Snakes might seem pretty scary, but did you know they’re essential in maintaining the balance of their ecosystems?
Snakes might seem pretty scary, but did you know they’re essential in maintaining the balance of their ecosystems?
In this episode, Amelia is joined by Australian snake wrangler and wildlife ecologist Damian Lettoof. The two unpack the crucial role snakes play in regulating local food populations and discuss why the health of many top tier predator snakes are in decline.
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You can read the full transcript for the episode at https://thefutureof.simplecast.com/episodes/snakes/transcript.
This is The Future Of, where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better.
Amelia Searson (00:09):
I'm Amelia Searson. I grew up watching Indiana Jones, one of the bravest characters in movie history. He faced skilled swordsman, gigantic rolling boulders, human sacrifices, and all without batting an eyelid. But bring a snake into the mix, and Indiana Jones would be facing his kryptonite. But was his fear justified? Are snakes just misunderstood creatures? One man who loves to get up close and personal with Australia's native snakes is, Damian Lettoof. Damian is a PhD candidate in the School of Molecular and Life Sciences at Curtin. Thanks for joining me today, Damian.
Damian Lettoof (00:40):
Amelia Searson (00:42):
So, your research has found that snakes are under threat by urbanisation, but some people may say, "The fewer the snakes, the better." Why do we need snakes in the environment?
Damian Lettoof (00:52):
So a healthy ecosystem is usually measured by a diversity of species ranging from invertebrates, through frogs, lizards, small mammals, and all the way up to your top predators like birds of prey. And an area with top predators is considered healthy, that's because it means all the steps below it are in place to sustain them and they help regulate appraise population.
Damian Lettoof (01:16):
So by having snakes in the ecosystem at the very minimum means it's healthy, in certain respects. Large snakes in particular, have a slightly different ecosystem function to other fauna. When they're small, they're providing food for all the other predators in the system, but as they grow, they become a top predator, and then they are now providing the function of a top predator, which is regulating prey. So this means it's important to have snakes in an ecosystem as their presence is providing both the functions of prey and predator.
Damian Lettoof (01:46):
And I'd just like to clarify that not all snakes are threatened by urbanisation. Urbanisation being the spread of urban landscape, into the natural areas of development of natural areas, concrete, basically. So many species of all animals persist and even exploit and adapt an urban environment. And this is the same with snakes, there's some species that the urban environment is actually really nice for them and they've got more food and they've got more shelter, and they've actually lost a lot of their predators, so they can build up and attain densities much higher than in a natural environment.
Amelia Searson (02:23):
And your research focuses on snakes in urban wetlands, including here in Perth, which is Western Australia's capital city. Where are snakes found in Perth? And what kinds do we have?
Damian Lettoof (02:34):
So, I'd say the most common snake in Perth is the dugite, and that's because dugites like habitat that are like open woodland and open heath. When you've got residential urban areas with gardens and stuff, it kind of mimics the same habitat, it's quite open, there's a few hiding spots. And dugites also eat mice and lizards, which are quite common in urban environments. So, you find dugites still managed to persist through a lot of urban areas. Then you'd have tiger snakes, which really like wetlands and they kind of need a certain structure of wetland, certain size wetland with a lot of frogs, which is what they're mainly eating, certain vegetation around it and a little bit of connectivity. So, we're still finding tiger snakes in Perth, but only in a handful of select wetlands, not every single wetland.
Damian Lettoof (03:22):
Carpet pythons used to be really common in Perth, they're quite common in coastal heath as well. But since the development of Perth, they've pretty much gone extinct from the area. And there's a bunch of small borrowing snakes and blind snakes that are still found in your kind of larger, more natural bushland reserves around Perth.
Amelia Searson (03:42):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And you mentioned that they've gone extinct now, what are the reasons for their extinction?
