« Introduced Species - The Rabbit | Main | Pollution »

Snakes, Public Relations and Ecosystem Stability

Snakes and ESD (Education for Sustainable Development)

Even since the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, snakes have taken a bad rap. A recent example when we were in Yuendumu was the kids finding a baby King Brown and burning it alive in a metal can partly filled with gasoline. We only got to see the charred result hanging from a chain ring fence – a very sorry looking affair. But apart from not wanting such a venomous variety near human habitation, is there any legitimate reason for maiming or even killing snakes just for the sake of it?

In Australia only 12 people die each year from snake bites as opposed over 10,000 from car accidents. And yet for all their bad reputation and creepy crawly nature, snakes are actually crucial cogs in the wheels of local ecosystems, without which the finely tuned balance of the food chain would be severely and detrimentally affected.


In the tussock grasslands of northern Australia, snakes feast on the abundant mammal fauna which these fertile grasslands support. Cracks in the ground, into which snakes –such as the Speckled Brown Snake - happily slither, provide ready-made refuges for the Plague Rat, Planigales, other carnivorous marsupials, and also bats. Succulent green vegetation, insets and seeds in turn form the diet of Plague Rats and as these are in abundance, so are the rats. Because snakes eat rats, they are common too.

Snakes also eat lizards. The Death Adder, for example, will use its tail to lure an unsuspecting lizard to within striking distance. But if the lizard happens to be a goanna, the snake had better watch out! Goannas (like Spencer’s monitor) eat snakes (like the Death Adder), stalking up to them until they coil and strike. The goanna cleverly avoids the first strike, then grabs the snake while it is momentarily off balance before it recoils to strike again. Other species of animals for which snakes constitute either major or minor portion of their food source include birds such as hawks and Kookaburras.

Now consider what would happen if snakes were removed from the food chain in the tussock grasslands of north Australia….

The species predated upon by the snakes – such as the herbivorous mammals and marsupials - would increase exponentially to the point of being unsustainable: overgrazing the limited vegetation the grassland have to offer. In a drought year the results would be even more marked.

The species that predate upon snakes – such as goannas and birds of prey – that are, to a degree, reliant on snakes as a source of food, would in turn have to either find alternatives or starve. Even in a non-drought year we could expect these species to be severely affected.

So, no matter how unpleasant or scary we might find snakes, they are an essential part of the rich tapestry of life that has evolved (for whatever reason) on Planet Earth of millions of years. It is surely part of our responsibility as guardians of biodiversity for future generations to enjoy, to ensure snakes are treated with equal respect and right to life as any other species.

Suggested learning activities: think of an animal or plant local to you that is considered a threat or undesirable to humans. Then host a debate in class: one side forwards a motion to eradicate the species, the other side acts in defence of the species. Be sure to remember that the debate is theoretical only – i.e. just because you are on the side arguing to eradicate the species doesn’t necessarily mean you actually mean this in real life.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 26, 2001 10:39 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Introduced Species - The Rabbit.

The next post in this blog is Pollution.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35