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Species profile—Acanthophis antarcticus (common death adder)


Animalia (animals) → Reptilia (reptiles) → Elapidae (elapid snakes) → Acanthophis antarcticus (common death adder)

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Species details

Animalia (animals)
Reptilia (reptiles)
Elapidae (elapid snakes)
Scientific name
Acanthophis antarcticus (Shaw & Nodder, 1802)
Common name
common death adder
WildNet taxon ID
Alternate name(s)
death adder
deaf adder
southern death adder
Nature Conservation Act 1992 (NCA) status
Conservation significant
Pest status
Like other members of the genus, the common death adder is characterised by a broad triangular head, narrow neck, short thick body and thin tail with a soft curved tip. Body colouration varies from grey to rich reddish-brown, usually with irregular dark crossbands and dark bars on the lips. The underside is whitish with black or brown flecks, while the tail-tip is cream or black. The eyes are small and inconspicuous, with a vertical pupil. Head shields are smooth to slightly rough, with the dorsal scales smooth to slightly keeled in 21 (rarely 23) midbody rows. There are 110-135 ventral scales, a single anal scale, and 35-60 subcaudal scales which are mostly single, with a few near the tip divided. This species is sexually dimorphic, with males averaging 44cm and females 58cm, but may grow up to 100cm. (Shine 1991; Wilson & Swan 2003; Cogger 2014).
This species occurs from central Queensland through New South Wales to the southern parts of South Australia and Western Australia. (Wuster et al., 2005; Cogger, 2014).
Distributional limits
-18, 141
-29.2, 153.55
Range derivation
Range estimated from a distribution map
This species is found in a wide variety of well-drained habitats, including rainforests and wet sclerophyll forests, woodland, shrublands, grasslands and coastal heathlands, preferring sites with deep fixed leaf litter. The importance of these habitats to this species is not known. (Gow 1976; Cogger et al. 1983; Wilson & Knowles 1988; Covacevich & Wilson 1995; QPWS 2001; Morgan et al. 2002).
Burrows and nests
Individuals burrow into sand or leaf litter, or hide under overhanging foliage.
A sedentary terrestrial snake, the common death adder spends much of its time lying concealed under loose sand, leaf litter or low foliage. The species may be active by day (diurnal), but is most commonly encountered at night (nocturnal) when moving between shelter sites. It is an ambush predator, waiting for prey to come to it rather than actively searching as do most Australian elapids. When lying in wait, the body is coiled with the tail tip near the mouth while the segmented tail tip is wriggled like a worm or caterpillar to lure prey within range. If threatened this species adopts a defensive posture which involves flattening its entire body in a rigid, curved coil from which short, rapid strikes are made. (Rose 1974; Gow 1976; Shine 1980; Cogger et al. 1983; Webb & Rose 1984; Covacevich & Wilson 1995; QPWS 2001).
Males reach sexual maturity at 24 months and females at 42 months. Mating usually occurs in spring however females reproduce only every second year. They produce live young, typically born in February or March, with litter size varying between two and forty-two. (Mirtschin 1976; Hudson 1979; Shine 1980; Covacevich & Wilson 1995; Covacevich et al. 2000; Fearn 2001; QPWS 2001; Cogger 2014).
This species will eat a wide variety of prey, including insects, frogs, lizards, birds and small mammals. The diet changes with age, juveniles feeding on lizards and frogs, while adults mostly take mammals and birds. The common death adder is capable of inflicting a fatal bite. (Rose 1974; Gow 1976; Shine 1980; Webb & Rose 1984; Covacevich & Wilson 1995).
Parasites and pathogens
Documented parasites include nematodes (round worms) and ticks (Jones 1978; Domrow 1984).
Threatening processes
1. Road kills (QPWS 2001).
2. Death from attempted predation of toxic Cane Toad Rhinella marina (Covacevich & Archer 1975; Wilson & Knowles 1988).
1. Destruction of habitat (clearing) (Wilson & Knowles 1988; Covacevich & Wilson 1995; QPWS 2001).
2. Inappropriate fire regimes (QPWS 2001).
3. Trampling by livestock (Ehmann 1992).
4. Predation by feral cats, foxes and pigs (QPWS 2001).
