Whether you’re a local resident or a visitor to our region or country, the word “snake” is enough to strike fear into many people, especially as we head into the summer months. For overseas visitors or new migrants, all the stories about Australia’s deadly animals can be overwhelming (dropbears aside!) but snakes are truly one animal which need to be treated with caution. But concerns over snakes don’t mean you should spend all summer indoors.
Educating yourself on how to stay safe and taking some simple precautionscan make sure you still enjoyour wonderful outdoor experiences, whether in your own backyard or further afield. Our daughter is almost two. She loves to explore and run around, and seems in her element when we are either hiking or camping. As the days warm up, I began to worry that her wanderings may lead her right into snake danger. I set out to better understand the snakes we encounter here in southwest Western Australia and want to share with you some of the fascinating things I have discovered, as well as some tips to keep yourself and your family safe. Some recent family expeditions:
- Wooleen Station: An Eco-Tourism Oasis
- Kalbarri Coastal Walks
- Marrinup Falls, Dwellingup – a perfect short hike for little legs
Plus sign up to our newsletter to get your hands on a FREE A4 Snake Safety printable for you to take on your next hiking or family trip…
Some thanks are in order
I am grateful to Beth and Tim from West Oz Wildlife for their help in writing this piece. I am pretty clueless when it comes to reptiles so wanted to get some input from the people who really know what they are talking about. West Oz Wildlife is a family owned and run business teaching awareness and conservation though fun and interactive displays. You might find them, along with their koalas, dingoes and of course reptiles at a library, shopping centre or nursing home near you. Or you could book them to join your birthday party.
I would also like to thank Ross McGibbon Reptile Photography for allowing me to use two of his incredible snake photos. Ross has photographed some of the world’s most venomous snakes while capturing their unique beauty and grace. I urge you to click through to his gallery to see our Aussie reptiles in a new light.
I’d also like to thank the hiking community in Perth and all the wonderful people who shared their snake photos with me. You’ll find credits in the photo captions. Below is my one and only snake photo! This is my only photographic addition to this blog, every other photo has been generously contributed and for that I extend my sincerest gratitude.
Everything in Australia wants to eat you… or so they say
When I first moved to Australia in 2012 I was the typical Pom (Pom is the slang term for an English person living in Aus). For the first few weeks I kept my shoes up on a chair for fear poisonous spiders would take up residence at night, and if my walk happened to pass though a park, I would walk right down the centre of the path just in case a snake jumped out to envenom and devour me. Thankfully those naive fears dissipated, and I quickly realised I had little to fear.
Pom joke: How can you tell when a plane full of Poms lands at Perth Airport? When the engines stop the whining continues. Ha.. ha.. ha…..
Over the past almost-seven years I have snorkelled with sharks on Ningaloo Reef, made friends with a red back spider that lived in my garage (until it had a hundred babies – then poor Reddy had to go), and seen more snakes than I could count. I’m thankful to say, I have never had a bad encounter. Unfortunately, these creatures have developed a bit of a sinister reputation both in Australia and over seas, and their populations have suffered as a consequence.
I’ve heard the saying “the only good snake is a dead snake” more than once, and know it has been common in the past for people to kill any snake they see on their property. Today snakes are protected in every state and territory in Australia. It is an offence to kill a snake unless life is threatened and offenders can face severe penalties. Not only could you take a financial hit if you kill a snake but according to a 2017 study, one fifth of snake bite deaths between 2000 and 2016 were attributed to bites that occurred when someone was attempting to kill or handle the snake. A paper in the Medical Journal of Australia states that around 3000 snake bites are reported each year, though this number is unverified. An average of 2.2 people die from snake bites in Australia each year The Toxicon study also found that over half of all deaths from snake venom were attributed to bites in or around homes.
Hopefully this will reassure you that venturing out into the West Australian wilderness does not necessarily increase your risk of a snake bite. Nevertheless, please read on to learn about our most common venomous snakes, where you might encounter them, and some precautions you can take to keep yourself and your family safe whilst hiking and camping. I am proud to say that I now admire the snakes and when I encounter one I tend to feel more awe than fear.
Venomous snakes in Western Australia
Of all the snakes in Western Australia, it is the tiger snake and the dugite that you are most likely to encounter.
Tiger Snake Notechis scutatus
The tiger snake is named for its characteristic black and yellow stripes. Although typically black or brown on top, with orange-yellow belly and stripes, the appearance of the tiger snake varies widely across Australia. Some individuals, or even entire populations appear without stripes, while others vary from olive-brown to black, with off-white or pale bands. Western Australian tiger snakes generally grow to around 1.2m, though they have been observed up to 2.1m. They have a thick body with wide head.
