And the bush has friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him, In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, And at night the wonderous glory of the everlasting stars.

Banjo Paterson (1889)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Skinks - The LBJs of the reptile world

Some people may say that skinks are boring, small brown lizards that run off before you even got a good look at them, but skinks are wonderful animals that often pose a great challenge in identification, similar to the little brown jobs in birds. In Australia there are more than 370 species of skink alone, with many species looking very similar and great variation within a species as well, so as a zoologist you often have to work hard to get the correct id.

The days may have been a little cool for skinks at Wodgina, but we still managed to get a good range. Here are some of them. (Sorry about all the hand photos, but even on a cold day skinks tend to shoot off as soon as you put them on the ground!)

Ctenotus grandis

One of the common big skinks at Wodgina was this Ctentus grandis, sometimes called a Grand Ctenotus. It's big (up to 400mm long) and has white flecks in vertical lines on the sides.

The colourful back has narrow dark stripes.

The subspecies here is called titan and is the biggest in Western Australia.

A fantastic robust lizard with a cute face.

Carlia munda

Carlia are called Rainbow Skinks due to the colourful sheen they have in sunlight (such as this one) and most species of the 32 species are in northern Australia. The only one of this area is Carlia munda with the white lower lip.

Interesting little lizards that often sit near you waving their tails, hoping that you stir up some insects while you work.


Ctenotus helenae

These Ctenotus helenae are usually very plain brown skinks but are sometimes difficult to id, as some have patterns and some don't. In the future with further research they may be split into two species.

This one has a some pattern on his back.

Skinks (and other animals) are almost impossible to catch by hand when they have warmed up, but are easily caught with our 50 metre trap system of fences, pits and funnels. A trap site will usually have two trap systems.

Ctenotus serventyi

 Another hard skink to id which was found on sandy shrublands. We believe this one to be a young Ctenotus serventyi.

Narrow-banded Sand-swimmer

These sand adapted skinks known as Eremiascincus fasciolatus, were often found in sandy river systems.

Great camo on the sand.

There are two species of sand-swimmers that look similar, this one with lots of narrow bands, while the other one also found in this area has fewer broad bands.

They are wonderful animals that are so adapted to the sand environment, with smooth torpedo bodies and a strong angled head. Often as soon as you put them on the sand, with one flick of their tails they have disappeared below.

Morethia ruficauda

These colourful little Morethia ruficauda skinks are usually found at rocky areas in northern Australia. It's interesting that a number of small skinks have this wonderful pattern. Why? Do the stripes hide the main body while the red tail which can be lost, attracts the attention of predators?


This subspecies in the north-west is called exquisita, you can see why. A beautiful little skink.

Leopard Ctenotus

One of my favourite skinks, Ctenotus pantherinus, the beautiful Leopard Skink.

He is fairly common in spinifex areas, but I think he must be the most beautiful big skink in Australia.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Translocations - The New Feel Good Alternative

Currently in Western Australia ‘translocations’ is one of the big key words in wildlife management, especially when habitat is going to be destroyed. Do these translocations work? It may look good on paper, the boxes on forms have been ticked and the general public is happy and feels good, but in reality it may be a waste of time and wasted money that could have gone into more important conservation.

I do a lot of animal relocations, especially for conservation significant mammals such as Southern Brown Bandicoot (Isoodon obesulus) and now word is spreading of possible future reptile relocations as well. There are important ecological considerations that I believe many government departments (and general public) overlook or are not aware of when translocating animals.

Let’s have a look at some of these considerations when releasing animals at new locations.

1. Why are there no animals there? Has something in the environment caused their extinction, such as loss of food or shelter, or have predators killed them? These issues must be addressed; otherwise the new animal introductions are doomed.

2. Does the area have low numbers of animals? Why? Basically the reasons may be the same as the above that are keeping animal numbers low, so new animals probably won’t survive.

3. Is the area at full capacity already? Introducing more animals will only cause stress on the local animals from competition and fighting. Introduced animals into a local animal’s territory are always at a disadvantage from lack of knowledge about food and safe shelters (and predators), as well as an animal holding a territory will fight harder to keep it! When land is cleared many people think the birds just fly somewhere else. Where? All the other surrounding habitat is probably occupied, so the birds just starve or are killed by predators! It is basically as if someone destroyed the town or suburb next to you and the people just came over to your house and said ‘we will live with you from now on’. What would you say?

4. Disease and Genetics. Do the new animals have any disease in them, that they may be possibly immune to, but the local population may not? Are the new animals genetically different from the local population? Species that were once a single species are constantly being split into different species (or subspecies). These factors often seem to be overlooked in animal relocations and are especially important if animals are from distant locations.

5. Specific Requirements. Animals are often relocated to similar habitats, but with different environmental factors, such as soils, food plants, shelters etc. Case in point is that some animals from the Swan Coastal Plain, which is generally sand, are relocated to some areas of the Wheatbelt with clay soils. It may be easy for a bandicoot to find and dig out an earthworm from sand, but what about hard clay? Animals do learn, but can they learn quick enough before they starve or something eats them?

6. Is it far enough? If an animal is relocated close to it’s original site, it can often having been forced (by the local animals or instinct to return) from the new area, travel back to it’s old location only to find it’s destroyed. The poor animal will now die in it’s old territory that no longer supports it!

Some relocations are great, work well and have saved animals, but is it always an answer as it currently seems to be? It is a tough situation when animal habitats are destroyed and the animals will die, but will relocating them also stress or destroy safe existing populations and is the money better spent on other conservation? Important considerations that I believe are currently overlooked.