5. Deliberate killing of snakes (QPWS 2001).
6. Death from taking poisoned rodents, e.g. House Mouse Mus musculus (Gilbertson 1981).
Status notes
Considered rare or insuffiently known (Cogger et al. 1993), listed as Rare in Queensland and Threatened in Victoria.
Management documents
DNR Species Management Profiles - Draft: Volume 1.
Management recommendations
Reduce stocking rates in areas where death adders are known from.
Contributors: Barney Hines 03/07/1998; David McFarland 26/10/2007; Danielle Hansen 17/07/2008; Wayne Martin 19/08/2008; 27/06/2014.
Cogger, H.G. (2014). Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.
Cogger, H.G., Cameron, E.E. & Cogger, H.M. (1983). Zoological Catalogue of Australia. Vol. 1 Amphibia and Reptilia. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.
Cogger, H.G., Cameron, E.E., Sadlier, R.A. & Eggler, P. (1993). The Action Plan for Australian Reptiles. Australian Nature Conservation Agency : Canberra.
Covacevich, J. & Archer, M. (1975). The distribution of the Cane Toad, Bufo marinus, in Australia and its effects on indigenous vertebrates. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 17, 395-310.
Covacevich, J. & Wilson, S. (1995). Land Snakes. In : Wildlife of Greater Brisbane. (Ed. Ryan, M.), pp. 171-190. Queensland Museum & Brisbane City Council : Brisbane.
Covacevich, J. (1970). The Snakes of Brisbane. Queensland Museum : Brisbane.
Covacevich, J.A., Couper, P.J. & Amey, A.P. (2000). Snakes. In : Wildlife of Tropical North Queensland. (Ed. Ryan, M.), pp. 234-253. Queensland Museum: Brisbane.
Domrow, R. (1984). Species of Ophionyssus Mégnin from Australian lizards and snakes (Acari: Dermanyssidae). Australian Journal of Entomology 24(2), 149-153.
Ehmann, H. (1992). Encyclopedia of Australian Animals : Reptiles. Angus & Robertson : Sydney.
Fearn, S. (2001). Aspects of the morphology and ecology of the Death Adder Acanthophis antarcticus (Serpentes: Elapidae) from Magnetic Island, north Queensland: does prey size determine degree of sexual dimorphism? Herpetofauna 31(1), 19-25.
Gilbertson, K. (1981). A note on Death Adder mortality following the laying of poison. Herpetofauna 12(2), 36.
Gow, G.F. (1976). Snakes of Australia. Angus & Robertson : Sydney.
Hudson, P. (1979). On the birth and breeding of Death Adders in captivity. Herpetofauna 11(1), 11-13.
Jones, H.I. (1978). Abbreviata (Nematoda : Physalopteroidea) from Western Australian Snakes. Australian Journal of Zoology 26, 789-807.
McFarland, D.C. (2007). Taxon Profiles Version 2.0: Threatened And Priority Fauna Taxa In Queensland: Biology And Distribution. Queensland Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane.
Mirtschin, P.J. (1976). Notes on breeding of Death Adders in captivity. Herpetofauna 8(2), 16-17.
QPWS (2001). Acanthophis antarcticus Common Death Adder. Species Management Profile, Species Management Manual Vol. 2. Queensland Parks & Wildlife Service, Forest Management : Brisbane.
Rose, A.B. (1974). Gut contents of some amphibians & reptiles. Herpetofauna 7(1), 4-8.
Shine, R. (1980). Ecology of the Australian death adder Acanthophis antarcticus (Elapidae): evidence for convergence with the viperidae. Herpetologica 36(4):281-288.
Shine, R. (1991). Australian Snakes. A Natural History. A.H. & A.W. Reed, Sydney. 223 pp.
Sutherland, S.K. (1981). Venomous Creatures of Australia. Oxford University Press. Melbourne. Australia.
Webb, G.A. & Rose, A.B. (1984). The food of some Australian snakes. Herpetofauna 16(1), 21-27.
Wilson, S. & Swan, G. (2003). A Complete Guide to Reptiles of Australia. Reed New Holland, Sydney.
Wilson, S.K. & Knowles, D.G. (1988). Australia's Reptiles, A Photographic Reference to the Terrestrial Reptiles of Australia. Collins Publishers Australia, Sydney.
Profile author
Barney Hines (27/06/2014)

Other resources

Online Zoological Collections of Australian Museums (OZCAM)
Atlas of Living Australia

Data source

This profile data is sourced from the QLD Wildlife Data API using the Get species by ID function used under CC-By 4.0

This information is sourced from the WildNet database managed by the Queensland Department of Environment and Science.

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Last updated
8 March 2022
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