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The lowdown on local snakes


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Chris Mitchell, who has a long involement with Kimberley wildlife groups that rescue, rehabilitate and release native animals) talks about his speciality – snakes.    
At this time of year (July-August) around Broome due to the cool temperatures, most snakes are semi hibernating. They can shut their digestive system down so that they don’t have to eat for three or four months that they are in semi hibernation mode. They will come out into the sun to get warmth but normally do not eat at all. The Kimberley is a great habitat for the Black-headed python, which will grow to three metres in length. These pythons are found throughout northern Australia, the ones from the north having a two toned coffee colour. Further south, as far as The Pilbara and Port Hedland, these Black-headed pythons are normally black and white.

Top: South west carpet python     Above: Woma python     Below: Black headed python
Pythons are not venomous but they do have a mouthful of teeth (some 100-140) which they use to grab their prey. Once grabbed, a python constricts itself around its prey, suffocating it to death without breaking any bones. Once dead, the python looks for the head area and begins slowly swallowing the animal. Because a python can dislocate its jaws, and so expand its throat, it it is able to swallow animals much bulkier than itself.

A python can eat blue-tongue lizards and the much larger monitor lizard, although as one film on Youtube showed, that can take up to five hours. The Black headed python is a cannibal in that it eats other snakes including its own kind, and also being venom tolerant, eats venomous snakes, which makes it a useful snake to have around. It can take several weeks after swallowing for the animal to be digested. Interestingly, snakes only kill to eat, and for these pythons this is about once a week or once a fortnight.

Olive pythons, Western Australia’s biggest python, grow to four metres in length and eat animals like fruit bats, possums and wallabies. In the wild they attach themselves in a distinct s shape to a branch, waiting for prey to go past before striking and ensnaring their prey. One Olive python was recently found on an oil rig, probably brought in with a load of pipes to the rig. The environmentally conscious workers took the trouble to rescue the animal and have it flown back to the Kimberley Wildlife Carers who rehabilitated it.

Above: Olive python and characteristic S pose. Note heat sensors along jaw line.  
Below: Stimsons python
A python will normally enter anywhere that it can get its head through. Many have been removed from inside of aviaries when the python becomes trapped after swallowing a bird. This causes a bulge in the stomach and the snake can no longer fit though the cage mesh to escape. One lady had her whole collection of finches swallowed by a python, making a bizarre sight in her aviary. In another rescue, this time a Stimson’s python, the snake had attached itself vertically to the wall alongside a door frame, using its muscles to move up the wall.

Snakes shed their skin, known as slough, as they grow and the belly scales in the slough can help differentiate between venomous snakes and nonvenomous ones.    
When the slough is folded over, the size of the belly scales is the key.
Belly scales that are the same width as the slough point to a venomous snake, whereas belly scales half the width of the slough belong to a python.
Chris recommends any snake bite be attended to. Some people are allergic to bee stings for example, so it is better to be safe than sorry.

Above: Venomous snake belly scales spread the width of the body slough

Left: The belly scales of nonvenomous snakes only extend about half the width of the body slough.

If a snake is found in a home, Kimberley Wildlife Carers will send someone out. The snake will first be identified and, if not venomous, Kimberley Wildlife Carers encourage homeowners to keep it in the garden. Highly venomous snakes are relocated into the bush.

Chris has seen some amazing sights in his work. The Broome Chinatown area is the habitat for many water pythons that feed on the rats and frogs. They will enter drainage pipes to seek prey and in one instance a water python found its way into a toilet bowl, a disconcerting sight for the boy who discovered it. It took Chris about 20 minutes to extract the 1.8 metre python from the bowl. In another rescue one Christmas night a highly venomous mulga snake had to be relocated from a house. Once known as king brown snakes, the name was changed to reflect the fact that the mulga is part of the black snake family so bites need to be treated with black snake serum.

Woma python
Many pythons are run over, the extent of the injuries relating to the surface they are on. Bitumen roads are very life threatening, dirt and sand, less so. Kimberley Wildlife Carers undertake education programs in schools, making people aware of the differences between snakes and developing field knowledge.

Text prepared by Victor Barry.
Images from Paul McQueen

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