Australia is world famous for its snakes, and while there are approximately 172 snake species (140 types of land snakes and 32 of sea snakes identified to date), only 12 of the 100 venomous species pose a risk of inflicting a fatal bite to humans.
Before proceeding, it is important to stress that all native Australian wildlife is protected by law and, in most jurisdictions, it is illegal to capture, harm or kill snakes (unless you are in imminent danger).
- Eastern brown snake is more localised to the eastern part of the country. Quite an aggressive snake responsible for most deaths in Australia, 2nd most venomous snake in the world and loves living in populated areas.
- Western brown snake (also known as the Gwardar) species is found over most of mainland Australia – not present amongst the wetter fringes of eastern Australia and south-western Western Australia. Not as aggressive as the eastern brown and quite nervous, however still part of the group of snakes responsible for most deaths in Australia.
- Mainland tiger snake species found along the south-eastern coast of Australia, from New South Wales and Victoria to Tasmania and the far corner of South Australia. Tiger snakes are also prevalent in the southwest of Western Australia. Their habitat is in highly populated areas, including some metropolitan areas. Bites are fatal if left untreated.
- Inland taipan snake found in cracks and crevices in dry rocky plains where the Queensland, South Australia, New South Wales and Northern Territory borders meet. This snake is quite solitary and prefers to hide out in rocky habitat, however it has the most potent venom of any land snake in the world and can potentially kill and adult in 45 minutes.
- Coastal taipan also known as Eastern taipan is found in northern New South Wales to Brisbane and northern Western Australia (more commonly in sugarcane fields). They are a very nervous and alert snake with the third most toxic venom of any land snake and in severe cases death can occur in 30 minutes, however with the introduction of anti-venom in 1956 this species is no longer such a threat.
Other species of concern in Australia are the King Brown (Mulga) snake, the Lowlands copperhead, the small-eyed snake, the common death adder and the red-bellied black snake.
In southern parts of Western Australia the Dugite is a common and highly venomous snake that is also found in metropolitan Perth. Together with the Tiger snake, it is responsible for most of the venomous snake bites in popular tourist areas of southern Western Australia.
There are also around 32 sea snake species in Australia, found in Queensland and the Northern territory, and they are seen to gather in the region of the Swain Reefs and the Keppel islands. There are also some other species in the waters off Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, South and Western Australia. They are all venomous, however are less likely to be aggressive and usually do not bite.
Where you are more likely to come across snakes
Snakes are cold-blooded (ectothermic) and so must regulate their body temperature by basking in warm areas, like in direct sunlight – such as on walking tracks, on top of rocks and in clearings. Their levels of activity are directly influenced by external temperatures, not too hot nor too cold for essential bodily functions.
It’s also good to know that Spring brings warmer temperatures and the snake mating season, so that’s usually when they are the most active.
Risks to travellers
An overwhelming number of bites (around 90%) occur when people attempt to handle snakes, usually while trying to kill or capture them, but, fortunately, fatalities from snakebite are very rare in Australia, only accounting for 1 -2 deaths per year (but 125,000 globally).
In the event of a suspected snake bite, calling for emergency medical care and initiating first aid is proven to reduce the risk of a fatal outcome.
Prevention: Don't touch or approach snakes
Most snakes prefer retreat over attack and will only do so when threatened or injured. If you come across a snake in the bush, just quietly and calmly back away slowly.
When bush walking, hiking or camping, the advice is to cover up – don’t wear open-toed shoes and short pants. And watch where you are walking – check the other side of logs before you step over them and take extreme care around hollow logs/woodpiles, thick grass or under building materials.
Also, learn the basics of snake bite management and ensure you have a pressure bandage in your first aid kit.
Suspected snake bite
So what do you do if you are bitten? Importantly, everyone stay calm! And don’t try to capture the snake for identification purposes. A venom identification kit is a simple test which can determine the type of snake and the necessary anti-venom – these are kept by all emergency services in Australia.
A snake bite is often painless with perhaps some scratches, bruising, bleeding or local swelling.
- Call 000 (or 112). For people who are deaf or who have a hearing or speech impairment, 106 is the number to call. If no phone available, send for help.
- Do not move the person who has been bitten - lie them down to prevent them walking or moving around.
- Do not wash the bite site or try to suck out the venom – traces of the venom are needed for the identification kits.
- If the bite is on a limb, apply a pressure-immobilisation bandage, splint and immobilise. A pad is placed on the bite site – use firm, even pressure to bandage over the pad and towards the trunk, then minimise movement with a splint or sling.
- If the bite is not on a limb - apply direct, firm pressure to the bite site with your hands or bandage until medical care arrives. In the event of a bite to the head or neck, try to apply firm pressure (without stopping blood flow).
- Don’t attempt to remove the bandages as this could cause the venom to spread throughout the body.
- In the event of rapid deterioration occurring before the ambulance arrives, support airway, breathing and circulation (CPR).
More on snake bite envenomation and pressure immobilisation techniques in the Australian Resuscitation Council guidelines.
Australian Geographic (1): https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/wildlife/2016/02/everything-you-need-to-know-about-snakes
NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment: https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/topics/animals-and-plants/native-animals/native-animal-facts/snakes
University of Melbourne, School of Biomedical Sciences: Sea snakes: https://biomedicalsciences.unimelb.edu.au/departments/pharmacology/engage/avru/discover/snakes/sea-snakes-family-hydrophiidae