REPTILIAN MAGAZINE - RECENTLY PUBLISHED ARTICLE
HERPING IN THE AUSTRALIAN STATE OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA.
BY RAYMOND T. HOSER.
This paper first appeared in THE REPTILIAN MAGAZINE IN LATE 1996 in Volume 4, number 7, pages 23-35 and front cover, What follows is a text only version of the same article (no italics) and without the photos and other material that appeared in the original magazine. Please download the entire article if desired, however if the article is later referred to, please cite The Reptilian Magazine as the original published source.
Most articles about searching for reptiles in Australia tend to concentrate on rich and varied fauna of Australia's tropical north or nearby arid regions. These areas host most of Australia's larger snakes such as Pythons, most monitors, the Crocodiles and unusual forms such as Frill-necked Lizards (Chlamydosaurus kingii), Forest Dragons (Gonocephalus boydii) and so on. However some parts of southern Australia also have a wide variety of interesting reptiles. The faunas of these areas is not only rich in terms of species diversity, but often markedly different from that of northern and central Australia (although some species seem to inhabit all zones). Furthermore when compared with areas such as Europe and parts of North America, parts of southern Australia are particularly diverse.
On Tuesday, March 12th, 1996, I was on the phone with Adelaide herpetologist Ian Renton discussing a range of subjects when he announced that he could get NPWS (South Australia) approval for me to search for and capture Death Adders (Acanthophis antarcticus) as well as to photograph other species. Following a rash of phone calls and faxes between Melbourne and Adelaide, I had approval to do all that I wanted and at midnight the following day I headed off to Adelaide from Melbourne.
Perhaps I should state here that it is to the credit of Frank Delpeva and the others at SA/NPWS that they issued the permit so promptly. Melbourne, the largest city in Victoria (where I reside) is close to the southernmost point in South-east Australia. Adelaide is the capital city of state of South Australia and located roughly at the eastern edge of the Great Australian Bight on lower/southern end of the Spencer Gulf. Travelling through the night, I saw nothing in the way of herp' on the way to Adelaide. The air temperature for most of the night ranged between 12(-10(C.
Stopping about two hours drive from Adelaide, I stopped for a sleep before recommencing the drive into Adelaide the next day. Driving through the Adelaide hills at about 11 AM, I noted the air temperature at 20(C. At the bottom of the hills, about 600-700 metres lower, just ten minutes later by road, the air temperature had climbed to 30(C. This was in suburban Adelaide. The usual temperature differential between the two areas, is probably more in the order of 4-6(C I make mention of this because the Adelaide Hills is a fairly important part of South Australia as far as reptiles are concerned.
For many species of reptile peculiar to South-eastern Australia, the Adelaide Hills are at or near the limit of their distribution. This is because of the area having a markedly cooler climate than most other parts of South Australia, including the immediately adjacent Adelaide. Species that don't appear to be found any further west, but that typify the herpetofauna of south-east Australia include the Cunningham's Skink (Egernia cunninghami), the burrowing skink (Hemiergis decresiens) and Water Skink (Sphenomorphus tympanum). The former is usually located on the cooler and drier rocky areas in the rainshadow area to the east of the main range, while the others are most common in the well-treed areas such as Mount Lofty and nearby areas. Mount Lofty and nearby hills have a maximum elevation of about 700 metres and capture the rain bearing clouds as they come across the Adelaide plain from the sea. For this reason, the area is one of the wettest and most vegetated parts of South Australia. A species of reptile endemic to the cooler wetter parts of the Adelaide Hills and adjacent areas is the Pygmy Copperhead (Austrelaps labialis).
Copperheads are large potentially dangerously venomous snakes that are restricted to cooler places in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. They simply cannot tolerate heat. They are commonly the first snakes to emerge from hibernation in winter and the last to go into it. Highland Copperheads (Austrelaps ramsayi) and Lowlands Copperheads (Austrelaps superbus), commonly attain a lengths of 1.3 metres or more. The Pygmy form rarely if ever exceeds a metre in length. It is distinguished from the other forms by it's usually uniformly black belly, which the other's don't have. Other Copperheads tend to have a belly that is yellowish grey anteriorly becoming darker towards the tail. While in Adelaide I managed to borrow a Pygmy Copperhead from local herpetologist Roland Burrell and photograph it. Typical of Copperheads the snake was inoffensive and easy to handle. It posed readily for my photos. As pets they have some notable idiosyncrasies. They often have huge numbers of internal parasites due to their wild diet being predominantly frogs, which harbour heaps of them. They also lack of tolerance for heat making them difficult to keep during the warmer months when exposure to heat is hard to avoid.
