There Will Be Blood – Stephen’s Banded Snake

It has already been established numerous times, but I feel like I should re-emphasize this well-known fact: Australia is a terrifying continent! The Stephen’s banded snake (Hoplocephalus stephensii) just gives us one more reason never to set foot in this country, specifically in New South Wales. H. stephensii has a feisty temperament and will readily bite those who try to handle it or accidentally threaten it in some way. As the “banded” part of its name suggests, this snake is covered in striking dark grey to black bands over and white or light brown body. It is a member of Elapidae, a family of snakes with hollow, usually small, fixed fangs (meaning they do not fold back when the mouth is closed as in vipers). The snakes in this family include cobras, taipans, sea snakes, brown snakes, tiger snakes, mambas, coral snakes, and many others.


Because of deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction, the Stephen’s banded snake is at risk. It is also slow to reproduce and has small litter sizes. Neither of these traits support an ability to bounce back from disturbance. Nocturnal and tree dwelling, this snake only inhabits unbroken areas of dense tropical forest. Unlike other elapids, H. stephensii feeds very infrequently and is therefore slow to grow, further adding to its vulnerability. The habitat of Stephen’s banded snake does overlap with some protected areas of forest, but there is more that needs to be done in order to conserve this species.


This photo was taken by Bernard Dupont on Flickr.

Although H. stephensii is rare and not often encountered, its venomous bite is extremely dangerous to those who do come into contact. The procoagulant nature of the snake’s venom leads to excessive bleeding due to the consumption of clotting factors by microclots throughout the body. More simply, this means that the microclots lead to more bleeding because the factors involved in making blood clot are being used up, so they are not available to do their job. The exact medical terminology for altered coagulation by a snakebite, such as with Stephen’s banded snake, is venom-induced consumption coagulopathy (VICC). Bleeding can be from practically any part of the body. Any wounds or small cuts that are still healing will reopen, bleeding in the brain is a possibility, and a person with this coagulopathy could potentially bleed from their eyes, nose, and mouth. You get the idea. Snake bites like this are not injuries that will just resolve on their own. They should always be considered a medical emergency and treated appropriately.

There is currently no antivenom specific to H. stephensii, though closely related elapid antivenom does seem to work. Tiger snake (Notechis  spp.) antivenom has been used on several occasions to successfully treat a banded snake bite. One dose of antivenom typically comes in a 9-12mL ampoule that contains 3,000 units, but up to as many as four of these were needed to effectively treat a bite from H. stephensii in studies.


Tiger snake antivenom is sometimes used for banded snake bites.

As deadly as the Stephen’s banded snake appears to be, there is only one death from its bite on record and this person did not receive proper medical assistance for several hours. All other bite victims survived. Still, caution definitely needs to be taken around this animal and its many Australian relatives.

To reiterate, Australia is crawling, slithering, flying, and swimming with deadly creatures. I know I keep presenting it as a place you would never want to visit, but I say this in a joking manner. There are many wonderful things about Australia too and I’m sure it would be an amazing place to visit! Just be careful, use common sense, and treat wild animals with the respect they deserve, as you would anywhere else.

1. Fitzgerald, Mark, Richard Shine, and Francis Lemckert. “Life history attributes of the threatened Australian snake (Stephen’s banded snake Hoplocephalus stephensii, Elapidae).” Biological Conservation 119.1 (2004): 121-128.

2. “Stephen’s Banded Snake – Profile.” Office of Environment & Heritage. New South Wales Government, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2015. <;.

3. Hession, Michael. “Stephen’s Banded Snake envenomation treated with tiger snake antivenom.” Emergency Medicine Australasia 19.5 (2007): 476-478.

4. Gulati, Abhishek, Geoffrey K. Isbister, and Stephen B. Duffull. “Effect of Australian elapid venoms on blood coagulation: Australian Snakebite Project (ASP-17).” Toxicon 61 (2013): 94-104.

5. Isbister, Geoffrey K. “Snake bite: a current approach to management.” Australian Prescriber 29.5 (2006): 125-129.

6. Tapp, Jessica. “Snake Bite Kills Man after NSW Floods.” ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 27 Sept. 2017.

