The Inland Taipan
The Inland Taipan is a species of highly venomous snake from the genus Oxyuranus, and belongs to the elapid family of reptiles which includes both cobras and mambas. There are currently three recognized species of the Taipan, including the Inland, Coastal, and Central Ranges specimens. Taken together, all three species represent some of the deadliest and most venomous snakes in the world. Despite being recognized as an extremely dangerous snake, the Taipan’s population continues to thrive throughout the Australian continent; a testament to the animal’s remarkable adaptability and survival instincts in the face of human danger.
This article provides an in-depth analysis of the Inland Taipan through an examination of its behavior, traits, habitat, and overall venom toxicity to humans (and animals). It is the author’s hope that a more-balanced and developed understanding of the Inland Taipan can be achieved by his readers.
Common Name: Inland Taipan
Binomial Name: Oxyuranus microlepidotus
Genus: Oxyuranus (Kinghorn, 1923)
Species: Inland Taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus); Coastal Taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus); Central Ranges Taipan (Oxyuranus temporalis)
Synonyms: Diemenia microlepidota (F. McCoy, 1879); Diemenia ferox (Macleay, 1882); Pseudechis microlepidotus (Boulenger, 1896); Parademansia microlepidota (Kinghorn, 1955); Oxyuranus scutellatus microlepidotus (Worrell, 1963); Oxyuranus microlepidotus (Covacevich, 1981).
The name “Taipan” was first coined by Australian anthropologist, Donald Thomson, and was derived from a word first used by the Wik-Mungkan (Aborigines) people of Central Australia. Its genus name derives from two Greek words, including oxys (which means sharp or needle-like), and Ouranos (which means “arch”). Taken together, the genus refers specifically to the Taipan’s “needle-like” arch of its palate; a unique feature first discovered in 1879 by Frederick McCoy.
Each of the Taipan species are believed to share a common ancestor (currently unknown to researchers at this time) that emerged nearly 9 to 10 million years ago. Although known by the Aboriginal people of Australia for several thousand years, the Taipan gained worldwide attention in 1879 after two separate specimens were discovered by McCoy.
Behavioral Patterns of the Inland Taipan
Despite the snake’s fearsome reputation, the Inland Taipan is actually quite shy and reclusive; preferring to hide from danger rather than openly facing it. For this reason, researchers have often described the Inland Taipan as “placid” with its temperament. While rarely encountered in the wild, due to their remote habitat and environment, the snake is known to actively avoid human contact when possible. Even when cornered or provoked, the snake is slow to attack potential attackers; raising its head in a manner similar to the Cobra as a warning. When this fails, however, the Inland Taipan strikes with remarkable efficiency and accuracy, injecting its venom into individuals (or predators) almost 100-percent of the time.
The Inland Taipan is considered a diurnal species, in that it is primarily active during the daylight (predominantly in the early morning hours). It is during this time that the snake actively hunts for food, or basks in the cool morning sunlight. As temperatures increase throughout the day, however, the Taipan is known to actively retreat to its burrow, where it remains for the rest of the day. This pattern shifts in the winter months, as the cooler weather allows the snake to be more active in the afternoon hours as well.
Is the Inland Taipan Dangerous to Humans?
As with all venomous snakes, humans should avoid contact with the Inland Taipan at all costs, and exercise extreme caution (i.e. maintaining a safe distance) when in the vicinity of this remarkable animal. Failure to do so could result in serious injury or death.
Inland Taipan Appearance
The Inland Taipan comes in a variety of colors, including dark tan, brown, and light green. Dotting its long and cylindrical body is a dark series of scales that take on a chevron-type appearance and which occur in diagonal rows. Scientists are perplexed as to why the Inland Taipan’s body varies in coloration; however, it has been theorized that coloration may be dependent upon seasonal trends, as the snake’s color darkens in the winter but lightens in the summer and spring. Some scientists have speculated that darker colors allow the snake to generate more heat for itself during the winter months.