Notwithstanding these points and having made adequate provision for them, these snakes are fairly hardy and long-lived in captivity. These live-bearers are also easy to breed, usually producing between 8 and 18 young in autumn. While restricted in distribution, the Pygmy Copperhead is not under threat and remains common where it occurs. It's biggest long-term threat is probably urbanisation of habitat, but even this threat is probably localised within the broader (relatively limited) range of this species.
Upon arrival in Adelaide I immediately went to the house of Ian Renton at the suburb of Paradise. He was my host for the trip. Renton runs an outfit called Snake-Away Services. Besides conducting educational lectures on reptiles to schools and other groups, a large part of his business is devoted to taking snakes from people who call him up. Get this - people ringing you up and PAYING you to take away their snakes!! Yes, people actually call him up and ask for snakes to be removed from their homes and gardens. This is in Adelaide, a city full of snakes. Last year Renton and his offsiders took about 2,800 snakes and lizards from people's houses and gardens all over Adelaide. The only drawback to all this is that over 90 per cent of the snakes are Eastern Brown Snakes (Pseudonaja textilis), which after a while tend to become rather boring. A second outfit called Adelaide Snake Catchers (Renton's competitor's?) fielded another 1,000 call-outs last year giving the two companies a total of almost 4,000 calls. This is in a city of about 1.2 million people.
For every snake Renton and the others "rescue", there are countless others that suffer the fate of a being killed by crazed members of the public. The Eastern Brown Snake is a very fast moving and highly strung snake which will attack if cornered. Highly venomous, it accounts for more snake bite deaths in the 1990's than any other Australian snake. The species lives well in proximity to human habitation, feeding on rodents. A few decades ago, the Mainland Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus) was the major cause of snake-bite death in Australia, but that title has been lost to the Eastern Brown Snake as Tiger Snake numbers have declined. The decline has been in part been due to the decline in frog numbers in many areas, with frogs being a major part of Tiger Snake's diet in many areas. Brown Snake numbers have also increased in line with their partiality to human altered habitats. Besides getting call-outs for Eastern Brown Snakes, Renton and his colleagues also get call outs for other species in lesser numbers. These include Little-Whip Snakes (Unechis spectabilis), Tiger Snakes (Notechis scutatus) and Red-bellied Black Snakes (Pseudechis porphyriacus). The latter two are also dangerously venomous, but less likely to bite when aroused than Eastern Brown Snakes. The Little Whip Snake is common in many areas and only reaches about 50 cm in adult length. Being yellowy-brown in colour it has a black marking on it's head. This is similar to that seen on juvenile Eastern Brown Snakes meaning that countless numbers are probably killed in mistake for being Eastern Browns. The Little Whip Snake, while venomous, is inoffensive and it's bite is of little consequence to humans. It is on par with a mild insect sting. The snakes are usually nocturnal and live under ground debris. They feed on small skinks and are most commonly seen by Adelaide residents when brought in by pet cats.
Renton also gets his fair share of call-outs for Eastern Bluetongue Lizards (Tiliqua scincoides), Shinglebacks (Trachydosaurus rugosus), Bearded Dragons (Pogona sp.), Barking Geckos (Underwoodisaurus milli) and legless lizards (Pygopodidae). The latter are commonly mistakenly killed by ignorant people as snakes. Barking Geckos are common throughout much of the southern third of Australia and because of this relative abundance are often overlooked by Australian herpetologists. This is in many ways a pity as they are perhaps one of our most beautiful of lizards (see photo this article). They attain about 10-15 cm in maximum length. Bauer in 1990 placed Barking geckos (genus Underwoodisaurus) in the same genus as the Knob-tailed Geckos (Nephrurus), although a number of more recent authors have maintained the distinction between the two groups. Regardless of the taxonomic niceties both genera are closely related, the only immediately obvious difference being the presence or absence of a knob on the end of the tail (original tails only). When keeping Barking and Knob-tailed Geckos in captivity, keepers have tended to only be successful when adding nutritional supplements to their food. This is usually done either by dusting the insects with a powder (noting to feed the insects off immediately, before the dust falls off), or by feeding enriched food to the insects in the few days prior. While wild specimens probably only breed once a year, captive animals are known to multiple clutch on a regular basis. The eggs tend to hatch relatively easily and have been recorded doing so under a variety of temperature and humidity conditions.
