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Venomous and Elusive Coastal Taipan

costal taipan

The Coastal Taipan: Australia’s Most Agressive Snake

The coastal taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus) is a species of highly venomous snake native to the coastal regions of northern and eastern Australia, as well as the island of New Guinea. Known for its potent venom and aggressive temperament when threatened, the coastal taipan has earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous snakes in Australia.

Venom and Lethality

The coastal taipan is considered the third-most venomous terrestrial snake in the world, behind only the inland taipan and eastern brown snake. Its venom is primarily neurotoxic and coagulopathic, affecting the nervous system and blood clotting ability. The average venom yield from a single milking is 120 mg, with a maximum recorded yield of 400 mg. The subcutaneous LD50 value (the dose required to kill 50% of test subjects) is 0.106 mg/kg, and the estimated lethal dose for humans is just 3 mg.

When the Coastal Taipan bites, it injects a large amount of highly toxic venom deep into the flesh, and studies show that they can inject the same amount in a second or third bite. The venom affects the nervous system and the ability of the blood to clot, causing headaches, nausea/vomiting, collapse, convulsions (especially in children), paralysis, internal bleeding, myolysis (muscle tissue destruction), and kidney damage.

Because the onset of serious symptoms is often rapid, anyone suspected of being bitten should seek medical attention immediately, no matter how minor the bite appears. A Costal Taipan bite was nearly always fatal prior to the introduction of specific antivenom in 1956.

Surviving a coastal taipan bite

While a coastal taipan bite can be fatal, prompt administration of antivenom and proper medical care can significantly improve the chances of survival. However, the neurotoxic effects may be irreversible once established, and severe cases may require intubation due to respiratory paralysis. Bites from coastal taipans account for 4% of identified snakebite victims in Australia between 2005 and 2015, with at least one recorded death between 2000 and 2016.

Behavior and Temperament

The coastal taipan is primarily diurnal, active from early to midmorning, but it may become nocturnal in hot weather conditions.

Coastal taipans are generally shy and prefer to avoid confrontation with humans. They are extremely nervous and alert snakes, and any movement near them will almost certainly result in an attack. The taipan, like any snake, prefers to avoid conflict and will quietly flee if given the opportunity; however, when surprised or cornered, it will ferociously defend itself.

When threatened, a coastal taipan will adopt a loose striking stance, raising its head and forebody while inflating and compressing its body laterally. It may also spread the back of its jaws to give its head a broader, more intimidating appearance.

If the threat persists, the Coastal Taipan strikes with its head and forebody raised in a loose striking stance. It inflates and compresses its body laterally (rather than dorso-ventrally as many other species do) and may spread the back of its jaws to give its head a broader, lance-shaped appearance. The snake will always strike, often without warning, inflicting multiple snapping bites with pinpoint accuracy and efficiency.

The Taipan’s muscular lightweight body allows it to hurl itself forwards or sideways and reach high off the ground, and the attack is so fast that a person may be bitten several times before realising the snake is present.

Habitat and Distribution

Coastal taipans are found in the warm, wet, temperate to tropical coastal regions of northern and eastern Australia, from north-western Western Australia to the Northern Territory, across Cape York Peninsula, and south through eastern Queensland into northern New South Wales. They inhabit a variety of habitats, including monsoon forests, wet and dry sclerophyll forests, woodlands, and even sugarcane fields, where they thrive on the abundant rodent population.

These snakes have adapted well to human-modified environments, such as grazing paddocks and disused rubbish tips. They often shelter in abandoned animal burrows, hollow logs, and piles of vegetation and litter. In Far North Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, coastal taipans are usually found in open woodland areas and thickets of introduced lantana.

Coastal Taipan Distribution CC BY-SA 4.0
Coastal Taipan Distribution CC BY-SA 4.0

One of the most distinctive physical characteristics of the Coastal taipan is its size. These snakes can grow to be quite large, with some individuals reaching lengths of up to ten feet. After the king brown snake (Pseudechis australis), the coastal taipan is Australia’s second longest venomous snake. Adults of this species reach sexual maturity at around 1.2 m (3.9 ft) in total length (including tail). Mature specimens can reach heights of 1.5 to 2.0 m. (4.9 and 6.6 ft). Other taipans, including the inland taipan, grow to roughly similar sizes, though they are slightly smaller on average. A specimen with a total length of 2 m (6.6 ft) weighs around 3 kg (6.6 lb).  According to the Queensland Museum, the longest recorded total length for a coastal taipan was 2.9 m (9.5 ft) and 6.5 kg (14 lb).

Their skin is typically a light brown or olive color, with darker markings that help them blend in with their surroundings but body colours vary but at least the head always shows a creamy contrast with the body.

