The specimen was mis-identified later as a Coastal Taipan.
Mr C. had in fact been bitten by the long-lost Western Taipan.
The first live specimens of the Western Taipan available to taxonomists and
toxinologists were collected in south-western Queensland in 1974. That 'find'
led to work that enabled full recognition of microlepidotus as a good
species; recognition of the extraordinarily high toxicity of its venom; study of
its relationship to the other taipan, scutellatus; and review of its
Herpetologist Jeanette Covacevich,
formerly of the Queensland Museum, played a significant role in this work.
I remember, very vividly, a day in August in 1972. The sectional mail
contained a tin from Herb Rabig, a grazier from one of the Channel country
stations west of Windorah. The tin contained the preserved head and tail of a
snake I had not seen before. I attempted to identify it routinely and could not
make a 'fit' with anything in the readily available literature.
A check of the
taxonomic journal literature and an early review of the fauna of Victoria
confirmed that, on my desk, sat a specimen of an elapid snake described in 1879
as Diemenia microlepidota from only two specimens. Only one other had
been found and it had been lost very soon after its discovery. [The specimens on which the original
description was based were lodged in the Museum of Victoria (now Melbourne
Museum within Museum Victoria), but their collection locality was not recorded].
Probably, because no more specimens had been found and there was no way of
knowing where to search, Diemenia microlepidota had virtually disappeared
from both the taxonomic literature and guides to Australia's snakes. In the 1920s, the
Curator of Reptiles at the Australian Museum examined the
two specimens and concluded that they were different enough to warrant
assignment to a new genus, Parademansia. Despite this work,
Parademansia microlepidota continued to be a 'missing', mystery
When a tour operator was bitten by a large, dark brown,
black-headed snake in
the far south-west Queensland in 1967, the effects of the snake's venom were
devastating. The Royal Flying Doctor and a specialist in Adelaide saved his life.
The snake responsible was identified by the victim as a Western Brown,
Pseudonaja nuchalis. Later, the specimen was examined further and identified as
a Taipan, Oxyuranus scutellalus. (This specimen was re-examined
subsequent to the rediscovery, in 1972, of the snake by then known as
Parademansia microlepidota. That comparison showed they were the same
Following Herb Rabig's donation of the head and tail of a freshly collected
Parademansia microlepidota, I planned a field trip (funded by the Queensland Museum)
with Charles Tanner, an eminent herpetologist, to find this snake. The quest was to find live specimens
for venom studies and to try and uncover some information about the behaviour of P.
microlepidota.In September 1972, we travelled to the Channel Country of the far southwest
Given that the original specimens and Herb Rabig's
specimen were the only ones known, and that we knew nothing about the snake's habits,
the expedition (we feared) had all the
hallmarks of being a likely failure. (The 1967 specimen responsible for the
bite was not, at that time, known to be a P. microlepidota).
However, with incredible luck, the timing of our field work was perfect.
Spring, with the first return of still, sunny, relatively warm days, is now
known to be the only time each year when the snakes emerge from deep cracks and
tunnels in the 'ashy downs', the only habitat in which they occur.
Our first afternoon in the 'right' place west of Windorah is as vivid to me
nearly 30 years on, as if it were yesterday. It was about 4.00 pm. As we
drove along the dusty, open road towards Herb Rabig's property, we found a
large, freshly-killed by a car, specimen. That find alone, with all the
information a properly-preserved specimen can tell, had made our expedition a
success. After just under 100 years, P. microlepidota was re-located.
In the following 10 days, with the help and advice of Herb Rabig,
13 healthy, live specimens, all of which we brought back to the Queensland Museum
for future study. Then began 12 years of research, both at the Museum
and with colleagues, specialists in taxonomy, toxinology and ecology, from
Australia and abroad. The snake was shown
to be a close relative of the Coastal Taipan, Oxyuranus scutellatus, and was
named the Western (or Inland) Taipan, O. microlepidotus. It was also found to have the
most toxic terresterial snake venom known; and to have a highly-specialised
life history inextricably linked to that of a native rat, the Plague Rat
Oxyuranus microlepidotus had been Australia's least known snake: by the mid-1980s it was probably the best known.