With temperatures rising across the Hunter, snakes are becoming an inevitable companion on many bush tracks, backyards and garden sheds.
Although the thought strikes fear into the minds of many outdoor lovers, researchers at the CSIRO say it needn’t.
In fact, Australia’s leading science agency says there are many reasons to love snakes.
Not only are they an important element in the balancing of ecosystems, without them we’d be overrun by problematic prey species.
Snake venom has also served as a valuable medicinal ingredient for centuries, used in a wide range of pharmaceuticals.
And, the slippery creature that’s been given a bad rap since Adam and Eve, is actually vital in nutrient cycling and energy flows within ecosystems.
While Australia has around 190 species of land snake, less than 10% of those are potentially dangerous to humans.
Rats, reptile friends become a sssssolution
Mice have been a problem in Australia ever since 1788, causing millions of dollars in damage to grain-growing regions across Australia. Without snakes, we’d have an even bigger challenge on our hands.
“Snakes are incredibly important for the balance of ecosystems. They help keep their prey species – including rodents and spiders – in check.
“While snakes don’t eat enough to be a “solution” to plagues of mice and rats, they do help to maintain the structure and stability of Australia’s ecosystems.”
We need their venom
Only 12 species of venomous Australian snakes have bites that could be life-threatening to humans. But snakes help save lives every day.
CSIRO herpetologist (snake expert) and ecotoxicologist Dr Damian Lettoof says snake venom has been used for medicinal purposes since at least the first century and is now a key ingredient in many different drugs.
“The African black mamba’s venom contains a potent painkiller, and through our Kick-Start program, CSIRO worked with the Australian company Q-Sera to manufacture RAPClot, a fast-acting pro-coagulant that is based on snake venom.
“Elsewhere in the country, Dr Michelle Yap Khai Khun of Monash University is researching how cytotoxins in Sumatran cobra venom can kill cancer cells. Michelle says the team wants to wrap the toxic agent into nanoparticles and deliver them to targeted cancer cells.”
Snakes as recyclers
Snakes play an important role in nutrient cycling and seed dispersion. In a well-balanced ecosystem, snakes are also often both predator and prey, with smaller snakes being prey for larger predators.
Many native Australian animals prey on snakes. This group includes dingoes and goannas, birds like the brown falcon or the kookaburra, and even other snakes. In this way, snakes contribute to the energy cycling of the ecosystem.
In addition, Damien explains that snakes are ectothermic. That is, they rely on external sources for their body heat, such as the sun or a nice warm rock.
They can slow their bodies down and survive in harsh conditions longer than birds and mammals can. This means that as prey, they store energy for the food web and ecosystem for when conditions improve.
- Some herpetologists say older types of snakes, including pythons, still have vestiges of legs from way back when.
- Snakes’ bodies are much cooler than you realise. Damien said many snakes shrink their whole digestive tract after a meal and then regrow it when they start eating again. This one weird trick saves them energy in between months of fasting, by not using excess energy maintaining all the cells in an entire digestive tract.
- Snake’s tongues smell, and snakes can smell the difference between left and right. They “collect” smells on their tiny little forked tongues, and their brain knows where the smell is coming from by which side of the tongue has the strongest smell.
Staying safe around snakes
Here are some tips for avoiding them and what to do when you spot one:
- When out bushwalking and hiking, stay on the trail. Make a little noise as you go to give any snakes in the area notice of your arrival.
- Keep your yard tidy and clean of rubbish. Snakes love to hide, so give them fewer reasons to hang out at your place.
- Bird aviaries and chicken coops attract mice, because of the amount of seed and mess. Clean up after your chooks and keep them safe from unwanted visitors.
- If you find a snake in your house or property, don’t try catching it: that’s how people get bitten. Even baby snakes can be just as dangerous as adults. Keep yourself safe and call a professional snake catcher. But keep your eye on that snake, because they love disappearing when you’re not looking.
- If you do have a snake in your home, before you call a snake catcher, shut the snake in one room (without you in it). With the snake then confined, put a rolled-up towel at the bottom of the door to keep the snake in the room, making it easier for the expert to catch.
- Australian snakes aren’t naturally aggressive, and only attack if they’re provoked. If you meet a snake, give them some space and a chance to escape. Better yet, walk calmly in a different direction.
- Snakes are protected native animals in all states and territories of Australia and it’s illegal to kill them. Since most snake bites happen when people try killing or catching snakes, it’s better for us share our boundless plains with them peacefully.
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