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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Getting to Know your Neighbours, Even Though They're Legless

In an earlier posting on a chance snakey encounter, I promised to do a bit of a character analysis of our commonest local snakes. As things warm up, and people are increasingly encountering our elegantly legless neighbours, this seems an appropriate time.

As mentioned last time, the one most likely to be encountered in the open country round Canberra (and in much of eastern Australia) is the Eastern Brown Snake Pseudonaja textilis, normally a uniform pale brown but very variable. This a snake of sizzling alertness, lightning quick, but it is also of a somewhat nervous disposition and will lash out if it feels threatened. Like many big snakes - and a Brown can occasionally reach two metres in length - it will react to threat by bluffing spectacularly, in its case raising the body in an S-shape and thrusting at the intruder with open mouth. Quite understandably, this defensive show is often misinterpreted as aggression!
Eastern Brown Snake, inner suburban Yarralumla.
Despite the comments above, the snake that most people actually encounter around here is the Red-bellied Black Snake Pseudechis porphyriacus, for a couple of reasons. One is that they are common along waterways, where people often also concentrate in summer. Another is to do with their personality, which in terms of amiability and inability to focus on more than one thing at a time is somewhat teddy bearish. The centre of their universe is entirely frog-dominated, and while seeking their next froggy snack they appear quite unaware of anything else, including us. When we are noticed they try to slip away, or if necessary go through the routine of huffing and bluffing. There are stories of Red-bellied Blacks not biting even if accidentally trodden on - I'm not recommending it though. I'm unaware of any human deaths from this truly beautiful snake.
Red-bellied Black Snake, Budawang Ranges. The glossy red of the belly scales can be seen in a couple of
places along the side in the blown-up version below.


In the mountains the Highland Copperhead Austrelaps ramsaysi is the standard snake encountered. This species has remarkable adaptations to life in the high cold forests and bogs, and is able to function at temperatures way lower than other snakes can cope with. It can be mistaken for the previous species, but the underside is creamy to orange, clearly visible along the sides. Copperheads too are very keen on frogs - no wonder frogs produce so many eggs! They are fairly venomous, but shy and retiring and really don't want to bite you.
Highland Copperhead, at 1300 metres above sea level in the Snow Gum forests of the Brindabella Ranges.
This one was actually a bit grumpy, but a look at its eyes explains why; it had shed its skin, but not yet
the scales that protect its eyes, so the poor thing couldn't really see me and wasn't happy about that.
Finally, the last of the four large snakes round the southern highlands is the Mainland Tiger Snake Notechis scutatis. It is not found around Canberra, but is common in the boggy southern valleys and in the country immediately east and north of here. There is much mythology - a lot of it libellous - about the Tiger Snake, which has been accused of every aggressive sin up to and including chasing down a rider on a galloping horse! In truth the Tiger is a fairly doughty snake which isn't willing to be pushed about, but like every other snake I know they try very hard to get out of a sticky situation - not of their making - with dignity intact. They will head determinedly for water if threatened, and I'm sure that people in their way have mistaken this for being 'chased'. Their bluff display is truly impressive, flattening the head and neck and even 'barking'. However I have friends not far from Canberra who regularly share their wild garden with a big male Tiger, and both sets of garden users are quite relaxed about the other. While many are as striped as their furry namesake, all colour variations exist, including uniform black.
Mainland Tiger Snake, Twin Creek Reserve, south-western Australia. The body stripes are fairly obvious in this handsome specimen. However the flattened fore-body isn't to do with threat in this case; it was a cold day
and it was maximising its area facing the sun to absorb maximum heat. It ignored me as I walked past.


I sympathise with people who fear snakes - and in any case we should all offer them healthy respect - but the adage about snakes being more afraid of us than we are of them is no less true for being clich├ęd. We're getting better though - it's a blessedly long time since I saw snake carcases displayed on a fence, and I think the idiot who deliberately tries to kill one 'just because', especially the cowardly idiot who does it from behind the wheel of a car, is getting rarer. The world's a better place for that, and the role of snakes in our mythology shouldn't blind us to their beauty and intrinsic value.



4 comments:

Flabmeister said...

The distribution of snakes in my area (about halfway between Queanbeyan and Captains Flat)is interesting. Based on what I have seen on our property we have about equal numbers of Eastern Brown and Red-bellied Black Snakes. I have never seen a Tiger Snake here.

In contrast, on the Hoskinstown Plain people say that nearly all the snakes are Tigers, with a few Eastern Browns and they rarely if ever see Red-bellied Black Snakes.

What causes the differences is not clear to me. Perhaps it is a difference between grassland and more wooded country? Possibly the role of the Plain as a frost hollow makes it preferable for the Tigers and too cold for the R-bB? Both areas are well endowed with frogs and rodents!

Martin

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all of your work on this web page. I am looking forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

Ian Fraser said...

I think both those answers are pertinent Flabmeister; Tussock Poa grasslands are prime Tiger habitat, and they like the boggy frost hollows. They also share some of the Copperheads' ability to function in temperatures that are generally sub-optimal for reptiles. Unless they actively out-compete or even kill Red-bellied Blacks - and I've never seen this suggested - this is the most likely explanation for them not to coexist in otherwise appropriate habitat.

Ian Fraser said...

Anonymous - thanks for your kind words; I hope I can give you reason to keep coming back!