Large winter aggregations of 20 or more Barking Geckos have been recorded by Rob Valentic under rocks in central Victoria. These groupings have been in the cooler months. In more northern (warmer) parts of this species' range, such as Sydney, no such aggregations have been recorded although I have sometimes found up to three lizards sharing a single rock.
Before heading north of Adelaide in search of Death Adders (what else?), Renton had to hand over the reigns of his business to a colleague of his, Dean Caon. Caon, like Renton had a collection of pythons and other Australian reptiles. In South Australia, the laws in relation to keeping reptiles are perhaps less restrictive than any other state. This is coupled with a relatively reasonable attitude to issuing licences by the authorities. After Renton had passed his pager and phone over to Caon, Renton, his female assistant (and highly competent snake handler), Vicki Morrison and myself all headed off in Morrison's car. Besides driving along with a thermometer hanging out the window to check the temperature and stopping every once in a while to take habitat photos, little was done herpetologically until we got to Whyalla on the Western Side of the Spencer Gulf.
Whyalla is an industrial town about 4 hours drive from Adelaide. It is considerably warmer than Adelaide, often being fanned by hot winds from the Centralian deserts to the north. On the day of our arrival into Whyalla (the 14th of March), the temperature had peaked at 40(C. It was late in the afternoon when we left Whyalla and headed out to the area where the Death Adders were meant to be. The area in question is in the vicinity of a place known as Sinclair's Gap on the Whyalla/Kimba Road. It is about 30 km south-west of Whyalla in the Middleback Ranges. While much of the habitat immediately around Whyalla is flat and dominated by saltbush and scattered trees, the area where the Death Adders occur is of a different vegetation regime. The area around Sinclair's Gap is characterised by low lying sandy hills with relatively dense thickets of Mulga trees interspersed with Spinifex bushes (Triodia irritans). Underneath the Mulga Trees were large accumulations of dead leaves and bark. Judging by the size of the trees, the leaves in the trees and their assumed rate of growth, many of the accumulations of leaves underneath represented that of many years. Decomposition of these leaves was minimal, no doubt due to the dryness of the area. Between the small clusters of Mulga Trees was open sand and in these areas were scattered spinifex bushes.
Although a photo of the area is reproduced in this magazine, nothing actually compares with being in and experiencing the natural beauty of the Australian bush. The views, smells and general atmosphere of the place is something that cannot ever be properly duplicated in a photo. For those who have herped in Australia, it is well-known that "Spinifex = Reptiles". Why this is so, I cannot give an entirely satisfactory explanation. You see the contrast between Spinifex areas and non-spinifex areas is often huge in terms of species diversity and number, although I should note that some species are only found in areas without spinifex, vice versa and some in both. In many of the drier parts of Australia Death Adders (genus Acanthophis) almost appear to be stapled to Spinifex, although in southern areas, including Whyalla, this does not appear to be strictly the case. This correlation doesn't occur in wetter parts of the east and west either. Spinifex is a type of grass that is grows in circular fashion and forms large tussocks. It is relatively impenetrable to larger animals, being dense and spiky in external appearance. Small lizards such as skinks, dragons and geckos seek sanctuary in these bushes as well as feeding on insects that also shelter here. Where small lizards go, larger ones follow, as do snakes, birds and so on.
Thus spinifex areas may support a massive amount of wildlife. Because this area was also endowed with trees, some logs and vast amounts of bark and other ground litter it was particularly rich habitat for reptiles. Although I had never collected in the area, the area had been well surveyed by other herpetologists with remarkably good results. In summer 1994-5, Rob Valentic and Michael Kearney (two Melbourne based herpetologists) found 36 species of reptile in the Whyalla area and that far from exhausted the number of what was there. Peter Mirtschin and Colin Krantz (both of Whyalla) have also found a huge number of species in the area. Arriving at the Sinclair's Gap area on dusk, we pitched our tent before deciding to drive up and down the dirt road in search of reptiles. The tent itself was a major operation. Renton and Morrison had decided on the five-star treatment. The tent had two rooms, three layers and all modern comforts. Normally when I go bush, I don't even take a tent, merely sleeping under the stars or in the car if it rains.
