While summer seems to be the season hikers are on the lookout for our slithery friends, the truth of the matter is, Perth snakes are active all year round!
Yes, you’re more likely to see them in summer but this is due to their ectothermic metabolism.
Like all reptiles, snakes are cold-blooded and can’t produce heat in their own bodies. They have to rely on their surroundings to keep them warm (like basking on a sunny rock), effectively making them sluggish during winter and highly active during summer.
This is why you’ll also see more bobtails and bearded dragons during summer as well!
The presence of snakes, or even just the thought of them, can be a deterrent to exploring our amazing trails for new hikers. It may even put regular hikers off hiking in summer when snakes are more active.
By understanding snake behaviour, which species you’re most likely to encounter and where they prefer to hang out, you’ll add to your snake awareness and safety, no matter which season you choose to hike.
We’d first like to begin with this because understanding their nature is the best way to keep YOU safe…
Why Snakes Bite
Snakes ONLY bite to kill their prey or in self-defence.
If you think about it, that’s not really any different to your four-legged furry friend, your dog, who in all honesty, can be just as dangerous in the right circumstances!
Animals generally prey on things smaller than themselves to eat.
Humans, to a snake, are definitely too big to be considered food!
However we are more of a towering skyscraper, comparatively speaking, looming threateningly over them.
Even if we haven’t approached a snake on purpose, it’s going to be terrified and try to defend itself if you’re too close, acting on pure primal instinct. Let’s face it, they aren’t really that smart!
Suffice it to say, snakes are more scared of us, than we are of them!
When Snakes Bite
In a nutshell, snakes bite when you get too close to them.
How close is too close? Generally their “personal bubble” is broken when you get within striking range.
Technically, striking range depends on the length of the snake and the species. Generally, snakes can strike out at a distance between ⅓ and ½ of the their total length. For example, if a snake is about a metre long, it’s striking range can be up to 1.5 metres.
You’ve just worked out where a snake’s “personal bubble” is!
However they don’t necessarily strike immediately.
Generally when we stumble across a snake, both parties get a bit of a fright!
Before fight/flight kicks in, again for both parties, there’s a pause on both sides basically to see what the other will do.
If you’re outside of striking range, the snake will slither away quickly if it thinks you are a threat.
If it decides you aren’t going to eat it, it will probably just keep on about it’s business (which could be basking on warm ground and not going anywhere!). In which case, you go around giving it a very wide berth if you can, or you go back!
However if your encounter lands you right within a snake’s personal space it’s ESSENTIAL NOT TO MOVE.
Movement, like in many animals, triggers action.
If you move, the snake is highly likely to strike!
Crap! … wrong personal bubble to step in … can’t move … now what?
YOU WAIT, KEEPING VERY STILL, JUST WAITING
… long enough for the snake to finally decide you’re not a threat and to run away. It’s not going to hang around after that big of a fright!
There’s Always An Exception to Every Rule
Some snakes rely on camouflage as part of their self defence.
You can get right inside their personal bubble without them reacting at all.
In some cases you literally need to (accidentally) stand on them for them to take action and bite back!
Which is why you…
always look where you’re putting your feet
stick to the trail where the ground is open enough to see a snake
Most Common Snake Species Found Around Perth
Australia is known for it’s dangerous creatures and our snakes are some of the most deadly in the world.
These four common species, found around Perth and the south west, have super fast acting venom that requires immediate first aid and emergency transport.
Knowing some of their preferred places to hang will prepare you for (a little bit) less of a fright if you encounter one.
However, given that snakes are more frightened of you than you are of them, encounters are a lot less likely than you would expect.
Dugites have small blunt heads, long slender bodies and vary in colour from grey to olive to brown on the top of their bodies, with an olive or yellowish belly.
They can grow up to 2m in length. (Two metres long gives them a striking range of up to 3m!)
They’re considered shy, which means they’d rather slither away.
Young dugites have black heads. However even the young ones carry a full whack of venom and their nervous nature makes them more prone to striking and biting.
Watch out for dugites sheltering underneath fallen trees and branches or under just about anything, including suburban wood piles or pieces of rusted corrugated iron left out in the bush. Take care around holes in the ground (abandoned burrows) or hollow logs as these are ideal living quarters for dugites.
As with all snakes, you may encounter them in the open, particularly when they’re basking somewhere warm, speeding up their metabolism in preparation for hunting.
They’re found around Perth suburbs, Rottnest Island, along the coast (including dunes) and in forests and bushland.