Coastal Taipan

Comparison to Other Snakes

Although the coastal taipan and the eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis) share some similarities in color and size, there are several key differences between the two species:

  1. Head shape: The coastal taipan has a long, narrow head with an angular brow, while the eastern brown snake has a smaller head that is not as distinct from its neck.
  2. Facial coloration: Coastal taipans have a lighter-colored face and snout compared to the rest of their body, while eastern brown snakes typically have a face and snout that are the same color or darker than their body.
  3. Venom toxicity: While both species have highly potent venom, the coastal taipan is considered slightly less venomous than the eastern brown snake.

In comparison to its close relative, the inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus), the coastal taipan has several distinctions:

  1. Habitat: As its name suggests, the coastal taipan is found in coastal regions, while the inland taipan inhabits the semi-arid interior of Australia.
  2. Size: Coastal taipans are generally larger than inland taipans, with an average adult length of around 2 meters compared to the inland taipan’s average of 1.8 meters.
  3. Temperament: While both species are shy and prefer to avoid confrontation, the coastal taipan is known to be more aggressive when threatened compared to the relatively placid inland taipan.
Inland Taipan

10 Interesting Coastal Taipan Facts

  1. Seasonal color change: Coastal taipans undergo a seasonal color change, becoming darker in winter and lighter in summer. This adaptation helps them to thermoregulate more efficiently in different weather conditions.
  2. Offspring growth rate: Juvenile coastal taipans grow at an astonishing rate of around 6.7 cm (2.6 in) per month, reaching a length of 1 meter (3.3 ft) within their first year.
  3. Venom production: Coastal taipans have highly efficient venom glands, capable of producing large amounts of venom. The maximum recorded venom yield from a single milking is 400 mg, which is enough to kill over 100 adult humans.
  4. Convergent evolution: The coastal taipan and the African black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) have independently evolved similar physical characteristics and hunting strategies, despite being on separate continents. This is an example of convergent evolution, where species develop similar traits due to similar environmental pressures.
  5. Infamous snake handler: In 1950, 19-year-old snake handler Kevin Budden captured a coastal taipan to assist in the development of antivenom. However, he was bitten in the process and tragically died the following day. The snake he caught was milked for its venom, which led to the successful production of the first taipan antivenom.
  6. Opportunistic cane toad predation: Although cane toads are highly toxic and have devastated many native Australian predators, a dead coastal taipan was found with a cane toad in its stomach. This suggests that coastal taipans may occasionally prey on cane toads without succumbing to their toxins.
  7. Rapid strike speed: Coastal taipans are known for their incredibly fast strike speed, which can be difficult to perceive with the human eye. This, combined with their potent venom, makes them one of the most dangerous snakes in Australia.
  8. Adaptation to sugarcane fields: Coastal taipans have successfully adapted to sugarcane fields, where they hunt the abundant rodent populations. This has led to an increase in their numbers in these areas since the introduction of sugarcane farming.
  9. Venom composition: The coastal taipan’s venom contains taicatoxin, a highly potent neurotoxin, and taipoxin, which has an LD50 of just 2 μg/kg. To put this in perspective, 124 μg of taipoxin is enough to kill a healthy 62 kg adult human.
  10. Mating ritual: During the mating season, male coastal taipans engage in ritual combat, intertwining their bodies and attempting to push each other’s head down. This behavior is thought to be a way for males to assert dominance and gain access to females.

Diet

In terms of diet, the Coastal taipan is a carnivorous species that feeds on a wide variety of prey, including rodents, birds, and reptiles. They are skilled hunters and will often wait patiently for their prey to come within striking distance before launching an attack. They are also known to be opportunistic feeders, meaning that they will take advantage of any food source that becomes available to them.

Reproduction

The breeding season lasts from August to December. The coastal taipan is an oviparous bird that lays a clutch of 7 to 20 eggs. The eggs hatch in 60 to 80 days, with newly hatched snakes measuring 30 to 34 cm (12 to 13 in) in length. The eggs will incubate for around two months before hatching, at which point the young Coastal taipans will be on their own to fend for themselves. Young grow quickly, averaging 6.7 cm (2.6 in) per month and reaching 1 m (3.3 ft) in a year. Male coastal taipans reach sexual maturity when they reach 80 cm in length, which occurs around 16 months of age, while females can breed when they reach 100 cm in length, which occurs around two years of age.

Coastal Taipan hatching from an egg
Coastal Taipan hatching from an egg

Conservation Status

As far as conservation status is concerned, the Coastal taipan is considered to be a species of least concern. This means that it is not currently facing any major threats and is not in danger of extinction. Natural enemies of newly hatched and immature snakes include various birds of prey and goannas. Although few predators would take on a large adult Coastal Taipan, they are still routinely killed on sight. The only parasites known to the species are nematodes (round worms). However, there are still some threats facing this species, including habitat loss due to land development and the impact of introduced predators.

The coastal taipan is a snake species that demands respect and caution due to its potent venom and aggressive defense mechanisms. Understanding its behavior, habitat preferences, and differences from other venomous snakes in Australia, we can better appreciate the coastal taipan’s unique place in the country’s diverse ecosystems while taking necessary precautions to avoid dangerous encounters.

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