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The most venomous snakes in Papua New Guinea

Papuan taipan
Papuan taipan

RAYMOND SIGIMET

DAGUA - Most people have an instinctive fear of snakes, which is believed to be evolutionary. Researchers think the fear came about as a prehistoric survival mechanism but this does not explain why humans do not fear other predatory animals as much.

Ophidiophobia (also ophiophobia) is the word used to describe this human fear of snakes. It is a sub-category of herpetophobia, the general fear of reptiles like snakes and lizards.

There is mild ophidiophobia where any encounter with snakes brings fear. And there is extreme ophidiophobia in an abnormal fear of snakes.

In extreme ophidiophobia, sufferers develop physical and psychological stress when near snakes, shown images of snakes or told stories about snakes.

New Guinea rough-scaled death adder
New Guinea rough-scaled death adder

Snakes can be found on all continents except Antarctica and in all places where there is year round snow cover all which are very isolated. They are believed to have descended from burrowing or aquatic lizards during the dinosaur age.

In Papua New Guinea, there are more than 80 different species of snake, and it is believed there are species yet to be discovered. Six of these species are extremely venomous and are responsible for all reported cases of snake bite in the country,

The most dangerous include the Papuan taipan; the smooth-scaled New Guinea death adder; the rough-scaled New Guinea death adder; the New Guinea brown snake; the Papuan black snake and the New Guinea small-eyed snake.

The taipan, brown and black snakes are endemic in certain parts of the southern region. The death adders are in almost all parts of mainland New Guinea and nearby islands. The small-eyed snake occurs in northern PNG and is less distributed in the southern region. They mainly feed on rodents, small mammals, ground birds, lizards, frogs, eels - and other snakes

It is worth noting that these snakes are not found in the New Guinea islands region.

Their habitat includes kunai and pitpit areas, savannah grassland and woodland, and lowland swamps and forest. They can be found near residential areas or human habitation, on the side of walking tracks, in and around garden plots, near (and in) pit toilets, and in coconut plantations and cocoa blocks. That is, just about everywhere.

The Papuan taipan, New Guinea brown and Papuan black are all diurnal, usually coming out during the day. Both New Guinea death adders and the New Guinea small-eyed snakes are nocturnal.

Bites from these snakes can be lethal. The venom contain toxins that can destroy nerve endings and muscles, cause irreversible paralysis, spontaneous bleeding or blood clots as well as heart problems and kidney failure.

Papuan black
Papuan black

All these snakes are generally shy and inoffensive when they move about. They try to avoid human contact but will become aggressive if provoked. They only attack when there is a perceived threat or when they are handled, stepped-on and otherwise disturbed or touched.

Port Moresby-based Charles Campbell Toxinology Centre estimates around 1,000 deaths each year from snakebite in PNG. But it is likely there are many unreported cases.

The centre, in cooperation with universities in PNG and Australia, is now collating data and conducting research into snakebites and anti-venoms. Its PNG snakebite partnership project is currently involved in the distribution of anti-venom around the country.

In the Dagua area of East Sepik Province, where I live, death adders and small-eyed snakes are common. They occur around sago, in swamps, kunai and woodlands, and along forest hills. Apart from snakebites, poisonous bites and stings can also come from large ground lizards, centipedes and scorpions.

In Dagua, the small-eyed snake is called ‘rohihim’ in the Arapesh language. It is a main cause of snakebite and is feared. A nocturnal predator, it can move fast and hunts in sago swamps and along the forest floor near small streams.

A common resting place for the rohihim is under the dry leaf litter of the fruit-bearing taun tree. When coconut plantations were introduced, it would rest under piles of coconut husks. With experience, people stopped piling up old coconut husks on their blocks.

New Guinea small-eyed snake (Rohihim)
New Guinea small-eyed snake (rohihim)

Hunters at night have trained their ears to distinguish the sound of the rohihim as it moves along. It produces a distinctive noise as it moves over dry sago pangal (fronds) and undergrowth. Hunters can differentiate rohihim from bandicoots, frogs and other nocturnal creatures.

The rohihim is aggressive. It has been observed engaging in death struggles with adult eels and is known to feed on juvenile eels. People describe the rohihim and eels as lifelong natural enemies.

The rohihim is also considered cunning and vengeful. When disturbed, it will move away only to return under cover to attack the person or anyone close by. It is believed that a bite from a young rohihim is more lethal.

These snakes are killed wherever and whenever people come across them. People defend their action saying, “If this snake is not killed, it is going to bite someone in future. It must be killed.”

