Snakes Alive!

Dwyer's Snake
Dwyer's Snake

As the weather starts to warm up, we’ll be seeing a few snakes moving about as they mobilise from their Winter brumation. Note that snakes don’t actually ‘hibernate’ but go into a slow-down process called brumation.  Reptiles, including snakes, and amphibians brumate over the winter. It’s not hibernation, which endothermic (warm blooded) animals such as mammals and birds do. Instead, snakes stop eating as the temperature drops, their metabolism slows down, and they look for an underground place to hide from surface temperature changes. Snakes are actually active all year round in Australia, but they experience periods of reduced activity in areas like the New England.  They will still come out of hiding in suitable conditions all through the year.

Snakes are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and rely on the external environment to regulate their body temperature – this is why snakes and other reptiles bask in the sun.  Snakes are just as vulnerable to heat as they are to cold. Some reptile species like highlands copperheads are found in disjunct populations in the New England Tablelands because the high altitude creates a cool-climate refugia. And although most species lay eggs, some snakes such as the red-bellied black snake give birth to live young.

Highlands Copperhead (Austrelaps ramsayi).
Highlands Copperhead (Austrelaps ramsayi).

There’s a fabulous Facebook group called Australian Snake Identification, Education and Advocacy (ASIEA) moderated by some very experienced snake handlers, herpetologists, and ophiologists.

Snakes are an integral and everyday part of Australian life, however, are still misunderstood and can be frightening to some people.  The ASIEA FB group:

  • Offer fast and accurate identifications to alleviate fear and provide guidance on snake management, so you can share a photo to the group and ask for an ID. The very helpful moderators will ID the snake and provide helpful guides and information.
  • Provide regular education to members wanting to learn more about snakes. The moderators have put together information cards and resources to help everyone learn more about snakes and their behaviour, and how we should (or shouldn’t) interact with them.
  • Advocate for snakes, their safety, and survival as an important part of Australian native wildlife and the Dreamtime
  • Fundraise for charities and small wildlife carers
  • Help everyone to have fun while learning about snakes

You’ll find the FB group here

Tiger snake (Notechis scutatus)
Tiger snake (Notechis scutatus)

Australian Geographic also published an article in 2016, by Derek Dunlop, debunking some myths and providing good and useful information.

Did you know that Australia is home to over 190 species of snake, 25 of which are toxic to humans and 20 of those are among the most venomous in the world.

Despite Australia harbouring many of the world’s most dangerous snake species, snakebite deaths are rare and only account for about two deaths a year. Statistically, you are more likely to be killed by a dog or a cow than a snake.

Stephen's banded snake (Hoplocephalus stephensii)
Stephen's banded snake (Hoplocephalus stephensii)

We encourage everyone to learn more about snakes and the types that are typically in your neighbourhood. Researchers at UNE have begun seeing red belly blacks, eastern browns, tigers, and highlands copperheads out and about while conducting fieldwork across the New England. As we head into Spring and Summer, be aware of your surroundings, but don’t be afraid. Snakes won’t chase you and they are not aggressive, but they may become defensive if startled.

It is recommended that if you see a snake, back away slowly. Most snakes are skittish and will do their best to avoid conflict if given the opportunity to escape. Often you’ll hear people say you should wear long pants and covered shoes and carry a bandage while in the bush. While this may make you feel a little more ‘covered’, the actual risk of being bitten is very minimal so they aren’t necessarily recommended.  The majority of reported “snake bites” are just from people who’ve scratched their leg on something, notice a mark, and then see a snake afterwards and assume that’s the culprit. The reality is actual snake bites are incredibly rare, and pretty much always require harming or handling the snake. Spring is usually the most active month for snakes when males are actively seeking females to mate.

With that, be snake-aware, and you’ll enjoy your Spring and Summer bushwalking so much more.

Huge thanks to Max Tibby, one of UNE snake experts, for his valuable contribution to our story and the wonderful photos.



Photo references:

Dwyer’s snake (Suta dwyeri). A diminutive, nocturnal, mildly venomous species tolerant of a wide range of habitats and climates. Often found active on hot nights or under debris during cooler weather.

Highlands copperhead (Austrelaps ramsayi). This cold-loving species is generally restricted to high-altitude regions of south-eastern Australia, with a disjunct population on the New England Tablelands being the northernmost extent of their range.

Tiger snake (Notechis scutatus). One of Australia’s most iconic species, but unfortunately one that has suffered declines across much of their range. Tigers have disappeared from many parts of the New England Tableland, but can still be seen from time to time in high altitude swamps and thick forests.

Stephen’s banded snake (Hoplocephalus stephensii). A vulnerable species in the rainforests of northern NSW, Stephen’s banded snakes follow the forested land along the east of the Great Dividing Range, just barely approaching New England in the rainforests and gorges on the eastern Tableland.