Topping off the Taipan’s body is a rounded head with a snout-like feature in the facial region. Although the snake’s head follows the same coloration as its body, the head and neck are usually far darker for unknown reasons. In regard to the snake’s vision, two eyes line the side quadrants of the Inland Taipan’s head. These blackish-brown eyes are average size (for snakes), and possess a colored rim that surrounds the pupil. Due to the placement of its eyes, the Inland Taipan possesses excellent vision; a feature that it uses in conjunction with its keen sense of smell to track potential prey (or danger).
Scalation, Length, and Weight
The Inland Taipan possesses smooth (very small) scales, with approximately 21 to 23 mid-body rows, 220 to 250 ventral scales, a single (undivided) anal plate, and nearly 45 to 80 subcaudal scales. On average, the snake reaches an impressive length of 6.5 feet, with some of the largest specimens reaching over 8.8 feet. Average statistics regarding weight are currently unavailable to researchers, as the snake’s overall mass is known to vary considerably.
Habitat and Distribution of the Inland Taipan
The Inland Taipan is found predominantly along the black soil plains of Queensland and South Australia, with isolated populations inhabiting large swatches of territory elsewhere in Australia. Clay-like ground is abundant in these areas, and is favored by the Taipan due to its concealment qualities. Protection from the elements is crucial in the Taipan’s habitat, as ground cover and vegetation are relatively sparse in these regions.
The Inland Taipan is also known to venture outside of its normal territory on occasion, entering Australia’s various floodplains, dunes, or rocky outcrops. In these areas, the snake often takes up residence within soil cracks, various holes, or burrows.
As with many snake species, the Inland Taipan produces “clutches” of eggs that include anywhere from one to two dozen eggs (with an average of 16). To conceal their young from potential predators, the Inland Taipan prefers deep crevices or abandoned burrows that offer natural layers of protection from the outside world. After laying her eggs, the mother abandons her nest, leaving the babies to hatch on their own approximately two months later. Although mating often takes place in the spring or summer, breeding occasionally occurs in the late winter months as well, and appears to be contingent upon temperature.
Prey and Natural Predators
The Inland Taipan is unique in the snake world in that it predominately feeds on mammals. These include small rats (such as the long-haired rat or plains rat), the house mouse, and other small animals. The Inland Taipan is extremely aggressive when hunting, and is known to subdue its prey with a series of highly venomous bites (upwards of eight bites in a single attack). Because of the snake’s highly potent venom, the Taipan is afforded the unique strategy of holding on to its prey as the venom takes effect (usually within a few seconds).
A particular favorite of the Inland Taipan is the Long-Haired Rat; a common pest within the snake’s natural habitat. Overall population numbers of the Long-Haired Rat are known to go through a “boom-and-bust” cycle, however, with rats being common one season, but nearly gone the next (australianmuseum.net). This cycle can play havoc on the local Taipan populations, which must look for less-prevalent food until the number of rats stabilize once more.
Due to the Inland Taipan’s potent venom, the snake possesses only a few natural threats in the wild. These include the Mulga Snake (King Brown) and the Monitor Lizard which both possess natural immunities to the Inland Taipan’s venom.
Inland Taipan's Venom and Toxicity
The Inland Taipan’s venom is comprised of several neurotoxins, hemotoxins, myotoxins, as well as a range of nephrotoxins. When combined, these toxins rapidly subdue the snake’s victims through a concerted attack on the body’s nervous system, organs, blood, and muscular-skeletal system. The Inland Taipan’s venom is particularly potent against mammals (believed to be an evolutionary trait), making the snake both extremely dangerous and deadly to humans.
Inland Taipan Bite Symptoms and Treatment
As a result of the Inland Taipan’s remarkably high levels of neurotoxins in its venom, single bites often prove fatal to humans and animals, alike. In fact, one bite contains enough venom to kill 100 adult men within minutes. Following envenomation, the venom’s neurotoxins rapidly seize control of the victim’s nervous system, causing paralysis, poor blood circulation (due to its clotting properties), and/or convulsions. Headaches, dizziness, myolysis, and extreme vomiting/nausea are also common, along with complete respiratory paralysis (usually occurring 2 to 6 hours following the bite). Renal failure and neurotoxicity are also seen in bite victims, particularly in the final stages of envenomation.
