Part 1- Out West
Strange times these are, arguably unprecedented- especially for those like myself who were way too young when SARS ravaged the world in 2003 to remember it vividly now. Here in Australia the situation is seemingly under control, with a partial lockdown in place and social distancing enforced country-wide, but the news from my family and friends in Italy have been downright bone-chilling for a long time. This, combined with intense times in the lab, kept me away from writing for two months (damn, do I feel bad). I must admit, it’s no easy task to put a piece together as I’m writing these words- thankfully though, the material abounds.
Back in the end of March, I was supposed to join my colleagues and friends James and Richard on a trip to Mon Repos Turtle Sanctuary to witness the hatching of leatherback sea turtle eggs- an experience I just couldn’t wait for. Then, the dreaded news came: due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mon Repos had cancelled all tours for the remainder of the season. After missing out on them in Cyprus back in 2005, I would have to give up yet another opportunity to observe hatchling sea turtles in the wild. Thank goodness James had a trick up his sleeve.
“Let’s go out west”, he said. “There’s been a lot of rain there lately and summer is almost over, meaning that all kind of herps will be out to catch the last of the hot season”.
“Out west” is a place he had told me about quite a few times already by then, usually adding “where the cool, big elapids are” as a conclusive statement. Out west was the Australian outback, where I so often dreamt to venture in search of reptiles when I was a child. Sure, I had plenty of lab work to do, but spending two days camping and herping there was an offer I just couldn’t refuse. After a normal Friday morning in the lab, we called it a day at noon and off we went.
It took us five hours to get to Yuleba, a tiny town (and I mean tiny- fewer than 250 residents) in southwestern Queensland where James knew a perfect campsite for our adventure. We set up camp at sunset, with a pink halo pervading the sky and a lush, delighftul scenery surrounding us in every direction. Seemingly lost in my thoughts and clumsy beyond compare with camping equipment and stuff, I must have looked like a clueless child to Richard and James- to be fair, I was certainly feeling like one. Under the spell of the outback, I was able to let go of the sorrows and concerns of the previous days- the virus, my lab duties, everything could wait at least for one moment. Maybe this is what Lucius Seneca, arguably my favorite philosopher, meant when he described in plenty of detail how the wise man must accept reality with serenity and tranquillity, elevating himself above the struggles of desire and greed as well as the sorrows of everyday life. Seneca and other Stoics before and after him believed that everything- and everyone- was part of a united Whole, intertwined in a deterministic universe where everything happens for a reason. I must admit I am not exactly convinced by that part, but it did feel great to be at peace with myself for a change.
Alright, now that my pseudo-intellectual ramble is over, let’s go back to the story. After setting up our tents, we were approached by an old lady who, as we would find out soon after, was enjoying a family holiday far from the madding, toilet-paper-hoarding crowd. For reasons that are beyond me, she immediately guessed we were herpers (is it really that obvious?) and tried to relate to us like so many try to relate to a reptile enthusiast:
“Ah, the only good snake is a dead snake”.
Ok, now each and every one of you please hear me out. This. Is. Not. Cool. It’s not nice, it’s not funny, it’s not just like any other statement. It’s rude, disrespectful, and straight-up nasty. We had literally just met this person, told her about our passion for snakes, and she comes up with this out of the blue because apparently it’s acceptable to deride and vilify someone else’s interests- if not love- if it is centered around something most people don’t like. We were all genuinely unimpressed and disappointed to say the least- James politely voiced our visible discomfort to the oblivious lady, who to her credit tried her best to patch things up and actually proved to be a nice person overall. People, it’s not that hard- just mind your words and be aware that it’s easy to be hurtful even with no deliberate intent. We herpers/herpetologists have to deal with such situations so frequently I don’t even know where to begin- and we’re tired of it. We’re not asking you to like reptiles, it’s absolutely fine if you don’t- just accept that we do and deserve respect for it.
*takes deep breath*
Anyway, back to the action again.