Although most common in coastal and wetland environments, tiger snakes are wide-ranging and can be found in dense vegetation and long grasses. Known for being one of the more aggressive species, this snake will stand its ground if cornered or accidentally stood on. When threatened they can flatten their body and raise their head off the ground in a cobra-like stance. Mostly active during the day, though they are known to also hunt at night. They are also more tolerant of cool weather so can be some of the first to emerge in spring, and still be seen throughout the night. Their large size, aggressive nature and highly toxic venom mean the tiger snake poses a high threat to humans.
Fun Fact: Tiger Snakes give birth to live young, unlike most snakes which are egg laying. A tiger snake litter can be up to 30 young, though the record is 64.
Dugite Pseudonaja affinis
Dugites are commonly brown, olive-brown or greyish-brown with a long slender body and small head. The average length of a dugite is 1.5m though they do grow to over 2m. Another species with a wide variety of habitats, the dugite can be found in coastal areas, dunes, woodlands as well as more open settings such as fields and parks. These snakes appear quite comfortable in urban settings, making use of industrial and building materials for shelter. Dugites are one of the more timid snakes. When encountered, they mostly choose flight over fight. When chatting with Tim from West Oz Wildlife he told me that “even when he is handling one, it is still trying to get away” unlike the tigers that will defend themselves.
Fun Fact: The dugites on Rottnest Island are actually a subspecies called Pseudonaja affinis exilis
King Brown (Mulga) Pseudechis australis
The king brown is commonly brown to reddish-brown with a pale belly. Individual scales often grade from brown at the back to orange- or reddish-brown at the front. Large king brown snakes can reach over 2m and have thick body and wide head. Again, the colour and pattern of this snake varies across Australia. King brown snakes have a wide range of habitats from true deserts to woodland areas, and mulga bush (hence the name).
Behaviour appears to vary across Australia with southern populations known to be shy and evasive, whereas their northern cousins are more aggressive. When threatened the king brown snake will flatten its body and raise its head off the grown in a sweeping arc parallel to the ground. When provoked the king brown will bite ferociously, sometimes holding on or chewing as it injects its venom. The Black Snake venom is highly toxic and often injected in large quantities.
Fun Fact: A King Brown Snake is not actually a Brown Snake, it is of the Black Snake family. If bitten, Black Snake anti-venom is needed rather than Brown snake anti-venom.
Western Brown (Gwarda) nuchaliz-complex
The western brown snake’s appearance varies widely (I’m starting to sense a pattern here). Occasionally, an accurate identification can only be assured after a close examination – not something we should be doing on a hike! There are three species of western brown snake, all long and thin with a small, chisel-shaped head. The head is generally indistinct from the body. The body colour can vary through a range of browns, yellows or greys, sometimes with a dark nape and head. Scales tend to be small and sometimes shiny. Some populations show colour banding meaning they are often confused with the tiger snake. Western brown snakes are found in arid and semi-arid environments, grasslands, and pastoral areas to name a few. They have been known to find cover in manmade materials such as corrugated iron sheeting.
Education is the best prevention
The best thing we can do to protect our family and ourselves is to educate. By understanding snakes and their behaviour, we are better able to share their environment. The reality is that we can take all the precautions detailed here, but we can never reduce the risk of a snake encounter to zero. When we visit the bush we acknowledge that we are entering an ecosystem, one that the snake is very much part of. It is important to know how to avoid a snakebite, but also to protect the environment. A key philosophy in the hiking community is Leave No Trace, even when this involves creatures that pose a threat to us. Read more Family Adventures from around Western Australia:
- Southern Lights and Living Fossils at Lake Clifton
- 5 of the Best Destinations for Stargazing in Western Australia
- Wildflowers – Western Australia’s Best Kept Secret
What to do if you encounter a snake
Stop right where you are. Admittedly, I’m more likely to take a big leap backwards but bear in mind that sudden movements can spook the snake. Try to remain calm and back up slowly. Do not approach the snake or try to move it.Remember, a fifth of snake bite deaths are due to people trying to move or kill a snake.
Precautions whilst camping
Camping is all about being in the bush surrounded by nature, some of which we love and some we’d rather not get tooclose to. It is therefore inevitable that we may encounter a slithery friend while camping. Here are a few tips to help you keep your outdoor abode free from snakes:
- Avoid camping too close to water – tiger snakes are commonly found close to fresh water, for example lakes, dams and streams. This is because one of their primary prey is At your campsite, if you have the choice of a site on the water’s edge, or a little way back, the site further away may be a better option.