We drove the road that night in search of Death Adders. This was for the first 90 minutes after dusk. We found none. In fact we found nothing! To say this was disappointing was an understatement. Valentic once found four Death Adders in a single night on the very same stretch of road along with a whole host of other reptiles. There was a reason for our lack of success (or so I think). It was too hot. You see for the entire duration of the drive the air temperature was stuck on 30(C. Too hot even for Death Adders. There was no moon in the sky and the air pressure was falling, so I couldn't think of any other explanation as to why we saw nothing. Valentic had been successful in finding his Death Adders at much lower temperatures (the low 20's). In all probability, we may have had some success later at night when the temperature had dropped, but we never searched at that stage.
The following day (15th March) was again extremely hot, again peaking at 40(C. We saw no active reptiles on this day, or for that matter the previous day, either in the field or along the roads. It was simply too hot for anything to move. However that morning I did have some success in finding reptiles. This was done by sticking a match to isolated Spinifex bushes along the side of a road. Spinifex is highly combustible and goes up in flames when ignited. In the area concerned fire couldn't spread due to the wide separation of bushes. By burning bushes (usually one at a time), reptiles sheltering in the bushes walk out onto the open sand and are captured. This method of seeking reptiles is commonly employed in Australia, including by scientists with the Australian Museum in Sydney and others in Western Australia. While burning isolated Spinifex bushes may seem destructive, it isn't nearly as destructive as other more commonly used collection techniques. You see the isolated spots of ground burnt regenerate fairly quickly and certainly within a few years. When a tree has it's bark peeled in search of geckos (another common collecting method), it may take up to twenty years for similar bark to regenerate. Besides flushing reptiles from cover, igniting Spinifex bushes also provides an important insight into how reptiles react during bushfires.
A number of reptiles were seen fleeing the bushes burnt. In some cases reptiles observed us standing adjacent to the bushes and then returned to an unburnt edge of the still burning bush. However in every case the reptile finally fled before being burnt in the bush, whereupon it was caught and identified. Of the 18 reptiles (all lizards), flushed from 35 Spinifex bushes, not a single specimen remained within the bushes to get incinerated. Further inspection of the bushes also revealed NO mortality in any reptiles, even though the ashes were raked and closely observed. Furthermore it was evident that some of the reptiles that had fled from the bushes had actually been sheltering in burrows under the bushes, rather than in the bushes themselves and yet they still found it too hot to remain under the bushes. This observation, while it hardly appears earth shattering, clearly implies that bushfire mortality among reptiles is perhaps far lower than previously thought.
An area about 15 km from Sinclair's Gap had been burnt out about 7 years earlier and according to Rob Valentic and Michael Kearney actually yielded more reptiles than the unburnt areas. This could have been for several reasons (including chance), although perhaps the mortality in the original fire may have been low and then maybe outside reptiles could have also moved in to take advantage of the new and rapidly regenerating habitat. Obviously the effects of bushfires on reptile populations is an area in desperate need of further research. In terms of the lack of mortality in reptiles I experienced when burning Spinifex, I should perhaps add a couple of points. The fires ignited were totally localised and relatively low in intensity. These could have assisted the fleeing reptiles in surviving. Furthermore other herpetologists who have routinely burnt Spinifex in search of reptiles, including Brian Bush of Western Australia state that they have seen reptiles run back into burning bushes and die. Bush notes that a small lizard running back into a burning Spinifex bush makes a loud "pop" sound when it dies. Although it was possible reptiles may have burnt in the spinifex bushes ignited by myself, this wasn't thought likely due to the thorough inspections we made that yielded nothing.
Most common in the bushes was a small burrowing skink called Hemiergis millewe. This genus of fossorial skinks is found throughout much of southern Australia. Hemiergis millewe is little known and appears restricted to drier southern parts of South Australia and adjacent areas in Victoria and Western Australia. Distribution records for this skink are highly disjunct (scattered), but this probably reflects the amount of field work done rather than the actual distribution of the lizard. A total length of about 10 cm is typical for larger specimens, although we found 12 of these lizards of different age classes. Most seemed to have regenerated tails, but it was only guesswork as to what was trying to eat them. No doubt Death Adders would readily take them as would birds and other reptiles.
