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Death adders
Acanthophis - Daudin, 1803

Pronunciation: AK-anth-OH-fiss
Etymology: 'spine snake', refering to the spine at the tip of the tail.

Taxonomic notes:

The taxonomy of the members of this genus is currently unclear. Molecular evidence suggests a number of groups:1

  • Barkly Tablelands, Mt Isa, northern Northern Territory, southeastern Irian Jaya - the 'Acanthophis rugosus' complex, possibly comprising two species:
    • Acanthophis rugosus - 'hill adders'
    • Acanthophis hawkei - 'floodplain', Fogg Dam, Barkly Tableland

  • north-eastern Queensland - north-eastern death adder (Acanthophis praelongus)
  • Pilbara region and surrounds of Western Australia - Pilbara death adder (Acanthophis wellsi)
  • central Australia, west to nearly surround the Pilbara region - desert death adder (Acanthophis pyrrhus)
  • from Perth in the west, south along the coast, up the east coast to about Cairns - common death adder (Acanthophis antarcticus)

There does not appear to be a clear separation between the common death adder (Acanthophis antarcticus) and the north-east Queensland north-eastern death adder (Acanthophis praelongus).

The name Acanthophis hawkei (named for former Prime Minister Bob Hawke) is available should specimens from the Barkly Tableland region be split into a separate species.2 As of May 2012, the Federal Government lists A. hawkei as vulnerable.

Pending a formal systematic review, the traditional arrangement of species is presented here.

Notes: Around six species found through Australasia, with four or five endemic Australian species.
Statistics: Reproductive modes:
Live-bearing - 7 out of 7 Australian species

Size range:
Smallest Australian species: Kimberley death adder (Acanthophis cryptamydros) at 43 cm
 Longest Australian species: Barkly Death Adder (Acanthophis hawkei) at up to 130 cm
Number of Australian species: 7

common death adder (Acanthophis antarcticus)
Bringalily State Forest, Queensland
Photo © Stewart Macdonald
common death adder (Acanthophis antarcticus) distribution range map Acanthophis antarcticus
Common death adder
Year described
(Shaw & Nodder 1802)
Short and stout. Scales smooth or weekly keeled. Grey, brown or reddish in colour with lighter transverse bands across the body. Tip of tail is pale.

Kimberley death adder (Acanthophis cryptamydros)
North Kimberley, Western Australia
Photo © Brendan Schembri
Kimberley death adder (Acanthophis cryptamydros) distribution range map Acanthophis cryptamydros
Kimberley death adder
Year described
Maddock, Ellis, Doughty, Smith & Wüster 2015
A stout and robust snake. Colouration varies from orange-brown, to tan-brown, and grey, with a series of darker cross-bands along the length of the body. Ventral surfaces are cream-white lacking obvious dark blotches except at the lateral edges; on the subcaudal scales there is often a centred dark blotch. Lips (especially lower lips) often with dark blotches or bars.3

Barkly Death Adder (Acanthophis hawkei)
Barkly Tablelands, Northern Territory
Photo © Chris Jolly
Barkly Death Adder (Acanthophis hawkei) distribution range map Acanthophis hawkei
Barkly Death Adder
Year described
Wells & Wellington 1985
Morphological characters for this species are poorly defined, reflecting uncertainty that it represents a valid species (see Taxonomic notes below). A stout and robust snake. Colouration is typically reported as pale brown or greyish with darker cross-bands along the length of the body. Body scales are smooth to moderately keeled, with keeled scales more prevalent anteriorly.

north-eastern death adder (Acanthophis praelongus)
Iron Range, Queensland
Photo © Stewart Macdonald
north-eastern death adder (Acanthophis praelongus) distribution range map Acanthophis praelongus
North-eastern death adder
Year described
Ramsay 1877
Moderately to strongly keeled scales. Grey, brown or reddish, with lighter transverse bands across body. Tail tip may be lighter than, darker than, or same as rest of tail.

desert death adder (Acanthophis pyrrhus)
Port Hedland, Western Australia
Photo © Stephen Zozaya
desert death adder (Acanthophis pyrrhus) distribution range map Acanthophis pyrrhus
Desert death adder
Year described
Boulenger 1898
Dorsal scales are strongly keeled. Red or orange body with lighter transverse bands across the body. Tail tip is usually dark. Prefrontal scales are divided.

Top End death adder (Acanthophis rugosus)
Daly Waters, Northern Territory
Photo © Stewart Macdonald
Top End death adder (Acanthophis rugosus) distribution range map Acanthophis rugosus
Top End death adder
Year described
Loveridge 1948
A stocky and robust snake, similar to other Acanthophis species. Colour and pattern variable, but usually consisting of an alternating series of pale and dark cross-bands. These can range from alternating cream and brown bands, to yellow and red, or even grey and black - some specimens possess only faint banding.

Pilbara death adder (Acanthophis wellsi)
Pannawonica, Western Australia
Photo © Stephen Zozaya
Pilbara death adder (Acanthophis wellsi) distribution range map Acanthophis wellsi
Pilbara death adder
Year described
Hoser 1999
Moderately keeled body scales dorsally, smooth laterally. Reddish brown, with either: pale transverse bands across body; or dark head and dark transverse bands across body. Prefrontal scales are usually undivided.

  1. Wüster, W.; Dumbrell, A.J.; Hay, C.; Pook, C.E.; Williams, D.J.; & Fry, B.G. (2005). Snakes across the Strait: trans-Torresian phylogeographic relationships in three genera of Australasian snakes (Serpentes: Elapidae: Acanthophis, Oxyuranus, and Pseudechis). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 34(1):1-14. - search web for this article
  2. Wells, Richard W. & Wellington, Ross C. (1985). A classification of the Amphibia and Reptilia of Australia. Australian Journal of Herpetology, Supplementary Series, 1:1-61. - search web for this article
  3. Maddock, Simon T; Ellis, Ryan J; Doughty, Paul; Smith, Lawrence A; & Wuester, Wolfgang (2015). A new species of death adder (Acanthophis: Serpentes: Elapidae) from north-western Australia. Zootaxa, 4007(3):301-326.
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