In his book A Guide to the Snakes of Papua New Guinea (1996), renowned British snake expert Mark O'Shea devoted an entire page to an enigmatic, still-unidentified, but seemingly highly venomous PNG snake of aquatic lifestyle that he has dubbed Parker's snake, in honour of Australian herpetologist Fred Parker, who had first brought this mysterious serpent to scientific attention in his own book The Snakes of Western Province (1982). Both researchers have sought it in the field, but without success, despite specifically visiting the Western Province village of Wipim where it reputedly killed three children (see below). Between them, however, they have collected some valuable information from the local people, who, unsurprisingly, greatly fear this reptile.
In his book, Parker had reported the rapid deaths of three young girls allegedly bitten by this snake while bathing in the Ouwe Creek near Wipim during 1972-73. Other reports of it from further afield have also occurred, but without any attributed deaths. Based upon eyewitness descriptions and other native testimony, Parker's snake is an extremely venomous but also very rare aquatic snake measuring no more than 6.5 ft long, yellowish-brown to brown dorsally and pale yellow to white ventrally, with smooth scales, enlarged ventrals, and a short cylindrical tail. It is said to favour small freshwater swamps and inland streams rather than larger rivers or open swampy grassland. Although it has been seen basking on dry land, it apparently prefers hiding on the muddy bottom. Death resulting from a bite by this snake is very rapid, within just a few minutes, which is much faster than from a taipan or even a sea-snake bite.
As Mark O'Shea noted in his book, he and Parker have considered a number of possible identities for this mystery serpent. These include New Guinea's mildly venomous dog-faced water snake Cerberus rynchops (with its toxicity presumably exaggerated by locals), the extremely venomous mulga or king brown snake Pseudechis australis (although this Australian elapid has yet to be formally recorded from New Guinea), the small-eyed snake Micropechis ikaheka (another highly venomous elapid but this time known from New Guinea), and even some form of sea-snake or taipan. Yet as Mark freely conceded, none of these wholly corresponds with the local accounts given for it.
Consequently, Parker's snake currently remains an elusive but tantalizing enigma within the ophidian literature; nothing more concerning it has emerged since the publication of Mark's book in 1996, as he confirmed to me during a Facebook communication between us on 22 January 2022.
Not all mysterious snakes are huge, as exemplified by the following tantalisingly vague report of a diminutive form of unidentified serpent from Australia:
I once came across 2 little snakes in a waterhole, somewhere in the outback (can't remember where, it was about nine years ago [i.e. c.1999] and I was travelling all around Oz) but they were about 20 cm [8 in] long with a magenta head and a yellow body. I have never been able to find a picture or find out anything about them, too bad I didn't have a camera!!
This report was posted onto the Aussie Pythons & Snakes online forum by someone with the username Charlie on 24 January 2008, but it received no response. So as far as I'm aware, no conclusive taxonomic identification of his small yet strikingly-coloured waterhole snakes was ever forthcoming. Nor have I had greater success than Charlie in identifying them.
On 13 November 2021, I posted Charlie's intriguing report on various Facebook groups devoted to cryptozoology to see what response (if any) it elicited. Several identities for the snakes were duly suggested, including the Australian tree snake Dendrelaphis punctulatus, red-naped snake Furina diadema, woma python Aspidites ramsayi, young specimens of the black-headed python A. melanocephalus, and young western brown snakes Pseudonaja nuchalis, but none of these corresponds closely with Charlie's description of the small, very distinctively-hued snakes that he spied.
In view of their miniature size, moreover, it is conceivable that they were not snakes at all, but instead a species of legless lizard, of which there are quite a few endemic to Australia. Some of these, moreover, are deceptively serpentine in outward appearance, especially to those who may not be too familiar with snakes – but yet again I have been unable to obtain pictures of any such reptile that matches those two mystery specimens encountered by Charlie.
An anomalous Aussie mystery snake, or a legendary lizard of Oz? Could it even be that these creatures weren't reptiles at all, but perhaps some form of invertebrate – a species of annelid worm, for instance, or planarian flatworm, the latter of which includes some brightly-coloured Australian species? Any thoughts or suggestions would be greatly welcomed!
This ShukerNature article is excerpted exclusively from my recent book Secret Snakes and Serpent Surprises.