Tiger snakes are usually identified by their stripes, particularly young ones, but be aware the patterning on adults can get quite dark, or even too light, making stripes a little muddy. Their wider body shape makes them more distinguishable from other species.
They can grow up to 2m long. (Have you calculated the size of the personal bubble yet?)
Tiger snakes are often associated with watery environments like lakes, creeks, dams, drains and wetlands as one of their favourite prey is frogs.
Watch out for them in or under fallen timber, in deep matted vegetation, in abandoned animal burrows and open basking, when hiking. You’ll also need to watch out for them on any city walks around suburban lakes like Bibra Lake and Herdsman Lake.
Tiger snakes can have a reputation for being aggressive because they flatten their head and neck, raising up like a cobra, hoping to scare you off. It’s generally a defensive tactic and they rarely bite unless provoked.
However, anecdotally, tiger snakes may also remain very still in the hopes of being unseen, which can lead to bites in response to being stepped on.
A long and slender snake, with a smallish head indistinct from the neck, the Western Brown comes in 12 to 16 colour and pattern variants, growing up to 1.6 metres.
Obviously with many colour variants, some snakes are harder to identify than others. As a rough rule of thumb, here in WA, snakes with wide heads or jaws tend to be pythons (non-venomous). Our local deadly species have small blunt heads. Of course there’s always exceptions to the rule, as in the case of death adders (below) but adders are easily identified by their body shape.
Western Browns are found throughout the entire state, in a range of habitats including grassland, shrubland, savannah woodland and dry scrubby forest and also around farmland. They’ll take shelter under any available groundcover, natural or man-made, like fallen timber, rock slabs, pieces of corrugated iron, inside abandoned burrows and even inside deep cracks in the dirt.
Death Adders have easily identifiable features; flat, triangular heads, stout bodies with a narrow neck and a noticeably short and thinner tail that looks like a grub.
They don’t grow very long, between 40-100 cm in length and can be dark-reddish to greyish-brown with pale bands across their body.
This snake sits in one place and waits for prey to come to it. Covering itself with leaves it hides, coiled in ambush, twitching its grub-like tail close to its head as a lure.
Being so hard to spot, stepping off the trail onto ground covered in leaf litter (say for a photo), is really not a good idea!
In WA their populations are condensed around Perth, in the city’s surrounding forests.
More Exceptions to The Rule
Most of our venomous snakes are terrestrial, meaning they spend most of their time on the ground – making it easier for hikers to spot them!
However snakes go where the food is – which means they have been known to climb trees, most likely to follow prey!
Speaking of which, one of our beautiful local pythons, the South West Carpet Python, is living it’s quiet life in the trees above our heads in our local and south west forests, as well as amongst low scrub bushes along the coast (along the Cape to Cape).
The purpose of some basic knowledge on our local species of snakes is not to scare you but to demystify their behaviour, be aware of where they are and give you some specific do’s and don’ts to keep you safe.
Keep an eye out for snakes at all times (particularly summer)
Watch where you’re walking
Stay on the trail
Keep still during a close encounter
Keep your doggo hiking partner on a lead
Wear long loose pants
Consider investing in gaiters
Go off trail exploring
Get close to take a photo
Kill a snake for emergency services to identify (they test the venom)
Pick up or overturn any kind of debris
Let the kids go climbing over logs and fallen trees
Snake Bite Emergencies
While snake bites are more of a fear than a reality, here are some stats courtesy of the Royal Flying Doctor Service:
- There are about 3000 snake bites annually in the whole of Australia
- Around 550 hospitalisations each year
- An average of 2 deaths each year
- 57% of bites happen in regional/rural Australia
- About 70% of bites have no venom. Snakes use their venom to kill their food; in self-defence situations they can actually choose to bite without venom. Basically telling you to go away in no uncertain terms!
- Most bites are caused by people trying to either kill snakes or from surprising one under a woodpile or behind a shed.
Despite only a 30% envenomation rate, all snake bites need to be treated as life threatening. Do not wait for symptoms. Get to a hospital as soon as possible.
Regular hikers should carry a snake bite first aid kit – in fact all OTBT Team Members have both a normal first aid kit AND a snake bite first aid kit with them on every tour we take our guests along.
Knowing what to do in a snake bite emergency will prepare you for the wrong type of snake encounter.
Remember, snakes are rarely aggressive. They’re actually cowards.
The best way to avoid a snakebite is to simply give snakes space!