The Western Desert Taipan: A Deadly Discovery in Australia’s Arid Regions

Western Desert Taipan art of snake on desert dunes

Western Desert Taipan Australia’s Hidden Serpent

In 2007, a team of Australian researchers made a remarkable discovery in the remote deserts of Western Australia – a new species of taipan, one of the world’s most venomous snakes. Named the Western Desert taipan, or Central Ranges taipan (Oxyuranus temporalis), this elusive reptile has captured the attention of herpetologists and snake enthusiasts worldwide.

Discovery and Naming

The Western Desert taipan was discovered in 2006 by Dr. Mark Hutchinson, a reptile and amphibian curator at the South Australian Museum. While traversing a dirt track in the Central Ranges of Western Australia, Hutchinson encountered an immature female taipan, measuring about 1 meter in length. Due to the highly venomous nature of taipans, he refrained from examining the snake on-site and instead sent it to the Western Australian Museum in Perth for further analysis.

Initially misidentified as a western brown snake due to its similar size and coloration, the taipan’s true identity was revealed when Brad Maryan, the reptile collection manager at the Western Australian Museum, noticed its distinct, pale head resembling that of a coastal taipan. The holotype specimen, affectionately nicknamed “Scully” after the X-Files character, marked the first new taipan species discovery in 125 years.

The scientific name, Oxyuranus temporalis, was formally described in 2007 by researchers Paul Doughty, Brad Maryan, Stephen Donnellan, and Mark Hutchinson. The species name “temporalis” refers to the snake’s lack of a temporolabial scale, a key distinguishing feature among taipans.

Physical Characteristics and Identification

The Western Desert taipan is a large, slender snake with a dark to light brown dorsal coloration and a slightly paler head bearing orange spots. Its ventral surface is pale, ranging from white to yellow. Adults are estimated to reach lengths of up to 1.7 meters, though the exact maximum size remains unknown due to the limited number of specimens studied.

Key identifying features of the Western Desert taipan include:

  • Absence of a temporolabial scale
  • Six infralabial scales (compared to seven in other taipan species)
  • 21 rows of mid-body scales
  • Single cloacal plate
  • Divided subcaudal scales
  • Relatively square head with a protruding eye ridge

Habitat and Distribution

The Western Desert taipan inhabits the arid regions of central Australia, particularly the Western Deserts. It has been found in the Central Ranges of Western Australia and the Great Victoria Desert, with confirmed sightings in remote locations such as Ilkurlka, situated 165 km west of the South Australian border.

This species is adapted to the harsh desert environment, favoring habitats such as mallee woodlands, grasslands on sandy substrates, sand dunes, and sand plains. The snake’s cryptic coloration and elusive nature make it well-suited to these arid landscapes.

Western Desert Taipan Distribution CC BY-SA 4.0
Western Desert Taipan Distribution CC BY-SA 4.0

Venom and Danger to Humans

As a member of the taipan genus (Oxyuranus), the Western Desert taipan is considered extremely venomous. While its venom toxicity is slightly lower than that of the inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus), the world’s most venomous snake, it still poses a significant threat to humans. Studies have shown that the Western Desert taipan has an LD50 (the dose required to kill 50% of test subjects) of 0.075 mg/kg in mice, making it potentially lethal to humans if left untreated.

Due to the remote nature of its habitat and the limited number of human encounters, no confirmed bites or fatalities have been attributed to the Western Desert taipan. However, its discovery prompted the development of an antivenom at the Adelaide Zoo to ensure preparedness in case of an envenomation event.

Behavior and Diet

Little is known about the Western Desert taipan’s behavior and ecology due to the scarcity of observations in the wild. Like other taipans, it is believed to be a fast-moving, diurnal hunter, primarily active in the early morning and afternoon. Preliminary data suggest that the Western Desert taipan’s diet consists mainly of small mammals, consistent with the feeding habits of its congeners.

Conservation and Future Research

The Western Desert taipan’s remote habitat and limited range make it challenging to assess its conservation status accurately. However, the species is likely to face threats similar to those affecting other desert-dwelling reptiles, such as habitat loss, fragmentation, and climate change.

Further research is needed to better understand the Western Desert taipan’s biology, ecology, and population dynamics. Collaboration with Aboriginal communities, such as the Spinifex people from the Tjuntjuntjara community, who have intimate knowledge of the desert landscape, may provide valuable insights into this enigmatic species.

The Western Desert taipan’s discovery in 2007 marked a significant milestone in Australian herpetology, shedding light on the incredible biodiversity hidden within the continent’s arid regions. As researchers continue to unravel the mysteries surrounding this highly venomous snake, it serves as a reminder of the importance of protecting and conserving Australia’s unique desert ecosystems. By deepening our understanding of the Western Desert taipan and its habitat, we can work towards ensuring the survival of this remarkable species for generations to come.

*Artistic interpretation featured image of the Western Desert Taipan