Damian Lettoof (03:47):
We're not sure from the Perth area in particular, because as soon as you go North and South of Perth into other parts of the Swan Coastal Plain, or even up into the hills a little bit, we're still finding them quite common. So it might be a combination of their particular food disappearing or that the habitat structure of an urban area is just not what they like anymore.
Amelia Searson (04:11):
Right. It's interesting, this concept of urbanisation ... before I came in today, I was talking to my mum who her sister used to live in Coffs Harbour in New South Wales and they had a bunch of snakes that would always come into their house and they would shed. And one time they found like a lot of skin on the floor and they thought that my auntie's husband had put it there to scare them. But in fact there was actually a massive snake coiled up around the kids toys. And apparently it had used the sofa or the couch to take it's skin off. Is that something that makes sense? Or was she just trying to be funny?
Damian Lettoof (04:48):
Yeah, they need to rub against something to try and help get it off. So if they're in a house where there's not your rocks and barks and leaves and stuff there, they'll just rub up against anything. So yeah, that makes sense. And the carpet pythons are an interesting one talking about like urban exploiters and adapters and them going almost basically extinct from the Perth region versus over East in Brisbane, Sydney, Coffs, all that stuff where we've got a very similar species of carpet python that, it turns up in everyone's houses, it loves it. So there's something about the ecology between the two species that one can do really well in urban environments and the other one can't.
Amelia Searson (05:27):
Yeah, it's interesting. So we spoke about the snakes in Perth that are becoming extinct, but on a more broader global perspective, what are the biggest threats to wetland snakes?
Damian Lettoof (05:38):
So wetlands are a very complex ecosystem. And as a result, they're really sensitive to disturbance and change. The most common threats to wetlands, especially from urbanisation, are changes in the hydrology, which is like the water flow, whether it's flying fast, slow, permanent water, draining a bank becoming ephemeral throughout the year. Habitat structure changes a lot. Once you've got urban areas, you've got people mowing lawns and cropping the vegetation down to be nice and neat as a park that also introduces a lot of weeds because seeds just flush into wetlands. So the vegetation changes very quickly and pollution as well. That's another critical influencer on wetland health.
Damian Lettoof (06:21):
Wetlands are basically the low point of the ecosystem. So all running water, every rain event flushes everything into them. And in urban wetlands in particular, historically they've often been built to have stormwater drains, feeding into them as it's how we get rid of the water from the urban environment.
Damian Lettoof (06:38):
So once you modify an ecosystem, these changes will trickle up through the food web and eventually impact the top tier predators, which in this case of my study species is tiger snakes. But this is applicable to all other wetlands snakes around the world. Snakes in particular need to live in an environment with really good hiding places. So particular vegetation structure and wetlands is susceptible, like I said, really susceptible to introduced weeds, which can alter the use of the area by snakes. It can basically either provide a better habitat or no change to the habitat, or it can completely alter the structure, if you remove the places the snakes can go and shelter and hide, they're not going to be there anymore.
Damian Lettoof (07:24):
Snakes also need their food source, like everything else. Tiger snakes in particular, eat a lot of frogs and there's a bunch of other wetland snakes around the world that eat fish. So if the water quality is reduced, their food may disappear. And if the wetland is polluted, the snakes will also be bioaccumulating all the contaminants that end up in their food.
Amelia Searson (07:46):
And with your research, what do you test or record when you catch and process snakes?
Damian Lettoof (07:48):
So I measure a range of health parameters on a snake when I catch them. First of all, I mark it and give an individual number by clipping their belly scales in a certain pattern. And then we retain that scale. And from that tissue, we can generate a whole bunch of heavy metals that they're exposed to in the keratin. And we also get DNA from those snakes, so we can do a population genetics analysis. So I measure their body condition. I look for wounds on them, any implication of damage to them. I measure four types of parasites that I can detect from the outside of them – the main one is nematodes, worms in the stomach. All tiger snakes, most frog eating snakes have large worm loads in their stomach and tiger snakes have a lot. It's really quite common. So when you get a snake, you can actually rub its belly and feel like a big bulge of worms in there.
