Spring has sprung, snake season has begun!

As Melbourne's human contingent prepares to emerge from a long winter's lockdown, its scaly residents are also beginning to stir....

Spring has sprung, snake season has begun!

Finally. It’s springtime and Melbourne is emerging from the neurosis-inducing cocoon of a bleak winter’s lockdown. It’s times like this that we remember how lucky we are to be in Australia and not somewhere in northern Europe (or Canada!) where every winter has been an enforced lockdown since times immemorial. As of this moment, we’re still under stage 4 lockdown restrictions, but if you’re lucky enough to live in an area of Melbourne in which a patch or two of nature has been preserved amidst the ever-growing population and expansion of the suburban sprawl, then you may have noticed that certain critters are beginning to wake up with the change of seasons. The flowers are blooming, and pollinating insects are getting whilst the getting’s good. If you live by the bay you might have noticed a subtle shift in the bird life, as certain migratory species that have over-wintered here start to move back to the teeming waters to the south of us, and other migratory birds start arriving from the north – the fussy ones that just can’t deal with Melbourne’s winters. Sometimes I wish I was a migratory bird…..

Of course, you may also have noticed that the Australian Venom Research Unit’s favourite coterie of creepy crawlies – reptiles – are also starting to emerge, take advantage of the sunny weather, and set off in search of meals and mates. Throughout winter, most of our local reptiles “brumate” – this is not as much of a shutdown as hibernation, but it is a considerable reduction of activity during the colder months. Melbournian snakes and lizards might emerge to bask on sunny days during winter, but they do not feed during the coldest months of the year. Now, after several months of biding their time, they, like butterflies emerging from chrysalises or Melbournians  emerging from our quarantine, are ready to make up for lost time. On a walk  last weekend (within a 5KM radius of my home, of course!), I was lucky enough to see my first tiger snake of the season. I certainly understand, however, that not everyone would feel “lucky” in such a scenario – not everyone is as excited as I am to live in an area in which the snakes come out to play every spring. For me, springtime snake encounters are a joyful experience, and I’d like to try and share a little bit of that joy with you, before talking about the importance of being snake savvy – snake safe – over the coming months.

Tiger snake from Melbourne

A Melbournian tiger snake (Notechis scutatus). Tiger snakes are Melbourne's most common species of snake. They are highly variable in colour, and may be banded or unbanded, although the pictured individual is a typical example of a local specimen. Tiger snakes are highly venomous and their bite is potentially life-threatening to humans and pets, however they are unlikely to bite unless provoked. Tiger snakes will typically bask either under cover (e.g. under a bush that allows some sunlight to penetrate) or  right next to a refuge that they will retreat into as soon as a larger animal approaches. Most tiger snakes you pass within a few metres of will go completely unnoticed, as they quickly seek cover, or remain perfectly still, relying on their camouflage. They are most commonly seen when they cross the path openly - breaking cover in this way is a threatening experience for a snake and they will be on alert, ready to slither away rapidly or defend themselves if necessary. If you see a snake crossing the path, observe it from a safe distance. Image: Matt Clancy.

Melbourne is a big city, with almost 5 million human inhabitants. That makes it Australia’s most populous city. Unlike some of the other cities in Australia, we aren’t surrounded by huge national parks – there’s a bit of bushland around (this is Australia, after all), but arguably we have less “unspoilt” nature around us than almost anywhere else in the country. One of the remarkable things about Melbourne, however, is its suburban snakes. Australia is famous for its snakes – snakes are important parts of every terrestrial ecosystem in Australia, and our tropical oceans are full of them too. I’m proud to say that Melbourne does not disappoint in this regard – wherever we have allowed a little bit of nature to hang on, you can find snakes. Before this region was colonised by westerners, it must have been absolutely teeming with tiger snakes. This highly adaptable species remains by far the most common snake in suburban bushland – wherever there’s a little bit of bush, perhaps a creek or a lake, there are likely to be tiger snakes. We do have brown snakes and copperheads too, but they are far less successful at hanging on in suburban areas of Melbourne. The fact that we still have snakes around must be seen as a good sign – we have not completely marginalised the native fauna. For me, the tiger snake is a heroic figure in the unfolding narrative of the local nature’s valiant struggle to maintain its integrity in the face of our rapacious human niche-modification. It’s a sign that all is not lost – there is still something here to conserve, if we choose to do so.

I know what you’re thinking (I’m psychic like that) – tiger snakes are venomous, they are dangerous – why would we want those awful things around? Well, it’s true, they are venomous. That is precisely why they are a potent symbol of untamed nature. As a species, we humans are starting to understand that our attempts to control and exploit nature for our own purposes need to be moderated – we’re starting to understand that we are part of nature ourselves, and reliant on a healthy global ecosystem….if we want to keep living here. Snakes are the perfect symbol of nature – this is why myths and legends from all over the world are full of serpents that represent the unknown, the untamed, the unconscious. They also represent the bestowers of wisdom, mediators between the heavens and the underworld. You don’t need to believe any of those stories to learn something from the symbolic significance of snakes. Having them around is a sign that there is a part of the world we have not yet subjugated to our will, and my claim is that this is a good thing. It’s time we learned our limits and learned how to get along with those parts of nature that give us the heebie jeebies. I don’t think we really want to live in a world where all we see as we look out is our own reflection – we need to preserve something of the other.

