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Lorenzo Seneci

Part 2- The Crimson King

Today I opened the blog for the first time in six weeks, and the events I am about to narrate occurred roughly fourteen weeks ago. Let that sink in, my ever-present feeling of guilt would whisper in my ear. I hope you’re not too upset after I left you with a cliffhanger back in Part 1 of this post (who am I kidding, most of you will probably be wondering “who was this guy again?”), but at least I am back to finish the business. Enough with intros now: let our minds travel right back where we left off.

After a glorious herping night culminating with that totally unexpected woma python, we retreated in our tents for a well deserved night of sleep- which, however, was abruptly cut off the moment the sun began emerging above the horizon. In fact, the innumerable birds that populated our campsite wasted no time, erupting in an ecstatic frenzy of flamboyant calls and all kinds of incomprehensible vocalizations. Richard and James had already left their tents when I crawled out of mine in lizard-like fashion with a dreadful face and hair that would have made Medusa blush. In all honesty though, I couldn’t have cared less- especially with such an amazing scenery to greet me all around. Magpies, ravens, miners, they all were bolting across the sky in every direction, occasionally perching on a branch before taking off again before one could even realize. The real show-stoppers, however, were the cockatoos. These most Australian of birds are ubiquitous down here, with around 30 species spanning the entire country and beyond- two of which coexist where we had ventured. First there was the galah (Eolophus roseicapilla), an adorable ball of shiny pnik fluff propelled by pale grey wings. These parrots were all over the place, but two in particular had their nest on a tree towering right above our tents- making it all too easy to take a dump right onto James’s head later that day. For the little I know about Psittaciformes (the order all parrots are grouped into), those two galahs might have been lovebirds in the most literal sense of the word: this species is known for its monogamy, a widespread trait among birds and parrots especially.

Galah (Eolophus roseicapilla)

The same may have been true for the two sulphur-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) enjoying the sun on top of a tree across the stream we camped at. The sulphur-crested cockatoo is a world-famous symbol of Australia, ranking perhaps just below koalas and kangaroos in that regard. Hell, this parrot was known as far as Europe since the 13th century AD. Yes, you read that right. Emperor Frederick II, had a drawing of his personal specimen in his extensive treatise on falconry (De Arte Venandi cum Avibus). According to recent research, he received the bird as a gift from Al-Kamil, Sultan of Egypt, whose kingdom had documented trade outposts reaching as far as New Guinea- where this species occurs. Nowadays, the sulphur-crested cockatoo is highly popular in the pet market, which all too often turns out to be a double-edged sword. In fact, many keepers underestimate the effort required to properly care for a parrot- these birds are extremely intelligent, need constant stimuli and enrichment (large cages, exercise, toys, etc) and can live up to 60-80 years. Buying one is literally an investment for life in terms of money, time, and energy. As much as it may curb your enthusiasm, parrots are definitely not for everyone.

Sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita)

After a quick breakfast and a surprise visit by two adorable dogs from the family camping next to us (Moka and Turtle were their names, as the owner explained) we set off on some daylight herping in the outback. Now, the heat out there gets truly scorching in the summer, so much that most reptiles are only active at night to avoid baking under the sunlight. However, as James recalled, monitor lizards (genus Varanus) often love such extreme temperatures, meaning the conditions were ideal to find some. I have always loved monitors, and James is the guy to go to when it comes to them- he is doing his PhD on monitor lizard venom, the very discovery of which has overhauled our knowledge of squamate evolutionary history. In fact, the presence of venom in multiple lizard lineages on top of snakes led to the classification of all known squamates with incipient (iguanian lizards) or fully developed (monitors, beaded lizards, and snakes) venom systems in the clade Toxicofera, whose validity has sparked (and is still fueling) heated debate in the scientific community. However, our high hopes proved to be misplaced as we failed to encounter not only a single monitor, but a single herp to begin with that morning. To compensate at least partially, a couple of majestic wedge-tailed eagles (Aquila audax) hovered high up above us for a little while before heading deeper into the outback. Besides, the landscape itself was wildly beautiful, particularly a pond we came across where the upper trunks of dead trees emerged from the water to create a marvelous reflection effect on its surface- it looked like the perfect setting for a fantasy movie.

