‘Good luck fella, stay safe’: a snake catcher explains why our fear of brown snakes is misplaced



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Gavin JD Smith, Australian National University

Sun, sea … snakes: all three are synonymous with the Australian summer, but only the first two are broadly welcomed. And of all Australia’s snake species, brown snakes are among the most feared.

To some degree, this is understandable. Brown snakes are alert, nervy and lightning-fast over short distances. When threatened, they put on a spectacular (and intimidating) defensive display, lifting the front half of their body vertically, ready to strike.

They are also fairly common, and well adapted to suburban life – especially the eastern brown species. And of course, certain species have a highly toxic venom designed to immobilise the mammals they prey on.

Besides my work as a sociologist, I’m also a professional snake catcher and handle scores of venomous snakes during the warmer months. I don’t expect people to love snakes, but I believe greater knowledge about them will help with their being respected more as keystone ecological creatures.

The author catching a brown snake.
The author catching a brown snake. He wants to garner public respect for the creatures.
Author provided

Not just wicked serpents

Around two Australians die each year from snake bites, and the brown snake family causes the most human – and likely pet – fatalities. But compare that figure with the annual road toll (1,188 deaths in 2019) or the 77 people killed by horses and cows in Australia between 2008 and 2017. You can see why many herpetologists – or snake experts – feel our fear of snakes is somewhat misplaced.

Where does this fear come from, then? It partly arises from the representation of snakes throughout human history as menacing. The fact snakes are cold-blooded, with an unblinking stare, means humans have often depicted them as callous and cold-hearted. Examples include the serpent who corrupts Eve in the Book of Genesis, and monstrous mythological characters such as Medusa.

Partly because of these and other depictions, snakes are often considered something to be feared. When they slither into our manicured back yards, they are seen as a “problem” that has transgressed our sanitised domestic lives. And this fear is often transferred down the generations.




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In my snake-catching work, I have extricated snakes from backyards and homes, a shopping centre, parks and school classrooms. I’ve even removed snakes from a woman’s boot, under a soccer team’s kit bag and inside a weapons bunker! About 85% of the snakes I work with on callouts are eastern browns.

Many callers wanting a snake removed experience intense emotions, from shock and hostility to awe and reverence. Most want the snake taken as far away from their property as possible.

After catching a snake, I release it into a suitable non-residential environment. I always wonder what happens to it next. The threats snakes face are numerous. They can be harmed or killed by humans, pets, feral animals or predators. They are also threatened by habitat loss, climate events and contaminated prey items.

I release each with the departing words: “Good luck fella, stay safe, stay out of trouble.”

Tracking snake movements

Eastern brown snakes are timid and reluctant to strike unless provoked. They are generally solitary animals except during breeding periods. They perform a crucial ecological role by eating vermin such as mice and rats, controlling the numbers of other native species and providing a food source for various animals.

Information on how brown snakes move through and use urban space is limited. We urgently need more understanding of their daily habits, especially as urban development encroaches on their natural habitat, increasing the chances of conflict with humans or pets. More insight is also needed on whether it’s damaging to relocate hundreds of snakes each year.

A study in Canberra funded by the Ginninderry Conservation Trust aims to answer these issues. A team of researchers, including myself, will track the movements of 12 eastern brown snakes in the urban environment. We will do this using telemetry – tracking technologies fitted to the snakes. Some devices will be implanted into the snake under the skin, and others attached externally above the tail.




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We will examine:

  • movements of adult male and female eastern browns

  • how far they travel

  • the times of day and temperatures when they are active

  • where they go dormant in the cooler months

  • the refuges they use to navigate the hostile environment they live in.

Our team will also explore the effects of catching a snake and releasing it into new habitat within a designated range (5km in the ACT, and 20km in NSW). We will examine how the snake responds to the stress of being captured and moved, the risks it might confront in an unfamiliar landscape, and whether it survives. We will also explore the implications for other snakes in the release habitat and the genetic consequences of interbreeding between geographically distinct populations.

A brown snake under a log.
The study will examine how snakes move through the urban landscape.
Shutterstock

Knowledge breeds greater tolerance

We anticipate the study’s findings will help educate the public about how snakes operate in suburbia. It will also inform translocation policies and conservation efforts.

We also hope to show how eastern browns are vital – not superfluous or undesirable – parts of thriving ecosystems. The better we understand snakes, the less we might fear them. This may also mean we are less disposed to relocating or harming them.The Conversation

Gavin JD Smith, Associate Professor in Sociology, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These are the plastic items that most kill whales, dolphins, turtles and seabirds



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Lauren Roman, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, CSIRO, and Qamar Schuyler, CSIRO

How do we save whales and other marine animals from plastic in the ocean? Our new review shows reducing plastic pollution can prevent the deaths of beloved marine species. Over 700 marine species, including half of the world’s cetaceans (such as whales and dolphins), all of its sea turtles and a third of its seabirds, are known to ingest plastic.

When animals eat plastic, it can block their digestive system, causing a long, slow death from starvation. Sharp pieces of plastic can also pierce the gut wall, causing infection and sometimes death. As little as one piece of ingested plastic can kill an animal.

About eight million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean each year, so solving the problem may seem overwhelming. How do we reduce harm to whales and other marine animals from that much plastic?

