Header: Ophiophagy in action.
Returning home at dusk from one of our paddocks, we came across a bizarre scene – in a shallow, moist gully, partly buried under detritus, a Red-bellied Black Snake (RBS) in the process of eating one of its colleagues. The predator snake, at least a metre long, appeared slightly smaller than its prey.
Enquiries with more knowledgeable people revealed that ophiophagy among snakes, especially RBSs, is not so unusual. Professor Rick Shine, at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney, having examined stomachs of many RBSs over the years, has occasionally recorded other snakes (small-eyed, browns and blacks), making up 5% or less of prey records. However, he tells us that big prey items like this are rare. RBSs eat mostly frogs, and occasional lizards, although Rick suspects that our snake “just managed to get a chance at a lovely big prey item, and took its chance”.
Another possibility, suggested by Kieran Aland of the Queensland Museum, isthat the first snake had started getting its mouth around a frog, when the interloper appeared, and grabbed the frog plus attached predator, which it then proceeded to ingest, almost inadvertently. Either way, it was not a good outcome for one of them. The following morning we could find no sign of either snake in that location.
Ophiophagy (literally meaning ‘snake eating’, not to be confused with opiophagy or the habitual use of opium) among RBSs has become almost ingrained into the folklore. We have been surprised by just how many landholders in South- east Queensland believe having a large RBS population keeps away larger lethal species, such as Eastern Browns and Taipans, although we can find no published evidence in support. A conclusive study would be extremely difficult to plan and execute, but we might have witnessed the underlying mechanism.
Regardless, seeing there has never been a documented human fatality from a RBS bite, our observation strengthens the case for doing as much as possible to protect these beautiful animals and their habitats.
Paul and Melissa Prociv Land for Wildlife members Mt Mellum, Sunshine Coast