Comments

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Greg Bainbridge

Are there poisonous snakes on Bougainville Island, and if so, what are they?
________

Unlike in mainland PNG, there are no venomous land snakes in Bougainville. Indeed I know of only two species - the Kunua blind snake and the Solomon Islands ground boa. However there are plenty of venomous coral and sea snakes, which we always kept a lookout for when swimming or lugging our boats near coral outcrops - KJ

An excellent general reference to the snakes of PNG can be found here:
http://www.kingsnake.com/aho/pngsmc/Chapter%202%20Snakes%20of%20Papua%20New%20Guinea.pdf

Norrie MacQueen

Interesting to hear about the relative rarity of the Papuan black snake.

I had a close encounter with a fairly big black-coloured snake in the garden area outside our house in the staff residences at UPNG back in the late 1980s.

I thought either Papuan black or taipan - guess it was most likely the latter.

Raymond Sigimet

Thank you John. To add to your comment, there's this informative article about the ten most venomous snakes in Australia that might interest readers. The similarities are there for some.

https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/science-environment/2012/07/australias-10-most-dangerous-snakes/

John Cox

I believe all the dangerous snakes in PNG are also found in the Northern and Eastern parts of Australia. This could be because PNG broke away from the Australian mainland many years ago.

Owen Paiva | PNG Snakebite Researcher | Qualified Snake Identifier

A response to Francis Mals (30 January 2020)....

Papuan black snakes are quite rare and we have only found them in very few places in the Southern region of PNG.

They are also very shy snakes and will run away and hide at the slightest sound...they rarely bite. In fact, the last positively recorded snakebite by a Papuan black was in the 1980s!

I highly doubt your identification of Papuan black snakes and them now being closer to homes (2018-20), especially if you mean homes in Port Moresby.

What you are encountering is a completely different snake - the dangerous Papuan taipan which is also a black-colored snake and a very common cause of fatal snakebites in and around Port Moresby.

Francis Mals

I grew up in north coast Madang witnessing and fearing the New Guinea death adder, which claimed several lives when not treated promptly in clinics or by traditional anti venom of certain species of a common tree bark juice found around gardens and homes.

But yes, from Bogia District all the way to Madang District lowland rainforest coast line this species of venomous snake resulted in most snakebite casualties in coastal Madang northern shores.

Around tPort Moresby and Central areas I was around about 20 years and have seen and had close encounters with mostly the venomous Papuan Taipan, which is known to chase it's victims if threatened.

Hardly have I encountered Papuan Black snakes untill end of 2018 and begining of 2020 seeing in both cases these snakes around homes.

I guess the changing climate has brought these Papuan Blacks closer to residencies where normally you find them in wetter swampy grounds and presumed to be closer to extinction.

Seeing Papuan Blacks away from wet areas closer to homes makes me think probably they have multiplied in population over time.

Robert Forster

One thousand deaths a year is some toll - and Raymond thinks it could be higher!

Here in the UK the only poisonous snake we have is an irritant rather than a threat.

Nevertheless I find, to my on-going bemusement, that despite been absent from PNG since 1975, my fear of being bitten is still strong and I have to consciously tell myself it is safe to put my hands into old piles of wood or other litter.

Respect for those PNG snakes has left a permanent mark.

Garry Roche

Raymond, very interesting. I myself spent several years at Bomana (the Seminary not the Prison) outside Port Moresby.

We were always careful, especially at night, about snakes in the vicinity. We were especially wary of the snakes known as Papuan Blacks.

Walking with a visitor around the Seminary grounds one night I explained that we carried a torch with us to light the road in case of snakes.

The visitor then said to me, “What was that thing back there that we just passed?” I looked back shining the torch, and sure enough we had just missed walking over a snake!

A colleague from India claimed that at night the frogs gave a specific warning croak, distinctive from their normal croak, if there was a snake in the vicinity, but I do not know if there was any scientific basis for such claim.

Coming back from the city at night on the road going by the Bomana Police Barracks it was not uncommon to see Carpet Snakes crossing the road, - I believe these were not poisonous.

In the Jimi I remember seeing a long snake that the people had killed – maybe a tree python – and it was over ten feet long. I also remember seeing a pig attacking a small snake on the road near Karap.

Only once did I kill a snake, and that was not intentional. On my own in the bush near Moika, Mt. Hagen I saw ahead of me on the bush path a young boy crying.

Looking closer I saw that between me and the boy there was a snake rearing up. I had a walking stick with me and I threw it at the snake in an attempt to chase it away.

The stick hit the snake around the head and the snake collapsed on the ground. The snake never moved again. I lifted it on the stick and carried it back to the road where I had left the Land Cruiser.

The people who saw it there said it was dangerous, but I do not think it was poisonous. With the exception of the Bayer River valley, where there are death adders, I am not aware of poisonous snakes in Western Highlands.

PS, There are no snakes in Ireland.

Raymond Sigimet

Keith, concerning the Charles Campbell centre, I believe it is rightly termed "Toxinology" and not "Toxicology". That is what I got from the internet. I believe there's a difference in the two words when it comes to the study and science of poison/ toxins. Thanks.
________

Thanks, Ray, fixed that - KJ

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