Like a hospital overwhelmed with patients, we triage. By identifying the items that are deadly to the most vulnerable species, we can apply solutions that target these most deadly items.

Some plastics are deadlier than others

In 2016, experts identified four main items they considered to be most deadly to wildlife: fishing debris, plastic bags, balloons and plastic utensils.

We tested these expert predictions by assessing data from 76 published research papers incorporating 1,328 marine animals (132 cetaceans, 20 seals and sea lions, 515 sea turtles and 658 seabirds) from 80 species.

We examined which items caused the greatest number of deaths in each group, and also the “lethality” of each item (how many deaths per interaction). We found the experts got it right for three of four items.

Plastic bag floats in the ocean.
Film plastics cause the most deaths in cetaceans and sea turtles.
Shutterstock

Flexible plastics, such as plastic sheets, bags and packaging, can cause gut blockage and were responsible for the greatest number of deaths over all animal groups. These film plastics caused the most deaths in cetaceans and sea turtles. Fishing debris, such as nets, lines and tackle, caused fatalities in larger animals, particularly seals and sea lions.

Turtles and whales that eat debris can have difficulty swimming, which may increase the risk of being struck by ships or boats. In contrast, seals and sea lions don’t eat much plastic, but can die from eating fishing debris.

Balloons, ropes and rubber, meanwhile, were deadly for smaller fauna. And hard plastics caused the most deaths among seabirds. Rubber, fishing debris, metal and latex (including balloons) were the most lethal for birds, with the highest chance of causing death per recorded ingestion.




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What’s the solution?

The most cost-efficient way to reduce marine megafauna deaths from plastic ingestion is to target the most lethal items and prioritise their reduction in the environment.

Targeting big plastic items is also smart, as they can break down into smaller pieces. Small debris fragments such as microplastics and fibres are a lower management priority, as they cause significantly fewer deaths to megafauna and are more difficult to manage.

Image of dead bird and gloved hand containing small plastics.
Plastic found in the stomach of a fairy prion.
Photo supplied by Lauren Roman

Flexible film-like plastics, including plastic bags and packaging, rank among the ten most common items in marine debris surveys globally. Plastic bag bans and fees for bags have already been shown to reduce bags littered into the environment. Improving local disposal and engineering solutions to enable recycling and improve the life span of plastics may also help reduce littering.

Lost fishing gear is particularly lethal. Fisheries have high gear loss rates: 5.7% of all nets and 29% of all lines are lost annually in commercial fisheries. The introduction of minimum standards of loss-resistant or higher quality gear can reduce loss.




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Other steps can help, too, including

  • incentivising gear repairs and port disposal of damaged nets

  • penalising or prohibiting high-risk fishing activities where snags or gear loss are likely

  • and enforcing penalties associated with dumping.

Outreach and education to recreational fishers to highlight the harmful effects of fishing gear could also have benefit.

Balloons, latex and rubber are rare in the marine environment, but are disproportionately lethal, particularly to sea turtles and seabirds. Preventing intentional balloon releases and accidental release during events and celebrations would require legislation and a shift in public will.

The combination of policy change with behaviour change campaigns are known to be the most effective at reducing coastal litter across Australia.

Reducing film-like plastics, fishing debris and latex/balloons entering the environment would likely have the best outcome in directly reducing mortality of marine megafauna.




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The Conversation


Lauren Roman, Postdoctoral Researcher, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Britta Denise Hardesty, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, CSIRO; Chris Wilcox, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Qamar Schuyler, Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmospheres, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humpback whales have been spotted in a Kakadu river. So in a fight with a crocodile, who would win?



Northern Territory Government

Vanessa Pirotta, Macquarie University

In recent months, three humpback whales were spotted in the East Alligator River in the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park. Contrary to its name, the river is full of not alligators but crocodiles. And its shallow waters are no place for a whale the size of a bus.

It was the first time humpback whales had been recorded in the river, and the story made international headlines. In recent days, one whale was spotted near the mouth of the river and scientists are watching it closely.

The whales’ strange detour threw up many questions. How did they end up in the river? What would they eat? Would they get stuck on the muddy river bank?

And of course, there was one big question I was repeatedly asked: in an encounter between a crocodile and a humpback whale, which animal would win?

A crocodile partially submerged in a river
The whales swam into a crocodile-infested river.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Scientists double-take

The humpback whales were first spotted in September this year by marine ecologist Jason Fowler and fellow scientists, during a fishing trip. Fowler told the ABC:

I noticed a big spout, a big blow on the horizon and I thought that’s a big dolphin … We were madly arguing with each other about what we were actually seeing. After four hours of raging debate we agreed we were looking at humpback whales in a river.

The whales had swum about 20 kilometres upstream. Fowler photographed the humpback whales’ dorsal fins as evidence, and reported the unusual sighting to authorities and scientists.

Thankfully, two whales returned to sea on their own, leaving just one in need of help. There was concern it might become stranded in the shallow, murky tidal waters. If this happened, it might be attacked by crocodiles – more on this in a minute.




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Experts considered a variety of tactics to encourage the whale back out to sea. These included physical barriers such as nets or boats, and playing the sounds of killer whales – known predators of humpback whales.

But none of these these options was needed. After 17 days, the last whale swam back to sea on its own.

The whale that spent two weeks in the river has recently returned and been spotted swimming around the mouth of the river. It appears to have lost weight – most likely the result of migration. It is now being monitored nearby in Van Diemen Gulf.