Another small skink was found fleeing a Spinifex bush. This was a tiny lizard of the genus Menetia. The specimen found was only about 6 cm long. According to Cogger (1992), Menetia greyii is the only member of the genus that occurs in this part of Australia and this lizard may have been one of these. However using the key in his book, I was unable to positively identify it as such and so have left the case open. Like many of the smaller Australian skinks, the true specific status of many isn't known. It is common for a researcher to have a close look at a group thought to be a single species and find that several different species have in fact been lumped together. This is why newer books about Australian reptiles keep listing more and more new species. Most do not result from "discovery" of a given new animal, but rather reclassification's of specimens in museums previously assigned to a different species. Currently Menetia greyii is listed as being found across a wide tract of Australia, perhaps increasing the chances of more than one species being involved.
The largest skinks to emerge from the Spinifex were two adult Gunther's Skinks (Cyclodomorphus branchialis). These lizards are named after the man who originally described the species in 1867. Both measured about 16 cm in length and both sported regenerated tails. Again I suppose it's worth noting that with all these regenerated tails, there really must be a lot of animals trying to eat one another in the Spinifex. One of the Gunther's Skinks was placed in a plastic container along with a Hemiergis millewe. My intention had been to photograph the two lizards. Within 60 seconds of the two lizards being together, the Gunther's Skink consumed it's companion. The container had no substrate in it and both lizards had just emerged from burning bushes. As far as I'm aware little research has been done on dietary preferences of the Gunther's Skink, but I suppose Hemiergis millewe can be added to their list of food items. Although little appears in the literature about Gunther's Skinks, Richard Wells, a Sydney based herpetologist who has conducted fieldwork for the Australian Museum throughout Australia, told me he thought Gunther's Skinks were inevitably associated with Spinifex in his experiences. He stated that these lizards and related species in the Pilbara of Western Australia and elsewhere all had similar habits. Another major predator of Hemiergis millewe was found in the Spinifex.
Two sub-adult Burton's Legless Lizards (Lialis burtonis) were caught snaking their way out of the bushes. In captivity these lizards sit in grass tussocks (including Spinifex) and wait in ambush for their prey. Melbourne-based reptile keeper Dave Smith even reported caudal (tail) luring in a captive specimen. Surprisingly few other keepers of this species have reported this behaviour, so I cannot say whether the behaviour is actually rare or just rarely reported. Certainly these lizards don't appear to have any appendages or different colouration at the rear of the tail, which often occurs in caudal luring species. Also the species is commonly kept in captivity so further questions need to be asked in relation to the relative paucity of observations of caudal luring in the species. Burton's Legless Lizards are renowned lizard feeders usually taking skinks and geckos in captivity. They rarely eat anything else. These Legless Lizards come in a variety of colours, including red and grey, often with more than one colour occurring in a single area. Both the specimens we found were grey.
Notable is that in spite of finding 36 species of reptile after spending ten days in the area, Rob Valentic and Michael Kearney never found any Gunther's Skinks of Burton's Legless Lizards. In making this statement, I emphasise the fact that these men didn't burn any spinifex, so perhaps they never looked in the "right" place for these animals. This point is only raised in that often a reptile may mistakenly be thought of as rare or even absent in an area, when in fact they are common. The conclusion may be erroneously drawn due to a "fault" in the collection technique. For reasons I cannot explain, many reptiles and frogs seem to "disappear" at certain times of the year, becoming abundant at other times. While these animals don't literally vanish, nobody seems to have actually worked out where they go. For a few species, there have been radio telemetry studies done and movements actually tracked. Rick Shine did a study of Frilled Dragons (Chlamydosaurus kingii) in the Northern Territory. These lizards are commonly seen in the wet season (summer), but not for most of the rest of the year, during the dry season (including winter). Shine found that outside of the wet season these lizards appeared to go to the upper parts of trees, where they remained out of sight and then hardly move. In other parts of Australia, Burton's Legless Lizards are commonly found crossing roads at night, so it was somewhat surprising that neither Valentic and Kearney or ourselves saw any doing so in this area. Mirtschin and Krantz have however seen the species crossing roads in the area and regard it as common. Sometimes when driving along roads at night in search of reptiles, it appears to be almost a lottery in terms of what you end up finding.
The only other reptile found in the Spinifex was a single young dragon lizard. The Mallee Dragon (Ctenophorus fordii) is common in many parts of Southern Australia and is a lizard Hal Cogger spent many years studying, so it is perhaps better known than most other Australian reptiles. The specimen I caught was very fast in spite of it's tiny size and posed some difficulty in capture. Dragons (Agamidae) are a major feature of Spinifex habitats and I was somewhat surprised we didn't see more. Perhaps it was the hot and dry weather that kept many out of our sights.
