Students at a school on the New South Wales mid-north coast have learned a valuable lesson: sandpits make great snake nests.
Wildlife rescuers were shocked when a call to remove about a dozen eggs from a sandpit at a school near the coastal town of Laurieton, 350km north of Sydney, became rather more dramatic.
The eggs caused a stir when they were widely reported on Tuesday as belonging to one of Australia’s deadliest reptiles, the eastern brown snake.
When volunteers from the Fawna wildlife rescue group inspected the sandpit they found it was home to many more than 12 eggs.
Rescuers Yvette Attleir and Rod Miller dug out the sandpit at St Joseph’s Catholic primary school and discovered no fewer than seven snake nests hosting a total of 43 eggs, a new addition to the list of unsavoury things found in a children’s sandpit.
They initially thought the eggs could belong to water dragons, but determined they were brown snake eggs.
“I believed they were brown snake eggs due to the fact that they were seen in the area and that when I shone a light through the egg I saw a small striped baby snake,” Miller said.
But skeptics on social media questioning the shape and location of the eggs soon forced a clarification from the volunteer wildlife rescue group.
On Tuesday Fawna wrote on Facebook: “some experts far more experienced that our local handler have pointed out that the eggs can’t be brown snake eggs.
“When we found the eggs we carefully checked the eggs over and found that they contained what appeared to be snake hatchlings.
“We were told was there were a couple of sightings of large brown snakes behind the area and all we could surmise is that they were brown snake eggs.”
So what were they? Eastern brown snake? Water dragon? Bolivian tree lizard?
Bryan Fry, who specialises in venomous animals and is an associate professor in the University of Queensland’s school of biological sciences, confirmed at least part of the story.
“They’re definitely snake eggs,” he said in an email after inspecting photos.
“[B]ut [it’s] impossible to say which species until they hatch.”
In any case, Attleir said the sandpit had recently been relaid, making it a perfect home for the serpent.
“They obviously saw the sandpit and thought that will do nicely – the sand regulates the temperature perfectly for them,” she said. “Our area has a lot of wildlife and at the end of the day wildlife can impact on us. It’s part of the beauty of living in this area.”
But the wildlife rescuers would not say what happened to the hatchlings, other than a cryptic “we’re pro-life for animals”.
“We’ve been abused after rescuing snakes in the past,” Attleir said.
One of the most poisonous snakes in the world, brown snakes are highly adaptable and often find themselves in populated areas.
Increased sightings were reported across western Sydney in 2017, probably as a result of increased urban development.
Female eastern brown snakes do not guard their nest after eggs are laid and juvenile snakes are totally independent.
Brown snake hatchlings can vary widely in size, but begin to show characteristic signs of aggression soon after hatching. The eggs were due to hatch within weeks.
Catholic schools in New South Wales reopen after the summer holidays on 30 January.