Australia has more venomous snakes than any other continent in the world. Not only that, it is also home to 9 of the 10 most venomous snake species in the world. Out of the ca. 170 known snake species that inhabit Australia, 120 are venomous.
Looking at those facts, many travelers get discouraged about visiting Australia. However, despite the high number of venomous snakes, Australia reports far fewer fatalities due to snakebites than most other regions that have dangerous snakes.
In order to prepare you for a possible encounter with a venomous snake in Australia (which is an exciting experience that not many travelers can boast about, since it happens so rarely) I wrote this guide to soothe your fears and enhance your wisdom, so that you can travel to Australia equipped with good survival knowledge and a calm mind.
This guide will teach you which snake you can encounter where in Australia, how to recognize the most dangerous species, what their habits are and what to do if you meet a snake.
However, since many snake species are very hard to tell apart because of their variety in colors and size, I recommend that you treat every snake you encounter like it’s a venomous snake, just to be on the safe side. That being said, let’s start with a list of the most venomous snake species in Australia.
Australia’s Most Deadly Snakes
There are five “families” of snakes that are considered the most dangerous because of their venomosity and their reputation to attack humans.
The Brown Snakes are on top of the list for killing the most people. They are followed by Tiger Snakes, Black Snakes, Taipans and Death Adders which are considered the most dangerous species.
There is also a variety of other venomous snakes that are potentially very dangerous but that are not responsible for as many attacks, like the Copperhead, the Collett’s Snake or the Whip Snake.
What makes these snakes more dangerous than others?
The venom of snakes is not the same for all species. The above-mentioned snakes have a very strong venom that contains a deadly cocktail of toxins that affect the body in different ways. Most of these snakes produce venom that is more concentrated than the venom of other snakes. Or their venom is very potent because it contains an effective mixture of different toxins that can kill a creature very quickly in their combination.
There are 7 different types of toxins that can be contained in snake venom:
Neurotoxin – Affects nerves and leads to paralysis of voluntary muscles
Myotoxin – Paralyzes muscles, which can be lethal if heart or respiratory muscles are affected
Hemotoxin – Dissolves the blood
Necrotoxin – Causes the tissue around the bite to die and decay
Coagulants – Cause blood clots inside blood vessels
Anti-coagulants – Impede blood clotting and cause unstoppable bleeding
Cytotoxin – Dissolves cells of the body
Why is venom more dangerous than poison?
The difference between poison and venom is, that poison has to be digested to cause harm.
Venom is injected and thus affects the body much quicker than poison. Also, you have no control over the way it enters your body, so it can be more dangerous according to which body part is affected by the toxins e.g. if you get bitten near your heart or your head.
A Guide to Australia’s most Dangerous Snakes
In the following guide, I will introduce some of the most dangerous families of snakes and tell you where you can find them, what kind of venom they use and how you can recognize them.
Since the size and color of snakes vary so much in each species, identifying a snake by it’s appearance alone is very difficult.
The good news is, that you need no longer to be able to identify the snake that bit you, if that should ever happen, since there is a universal antivenom now, that can be used on all kinds of venom, according to the Flying Doctors of Australia.
1. Brown/ Black Snakes /Mulga Snakes
Brown Snakes and Black Snakes belong to the same family of snakes, but they have evolved into different species. All of them have a strong venom and can be encountered almost all over Australia, which is why they occupy the first rank of most snakebite statistics.
The Common Brown Snake is considered the second most venomous terrestrial snake with a venom that consists of neurotoxins and blood coagulants. The Red Bellied Black Snake is less venomous than the Brown Snake, but is often found in urbane areas. It accounted for 16% of identified snakebite victims in Australia between 2005 and 2015
Common Brown Snake/Eastern Brown Snake: Pseudonaja Textilis
Color: Pale brown to black, underside pale cream/yellow with orange splotches.
Size: 1,5m to 2m.
Venom: Neurotoxins, blood coagulants.
Habitat: Dry forests, coastal ranges, inner grasslands, arid scrublands in far North Queensland, Inland Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia.
Red Bellied Black Snake: Pseudechis porphyriacus
Color: Glossy black with red underside.
Size: 1,5m to 2m.
Venom: Its venom consists of neurotoxins, myotoxins, coagulants and also has hemolytic properties.
Habitat: Woodlands, forests, swamplands in Victoria, New South Wales, Eastern Queensland, South-East South Australia.
2. Tiger Snakes
Almost everybody will warn you about Tiger Snakes if you ask them about any dangerous animals in the area. They are responsible for the second highest number of bites in Australia since they often come into contact with humans in urbane areas where they dwell near water and even in houses, where they hunt mice.
They have a fearsome reputation, but because people fear them so much, their number has been radically decimated in recent years, leading to their population status changing to vulnerable, so it has become more unlikely to meet them. Untreated their bite can be lethal, but pretty much every hospital in Australia is equipped with the antivenom nowadays.
Eastern Tiger Snake: Notechis Scutatus
Color: Brown to olive with pale bands. Has large eyes.
