REPTILIAN MAGAZINE - RECENTLY PUBLISHED ARTICLE
COLLECTING REPTILES IN THE PILBARA REGION, NORTH-WESTERN AUSTRALIA. -
BY RAYMOND HOSER, 41 VILLAGE AVENUE, DONCASTER, VICTORIA, 3108, AUSTRALIA.
This paper first appeared in THE REPTILIAN MAGAZINE IN 1995, 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. Publication details are that it was published in Volume 4, number 2, pp. 25-35.
INTRODUCTION - THE TARGET SPECIES - DEATH ADDERS.
Death Adders (genus Acanthophis) are from Australia, New Guinea and adjacent islands. They are unlike any other Australasian snake by being like a viper in appearance but are actually a member of the family Elapidae, which are the front-fanged venomous land snakes. This is the dominant snake family in Australia, accounting for about 90% of local species. Death Adders are stout snakes, averaging about 60 cm (2 feet) in length.
There are three recognised species in Australia all of which are similar in appearance and habits. These are the Southern species/form (Acanthophis antarcticus) found mainly in the southern third of the continent, the East Coast and nearby parts of New South Wales, inland Queensland and into the Northern Territory in the vicinity of the Barkly Tableland. The Desert Death Adder (A. pyrrhus) lives in arid parts of Australia, particularly in the western two thirds of the continent. The Northern Death Adder (A. praelongus) lives in the tropical north of Australia. Specimens from New Guinea are usually also attributed to this species, although the status of Death Adders in New Guinea and other islands to Australia's north is far from certain. At least three regional forms of the Northern Death Adder are recognised in Australia, which may ultimately be subdivided into different subspecies, depending on whether or not there is clinal variation. Likewise for three or more recognised variants of the Common Death Adder. Furthermore there is a relatively recently discovered Death Adder from parts of the Pilbara region that has been variously called a Desert or Northern Death Adder, which is characterised by a reddish base colour and some specimens having distinctive black markings. I have not personally inspected one of these snakes.
Death Adders are usually ambush predators, lying in wait for their food and then striking rapidly when it approaches within range. They attract prey items by caudal luring. That is wriggling their tail rapidly in imitation of an insect. When a native mouse, bird or lizard attempts to eat the tail by approaching it, the Death Adder makes a lightning quick strike and bites it's prey.
The venom is highly neurotoxic (affects the central nervous system and voluntary muscles), and is not only fatal to prey items, but also to humans. Prior to the development of anti-venom, it is said that over 50% of Death Adder bites were fatal. When they bite they tend to hang onto their prey, even when it violently thrashes around. The head and skull is obviously constructed in such a way to enable the snake's brain to withstand the potential pounding that results sometimes from hanging onto prey or predator.
Females are the larger sex and male combat in the 'typical' snake manner is not known. It is believed to be unlikely due to the large numbers of Death Adders now in captivity and the fact that it has never been observed. These snakes are live-bearing, producing up to about 40 young, although the usual number is far less. Larger snakes usually, though not always produce more young. In the wild, young snakes take two to three years to become sexually mature, depending on sex and conditions experienced by the individual snakes. Reproduction may be annual or every two years. In the wild, the frequency of reproduction may be determined by genetic factors as well as the condition of the snake. However in captive specimens where there usually is no shortage of food, some snakes reproduce every year while others only do so every two. This appears to be genetically determined and is an area warranting further scientific research.
Death Adders are highly vulnerable to human induced habitat disturbances and grazing by stock. Where either are substantial, these snakes die out. They will not usually return to such a disturbed area once eliminated, even if the cause of disturbance is removed and the habitat appears to return to the pristine state.
Within Australia, most of the countryside has been largely denuded of native vegetation, trees and so on, and grazed with some form of stock such as cattle, sheep, feral goats and so on. These areas now tend to lack Death Adders, even though they were probably present in most of these places before European settlement 200 years ago. The vulnerability of Death Adders to habitat alteration makes them a species in long term decline. In many wide areas of Australia where Death Adders were formerly common they are now absent. This is particularly true for parts of inland Queensland known as the Brigalow and most of inland New South Wales, where the only records of Death Adders are very old.
Having said that, there are still reasonable sized tracts of virgin country - bush, scrub, heaths, spinifex grasslands and so on, most of which still support healthy populations of Death Adders. In these areas Death Adders tend to be fairly common, although they are often hard to find.
Due to their sedentary nature, it is effectively impossible to find these snakes during the day. They do not appear to shelter under ground cover such as rocks, logs, sheets of tin and so on. This is unlike most other Australian reptiles. Death Adders appear to prefer leaf litter in most areas, and in areas where this is absent, they shelter under tussocks of Spinifex (Triodia) grass. Either way, these snakes are hard to find in these circumstances. Attempts by collectors to find Death Adders by raking leaves, or similar methods have tended to be unsuccessful.