Amelia Searson (08:44):
That makes me very squeamish.
Damian Lettoof (08:46):
It's disgusting. I've cut open hundreds of tiger snakes and just had to count every single worm in them and yeah, it's basically like a noodles in there.
Amelia Searson (08:52):
Damian Lettoof (08:55):
I also, if they've got food and I can feel that it's food, I'll slide it out the back up until I get the back legs out of their mouth so I can identify what food is and then I'll slide it back in. So to make sure they don't lose their food. I-
Amelia Searson (09:07):
I'm sorry. Do you put them to... I'm guessing you use... What's it called anaesthesia?
Damian Lettoof (09:13):
Amelia Searson (09:14):
Damian Lettoof (09:15):
Amelia Searson (09:16):
No, they're alive?
Damian Lettoof (09:16):
Amelia Searson (09:17):
Damian Lettoof (09:18):
Amelia Searson (09:18):
How does that work?
Damian Lettoof (09:19):
So I always have an assistant with me right now, I've got a master's student here at Curtin, Jari Cornelis, who is doing tiger snake research as well. He comes out with me every day and basically his job is to hold the snake by the head. We use these Kevlar bite-proof gloves. So we catch a snake, it's restrained by the head and then I can work on the body. We're obviously quite gentle and snakes are really tough and they're really plastic pliable. That's how they can get through all these places, so it doesn't really hurt and do much damage to poke and prod them.
Damian Lettoof (09:51):
I look for tail damage. That's a big thing we've been noticing in urban wetlands, their tails are either kind of falling off or rotting off or being bitten off, we're not sure. Still working that out, but it's quite common that they have really stumpy little tails or tails that are falling off.
Damian Lettoof (10:06):
And I take blood from a bunch of snakes. I've taken that as well, where we have to restrain the snake, locate its heart, turn it upside down. We locate it's heart beating and then I put a really thin needle through its scales straight into its heart. And when done correctly, I hit the chamber of the heart and the heart basically pumps blood into the needle. And within a few seconds, I can take out the amount of blood that I need, let them go. And then the needle is so small that the hole just seals up. And then we can use that blood to look at a bunch of biochemical parameters that indicate health in an animal.
Amelia Searson (10:46):
Interesting. And obviously your research is very extensive and the work that you do is helping snakes, figuring out what's going on. Is there anything that the everyday person can do to help protect and improve our wetlands and snake habitats?
Damian Lettoof (11:02):
Yeah, so, it's a lot easier said than done. It's quite difficult when we've got persistent pollutants, like heavy metals and certain chemicals that take a long time to break down that are already in the sediment from decades of use or historical use and they're no longer used. Once they're in the sediment, they're slowly going to be leaching into the wetland until, until it's gone basically, which is probably going to take a long time.
Damian Lettoof (11:26):
But now we're trying to reduce the source of pollution. So a lot of pesticides and herbicides now are manufactured to be chemicals that break down really quickly. And that's important because it doesn't matter if they're excessively used in the ecosystem. If it's something that doesn't break down and is lipophilic, which is binds to fats, or hydrophilic, binds to water, then these attach to bodies really easily. And then when they get... They accumulate inside animals and they don't metabolise very quickly.
Damian Lettoof (11:58):
So if we can reduce the source of pollution, that's a good one. For wetlands in particular, if we ensure a healthy buffer zone of natural vegetation, what's meant to be there is around the water. A lot of these urban parks are basically mowed grass to the edge of the water. And it's basically like a pool, which is not going to provide habitat for many species at all. It's just going to have some basic birds in there probably, and maybe some invasive fish. We also want to try and minimise modifying the natural hydrology. A lot of the wetlands in Perth in particular have been removed, like drained completely, or they used to be these ephemeral ponds that go through the seasonal shift. And now they're permanent bodies of water because they've kind of been dug out and hold water. That changes the composition of species there.