Questions are now being raised about the health of the animal, and why it has not headed south for Antarctic feedings waters.

A humpback whale that spent two weeks in the East Alligator River has recently been spotted nearby.
Dr Carol Palmer

So why were whales in the river?

The whales are part of Australia’s west coast humpback whale population, which each year travels from cold feeding waters off Antarctica to warm waters in the Kimberley to breed.

There are various theories as to why they swam into the East Alligator River. Humpback whales are extremely curious, and may have entered the river to explore the area.

Alternatively, they may have made a navigation error – also the possible reason behind September’s mass stranding of pilot whales in Tasmania.

And the big question – what about the crocs?

Long-term, a humpback whale’s chances of surviving in the East Alligator River are slim. The lower salinity level may cause them skin problems, and they may become stranded in the shallow waters – unable to move off the muddy bank. Here the animal might die from overheating, or its organs may be crushed by the weight of its body. Or, of course, the whale may be attacked by crocodiles.

In this case, my bet would be on the whale – if it was in relatively good condition and could swim well. Humpback whales are incredible powerful creatures. One flick of their large tail would often be enough to send a crocodile away.




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If a croc bit a whale, their teeth would likely penetrate the whale’s skin and thick blubber. But it would take a lot more to do serious harm. Whale skin has been shown to heal after traumatic events, including the case of a humpback whale cut by a boat propeller in Sydney 20 years ago. Dubbed Bladerunner, it survived but still bears deep scars.

Humpback whales are very large and powerful. One flick of their tail could send a crocodile away.
Dr Vanessa Pirotta

What next?

The whale sighting continues to fascinate experts. Scientists are hoping to take poo samples from the whale in Van Diemen Gulf, and could also collect whale snot to learn more about its health. However, the best case scenario would be to see the whale swim willingly to offshore waters.

This unusual tale will no doubt go down in Australian whale history. If nothing else, it reminds us of the vulnerability – and resilience – of these marine giants.


The author would like to thank Northern Territory Government whale expert Dr Carol Palmer for her assistance with this article.The Conversation

Vanessa Pirotta, Wildlife scientist, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Photos from the field: Australia is full of lizards so I went bush to find out why



A lace monitor (Varanus varius)
Kristian Bell, Author provided

Kristian Bell, Deakin University

Environmental scientists see flora, fauna and phenomena the rest of us rarely do. In this new series, we’ve invited them to share their unique photos from the field.


Though it may not be as famous a stereotype as shrimps on the barbie, deadly snakes or Vegemite, Australia is renowned in certain scientific circles for being the “land of the lizards”.

Australia has a higher diversity of lizards than anywhere else in the world. The number of different species within a single part of remote, central Australia well exceeds similar desert environments, such as the Kalahari in Africa, or the US.

Over the last 50 years, scientists have tried to understand the cause of this extraordinary and unique diversity.

Some suggest unpredictable resources in the arid outback, such as sporadic rain, favour low-energy animals like lizards over birds and mammals. Others claim a high diversity of termites allows lots of different termite-eating lizards to co-exist.




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Or perhaps the presence of shrubs, sparse trees and grass clumps provide a variety of niches (microhabitats) for tree and litter dwelling species. Despite these many hypotheses, no consensus has ever been reached.

My research explores the role of spinifex, a spiky clumping grass that’s typically found in the arid outback, often in conjunction with lizard diversity hotspots.

With many species found nowhere else on earth, some Australian lizards are threatened with extinction. Understanding how and why lizards use this iconic outback plant can help us conserve them, by predicting how they might respond to disturbances such as habitat loss and climate change.




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Following many trips to the outback, I was surprised to find locals who had never encountered some of the species I was studying. Taking photographs of these often small and overlooked animals helps me to better engage the community and raise the wider public profile of lizards, compared to other, more “charismatic” native animals.

A thriving desert ecosystem

All 60 species of spinifex grasses (members of the Triodia genus) are found only in Australia. Although spinifex habitats cover more than one-fifth of mainland Australia, the plant is little-known and little-loved by non-naturalists.

Spinifex clumps on red dirt
A typical mallee ecosystem where we conduct our research, with plenty of spinifex clumps interspersed with the many-stemmed trunks, characteristic of mallee eucalypts.
Kristian Bell, Author provided

Spinifex typically forms a spiky and impenetrable clump that provides useful, and in some cases essential, resources to lizards, birds, mammals and invertebrates.

But despite the close association of many lizard species to spinifex, we still don’t know exactly why reptiles like it so much.




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Three ideas dominate. First, spinifex may contain lots of food for lizards, such as termites or ants.

Alternatively, the spiky, needle-like leaves of spinifex may offer small lizards a great place to hide from predators. And finally, temperatures deep within a dense spinifex hummock can be very cool compared to the searing desert heat, where temperatures can reach a scorching 50℃.

My research aim is to work out which, if any, of these explanations is true. I do this by measuring variables such as temperature, invertebrate abundance and risk of becoming prey, in spinifex and other plants.

Alongside my supervisors, I have also conducted behaviour trials on a couple of spinifex-loving lizard species: the mallee ctenotus (Ctenotus atlas) and the mallee dragon (Ctenophorus spinodomus).