Now that we had everything ready, it was finally time to go herping on the road. At 7 pm, the sun had almost disappeared beyond the horizon already and we knew it wouldn’t take long for darkness to descend upon us. The creatures of the night were awakening. After a quick rest, we hopped back in the car and set off into the outback. When road-cruising in search of herps, one can’t drive too fast- 30/40 kph max, according to James- so as to not miss the animals or run them over by accident. Lights must also be on at all times, and potent lights at that- you want any animal on the road to be perfectly visible well before you get too close for comfort. That said, it ultimately all comes down to the eye of the beholder- luckily James and Richard were pros at spotting even the tiniest critter, because my inexperienced self once managed to miss a 2+-meter long carpet python right in the middle of the road (something James still makes plenty of fun of me for). However, I did get a glimpse of our first snake of the night right away.
This here is a spotted python (Antaresia maculosa), a highly common species in northeastern Australia. Seeing it brought back memories from an internship I did in Munich three years ago, where I had a terrarium with two of these beauties right in my office. Delightful snakes, without question- look at that rainbow iridescence our flashlights produced on the python’s scales when we got off the car to observe it more closely. Even by itself, the pattern on the snake’s body was a sight to behold despite the apparently dull shades of brown and black it consisted of- by rearing high up in a defensive posture, the snake allowed us to admire the sensuousness of its coils from a privileged position.
Like all the five species in the genus Antaresia, spotted pythons are small- in fact, this group comprises the smallest pythons on the planet, with adults rarely exceeding 1-1.5 meters in length. This is in stark contrast with more famous pythonids that belong to the absolute longest snakes in the world, some of which- e.g. the scrub pythons (Simalia kinghorni and amethistina)- are native to Australia as well. More specifically, the land down under is a stronghold for the family Pythonidae, boasting an unparalleled diversity of these snakes compared to Africa and Asia. Pythons were among the first snakes to colonize this part of the world, long before colubroids (i.e. the most recent and widespread snake clade) followed suit. Thus, pythons experienced an explosive adaptive radiation that led them to occupy ecological niches usually exclusive of colubroids in other regions- with some species evolving an ever smaller size in the process. We would encounter many more spotted pythons that night and the next, all living proof of how pythonids came to thrive in the land down under- only surpassed in diversity by another snake family: the elapids.
Our next find was an elusive, almost invisible mud adder (Denisonia devisi), which the car’s lights thankfully revealed to our eyes despite its cryptic coloration and tiny size. Now, I will forgive you for thinking that this snake belongs to the vipers (family Viperidae) after reading its common name. This is not the case, however- in fact, mud adders are actually elapids (family Elapidae), thus part of the same clade as some of Australia’s most iconic snakes such as taipans. Interestingly, Australia (and Oceania in general) is completely devoid of vipers, despite the incredibly successful radiation of this family that led them to colonize literally all other continents. What’s even more intriguing, a similar pattern is shared across multiple clades of vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants too- in short, biotic communities shift drastically and abruptly over surprisingly short distances (e.g. one island to the neighboring one) along lines that broadly divide what we refer to as Oceania from Indonesia and the Philippines. The first scientist to describe this pattern was Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin who is credited as the father of biogeography, i.e. the study of the dynamics and influencing factors behind the distribution of species and populations. After him, the first of what are now multiple lines tracing the biogeographical divide across the Indian and the Pacific Ocean became widely known as Wallace’s Line, and the region between it and Lydekker’s Line to tht east is often referred to as Wallacea. But if so many species never made it to Australia, who “filled in” for them?