Notable by their absence were geckos. Others who have collected reptiles in the area have seen vast numbers of geckos, including species noted for their preference for Spinifex. I can only guess that we didn't look in enough bushes, picked a devoid area, or something similar. While burning Spinifex bushes a local Policeman drove past and questioned me about what I was doing. He claimed to be looking for a drug crop allegedly being grown in the area. When I told him I was looking for Death Adders (snakes), he pulled a large gun from next to him and pointed it at my face. He said "See this gun...I use this to shoot any snake I see!" I make no further comment.
On our second night in the area (15th March), we again drove the roads in the area and again we found nothing. The night was marginally cooler and we thought we'd score some reptiles. Air temperatures ranged from 27(C at dusk down to 25(C at 9.25 PM. One minute later a massive cold front struck. It packed winds in excess of 100 kph. The temperature plummeted and we were engulfed in a huge duststorm. Unable to see much of anything, we terminated our drive and headed back to the camp. We again saw nothing. While unable to explain this relative lack of success, the best explanation I could give was relative bad luck coupled with the drought conditions affecting the area, all enticing the reptiles not to move. When Valentic and Kearney collected in the same area, they had been at an earlier part of the summer and arrived in the area immediately after good heavy rains. The cold front was like a cyclone and it was truly amazing that the tent never blew over. The same front hit both Adelaide and Melbourne and the high winds caused millions of dollars in damage.
Without listing all the other reptiles in the area, it is clear that we failed to find most species known from there. In fairness however, we did very little actual searching. Before leaving our campsite, the next morning, we pulled bark off some trees and found a pair of Dtella Geckos (Gehyra sp.). They were a male/female pair and found under the same sheet of bark. Vicki saw another gecko but it escaped. She thought it was a different species. Both Dtellas had small red mites (Arachnidae) located around their eyes (see photo). These tiny parasites don't appear to adversely affect wild reptiles and are commonly seen on geckos throughout much of Australia. In a captive situation, they can be an important vector for various potentially fatal diseases. For this reason, if a wild animal is seen with these parasites and it is to be kept, then the mites should be immediately destroyed.
The road leading into Sinclair's Gap is also well-known for other reptiles. This is where the brick red Bearded Dragons (Pogona vitticeps) come from. Even specimens from nearby Port Augusta, just an hour or so away (towards Adelaide) aren't nearly as red in colour. Although we saw no Bearded Dragons on the Sinclair's Gap Road, probably due to the heat, other herpetologists have counted large numbers in the area. Among the geckos common to the area is also a Knob-tailed Gecko (Nephrurus stellatus). This lizard lives in both Spinifex and Saltbush habitats and is usually seen crossing roads at night. One of the region's more notable inhabitants is the King Brown Snake (Pseudechis australis). The local form of this widespread and highly venomous snake is unusual in that it's colour is not just a plain brown like specimens from elsewhere. Instead the anterior part of most scales on the upper body is yellow in colour, with the rear part of each scale being brown, giving the snake a distinctive appearance. The snake may ultimately be reclassified as a subspecies or perhaps even species. We saw none of these which was a pity. I had a permit to collect a pair for a Melbourne-based lecturer Fred Rossignoli, who sought these snakes as part of an educational display. King Brown Snakes while potentially dangerous are relatively docile in captivity and relatively trouble free to keep. A number of keepers in Australia free-handle their King Browns, although I don't recommend it.
Driving from Whyalla back to Adelaide was a different experience from driving there. Upon leaving Whyalla, the air temperature was 22(C only and cloud cover was total. Later this cleared and air temperatures for most of the day hovered in the mid 20's. At 12.50 PM, just 10 km from Port Augusta we saw a an adult Bearded Dragon (Pogona vitticeps) scuttle off the side of the highway into a cluster of saltbush. With three of us cornering the lizard on each side of the bush, it was easily caught. While reddish in colour, it wasn't the brick-red colour of the Sinclair's Gap lizards. Although we were initially pleased to have caught the Bearded Dragon, our elation later turned to commiserations as we drove into Port Augusta.
On the outskirts of town the car immediately in front of us ran over a sub-adult Sand Goanna (Varanus gouldii). The lizard had been crossing the road. All we could do was stop and inspect the dead lizard - blood still dripping from it's nose. This is what really upsets reptile people throughout Australia. While we have to justify every minor action to wildlife bureaucrats and fill in endless sheets of paper to have just one reptile as a pet or for research, countless thousands are killed by Australians annually with no questions asked. Whether it's on the roads, or from idiots putting a shovel through the head of a snake in their garden the result is the same - dead reptiles. In spite of this massive annual slaughter, wildlife officials persist in their lop-sided approach of hounding to death those very few people who have a genuine interest in and concern for native reptiles. Those concerned people at most only account for a tiny number of reptiles when compared to the carnage on the roads and in the suburbs.