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The Scaly Monogamist – Shingleback Lizard

The shingleback lizard (Tiliqua rugosa) is most at home in the rugged, dry plains and shrublands of southern and western Australia. It is a large species of blue-tongued skink that can reach a foot in length. This lizard may not look like much with its dull, armored skin and stubby tail, but it forms a bond that is quite unusual in the world of reptiles, especially among lizards.

The very head-like tail of the shingleback lizard.

Unlike almost all other lizards, the shingleback is socially monogamous. When a male and female form a pair bond, they will maintain that bond for the rest of their lives. During the breeding season, they come together and stay with each other for a couple of months and then mate. Once the female is pregnant, the two will separate, but they will reunite again the next year. These lizards have been known to remain together for over 10 years or more and may sometimes spend time together outside of breeding season as well. Shinglebacks are slow moving and often bask in the sun on or near roadways. Unfortunately, some of them get hit and killed by cars because they aren’t able to move fast enough to get out of the way. This has revealed that even after the death of one lizard, its mate continues to keep that bond. A shingleback that has lost its mate by the roadside may stay with it for several days, gently nudging it and licking it. This may be one of the closest things to grieving that has been observed in reptiles, and it is really quite touching.

A mated pair of shinglebacks.

Though they have no defenses against cars, shinglebacks do have several ways of dealing with natural predators. One defense adaptation is their tails. Short, stumpy, and rounded, the tail looks almost exactly like the lizard’s head and may trick a predator into attacking this much less crucial part of its body, or just confuse it enough to make it leave. If this fails, they can use the threat display that is famous within the Tiliqua genus – the blue tongue. When threatened, a shingleback may raise its head, hiss, and open its mouth to reveal its blue-black tongue to scare off a predator. This startling display is followed up with a painful bite if the message isn’t clear enough. The last option for this lizard is to flatten itself to the ground and continue hissing.


A shingleback showing its blue tongue by “Al and Marie” on Flickr.

Most of the time, adult shinglebacks are left alone by predators and are allowed to go about their business, such as reproducing, in peace. Shortly after mating when a female shingleback parts ways with her partner, she will produce one to four large babies. This skink is ovoviviparous, which means she gives birth to live young without connection to a placenta. The eggs stay in her body and she incubates them by collecting thermal energy from basking in the sun. When they are mature enough and have hatched, she gives birth. All the babies together can weigh up to a third of her body weight, which is the equivalent of a human mother giving birth to a three year old child. After birth, the new shinglebacks will stay with their mother for several months until they are independent enough to fend for themselves. They won’t go too far, though, as families of shinglebacks tend to stay near each other within the area.

People generally think of reptiles as cold, unfeeling, and primitive. This quiet, desert skink, and many other reptiles, prove that there is more to them than just pure, unthinking instinct. They can be gentle, sophisticated, and tender, showing many of the characteristics which we find so endearing in our warm blooded relatives. So go out and show reptiles a little love. Some of them just might be able to return it in their own, scaly way.

1. Loch, Thomas. “Tiliqua rugosa (Shingleback Lizard)”. Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, 17 Feb. 2009 Web. 24 June 2015. <;

2. Bull, C. Michael, Steven JB Cooper, and Ben C. Baghurst. “Social monogamy and extra-pair fertilization in an Australian lizard, Tiliqua rugosa.” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 44.1 (1998): 63-72.

3. “Shingleback Lizard.” Australian Museum. Australian Museum, 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 24 June 2015. <;.

4. Bull, C. Michael. “Monogamy in lizards.” Behavioural Processes 51.1 (2000): 7-20.

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Jaws Full of Teeth – American Crocodile

Chances are, when someone mentions crocodiles, you most likely immediately think of the Nile and saltwater crocs of Africa and Australia, respectively. The fact is, these ancient monster reptiles are so evolutionarily successful that they occur in the Americas too. The American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is found throughout the waters along the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central and South American down to Ecuador. It is even present on the Southern tip of Florida in the United States and in the Caribbean islands. The highest concentration of American crocodiles is in Lago Enriquillo, a hypersaline lake in the Dominican Republic. It’s not surprising how widespread crocs are given that they’ve been on the earth for 84 million years – even before dinosaurs.

Sarcosuchus imperator skull compared with extant crocodile species.

The American crocodile is one of the largest crocodilian species in the world and South American male crocs can reach lengths of up to 20 feet. Lengths of 14-16 feet are much more common, however, and U.S. crocodiles generally don’t exceed 13 feet. At sizes like these, they do pose a significant threat to humans and are more aggressive than American alligators. Although very rare, human killings have been recorded. American crocs are very tolerant of saltwater, hence their other common name of American saltwater crocodile, and possess special glands in their tongues that secrete excess salt to keep their internal saline concentration in balance.

