catch or kill a snake. Most snake bites in Australia occur for this very reason. Respect the snake and its habitat and you will have no problems.

First Aid

In the unlikely event of a snake bite, there are some simple rules that should be applied. Please remember that you should always call an ambulance or other health professionals when possible if you or someone else are the victim of a snake bite. Most snake bite related fatalities occur due to people not following these simple rules.

Signs and Symptoms

On some occasions people don't even realise they have been bitten. It is important to observe any symptoms that the victim may be showing, such as nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, respiratory difficulty, headaches, weakness, pain in the throat or abdomen and problems swallowing. If the person is showing these signs, the first step to be taken is to ensure the patient does not move and remains still.

Treatment

Snake venom moves through the lymphatic system, not blood vessels. The venom will move through the system by the muscles pushing the toxin up towards the glands in either the armpit or groin region. Once the toxin reaches the glands, it can be dispersed into the circulatory system and organs causing failure and shut down. This is why it is critical that the patient does not make any unnecessary movements and is sat down in a shady area if possible, as soon as possible. Most victims will panic and want to run for help, so it is important to calm them and make them relax, sit down and relax their heartbeat. The less the patient moves, the less the chance of any venom moving towards the glands.

Try and get help as soon as possible, via phone, another person or any other possible method. It is important that you give the emergency services as much detail as possible. Speak clearly and do not hang up the phone or other device until you are told to do so. On most occasions the emergency services will advise you on what you should be doing. Do not panic and try to rush, as long as you follow the basic principles you have many hours before there is any life-threatening danger.

Follow basic first aid principles. Reassure the patient and ensure that they are breathing freely. Next step is to assess the bite area. Under no circumstances should you wash the bite area. When the victim is taken to hospital, they will often try and swab the external bite area for traces of venom so they can determine the type of antivenin required. Never try and cut, lance or suck venom out of a wound. Cutting the wound area may result in the venom entering the circulatory which may have catastrophic consequences, or trying to suck out the venom may cause it to enter your circulatory system through absorption through your mouth.

Due to the snake toxin being in the lymphatic system, do not apply a tourniquet or try and restrict the blood flow to the area as this may cause other complications. A compression bandage should be applied firmly, wrapping a couple of time around the bite area and then move up or down, depending on the location of the snake bite. Ensure that you apply the bandage firmly but not in way that will restrict blood flow. If possible mark the bite area on the bandage with a pen or marker, so it is easy for the hospital to find the bite site.

Never try and catch the snake, as this may result in you being a casualty also. Most hospitals have methods of identifying the type of venom without having to see the snake. Stay with the victim and reassure them whilst also monitoring their condition 9).

Conclusion

Whilst snakes can be extremely dangerous to humans, they have been given a bad reputation by misinformation and fear. Snakes are extremely important to the ecosystem and the food chain. We must remember that snakes will never go out of their way to chase or bite a human and will only do so if startled, threatened or given no other choice. There are far more snakes killed by humans than vice versa, and it must be noted that most snake bites occur dues to this. It is important to follow the tips on avoiding bites, and if you are still unlucky enough to get bitten following the simple first aid steps will ensure that there will be no life threatening consequences.

Australia | Ecology

1) Gillespie, R.G., 2009, 'Snakes' in Encyclopedia of Islands, University of California, Berkely CA
2) Bauchot, R, 2006, 'Snakes: A Natural History', Sterling Publishing, ISBN: 1402731817
3) O'Shea, M, 2008, 'Venomous Snakes of the World', New Holland Publishers, London, ISBN 978 1 84773 086 2
4) NSW Government, 2014, 'Snakes', Available: http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/animals/snakes.htm
5) Australian Geographic, 2012, 'Australia's 10 Most Dangerous Snakes', Available: http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/science-environment/2012/07/australias-10-most-dangerous-snakes/
6) Tiger Snake by JAW licence CC 3.0, Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tiger_snake_2.jpg
7) Coastal Taipan by Allen McC licence CC 3.0, Available: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coastal-Taipan.jpg
9) St John First Aid Australia, 2013, 'Managing a Snake Bite', Available: http://stjohn.org.au/assets/uploads/fact%20sheets/english/FS_snakebite.pdf

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