The Papuan taipan, Oxyuranus scutellatus canni, is a large, diurnal elapid that occurs throughout the southern coastal provinces of Papua New Guinea, extending west into the southwest portion of West Papua at elevations ranging from 0 to 360 meters (O’Shea, 1996). It is very closely related to the coastal taipan, Oxyuranus scutellatus scutellatus, of Australia, and is ranked amongst the most venomous species of snake in the world. It is considered to be the most dangerous snake found on Papua New Guinea, responsible for more serious snake bites than any other species within its range.
Typically, the body colouration ranges from dark brown to black with a broad orange vertebral stripe, the head is typical dark with a cream or white nose and labials - specimens show regional colour variations and these differences can even be seen within local populations. The Papuan taipan attains an average size of 2 meters, with males often reaching a larger size than females. Reports of specimens of 3.4 meters in length have been made, however, anything over 2.6 metres is considered rare. In the wild, Papuan taipans will feed almost exclusively on mammalian prey, including rats and larger prey items such as bandicoots. They may also feed on ground-nesting birds; in captivity, they will readily accept chicks as part of their diet.
The Papuan taipan is an extremely nervous animal that, like all snakes, will try to avoid human contact wherever possible, preferring to flee rather than fight. If cornered or provoked however, this species is known to be quick to defend itself, often with multiple bites. These bites will be delivered in rapid succession with a 'snap and release' motion. The venom of the Papuan taipan contains a deadly combination of presynaptic and postsynaptic neurotoxins, myotoxins and procoagulants which can lead to muscle weakness, in-coagulable blood and respiratory failure - often resulting in death without treatment with antivenom.
In captivity, the Papuan taipan has proven to be an active, intelligent, and interesting snake to keep and maintain for those with the necessary experience to deal with this large and dangerous venomous snake. This article outlines my first attempt at breeding this species.
Early 2009, I acquired a pair of captive bred '07 Papuan taipan, Oxyuranus scutellatus canni, both of which were around 130cm in length at the time of purchase. Taipans have an extremely fast metabolism, and with regular feeding on appropriately sized rodents, my pair grew quickly. By August 2009, the male had reached 160cm and the female was slightly smaller, at around 150cm, and both were at a size where they could be paired for breeding purposes. I also received another adult female on loan from my friend and fellow venomous snake keeper David Nixon, to make a trio, and in October I started to process of cycling them ready for breeding.
The snakes were housed separately in 120cm x 60cm x 60cm vivariums. In the months leading up to breeding, the females were fed more than usual to increase body weight, averaging four appropriately sized rodents each week, and this was to ensure they maintained good health during egg development. The setup within the enclosures were kept simple with minimum furnishings, orchid bark substrate and a water bowl. Papuan taipans are an extremely fast and nervous species, so keeping furnishings within the enclosure to a minimum can make the removal and handling of the snakes easier and safer.
On 2nd October I began cooling the snakes by putting the cage thermostats on a timer and having them switch off for three hours each night, between 12am and 3am. The temperature would fall from 88C during the day down to approximately 78C at night, although on some colder evenings, the temperature could go down to 73C. Over the period of a month, I had the timers switching off the thermostats for a longer period each week, so that by the end of October the taipans were experiencing an 8 hour cooling period between 12am and 8am each night. I kept the day time temperatures as normal throughout this time. Whilst cooling the snakes, I also began spraying the cages lightly twice a day with tepid water to simulate a rainy season.
On 29th October, I placed the first female taipan (referred to as F1 from here on in) into the male’s enclosure. The male was almost instantly drawn to the female and noticeably excited. Over the next few hours, the male chased the female around the enclosure, and they began doing a courtship ‘dance’, which looked very similar to male combat seen in other snake species. Over the period of the next week, this courtship behaviour happened frequently and several copulations were witnessed.
After ten days, I split off the pair and allowed the male to rest for a further ten days. During this time I offered both snakes food, however the male refused the rodents offered to him. I then placed the second female taipan (F2) into the males enclosure, and the same courtship and copulations were witnessed with this pairing. Again, after ten days, F2 was removed from the enclosure and both snakes were offered food. The male continued to refuse food, whereas both females ate eagerly. Two weeks later, F1 began to refuse food, and was spending much of her time basking in the hot end of her enclosure. This was a promising sign that things were going well. At this point, F1's thermostat was taken off the timer and the evening cooling periods were stopped for her.
On 6th January, F1 had her pre-lay slough and had began to swell very noticeably. From then on, handling was kept to an absolute minimum, although, in the few times she did have to be removed from the enclosure, you could see quite clearly the egg bulges along her belly. 19 days later, on 25th January, 12 large eggs were laid. F2 went through this same process, and on 28th February laid 6 eggs, 12 days after her pre-lay slough.
