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Queensland Government

The Rediscovery of the Western Taipan

In September, 1967, Mr C. was conducting a party of tourists through the channel country of south-west Queensland … while attempting to capture a snake, he was bitten twice on the right thumb … The snake was brown … 5' [feet] in length. It had a long head and narrow neck … The anal plate was entire, the sub-caudal scales were paired and the mid-body scales numbered 23.
Trinca, 1969

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 behaviour.

Jeanette Covacevich
Jeanette Covacevich

Herpetologist Jeanette Covacevich, formerly of the Queensland Museum, played a significant role in this work. She recounts:

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 species.

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 species).

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 Queensland.

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, we found 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 (Rattus villosissimus).

Oxyuranus microlepidotus had been Australia's least known snake: by the mid-1980s it was probably the best known.


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