Damian Lettoof (12:40):
There's also a potential way to clean up pollutants in wetlands. There's some good plant species, like some bulrush species that can be planted. And they will basically from the roots absorb what's in the sediment, a lot of these metals... But the problem is once the plant is fully grown, it actually has to be manually cut and removed and then burnt to remove it – because otherwise the plant, if you leave it, it'll absorb it. And then the plant dies and then it'll decompose and just release it back into the environment.
Amelia Searson (13:08):
Our wetlands are so important, I don't even think many people quite realise their significance. So you've handled 500 tiger snakes in the past three years. Can you tell me about them?
Damian Lettoof (13:20):
Yes, they are nowhere near as scary as everyone makes them out to be. They're quite, well-known in Australian culture to be like your aggressive snake and your really dangerous snake. They were back in the early days accountable for most of the bites. That's because they were really common in these areas like Sydney and Southeast... New South Wales and Southeast Australia, where a lot of farmers and developers were going. So they were a large snake, very common. You accidentally spook them or bump them, they might bite you. And I think that myth has kind of travelled on through time. It'd been like tiger snakes are really aggressive.
Damian Lettoof (14:02):
I've been working with snakes for over 10 years in Australia, all around Australia. I've worked with snake catchers in different cities. Brown snakes, like your dugite and eastern brown behaviorally are a lot more twitchy and nervous. Tiger snakes... Out of those 500 or more tigers that we've handled, probably I could count on two hands, so less than 10 individuals, have been like cranky, cranky. Not wanting to be handled, biting everything they can see, really thrashy. Most of the other ones, their first response if they see you is to flee, they try and go into the vegetation. If they're out in the open and they feel like they can't easily escape, the next response is to flatten their neck out and kind of stand up almost kind of like a Cobra. And while they're doing this, they're making look bigger and they're usually slithering away from you at the same time while they're doing this.
Damian Lettoof (14:56):
So there's still first response is "getaway". Just try and keep you away from it. Then when you pick them up, which is often when the snake's going to bite, most tiger snakes will thrash, which is trying to get out of your grip. They're not even turning around to bite. Then you get the individuals that instinctually turn around to bite. I've picked up tiger snakes, particularly in the urban wetlands and in cold mornings when they're still waking up and they don't have a lot of energy. I've picked them up with my gloves, of course. And they've behaved like a pet python. They haven't even twitched at me touching them. They've just gently accepted that I'm picking them up and just kind of looked around kind of curiously.
Amelia Searson (15:37):
"This is where I am now, I guess."
Damian Lettoof (15:37):
And they're just like, "oh, okay". And then put them in the bag and then that's done.
Damian Lettoof (15:40):
So yeah, they're nowhere near as bad as people think. But in saying that tiger snakes are well renowned for biting a lot of experienced handlers, that get too relaxed with them. So like any venomous snake, you just don't treat them like a pet or a toy. You just have to always be on the ball with them because they can be quick if they want. And they're normally quite muscular, which means they can come around and bite you really quickly. But yeah, it's been really interesting catching that many around Perth. It's just been cool to kind of see the habitat they prefer and the densities that we're finding them in, in some of these urban wetlands where you can just go out and in an hour, get 20 in a bag.
Damian Lettoof (16:22):
You can be walking along and just look out at the right time of day in the morning and see there's one and then look five metres away and there's another one, there's another one. And I'm marking these individuals and I'm not getting a lot of recaptures, which is suggesting that there's just many more than what I've caught out there.
Amelia Searson (16:38):
Is there a hotspot?
Damian Lettoof (16:40):
Herdsman Lake is my main study site and that's where we have caught the most snakes. I haven't caught them in a structured enough manner to estimate numbers at the moment, but it's the most common place to see tiger snakes. It's well-renowned in Australia. If you want to go see a tiger snake, you can go out almost any day of the year and see them, even in winter, you might see the odd one curled up basking.
