Open discussion: Are snake free countries like NZ really snake free?

New Zealand has always had a reputation of being “snake free” to the extent that snakes of all kinds are on the schedule2 list of prohibited organisms. They are required by law to be destroyed by the ministry of Primary Industries if found. But it’s no secret that there are 3 sea snake species listed as native fauna in NZ,  being Yellow bellied sea snake (Pelamis platura), banded sea krait ((Laticauda colubrina) and Saint Giron’s sea krait (Laticauda saintgironsi). As they are officially regarded as native species they are protected species and the Department of Conservation has a responsibility by law to protect them… Can you picture one washing up on a beach and officials from two different departments, one required to destroy it, the other required to protect it, fighting on the beach?… bureaucracy at its finest…
Back in times past before modern bio-security measures, (which are not infallible), was it not possible for snakes to have entered the country? Various newspaper reports from those days state it was not only possible, but did happen.:
“The following is from the Bay of Plenty Times: Captain Bluett, A.C., inform us that some of his men were sawing timber at Oruatewehi, a place about two miles from Fort Galatea, they discoyered a snake, between three and four feet in length, holding on to a weta (native spider). The natives, who have an intense hatred and dread of snakes, unfortunately chopped it up there and then into mince-meat. Fortunately, Sergeant Hall, of the A.C., who was in charge of the sawing party, saw the snake before its destruction, so that there cm be no doubt as to the authenticity of the statement. We understand that this description of snake is occasionally to be met with up north, but believe it is the first seen in the Bay of Plenty.” We are inclined to think Captain Bluett and his men have been deceived. This is not the first time that the reported finding of a snake has created a lively discussion, but we never before heard that any description of snake was occasionally to be met with up North.”
Another report from 1892 records the capture of a two metre long “death adder” in Horowhenua – the snake was caught sucking milk from a cow. The Marlborough Express newspaper says it was the third snake caught in New Zealand “in recent years”, and that in this case the farmer had recently emigrated from Victoria, Australia and assumed the serpent had hitched a ride in his belongings.
A two and a half foot long yellow and black snake was caught on a farm near Gisborne in 1889.
The earliest reported sighting of a snake in the wild in New Zealand comes from Pelichet Bay, North Dunedin, in 1862:
“A gentleman informed us yesterday that while walking on the banks of Pelichet Bay, he distinctly saw a snake gliding amongst the scrub. He described the snake as being about 18 inches to two feet long, and stated that on attempting its capture, it darted swiftly across the road into the bush. There are no reptiles of this species indigenous to New Zealand, but it is just possible that small snakes may have found their way in some of the vessels from Australia. If our in formant was correct in his opinion of the reptile, it is to be hoped that it will be destroyed, as the naturalization of two or three snakes in New Zealand, would soon lead to a large number of these unwelcome visitants, the dense underwood of this colony affording so much protection and concealment.” – Otago Daily Times, 14 June 1862
In 1892 two snakes were found to have escaped from two separate ships. One had come from Argentina to Timaru and an infant snake, only six inches long, was found writhing in the sand ballast discharged on the beach by the ship. What happened to its parent or siblings on the long voyage from South America around Cape Horn is not known. Then a couple of weeks later, another infant snake was found on the beach at Oamaru, again from sand ballast, this time from a ship that had arrived from Queensland. The practice of ballast dumping on beaches had been common, and it was only the sharp eyes of witnesses in these two cases that spotted the intruders.
It wasn’t the first live snake that made landfall through ballast at Oamaru.
In 1894 residents of Queenstown were alerted after a snake was seen in the town:
“A slight sensation was created yesterday through the report, which was correct, that a snake had got loose in Queenstown. It appears that, on Wednesday morning last, while Mr George Reid of Messrs Reids’ Brewery establishment, was in the aerated water factory he saw what he asserts was a snake run out of the doorway. The reptile was about a foot long and of a dark brown or black colour, but it glided out so quickly that he had not time to observe it carefully. A long search was made immediately afterwards by four or five hands but no trace could be found of the creature. The only way Mr Reid can account for the undesirable importation is that it must have come in the straw of a crate of bottles from Victoria. It is some consolation that, if Madame Heller’s disclosure last night was correct, there is no prospect of an increase from his snakeship; and it is to be hoped that, unless despatched earlier, our next winter will give him the final despatch.”
These were some of the ones that were  found, given that most snakes are very shy and secretive, how many weren’t found? How many of these that weren’t found established colonies? It could be said that if that were the case someone would have seen them by now. Really?