Size: 1,2m to 2m
Venom: The Tiger Snake Venom includes neurotoxins, myotoxins, blood coagulants and hemotoxins that dissolve the blood.
Habitat: Found near water in New South Wales, Victoria, South-East South Australia, South-East Queensland and Tasmania.
Inland Taipan/ Western Taipan/Fierce Snake: Oxyuranus microlepidotus
The Inland Taipan is the world’s most venomous snake! Its venom is strong enough that a single bite would be enough to kill 200000 mice. Or 100 grown men. That is because it evolved to be a specialist hunter of mammals on which his venom is most effective. However, this snake is very shy and hides far out in remote outback areas. You are thus very unlikely to meet an Inland Taipan. (The word “fierce” from its alternative name describes its venom, not its temperament.) Despite its strong venom it is hardly responsible for any human fatalities in Australia.
The Coastal Taipan is the third most venomous terrestrial snake in the world. It is more aggressive than the Inland Taipan and should thus be avoided if encountered in the wild.
Color: Brown to yellow with black “freckles”, darker around the head area.
Size: 1,8m to 2,5m.
Venom: Neurotoxins, Hemotoxins, Myotoxins and Nephrotoxins (affecting the kidneys). The venom also contains an enzyme that helps the poison to get absorbed into the blood more quickly.
Habitat: Arid floodplains in Inland Queensland.
Coastal Taipan: Oxyuranus scutellatus
Color: Reddish-brown to yellowish-brown. Head paler than body.
Size: 1,5m to 2m.
Venom: Neurotoxin, anti-coagulants.
Habitat: Grassy slopes, coastal areas, in old burrows, under logs in northern Western Australia, Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales.
4. Death Adders
The Death Adder uses its small tail end as a bait, wiggling it like a worm to attract birds. It is not as shy as most snakes and remains in place when humans approach it, which is why it was called “Deaf Adder” in some books, since people assumed they did not move because they cannot hear people coming. This is true, but not only for the Death/Deaf Adder, but for all snakes. They rely solely on their sense of smell and vibration and do not have ears. Because they are camouflaged so well, it is easy to accidentally step on them in the bush.
Common Death Adder: Acanthophis antarcticus
Color: Red-brown to grey.
Habitat: It prefers to hide in woodland and between low scrubs, also in heathland and rocky places in Queensland, New South Wales, southern Western Australia, southern South Australia, northern Victoria and the north-east of Northern Territory.
Desert Death Adder/Northern Death Adder: Acanthophis praelongus
Color: Red, brown and yellow/cream-colored stripes.
Habitat: Dry desert areas in Western Australia, northern South Australia, southern Northern Territory and south-west of Queensland.
5. Other dangerous snakes
Copperheads: Austrelaps Labialis
Copperheads feed on lizards and mammals and even their own species. Their venom is potent enough to kill a human with one bite, so one should not provoke them. However, they are known to seldom bite humans. When they feel threatened they hiss and lash out, but they rarely actually bite. They are active even in cold weather and are often found near water. You are likely to meet them near dams, channels, drains or small streams.
Color: They appear in all earth-colors like copper, red, yellow, brown and black.
Size: 1m to 1.5m.
Habitat: All of south-eastern Australia, Tasmania and Kangaroo Island.
Collett’s Snake/ Collett’s Cobra: Pseudechis colletti
For a long time, the venom of the Collett’s Snake was thought harmless to humans, but recent statistics show that even though it is only the 19th most venomous snake in the world, the Collett’s snake is responsible for several deaths per year as well.
Color: Dark brown to black upper part, pink or cream bandings and sides, yellow to orange underside.
Size: 1,8m to 2,2m.
Venom: Cytotoxin, Hemotoxin.
Habitat: Dry areas and plains of western Queensland.
Whip Snake/ Demansia: Demansia psammophis
The Whip Snake got its name thanks to its velocity that lets it strike as fast as a whiplash. It is more flexible and faster than other snakes, so it is difficult to outrun or capture them. Even though they are fascinating to see in action, if possible, try not to get too close to them. Their bite is not lethal, but very painful.
Color: Cream colored, yellow face.
Size: 80cm to 1m.
Habitat: All over Australia.
How likely are you to meet a snake in Australia?
Meeting a snake is actually not so easy and you need a lot of luck to find one. As any backpacker who has been to Australia for a year will tell you: You hardly ever see one and if you do, they slither away and hide as fast as they can.
The only 2-3 times I actually saw snakes during my one year in Australia was while I was working near a lake in Yungaburra QLD where a small King Brown snake was basking in the sun on the rocks ( it hid between the stones when it noticed me). The other time I saw a Brown Snake disappear quickly in a hole between some rocks while I was doing a bushwalk in central Queensland. I also saw a Taipan there, but it was already dead, as it had gotten run over on the road.
I have a snake phobia, so I was a little hesitant to come to the country with the most venomous snakes in the world. I kind of imagined to meet them in every patch of grass and around every corner in Australia. However, since you hardly really meet them, it was no problem for me at all to spend a year in Australia. Even in the deepest outback you hardly see them. So don’t worry too much about snakes. Worry more about the giant spiders. ;p
How can you avoid getting bitten?