Amelia Searson (17:07):
Probably a good time. There'll be all trying to keep warm, nice and chilled.
Damian Lettoof (17:12):
Yeah, they're cold. And they're only coming out for a small amount of time just to get warm and then go back into their hide.
Amelia Searson (17:17):
Right. And so overall, do you think snakes deserve the bad rap that they get?
Damian Lettoof (17:21):
Definitely not. So there's an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 bites per year. That's reported bites, this can be actual bites from snakes. This can be-
Amelia Searson (17:31):
Is that globally?
Damian Lettoof (17:32):
This is an Australia, sorry.
Amelia Searson (17:33):
Damian Lettoof (17:36):
Yeah, that can be, you're bush walking and get a scratch and someone thinks that's a bite. This is reported bites, 3,000 to 5,000 a year. One to 200 of them are severe envenomation that needs antivenom. And only one to two people die on average per year from snake bites in Australia, so statistically it's really low. Fifty per cent of these bite cases are for people interfering with the snakes, that includes a lot of snake catches that are actually paid to go out and remove them. But usually it's someone trying to kill it or someone trying to pick it up and play with it, or someone thinking it's a non venomous snake, and then they get bitten by a venomous snake.
Damian Lettoof (18:16):
The thing is snakes are almost everywhere in Australia, in your urban environments, in any patch of bush and you just don't see them. It took me a very long time to learn how to find snakes. And then once you know how to find them, you realise that they're everywhere and we radio-track snakes as well. I've done several projects that radio tracking snakes and like a large scrub python, which is like a three-metre long python, will be just walking out in long grass, like knee-high grass. And the signal is coming from just a patch of grass in the ground. And you have to kind of part it and you'll just see this huge ball of snake there. And it's like, how many of these are just around us?
Damian Lettoof (18:53):
Like they're there, most of the time aware of your presence and they've gone before you even see them. So, people have this big fear of them, they don't realise that they're around them every single day and they're just not coming into contact with them at all. They're not even seeing them so that they're obviously not out there to get people.
Amelia Searson (19:10):
It's that classic saying, "They're more afraid of you than you are of them".
Damian Lettoof (19:13):
Yeah definitely. Australian snakes in particular, because they're quite small. So we appear as a big predator. So they're just like, "Oh, God. There's someone that's"-
Amelia Searson (19:23):
"Got to get out of here". So that actually flows in really well to the next question that I have. It's well and truly snake season in Australia, how can we avoid snakes when walking in the bush or wetlands and what should we do if we spot one?
Damian Lettoof (19:37):
I get asked this question all the time. Well, like I was just saying, they're avoiding you most of the time, but when you do happen to stumble upon one, sometimes they're out basking and they haven't seen you. Or, a lot of snakes choose to when they've been seen, their first reaction is to freeze and hope that you don't see them, which is why people often encounter them sprawled out, along paths and the snakes stop. And they're like, "oh God". The snake has actually seen them and just gone, "uh oh".
Amelia Searson (20:02):
"I'm just a really big stick, I swear."
Damian Lettoof (20:03):
Yeah, like, "let's not move". So when that happens, because yeah... It's hard because I go out to catch snakes. So when I see a snake, I get switched into adrenaline and let's go catch this thing. And I've always noticed that behaviour, they're frozen. And when I start moving towards them and I can see that my eyes are looking at them, they now interpret me as a predator and that's when they either get angry or they try and flee. But what that shows is just don't approach them as soon as you see them, because that's when they're going to potentially get aggressive. And if you come within... The usual measures like half their body length, that's when they can bite you. So if you're staying without, to be safe, the full length of the snake, if you're staying out of that zone at all times, it's impossible that the snake is going to hurt you.