Setting up behavioural trial enclosures. After more than 100,000 recorded observations, we are only beginning to better understand why lizards like using spinifex.
Kristian Bell, Author provided

We have recorded 230,000 temperatures, caught 16,089 invertebrates, constructed 112 lizard models and classified 143,627 behavioural observations. But such is the complicated nature of the work, we’re only partially closer to understanding the lizard-spinifex relationship. So far, our data suggests temperature is a key component.




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The photos below are generally a result of good fortune and spending inordinate amounts of time in wild places. Pictures of some of the smaller, more skittish animals were taken upon release from pitfall traps.

A close-up of mallee ctenotus, a striped lizard
Mallee ctenotus (Ctenotus atlas)
Kristian Bell, Author provided
A profile of a mallee dragon
Mallee dragon (Ctenophorus spinodomus)
Kristian Bell, Author provided

The above two photos show my study species: the mallee dragon and the mallee ctenotus. Despite one lizard being a skink and the other a dragon, both species are strongly associated with spinifex. The skink tends to forage within spinifex, whereas the dragon emerges into open patches adjacent to spinifex to eat and “signal” to other dragons.

Spinifex with a rainbow in the background

Kristian Bell, Author provided

Spinifex grass, pictured above, with its spiky, needle-like leaves, creates valuable habitat for numerous species of birds, mammals and invertebrates — not just reptiles. Its abundance and influence on many species make it a “foundation species”.

Burton's legless lizard
Burton’s legless lizard (Lialis burtonis)
Kristian Bell, Author provided

This photo above shows a Burton’s legless lizard (Lialis burtonis) — a predator of my study species. These snake-like reptiles are specialist lizard hunters and often use the dense cover of spinifex to their advantage to ambush passing lizards.

Legless lizards might look a bit like snakes, but they have different ancestries and subtle distinguishing features, such as the lizard’s eyelids and external ears, which snakes don’t have.

But many other animals live in or near spinifex, and would happily make a meal of small lizards, including those shown in the following photos. The ability of numerous predators to access the centre of spiky spinifex clumps throws some doubt on the idea spinifex is used as protection from predators.

slender-tailed dunnart
Slender-tailed dunnart (Sminthopsis murina)
Kristian Bell, Author provided
A soaring black shouldered kite
Black shouldered kite (Elanus axillaris)
Kristian Bell, Author provided
Dwyers snake, with a researcher in the background
Dwyers snake.
Kristian Bell, Author provided
Sand monitor
Sand monitor.
Kristian Bell, Author provided

We can’t claim to have cracked the case yet. But we’re a step closer to unravelling the secrets behind one of Australia’s remarkable, and under-appreciated, biodiversity stories.




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The Conversation


Kristian Bell, PhD candidate, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Does Australia really have the deadliest snakes? We debunk 6 common myths



A red-bellied black snake
Damian Michael, Author provided

Damian R. Michael, Charles Sturt University; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University, and Skye Wassens, Charles Sturt University

As we settle into spring and temperatures rise, snakes are emerging from their winter hideouts to bask in the sun. But don’t be alarmed if you spot one, it’s hard to imagine a more misunderstood group of animals than snakes.

Our interactions with snakes are conversation starters, with yarns told and retold. But knowing what’s fact and fiction gets harder with each retelling.




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I’ve always wondered: who would win in a fight between the Black Mamba and the Inland Taipan?


As is so often the case with wildlife, the myths pale in comparison to what science has shown us about these incredible creatures. So let’s debunk six misconceptions we, as wildlife ecologists, often hear.

A snake warning sign
With snakes on the move this season, people and pets are more likely to spot them.
Shutterstock

1. Black snakes and blue tongue lizards keep brown snakes away

This is a common old wives’ tale in southern Australia. The myth goes that if you see a red-bellied black snake or a blue-tongue lizard on your property, you’re unlikely to see the highly venomous brown snake, because black snakes keep brown snakes at bay.

This myth probably originates from observations of black snakes eating brown snakes (which they do).

But it’s not one-way traffic. There are many reported examples of brown snakes killing black snakes, too. Overall, no scientific evidence suggests one suppresses the other.

There is also no evidence blue-tongue lizards prey upon or scare brown snakes. In fact, many snakes feed on lizards, including brown snakes which, despite a preference for mammal prey as adults, won’t hesitate to have a blue tongue for lunch.

2. Snakes are poisonous

While the term poisonous and venomous are often used interchangeably, they mean quite different things. If you eat or ingest a toxic plant or animal, it’s said to be poisonous, whereas if an animal stings or bites you and you get sick, it’s venomous.




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Venom is a specialised type of poison that has evolved for a specific purpose. For venom to work, it needs a wound to enter the body and into the bloodstream. Snakes, therefore, are generally venomous, not poisonous.

But there are exceptions. For example, the American garter snake preys on the rough-skinned newt which contains a powerful toxin.

A black and red garter snake.
The toxins from the rough-skinned newt can stay in a garter snake’s liver for up to a month.
Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia, CC BY

The newt’s toxin accumulates in the snake’s liver, and effectively makes this non-venomous snake species poisonous if another animal or human eats it. Remarkably, these snakes can also assess whether a given newt is too toxic for them to handle, and so will avoid it.