Probably I did not see that many snakes because I am always so careful. There are 7 simple precautions you can take, in order to avoid getting bitten by a snake:
1) Stick to the cities.
The most simple step is to avoid going to the outback if you don’t want to meet one. In the cities, snakes are hardly present, so unless you set out to a bushwalk, you are pretty safe.
2) Cover yourself!
When you do go out into nature or if you do work on a farm outside of town, make sure you always wear sturdy shoes that cover your ankles and even if it looks silly, wear high socks or long trousers to protect the lower part of your leg. A bit of cloth might not deflect a bite, but can make a difference in how deep your skin gets punctured. (It will also protect you from thorny plants, which are an omnipresent nuisance in Australia.)
3) Don’t stick your feet where it’s wet.
Many snakes like to hang out at waterholes where they hunt for frogs in the shallow water. Therefore, cooling your bare feet in a billabong is probably not a good idea…
4) Look out for the masters of camouflage!
They like to pretend to be a rock or a log and once you accidentally step too close to them, they get scared and lunge at you. So keep an eye on the ground and tread heavily, so the snake can feel the vibration of the ground and can slide away and hide.
All snakes are deaf, so instead of noise, they only sense vibrations. Therefore heavy steps are more useful to signal your presence to them than talking in a loud voice.
5) Walk away or stand completely still.
For one thing, snakes are slow and cannot go much faster than walking pace, except for some special species (like the Whip Snake). So you could easily outrun them if you have to. Furthermore, most have poor eyesight and will not be able to tell whether you are a human or a tree if you stand still. I saw that demonstrated during a show where the snake just went over any animal or human limb like they were a branch without seeming to realize what they were. So if you are lucky enough to meet a snake in the wild, just stand very still and pretend to be a tree while you wait for it to move on. Do not stomp to frighten them, as this might provoke an attack.
6) Don’t block the way.
Snakes tend to avoid conflict with humans and will escape if there is any way for them to run. If you meet a snake in a situation where you are blocking its way of escape, make sure you slowly back off and give it some space.
7) Don’t touch them
Never try to pick up or kill a snake, as this is the most common reason for a snake to actually bite someone. Their reaction time is much faster than that of a human, so you will most certainly lose the fight. Trying to kill a snake is pretty much the most stupid thing one can do. It is neither heroic nor smart and also not fair, considering you are most likely the one who invaded the snake’s territory.
In Australia, it is also punishable by law to kill a snake, since they are a protected species. So don’t be the idiot tourist who tries to show off by killing a snake. They might be scary and dangerous, but they are rarely aggressive and just too fascinating and beautiful to be killed out of fear. The same happened to wolfs and tigers and now people mourn their near extinction.
And how boring would Australia be without all the dangerous animals, right? Hardly worth a visit!
Are you scared to come to Australia?
You should not be. It is unlikely to even see a snake, especially near the cities, it is even more unlikely to get bitten, and even if you somehow manage to do get bitten, there are anti-venoms for all kinds of venomous snakes in Australia, so you will not necessarily die from it, if you see a doctor in time.
Furthermore, even if a venomous snake bites you, it does not mean the amount of venom it injects will be enough to kill a human. Often so-called “blank bites” occur, where the snake bites but no venom is injected. Only 10% of all snake bites happening in Australia actually need to be treated with antivenom.
Since the discovery of anti-venom, only 1-4 people actually die of snakebites. Between 1979 – 2007 there are only 67 recorded snake bite fatalities, so within 88 years less than 1 person died each year from a snake bite. In India for comparison, around 50.000 people a year reportedly die from being bitten by a venomous snake! Now that’s a country I am not going to visit anymore! – Just kidding. It’s still on my list. 😉
Thus, having many venomous snakes doesn’t necessarily make a country much more dangerous. If you get bitten or not, depends for some part on luck, for the most part, however, on your own behavior and knowledge. If you know where the dangerous snakes like to hang out and what you can do in order to avoid getting bitten if you meet one, the chance that you will die of a snakebite while traveling is considerably low.
If you want to be scared of anything, be scared of cars. While snakes were responsible for only 18 deaths between 1980 – 1990 , car accidents killed 32.772 persons. I should probably write a guide on how to avoid road accidents next…
Snakes are rare and fascinating creatures and if you meet one, you should feel blessed to have this special experience. As long as you are careful where you step and don’t provoke these animals, nothing bad will happen to you. Act sensibly, and you have nothing to fear.
I hope you enjoy your trip to the land downunder! Be safe!
For more information about how to deal with Australia’s most common dangers, also check out the 10 Survival Tips for Australia
List of Sources:
Outback Survival (2012) by Bob Cooper.
Australia’s Dangerous Creatures for Dummies (2008) by Graeme Lofts.
Australia’s Dangerous Snakes (2017) by Peter Mirtschin, Arne Rasmussen and Scott Weinstein.
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