Damian Lettoof (20:52):
So the best thing is either to stay still and out of its way or just slowly move away. These fast movements can kind of spook them and that's when they... Like I was saying the browns, they're really nervous and they can get up and open their mouth and look all scary and they actually try and approach to try and spook you away and that's when people think they're getting chased because they see a snake come up, start moving towards them, they turn away and run. And the last thing that they've all thought is, "This snake's coming towards me". And they think it's chasing them for 30 metres, but the reality is it's probably only gone a metre towards them and then they've run away and then the snake's gone off. So it's always best to just avoid them.
Damian Lettoof (21:29):
I don't think that stomping on the ground actually does anything. This has been some research that's tried to show it, but it's really hard to tell in the environment versus lab conditions, because I've seen snakes... Really commonplace to find snakes is along train lines and hiding in the rocks because it's just a really nice habitat for them. And a huge train is rumbling past every so often, so they obviously don't care about vibrations. It's just if they're used to that area or not, I feel. Yeah, it's just safe to watch them, observe them, appreciate them, and keep your distance.
Amelia Searson (22:06):
And what's been one of your most memorable experiences of working with snakes?
Damian Lettoof (22:10):
Yeah, I had two.
Damian Lettoof (22:12):
There's a pretty interesting story when I was in Indonesia, living in the jungle for two months, as a herpetologist for a group called Operation Wallacea and they basically bring out school children from around the world, take them out for a week in the jungle, working with real scientists. And we collect data and show them basically from a conservation and research perspective, what ecologists do. So I was in the jungle as the hepatologist out in a Bush camp. I had an infection in my face that caused this like kind of very rapid abcess growth that was like spreading in the space of a day. And I had to be operated on by the camp medic with basic medical supplies.
Damian Lettoof (22:58):
So I basically had this operation on my face and had been fed all the camps painkiller medical supplies. So I was quite doped up because there wasn't anaesthesia out there. I obviously had the next few days off work and the school kids were getting some demonstration in camp about something. And I was kind of swinging in my hammock all cloudy from medication and the Indonesian guides that we had with us come running in. And they're all screaming like, "Ular, big ular." Which is the word for snake.
Damian Lettoof (23:35):
And one of my mates, who was the bird researcher out there came running up and he's like, "There's this huge python curled up outside of camp. Do you want to come and get it?" And I was in this stage of really not in the zone to be going out and catching a large snake, but also knew it wasn't venomous and I hadn't seen that species before. And so I really wanted to see one. These are reticulated pythons, which get to like 10 metres long.
Amelia Searson (24:00):
Damian Lettoof (24:00):
This individual was three and a half metres, which is quite small for them, but it's still a lot bigger than any snake I'd handled in Australia.
Damian Lettoof (24:06):
So I kind of like rolled out of my hammock and stumbled down with no shoes on and put my shirt on and walk out to this opening, there's this sunny patch and this snake's curled up and it's obviously eaten a meal, like a little pig or something, or a civet, had this large bulge in it. And I'm kind of looking at it and I'm thinking, "Oh, this snake's too big for me to go up and grab behind the neck quickly. Because it's so long, it'll be able to bite me before I can get into its safe zone." And these pythons' heads are like bigger than my hand. They're full of teeth, pythons are terrible to be a bitten by.
Amelia Searson (24:40):
Have you been bitten by one?
Damian Lettoof (24:41):
Yeah. I've been bitten by like pet pythons and smaller ones. And they just cause a lot of bleeding. Because they've just got like 200 needle sharp teeth that kind of slash you and you just bleed for a long time.
Damian Lettoof (24:52):
So I saw this snake and surrounded by these guides and I'm like, "Oh, I really need like some kind of pinning stick." And one of them within like 30 seconds has cut down this branch and fashioned me this fork stick this perfect length. And I was like, "Oh cool." And I just explained to everyone, "Right, when I grab this snake, it's probably going to start wrapping me up. And it's so big that I probably wouldn't be able to pull it off." So they were all ready and I basically grabbed it and it didn't wrap me up, thankfully, and we just stretched it out and walked back into camp and showed all these kids iths huge snake that we carried in. That was probably the most exciting time.