3. Australia has the deadliest snakes in the world

Approximately 20% of the world’s 3,800-plus snake species are venomous. Based on the median lethal dose — the standard measurement for how deadly a toxin is — the Australian inland taipan is ranked number one in the world. Several other Australian snakes feature in the top 10. But does that make them the deadliest?

It depends on how you define “deadly”. Death by snake bite in Australia is very uncommon, with just two per year, on average, compared to 81,000-138,000 deaths from snakes annually worldwide.




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If we define “deadly snakes” as those responsible for killing many people, then the list would be topped by snakes such as the Indian cobra, common krait, Russell’s viper and the saw-scaled viper, which occur in densely populated parts of India and Asia.

A lack of access to antivenoms and health care contribute substantially to deaths from snake bites.

An Indian cobra upright on a log
Indian cobra’s are one of the deadliest snakes in the world.
Shutterstock

4. Snakes have poor eyesight

Compared to other reptiles, such as monitor lizards, most snakes have poor eyesight, especially species that are active at night or burrow in soil.

However, snakes that are active by day and feed on fast-moving prey have relatively good vision.

One study in 1999 showed people are less likely to encounter eastern brown snakes when wearing clothing that contrasted with the colour of the sky, such as dark clothing on a bright day. This suggests they can see you well before you see them.

Some snakes such as the American coachwhip can even improve their eyesight when presented with a threat by constricting blood vessels in the transparent scale covering the eye.

A sea snake dives underwater
An olive sea snake can actually detect light through their tail.
Shutterstock

And then there’s the olive sea snake, whose “phototactic tails” can sense light, allowing them to retract their tails under shelter to avoid predation.

5. Young snakes are more dangerous than adults

This myth is based on the idea juvenile snakes can’t control the amount of venom they inject. No evidence suggests this is true.




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However, research shows the venom of young and old snakes can differ. A 2017 study showed the venom of young brown snakes is different to adults, probably to facilitate the capture of different types of prey: young brown snakes feed on reptiles, whereas adult brown snakes predominantly feed on mammals.

But it’s not just age — venom toxicity can vary among individuals of the same population, or among populations of the same species.

A black snake with white stripes on a rock.
Bandy Bandy (Vermicella annulata). Defensive behaviours are often misinterpreted as aggression.
Damian Michael, Author provided

6. Snake are aggressive

Perhaps the most pervasive myth about snakes is they’re aggressive, probably because defensive behaviours are often misinterpreted.

But snakes don’t attack unprovoked. Stories of snakes chasing people are more likely cases where a snake was attempting to reach a retreat site behind the observer.

When threatened, many snakes give a postural warning such as neck flaring, raising their head off the ground, and opening their mouths, providing clear signals they feel threatened.

It’s fair to say this approach to dissuade an approaching person, or other animal, works pretty well.

Rhesus macaques display more fearful behaviour when confronted with snakes in a striking pose compared to a coiled or elongated posture. And showing Japanese macaques images of snakes in a striking posture sets of a flurry of brain activity that isn’t evoked when they’re shown images of snakes in nonthreatening postures.




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The same is true for humans. Children and adults detect images of snakes in a striking posture more rapidly than a resting posture. And a study from earlier this year found human infants (aged seven to 10 months) have an innate ability to detect snakes.

Snakes are amazing, but shouldn’t be feared. If you encounter one on a sunny day, don’t make sudden movements, just back away slowly. Never pick them up (or attempt to kill them), as this is often when people are bitten.The Conversation

Damian R. Michael, Senior research fellow, Charles Sturt University; Dale Nimmo, Associate Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University, and Skye Wassens, Associate Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New research reveals these 20 Australian reptiles are set to disappear by 2040



Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko
Conrad Hoskin, Author provided

Hayley Geyle, Charles Darwin University and David Chapple, Monash University

Action came too late for the Christmas Island forest skink, despite early warnings of significant declines. It was lost from the wild before it was officially listed as “threatened”, and the few individuals brought into captivity died soon after.

Australia is home to about 10% of all known reptile species — the largest number of any country in the world. But many of our reptiles are at risk of the same fate as the Christmas Island forest skink: extinction.

In new research published today, we identified the 20 terrestrial snakes and lizards (collectively known as “squamates”) at greatest risk of extinction in the next two decades, assuming no changes to current conservation management.

Preventing extinctions of Australian lizards and snakes.

While all 20 species meet international criteria to be officially listed as “threatened”, only half are protected under Australian environmental legislation— the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. This needs urgent review.

Many of these reptiles receive little conservation action, but most of their threats can be ameliorated. By identifying the species at greatest risk of extinction, we can better prioritise our recovery efforts — we know now what will be lost if we don’t act.

Six species more likely than not to go extinct

Our research team — including 27 reptile experts from universities, zoos, museums and government organisations across the country — identified six species with greater than 50% likelihood of extinction by 2040.

This includes two dragons, one blind snake and three skinks. Experts rated many others as having a 30-50% likelihood of extinction over the next 20 years.

More than half (55%) of the 20 species at greatest risk occur in Queensland. Three live on islands: two on Christmas Island and one on Lancelin Island off the Western Australian coast.

Two more species are found in Western Australia, while the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and New South Wales each have one species.




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Each of the 20 species at greatest risk occur in a relatively small area, which partly explains the Queensland cluster — many species in that state naturally have very small distributions.

Most of the top 20 occupy a total range of fewer than 20 square kilometres, so could be lost to a single catastrophic event, such as a large bushfire.

