Why are hundreds of Queenslanders being bitten by snakes each year? Scientists may have the answer

By AAP 27 January 2021
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More snakes will be slithering around Queensland homes this year, due to climate change and land clearing, but experts say humans have to live with them.

Hundreds of Queenslanders are being bitten by snakes every year, but the problem is being caused by humans crossing their paths more often.
There were 872 snake bites in Queensland last year and there have already been 30 bites in the first 22 days of 2021.

Queensland Ambulance Service statistics show that this summer about nine in 10 bites have happened in people’s homes or yards.

On January 22 a nine-year-old boy was bitten by a suspected brown snake near Treachery Beach, in the NSW Myall Lakes National Park and flown by Westpac Rescue Helicopter to John Hunter Hospital in a stable condition.

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Whitsundays snake catcher Kylee Gray says the numbers aren’t as bad as they look as most people are bitten by non-lethal species like pythons or tree snakes.

“Most snake bites don’t need any treatment,” she told AAP.

“Also a lot of people will present to hospital with a suspected snake bite when a snake wasn’t even there, and it might have been a stick scratch, or a spider bite or something.”

But with hundreds of snake bites every year, it seems something is out of balance.

University of Queensland biologist Bryan Fry says people and snakes are crossing paths more due to climate change and humans encroaching on snake habitat.

Associate Professor Fry says a warming climate has extended the number of months cold-blooded snakes are active and allowed them to move more at night.

“We are definitely getting snake bites happening earlier in the year than what is typical,” Prof Fry told AAP.

“Where snake bites in August for example used to be a very infrequent event, now they’re not infrequent.”

He said hotter and dryer conditions attract snakes to places that are shadier and have water sources, like backyard ponds, hoses or dog bowls.
Prof Fry said human housing developments are also wiping out snake habitat and driving them into urban areas.

While animals like marsupials often die or move to another area when habitat is lost, snakes can hang on longer.

Ms Gray says sightings are much more prevalent on new housing estates than established residential areas.

“When they’re clearing them and building on them the snakes all get driven out and then when they need to come back to find water or breed they find themselves in unfamiliar yards and houses,” she said.

Prof Fry estimates half of all bites happen when people try to move or kill snakes. He says humans are much larger animals and snakes see us as predators.

“No, they’re not going to look at us and think that’s something I’m going to eat, they’re going to look at us and think that’s something that’s going to try to eat me,” Prof Fry said.

“Snakes don’t really start fights, but they finish them.”

The best thing a person can do if they’re bitten is phone Triple Zero, bandage but not wash their bite and remain calm.
Tracey Cater has been a critical care paramedic for 25 years and has treated somewhere between 40 to 50 snake bites.

Ms Cater said most people panic after being bitten, but it’s crucial to calm them down so the venom doesn’t circulate in their bloodstream.

“That reassurance and calming them plays a huge part and they’re always great, they settle down, calm down, lovely. And then we do our thing and get them off the hospital,” she told AAP.

Ms Cater said snake bite victims are often apologetic to paramedics and think they’ve overreacted by calling Triple Zero.

But she said it was always best for people to be overcautious about snake bites.

“We are treating it as a worst case scenario, we always do because it’s better to treat it like that and for it not be a serious, or venomous snake, than to underestimate it and it turn out to be something,” she said.

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Fewer people die from snake bites in Australia now than in the past.

Ms Cater puts that down to a more responsive ambulance service and more awareness about avoiding snakes and where they hide around homes.
The paramedic said more people have proper first aid training and know what to do.

“It plays a massive part and with snake bites, a lot of them can be rural too, so it can take a little bit of time to get to them, and this is where it counts, minutes count,” Ms Cater said.

Ms Gray, who’s been catching snakes for 14 years (sometimes 20 to 30 a week), says after calling a handler people should keep their distance and photograph the snake if it’s safe to do so.

That allows handlers to identify the species and determine if removal is warranted.

She wants people not to panic about or provoke dangerous snakes, while learning to live alongside the less risky ones.