Amelia Searson (25:30):
Oh my goodness. That's a more than incredible experience. And what was the other standout story that you had?
Damian Lettoof (25:38):
I remember this time working as a snake catcher in Canberra where I got called out to someone's house. They had a snake there. The main snake in Canberra is eastern browns, which are quite quick moving and quite nervous, I was saying before. And quite often when you get called out to someone's house and they're 30 minutes away and they've just seen a snake in their backyard and you say, "Keep your eye on it. It's probably not going to be there when I get there, but we charged for a call out, do you still want to come?" They're like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. We just want the peace of mind."
Damian Lettoof (26:10):
And this person was saying "This snake has been hanging in my retaining wall. Like it's been basking there every day at this time of day." So I was thinking, "Okay, it's probably a pretty good chance it's going to be there." So I drive out there and then I go through the person's house and they point out this top of this retaining wall and there's this perfect sunny patch. And I can see this eastern brown, she's quite big. Probably 1.2 or 1.3 metres, which is pretty decent for an urban snake. A little bit scary because the browns are so nervous and so venomous that the chance of being bitten is a lot higher.
Damian Lettoof (26:45):
And when it's on uneven terrain like that, it's quite hard to catch because she's on a wall. So she's either going to go up or down the wall and I've got to scramble around and try catch this thing and not get bitten. So I can see her there, I can see she's obviously gravid, meaning she's growing her eggs. Because she's getting quite fat and it's the time of year that they're all growing babies. And that's probably why she chose this piece of wall to live in. It probably offered a really good hiding spot and a really nice basking spot every day, hence she was living there. And this wall was about a metre or two away from a classic chain link fence that divided three neighbours' yards.
Damian Lettoof (27:24):
And so I saw her and I started sneaking up and I was thinking from the angle I was coming, she's going to dive down the wall. And so I'm sneaking up and then yeah, as soon as she saw me, she started to move. So I run down, try to grab her and she just went straight through this chain link fence into this long grass, into the neighbour's yard. And I stopped and I kind of heard us slither off, but once the snake gets in the long grass, you're never going to find them. They rustle for a little bit and then they actually just become dead silent because their body's designed to not make any sound.
Damian Lettoof (27:53):
So I just kind of said to this guy, "I'm so sorry, I missed this thing." I'm like, "I don't have any calls at the moment. So I'm happy to wait if you don't mind." And I started waiting, I think he made me a sandwich and we were waiting for like 20 minutes or so and I look out again and she's back on this wall. And so I got my pinning stick this time to help try and stop it from a further distance. Approached, got a bit closer to this time, but same thing. I think I managed to like touch her tail tip or something and she just went through this fence again. So rinse and repeat. And we went and sat down again, 20, 30 minutes later, there she was back on this wall and this time, I was getting annoyed because it's kind of frustrating when you you're so close to catching it and you can't. It's kind of like this thing, this-
Amelia Searson (28:38):
An itch you can't scratch.
Damian Lettoof (28:40):
Yeah, exactly. So this time was a bit more ready. Did the run, she repeated the same thing. I still missed the tail tip or something. I just didn't get her, I think I managed to pin the tail tip as she was going through the fence, but she pulled out of it and I just like jumped on the fence, jumped into the neighbour's yard into this long grass. And I could hear her like a metre away rustling around and I'd move over there and then I could hear behind me rustling and I'm kind of running through this grass, trying to keep her on the move, keep her making sound. And then I see her again, she goes back into his yard. So I jumped over the fence and it's a flimsy chime chain fence, so it's quite difficult.
Damian Lettoof (29:16):
And she turns around and goes into the next neighbour's yard. And I'm basically jumping over these fences through neighbours' yards, trying to get her, until I managed to get her as she's diving through the fence and grab the tail, which is quite a risky move. I kind of dived down to get her on all fours, which is quite dangerous when if the snake comes back, you don't have a lot of flexibility to move. But because she had gotten... She was in the fence and getting tangled when she turned around and tried to bite, she was just kind of caught up against the fence. So I ended up getting her there and then I had to untangle her from this fence, but that was probably the most difficult catch.
