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An image of an eastern brown snake superimposed over a shot of low coastal bushland

Image: Ken Griffiths (Getty Images/Canva), Tom Grant (Supplied), digitally altered

It is almost too late when I see it.

I am walking far in front of my friends, enjoying the absence of conversation and meditative rhythm of crashing waves against the sea cliffs on my right. We are four days into a five day, fifty kilometre hike through Yuin and Badawal land, along a section of coastline dominated by beaches littered with whale skeletons, giant sand dunes and dry sclerophyll forest still recovering from the Black Summer bushfires that ripped through almost exactly two years ago. My mind is still, like a lake on a windless morning.

It is late afternoon and while it was hot, still and sunny earlier in the day, a change is now brewing. Dark grey cumulonimbus clouds block out the sun and a sudden gust of cool wind rustles the fresh leaves sprouting from the blackened trunks of trees nearby.

The clear walking track cuts through dense coastal heath and leads down to a campsite nestled in a clearing of forest located beside a tidal estuary where we are staying for the night. It isn’t far away—I can see it from the crest of a small hill—but a distant rumble of thunder makes me quicken my pace to allow plenty of time to properly set up before the storm hits.

My eyes are focused a few metres down the track as I walk, so I do not see the snake slither out of the bushes immediately to my left, no doubt startled by an unexpected visitor in its space. Only when I am about to tread on it does its movement catch my eye. I look down and see my right foot centimetres away from its thick, bronze, scaly body. I quickly pull my foot away. The weight of the pack on my back makes me stumble, but miraculously, I manage to step over rather than on it, and take a few very quick steps to get away.

When I look back, I see the snake advancing with the entire front half of its body raised in an S-shape, revealing a pale yellow belly flecked with red. It is roughly two metres long, its neck flattened and a loud hiss coming from its wide-open mouth.

I see the snake advancing with the entire front half of its body raised in an S-shape, revealing a pale yellow belly flecked with red.

Instinctively, I freeze. I stare at the snake, mesmerised by its striking display, its untamed beauty. Then suddenly it backs down: it lowers itself and flees into the bushes. By the time my friends appear a few moments later, it is nowhere to be seen. They don’t understand why, given what has just happened, I am smiling. Nor do I.


Later I confirm what I initially suspected: the reptile I had nearly stepped on was an eastern brown snake. This is only one of the species’ many names; according to Professor Jakelin Troy, author of The Sydney Language, it is known as marragawan to the Dharug traditional owners of the area now known as Sydney, while according to the Gujaga Foundation, the peak cultural organisation within the La Perouse Aboriginal community, Dharawal people from the area refer to it as nagun. The taxonomic name of the species, Pseudonaja textilis, which translates to ‘woven false cobra’, refers to the pattern of an eastern brown snake’s scales and how it will flatten its head and neck and rear up when threatened, just as cobras famously do.

In the weeks after returning home it feels like the snake I came face-to-face with has woven itself into my psyche. I can’t stop reliving our encounter: when I close my eyes I can see my foot coming down on its body, I can see it reared up and advancing, and I can see it slithering away. Nor can I stop reading about and looking at photos and watching videos of eastern brown snakes in order to fulfil a sudden interest, to understand more about the species and whether its fearsome reputation is justified. The more I learn, the more fascinated I become.

Many people I know seem perplexed when I tell them this. But it makes complete sense to Dr Timothy Jackson, an evolutionary toxinologist from the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne who has been fascinated by snakes, he tells me, since he was a toddler. ‘I mean, literally—I spent my very early childhood in the UK and there’s a video of me when I was three years old, running around the Natural History Museum in London screaming snakes, snakes, snakes!

The focus of Jackson’s fascination—as well as his professional research—is the family of venomous snakes known as Elapidae, to which the eastern brown snake belongs.

The snake species in this family are thought to have first arisen in Africa around 50 million years ago. From there they radiated to Asia and then, roughly 20 million years ago, crossed an ancient land bridge to the Australian continental landmass where they thrived in the absence of other venomous snakes. Their defining characteristic is the permanently-erect, hollow fangs situated at the front of the mouth. A duct connects these fangs to a venom gland where their powerful bioweapon is produced and pumped out from by a compressor muscle, creating a venom delivery system which Jackson says is ‘like a hypodermic needle.’