Crocodiles are air breathing creatures and are therefore buoyant to a certain degree due to the air in their lungs when they inhale just as any other land animal. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t be able to hunt if they were just floating on the surface of the water all the time, or even slightly submerged. Their prey would see them for sure. But being the reptilian masterminds that they are, they’ve developed a strategy to combat this. Crocodiles will seek out stones and swallow them to create a ballast. This way, they can sink themselves to the bottom or rise up to the surface whenever they please. Mostly they submerge everything but their eyes and nostrils and lie in wait for anything edible to wander too close, but they will also hang out on the bottom of a river or lake too and are capable of staying under for hours. American crocodiles eat anything from large mammals and birds to crabs, fish, and snails. They will also sometimes scavenge for carrion.


An American crocodile in Florida, that seems to have an old jaw injury, eats a fish. (By Andrew DuBois on Flickr)

When it comes to breeding, usually in late fall or winter, American crocodiles will come together and partake in surprisingly gentle and elegant courtship that can last up to a month before any mating takes place. The female will then excavate a burrow, or if no burrowing sites are available, create a mound in which to lay her eggs. The material for the nest and amount of incubation is extremely important because sex is determined by temperature and a subtle fluctuation out of optimal range could create a clutch of either all female or all male crocodiles. This would decrease genetic variation in the species and make them more vulnerable to disease and other factors that can devastate populations. Both parents stay and aggressively protect the nest until the babies hatch, then the female provides them with protection and transportation for several weeks until they disperse.


A baby American crocodile by “ryanacandee” on Flickr.

As big and heavy as American crocs are and as lazy and lethargic as they appear to be most of the time, their agility is not to be underestimated. These huge reptiles can swim up to 20 miles an hour and run on land at 10. When they are walking, trotting, or running, they move their legs underneath and raise their bodies off the ground. Freshwater crocodiles can actually gallop and reach speeds of 15 miles per hour.

This is a Nile crocodile, but it gives you an idea of what they look like when they run.

Here’s a video of a freshwater crocodile galloping as well:

So if you ever see a wild crocodilian of any kind, don’t assume you can just run away from it if you get too close. Stand way, way back and enjoy one of the most perfect, unchanged predators on earth.

In memory of Lolong, the world’s largest captive crocodile, who died on February 10th, 2013 in a conservation center in the Philippines. He was a 20.3 foot long saltwater crocodile and is thought to have been over 50 years old. His cause of death is still unknown.

1. Fishman, Jake and MacKinnon, Kristin. “Crocodylus acutus (American Crocodile)”. Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, 2009. Web. 24 June 2015.

2. “American Crocodiles.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 24 June 2015. <;

3. Swiman, Elizabeth, Mark Hostetler, and Sarah Webb Miller. “Living with Alligators: A Florida Reality.” EDIS New Publications RSS. University of Florida, Aug. 2005. Web. 24 June 2015. <;.

4. Taplin, Laurence E., et al. “Lingual salt glands in Crocodylus acutus and C. johnstoni and their absence from Alligator mississipiensis and Caiman crocodilus.” Journal of Comparative Physiology B: Biochemical, Systemic, and Environmental Physiology 149.1 (1982): 43-47.

5. Wedel, Matt. “Eusuchia.” Unversity of California Museum of Paleontology. University of California, Berkely, May 2010. Web. 24 June 2015. <;.

6. Parrish, J. Michael. “The origin of crocodilian locomotion.” Paleobiology (1987): 396-414.

7. Britton, Adam. “Lolong Officially the World’s Largest Crocodile in Captivity.” Weblog post. Croc Blog., 23 June 2012. Web. 24 June 2015. <;.