- Don’t pick the sunny spot – snakes love a sunny spot to warm up in the morning or on a cooler day. For this reason, if your campsite is mostly shaded but with a few sunny patches, avoid pitching your tent or setting up your outdoor area in the direct sun.
- Don’t camp close to the bins – bins full of food scraps attract mice and rats, a nice dinner for our scaly neighbour.
- Try and steer children to play in open areas
- Do a reconnaissance of your site each morning and after returning from a day out – but remember, just because your site is clear from snakes does not mean one will not wander in at any time.
- Keep your site tidy – a folded tarp, open firewood bag or stray boot makes a perfect little hidey-hole for a snake. After you have finished setting up camp be sure to put all empty bags in your car or tent. In our case, we stuff everything back in the camp trailer.
- Don’t leave your shoes out at night; you never know what you might find in them in the morning.
- Always zip up your tent.
- Do not rely on snake repellents to keep you safe. There isn’t much scientific info out there about how affective snake repellents are, but it’s wise to take all precautions even if you do carry some with you.
A key difference between a tiger snake and a dugite is that tiger snakes are territorial. If you see a dugite, that individual may be a long way away by the next day. Tiger snakes, however, tend to stay in their territory, only venturing out if the food source has dried up. For this reason, if you see a snake in a particular spot one day, it is probably likely the snake will frequent that area. It would be easy to avoid camping on these sites if for two things; firstly, we rarely know about snake sightings previous to our visit; and secondly, we’re not actually sure how large a tiger snake territory is. There is a good chance it might be larger than the whole campsite anyway. For these reasons I have not included it as one of our tips, however, if you are visiting a campsite with a camp host and they tell you of a resident snake near Ablution Block A, maybe don’t pick the site next door. Don’t let some some scaly friends stop you enjoying your camp trip; why not try our Camp Fire Pizza recipe, or have a go at photographing the night sky with my Beginners Guide to Astrophotography.
Precautions whilst hiking
A walk in the bush can be both relaxing and exhilarating, and maybe a bit surprising if you happen to stumble upon a snake sunning itself on the path. Generally, if a snake hears or feels you approaching, it will move out of sight, however, if you are moving quickly, or on soft ground, it may not know you are there until you are both in the same space. Here are some tips to keep to keep you and your family safe while hiking.
- Be loud – talk, stomp your feet, kick exposed tree roots and brush bushes with your trekking poles.
- Drag your feet – the more noise and vibrations you put into the ground, the more chance a snake has of hearing you
- Use trekking poles – when we walk with trekking poles they are usually parallel of just in front of our leading foot. This means that if you do startle a snake and it tries to strike you, it may aim for your pole instead of you.
- Avoid walking through long grass -If you have to, then make as much noise as possible and try to keep your trekking poles ahead of you.
- Let the adult lead – when we walk, we generally have two adults therefore one can lead and one can follow behind with our daughter in-between. This way, the first person to encounter a snake is always going to be an adult.
- Wear boots and long, loose trousers (full disclosure: I wear trail runners and usually shorts, but that’s a personal choice)
- Some people swear by gaiters – another personal choice. If you take all the precautions above but are still concerned then gaiters will give you that added layer of security.
We always carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) with us, whether we are camping, hiking or on a road trip. This is because Australia is a sparsely populated country and it’s not uncommon to pass through patches with no mobile service. If you’re planning to hike or camp in WA, it would be a good idea to either purchase or hire a PLB or satellite phone – see link at the bottom of this page to the PLB that we carry.
Two weeks before writing this post our daughter had her first asthma attack in the middle of the night while we were camping. Luckily we were only 25mins from Denmark and had mobile service. A few months earlier we were camping on a station stay 5 hours drive from the nearest hospital. Had the asthma attack happened then, activating the PLB may have saved her life. Invest in a PLB – your life may depend on it.
FREE Snake Safety printable
You can carry all these tips with you on a FREE A4 printable document. Simply sign up to our newsletter using the form in the side bar or at the bottom of this post… 😀
Want to know more about the landscape you’re hiking through? Check out my blog about the fiery formation of Sugarloaf Rock in Margaret River, how some of the first ever creatures to walk on land left their footprints in the sandstones of Kalbarri National Park, or even that time we went for a hike to an active lava flow in Hawaii!
Some snake myths
We often hear that snakes are more active in hotter weather, but this is not necessarily the case. Snakes are cold blooded and need the heat of the sun to warm up. This is why it is so common to see snakes basking on roads or paths in the morning or late afternoon. However, on partially hot days, the snake does not need full sun, the ambient air temperature may be sufficient to keep them the right temperature. Therefore, on a cool morning, you are more likely to come across a snake on a trail, and it may still be a little sluggish to slither off the track if it’s still early. On really hot days however, you may not even see a snake because it stays well hidden in the shade of dense bush. Just like humans, sometimes the hot Australian sun is just too hot. Most snake sightings are on days where the temperature is between 25°C and 30°C.
