Snakes of the Cairns region
There can be great variation in appearance between individual snakes of the same species. The descriptions below are based on general characteristics. It can be difficult to positively identify some snakes. Never approach snakes and never assume that they are non-venomous.
Front-fanged venomous snakes (Family Elapidae)
This family includes front-fanged, venomous land snakes. Although this encompasses the highly venomous snakes of Australia, the venom of most species is harmless to humans. The venom injected by these snakes is used to immobilise or kill prey - sometimes a combination of toxic venom and constriction is used. These snakes are known to feed on small mammals, birds, reptiles (including other snakes) and amphibians.
Black whip snake Demansia vestigiata
Warning: Venomous/large individuals should be treated with caution
The black whip snake is grey or dark brown to black with each body scale marked with black. The belly is greyish, with the underparts of the tail reddish. When disturbed, the black whip snake expands its body revealing a distinct pattern of black spots and white dashes. It occurs in a range of habitats from open woodlands to dry forests and is active during the day feeding on small animals such as lizards. It grows to an average length of 1m.
Common death adder Acanthophis antarcticus and northern death adder Acanthophis praelongus
Warning: Highly venomous/dangerous
The death adder is variable in colour, usually with contrasting cross-bands and has a large, almost triangular head and stout body. The thin rat-like tail ends in a curved soft spine and the tip is cream or black. Its shape and colouration mean that it could initially be mistaken for a blue-tongued lizard or one of the larger ground-dwelling skinks (and vice-versa). During the day they can be found buried in sand, soil or leaves, often at the base of a tree. When disturbed, they remain where they are and rely on their camouflage for protection, resorting to a lightning fast strike when the threat becomes too great. It feeds on reptiles, mammals and birds, and attracts prey by using the tail as a lure. The average size of a death adder is 0.4m with a maximum length of 1m.
Dwarf crowned snake Cacophis krefftii
The dwarf crowned snake is almost black above with a narrow cream band running across the nape towards the snout. Its scales are edged with dark grey and its belly is cream coloured. This species can be found in a variety of habitats under debris, stones and logs. It is generally nocturnal preying on small skinks and frogs. It is reluctant to bite when disturbed. It grows up to 35cm.
Eastern brown snake Pseudonaja textilis
Warning: Highly venomous
The eastern brown snake varies widely in colour from light tan to almost black. The belly ranges from cream to orange with darker orange blotches. To add confusion, hatchlings may have a darker head and neck band or can have dark cross-bands along their entire length. These patterns gradually disappear with age. The eastern brown snake occurs in a variety of habitats ranging from grassland through to eucalypt forests. It is distributed throughout all but the western parts of Queensland. Active during the day, the eastern brown snake feeds on frogs, birds, mammals and reptiles. If provoked, the snake will rear up and adopt an S-shape strike posture, and will bite if cornered or provoked. The eastern brown snake grows to an average length of 1.5m.
Black-bellied swamp snake or marsh snake Hemiaspis signata
Warning: Venomous/large individuals should be treated with caution
The marsh snake is olive to grey above with a grey to black belly. It has two narrow pale lines on each side of the face running through the upper lip and from the eye onto the neck. This snake preys on frogs and skinks and bears up to 20 live young.
This small snake can grow up to 50cm.
Northern crowned snake Cacophis churchilli
The northern crowned snake is metallic brown above with a narrow, yellow band on the back of its head. It is nocturnal sheltering during the day under leaf litter, logs and rocks. It preys mainly on skinks and lizard eggs. It is confined to the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area between Cape Tribulation and Townsville, including Dunk Island. This species grows to an average length of 30cm.
Orange-naped snake Furina ornata
This snake is light or dark orange or red-brown above with a cream belly. It has a distinct brownish to black head with an orange-red band across the nape. It lives in open forest where it feeds on skinks using weak venom. It grows up to 40cm in length.
Pale-headed snake Hoplocephalus bitorquatus
The pale-headed snake has a broad head distinct from its narrow neck. It can be pale brown to grey above with a paler band across the rear of the head bordered by black spots sometimes forming a band. The belly is pale grey. It occurs in dry eucalyptus forest and occasionally in wet eucalyptus forests. This snake is semi arboreal preying on tree frogs, geckos, skinks and small mammals such as bats. It can grow up to 80cm in length.
Red-bellied black snake Pseudechis porphyriacus
The red-bellied black snake is shiny black above with a red belly (sometimes pinkish or white). These snakes occur in a variety of habitats near water but are more frequently encountered in wetter vegetation communities. They are active during the day and are often found basking in sunny patches in grass. Red-bellied blacks feed primarily on frogs but also eat small mammals and reptiles. They bear live young.
It can grow to an average length of 2m.
