Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Wonambi - the rainbow serpent?

The Rainbow Serpent of Aboriginal lore created the mountains, controlled the sun and haunted precious life-giving waterholes across Australia's arid expanse. It was also a protector of the Aboriginal people and a punisher for those who transgressed its sacred laws.

But there was also a real giant snake that fits the Rainbow Serpent bill - the Wonambi aka Wonambi naracoortensis - which lived during the Pleistocene Ice Age period. Wonambi was a non-venomous snake that killed its prey by constriction.

And it's entirely possible - in fact highly likely - that this flesh-and-blood super snake was in part the inspiration for the rich mythology of the Rainbow Serpent.

The enormous reptile grew to 5-6m in length and boasted a 30cm girth and weighed in at around 50kg, making it a most formidable predator of the megafauna world.

Today the closest snake in size would be the 'Scrub Python' aka Amethystine Python (Morelia amethistina), which can grow up to an impressive 5.5m-8.5m in length (about 28ft - the latter an exceptional size rather than the norm).

The Amethystine isn't only indigenous to Australia - it can be found in the jungles of neighbouring Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and feeds on birds, fruit bats, rats, possums, and other small animals. Larger Australian specimens will catch and eat wallabies, waiting by creek and river banks for prey seeking drinking water. 

Not unlike its distant relative Wonambi, which also haunted waterholes, waiting for hapless animals and human children to wander down for a swim or a drink before it struck.

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