A map of Australia showing where the 20 snakes and lizards are located
The approximate locations of the 20 terrestrial snakes and lizards at greatest risk of extinction.
Author provided

So why are they dying out?

Reptile species are declining on a global scale, and this is likely exacerbated by climate change. In Australia, where more than 90% of our species occur nowhere else in the world, the most threatened reptiles are at risk for two main reasons: they have very small distributions, and ongoing, unmitigated threats.

The Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko meets this brief perfectly. This large and spectacular species was only discovered in 2013, on a remote mountain range on Cape York. It’s threatened by virtue of its very small distribution and population size, and by climate change warming and drying its upland habitat.

Arnhem Land gorges skink
The Arnhem Land gorges skink is considered more likely than not to become extinct by 2040. Threats include changes to food resources and habitat quality, feral cats, and possibly poisoning by cane toads.
Chris Jolly

Habitat loss is also a major threat for the top 20 species. Australia’s most imperilled reptile, the Victoria grassland earless dragon, used to be relatively common in grasslands in and around Melbourne. But the grasslands this little dragon once called home have been extensively cleared for agriculture and urban development, and now cover less than 1% of their original extent.




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Little conservation attention

For most reptile species, there has been less conservation work to address the declines, partly because reptiles have historically received less scientific attention than birds or mammals.

We also still don’t fully understand just how many species there are in Australia. New reptile species are being scientifically described at an average rate of 15 per year (a higher rate than for other vertebrate groups) and many new reptiles are already vulnerable to extinction at the time of discovery.

The Mount Surprise slider, a light-brown snake
The Mount Surprise slider is threatened by invasive plant species and cattle compacting sandy soils.
Stephen Zozaya, Author provided

To make matters worse, few reptiles in Australia are well-monitored. Without adequate monitoring, we have a poor understanding of population trends and the impacts of threats. This means species could slip into extinction unnoticed.

Reptiles also lack the public and political profile that helps generate recovery support for other, (arguably) more charismatic Australian threatened animals — such as koalas and swift parrots — leading to little resourcing for conservation.

Lessons from the past

Only one Australian reptile, the Christmas Island forest skink, is officially listed as extinct, but we have most probably lost others before knowing they exist. Without increased resourcing and management intervention, many more Australian reptiles could follow the same trajectory.

The Roma earless dragon sitting up on hind legs.
Habitat loss and degradation due to agriculture is a major threat to the Roma earless dragon. It has not been listed under Australian legislation.
A. O’Grady Museums Victoria, Author provided

But it’s not all bad news. The pygmy bluetongue skink was once thought to be extinct until a chance discovery kick-started a long conservation and research program.

Animals are now being taken from the wild and relocated to new areas to establish more populations, signifying that positive outcomes are possible when informed by good science.

And the very restricted distributions of most of the species identified here should allow for targeted and effective recovery efforts.

By identifying the species at greatest risk, we hope to give governments, conservation groups and the community time to act to prevent further extinctions before it’s too late. Neglect should no longer be the default response for our fabulous reptile fauna.




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The Conversation


Hayley Geyle, Research Assistant, Charles Darwin University and David Chapple, Associate Professor in Evolutionary and Conservation Ecology, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Scientists capture rare footage of mother skink fighting a deadly brown snake to protect her babies



Author provided

Gregory Watson, University of the Sunshine Coast and Jolanta Watson, University of the Sunshine Coast

Unlike many mammals and birds, most reptiles show little sign of being caring parents. But our new research shows one lizard species may be more doting parents than we thought – the adults risking their own safety to protect their babies.

We used cameras in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales to study the Cunningham’s skink. We were surprised to record evidence of the lizards actively defending their newborn offspring against formidable predators. Our findings are outlined in a paper released today.

Most startlingly, we recorded a mother skink aggressively attacking a large, deadly brown snake while her babies watched on. We also witnessed 12 incidents of skinks chasing magpies away from their young.

We originally set out to record how species such as skinks will cope with climate change. But this evolved into a study of the fascinating and surprising social bonds between lizard offspring and their parents.

Adult and young skinks sun-baking together
Sun-loving skinks live together in social groups.
Authors provided

What is the Cunningham’s skink?

The Cunningham’s skink (Egernia cunninghami) is a large, sun-loving, spiny lizard native to southeast Australia. It’s named after Alan Cunningham, an explorer who collected the first specimen in the Blue Mountains.

The skinks are active during the day. They feed on invertebrates such as insects, snails and slugs, as well as vegetation.

The Cunningham’s skink lives in social groups – a behaviour very rare among lizards and reptiles. In these groups, mothers give birth to live young (rather than eggs) then live alongside their kids, sometimes for several years.

The species has strength in numbers – living in a group makes it easier to spot threats, which helps the group survive.

Adult and young skinks sun-baking together
Thew offspring of Cunningham’s skinks can stay with the parents for several years.

The mother of all discoveries

Using video and thermal imaging, we observed the skinks on 32 days over three years.

Among reptiles, evidence of parental protection in their natural environment has been rare and typically anecdotal. We witnessed four birthing sessions, and then monitored skink encounters in the presence of their offspring.




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Videoing nature can be tricky. Often, the action takes place away from where you’ve directed your camera. So when we saw a snake, it was a scramble to get a free video camera and start recording.