The little mud adder already provides the answer: it was the elapids. Throughout most of their range (Australia included), these snakes are usually active foragers, sometimes covering great distances in search of prey. By contrast, vipers are mostly ambush hunters, relying on camouflage and patience to capture prey passing by. Now, despite being elapids through and through, some Australian snakes- most notably the death adders (genus Acantophis)- evolved physical and behavioral features that perfectly match those of a sit-and-wait viper, filling the ambush predator niche that the latter never took for themselves in the continent. Unlike pythons, all Australian elapids are venomous- mud adders, despite their relatively low toxicity to humans, are no exception. The Venom Evolution Lab team described the action of mud adder venom in great detail in this paper, highlighting a potently anticoagulant mechanism especially against amphibian blood- which is not surprising, considering that this species is a specialized predator of frogs and toads. Speaking of…
Snakes are but a few of the animals that happen to be found on roads at night, either to thermoregulate on the heat-retaining asphalt or simply crossing to the other side. Frogs, for instance, were literally all over the place that night, with several species sitting right next to each other. If I were to pick the most beautiful, my choice would fall on this green tree frog (Litoria caerulea) that quickly hopped back into the grass once we approached it to take some pictures. This one was small if not tiny, but the species is known for the impressive size it can attain- over 10 cm in length, which for the standards of its genus is quite remarkable. So is the vibrant green tonality this animal sports on a skin so smooth-looking it almost begs a touch- which, however, I strongly advise against. No, not because this frog is particularly poisonous- well, it is, just not medically significant for humans- but rather because the skin of amphibians is highly permeable to water as well as pathogens that we might unknowingly carry on our hands. One such infectious fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd in short) is pretty much the frog equivalent of the Black Death, having wiped out countless anurans (i.e. frogs and toads) worldwide so far- and counting. Together with the closely related Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bsal), which mostly affects urodeles (salamanders and newts), this fungus grows on the animal’s skin like a parasite, effectively “desiccating” the poor creature to death in the long term- a horrible way to go for any amphibian. Thankfully, the frogs down there all looked perfectly healthy and active, jumping around on their merry way and even showing an unexpectedly tough attitude at times- Richard was literally bitten by one as he tried to gently move it off the road, the thought of which of course still makes me laugh.
Considering how pitch dark it was all around us, it would have been surprising not to find any representative of the quintessentially nocturnal lizard clade- the geckos. Indeed, we found two species of them, as you can see in the pictures below.
No, I’m not drunk nor on any psychedelic substance- those are both geckos, I swear to God. Sure, one looks much more “gecko-y” than the other, which I myself mistook for a snake at first sight when we walked up to it after pulling over. Only when it flashed out its definitely not forked tongue did I realize that it was actually a lizard- a Brigalow scaly-foot (Paradelma orientalis) to be exact, as James explained. Now, I’ve seen quite a few legless lizards in my life, from slowworms in Europe to Burton’s lizards here in Australia, but this was by far the most serpentine I have ever come across. The Brigalow scaly-foot is part of the family Pygopodidae, which includes geckos that lost their limbs and specialized in preying on other lizards- their dentition is perfectly suited for sliding under scales and penetrate the skin underneath.
The comparison with the spiny-tailed gecko (Strophurus sp.) in the second picture is truly staggering- even though they do belong to different families (the former is a member of the Diplodactylidae), they still share the same superfamily (Pygopodoidea) and yet they look like they belong to different worlds. The reason for this likely goes back to natural selection- while spiny-tailed geckos fit the “typical” niche of its clade as a fast-moving predator of small invertebrates which it chases on any kind of surface, the Brigalow scaly-foot is largely fossorial, thus relying on an elongated body to fit in narrow crevices and burrows. Despite its perhaps more “common” appearance, our four-legged friend still deserves a shoutout for its marvelous coloration, which its snake-looking cousin simply can’t match: under our headlights, its skin looked a tiny block of granite waiting to be polished.
The night had already been a clear success by that point, with a couple spotted pythons, four mud adders, a scaly foot, countless frogs, and a spiny-tailed gecko. However, it was still early and warm enough to continue herping for a while, so we kept driving ahead in search for yet more fascinating creatures. And boy, did our perseverance pay off.
Once again, it was James who caught a glimpse of a dark silhouette bolting into a spinifex bush from the middle of the road- my sight proved to be dead useless for the n-th time, of course. However, this time it looked like the mysterious creature had eluded us, as we meticulously inspected every inch of the area to no avail. After a few minutes, Richard and I had all but given up.
<<James, it must be deep into the shrubs by now. I don’t think…>>
Oh, the irony. Well, lesson learned, I guess. We immediately ran to the spot, and indeed there it was- a beautiful pale-headed snake (Hoplocephalus bitorquatus).
Now, the genus Hoplocephalus was up high on my bucket list of Australian herps. It comprises three species: the broad-headed snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides, among the rarest snakes in the country), the Stephens’ banded snake (Hoplocephalus stephensi), and this adorable guy. Since H.bungaroides is only found in a restricted range around Sydney, I had little to no hope of coming across one- instead, my money was on H.stephensi, which occurs in the Brisbane area. I must apologize to this pale-headed for not giving much consideration to its species, which in the end was the one I had the privilege to observe in the wild- I was stoked beyond belief, especially considering how hard to find Hoplocephalus species generally are (they are highly elusive and occur in low densities even where they are common).