Copperhead The lowlands copperhead (Austrelaps superbus) is probably Melbourne's second most common species of snake, though they seem to be abundant only in pockets of the greater Melbourne region, unlike the much more ubiquitous tiger snakes. Their bite is potentially dangerous, and though less likely to be life-threatening than that of a tiger snake, should be treated as an emergency. Like tiger snakes, copperheads often bask without full emerging from cover, and are, if anything, even more shy than their banded cousins. Image: Matt Clancy.

But yes, snakes can be dangerous, so we need to be aware of them and respect them. The best thing you can do is be snake savvy – learn what you can about the snakes in your local area. I can recommend the AVRU website and blog for that! Remember that snakes are not “out to get you” – in fact the last thing they want when they are basking or out looking for a mate is to run into a giant hairless ape. Giant apes are extremely dangerous to snakes and snakes would really rather not encounter them at all. There is an opportunity for mutual respect here – if you see a snake, let it go about its business without interfering. Observe it. Try to understand its desire to exist, no different from your own, and the things it has to do day by day in order to preserve that existence. Take an interest – whilst maintaining a safe and respectful distance – snakes are absolutely fascinating!

Keep your wits about you when you’re in snake country. Instead of putting the earbuds in and tuning out, try listening to the sounds of the birds, the sound of your footfalls – your own contributions to nature’s soundscape. Understand yourself as immersed in a natural environment – not an alien visiting that environment, but a component of that environment, a contributor to it. Keep your eyes open for snakes crossing the path – almost your only chance of getting bitten is if you accidentally step on or right next to a snake, or intentionally interfere with it. Keep scanning the sides of the track for basking snakes – if you’re lucky, you might see a tiger snake basking before it sees you and have a great chance to appreciate its beauty. Often, when I see tiger snakes near tracks in my area, they bask and seem just as oblivious to the humans waking by as those humans are to them. Trust me, most of the snakes you walk past you don’t see, and that’s how they like it – not because they’re hoping to hit you with a surprise attack, but because snakes survive by hiding from larger, potentially dangerous creatures like us.

Snake warning signSnakes are common in many of Melbourne's suburbs. This Hobson's Bay warning sign provides excellent advice - if you see a snake, remain calm and avoid disturbing it. Consider yourself blessed to have encountered one of the few elements of "untamed" nature still present in Melbourne and its environs. Respect the snake's "right" to go about its business without human interference, and it will accord you the same respect. Image: Genevieve Jackson.

Now, bites to humans are very rare in Melbourne, despite our thriving tiger snake population, but accidents do happen. If you’re spending a lot of time walking in tiger snake country, consider carrying a compression bandage – everyone in Australia should be familiar with the basic principles of pressure-immobilisation bandaging (click this link for more information). Far more common than bites to humans are bites to pets. These can be harder to prevent – let’s not forget that the dogs and cats we love so much (and we do, my dog is my surrogate child) are predators by nature, and will often chase after small animals like snakes if given the opportunity. On the other hand, they may accidentally stumble across a snake if we let them go gallivanting off into the bush. So, whilst it may be hard, keep your dog on the lead if you’re in a bushy area – take them to the dog park or the dog beach and let them off for a run in cleared areas that are designated off-leash zones. This not only keeps them safer from snakes, but also keeps the wildlife safer from them, and gives people who want a bit of quiet time in nature the opportunity to do so – when a dog runs through an area, all the wildlife goes quiet and hides.

Bites to pets also occur when snakes enter backyards. Unfortunately, snakes do not always respect our boundaries. Whilst we’re unable to reason with them – “snakes over there, humans over here!” – we can make our gardens less attractive to them. If you’re concerned, keep the lawn trimmed, keep the weeds in check, and don’t leave piles of wood, pipes, bricks, or anything else a snake might hide under, lying around. Personally, I love gardens planted with a lot of native grasses and flowering plants, but we do need to recognise that if we naturalise our gardens, we are inviting nature in to share space with us. If you don’t have a dog or children, or have trained them to be snake savvy, this might not be a problem, but if you do have a lovely native garden you might need to be extra-vigilant – again, we do not get to pick and choose what goes on in nature, that is sort of the point of it!

So, it’s spring. We all love the sun in Melbourne (we don’t get enough of it – by Australian standards). Snakes love the sun too. Spring is snake season. Enjoy it – stay snake savvy, snake safe.

More Information

Dr Timothy Jackson