Rough-scaled snake Tropidechis carinatus
The rough-scaled snake is olive to greyish above with black flecks forming irregular bands or blotches and a greenish grey belly. The head is clearly distinct from its neck. Rough-scaled snakes get their name from raised lines or keels on the scales covering their backs and sides. This snake can be confused with the keelback (freshwater snake), which also has strongly keeled scales, and both can occur near water. It occurs across a range of wetter habitats and feeds on small mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs. This species can grow up to 1m in length.
Eastern small-eyed snake Rhinoplocephalus nigrescens
The eastern small-eyed snake closely resembles the red-bellied black snake with a shiny black back and sides and a pink belly often with a row of dark spots. The pink does not extend onto the sides as it does in the red-bellied black snake. Its eyes are minute and black and barely noticeable from surrounding scales. It favours dark areas under sheets of tin, rocks and bark on fallen logs and feeds on small reptiles and occasionally frogs. It lives in open forest, rainforest, pasture and agricultural land. The small-eyed snake feeds mainly on skinks and geckos. It gives birth to up to eight young. The eastern small-eyed snake grows to an average length of 0.5m.
Coastal taipan Oxyuranus scutellatus
Warning: Highly venomous
The coastal taipan is light to pale brown above and paler on the sides. The snout and lower jaw is paler than the rest of the body, usually pale-yellow in colour. The head is rectangular ('coffin-shaped') with a distinct neck. They have large eyes with a reddish-copper iris and round pupils. Taipans are mostly active during the day, feeding on small mammals in eucalypt woodland, grassland, grassy beach dunes, pastures and cane fields. Taipans will defend themselves aggressively if provoked. They grow to an average length of 2.6m.
White-crowned snake Cacophis harriettae
The white-crowned snake is dark grey above, with a light grey belly and a broad white band across the neck, sweeping forward around the side of the head and across the snout, creating the ‘crown’. The crown surrounds the black scales on the top of the head. It is found mainly in open forest. It has weak venom suited for preying on skinks. Although it will strike if disturbed, it rarely bites. This snake usually lays a clutch of 10 eggs. This species grows to an average length of 50cm.
Yellow-faced whip snake Demansia psammophis
Warning: Venomous/large individuals should be treated with caution
The yellow-faced whip snake has a dark yellow-edged bar around the front of the nose and a dark comma-shaped streak from the eye to the mouth. Whip snakes are slender with whip-like tails. They are active during the day, very agile and usually escape quickly when disturbed. It can grow to an average length of 80cm.
Yellow-naped snake Furina barnardi
Warning: Mildly venomous
The yellow-naped snake is brown above with a light tan band across the nape, dark brown snout and whitish belly. Found mainly in open forest, grassland or foredune vegetation it preys mostly on skinks. It is among the least known of Australian front-fanged (elapid) snakes. It is listed as Near Threatened under the Nature Conservation Act 1992. Its venom is unknown but the snake is not thought to be dangerous. It can grow up to 50cm in length.
Pythons: non-venomous constrictors (family Boidae)
Most pythons are large snakes well equipped for detecting, immobilising and consuming large prey. Pythons are generally nocturnal, but are known to bask in the sun during the cooler months. They are non-venomous, with backward curving solid-teeth (no fangs). Pythons kill by coiling around their prey and squeezing until suffocation occurs - a technique known as constriction. Pythons feed largely on mammals, reptiles and birds. Most have heat-sensing pits along the lower jaw to locate warm-blooded prey. These pits can detect temperature changes of less than one-thirtieth of a degree.
Amethystine python Morelia kinghorni
This is Australia's largest snake. It is iridescent greenish, grey or brown, usually with dark lines and streaks above often giving off an amethyst sheen. It has large scales arranged symmetrically on the top of the head. This snake lives in rainforest, coastal scrub and open forest from Townsville to Cape York. It feeds mainly on mammals and birds and is capable of taking animals as large as a wallaby. The average length of this species is 5m but one has been recorded at 8.5m.
Carpet python Morelia spilota
The carpet python has many colour variations ranging from pale to dark greyish-green or brown. It has black-edged pale blotches enclosing pale yellow spots and markings. The belly is cream or yellow, variegated with dark grey scales. The scales on top of the head are granular (there are no large head shields between the eyes). It is often found in trees, sometimes living in another animals' burrow. These pythons are often encountered on the road on warm spring and summer nights in all habitat types within their range. They are mainly active at night, feeding on mammals, reptiles, birds and frogs. They grow to an average length of 2m (specimens are known to exceed 4m).
Spotted python Antaresia maculosa
The spotted python is generally light brown in colour with a series of darker brown blotches along the back giving the impression of irregular spots. It is found in a variety of habitats ranging from eucalypt woodland through to rainforest and is usually seen at night. It feeds on reptiles, birds and small mammals. The spotted python grows to an average length of 0.75m.
Water python Liasis fuscus
The water python is uniform iridescent dark brown to black in colour above, usually with a bright- to dull-yellow belly. Water pythons, like most other python species in Queensland, use heat-sensing pits situated on the lower jaw to locate their prey. It is mainly active at night in the vicinity of water in eucalypt woodland. Water pythons feed mainly on birds, predominately waterfowl, and small mammals. The water python grows to and average length of 2m, reaching a maximum length of 3m.