Damian Lettoof (29:50):
But yeah, it just goes to show if you've got a favourable landscape in your yard and you're living in an area with urban snakes, you may often find snakes that become resident there for a little bit, especially during the times of breeding. Most often when a snake goes through someone's yard, they're literally passing through. And if you call a snake catcher they can come and give an inspection, but snakes can hide in very difficult places or most of the time they're gone. So you're pretty safe to say that the snake's gone, but if you see it kind of repeat a few days in a row in the same spot, it's probably found a really nice little favourable environment that it's deciding to stick there for a while. And if it is breeding season, the girls prefer to do that. They just want to get their one spot until they can grow their babies or their eggs. And then they'll go lay them and move on.
Amelia Searson (30:38):
Wow, what an ordeal that was. So how will your research impact the future of snakes?
Damian Lettoof (30:46):
That's a difficult one because we're kind of a few decades already into conservation and snake research, but some particular points my research is aiming towards is highlighting the use of snakes as indicators of ecosystem health, which is basically not looking at the snake from the angle of the snake itself. But saying, "If you've got snakes in this particular environment, is it healthy or not? And can we take measurements of the snake itself that reflect the environment?" In particular, my research is looking at pollution a lot.
Damian Lettoof (31:21):
So, you've got these snakes living there. Can we take measurements of the snake and see how it's reflecting, how the pollution is going through the ecosystem and what effect it's having at the top predator of that ecosystem? And this will ultimately aim to reduce urban pollution in wetlands, leading to healthier snakes, and then their food web underneath them. For tiger snakes in particular, it's going through the frogs. We know that frogs are like little sponges and they absorb contaminants really easily, but a lot of these urban wetlands still have frogs and snakes. So it's much less toxic levels we're looking at, but it's still their presence.
Damian Lettoof (32:00):
So by looking at snakes and hoping to have snakes in the ecosystem and monitoring them, we can kind of show a different level of health than your classic, "Are their fish there? Are there frogs there? What's the water flow like?" I tried for many years to apply for many universities and do a project on snakes, particularly venomous snakes. And most unis have said "No", because of obviously the health and safety risk. But also from a scientific risk perspective, because snakes are quite often hard to find and it's hard to do a project on them, if you can't find the animals you meant to sample.
Damian Lettoof (32:42):
But here at Curtin, when Curtin accepted me, I had this personal goal that was like, "I want to go out and get as much good data as I can, see as many snakes as possible and show that we can work safely with snakes and only use responsible people when it comes to catching the snakes and getting the measurements." And me and my master's student now, and my team of volunteers, we've got this huge data set and we've answered so many questions in a very short amount of time that shows with the right equipment and the right people in the right training, that it's still safe to work with snakes. And hopefully that allows for more people to start doing it in the future because there's still a lot of unanswered questions.
Amelia Searson (33:25):
Well, it's great that you're on that journey to answering some of those questions. Damian, thank you so much for explaining snakes to me. I don't think that I'm going to be going on any snake catching conquests anytime soon, but I really appreciated learning about them. So thanks for joining me.
Damian Lettoof (33:40):
No worries, thanks for having me.
Amelia Searson (33:42):
And if people want to get in contact with you or keep up to date with your research, where can they find you?
Damian Lettoof (33:48):
So I share a lot of my research on my Twitter – the Twitter handle is LettsGetSnakes with a double 'T' and you can also contact me on my university email address, which I believe you'll have attached to the show.
Amelia Searson (34:02):
Yes, we definitely will.
Amelia Searson (34:05):
You've been listening to The Future Of, a podcast powered by Curtin University. If you'd like to share your thoughts on today's episode about snakes, or if you have a question for Damian, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, if you liked this episode, don't forget to share it and subscribe to our podcast. Thanks for listening.