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The Monarch of Venom – King Cobra

As I’m sure all of you know, the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is a very dangerous and venomous snake. It is a member of Elapidae so its fangs are fixed instead of hinged like a viper’s. This means they do not fold down when the snake’s mouth is closed. Also unlike viper fangs, an elapid’s fangs are relatively short. This does not mean that any less venom can be injected, however, and has no impact on the snake’s ability to do serious damage. The venom of a king cobra is some of the most powerful in the snake world. One bite can deliver as much as two tenths of an ounce of venom and is enough to kill twenty adult humans or one adult elephant. The venom contains a mixture of neurotoxins and cardiotoxins. Once bitten, a person may feel extreme pain, become dizzy with blurred vision, experience paralysis, cardiovascular collapse, coma, and then respiratory failure. Death can come within half an hour for an untreated bite victim. Fortunately, there are two kinds of antivenom that have been created solely for king cobra bites.

But venom isn’t everything about the king. This snake also happens to hold the record for being the longest venomous snake in the world at up to eighteen feet. Another interesting thing is the fact that, despite being the most famous cobra and often the first snake that comes to mind when that word is said, it is not actually a “true cobra”. True cobras belong to the genus, Naja, while the king cobra is in its own separate genus, Ophiophagus, which is Greek for “snake eater”. That part of the name doesn’t lie. King cobras do in fact eat other snakes almost exclusively, the favorite being ratsnakes. It will also eat pythons, and other venomous snakes such as true cobras and kraits. When snake prey is scarce, it will hunt birds, lizards, rodents, and other mammals instead. The king cobra is found throughout South and South-East Asia in higher elevation forests. It has no problems pursuing prey into the trees or water, as it is an excellent swimmer and climber. It even prefers to live in areas that have access to several bodies of water.

As fearsome as they appear, king cobras are actually quite shy and reclusive, much preferring to flee if they have a choice. If this is not possible, however, they will first try to ward off a threat by raising up and displaying their hood. They may even feign striking while keeping their mouth closed. A king cobra’s hiss is also another effective defense tactic. Unlike the higher frequency hisses of most snakes, the king’s hiss is low and almost like a growl. If all this fails then the snake will strike to harm. It can do this even while raised high off the ground and moving forward. King cobras have a very large striking range and it is easy to misjudge the distance they can reach and accidentally get caught in the danger zone. While adult cobras would rather not waste their venom on defense, it’s a different story for the babies. Their bites are every bit as toxic as adult bites and they are much more nervous and aggressive since they are so small and vulnerable.

King cobras are very good parents, which is fairly unusual for most snakes. The female will make a nest for her eggs on the ground and vigilantly guard them and incubate them until they are ready to hatch. She usually lays between twenty and forty eggs and stays with them for up to ninety days. When the babies finally hatch, the mother leaves by instinct to go hunt so she doesn’t eat the hatchlings. Baby king cobras are a little less than two feet long and are more vibrantly patterned and colored than adult cobras.


Hopefully you now know a little bit more about the king cobra than the average person, and hopefully you enjoyed learning about it. It’s definitely an animal to be understood and respected deeper than just its widely feared surface.

“King Cobras.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.

2. Reid, H. Alistair. “Snakebite in the tropics.” BMJ 3.5614 (1968): 359-362.

3. “King Cobra (Ophiophagus Hannah).” Toxicology. University of California, San Diego, n.d. Web. 23 June 2015. <;.

4. Young, Diana. “Ophiophagus Hannah (Hamadryad, King Cobra).” Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, 7 June 1999. Web. 23 June 2015. <;.

5. O’Shea, Mark. Venomous Snakes of the World. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2011. 97. Print.

6. Smith, Grant. “The Ultimate Cobra Snake Facts Guide.” Cape Snake Conservation. Cape Snake Conservation, 08 Apr. 2013. Web. 23 June 2015. <;.

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The Other Spitting Snake – Mangshan Pit Viper

The Mangshan pit viper (Protobothrops mangshanensis) may not be an elapid like the cobra, but it is found to be the only other snake species capable of spitting its venom. The only places in the world you can find this snake are Mt. Mang and the Hunan and Guangdong Provinces of China. It is currently listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) because of its restricted range in combination with deforestation and human encroachment into its habitat. There is also a demand for it in the illegal pet trade business because of the stunningly gorgeous colors and patterns on its scales and its lovely green eyes. Fortunately, there are populations present in the Mangshan Natural Nature Reserve and captive breeding has been going on in several countries with fair success since 1994. 100 snakes have been bred as of 2010.

Closeup of the beautiful scale patterns.