After a quick pit-stop at Port Augusta, we headed for Adelaide before taking a detour just south of Port Augusta to have a brief look at Telowie Gorge. This National Park is in the hills just east of the Spencer Gulf. Unlike much of South Australia that has been brutally denuded of vegetation by misguided early settlers, Telowie Gorge is fairly pristine in vegetation and habitat. Telowie Gorge itself is a rocky river running between large rocky hills covered in native pines, gums and other vegetation. Due to the dry conditions, the river itself was totally without water. Ian Renton, familiar with the area and a regular visitor stated he'd never seen the place so dry. The gorge is notable to herpetologists for it's population of Carpet Snakes (Morelia spilota). In our half hour visit, I saw a Tree Skink (Egernia striolata) which was sheltering under bark on a gum tree and two skinks of the genus Ctenotus. They were too fast for me to capture and identify. Ctenotus is a large genus of striped skinks found throughout Australia. By virtue of their relatively small size and difficulty of capture, many species have eluded the attention of scientists. As a result, even now, new species are constantly being described. The late Glen Storr, formerly of the Western Australian Museum once described ten new species in a single paper.
Also found in Telowie Gorge was a large number of large scorpions. I am no expert on these animals, so cannot give an identification of them. However these animals were perhaps the largest scorpions I have ever seen in Australia. They measured about 9 cm in length (estimation only), and the largest were dark brown in colour. A number of large females had numbers of baby scorpions riding on their backs. Scorpions are highly territorial animals and it was rare to find more than one under a given rock. It can only be presumed that they will fight one another for sites and this may in fact have been a limiting factor on the population in the area. In Adelaide and Melbourne some reptile people keep scorpions as pets and feed them crickets, moths and other insects. Typically the scorpions grab their prey with their claws and then sting them with their tail. When feeding on the insect, the scorpions seem to bite onto it and suck out the insides. These Australian species, while not dangerous can still pack a nasty punch with their stings, (I've been stung by some before). As far as I'm aware no scorpion sting deaths have been recorded in this country.
The road outside of Telowie gorge, between the Gorge and the main North-South Highway yielded two adult Shingleback Lizards (Trachydosaurus rugosus). Both were crossing the road and their activity was probably in response to the more favourable weather at the time. Instead of an air temperature near 40(C, as had been the case the two previous days, it was now in the mid 20's. The same applied for the two lizards seen just outside of Port Augusta. The drive from Telowie to Adelaide was relatively uneventful as the weather worsened and the latter part of the trip was in driving rain.
Upon return to Renton's house a host of herp people from Adelaide got together for a good yarn (talk). It is perhaps here that I should mention how being a herpetologist is almost like being involved in a religious sect. It doesn't matter where in the world you go, as soon as it's known your a herpetologist, others will welcome you as if you're part of the family. This may be even if you've never heard of or met the other person. It is almost as if herpetology as a science or hobby is designed purely to bring out the best attributes in human nature and selflessness.
After spending much of the next day photographing some of Renton's and Burrell's reptile collections, we parted company and I headed back to Melbourne. I'd been advised that at Murray Bridge about an hour's drive out of Adelaide, there were Western Bluetongue's (Tiliqua occipitalis). Wanting to photograph one, I decided to search for them in the best possible place - the rubbish tip. It turned out that the site had been filled in with dirt and had nothing, so I headed towards Melbourne. On the outskirts of town I saw an old house surrounded by sheets of tin. Tin of course is the best reptile habitat known to science. Because the weather was cool, (18(C at the time) reptiles would obviously be sheltering there. The tin yielded reptiles, but no Western Bluetongues. Under a single pile of tin I recovered two Eastern Bluetongues (Tiliqua scincoides), one adult and a juvenile, one Marbled Gecko (Christinus marmoratus), a Thick-tailed Gecko (Underwoodisaurus milli), and a Boulenger's Skink (Morethia boulengeri). More reptiles were found under other nearby bits of tin. In other words I did better here, looking under man-made rubbish than in the pristine wilderness near Whyalla!
