Australia’s deadly and mysterious taipan

It’s 1.5m, deadly and probably not that rare. How did the western desert taipan lay low for 200 years?
By Tim Low January 22, 2016 Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page

IT’S HARD TO believe, but the western desert taipan (Oxyuranus temporalis) – a remarkable species not discovered til 2006 – might not even be rare.

The first one was caught in a remote part of Western Australia, near the Northern Territory border. Four more were recorded a few years later, in desert 400km away, on land of the Pila Nguru or spinifex people, during a wildlife survey.

One may have been found back in 1894, not far from King’s Canyon – a tourist drawcard today. A snake collected then by the Horn Scientific Expedition had taipan features, but this can’t be confirmed because the specimen was lost. 

Experts suspect this dangerous snake, which reaches 1.5m, may even lurk around Uluru without having waylaid any of the thousands of tourists who converge there from around the world. It has less potent venom than the well-known coastal taipan, though it can still kill. But when approaches, it shows curiosity rather than hostility, raising its head to look instead of fleeing or tensing ready to strike.  

Could its discovery so recently mean that Australia has other sizeable animals awaiting detection? Might some of our marsupials mourned as extinct be surviving yet in some remote desert? 

We shouldn’t get too hopeful. Large venomous snakes can be very elusive, even where they are plentiful. I lived for many years inside the territory of a large brown snake that was surviving in suburban Brisbane. I saw it only once or twice a year and my neighbours saw it even less often. There was no bushland near my house, so it probably lived its whole life within 30m of hostile humans. 

The western desert taipan, unlike our extinct animals, had no one looking for it. To quote former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it was an “unknown unknown”, and they are the difficult ones. Since 2006 at least seven have been found, showing they are detectable enough for those with a search image.

From two of the taipans caught in 2010 and kept at Adelaide Zoo, much is being learned. Zoo keeper Terry Morley told me they like to eat rodents and other small mammals. And like other taipans and some brown snakes, they change with the seasons. When spring arrives they are pale brown, but by autumn they are darker, like chocolate.

Tim Low is the author of the award-winning book Where Song Began. Follow him on Twitter @TimLow5.