The deadly taipan snake

   The taipan is one of the world's most poisonous snakes, ranking with the cobras of India and the mambas of Africa, to which it is related. Like them, it has poison glands behind each eye, and when it bites the glands compress, shooting poison down through the hollow fangs into the prey. As their fangs are at the front of the mouth these snakes stab and inject in one go, like a hypodermic needle. This is true of many venomous snakes. Others, however, have fangs farther back in the mouth and must first seize their prey then inject it with venom. Most of these species are not very dangerous, although there are exceptions, such as the African boomslang.

   Snake venom is a cocktail of substances, including enzymes, and the strength of the poison varies between species. The tiger snake vies with the taipan for the title of most dangerous snake in Australia. But the taipan's poison is as potent as the tiger snake's, and it delivers up to five times more of it. It strikes repeatedly, and its longer fangs sink in deeper.

   The venom courses through the victim's bloodstream and attacks the nervous system, causing nausea and paralysis. It can kill a human in 15-60 minutes. As for most snake poisons, antiserum is available.

   Snakes have predators, too, including wild dogs, wild cats, raccoons, mongooses, serpent eagles, secretary birds and other snakes. Although few snakes go out of their way to attack people, they will bite in self-defence if stepped on. So snakes are most dangerous if they live in open country where many people work on the land, often with bare feet. In West Africa, for instance, carpet vipers account for most of the 17,000 snake-bite deaths a year.

Inland taipan