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Australian copperhead

Australian Copperheads
Scientific classification
 Austrelaps labialis
 Austrelaps ramsayi
 Austrelaps superbus

An Australian copperhead is any of three closely related species of snake in the genus Austrelaps. They are native to the relatively fertile temperate southern and eastern part of the continent.

Australian copperheads are usually of medium size, only rarely being more than about 1.8 metres long, and have a moderate build. Their colour varies a great deal, from a coppery mid-brown to yellowish, reddish, grey or even black, depending on the individual. The copper head colouring that gave rise to the common name is sometimes present, sometimes not. Some individuals also have visible markings just behind the head.

Perhaps in consequence of this great variation, it was not realised until the second half of the 20th century that there were in fact three different species.

  • The Lowlands Copperhead, Austrelaps superbus is found throughout Victoria and Tasmania.
  • The Highlands Copperhead, Austrelaps ramsayi, ranges from the rugged hills in north-eastern Victoria into New South Wales.
  • The Pygmy Copperhead, (Austrelaps labialis) is restricted to the small south-western part of South Australia that is relatively cool and well-watered.

Copperheads are well adapted to cooler climates; they remain active after most reptiles have become dormant, and are the first to resume hunting at the end of winter. They are the only Australian snake found above the snowline. Their favoured habitat is near water. While they are moderately uncommon elsewhere, where conditions are suitable they congregate in substantial numbers. Copperheads are very much at home in the water: they swim well and often hunt tadpoles.

Australian Copperhead.
Larger version

They are diurnal at most times of year, but switch to night-time hunting in hot weather. They are generalised carnivores and will take any suitably-sized prey—including their own young—but the major diet item is frogs. Where frogs are common, so too are copperheads, and other snakes tend to be rare.

Breeding starts in spring, and females give birth to about 14 live young, each a little under 20cm long, in late summer.

Like all elapids (members of the family Elapidae[?]), Australian copperheads have fixed fangs mounted at the front of the jaw. They are shy and retiring by nature, and prefer to escape rather than fight where escape is possible, and their venom is, by Australian standards, only moderately toxic (equal on a per-mg basis to that of the Indian cobra[?]). Nevertheless, they deliver a substantial quantity of venom and a copperhead bite left untreated can easily kill a healthy adult human. There is no specific copperhead antivenom, however the CSL[?]-developed Tiger snake[?] antivenom is effective.

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