Living with Snakes

The very thought of snakes fill some people with terror, whilst others are fascinated by these enigmatic creatures. Through the ages, humanity has been obsessed by snakes in myths, legends and superstitions. For example the northern Australian Aborigines believe that the creator of life was a giant snake, the Rainbow Serpent, which caused lightning and storm.

Sadly, snakes have been endlessly persecuted because of fear and superstition. Australians have often been guilty of killing snakes for no reason other than fearing them. It may come as a surprise to learn that snakes are not habitually aggressive and venom is used primarily to secure food and not as a defence. Only in the breeding season may they become territorial. Where humans are concerned, snakes are actually shy animals preferring to move away and hide or lie still in the hope of being overlooked. Their natural camouflage generally makes them inconspicuous.

Fortunately, attitudes are beginning to change and people are learning to respect these marvellous reptiles. So, before you reach for a stick, calmly assess the risks. You may even begin to admire them - certainly you should respect them.

Roles and Values

Like other natural predators snakes are important in regulating populations of their prey. Without such predators, prey species tend to overpopulate, leading to starvation and disease.
  • Because Australia has few diurnal mammalian predators, birds and reptiles are very important. In Tasmania we do not have large goannas and therefore snakes are the most important reptile predators.
  • Snakes are an important food source for a number of other animals such as birds of prey.
  • Snakes eat introduced rodents and birds.
Snakes have other values. Many people enjoy watching them. Some populations, because of their long-term isolation, are excellent subjects for the study of evolution and competition. Like all native species they have a right to exist. Tasmania's snakes are protected by law in all state reserves.

Encountering Snakes

Snakes may be seen in the most surprising places (including cities) especially when water is in short supply. It is best to leave them alone or watch them from uphill. If they must be disturbed do it from a distance.

Although most will be just passing through, snakes do occasionally take up residence in suburban yards. During prolonged dry periods, they are attracted to gardens in search of water in rubbish, dog bowls, fishponds, swimming pools etc. Properties near scrubby creeks are especially prone to serpentine visits.

To minimise such presence in your garden keep:
  •     grass mown.
  •     garden debris to a minimum.
  •     wood heaps away from the house, and/or elevated 0.5 m above ground level.
  •     under the house well sealed or very clear and dry.
  •     standing water and wet spots to a minimum.
  •     seal cracks in concrete which may shelter lizards. Rockeries are a major attraction for lizards.
  •     have a well maintained paling fence.
If you like snakes and want to encourage them it is easy to create an attractive habitat.

Avoiding Bites

Snakes are naturally shy animals and their first form of defence is to move away from danger. Contrary to popular belief, they will not deliberately chase humans, but if provoked or cornered they may bluff or even attempt to bite. Most people who have been bitten were attempting to kill or handle a snake or have trodden on it - an attack from the snakes' point of view. Although several people are bitten each year the last person proven to be killed by a snake in Tasmania was a handler in 1977 and the last killed in the bush was in 1966! The risks are very low. If you encounter a snake, the best thing to do is to let the snake go its own way.

To avoid being bitten you should:
  • Step onto rather than over logs - a snake may be basking on the other side.
  • Be alert at all times when in the bush, especially in the early morning during the warmer months when snakes are more likely to be sunning themselves but are slow to react. Wear shoes and trousers, instead of thongs and shorts.
  • Avoid walking through long grass or reeds.
  • Inspect hollow logs and rock crevices before putting a hand into them.
  • Do not try to handle or kill a snake.
  • Avoid snakes when sighted.
  • If your pet cat catches and brings prey into your house, prevent this by attaching a bell or two to its collar - cats catch snakes.

Snake Bite

The venom is complex mixture of protein molecules containing neuro-toxins (nerve poisons). If enough is injected the nerves controlling the heart and lungs are adversely affected and death may result. Once in the body, poison of Tasmanian snakes flows through the lymphatic system (just under the skin), not the blood vessels. A tourniquet is not recommended.

The fangs of Tasmanian snakes are not particularly efficient so a lot of the poison is lost on the skin's surface or on garments that the snake may have bitten through. Outside the body, the poison is harmless.

First Aid

One of the early symptoms of Tiger Snake bite is a massive frontal headache.
    1. Stay calm! Fear often leads to shock which makes the situation more dangerous. Reassure the victim at all times. The chances of death are very small. Record information on allergies and medications of the patient. There is always a chance of unconsciousness. Record pulse rate.
    2. Seek medical help. Call 000 immediately.
    3. Bandage the bitten area immediately with a broad, firm bandage, preferably elastic based (e.g. a sports bandage), and cover as much of the surrounding area or limb as possible and leave it covered. Bites are usually on a limb so bandage the whole limb starting from the extremity and working up the limb. Do not remove the bandage. A tourniquet is not recommended.
    4. Immobilise the bitten area immediately - if the bite is on a limb, secure with a splint.
    5. Bring transport to the victim, if possible, for transfer to medical care.
    6. Treat the symptoms, give Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation if necessary.
    7. DO NOT cut the bitten area.
    8. Snake identification is not necessary in Tasmania as all our native snake bites are treated with the same anti-venom (the same may not apply if you are bitten by a snake someone has brought into the state).
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