In the weeks after returning home it feels like the snake I came face-to-face with has woven itself into my psyche. The more I learn, the more fascinated I become.

The venom of an eastern brown snake is particularly special, partly because of its potency.

To measure potency, researchers use a test which calculates the lethal dose to half a population of laboratory mice, producing a figure known as the LD50. The LD50 of an eastern brown snake’s venom is 0.053mg/kg. The only terrestrial snake in the world with a more potent venom is the inland taipan, found throughout the central east of so-called Australia.

But a few years ago, a team of researchers led by Jackson discovered something even more special about the venom of the eastern brown snake: its chemical composition changes over the course of a snake’s life. Snake venom is a complex mixture of toxins, broadly classified into three types: neurotoxic (which disrupts the nervous system of prey), hemotoxic (affecting blood) and cytotoxic (affecting tissue). While the venom of a juvenile is composed almost exclusively of neurotoxins, the venom of an adult is dominated by hemotoxins that attack the blood and cause it to rapidly coagulate from a liquid to a jelly.

This chemical change that occurs in the eastern brown snake’s venom has not been detected in any other species of Australian snake. Nor is it an evolutionary accident; instead it is a survival tool that develops in parallel with changes in the eastern brown snake’s diet over the course of its life: while juvenile snakes almost exclusively eat reptiles which are more vulnerable to neurotoxins, adult snakes eat more mammals which are more vulnerable to hemotoxins.

Because of this ‘beautiful example of evolutionary adaption’, as Jackson puts it, he thinks of eastern brown snakes as being ‘like alchemists’.

But while the venom of the eastern brown snake is designed to kill, it is also being repurposed to save lives—as an antivenom but also as a therapeutic procoagulant drug which prevents people who suffer from haemophilia, or who are required to take anticoagulant medication from bleeding to death when they undergo complicated surgery.

‘There’s always this biodiscovery aspect in venom research: drugs and toxins are essentially the same in their basic mechanisms of action,’ Jackson explains. ‘So it just depends on what we’re using them for. A toxin from venom can potentially quite easily be repurposed for use as a therapeutic drug.’

However, these fascinating facts about the eastern brown snake are overshadowed by a much more frightening one: the species is responsible for the highest number of snake-bite related deaths in so-called Australia.

Jackson emphasises that this particular fact ‘needs to be put into perspective’: on average, only two people per year die from snake bite, whereas at least 11 to 20 people die from horse-related accidents annually. Nonetheless, it still fuels the intense cultural fear that exists about eastern brown snakes. Indeed, they are widely considered to be the scariest of all snakes: similar to great white sharks, they are maligned as malicious creatures, prone to launching unprovoked attacks on people when encountered.

But this is a myth, and one that only helps to sustain a very human-centric view of the world. In fact, even though it is quite common to encounter eastern brown snakes due to the species’ ability to thrive alongside humans in deforested, open and rodent-infested environments—and even though a snake might showcase its cobra-like defensive display which can very easily be misinterpreted as a sign of aggression—it is incredibly unlikely that it will actually bite and envenomate a person.

Similar to great white sharks, they are maligned as malicious creatures, prone to launching unprovoked attacks on people when encountered. But this is a myth.

This was best demonstrated by a renowned study in 1999 which recorded the responses of eastern brown snakes to more than 450 close encounters with human observers. In roughly half of the encounters the snake retreated, and in most others they simply froze to avoid detection. The snake advanced towards the human observer defensively in roughly three per cent of all encounters; only one per cent of these advances were offensive.

The study’s authors therefore concluded: ‘Contrary to public opinion, the snakes were rarely aggressive.’

The main reason for this, Jackson says, is that, ‘In evolutionary terms it doesn’t serve a snake well to go around picking fights with humans. The number one thing they want to do is avoid us.’