This usually means that the only viable way Death Adders can be found is by driving through suitable habitat at night and grabbing the snakes as they cross the road. See my article published in The Reptilian Magazine 3(4) and 3(5), (Hoser, 1995) for further details about Death Adders.
MY FIRST SEARCH FOR DESERT DEATH ADDERS.
It was in mid 1980, August to be exact, that I went to the Northern Territory in search of these snakes. I was in my teens at the time and hitch-hiked from Sydney, New South Wales to Barrow Creek in the northern Territory. Barrow Creek was at the time regarded as one of the better sites for these snakes. Because Desert Death Adders were all I wanted, I basically went straight to Barrow Creek, without looking for other reptiles on the way. The only exceptions was when my lifts decided to stop to camp overnight and while they made their campsites, I ran around collecting reptiles.
At the time much of the road from Port Augusta to Alice Springs was dirt and highly corrugated. The drive was long and arduous and took some days. For those who have never travelled in arid Australia, the one thing that seems to get everywhere is the red dust. We call it 'bulldust'. Driving along the dirt roads, when one car passes, bulldust is thrown in the air and it remains airborne for several minutes in which time it may settle on other passing cars and anything remotely in the vicinity of the road. Thus all the vegetation within up to a hundred metres of either side of the road is covered in this fine red dust. Due to the remoteness of the central Australian region, particularly south of Alice Springs, old cars that break down have often been left behind to rot. Thus for much of the distance the side of the road is littered with car wrecks as old as motoring itself. Due to the dryness of the air, many old cars seem fairly intact.
One morning we were driving in an area of mulga country just north of the South Australia/Northern Territory Border, near Marla Bore, when we seemed to come upon a plague of rabbits. One of the two men driving the car decided to pull out his gun and shoot a rabbit to eat. With one bullet he shot two. At the same time I peeled the bark off a tree and lifted a few rocks. Within a few minutes I'd caught a Gillen's Pygmy Monitor (Varanus gilleni). I have since found out that these lizards are extremely common in the area, usually sheltering under the bark of trees.
Also south of Alice Springs, not far from where the road turns off to go to Ayers Rock, a few hundred kms into the never, never, the countryside is dominated by red sand dunes coved with spinifex bushes. In some places there are also trees and some of these are surprisingly large. The pygmy Monitor Varanus brevicauda lives here. Although they are fairly shy and rarely seen, they occur here in huge numbers. Recently (in 1995) in this part of the country a PHD student spent a month pit-trapping these lizards and caught over a thousand individuals.
A short two hour pit-stop in the hills just 8 kms north of the centre of Alice Springs between 4.30 and 6.30 PM on 19th August netted me a young adult male Stimson's Python (Antaresia stimsoni), five Spiny-tailed Goannas (Varanus acanthurus), 2 large juveniles, a sub-adult and a pair of adults, 20 Bynoe's Geckos (Heteronotia binoei), 8 Dtella Geckos (Gehyra sp.) and three 18 cm skinks (Ctenotus sp.). The area was rocky and it was in these outcrops that the reptiles were found sheltering. While the air temperature was only 20( C, which is fairly typical for that time of year, the exposed parts of rocks were still warm, averaging between 26( C and 30( C. The reptiles were the same temperature as the exposed rocks and all were found on a slope facing the setting sun. All the species found are very common around Alice Springs, which is situated in a large rocky range, known as the Macdonnell Ranges. At the time, Stimson's Pythons were still regarded as Children's Pythons (Liasis childreni), Laurie Smith's (1985) reclassification of this group of snakes came some years later. Bynoe's Geckos are almost certainly the most common lizard in Australia
Upon arrival at Barrow Creek I soon went straight to where the Desert Death Adders supposedly live. Barrow Creek is little more than the local pub, situated on the edge of the highway. Besides the pub, there were a number of Aborigines in the area, who appeared to live under sheets of tin (shanties) in conditions that would make the worst in Calcutta or any other third world city look quite respectable.
The road past Barrow Creek runs along mainly flat country, except where it bisects two or more large flat topped hills immediately adjacent to the pub. The hills are very rocky and covered in tussocks of spinifex grass. It is here that the desert Death Adders live. I'd been told that Death Adders lived under the rocks on the hills and so I spent the next two days walking over the hills lifting everything I could in search of these snakes. Other than a few innocuous small skinks, some geckos and a couple of agamid lizards I saw nothing. The trip was an abject failure. In fact I'd found more in the two hours just north of Alice Springs than I had found in two days at Barrow Creek. I took a series of nice habitat photos and then proceeded to hitch-hike through Mount Isa, Charters Towers and Townsville (all in Queensland) and then back to Sydney. Within less than a fortnight, I'd hitched nearly ten thousand kilometres.
While travelling between Mount Isa and Hughenden in Queensland, the bag containing my camera fell out of the back of the van I was travelling in. Before we could stop and rescue it, a large truck passed and ran over the bag. My Camera and film were totally destroyed.
THE SECOND ATTEMPT.
A girlfriend at the time and myself decided to hitch-hike around Australia in the summer of 1981. This was January/February. Heading south, we visited Victoria, then South Australia and then entered Western Australia in late January. Besides visiting every major zoo and herpetological collection (public and private) along the way, most of the rest of the trip was spent checking out all the usual tourist sites. However from my point of view, the most exciting part of the trip was to be that to the Pilbara.
At the time, the region was little known and rarely collected. This is because of it's remoteness from the rest of Australia in terms of distance and roads to and from it. Other than a few iron ore mines, opened there in the late 1960's and since, the Pilbara was and still is just an arid wasteland with nothing much to offer the average Australian. The whole region consists of rocky hills covered in spinifex bushes, stunted trees and other vegetation, interspersed with sand dunes and flat sandy plains. The weather is oppressively hot in summer and manageable in winter, but dry and mainly sunny all year. In summer, an overnight low of over 30( C is not rare and daytime temperatures in excess of 40( C are common. Australia's hottest town, Marble Bar, lies in the heart of the Pilbara. Goldsworthy which is unofficially hotter than Marble Bar is also at a different part of the Pilbara.
Prior to my arrival at the Pilbara I had been told that Port Hedland on the West Australian coast was a known location for Desert Death Adders. This is the town we had decided to spend some time in.
We didn't go there via the road up the West Australian coast from Perth. Instead we went inland and through a huge part of the middle of Western Australia and into an inland part of the Pilbara. The reason for this was solely because that was where our lift went. It was one hell of a trip. Temperatures in the car were over 40( C and we had to share the car with a husband, wife and about five noisy smelly kids, a total of nine people. Eventually we got to Mount Newman, an Iron Ore town in the middle of the Pilbara.
Arrival at Newman saw me meet the local herp' a man by the name of Shem Wills. Like everyone else in Newman, he worked for the Mount Newman mining company. Newman was a company town - the company owned everything. His reptile collection at the time consisted of a single large Stimson's Python (Antaresia stimsoni).
Wills told me all that he knew about Desert Death Adders and that he thought they were a common snake in the area. He told of finding about a hundred once. The area was a disused runway in the middle of nowhere. Wills told of how a grass (spinifex) burn off had led to masses of snakes (mainly Death Adders) seeking refuge on the runway. He even had photos of the scene, including a huge female being 'hooked', which he described as the largest he'd ever seen. The site was somewhere near Marble Bar, which was some hours down the road. He gave me directions (a 'mud' map) of how to get there and this was to be the next destination. The next problem became getting a lift. You see this part of the Pilbara was so remote that to get a lift along the section of road I wanted would be very difficult. Only about two cars a week used the road.
It was on January 22nd, 1991, that I ended up going to Nullagine which was a tiny settlement on the way to Marble Bar. It had a population of 36 people, 12 white and 24 black. The whites included those who ran the local Nullagine pub and a single policeman. In the hills surrounding the pub were a number of gold fossickers and weirdo's who'd sought refuge from the outside world. The area was oppressively hot (over 40( C each day that I was there) and the hills in the area, were usually treeless. Smallish spinifex bushes on the hills and adjacent sand dunes was the main vegetation ... there was little more. A tree-lined river ran adjacent to Nullagine itself.
Nullagine became my home for three days. This was because there was nobody going further. Hitch-hiking in the wilderness is easy. Every passing car will pick you up. The only problem is that you need to have a passing car. On another trip in 1977 to the middle of Queensland in search of snakes, a friend and I jumped out of a car on a dirt road somewhere north of a remote town called Muttaburra when we saw a great looking rocky hill. The hill was alone in a vast expanse of total flatness. We went there in search of snakes and lizards. All we found was a large two metre King Brown Snake (Pseudechis australis). We then went back to the road (the dirt track) to wait for our next lift (the next car).
We waited by the side of the road for a day and no cars came. Getting bored we decided to take time out and have another look on the hill. Just as we got to the summit, which was about three kilometres from the road, we saw a car drive past in the distance. We couldn't attract it's attention and thus had to wait another 24 hours to get a lift out of the area.
In Nullagine all passing cars must stop at the pub to fill up with fuel and so on, so I alerted the publican as to the fact that I wanted a lift out of the place. He agreed to hold any potential rides.
A local by the name of Hubert gave us food and a bed and drove us to and from the pub every few hours. He lived in a shanty about 3 kms from the pub. Hubert was about 60 and had left civilisation to live out his days in the wilderness. He did little else than drink grog and drive his beaten up old car to and from the pub. Although in Australia there are strict laws relating to alcohol and driving, they didn't apply at Nullagine. Hubert would get thoroughly drunk and attempt to drive his car home. He'd always make it. You see if he ran off the road, which he did frequently, he'd only run over grass tussocks and sand dunes. There was never any other people, traffic, trees or large rocks for him to hit - not on the way home anyway.
The drive on the way into Nullagine from Mount Newman had been in late afternoon and dusk. We saw a number of reptiles crossing the road during that drive. This included 18 dragon lizards (Ctenophorus sp.) all of which were too fast to capture and four adult Gould's Monitors (Varanus gouldii). After dusk we saw a Spinifex Gecko (Diplodactylus taenicauda), four unidentified skinks and a 120 cm Olive Python (Liasis olivaceous). The Pilbara Olive Pythons are now recognised as the subspecies barroni (Smith, 1981).
Contrary to what has been written in some recent publications such as Pearson (1993) and Barker and Barker (1994), Pilbara Olive Pythons are NOT endangered. Furthermore many Australian herpetologists who have since 1981 collected in the Pilbara report that they appear quite common in many areas, where they live in hilly and rocky areas and along watercourses.
Driving into Nullagine itself we found a legless lizard of the genus Delma. When these lizards are startled on roads at night they arch up on their tail and jump. The best way to describe the movement is like a spring, with the result that the lizard appears to hop like a kangaroo. This unmistakable behaviour is common to all legless lizards in the genus Delma and may occur in other Australian pygopods.
Nullagine pub was typical of Australian country pubs. That is, it was full of people who think they know everything about everything and in reality know nothing about anything. This includes snakes. There was a jar of alcohol containing two preserved reptiles killed by the publican. A local aboriginal elder decided to tell me what the two 'snakes' were. One he described as a 'spinifex snake'. The other he said was a 'carpet snake'. One of things about the Pilbara is that if you ask almost any local about snakes and what occurs locally, is that they all say 'spinifex snake'. While the Pilbara floats on spinifex - it is clearly the dominant vegetation, there is no such snake as the spinifex snake. Furthermore the term 'spinifex snake' is not used as a local name for any given kind of snake. It seems the term was only invented to cover for the ignorance of local inhabitants.
Now this aboriginal elder, an old man in his sixties, claimed to know everything that could be known about snakes. He was adamant about his identification of the two preserved ones. It turned out that the 'spinifex snake' was a legless lizard (Delma tincta). The so-called 'Carpet Snake' was a male Desert Death Adder. It goes without saying that nobody in the pub believed me when I tried to tell them the true identities of the preserved 'snakes'. After all, what would some ignorant kid from Sydney know?
The idea of going to the disused runway to look for Death Adders was abandoned after it was realised that 1/ I couldn't exactly work out where it was or how to get there and 2/ I'd never get a lift there.
On the 25th of January, I was driven along the sandy dirt road from Nullagine through Marble Bar and on to Port Hedland. The drive was during the day and the weather was hot and stormy, although perhaps marginally cooler than previous days. One of the good things about being the only car on a road is that all reptiles seen are live - there are no road kills. By far the most common lizard seen were the Sand Goannas. We saw ten on this one drive. Most of these were in a relatively short stretch of road through flat sandy country. Also seen were three dragons (2 Lophognathus sp. and 1 Ctenophorus sp.).
Arriving at Port Hedland I met up with a biologist who was doing a thesis on Mangroves. These are the trees that grow in estuaries and have roots that stick up from the mud. He was to be my chauffeur to drive me along the main highway north of Port Hedland in search of Death Adders. I had allowed a week to look for these snakes and based on my previous experiences with these snakes (or lack of it), I had been of the view that to find just one or two over the whole week would make the trip a success.
I'd been tipped off as to the best place to drive in search of these snakes. Death Adders are apparently rare to the immediate north of Port Hedland until after crossing a major road bridge over a watercourse, which is about 20 kms north of the town. Not far past there, there is a pair of large hills called 'The Tits' (named after a piece of the female anatomy). It is from that bridge, past The Tits and to beyond the Sandfire Flat Roadhouse (a few hours up the road) where the Death Adders are found. Although the road is a main national highway, the traffic in this part of the country is very light and at night even lighter.
The maximum temperature in Port Hedland that day had been 36( C, which was marginally above the seasonal average. By being right on the coast, Port Hedland's temperatures during the day are modified by a sea breeze, which usually cuts in when the temperature starts to rise. We were to drive along the road north of Port Hedland for about two hours from 7 to 9 PM. The weather conditions were excellent for nocturnal reptiles. There was no wind, no moon in the sky and just 20% cloud cover. At 7 PM the air temperature was 33( C and it was later to drop to 31( C at 9 PM.
At 7.40 PM, we found our first reptile. It was a large Burton's Legless Lizard (Lialis burtonis). These sharp-snouted legless lizards are found crossing roads in most parts of Australia and feed on other lizards. It was in some ways quite a disappointing find. You see, coming from Sydney, these animals are commonly found crossing roads there. I didn't really want to go to the opposite side of the continent to find what I could find in my local area.
The disappointment was short-lived. Before the car had got out of the lower gears, we'd stopped for yet another red line on the road. This was it, the first Desert Death Adder I was ever to find. The elation experienced at the time is impossible to describe. The snake was an adult male. 20 minutes later another adult male was found followed by a large adult female Stimson's Python just six minutes later. Four minutes later yet another male Desert Death Adder was found crossing the road.
Besides these reptiles, we also found 2 Hooded Scalyfoots (Pygopus nigriceps), 3 Delma plebia (?), both of which are types of legless lizard common across a wide part of Australia, but usually only seen crossing roads at night. We saw a single Fat-tailed gecko (Diplodactylus conspicillatus) and a road-killed Curl Snake (Suta suta) both of which are also common throughout arid parts of Australia. Just outside Port Hedland on the way back, we found a juvenile Stimson's python which had just eaten. This was indicated by the huge bulge in the snake's mid-body. Non-reptilian sightings included four large burrowing frogs (Cyclorana sp.) a Kangaroo (Macropus sp.) and four marsupial mice.
It was over the following week that I began to realise just how common Death Adders and other reptiles were around Port Hedland. The next day, we drove from Port Hedland along the main highway south to Whim Creek and then on to Kurratha. The distance took some four hours, from 10 AM to 2 PM. Whim Creek is nothing more than a pub. Although the habitat north of Port Hedland is fairly intact, that to the south is not. Much appears to be burnt and overgrazed by livestock. In spite of that, we saw a large amount of road-killed and live reptiles, mainly in the first 50 kms south of Port Hedland.
What we saw was as follows:- 18 Sand Goannas, 12 road killed, 6 live; six of the road kills were sexed and all were males; 4 Dragons (Lophognathus sp.), all live; three road killed Death Adders, two adults, one juvenile, both adults were female and one had been gravid; two road-killed Western Brown Snakes (Pseudonaja nuchalis) and a road-killed Stimson's Python. While I was particularly upset to find a road-killed Gravid Death Adder, the fact remains that in this part of the country, hundreds, if not thousands are killed each year on Pilbara roads.
The return trip that afternoon saw more lizards, the majority of Sand Goannas being road-killed, while all the agamids somehow managed to avoid the same fate. A single adult Perentie (Varanus giganteus) was seen sitting (alive) at the side of the Road. This is a relatively rarely seen species and Australia's largest lizard.
That night, we drove up and down the main highway to the north of Whim Creek and found a large number of reptiles, including an adult male Ant-hill Python (Antaresia perthensis), which was run over accidentally by my driver, but no Death Adders. In hindsight I was a bit slow on the uptake too. When I picked up the still writhing snake, I wrote it off as merely a red-coloured Children's Python (Liasis childreni), as they were known at the time. While the snake was obviously different to that shown to me by Shem Wills some days earlier and the ones caught just the night before, I'd failed to realise that I was in fact looking at a new species. It was only some days later when talking to another Pilbara herpetologist, Val Bagshaw of Shay Gap, that I became aware that the run over snake was in fact an Ant-hill Python and not a Children's (= Stimson's).
The following night we returned to the road north of Port Hedland focussing on the area around and just north of The Tits. We found a large number of reptiles including seven Death Adders, all male, two more Stimson's Pythons, along with a collection of smaller reptiles such as geckos, legless lizards and a single Whip Snake (Demansia sp.) which was road killed and may have been killed during daylight hours.
The following night the same road yielded five more adult Death Adders, including the first female, the other four being males. Although the female was large and healthy, she was clearly not in reproductive mode and it could have been safely assumed she had not produced young that year. Also found was a 1.2 metre King Brown Snake (Pseudechis australis); a single adult female Centralian Bluetongued Lizard (Tiliqua multifasciata) along with the 'usual' collection of legless lizards, geckos and frogs. Nocturnal activity by Bluetongued Lizards in hot weather is common. Over the years I have found a large number of Centralian Bluetongued Lizards active at night and once on a particularly hot day I saw an Eastern Bluetongued Lizard (Tiliqua scincoides) walking across Mona Vale Road at St. Ives, in suburban Sydney well after dark.
On every night the weather conditions had been similar, temperatures much the same, with a variation of no more than 2-3 degrees, and the roads driven from about 7 PM to 9 PM.
Further drives produced yet more of the same and in similar numbers, along with other species such as Black-headed Python (Aspidites melanocephalus), Moon Snakes (Furina ornata), Spotted Snake (Denisonia punctata), Blind Snake (Typhlina sp.), Western Brown Snake (Pseudonaja nuchalis), Whip Snake (Demansia psammophis(?),Knob-tailed Gecko (Nephrurus levis pilbaraensis), Bearded Dragon (Pogona sp.), Spiny-tailed Gecko (Diplodactylus cilliaris), Spinifex Gecko (Diplodactylus taeniata) and various small skinks. Most nights were of similar conditions to those described above.
During the day other species of interest were also caught. Perhaps the species of greatest interest to me were the Ant-hill Pythons (Antaresia perthensis), Richardson's Skinks (Eremiascincus richardsoni), Spiny-tailed Monitors (Varanus acanthurus) and Depressed Spiny-tailed Skink (Egernia depressa), all of which were found inside termite mounds in the Shay Gap/Goldsworthy areas, to the north of Port Hedland. The species listed here are however common to most of the Pilbara, itself a vast region.
Other reptiles were found during the day by more orthodox methods of searching, such as turning over rocks, peeling bark off trees and simply observing the habitat. This included species already named above, as well as a single Ringed Brown Snake (Pseudonaja modesta). Having said, this, perhaps I should note that we concentrated our efforts to collecting reptiles on roads at night. The two reasons for this were because of it's relatively high level of productivity and because this was the only way to successfully look for the species I had targeted, namely the Desert Death Adders. During the day, it was usually too hot for most species to be active, so searching during these hours had a relatively low level of success.
Perhaps the saddest part of the trip was when we got a lift in a Ward's Express truck from Port Hedland, back to Perth. Driving south from Kurratha, the main highway winds through some rocky spinifex covered hills that constitute prime reptile habitat. The weather was hot and the time was dusk and just after it as we covered this territory. The truck wasn't going to stop for anything. We lost count of the number of 'red lines' that we saw crossing the road. I have never been along that particular road since.
Species found, weather conditions at the time and other useful information was all recorded as it happened. The notes obtained were later used to plan future trips to the same region and other parts of north and north-west Australia. A later trip to the Pilbara and other parts of northern Australia in 1983, (this one being driven instead of hitch-hiked) yielded far greater numbers reptiles and further species. Part of the reason for this was the fact that by taking accurate notes, we were able to ascertain the habits of many species and more accurately target our activities towards finding these and other species. The roads named in this article, while yielding numbers of reptiles are apparently inferior to others in other parts of the Pilbara region, which tend to yield even more reptiles (on average).
Having said this, perhaps I should relate an experience of a colleague of mine. He went to the Pilbara in search of Desert Death Adders and pythons in 1991. The time of year was mid January and after two days and two nights of searching for reptiles north of Port Hedland he phoned me in Melbourne to ask for my advice.
'What was the weather like?', I asked, the reply was 'hot' and the temperatures quoted all seemed OK. My friend then told me the exact roads he'd driven and that too seemed OK. I then looked out of my window and noticed the thing that had killed off most of his night herping prospects. There was a huge bright moon in the sky. It illuminated the night to such a degree it almost looked like day. I pointed this out to my friend and he confirmed the same there - you see the moon's cycles are roughly the same at all parts of the world at a given time.
My friend's trip was an abject failure. A follow-up trip by him, timed to coincide with nights when the moon was absent (best time is usually in the fortnight after the full moon) ensured far greater success.
Another point that struck me as surprising was the number of frogs in the Pilbara. Although most of the region is arid and rain is relatively rare for much of the year, there are still huge numbers of frogs in the area. When it does rain, frogs seem to come from everywhere and appear in huge numbers.
It was suggested to me, that by publishing such an article, I'd be assisting various people in collecting reptiles from roads and elsewhere in the Pilbara. That may be true, but more likely, those who were inclined to so, would go there anyway. Furthermore I believe little if any harm would occur from collecting the common and widespread species named in this article. Besides, how many Desert Death Adders, Stimson's Pythons and so on could be collected before people got thoroughly sick of them. Even now for many reptiles, it is cheaper and easier to buy captive-bred animals rather than go into the bush to catch them. Furthermore there would be hundreds, if not thousands more snakes killed on Pilbara roads than would ever be collected. Likewise for other parts of Australia. In our own cases, most reptiles were merely observed in the wild state, little more. Some were collected, inspected and then released, while a few were photographed. A very small number were retained. The logistics of doing much else would probably be prohibitive.
In 1981, I was involved in collecting in the Port Hedland/ Goldsworthy/Shay Gap areas for 14 days. In that period, there were some nights not driven for reptiles and on at least one night, heavy rain made it too cool for most reptiles, but brought out frogs in large numbers instead. In 1983, 5 days were spent in the same area, between February 3rd and 8th, inclusive. The total listing of species found on both trips (in that area only) is reproduced in the table accompanying this article. Some of the species denoted by question marks may not be properly identified.
Barker, D. G. and Barker, T. M. (1994). Pythons of the World - Volume 1, Australia, The Herpetocultural Library, Advanced Vivarium Systems, Lakeside, California, USA, 171 pp.
Hoser, R. T. (1995).'Australia's Death Adders Genus Acanthophis', The Reptilian, 3(4):7-21 and 3(5):27-34. Click here to access that paper on the internet
Smith, L. A. (1981). 'A Revision of the Liasis olivaceous species-group (Serpentes: Boidae) in Western Australia', Records of the Western Australian Museum, 9(2):227-233.
Smith, L. A. (1985). 'A Revision of the Liasis childreni species-group (Serpentes: Boidae)', Records of the Western Australian Museum, 12(3): 257-276.
Pearson, D. (1993). 'Distribution, status and conservation of pythons in Western Australia', pp. 383-395 in Herpetology in Australia, a Diverse Discipline. Lunney, D., and Ayers, D. (eds.), Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales/Surrey Beattey and Sons, Chipping Norton, NSW, Australia.
TABLE: 1. - Reptiles and frogs caught during two trips to the Port Hedland/Shay Gap area in WA.
Notes: This list includes road-killed reptiles. For most of the geckos, skinks and frogs listed as unidentified, their species were known, but they were not accurately accounted for. Most of these were on roads, but some were inside termite mounds. Most of the time, most frogs were identified when seen/caught, but on wet nights too many were seen to be accurately accounted for and the number quoted here includes estimates only. Likewise for some of the skink and dragon figures. All other numbers are exact. The unidentified monitor listed was caught and was a small species. It could not be identified, but was similar in appearance to Varanus kingorum. Demansia torquata is known from Qld and NT only and the snake attributed to this species has been so on the basis of similarity in appearance.
For each species is listed in order and separated by commas:-
NUMBER FOUND IN 1981
NUMBER FOUND IN 1983
DESERT DEATH ADDER ,Acanthophis pyrrhus,41,60
KING BROWN SNAKE ,Pseudechis australis,4,0
WESTERN BROWN SNAKE,Pseudonaja nuchalis,3,10
RINGED BROWN SNAKE,Pseudonaja modesta,1,1
WHIP SNAKE,Demansia psammophis (?),2,0
WHIP SNAKE ,Demansia torquata (?),0,1
BLACK WHIP SNAKE,Demansia atra (?),1,0
LITTLE SPOTTED SNAKE,Denisonia punctata,2,0
ROSEN'S SNAKE,Denisonia fasciata,0,1
HALF-GIRDLED SNAKE,Simoselaps semifasciatus,0,1
HALF-GIRDLED SNAKE,Simoselaps approximans,0,1
CURL SNAKE,Suta suta,1,0
MOON SNAKE,Furina ornata,8,0
BLIND SNAKE ,Typhlina sp.,1,0