We witnessed two separate encounters with an eastern brown snake. The first involved the snake sneaking up on six-day-old skinks basking in the sun (see footage below). We recorded the mother running towards the predator and biting it for several seconds. The snake writhes around before the mother releases her grip and returns unharmed to her young.

The following year, we encountered two adult skinks attacking another eastern brown snake in bushes. Juvenile skinks were nearby. The skinks bit tight to the snake’s body, and the snake dragged them for more than 15 metres before the skinks released their grip.

Snakes were not the only predator vanquished by the protective skink parents – Cunningham’s skinks regularly chased magpies away from their young. We observed 12 encounters between skinks and magpies. In each case, an adult skink aggressively chased and/or attacked the magpie after the bird came close to the group.

Thermal camera image showing the mother skink attacking the snake while her babies watch on
Thermal camera image showing the mother skink attacking the snake while her babies watch on.

What does this all mean?

Some animals rarely interact with others of the same species, even their offspring. In fact, available data suggests infanticide – where mature animals kill young offspring of the same species – can occur among some skink species.

We saw no such behaviour among the Cunningham’s skink, or aggression towards each other.

While the aggression of the adult skinks towards predators took place in the presence of young, the adults may have been exhibiting self-defence or territorial behaviour. Regardless, the attacks on predators in the presence of newborns does reflect parental care, either directly or indirectly. Our future field excursions will hopefully shed more light on this.

Understanding the factors that bring parents and offspring together, and keep them together, is important in our broader understanding of social evolution – that is, how social interactions of species arise, change and are maintained.

It will also help us understand how animals cooperating with and caring for each other can benefit both the individual, and the whole.




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The Conversation


Gregory Watson, Senior Lecturer, Science, University of the Sunshine Coast and Jolanta Watson, Lecturer in Science, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How we tracked the eating habits of snakes in Africa with the help of a Facebook group



A boomslang eating a bullfrog.
Provided by author/ G Cusins

Bryan Maritz, University of the Western Cape and Robin Maritz, University of the Western Cape

Snakes are a diverse lineage of reptiles that are found on every continent except Antarctica. Despite differences in appearance, habitat preference, defence tactics and underlying biology, one thing is common to all 3,800 species of snakes — every last one is a predator.

Pasha 75: Facebook helped us to learn what snakes eat. Why this is important.
The Conversation Africa, CC BY-NC-ND7.04 MB (download)

As predators, snakes are likely to fulfil important roles in ecosystems. Knowing what snakes eat can help scientists better understand ecological connections among snakes and other species. This will lead to a better understanding of how ecosystems function and how ecological communities might be affected by changes in habitat or climate.

Some snake species have also evolved potent venoms which aid in subduing prey. Mounting evidence suggests venom composition is adaptive and linked to what snakes eat. Although snake venoms have evolved primarily for feeding, venomous snakes also bite defensively.

Incidents of snake bites on people prompted the World Health Organisation to declare snakebite a neglected tropical disease in 2017. Given the link between venom biochemistry and feeding, a detailed understanding of a species’ diet can inform research dedicated to mitigating the effects of snakebite.

Unfortunately, the details of many African snake diets remain a mystery. Historically, information on snake diets has come from dissecting preserved museum specimens or fortuitous observations of snake feeding that are published as brief notes in journals or newsletters.

More recently, methods for studying snake feeding habits have embraced technology. These include fixed videography studies of ambush predators like puff adders and timber rattlesnakes, as well as DNA analysis of faecal material from smooth snakes. But these approaches cannot be used for many snake species, and they require a significant amount of time, effort, and resources.

Snake diets can be difficult to study, so, in 2015 we realised that photographs and videos of snakes feeding were being shared regularly on Facebook. We set out to gather these observations using a dedicated Facebook group – Predation Records – Reptiles and Frogs (Sub-Saharan Africa) – and to record the shared observations systematically. Our findings showcase how the network of active users on Facebook can help us to collect ecological data quickly and cheaply.

Our study

After several years of community participation in our study, we turned more than 1,900 observations of reptiles or amphibians eating or being eaten into scientific data. Our database includes 83 families of predators and 129 families of prey.

For snakes, we gathered more than 1,100 feeding records. We soon saw that social media had helped gather these feeding records faster than ever before. The data collected from Facebook represent 27% of scientifically documented snake feeding records in southern Africa. More than 70% of all feeding records had not been recorded previously in the scientific literature.

A snake eating a bird.
A boomslang eating woodpecker chick.
Provided by author/ L Van Wyk

To find out how data from social media compared to data collected using other platforms, we used iNaturalist (a popular citizen science platform) and Google Images to find observations of feeding snakes. Facebook outperformed both platforms in terms of the overall number of observations collected.

Finally, we noticed that observations collected from the different platforms produced different prey profiles, suggesting that certain prey may be over – or underrepresented in studies depending on the source of the observation.

Nearly all methods used for studying snake diets have biases. This may be why there are striking difference between what social media and the existing scientific literature revealed.

Facebook also let us identify prey more precisely. Most of the prey was photographed while being eaten or after regurgitation. On the other hand, prey collected from the stomachs of museum specimens are often partially digested, making the identification process difficult.

Our findings highlight the remarkable power of citizen science to reveal undocumented details about the natural world. In the case of snake diets, specifically, it is the harnessing of thousands of social media users that facilitated the data collection.