One family of Western Australian snakes I have not really covered are the pythons. This is because it is very rare to see them. Being tree dwelling animals, as opposed to the ground dwelling tiger, dugite, gwarda, mulga and death adder, it is not as often we cross paths with them. There are several species of python in southwest Western Australia, and allare smaller than their eastcoast cousins. Although a python may stand its ground when confronted, they are not venomous and the worst you will get is a nasty wound. Over the past year I have kept my eyes peeled searching for pythons in the branches above, but haven’t seen one yet. The Pom in me still fears a constrictor could devour a small child, but my husband and every snake expert I have asked (a fair few) have assured me this is not possible… certainly not in Western Australia.
What to do if you are bitten
It is important to treat all snakebites the same. Always err on the side of caution and treat the bite as if it were venomous. Remember, there is just on anti-venom now used to treat all snake bits so identifying the snake is not essential. Do not put yourself in harms way by trying to identify the snake. In the first instance, follow DRSABCD. Below is a very brief summary of DRSABCD. A thorough explanation can be found on the St John Ambulance website: Factsheet or Video
- Danger – is the snake still close by? Do you need to remove yourself or the patient from the immediate area?
- Response – Is the person responsive and conscious?
- Send for help – phone 000
- Airway – is the airway clear?
- Breathing – check for breathing
- CPR – if the person is unconscious and not breathing perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation
- Defibrillator – if available
Immediate Treatment of a Snake Bite
- Phone 000 for an ambulance
- Lie the patient down and ask them to stay very still
- Apply an elasticised roller bandage over the bite (see the snake bite kit we carry at the bottom of this post)
- With a second elasticised bandage, wrap the entire limb starting at the fingers/toes and continuing all the way up to the armpit/groin. The bandage should be tight, but not cut off circulation to the extremities
- If possible, apply a splint to keep the limb immobile
- Stay with the patient until help arrives.
It is imperative to keep the patient lying down and as still as possible.
- Wash the wound or clothes
- Remove clothes – just bandage over the top
- Incise the bite
- Try to suck the venom out
- Try to squeeze the venom out
Some of the above were suggested in times gone by, however, a better understanding of snake bites and the lymphatic system have lead to the technique we use today.
Fun (and very important) Fact: When a snake envenomates, it does not inject the venom into the bloodstream, rather into the muscle and lymphatic system. Your lymphatic system is not pumped by the heart and does not circulate around your body in the same way as blood. Instead, upward movement of the lymph (the liquid in the lymphatic system) depends on muscle movement. If the muscle remains immobile, it lessens the chance of the venom spreading, entering the bloodstream and reaching other parts of your body. You can read more detail in this fascinating post I found by Snake Catcher Victoria Australia
Snake bite symptoms
In some instances, people have presented with snakebite symptoms but been unaware of getting bitten. Venomous snakes of Western Australia have very small fangs, no more than a few millimetres. Bites are not always painful and may appear as more of a scratch than puncture wounds. This may happen if you are walking through long grass or through bushes and do not see the snake. Symptoms of a snake bite include pain around the bite site, swelling, nausea, faintness or dizziness, headache, double vision, difficulty speaking or swallowing, limb weakness or paralysis to name a few. Check the St John Ambulance fact sheet for a full list.
Words of wisdom
You will recall two incredible photos at the start of this blog; one of a dugite and one of a tiger snake taken by Ross McGibbon Reptile Photography. Well, seeing as this guy regularly gets up close and personal with some of the world’s most deadly snakes and is still here to share his images with us, I though I should ask him his opinion on how to stay safe around snakes…
“Snakes will only defend their personal safety. They have no other reason to confront a human. If you find yourself in close proximity to a snake, most of the time they choose to flee, as this is the safest outcome for them. On the off chance a snake feels threatened and behaves defensively, all you need to do is remove yourself from their vicinity, either quickly or slowly depending on your best judgement. Alternatively, if you find one right at your feet, remaining perfectly still until the snake moves away is recommended because they can respond to movement defensively at this distance.”
I hope this post have been helpful and given you confidence to explore wonderful Western Australia with confidence. The chances of getting bitten by a snake are low, and chances of dying are substantially lower still. If we educate ourselves and take a few precautions we can share our wilderness areas and you never know, if you’re lucky you might just spot a snake!
Get the kit
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Thank you again to everyone who shared their snake photos with me!
Click on the photos below to take a closer look
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