In fact, a study published in 2000 which monitored 58 eastern brown snakes in southern inland New South Wales suggests we are the ones picking fights with snakes. Over a three-year period, at least 19 per cent of monitored snakes were attacked and eight snakes were killed. ‘Most attacks on snakes were by people and feral cats,’ the study’s authors found. They also surveyed the public about how frequently they encountered snakes, and how both they and the snakes responded to these situations. Their survey ‘revealed that people are at least 20 times more likely to advance toward a snake, and 100 times more likely to attack, than is a snake to advance on, or attack.’

Of course, not everyone treats brown snakes with outright hostility. Ngarigo elder Rod Mason, for example, has spoken of shared Dharawal and Awabakal ceremonies for the brown snake, and of Maralang, the ancestral brown snake spirit, whose venom was stolen from turtles, and whose movements shaped the Great Dividing Range. And Jackson speaks of how for him, the sight of an eastern brown snake—or any other snake in its natural habitat—can be a deeply humbling experience, a reminder of a profound truth which should be treasured.

‘Snakes are cryptic animals and there are a lot more around than we actually see. So it’s always an unlikely occurrence at the very least when we do see a snake. But when we do see them, they give us that moment’s pause to remember that we’re not in control of the environment around us. Our constant need to control the environment is not sustainable in the long run. A snake is evidence that we don’t have total control. It is this completely other, completely alien thing. It is a kind of message in some sense from nature that you don’t control this space, that there are things here that are completely autonomous from you.’

‘Our constant need to control the environment is not sustainable in the long run. A snake is evidence that we don’t have total control.’

Hearing this, it suddenly dawns on me why I was smiling after I nearly stepped on the eastern brown snake: I knew I had been lucky not to have been bitten by one of the most venomous snakes in the world, but I considered myself even luckier to have been so viscerally reminded in that moment of my own mortality, lack of control, and tiny place within the grand scheme of life on Earth.


An image of an eastern brown snake superimposed over a photograph of a small ocean inlet with a small rocky cliff face and bushland down to the beach, upon which three people with backpacks are bushwalking.

Image: Ken Griffiths (Getty Images/Canva), Tom Grant (Supplied), digitally altered

One afternoon, a month after returning home from the hike, I decide to visit the Australian Museum. Walking through the automatic glass doors at the entrance of the grand Georgian building in the middle of Sydney’s CBD, I remember coming here as a child on school excursions and marvelling at the vast collection of natural history specimens on display inside its sandstone walls. Today, there is only one specimen I have come to see, although I suddenly realise that I’m not exactly sure why or what doing so will achieve. Perhaps, I think, my newfound topic of interest is morphing into an obsession.

At the front counter of the museum, I ask an attendant where I can find specimens of Australian snakes. He tells me they are in the ‘Surviving Australia’ gallery on level two.

Surviving Australia. It’s an unfortunate name, I think, as I climb a winding wooden staircase to the second floor of the museum, one that might attract more visitors but that also reinforces the very colonial idea of humans living in opposition to nature; of Europeans having to survive this ‘brutal’ and ‘wild’ land, full of creatures that can and will kill you. I reach the landing of the staircase where three taxidermied yellow-tailed black cockatoos hang from the ceiling. Beneath them is a large heritage-listed glass case, inside of which is a huge taxidermied saltwater crocodile and several plaster casts of different species of snakes.

I recognise the eastern brown snake immediately. Positioned beside a reared-up taipan, it is dark brown, slender and lying flat against the white floor of the case. It reaches a length of roughly two metres. Although it has not been made to look particularly threatening, a nearby information panel reminds visitors that the eastern brown snake is responsible for more deaths in Australia than any other snake. It also repeats the widely-held but erroneous belief that the species can be ‘aggressive’ when encountered.

As I stand before the glass case, I imagine the plaster cast of the eastern brown snake in front of me suddenly coming to life, stirring as if from a deep hibernation, then breaking free of its enclosure, rising off the ground in its magnificent S-shape display, then fleeing down the staircase and out the front door of the museum.

I wish it would. I wish I could see it in all of its untamed beauty again.