This is mainly because snakes feed secretively and relatively infrequently in the wild. But social media and the widespread use of smartphones with cameras means that even difficult to observe events can now be recorded in large numbers and across different geographic areas.

The continued detection of new feeding interactions shows how there is much to be learned about these remarkable animals. As more observations are made, the full picture of a species’ diet will be revealed. By using a community of observers, more data and information can be gathered for little to no cost.

Going forward

While our study was restricted to southern Africa, expanding data collection efforts like this into the rest of Africa is necessary. Given that Africa experiences some of the world’s heaviest snakebite burden, details on the biology of its snakes will prove useful. If ever there was an opportunity to gather novel, important ecological information about snakes in Africa, this is it.

Globally, there are hundreds of groups on Facebook – some of which have close to 200,000 members – dedicated to sharing original photographs and observations of snakes. More generally, Facebook groups exist for most classes of animals and plants, and these communities have unprecedented observational power for researchers asking appropriate questions of the natural world.The Conversation

Bryan Maritz, Senior Lecturer, Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, University of the Western Cape and Robin Maritz, Research fellow, Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, University of the Western Cape

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A few months ago, science gave this rare lizard a name – and it may already be headed for extinction


Australian Museum

Jodi Rowley, Australian Museum

This article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Explore the project here and read more articles here.


Bushfires are a threat to most animal species. But for one rare lizard living on a rocky island in the sky, a single blaze could wipe the species off the planet.

The Kaputar rock skink (Egernia roomi) is thought to have have one of the smallest ranges of any reptile in New South Wales – at the summit of a single extinct volcano, Mount Kaputar.

The existence of this mysterious skink was informally known for decades, and in August last year the species was finally scientifically described. But months later, it may already be headed for extinction.

Late last year, bushfires are thought to have ripped through more than half the Kaputar rock skink’s habitat. We don’t yet know what this means for its survival, but the outlook is not good.

The fire in Kaputar National Park that tore through the skink’s habitat.
Narrabri Rural Fire Brigade

A very special skink

The Kaputar rock skink is handsome lizard, typically around 10 centimetres in body length, with dark chocolate brown and grey scales and an orange belly.

It’s found in the Nandewar Ranges near Narrabri. The ranges – weathered remnants of ancient volcanic eruptions between 21 and 17 million years ago – rise out of the surrounding plains in a series of breathtaking rock formations.




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The Kaputar rock skink lives on one of these outcrops, Mount Kaputar. It exists on a narrow band of rock at the summit, more than 1,300 metres above sea level.

This high elevation areas is cooler than the surrounding plains, which suits this cool-adapted species perfectly. But the species’ tiny range means it’s highly vulnerable. When danger strikes, the Kaputar rock skink has nowhere to go.

The skink lives at the highest point of Mount Kaputar.
Jodi Rowley, Author provided

When the fires hit

Bushfires tore through the Nandewar Ranges in October and November last year, reportedly burning more than 17,000 hectares of bush. More than half of Kaputar rock skink habitat is believed to have burned.

The expert panel advising the federal government on bushfire recovery has named the skink as one of 119 severely-affected species needing urgent conservation intervention. But the species’ rugged, remote habitat, combined with COVID-19 restrictions, have delayed efforts to assess the extent of the damage.




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It’s likely that many Kaputar rock skinks died during the fires themselves, although we hope others survived by crawling deep into rock cracks.

But after the fires, threats remain. Vegetation loss may make the skinks easy prey, and in a charred landscape, there may be little for the reptiles to eat.

History tells us fires do affect high-elevation skinks. For example, fire is thought to have driven the rock-dwelling Guthega skink (Liopholis guthega) to become locally extinct at some sites on the Bogong High Plains in northeast Victoria.

A mountain of threats

Species restricted to a small area are vulnerable to any loss of habitat. And fire is not the only threat to the Kaputar rock skink.

Climate change is a big concern. While many species respond to increasing temperatures by migrating uphill to cooler climes, that’s not possible for the skink, which is already precariously perched on a summit.




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Introduced goats may also be taking a toll as they trample through the rocky terrain.

Evidence suggests humans are also a disturbance to the Kaputar rock skink’s habitat. The reptiles live close to the edge of cliff lines that are readily accessible by walking tracks. Trampling of low vegetation has been observed at many sites, as have disturbed rocks – the latter possibly from people wanting to find and photograph the species.

The Kaputar rock skink’s tiny habitat was badly affected by fire.
Mark Eldridge, Author provided

Where to now?

Scientists know relatively little about the Kaputar rock skink. One thing we’re sure of, though, is that the species’ existence is threatened.

Surveys are needed at known skink locations, as well as surrounding areas where it might lie undiscovered. Understanding where the species occurs and how it responds to fires, drought and other disturbances is critical to conservation efforts.




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Of course it’s the middle of winter now, so the skinks may not be very active on their cold mountain top. But my colleagues and I hope to travel to Mount Kaputar soon to survey the skink’s habitat and find out how the species fared.

It’s just months since science officially welcomed the Kaputar rock skink to the world. It’s far too early to say goodbye.

Dane Trembath, an Australian Museum biologist with a focus on reptiles, contributed to this article.

The Conversation

Jodi Rowley, Curator, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology, Australian Museum

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.