The eggs were set up in a polystyrene incubator. They were placed in a plastic container on a damp vermiculite substrate, and kept at 28-29C. Every 4-5 days the eggs were checked and the vermiculite dampened if necessary. Sadly over the period of the first 30 days, three of F1's eggs turned ‘bad’ and had to be discarded. These eggs had turned a very off-white colour and shrunk to nearly half the size of the good eggs. After seven weeks, one of the remaining eggs also began to turn an unusual colour, but since it did not shrink, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and left it it. Sadly the baby within this egg would later be found fully developed but dead within the egg.
I anticipated that F1's clutch of eggs would started hatching at around 60 days, and around this time began checking the incubator daily. On the morning of day 63, I lifted the lid of the incubator to find one baby taipan fully emerged, and another two eggs pipped and little heads peeping through. Upon seeing light for the first time, the two little heads quickly disappeared back into the egg - true to form, the fully emerged baby taipan became defensive and struck out. I carefully lifted the lid of the container, and using a snake hook and some slow movements, hooked the little snake out and placed it into a tub. Over the period of the next five days, each baby began to fully emerged and I ended up with eight fantastic little babies. Approximately one month later, of the six eggs laid by F2, four babies hatched out after 61 days of incubation. The other two eggs in this clutch unfortunately contained fully formed dead babies.
The babies were initially housed together in a large plastic container until they had their first slough, which occurred 8-11 days after hatching. After this first slough, the hatchlings colours really began to come through and the red streak running down the dorsal of the body intensified. After this, they were then separated off into small plastic containers, and these were kept in a locked vivarium for security. The tubs were set up in much the same way you would keep most hatchling snakes, with a paper substrate, small plastic hide and a small water bowl. The idea was to keep things simple, making cleaning and handling as easy a task as possible. After they had their first slough, David came down to collect half of the babies from the clutch laid by his female, and took away four of the little taipans.
Two weeks after hatching, when the swollen bellies of egg-yolk had disappeared, I offered the first clutch of baby taipans their first meal. I used the smallest pink mice I could find and after defrosting, heated them up in some warm water. Hatchling taipans are far too defensive to be strike-fed, so I placed one pink mouse into each tub early one morning with minimal fuss, and then left my snake-room for several hours. Much to my disappointment, on this first attempt, none of the babies had taken the meal offered to them. I left it another three days and tried the same technique, and this time one of the babies took. Eventually, three babies would feed on the defrosted pink mice without any problem. One baby was being a problematic feeder, and after three weeks, I made the decision to begin assist-feeding it. Although this would appear to be too soon to start assist-feeding such a young snake, taipans, like most elapid species, have extremely fast metabolisms and will loose weight very quickly. Using a sponge attached to a snake hook, the baby taipan was pinned with little fuss and thanks to its aggressive nature, would eagerly chew on the baby mouse that was placed in front of its head, with tweezers of course! After five feeds in this way, the taipan quickly got the idea and also began to feed on its own. Due to their very quick metabolism and growth rate, the hatchling taipans were fed regularly, usually on two pink mice every third day. The four babies from the second clutch of eggs fed well without problems.
Unlike that adult taipans, which could be hook-and-tailed (the act of holding the snake close to the cloaca with one hand, whilst using a hook to control the body of the snake with the other) for handling purposes, a completely hands-off approach had to be taken when dealing with these babies, as they were far to small for me to safely use the same kind of handling technique. With slow movements however, the babies could be hooked with relative ease to be transferred into tubs for cleaning purposes.
I kept all the hatchlings back for three months to allow them to become well established, before they were re-homed to suitably-experienced keepers in Europe. During this first 3 months, they more than double in size and sloughed roughly every four weeks – more often than any other species I have previously kept.
Papuan taipans are a highly venomous and dangerous species of snake that are only suitable for people with experience dealing with large and aggressive elapids. That aside, they are a hardy species that have proven to be easy to breed in a captive situation. Since this first attempt at breeding this species, I have bred Papuan taipans on another two occasions, and have had better hatch-rates from these recent clutches than I did on my first two - I look forward to breeding this species again in the future.
Williams, David., Jensen, Simon., Nimorakiotakis, Dr Bill and Winkel, Kenneth., 2005, Venomous Bites and Stings in Papua New Guinea
O’Shea, Mark, 2005, Venomous Snakes of the World, Princeton University Press.
O’Shea, Mark, 1996, A Guide to the Snakes of Papua New Guinea: The First Comprehensive Guide to the Snake Fauna of Papua New Guinea, Independent Publishing, Independent Group Pty Ltd., Papua New Guinea.
Eco Animal Encounters - An article detailing the captive breeding of the Papuan taipan, Oxyuranus scutellatus, in captivity.