Cogger, H. G. (1992), Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia, Reed International Books, Chatswood, NSW, Australia, 775 pp.
Following my return to Melbourne, I received a letter from the enforcement section of SA/NPWS (sent on 28th March) alleging I had illegally burnt Spinifex in violation of the Native Vegetation Act of South Australia (enacted only in 1991) and a number of other state laws. The officer who had written to me asked me to provide an explanation of my actions which I did immediately. In my faxed letter, I stated that I had gone through several departments, including their own, the Police, Fire and Council and asked questions over the burning of Spinifex both before and after the actual activity by myself, that I had been given verbal approval to do it, that I followed instructions given and that I had actually kept a recording of this. Following my sending of this fax, I spoke to the head of SA/NPWS, Mr. Frank Delpeva, who stated that on the basis of my explanation I would not be prosecuted, but that in future, both sides (NPWS and myself) would have to be clearer over our views and intentions on such matters. We agreed that litigation was not the best way to pursue the matter in this case. However I must stress here that the decision to prosecute or not to prosecute is a discretionary one of the department and as an outsider it is best to avoid putting oneself in a position where such discretion is to be relied upon - as it may not always go the way you want. I agreed that any potential problems now and in future should be minimised. Notable is that in South Australia (and now some other states), native vegetation laws are very broad in their descriptions - so broad in fact that merely picking a flower (even on private property), barking a tree and similar can all result in heavy fines if the law is enforced. Delpeva made a major point of stressing how broad the interpretation of the Act could be. While it is obvious that land clearing of optimal native habitat continues unabated (in spite of such laws), and that taken to it's logical extreme, some of these native vegetation Acts/laws would attack the wrong people (not those who are destroying the environment wholesale), this does not mean that such laws should be wantonly disregarded. Knowing that reptile people in Australia are perhaps one of the most closely scrutinised bunches of people in terms of possible legal infractions, I can only suggest that anybody contemplating collecting reptiles for any purposes be very wary of any methods used and that if in doubt extensive (and often costly) enquires should be made in the first instance - inquiries that may in fact save much greater costs in the long run. Even so much as picking up a reptile off the road to look at it is regarded as a criminal offence and can in some circumstances result in prosecution. I make mention of the matter involving "destruction of native vegetation" in terms of native vegetation laws only because few reptile people are aware of these relatively new laws and most people (including museum personnel) who have engaged in spinifex burning in the past have not got specific approval from wildlife departments on their reptile permits and hence have left themselves vulnerable to prosecution. For visitors to Australia, a prosecution by wildlife officials may ruin an otherwise exciting experience.
Mr. Bob Withey a well-known snake breeder from Niagra Park an hour north of Sydney, New South Wales was last year raided by NPWS/NSW and NSW/Qld officials allegedly (by the officials) as a result of (what turned out to be) false and misleading information sourced from an alleged informant in Queensland. The gun-toting officials went through his files and collections meticulously in search of any possible legal breaches and saw some photos of Withey holding wild reptiles in Queensland. One was a Scrub Python (Morelia amethistina) being held in Tully Gorge. The other was a monitor lizard (Varanidae) saved from being killed on a road near Mount Isa. Withey who thought he had nothing to fear from being honest with the officials told them that the animals had been photographed and released and that he had no NPWS/Qld issued permits to collect at the time the photos were taken. He was subsequently issued two separate summonses (charged) for "illegally interfere with wildlife". While such charges shows the ridiculous extreme to which these laws may be taken, it also highlights the extreme caution reptile people should exercise when in Australia. Other people, including Matt Hingley (in Qld), Rob Valentic (in Victoria, twice) and Peter Jones (in NSW) have also been prosecuted for similar activity. That is photographing reptiles in the wild. With the exception of Hingley, who copped very hefty fines, the others had their cases dismissed (thrown out of court) on the basis that while they may have been guilty of a technical offence under the relevant Acts, their actions were NOT in violation of the spirit of the Acts which are to "protect" wildlife and NOT to deny the public access to it. However again I should stress that the non-convictions of Valentic and Jones resulted from judicial discretion which again is something that cannot always be relied upon to go the way you may desire.
Raymond Hoser has been an active herpetologist for about 30 years and published over 150 papers in journals worldwide and also nine books.
Non-urgent email inquiries via the Snakebusters shows bookings page at:
Urgent inquiries phone:
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia:
(03) 9812 3322 or 0412 777 211
Snakebusters are by far the best reptile shows, parties and displays in Australia, including for: