Keeping the Common Death Adder, Acanthophis antarcticus
NATURE 4 YOU – Tie and Scott Eipper
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The Common Death Adder is a species of snake that must only be kept by experienced elapid keepers. The toxicity of the venom combined with the speed and accuracy of the strike make the Common Death Adder a species suited for the more experienced keeper.
We at Nature 4 You do not endorse the keeping of venomous snakes without suitable experience and only when you have the appropriate permits and facilities to care for the animal properly.
COMMON NAMES: Common Death Adder
SCIENTIFIC NAMES: Acanthophis antarcticus
PRONUNCIATION: ak-anth-oh-fis ant-ark-tik-us
ETYMOLOGY: Acanthophis – spine-snake, antarcticus - southern
ADULT SIZE: 90cms
ADULT WEIGHT: 700gms
LIFE EXPENTANCY: Common Death Adders have been known to live over 15yrs in captivity.
The Common Death Adder is native to Australia, found on the New South Wales/Victoria border in the east through most of New South Wales and into Queensland. They also inhabit the southern coast of Australia in South Australia and Perth. Common Death Adders live in wide variety of habitat: woodlands, grasslands, rainforests, mallee and brigalow. Death Adders are mostly nocturnal and are usually found either crossing the road at night, or in leaf litter in the ambush position. Death Adders don’t actively hunt prey, they rely on their camouflage and sit in wait in leaf litter for unsuspecting frogs, small lizards, birds, and small mammals. The tail is used as a caudal lure and is waved around above their head like a worm, hoping to entice unsuspecting prey in with it. The Common Death Adder is a medium sized elapid with a robust body. Colour varies greatly on the Common Death Adder. It can range from light tan to dark brown and pale cream to dark red. There are dark crossbands on most specimens. The underneath is usually lighter than the dorsal colouration, with darker flecking. White or cream barring is prominent on the lips. The caudal lure can be black, but in most specimens, it is white to yellow in colour. Their venom is neurotoxic, with weak haemolytic and anticoagulant activity.
Common Death Adder, Acanthophis antarcticus, Sydney. Red colour form.
A single adult Common Death Adder needs a terrestrial enclosure about 300mm wide X 900mm Long X 400mm High. The housing of juveniles is best done by housing them in plastic style enclosures with ventilation holes either drilled or melted with a soldiering iron. This plastic tub can be placed inside the larger enclosure. Plastic tubs are often utilised for small snakes as they are cheap, easy to clean and seal very well. This is important as a small snake is able to escape through very small gaps, which are often present in timber enclosures. Both juvenile’s and adult Common Death Adders should be kept individually. Not only can cage-mates turn on each other, the speed and accuracy of their strike combined with the toxicity of their venom makes one snake per cage a lot easier and safer to deal with. We house our juveniles singularly in plastic tubs. These tubs have clips on the side to lock the lids in place, are readily available and easy to modify. We start our neonate Common Death Adders in 2L tubs measuring 22cms L x 16cms W x 8cms H and move them up to appropriately sized caging as they grow. We use paper towel on the bottom of these tubs as it is easy to clean - simply remove the soiled paper towel and replace with new.
The adult cage can have a variety of substrates ranging from bark to paper. We personally use either a kitty litter made of recycled paper – it helps absorb some of the smell and clumping “deposits” or newspaper or butcher’s paper as its easily cleaned. Other effective substrates include synthetic grass mats, bark chips and paper towel. If using the bark chips for a more natural look, make sure no fertilizers or chemicals have been added by reading the bags and try to avoid as much dust in the enclosure as possible. If using synthetic grass, you should have 2 pieces cut to size so when one gets soiled the other can be put in while other gets washed. Pet shops sell a variety of suitable substrates as well as the synthetic grass and bark chips that are available from hardware shops.
Common Death Adder, Acanthophis antarcticus. Grey colour form.
Common Death Adders need cover in which they can hide. This can be provided by a
hollow log or a rock near the back wall, etc. Pet shops have an ample range of naturalist looking hides readily available also. At least one hide should be in the warm end and one in the cool end of the cage. We have found leaf litter or recycled paper kitty litter works best for Common Death Adders as it is closer to their natural habitat. They submerge themselves in the substrate and commence with a more natural behaviour. (Ambushing). Care must be taken if using these for substrate – ALWAYS locate your snake before opening the door/lid of your enclosure.