Although Taipan-specific antivenoms are available to combat the effects of the snake’s deadly bite, immediate medical care is crucial for survival. The Taipan’s venom often takes effect within minutes, with fatalities occurring as early as 30 minutes. Before the development of antivenom in 1956, only two individuals are known to have survived the Inland Taipan’s bite without medical treatment; leaving victims with an almost 100-percent fatality rate without proper care. Currently, the only Taipan antivenoms in production are manufactured by the Australian Reptile Park as well as the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories of Melbourne. Despite their effectiveness, significant health issues often follow an Inland Taipan bite (most notably, heart and muscle damage). Long-term recovery is also necessary; often requiring several weeks of bed rest and intravenous fluids to stabilize the victim’s body.
Famous Snakebite Victims of the Taipan
In 2012, a teenage boy residing in the city of Kurri Kurri, New South Wales was bit on the finger by an Inland Taipan. Following the administration of a compression bandage and the rapid administration of antivenom, the boy was able to survive the ordeal with only minor complications.
In one of the most famous incidents involving the Taipan, John Robinson, a friend of Rob Bredl (also known as the “Barefoot Bushman”) was bitten while cleaning the cage of an Inland Taipan at a reptile exhibit in Sunshine Coast, Queensland. Despite excruciating pain, Robinson successfully endured the effects of the snake’s venom without the administration of antivenom. Nevertheless, Robinson continues to suffer from lifelong complications, including considerable damage to his heart and muscular system.
Is the Inland Taipan the Most Venomous Snake in the World?
Numerous studies have been performed by researchers regarding the snake's venom toxicity in relation to other reptiles. In direct competition with the Inland Taipan for the title of "world's most venomous snake" is the Belcher's Sea Snake. Numerous studies have suggested that the Belcher's Sea Snake maintains a venom toxicity that exceeds that of the Inland Taipan. However, many of these studies are now being called into question as new evidence tends to suggest otherwise.
The main problem with these studies lies with the methodology used to obtain results. Unless scientists can achieve a more controlled and stable methodology (and environment) to test the venom of these snakes in relation to their effect on animals and humans alike, the debate for "world's most venomous snake" is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. One thing remains clear, however; given the current state of knowledge on the Inland Taipan, researchers can claim with a high-degree of certainty that the Inland Taipan is the world's most venomous land-based snake in existence.
"Snakes really are defensive, they aren't out there to get someone. They're just trying to protect themselves in every case."— Ryan Francis
As with other snakes in Australia, the Inland Taipan is protected by a variety of laws. Although the snake was briefly listed under the IUCN’s Red List in 2017, its status was upgraded the following year to “Least Concern” due to the snake’s widespread distribution and growing population numbers. Despite these findings, the snake is presumed to be extinct within the New South Wales and Victoria regions. Researchers attribute the snake’s decline in these areas to the loss of natural habitats and the encroachment of human populations.
With the onset of wildfires across much of the Australian continent (2019 and 2020), the devastation on local animal and plant life remains uncertain at this time. With an estimated one-billion animals killed by the fires, significant changes to the Inland Taipan’s IUCN status may be implemented in the coming months.
In conclusion, the Inland Taipan is one of the most remarkable animals in the world due to its natural beauty, traits, and potent venom. Despite widespread fear and anxiety towards the Taipan, its population numbers continue to thrive on the Australian continent with an IUCN status of “Least Concerned” (as of 2019). One can only hope that these numbers will remain stable in the wake of Australia’s terrible wildfires that have devastated the country in recent months.
Although many theories and hypotheses have been formulated about the Taipan’s behavioral patterns and traits, there is still much to be learned about this fascinating animal. With numerous research projects underway throughout Australia (regarding these snakes), it will be interesting to see what new forms of information can be learned about the Inland Taipan in the years that lie ahead.
Beatson, Cecilie. “Inland Taipan.” The Australian Museum. Accessed January 11, 2020. https://australianmuseum.net.au/learn/animals/reptiles/inland-taipan/.
Slawson, Larry. “The Top 10 Deadliest and Most Dangerous Snakes in the World." HubPages. 2019.
Smallacombe, Angela, Patrick Martin, and ABC News. “In the Company of an Inland Taipan, the World's Most Venomous Snake.” ABC News, February 22, 2019.
© 2020 Larry Slawson