File snakes (Family Acrochordidae)
Little file snake Acrochordus granulatus
The little file snake is an aquatic marine and estuarine snake. They are grey, brown or almost black in colour with narrow whitish to fawn-coloured cross-bands that fade on the belly. The skin is loose and covered in fine, pointed scales giving it the appearance and texture of a file. It feeds mainly on small crabs and fish. Little file snakes grow to an average length of 60cm (although specimens are known to 1.2m).
Non-venomous and rear-fanged venomous snakes (Family Colubridae)
This family includes a small group of snakes with a range of specialised characteristics and habits. Some of these species are arboreal while others favour semi-aquatic habitats. These snakes are either solid-toothed and non-venomous or rear-fanged and weakly venomous. They eat small prey including frogs, lizards, birds and rodents.
Brown tree snake Boiga irregularis
Warning: Venomous (rear-franged). Bites from large individuals should be monitored carefully.
The brown tree snake is sometimes known as the 'doll's eye' or 'night tiger', names referring to its doll-like yellow eyes and banded body. It is usually brown to reddish-brown with irregular darker cross-bands. The brown tree snake is mainly found in eucalypt woodland but also occurs in rainforest. It is nocturnal and is generally found in trees. The snake eats mainly birds and their eggs, but will also prey upon small mammals, frogs and reptiles. The species is rear-fanged with weak venom. It can grow up to 2m long.
Common or green tree snake Dendrelaphis punctulata
The common tree snake is highly variable in colour and is also known as green tree snake, yellow-bellied or blue-bellied black snake. The body is extremely slender and can be either grey, olive-green, various shades of brown, black, even blue and turquoise. When disturbed it can inflate its body to show patches of bright blue skin between the body scales. The underside is usually cream or yellow or light blue in some individuals. Common tree snakes are found in a variety of habitat types, but are usually seen in eucalypt woodland or rainforest areas. They are active during the day in trees and on the ground, feeding mostly on frogs and birds. They grow to an average length of 1.5m.
Keelback Tropidonophis mairii (also known as freshwater snake)
The keelback or freshwater snake’s head and neck are grey-green or brown with the body grey-green to brown typically with cross-bands of darker flecks. Upper body scales are strongly keeled or ridged. A loreal scale is present (a scale situated between the nasal scale and scales directly in front of eye), distinguishing it from the venomous rough-scaled snake. The keelback is found in and around creeks, rivers and marshlands. It feeds largely on frogs (including cane toads) that it actively pursues during the day or night. It grows to an average length of 0.5m. Caution: this snake closely resembles the venomous and dangerous rough-scaled snake.
Macleay's water snake Enhydris polylepis
Mildly venomous/not dangerous
Macleay’s water snake is an aquatic snake living in and near clear freshwater streams. It is olive-brown to almost black in colour, with light, sometimes speckled sides, a pale belly and a dark line down the middle of the tail. It has weak venom to subdue its prey and feeds mostly on fish and frogs. Macleay’s water snake grows up to 80cm in length.
Northern tree snake Dendrelaphis calligastra
The northern tree snake is extremely slender and is green or brownish grey above with a cream or yellow belly below and a dark streak through the eye. It lives in rainforest, open forest and urban and farmed areas where it feeds on frogs and reptiles. Northern tree snakes grow to a length of 1.2m.
Slaty-grey snake Stegonotus cucullatus
The slaty-grey snake is uniform brown to leaden-grey or black above with a white or cream belly. It is a nocturnal snake that lives around human habitations and usually forages on the ground for frogs. When disturbed it releases a strong odour from its anal gland. The slaty-grey snake grows up to 1.3m.
Blind snakes (Family Typhlopidae)
The blind snake is a small, smooth, worm-like burrower with glossy, close fitting scales and their tails are bluntly rounded, ending in a short spur. It has small, dark spots for eyes which probably only sense light and dark. The snake feed on termites and the eggs, larvae and pupae of ants and is often encountered foraging on the surface at night following rain. The blind snake is non-venomous and the structure of their mouths makes them incapable of biting humans. However it does have well developed anal glands that secrete a strong smell when disturbed.
Legless lizards (Family Pygopodidae)
Some backyard reptile encounters may involve a small snake-like creature that could be a legless lizard. Unlike snakes, legless lizards have external ear openings, broad fleshy tongues and belly scales that are the same size as those on their upper body. Remnants of hind limbs (flaps) can be seen. Legless lizards are non-venomous burrowers that live in moist, dark areas. They feed on insects and small reptiles, and are usually found in or near compost bins and vegetable gardens or under leaf litter.
Some skinks (family Scincidae) that live in leaf litter or burrow in the ground also have reduced or absent limbs. These skinks share many of the characteristics of legless lizards.