The “killer of the cane fields”: the social construction of the Australian coastal taipan

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Markwell, K & Cushing, N 2015, 'The “killer of the cane fields”: the social construction of the Australian coastal taipan', Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 74-91.

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This paper makes an original contribution to human–animal studies through the application of social construction theory to an iconic species of Australian snake, the coastal taipan. Little research attention using this approach has been focused on reptiles, and this study addresses this gap in the literature. The taipan has achieved a high level of notoriety in Australia. This paper seeks to understand why and how this has occurred. Drawing on a range of data derived from analysis of newspaper articles, popular magazines and books, and the scientific literature, four dominant narratives are identified: the taipan as an object of science and natural history, as social problem, as object quest and as celebrity. The insights gained from this study support the contention that the meanings made of Australia's fauna are fluid, historically contextualised and socially constructed. In the specific case of the taipan, key individuals, including scientists, popular natural historians and snake men contributed greatly to the species’ construction, as did popular cultural forms such as newspapers and natural history books.