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.

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Because of deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction, the Stephen’s banded snake 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 only feeds very rarely 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.

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Although H. stephensii is rare and encountered very infrequently, its venomous bite is extremely dangerous. 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 sp.) 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.

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Tiger snake antivenom is sometimes used for banded snake bites.

As deadly as the Stephen’s banded snake appears to be, there are no recorded deaths from its bite, though this may be because all bite victims received the proper medical care. Still, caution definitely needs to be taken around this animal and its many Australian relatives.

To reiterate, Australia is crawling, slithering, 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.

References:
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. <http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/threatenedspeciesapp/profile.aspx?id=10414&gt;.

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.

Photo Links:
1. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/camouflaged-deadly-animal-shows-real-7614216

2. https://www.flickr.com/photos/berniedup/10559871275/in/photolist-a7zfKZ-QK9Ni4-h69CX9-h6ac7u-h69BeN-h696Q8-h66iS1-h6aiui

3. https://australianmuseum.net.au/image/western-tiger-snake-notechis-scutatus-occidentalis