New snake species are often discovered and species thought to be extinct rediscovered.. Like I mentioned earlier snakes are shy and secretive and want no contact with humans. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that there is one or more species of snake living in New Zealand.
Is it not possible that the “flowerpot snake” (Ramphotyphlops braminus), arrived in the country, as it did almost everywhere else in the world, as a stowaway on an early ship?
Ramphotyphlops braminus is a blind snake species found mostly in Africa and Asia, but has been introduced in many other parts of the world. Completely fossorial, they are often mistaken for earthworms, except that they are not segmented. Being fossorial and disguised as earthworms, people that have observed them, in a country where there are reputedly no snakes, they would easily be mistaken for earthworms.

Then there’s this report: http://www.investigatemagazine.co.nz/Investigate/12827/snakes-drain-snake-free-nz-found-aussie-serpents/ Which in part says:

“New Zealand’s centuries old reputation as a country with no snakes is at an end, after the owner of a gold prospecting company confirmed he’d encountered snakes on the rugged West Coast of the South Island.
Bob Radley, now retired, was prospecting in the Grey Valley with his geologist son in 1990 when they were clearing scrub from the tailings and sluice of an old gold mine.
Radley told Radio Live’s Ian Wishart and Mark Staufer on”The Truth” show last night that he felt something on his arm and looked down to see a green and brownish snake coiling and writhing around his wrist.
Such was my fright I immediately flung my arm out and sent the reptile flying down from the height of the sluice face to rocks at its base,” Radley said.
Stunned, the two men asked other colleagues in the West Coast gold mining industry and discovered “three others” had encountered the snakes.
“We reported our discovery to MAF,” Radley told the show, “but they didn’t seem too interested”. While later doing some scientific work for the Crown Enterprise Landcare, which specialises in flora and fauna, Radley said he broached the subject with one of their senior scientists who confirmed they were aware of reports of a small colony of snakes in the West Coast gold mining districts.
Radley identified his snake from photos as a Victorian Copperhead, a type capable of growing more than a metre in length and deadly, although the snake was shy and not generally aggressive, resulting in few interactions with humans even in its native Australia.
It’s believed the snakes arrived during the gold rush of the 1860s and 70s, when thousands of miners emigrated from the Victorian goldfields to the West Coast, bringing their mining equipment with them on the many sailing ships that berthed at Hokitika and Westport. In those days there were no biosecurity checks, and any snakes that had stowed away in miners’ crates would get a free ride all the way up to the goldfields deep in the hinterland.
Radley, who holds a Ph.D, rejected any suggestion that the creature may have been an eel: “it was 150 feet above the stream level”, and he added he’d previously encountered snakes on his work in Australia and North America. “It was a snake,” he confirmed on the radio.
Biosecurity NZ, a division of the Ministry for Primary Industries which took over responsibility for exotic fauna from the old MAF, told Radio Live’s “The Truth” it had no record of snakes naturalised in New Zealand, but was now investigating:
“MPI is not aware of a colony of Victorian copperhead snakes anywhere in New Zealand. An initial search of databases has not found any record of a notification of these snakes being made to the Ministry through its exotic pest and disease hotline.”
The department added that it recommended anyone who “has seen these snakes makes a call to MPI’s free hotline on 0800 80 99 66 so that we can investigate this further.”
Biosecurity NZ said it would “make contact” with Bob Radley to discuss his sighting and that the file “is being passed to our investigators”.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health confirmed it holds no antivenom capable of treating the bite of a Victorian copperhead. The only snake antivenom in New Zealand is held at Auckland Hospital and it is CSL Polyvalent Snake Antivenom, which is effective against sea snake bites. Manufacturer CSL says its “CSL Tiger Snake Antivenom” is the recommended product for copperhead bites. New Zealand has none.
The bad news is that after 150 years the cost of locating every snake on New Zealand’s West Coast would run to millions of dollars and man-hours, and even then would be unlikely to find them all. The good news is that there is no record of anyone being bitten by a copperhead in the 150 years they’ve been here, and they clearly have not bred to the point where the South Island is overrun with snakes.
An Australian snake website describes the Victorian copperhead as growing up to 1.8 metres (six foot) in length, “are highly venomous poisonous snakes native to the temperate territories of southern and eastern Australia. Well adapted to cooler climates, they are the only Australian snake found above the snowline. These snakes prefer fertile wetland and swamp habitat and are known to congregate in large numbers when conditions are optimal. Excellent swimmers, Australian Copperheads are very much at home in river, swamp and marshland habitats. They tend to gather where prey is plentiful and a major part of their diet is frogs and tadpoles. As generalized carnivorous hunters and they will eat any suitable sized prey – including one another and even their own young!”
“On the West Coast, their diet is expected to include possums and rats.”
And a follow up report states: It’s official – there could be snakes in NZ
Last issue Investigate broke the story that New Zealand has an undetected colony of venomous Australian Copperhead snakes in the remote wilderness of abandoned South Island gold mines. This was after a prospector and geologist encountered one on the West Coast. The Ministry for Primary Industry’s official report, just released to Investigate, concludes the land would be ideal for snakes and the South Island could be home to about 100. The only problem? No one else has seen them. This is the full report by herpetologist DYLAN VAN WINKEL of consultancy firm Bioresearches: http://www.investigatemagazine.co.nz/Investigate/13051/official-snakes-nz/
And of course there’s always those that have been smuggled into the country as pets…
It is possible there are snakes in New Zealand then, and maybe other parts of the world considered snake free…