The Mangshan pit viper lives in mountainous, mixed pine and broad leaf forests in leaf litter, rotting wood, and caves. It typically reaches lengths of 5-7 feet and is a particularly heavy snake, getting up to about 11 pounds or so. This pit viper preys on frogs, rodents, birds, and insects. The tip of its tale is a pale, greenish white and is used to lure in the animals it hunts by mimicking a caterpillar or worm. The snake hides the rest of its body from sight and sticks up its tail, which is wriggled back and forth. When prey comes close enough, it strikes and injects a mix of hemotoxic and myotoxic venom with its 0.8 inch long fangs. Hemotoxin prevents blood coagulation and leads to hemorrhaging while myotoxin causes muscle paralysis and necrosis. Most vipers deliver large amounts of venom in a bite and this snake is no exception. Up to 960 milligrams can be injected by a single fang. As with all pit vipers, the Mangshan pit viper possesses small, temperature sensitive pits beneath its eyes that help it locate prey.

Notice the tip of the tail.

One man, Dr. Chen Yuanhui, has dedicated his life to protecting these snakes since 1990 when the species was officially recorded. Nicknamed “Dr. Snake”, Yuanhui first heard about the pit viper in 1984 when he was given a description of it by a snakebite victim in the hospital where he worked. Several years later, in 1989, he was notified about a nest of 23 snakes that had been captured nearby. He went to investigate and the snakes that were caught fit the exact description his patient had given him years ago – green and yellow markings with a white tail tip. Ever since then, Dr. Yuanhui has kept several Mangshan pit vipers in his home and has conducted research and raised awareness about the need to conserve this species. He is also curator for the Mangshan Museum of Natural History.

Dr. Chen Yuanhui with a wild Mangshan pit viper, 2010.

It takes a lot of love and dedication to continue to care for and research these gorgeous pit vipers after having survived 9 bites over the past 30 years. It’s a great thing there are people like Dr. Yuanhui in the world to set an example for the rest of us about what can be done for endangered animals like the Mangshan pit viper.

1. Gong, Shi-ping, et al. “Population status, distribution and conservation needs of the Endangered Mangshan pit viper Protobothrops mangshanensis of China.” Oryx 47.01 (2013): 122-127.

2. O’Shea, Mark. Venomous Snakes of the World. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2011. 160. Print.

3. “Mangshan Pit Viper Fact Sheet.” San Diego Zoo. San Diego Zoo Global, 4 Apr. 2011. Web. 21 May 2015. <;.

4. “Mangshan Pit Viper.” Wildscreen, n.d. Web. 20 May 2015. <>.

5. China Daily. “‘Dr. Snake’ Bears Fangs for Conservation.” China Daily, 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 21 May 2015. <;.

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The Tiniest Snake On Earth – Barbados Threadsnake

If you were walking along and happened to come across one of these little snakes, you would probably mistake it for an earthworm. The Barbados threadsnake (Leptotyphlops carlae) was officially identified relatively recently, in 2008, by S. Blair Hedges from Pennsylvania State University and is currently the smallest known snake species in the world. It is endemic to the island of Barbados and lives on the oldest part of the island where there is still secondary forest. Unfortunately, Barbados has been mostly deforested and populated by humans, so this snake may only have a little over a square mile of suitable habitat left to sustain it and could be considered critically endangered. Very little is known about it yet, but it has been discovered that the species can come in different sizes. Threadsnakes only lay one egg at a time and the smaller snakes will have hatchlings that are proportionally larger than the hatchlings of larger snakes.

Barbados threadsnakes generally only reach a length of 4 inches and feed on termite and ant larvae that they seek out underground. They are completely blind and hunt using scent trails. This snake is so small possibly because of island dwarfism. It may have evolved to fill the predatory niche of a centipede, which would normally prey on termites and ants. It is thought that the Barbados threadsnake may be the minimum size that is possible for a snake to still be able to produce offspring.

Let’s hope that in the coming years, more will be learned about this fascinating little animal and conservation measures will be taken to protect it and restore its habitat. It would be a shame to lose something so special when we have only just begun to get to know it.

1.Hedges, S. Blair. “At the lower size limit in snakes: two new species of threadsnakes (Squamata: Leptotyphlopidae: Leptotyphlops) from the Lesser Antilles.” Zootaxa 1.30 (1841): 2008.

2.Kennedy, Barbara. “World’s Smallest Snake Found in Barbados.” Penn State News. Pennsylvania State University, 3 Aug. 2008. Web. 02 May 2015. <;.

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