For some interesting information about the problems of Australian animal relocations see:

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Geckos and Legless Lizards

The mornings at Wodgina were cool with one of them even having a low mist, which is uncommon for these arid areas. Cool nights and days are not the best for trapping reptiles, but often if there wasn't a full moon the geckos were still on the move at night.

Fat-tailed Gecko

The morning trap checks often found that the Fat-tailed Geckos (Diplodactylus conspicillatus) had been hunting during the night.

These amazing geckos usually live in vertical spider burrows, probably after having eaten the spider. They use that hard ridged flat tail to block the burrow if anything tries to eat them.

Delma pax

A lot of legless lizards don't have common names. This one is Delma pax, a common legless lizard in this area of the Pilbara.

Close relatives of geckos, legless lizards can be told from a snake by hindlimb flaps, thick fleshy tongues and ear openings (between the rear two black bands in this species).

Burton's Snake-Lizard

One of the most interesting legless lizards in Australia, Burton's Snake-lizard (Lialis burtonis). He's a fast-moving lizard hunter, but also eats small geckos, dragons and snakes, with a special hinge allowing his jaws to act like a pair of pincers to grasp prey.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Skywatch Friday

I'm not officially with Skywatch Friday, but how's this for a great sky. This was dawn at Wodgina, and I must say one of the most fantastic ones I have ever seen.

The vertical line is a communications tower.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wodgina - The Varanids

Yellow-spotted Monitor

The Pilbara area is always great for different Varanids or 'Goannas', so when we saw this Yellow-spotted Monitor (Varanus panoptes) on the first day at Wodgina, we hoped it was going to be a good survey with lots of monitors. We weren't disappointed!

Pygmy Desert Monitor

One of the more common small varanids of the area, a Pygmy Desert Monitor (Varanus eremius).

About 46cm long, reddish brown with pale and dark spots and striped tail, tells us he's a V.eremius.

Stii a bit cold from the cool morning.

Nice black throat markings.

What a fantastic animal.

Varanus bushi

A recent split from the Pygmy Mulga Monitor (V. gilleni), this little monitor has no common name yet, just Varanus bushi.

He's only found in this area of the Pilbara, is 35cm and has brown elongate marks on his back.

Here you can see his Parietal Eye clearly. What is it? The parietal eye is a photosensory organ connected to the pineal body, active in triggering hormone production (including reproduction) and thermoregulation. It is sensitive to changes in light and dark, it does not form images, having only a rudimentary retina and lens. It is visible as an opalescent gray spot on the top of some lizard's heads; also referred to as "pineal eye" or "third eye."

Pilbara Rock Monitor

This must be the most beautiful varanid in Australia, a Pilbara Rock Monitor (Varanus pilbarensis).

He looks like an aboriginal painting or some type of stuffed toy. He's normally hard to find as he lives in deep rock crevices, but here his is flat out getting some heat from the warm rock.

Spiny-tailed Monitor

Another common monitor of the Pilbara area, a Spiny-tailed Monitor (Varanus acanthurus). An unsual find on this sandy trap site as he normally lives among rocky areas and uses his hard spiny tail to wedge himself in the rocks if something tries to get him.

He's only a young guy as they grow to 63cm long. Easy to id this varanid as he has a spiny tail, creams spots on his back and pale stripes on the neck.

Gould's Goanna

Different neck and back markings and a smooth tail on this young Gould's Goanna (Varanus gouldii).

I love the wonderful faces on the small monitors and always look forward to catching them.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Port Hedland - Big Trains, Big Money

During the recent Wodgina fauna survey a few weeks ago near Port Hedland, the survey sites were often located between the two major mining railway lines, seeing an iron ore train every few minutes was a daily event.

The big mining player in the Pilbara, BHP-Billiton, wouldn't let the new  mining company FMG share their railway, so he went and built his own alongside.


Here's some interesting information from the web about these iron ore trains. Each train is operated by a single driver, and comprises up to 234 ore cars, each ore car with a load capacity of approximately 106 tonnes. A fully loaded train weighs approximately 29,500 tonnes and is about 2.4 kilometres in length.


I was told that each ore car has up to $25 000 of iron ore in it.


That's a lot of ore cars and a lot of money being made. The record is the world’s longest train with eight GE AC6000CW locomotives and 682 ore cars operated over 275 kilometres in the Newman to Port Hedland section on 21 June 2001. The train length was 7.353 kilometres

One of our survey sites was near the railway bridge over the now dry Hunter River.


Trains are not the only things using the railway bridge.


Underneath were dozens upon dozens of Fairy Martin nests, often using the rainwater downpipes for extra support.

There must be vast numbers of Fairy Martins when it rains and they can collect mud for their bottle-shaped nests.


The scenery near the railways is fantastic.


Trains continue to travel day and night. Soon these train may lose their drivers and be totally automated.


One of our survey sites was near the old BHP-Billiton's hot briquetted iron plant.


Big money is made and some big money lost. BHP-Billiton's hot briquetted iron (HBI) plant in Port Hedland, in north-west Western Australia, is being demolished.
Production at the plant stopped in 2004 when a gas explosion killed one worker and seriously burnt two others. It took BHP three years to build and produce the first briquette from the $2.4 billion plant.
A year later, the company had to write off the entire value of the plant because of low production, low prices and expensive modifications.

The trains roll on!