Mike Arthur PhD

Comment thoughts?….

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3 thoughts on “Open discussion: Are snake free countries like NZ really snake free?”

  1. I too have been interested in this, and heard someone mention today that there had been snakes found in a mine on the West Coast. I did a few different searches for reports of this, and the only even slightly related article is the one that you’ve linked in your piece. However, the article has no sources for this tale, beyond a story they claim (without citation) they heard on the radio. The article goes on to extrapolate to a ridiculous degree, saying (again with no citation) that the snakes have been living in these mines for 150 years.

    All the other incidents in the article are verifiable though, and much more consistent with recent and ongoing reports. There was one found in a Japanese imported car just last year, for example. For the most part, it really does seem like New Zealand has very good bio security measures for dealing with snakes. I also think that, had any of the main subject of that article from 2014 been true, there would be some other more varied reports around the internet.

    I’m glad I stumbled across your site, the bits I hadn’t read before were interesting. I’d also be interested to find out more about what it’s like in the other example that comes to my head; Ireland!

    Cheers

    1. It’s a complicated situation in Ireland, while they don’t have any native snakes and NZ does (sea snakes), they are allowed to have pet snakes, which are banned in NZ (even zoos can’t keep them).
      An article in Popular Science (http://www.popsci.com/why-doesnt-ireland-have-snakes) states. “Pet snakes became a status symbol during Ireland’s economic boom in the late 1990s, but during the 2008 recession and afterward, tough times meant lots of people set their snakes loose. The snakes turned up in a lot of random places, but so far they haven’t seemed to spread far in the wild.” So it is possible that there are, or will be in the future, populations of wild snakes in Ireland.
      The bio security measures in NZ aren’t infallible, as is shown by the example of the snake in the imported car. From my time living in Australia, I know illegal “exotic” snakes smuggled into the country are available if you have the cash and the right contacts. From that I would suggest the same would apply in NZ. Whether that is happening or not I don’t know, but illegal firearms, drugs etc still get into the country so it would be reasonable to assume it’s possible for the same to apply to snakes.
      The story of the snakes on the West Coast is likely untrue, but not impossible. There are verifiable accounts of live snakes reaching NZ. Does anybody know for sure that none have managed to sneak off somewhere and survive? There are many uninhabited or sparsely populated areas in NZ, and snakes are good at hiding, only recently the Cropans Boa was rediscovered after being unseen for 64 years, and it seems there are new species of snake being found every year.
      The purpose of my article was to open peoples minds to the possibility, given their secretive nature and some largely uninhabited areas, that apparently snake-free countries could in reality have small populations of snakes, whether they be a known species or a new species.
      On a different note, in a similar vein I believe the Auckland Zoo is petitioning the government to be allowed to keep snakes. A lot of the animals at the zoo present far more danger to our ecosystem, and people than snakes would and I don’t recall they have ever had an escaped animal. So maybe they will eventually be permitted to keep some.

      1. It’s really interesting to hear about the serpent situation in Ireland as opposed to NZ! And also seems like it could be useful for informing how we would proceed, with domestic ownership probably not being a good idea, and zoos most likely not being an issue.

        I live in Australia (for a few more days), and you’re absolutely right. It is possible to get black market pet snakes, and I don’t think the possibility of that having occurred in NZ can be ruled out.

        All in all it is very interesting, thank you for replying! Enjoy your day friend (-:

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