Venom: the search for the taipan

Roy Mackay, Neville Goddard and Kevin Budden prior to their 1949 expedition to north Queensland in search of a live taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus).

In 1949 Guugu Yimithirr man George Rosendale did what no one had done before him – he survived a taipan bite. He was bitten by an aggressive snake well over two metres long and whose venom what intense and fast, yet it had been unknown to science until a few years before and no anti-venom had been developed. It was known and feared by Aboriginal people of the cape, of course. Rosendale and the others who lived at Hope Vale called it a nguman, but it is remembered by the name others further up the cape called it, the taipan.

They are ferocious biters. When Rosendale realised he was bitten he swung his leg around and the 2m long snake remained attached. He managed to kick it clear but had two fang marks on his ankle. Rosendale panicked and ran, making matters worse as the venom coursed quickly through his veins. Another man tied a ligature round his leg as he lost consciousness. The bush doctor saved his life by cutting along the fang marks until it bled. Rosendale was rushed by truck over bumpy roads to Cooktown Hospital, where somehow he recovered. Nurses later showed him photos of his blood which was black in places.

At Hope Vale they called him Mr Famous, but Rosendale had the misfortune to be as black as his blood in a time in Australia when black lives most certainly did not matter. Despite the media frenzy about the deadly taipan, Rosendale’s recovery was written off by racist media as “the Abo who survived the taipan.” So his nameless survival was overlooked as North Queensland remained paralysed by this most deadly of snakes. Rosendale’s story is the centrepiece of a fascinating book called Venom by Brendan James Murray about the search for Australia’s deadliest venomous snake – the taipan.

Nineteenth century German immigrant Amelie Dietrich was probably the first European to capture one alive in 1866. She sent the snake to a Hamburg museum where it was identified as a new species but incorrectly as pseudechis scutellatus, a member of the black snake family. It was a poor taxonomy. Unlike the inoffensive black snake, a bite from these large coppery-brown snakes meant certain death.

Some early colonists called them “travelling browns” but they remained unknown to science until 1920s bird watcher Bill McLennan 1920s shot two large taipans dead and sent them to the Australian Museum in Sydney where they were reclassified as oxyuranus mclennani. A study of the snakes’ venom found it extremely toxic despite severe deterioration.

Though the name of the giant brown snake was unknown, its toxicity was well understood by Northern Queensland farmers. As was its speed. When John Pringle went to kill a snake that was poisoning his cattle, he attacked with a hoe, but the snake covered 2m in an instance and bit an astonished Pringle on the shins. Though he felt fine at first, Pringle was rushed to hospital and within hours, suffered seizures, lost consciousness and died.

Pringle was not alone. Queensland’s rat-infested cane country was a pefect taipan habitat. Typically bite victims would be convulsing within an hour and dead within two. Children were disproportionate victims in the 1930s and 40s due to the time they played in the bush. The snake was finally named in 1933 after Cape York Wikmunkan people led naturalist Donald Thompson to one, a female he captured alive with a snake stick. He kept the snake for eight months, during which time she laid eggs and Thompson milked her venom, which sadly was never used as antivenom. In a scientific paper he deduced Dietrich’s and McLennan’s snake were the same species he called oxyuranus scutellatus. Its common name would be what the Wikmunkan called it, the taipan.

The newly named species quickly gained a reputation as an animal whose bite was one hundred percent fatal. Frustrated medics tried to treat patients with tiger snake antivenom in massive quantities but this proved useless. A live taipan was needed, but given their aggressive nature, speed and toxicity of their poison, capturing one alive was extremely dangerous. A young group of Sydney naturalists who called themselves the Australian Reptile Club vowed to find one in the bush to use for antivenom.

In 1949 three young Club members Roy Mackay, Kevin Budden and Neville Goddard took their Sydney snake catching skills to Coen in FNQ to tease out the taipan. After a frustrating six week search they found one but it was too fast for them and escaped. To add insult to injury park rangers confiscated all the wildlife they did collect on their final day.

Undeterred Budden decided on a second field trip the following year. He looked for them in the cane fields near Cairns. He arrived at the start of crushing season, using field labourers as his spotters. When told there was one at the Cairns rubbish dump, he hunted among the debris where he found one distracted eating prey. The snake was too long to lift by the tail so he put his foot on its neck, finally grabbing it in his hands. However with the long body coiled around him, he couldn’t bag it by himself. He walked to the road and hailed down a truck, convincing the driver it was safe to take him.

At the truck owner’s house Budden lowered the snake into the bag but released his grip too early and the taipan bit his hand. Though it fell onto the grass he caught it again and bagged in inside a double knot. Budden was rushed to Cairns hospital but after a remarkably long fight he died. The truck driver took the bagged snake to the North Queensland Museum where he passed on Budden’s wishes it be sent to Commonwealth Serum Laboratory in Melbourne.

They sent it to the National Museum of Victoria as it had snake experts though no-one fancied opening the box. They called in David Fleay, a conservationist who ran the Healesville Sanctuary and he reluctantly accepted the task of freeing the snake and milking it for venom. But in the heat of the museum room, the taipan worked on a hole in the bag and escaped into a larger bag the museum had provided to cover it. Fleay gingerly opened that bag and saw the taipan’s head in preparation to strike. He quickly upended the bag on the floor, threw himself backwards and grabbed the tongs.

The released taipan was about to attack when Fleay lunged forwards and snapped the jaws shut with the tongs while the enormous muscular snake thrashed around. Fleay released the trigger of the tongs with the snake held securely behind the neck. Fleay lowered the head to a vial and clear yellowish venom poured inside. Fleay waited before the snake pulled towards the bag before emptying it in, surviving one last terrifying moment when it launched its head back up but was fractionally beaten by the yanking of the wire. Everyone present in the room agreed it was ‘the most savage tempered, tough and resistant snake’ they had ever seen.

Soon afterwards Cairns Council staff captured a second taipan alive after a falling rock had temporarily stunned it, at a spot the workers dubbed “Taipan Gully”. Arrangements were made to send it to Melbourne zoo which would give the venom to CSL. However it died on arrival in Victoria leaving only Budden’s snake for anti-venom. The Reptile Club, now rebadged as the Australian Herpetological Society came to the rescue using a pinner to spear the snake close to the head while a second person held the writhing coils and a third grasped the animal by the neck.

In 1955 10-year-old Cairns schoolboy Bruce Stringer was taken to hospital with a taipan bite. After initial failure with tiger snake venom, doctors offered his patents the new untried taipan antivenom from CSL and they agreed. The gamble saved Bruce’s life and once hospitals were stocked no-one needed to die from a taipan bite again.

We are still learning about taipans and their range across northern Australia is enormous, stretching from Brisbane to Broome. As recently as 2007 a new species was discovered – oxyuranus temporalis, the central ranges taipan. It was the third taipan species discovered, and the second, oxyuranus microlepitodus or the inland taipan, was pronounced the most venomous snake on earth. The rebadged original, or coastal taipan is the third on the list. However for its size and venom yield, the coastal taipan remains by far Australia’s deadliest snake.

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