The cage also needs to be well ventilated. A series of cupboard vents cut into
both the front and back of an adult enclosure work well allowing the air to flow though. In housing for younger animals, the holes should be placed in both the lid and around the sides of the plastic containers.
The water bowl should large enough for the snake to soak in. This is invaluable in the hottest parts of summer and for sloughing. This should be situated in the cool end of the cage. The water bowl should be washed when clean water is added, not just topped up. Not washing the bowl and continually topping up the water can lead to illness in the animal and a green water bowl.
The cage should be cleaned out at least once a week to prevent the build-up of germs etc. Cleaning out weekly will also allow you to check the animal over whilst removing them from the cage. This is when you will pick up things you may miss from just looking at the animal in the enclosure. However, traces of faeces and urine should be cleaned as soon as it’s noticed.
All heating should be placed at one end of the cage and controlled by a thermostat. This creates a thermal gradient. This is vital for the survival of the occupants. If the cage is either too hot or to cool the snake has a place to retreat to. Excessive heat will kill your snake very quickly - ideal temperatures for the Common Death Adder are approximately 32 degrees Celsius at the warm end of the cage and 24 degrees at the cool end of the cage.
Ways of heating include light bulb(s) placed at one end of the cage connected to a thermostat. A light makes viewing easier as well as heating. A heat mat or heat cord at one end, or both the light bulb and the heat mat/cord. Any light globes inside the enclosure should be placed in such a way that the snake is unable to come in contact with them. A mesh type globe cover is ideal as it prevents the snake coming in direct contact with the globe but the allows the heat generated from the light to escape. Uncovered light bulbs usually result in nasty burns to the snake. Heat cord under the enclosure is another way to heat the cage effectively. Heat rocks are commercially available; however, we do not recommend using heat rocks with any animal as they are not reliable and may cause fire. We use heat cord in a rack system for our younger animals and for our older Common Death Adders in larger enclosures we run heat cord under tiles on the bottom of the enclosure.
If heating the cage with a globe set up, the cage should have dark coloured globes
such as green or blue. This will then not interrupt its photoperiod. The Common Death Adder is nocturnal. Thus, the photoperiod of 14 hours light to 8 dark in summer and 12 hours light and 12 dark in winter is acceptable.
Cooling allows for the male’s sperm to be produced and the in the females ova to be made. The temperature of cooling should drop to about room temperature. However, this drop should not be sudden, by turning on the heat for 4 hours in the morning for 4 weeks either side of the cooling period (1-month) this will allow the snake to gently go into torpor. (In Australia most reptiles don't truly go into hibernation.). Death Adders should be cooled from early June. While being cooled the animal should not be handled or fed. If fed the food may kill the snake as it may not be digested properly and may just sit and rot within its stomach, as heat also plays a role in digestion. You SHOULD NOT cool juveniles, gravid (pregnant), sick or under weight individuals as this can lead to the death of the snake. When your Common Death Adder is an adult (over 40cms Snout to Vent (S.V.L.) its should be cooled in the winter months.
Your snake should be feeding on mice or small rats. The size of the prey item and the amount of them is dependent on the snake in question. As juveniles, they should be fed weekly, but once at adult size this can be reduced to once every fortnight. Young picky feeders will also take feeder gudgeons as well as rodents. A suitable feed for the snake is a meal that will cause a slight bulge in the snake’s mid body. Common Death Adders will also readily take day old chicks and quail. Food should generally not be offered while the snake is coming into or having a slough.
Male introductions should be from September – November. The males can be removed in and out of the female’s enclosures, allowing them time to rest. All Death Adders are live bearers. The young should be separated and set up as soon as possible as Death Adders can be cannibalistic. The litter can vary from 2 - 32 young with an average litter of about 17 young. Gestation period is about 139 days. The young weigh approximately 6grams and are approximately 15cms in length. Common Death Adders are readily available in the hobby.
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References and recommended reading:
Ehmann H. 1992 Encyclopedia of Australian Animals - Reptiles, Angus & Robertson, Pymble
Eipper S.C. 2012 A Guide to Australian Snakes in Captivity, Elapids and Colubrids, Reptile Keeper Publications, Burleigh Heads
Eipper S.C. & Eipper T. 2019 A Naturalist's Guide to the Snakes of Australia, John Beaufoy Publishing, Oxford