Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

Lowland Copperhead Snake, Austrelaps superbus

Image Details
  • Plate Number: 2
  • Media: Drawing - Pencil, Ink, Indian Ink, Watercolour and Wax on paper
  • Lithographer: Arthur Bartholomew
  • Location: Australia, Victoria, Elsternwick
  • Primary inscriptions: [Bartholomew's drawing numbers]
  • Secondary inscriptions: [McCoy's morphological inscription e.g "total length 2 feet 5".
  • Tertiary: [McCoy's accession numbers]
Transcript from the Prodromus of Zoology

Plate 2. Copper-head Snake, Hoplocephalus superbus (now known as Lowland Copperhead Snake, Austrelaps superbus) caught at Elsternwick

This species was long supposed to be confined to Tasmania, where it is very abundant; and my first announcement of its occurrence in the mainland near Melbourne was supposed by subsequent writers on the subject in New South Wales and London to be erroneous; these writers, however, now (without referring to their former criticisms) quote it as an undoubted Victorian species. In point of fact, it is very common about Prahran, Elsternwick, and the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, but its range seems very restricted, specimens not having yet been recorded from the northern western parts of the colony. The numerous young are brought forth in December and January.

The blackish examples, especially if the reddish color of the side scales and edges of ventrals is distinct, are frequently mistaken for the Black Snake; but the scales on the underside of the tail being only in a single row throughout, and there being one instead of two nasal plates, easily distinguish them.

A large number of the dangerous cases of snake-bites near Melbourne are due to this species, which for its size is extremely venomous. One remarkable case excited much attention a few years ago, when a station-master named Brown, on the Hobson's Bay Railway at Elsternwick, was bitten by a small individual of this species, which some workmen imagined they had killed, and after carrying it some distance hanging on a stick, threw it upon the platform, when Brown, taking it up, received a small wound in the finger, and shortly showed the usual signs of fatal snake-poisoning. In spite of the ordinary remedies, of excision of the bitten part, rubbing ammonia on the wound, ligatures, and sucking the wound, doses of brandy, galvanism, and being walked about by assistants, he was so completely at the point of death that the two surgeons attending him had gave him up, his sight being gone, his lower extremities completely paralysed, having dilated pupils, swollen face and neck, and coma, from which he could not be roused. The medical attendants, explaining to his friends that they could do no more, and that his death might be looked for in a few minutes, proposed to try what was then considered the dangerous remedy of injecting strong liquor of ammonia into the vein, as advocated by Professor Halford. On this being done by Dr. Halford, who was sent for, to the astonishment of all present, the man instantly recovered consciousness, the pupils of his eyes contracted, and, sitting up he recognized his wife and child and friends, and asked some questions about domestic matters, after having been cold, incapable of seeing, hearing, speaking, or moving, and almost pulseless for hours. He soon recovered, and remained on daily duty till lately.

I have adopted the popular name "copper-head" for this snake from a well known vendor of a supposed antidote for snake-bites, who used to go about the streets with several specimens of this species in the bosom of his shirt, protruding now and then around his neck. On the evening of the last day on which I saw this, he was induced to cause one of them to bite him, to show the value of his antidote, and was found dead in a few hours. The color of the head is like that of an old dark copper coin. In Tasmania the name "Diamond Snake" is unfortunately given to this species, for that name belongs to a harmless snake of New South Wales, so that the numerous experiments made in former years in Tasmania to test the value of some pretended antidote, were supposed in London to have been made with the true harmless Diamond Snake, instead of, as was the case, with this very poisonous kind.

Current Scientific Information

Common or Lowland Copperhead Snake, Austrelaps superbus


Large snake up to 1.2 metres long. colour varies from light grey to reddish brown or chocolate brown. Distinguished from the Alpine Copperhead by having weakly barred lips, with weak and ill-defined pale edges to the upper lip scales. Body scales as for the Common Copperhead.

Habitat and range

Prefers reasonably damp habitats, such as near streams or swampy areas, where it can be abundant. In much of the Melbourne area, but most common in the eastern and northern districts.


Dangerously venomous and capable of inflicting fatal bites. It is similar to the Alpine Copperhead in feeding and reproductive biology.