Relishing the reptiles

Bear with me before I get to the reptiles. There’s a bit of backstory.

I had heard on the radio on Saturday morning that Ballina Marine Rescue was holding a CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) training morning, which members of the public could attend for free. Since we live in the boonies, half an hour from the nearest hospital, it seemed like a good idea. My St John’s first aid certificate is way out of date, and I needed an update. Half an hour is too long to wait doing nothing – 3 minutes and the person is experiencing brain damage from lack of oxygen.

Apart from teaching us how to rhythmically compress the chests of dummies, the workshop  also showed us how to use defibrillation machines. These machines are designed for dummies, too – an electronic voice runs you through the procedure, to minimise mistakes, and even counts out loud the pressing of the chest at the correct tempo. (I’d listened to a RadioLab podcast a while ago that said an easy way to remember the correct rhythm was through two songs – “Staying alive” by the Bee Gees (!), and “Another one bites the dust”, by Queen (!!). But I couldn’t sing and count at the same time (I tried), so I’m glad the machine does the counting.)

Anyway, after pressing the plastic, and morning tea, we had a surf-awareness workshop down at the beach, 5 minutes’ walk away. This beach is never patrolled by lifeguards, and the surf is unpredictable and wild at times. Knowledge of how to read the waves is very worthwhile for someone like me who grew up in South Australia where the St Vincent and Spencer Gulfs dampen down any surf, and I didn’t learn to recognise rips or learn what to do if you’re caught in one (“Don’t panic”, and “Let it carry you out the back to the calm water, then you can swim in”, i.e. don’t get exhausted trying to fight against it.)

Three children had gotten into trouble swimming off South Ballina Beach last summer, and both parents drowned trying to save them. The kids survived, to be orphans. So surf-awareness is literally vitally important.

Memorial to two parents who drowned trying to save their kids last summer

After that, we happened to be in the right place and time for a reptile-awareness workshop – it was school holidays and such educational events abound. What a great way to top off the day!

The day was cool, so the reptiles were pretty sluggish. The lecturer constructed a secure containment space, and he was very experienced in handling them. The black-headed python (Aspidites melanocephalus) was quite placid, obviously used to being handled by strangers. I grabbed the opportunity – and the snake – with both hands.

Blackheaded python and moi

Black-headed python and moi

The black-headed python does not occur in our area, only in the north and northern inland. It feeds at night on other snakes, ground-nesting birds and small mammals.

Mr Snakeman didn’t hand around the next one – the inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidus, also called the fierce snake) – or any of the others. They are too dangerous. The inland taipan has the most potent venom of any land snake on earth. The theory is  that such venom is needed as this snake often feeds on native long-haired rats (Rattus villosissimus) in their burrows, and the rats have to be dispatched quickly before they can damage the snake. This snake is relatively placid by nature.

Inland taipan, photo by XLerate, Wikimedia Commons

Next out of its bag was the mulga snake (Pseudechis australis, sometimes called the king brown, but it is actually one of the black snakes – colours and patterns can be misleading). This snake is not in our area, either – mostly in the arid outback.

Mulga snake

One we do have here is the extremely venomous southern death adder (Acanthophis antarcticus) – a fat little number. They wait quietly in leaf letter, using their raised tail like a worm, and grab anything that is attracted. Very venomous.

Southern death adder – the tail is raised as a lure for prey

He then produced (separately) two venomous snakes we’ve seen on our property – the red-bellied black …

Red-bellied black snake, photo by Figaro, Wikimedia Commons

and the eastern brown (Pseudonaja textilis) …

Eastern brown snake, photo by Peter Woodard, Wikimedia Commons

I’ll recap what our expert said:

  • Most people die from snakebite while trying to capture or kill a snake.
  • If the snake is coming towards you, it’s most likely because you are between it and its shelter.
  • Snakes can’t see too well – just a metre or two. If you are outside that range, just quietly walk away.
  • Snakes are sensitive to vibration – if you are within the sight range, stand very still and let it go its way.
  • Snakes have very short memories, so if you don’t remind it you’re near, it’ll forget you and go about its business.
  • If you get bitten, immobilise the whole limb, preferably with a pressure bandage, to prevent to venom moving through the lymph system and thence into the bloodstream.
  • Don’t wash the wound – the hospital staff need the traces to check what anti-venom you will need.
  • If you’re stupid enough to attack it, it’ll defend itself and you’ll get what you ask for (that last point is actually from me, not the expert).

Living on a property with so much habitat, it’s good to be aware – snakes are there whether you see them or not, and it’s their home, too.

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3 Responses to Relishing the reptiles

  1. joan knapp says:

    Great post! It sends shivers up my spine just to look at the photos. With the exception of the death adder with its plump body, the snakes look the ‘same’ with slender bodies and narrow heads. Makes it difficult to identify snakes if you don’t get a good look at them.
    Love the advice. Particularly the last one!

    • Joy Window says:

      Thanks, Joan. The reptile handler said you can’t trust colour and pattern completely for identification, as there is so much individual variation. They certainly look the same if they are moving at great speed, and you are trying to remain calm and identify them at the same time! I guess familiarity breeds … familiarity. I’m pretty confident about identifying the ones in my area, so much so that I had quite a public argument with a guy in my local town who was being the big hero and attempting to kill a harmless snake on the footpath. He thought it was a brown snake (deadly – so why go after it?!) but I recognised a relatively (but not completely) harmless brown tree snake. We gathered quite an audience and, although I didn’t change his mind, the snake sped off thanks to the distraction. I did manage to get the guy’s attention by threatening to dob him in for the wopping fine for killing a protected species (snakes are protected).

  2. Pingback: Death on the beaches | A-roving I will go

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