These snakes are- you guessed it- elapids, and special ones at that- in fact, they are predominantly arboreal. This is not exactly common in the family, as most elapids are terrestrial while sea snakes are 100% marine. A prime example of (semi)arboreal elapids are the mambas (genus Dendroaspis) from sub-Saharan Africa, or juveniles of several cobra species that turn to a more terrestrial lifestyle as they grow older. Here in Australia, where elapids run the place, it is only these three small species (generally 60-80 cm in length) that have turned to arboreality, which truly makes them unique among countless other Australian elapids. As cute and relatively small as they are, don’t be fooled by their appearance: these snakes are significantly venomous, causing mostly coagulopathic symptoms in human victims (profuse bleeding, internal haemorrhage in the most severe cases). Our supervisor, Dr. Bryan Fry, often recounts how a Stephens’ banded snake bite was among the absolute worst experiences in his venom-devoted life- you don’t want to play around with these guys. Still, envenomations are beyond rare in humans due to the shy attitude of these snakes- the one we found never once attempted a strike, constantly trying to find a way to escape instead.
After a few pictures, we left our friend alone as it wanted us to and went on driving until Richard and James found the perfect spot to photograph another target they were bent on capturing- and I’m not talking about animals this time. Above us, in fact, was the most beautiful starry skyscape I had ever seen, and that includes pictures. The milky way was shining marvelously, cutting across the darkness of the sky like a blade made of starlight. Richard and James set up their camera gear, with tripods and everything, while I just watched since I didn’t have any fancy equipment. Still, it was magical. No wonder that Dante Alighieri chose to conclude the last Canto of his Inferno with himself and Virgil being met by an amazing starscape after finally stepping out of the fiery pits of Hell (“E infine uscimmo a riveder le stelle“). Perhaps he knew what it feels like to behold such an otherworldly explosion of light encased in darkness, an experience believers like him often interpreted as a manifestation of the divine. Just so you can have an idea what we were so incredibly lucky to experience that day, below is one of the pictures Richard shot- in the face of this, no more words are needed.
By the time James and Richard were satisfied with their pictures, it was getting late and cold- too much for most herps to be out, we thought. Plus, we were getting tired and were overall happy with how the night had turned out, so we decided to head back to camp. Despite our great luck, however, there were a couple of species we hadn’t come across yet- particularly one that was James’s main target, a snake he hadn’t encountered in the wild in over 10 years of living in Australia. I don’t even have to tell you what happened next, do I?
I was already asleep in the backseat when James pulled over and bolted out of the car with Richard- I got myself together as quickly as I could and followed suit until I caught up with them. When I got there, James was fangirling like my then-six-years-old cousin did when High School Musical was released in 2006- and for good reason. What we had right before us was that one species James was so hellbent on finding for the first time: a beautiful, healthy woma python (Aspidites ramsayi).
There are many things that make this snake special. It is a python, but it belongs to a basal lineage that does not present some of the most typical python traits- womas lack heat-sensing labial pits and their skull morphology differs greatly from that found in most of their close relatives. This is likely because the woma and its only congeneric, the black-headed python (Aspidites melanocephalus) mostly feed on ectotherms such as lizards instead of endothermic animals that would be readily detected by thermosensitive organs (even though mammals and birds do feature in the diet of these snakes too). Womas are also well known for hunting in burrows, where they squeeze their prey against the tunnel walls since there is simply not enough room to wrap their coils around it for “proper” constriction.
In spite of their large size- they can reach 2.5 meters, the one we found was slightly below 2- womas are not easy to come across and/or detect. In fact, they prefer semi-arid habitats where few people reside (our campsite was near the easternmost outskirts of their known range), are active at night, and spend considerable time in burrows. Finding one in such apparently unfavorable conditions was beyond unexpected, which made it even more exciting- finally, James could claim his place as a member of what he called “the woma club”, where only herpers who encounter wild womas are allowed. This beauty sported the sand-brownish coloration typical of its species, with faded bands running over the entire length of its muscular body and a shiny golden head- what a way to end a truly amazing night in the outback. Once we were back at the campsite, we headed off to bed to prepare for another herping day- this time, as proud members of the woma club.