Keeping the Pilbara Death Adder
NATURE 4 YOU – Tie and Scott Eipper
The Pilbara Death Adder is a species of snake that must only be kept by experienced elapid keepers. The toxicity of the venom combined with their speed make the Pilbara 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: Pilbara Death Adder
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Acanthophis wellsei
PRONUNCIATION: ak-anth-oh-fis wells-e
ETYMOLOGY: Acanthophis - spine snake (reference to tail) wellsei - after Richard Wells
ADULT SIZE: 55cms
ADULT WEIGHT: 250gms
LIFE EXPENTANCY: No records of life span, it is expected they should have the same life span of other members of their genus. Not much is known about the Pilbara Death Adders.
The Pilbara Death Adder is native to Australia, found in two isolated populations. One throughout the Pilbara in Western Australia and the other on the North West Cape. Pilbara Death Adders are predominately found in rocky areas with spinifex clumps. Pilbara Death Adders are thought to prey on frogs, lizards and small mammals in the wild. As a group, Death Adders are primarily nocturnal, often found crossing the roads at night through suitable habitats, or while in ambush position, often partially concealed by leaf litter or other ground debris. Pilbara Death adders have a robust body form, but are quite slender compared to other members of the genus. Pilbara Death Adders are reddish-orange to brown in colour, with lighter bands. Some specimens are stunningly marked with black to dark brown cross bands that vary in thickness, with a dark coloured head. The underneath is usually lighter than the top of the body, with darker flecking. These colours become more apparent when the snake flattens out in a defensive display. Usually their lips lack barring. The caudal lure is white to orange, but may also be black to grey. Unlike most other elapids, Death Adders ambush their prey. Most others hunt their prey. Death Adders rely on camouflage as their main defence from predators, but will flatten out and make short defensive strikes before attempting to flee if cornered. The tail is used for caudal luring, making it highly sensitive to touch. There is little known and published on the toxicity of a Pilbara Death Adder's venom. It is assumed that their bite would be just as a bite from others in their genus. To go by a Common Death Adder, Acanthophis antarctus, the venom is neurotoxic with weak haemolytic and anticoagulant activity. Myotoxic properties have been recorded from their bite of a Northern Death Adder, Acanthophis praelongus. Pilbara Death Adders are not commonly encountered in both their natural habitat and captivity.
A single Pilbara Death Adder needs a terrestrial enclosure about 300mm wide X 800mm 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. Juveniles can be kept in smaller conditions but should be kept by themselves. Not only can cage-mates turn on each other, the unpredictability of their nature 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 hatchling Pilbara 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.
Neonate Pilbara Death Adder in a tub. These tubs go in our hatchling rack.
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. Kitty Litter is a good substrate for yearling and older Adders as they like to bury themselves in it like they would leaf litter. Always check where your snake is before opening the lid or the door. 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.
Pilbara Death Adders need cover in which they can hide. This can be provided by a
hollow log or a rock near the back wall, leaf litter 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. The use of trap boxes as hides is an excellent idea with this species.
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 also 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 Pilbara 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 Pilbara Death Adders in cages 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 Pilbara Death Adder is mainly nocturnal (active during the night). 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 males 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.) Pilbara 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 lizard. When your Pilbara Death Adder is an adult (over 120mm Snout to Vent (S.V.L.)) it 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 dependant 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. Pilbara Death Adders will also readily take feeder gudgeons when they are young. A suitable feed for the snake is a meal that will cause a slight bulge in the snake’s mid body. Pilbara Death Adders will also readily take quail. Food should generally not be offered while the snake is coming into or having a slough.
Neonate Pilbara Death Adder eating feeder gudgeons. At this size they are mainly taking rat tails and feeder gudgeons. A little bit more size and we can move up to pinkie mice.
The same Adder pictured feeding. He ate a single 4.5cm long feeder gudgeon. Notice the body enlarged but not huge. That is a normal feed. As time goes by, and they increase in size when their feeding response kicks in, meal sizes are larger.
Male introductions should be from October - December. The males can be removed in and out of the females enclosures, allowing them time to rest. Pilbara Death Adders are live bearers. The litter can vary from 14-20 young, with an average litter of 17.
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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 & 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