STIMSON'S PYTHON,Antaresia stimsoni,18,17
ANT-HILL PYTHON,Antaresia perthensis,4,6
BLACK-HEADED PYTHON ,Aspidites melanocephalus,1,3
WOMA PYTHON,Aspidites ramsayi,0,1
BURTON'S LEGLESS LIZARD,Lialis burtonis,9,6
HOODED SCALYFOOT,Pygopus nigriceps,15,5
DELMA SPP.,Delma spp.,4,19
UNIDENTIFIED SNAKE OR LEGLESS LIZARD,5 ,7
GOULD'S MONITOR,Varanus gouldii,56,47
SPINY-TAILED MONITOR,Varanus acanthurus,7,1
UNIDENTIFIED MONITOR,Varanus sp.,0,1
KNOB-TAILED GECKO,Nephrurus levis pilbaraensis,6,32
SPINIFEX GECKO,Diplodactylus taeniata,1,0
BYNOE'S GECKO,Heteronotia binoei,9,50
PILBARA DTELLA,Gehyra pilbara,16,55
FAT-TAILED GECKO,Diplodactylus conspicillatus,14,15
SPINY-TAILED GECKO,Diplodactylus cilliaris (?),7,170
BEAKED GECKO,Rhynchoedura ornata,1,20
UNIDENTIFIED GECKOS,SPECIES NOT KNOWN,144,25
BEARDED DROGON,Pogona sp.,2,0
MITCHELL'S DRAGON,Pogona mitchelli,0,1
DRAGON SPECIES,Lophognathus sp.,9,1
NETTED DRAGON,Ctenophorus nuchalis,1,0
DRAGON LIZARDS,Ctenophorus spp.,79,22
CENTRALIAN BLUETONGUE,Tiliqua multifasciata,4,3
NORTHERN BLUETONGUE,Tiliqua intermedia,0,1
DESERT SKINK,Egernia inornata,3,0
DEPRESSED SPINY SKINK,Egernia depressa,16,10
SAND SWIMMING SKINKS,Eremiascincus richardsoni,33,45
FIRE-TAILED SKINK,Morethia taeniopleura,3,10
STRIPED SKINKS,Ctenotus spp.,36,1
UNIDENTIFIED SKINKS,Species not known,4,51
TOTAL REPTILES,All species,572,700
CAPTIONS FOR SLIDES FOR ARTICLE ON PILBARA REPTILES.
1/1 Centralian habitat, near Curtin Springs, NT, between the South Australian border and Alice Springs, NT, on the way to Ayer's Rock.
1/2 As above.
1/3 Road near Mount Conner, Central Australia, south of Alice Springs, on the way to Ayer's Rock.
1/4 Gillen's Pygmy Monitor (Varanus gilleni) from Central Australia.
1/5 Road near Devil's Marbles NT. This area is just to the north of Barrow Creek.
1/6 The male Stimson's Python (Antaresia stimsoni) found just north of Alice Springs in 1980.
1/7 As above.
1/8 Habitat 20 km west of Nullagine, WA, showing the aridity of the region.
1/9 Spinifex country north of Marble Bar, WA, typifies the region.
1/10 As above.
1/11 Desert Death Adder (Acanthophis pyrrhus) female caught in 1981, from The Tits, WA. Photo taken in captivity and just after sloughing.
1/12 Desert Death Adder (Acanthophis pyrrhus) male from Goldsworthy, WA.
1/13 As above.
1/14 As above.
1/15 One of the male Ant-hill Pythons (Antaresia perthensis) caught in 1981 at Shay Gap, WA.
1/16 The first Black-headed Python (Aspidites melanocephalus) caught in 1981 on the main highway, near Goldsworthy, WA.
1/17 As above.
1/18 Black-headed Python (Aspidites melanocephalus) found inside a termite mound at Shay Gap in 1983.
1/19 Female Stimson's Python (Antaresia stimsoni) from Goldsworthy, WA.
1/20 The Snake (Simoselaps approximans) which is only known from the Pilbara and nearby areas. This specimen was found crossing a road near Shay Gap in 1983.
1/21 Moon Snake (Furina ornata) from Shay Gap, WA.
1/22 Little Spotted Snake (Denisonia punctata) from Goldsworthy, WA.
1/23 Rosen's Snake (Denisonia fasciata) from Shay Gap, WA.
1/24 One of the first Hooded Scalyfoot Legless Lizards (Pygopus nigriceps) found on the road in 1981 near Goldsworthy, WA.
SHEET NUMBER 2.
2/1 An adult female Burton's Legless Lizard (Lialis burtonis) found crossing the road near Port Hedland, WA. in 1981.
2/2 A Pilbara Bearded Dragon (Pogona mitchelli). This specimen was taken from inside a termite mound at Shay Gap WA.
2/3 One of many unidentified Dragon Lizards from Shay Gap WA.
2/4 Two Depressed Spiny Skinks (Egernia depressa) from Shay Gap, WA.
2/5 One of many Sand-swimming Skinks (Eremiascincus richardsoni) taken from inside termite mounds at Shay Gap, WA.
2/6 A Centralian Bluetongued Lizard (Tiliqua multifasciata) found crossing the road in 1981 near Goldsworthy WA.
2/7 One of the most common frogs around Port Hedland, the Northern Holy Cross Frog (Notaden nichollsi). This specimen is from the Barkly Tableland, NT.
Raymond Hoser has been an active herpetologist for about 30 years and published over 150 papers in journals worldwide and nine books.
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