Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

Venomous Fascination

Dangerous animals such as venomous snakes and toothsome sharks are well represented in the first volume of Frederick McCoy's Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria.

His zeal in describing potentially deadly animals was driven by the very practical consideration of improving the understanding and recognition of these creatures among his fellow colonists, but he was also keenly aware of the international audience for his publications. With one eye on his local reputation, McCoy's other was firmly fixed on London, where he hoped to make an impression upon his scientific peers at the centre of Empire.

It is no accident then that the first three plates of the Prodromus depicted deadly snakes likely to be encountered in the colony. The entries for the Red-bellied Black Snake, Copperhead and Tiger Snake are rich with details of their ferocity and toxicity. They include gruesome anecdotes about the death and near-death experiences of those foolish enough to handle them, all reported with a cool tone of scientific detachment.

The first narrative section in the Prodromus opened with this description of the Red-bellied Black Snake:

This is the most beautiful of all the Victorian snakes, and one of the most deadly in effects of its bite ... The only locality near Melbourne where it is not very uncommon is Studley Park, where in the bend of the Yarra the specimen here figured and some others I have seen were killed ...

Some fatal cases of snake-bite in man from this species are known, and a large-sized dog will usually die in an hour from the effects of its bite.

The specimen of Fierce Snake, Oxyuranus microlepidotus, first described by Frederick McCoy.