Visitors to Australia often fear the natives. Spiders that bite you while you're on the dunny. Octopuses that will paralyse with a mere touch. Fish that act like stones and make you convulse if you step on them. Ticks that drop from trees and dig their way into your skin. Kangaroos that can eviscerate with a kick of their long legs. All are potentially deadly.
But probably the most common cause for concern are the snakes; rightly so, as many of them are venomous. If you step on them by accident and end up with their teeth embedded in your leg, the majority will kill you. However, although they're dangerous1, they are also quite beautiful. And one of the most distinctive is the Red-bellied Black Snake.
Can You Tell What It Is?
The Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus) is so-called because it is quite simply just that. It has a glossy black body (or dorsal surface), and ranges from a brilliant red/crimson through to a pale yellow on the belly (or ventral surface), with a brownish-tipped nose. The snake is native to the eastern states of Australia, living in both urban and bushland areas with a good food supply - that is, near water.
An adult 'red-belly' can grow up to 2½m (8') in length, and will often be seen basking on rocks near rivers or swamps, due to a diet consisting mostly of small water-going creatures, frogs and toads (but not cane toads, which are poisonous2). It is active both during the day and at night, although as with other reptiles, it will conserve energy during the day to sustain itself through the cold nights.
Unlike most other snakes, Red-bellied Black Snakes actually give birth to live young rather than laying eggs. The mother can birth any number from five to 40 young at a time, with an average size of just under one foot in length. Unfortunately Red-bellied Black Snakes have a tendency to be a tad cannibalistic, one reason why so many young are born every season. With so many offspring the snake has not become an endangered species either - well, not that endangered. It's a different story when the creature comes into contact with scared, angry humans wielding shovels.
Where Can I See One?
Other than the usual Reptile Houses at zoos or the like, the red-belly is a common sight along both busy roads and quiet bush-walking trails, so anyone travelling along these routes should keep an eye out for them. From the rainforests of Queensland, to the Blue Mountains near Sydney, through the bush all the way down to Melbourne and along the coast to South Australia, there are plenty of places where you could stumble across a red-belly. However, whilst the creature is plentiful in existence, it is fairly shy, so don't expect to see one every time you go out!
This Researcher has seen many on treks down to the Gorge Swimming Hole near his hometown though. Or quite possibly the same one, just on various occasions. There was little point investigating the creature for distinguishing marks when it was liable to make things a bit complicated. Well, actually it was more a case of walking away pretty darn quick before it got curious enough to investigate further.
Will It Bite Me?
You bet! While not normally aggressive, if provoked (like any other wild animal), it will defend itself. This means rising up into a striking stance as a threat, hissing loudly, then deciding on the best course of action. If you come across a red-belly and it prepares to strike, the best thing to do is stamp your feet. The snake, like most others, will turn tail and flee at the noise. However, this isn't a guaranteed ploy to avoid getting bitten, as the snake may just as readily decide to attack, and then slither off into the bush.
Bites from Red-bellied Black Snakes are pretty nasty, and whilst the animal's venom is low in toxicity compared to other native Australian snakes like the Tiger, Taipan or Brown, it can still be life-threatening. If you do get bitten, (which is pretty foolish really), apply a pressure bandage, immobilise the limb and go to hospital. Do not wash the wound, as the venom on the skin can be used to identify the appropriate anti-venom. There is no record of any human ever having died from the bite of a Red-bellied Black Snake, but there's always a first time for everything...