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Scientists on Saibai island to catch deadly snakes

BY ANTHONY LOCK

Black snake on Saibai island [Tom Parkin]PAPUAN BLACK SNAKES (Pseudechis papuanus) and Papuan taipans (Oxyuranus scutellatus canni) are among the deadliest snakes in the world, but handling them is a typical day's work for scientists Tom Parkin and Luke Allen.

Tom, vertebrate zoologist at the Western Australian Museum, and Luke, curator for a venom supplies company in South Australia, made the trip - sponsored by the Australian Geographic Society - to the home of the black snake at Saibai Island.

Basic knowledge about the snakes, such as numbers and seasonal activity, is largely unknown, even by the locals, says Luke, so any snakes caught are invaluable for research.

So the pair went to Saibai Island with the view to teaching residents about snakes, observing the species' habit, and capturing specimens for a captive breeding program - essential for continued production of anti-venom.

Prior to the expedition there were only two male black snakes and a female taipan in captivity in South Australia, so Tom and Luke required a female black snake and a male taipan - the third most venomous reptile in the world to humans - to begin breeding populations.

Snakes are needed to continue anti-venom production because it is produced by taking venom from a live snake.

Tom and Luke were in Saibai for a week in August, and managed to catch two snakes, in spite of bad weather.

The first, a female taipan, was founding retreating down a burrow. Local children crowded to watch the capture, but while they were busy celebrating, Tom and Luke missed a second taipan metres away, they say.

Fortuitously, the female taipan was later found to be pregnant, and a few weeks after returning to South Australia she laid eight eggs.

The second, says Luke, was found at a perfect spot for these snakes, located near a water supply.

"These snakes love water", he says. "If we had had 48 hours more in that area we would certainly have collected many more snakes".

The pair also caught a male black snake, over 2m long, an hour before their flight home.

While a female black snake remained elusive, the two snakes caught can be used to produce anti-venom, Tom and Luke say, and the baby taipans can be put into a breeding program.

In their search for snakes, Tom and Luke also discovered tree frogs that had died while fleeing from a bush fire. "These are definitely a new species", says Luke, "but we need a live frog as a sample for the species to be officially recognised as new".

While on Saibai, Tom and Luke also managed to help educate residents with a poster they created - the first publication about species on the island.

Although residents know the snakes, they don't know so much about how to provide anti-venom first aid, or to properly identify the snakes (to make sure they're not confused with taipans), Tom and Luke say.

Local residents thought they had caught a black snake in the past, says Luke, but it was actually a female taipan, and a bite suffered without adequate anti-venom first aid would have been fatal.

The pair plans to travel back to Saibai, and also to more remote islands to conduct research. If they go back to Saibai, they say they will head back to the wetland where to track more black snakes, says Luke.

Source: Australian Geographic, 11 November

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