After a few hours of searching in vain, we gave up on the monitors and headed back to camp, where we decided to take some rest before the upcoming herping night. Moka and Turtle greeted us again with undying euphoria, and even the lady whose hateful words about snakes let us down so much the day before came to us asking what we had found on the road the previous night- a truly welcome surprise, which restored a bit of my faith in humanity. To pass the time, I decided to take a nap in my tent, but I failed to account for the implacable heat. Thus, when I woke up about an hour later, I was drenched in sweat and my head felt dizzy beyond compare- which of course gave James and Richard a good laugh at my stupidity’s expense. Oh well, at least the temperature turned much more tolerable in the late afternoon, which Richard opted to spend fishing with the new bait he had bought the day before- with little to no success, I must say. Perhaps ironically, he is a marine biologist by training and has conducted extensive work on fish venoms (a long neglected field in the toxinology world) alongside snake venom neurotoxins. Believe me, the guy is seriously smart and equally cultured even beyond his field of expertise- don’t be fooled by the fact that he’s literally the only person I know who got himself bitten by a frog while trying to boop its snout. When the sun was just about to set, we went to the local pub for a quick dinner and a game of pool- which saw me suffer two pathetic defeats in a row. Then, finally, the time was ripe. Headlamps on, cameras at hand, music blasting in the car: let the herping begin.

Since we encountered many animals we had already seen the night before (e.g. spotted pythons and mud adders), I will focus on the “new entries” for time and space reasons. Even so, I’m sure our first reptilian friend won’t disappoint you. Once again, it was James who spotted the glow of its scales when the car’s flashlights blasted it, pulling over and leading us to the animal in the nick of time. Honestly, his eyesight must be something else for enabling him to see such a minuscule animal while driving in the middle of the night. What we had in front of us (or rather, at our feet) was a Dwyer’s snake (Suta dwyeri), a tiny elapid native to the barely touched regions of eastern Australia. Originally placed in the genus Parasuta, this species- along with its entire former genus- was recently lumped into Suta, a group of small elapids commonly known as “curl snakes”. The Dwyer’s snake is a highly elusive nocturnal species with a semi-fossorial lifestyle, which certainly doesn’t make it any easier to encounter one. That said, the shiny pink livery of its glass-smooth scales was truly a sight to behold- I lay flat in the middle of the road to get a decent photograph, which was necessary since the snake was so ridiculously tiny (to give you some perspective, those “stones” in the picture are literally pebbles of asphalt concrete). The ecology of such a peculiar species is fascinating as well: due to its extremely small size, the Dwyer’s snake has become an efficient predator of equally minuscule lizards, which it hunts actively at night. Although venomous like nearly all elapids, this species presents virtually no risk to humans- which gave me enough confidence to get as close as I could before we left our rosy friend to its nighttime fun.

Dwyer’s snake (Suta dwyeri)

Just like the night prior, snakes were not the only herps coming out of their shelters to enjoy the road’s warmth at night. Frogs were particularly common, jumping around all over the place as soon as they saw our car approaching- that is, most of them. Some, instead, just stood their ground without flinching, which allowed us to take a closer look at them under our flashlights. This time, Richard didn’t try to boop any noses- but in all honesty, I wouldn’t have blamed him had he tried with the ridiculously adorable rough frog (Cyclorana verrucosa) we found right in the middle of the road. I mean, the cuteness overload was real, people- just look at its derpy face and those tiny little front legs on that chubby, rotund body. Like the Dwyer’s snake, the rough frog recently went through some taxonomical turbulences: long placed in the large genus Litoria, this species was among the many that were reclassified when Litoria was split into multiple genera, many of which were “resurrected” from studied dating way back in time. The validity of Cyclorana as a separate genus is still not universally accepted and new research will likely shuffle things around further in the not so distant future. But why are taxonomy and systematics so highly debated and prone to sudden changes, you might be wondering? The answer is too long for any blog post (like, way too long, trust me) but it’s a fascinating topic nonetheless- and a crucially important one for the natural sciences.

Rough frog (Cyclorana verrucosa)

When Carl Linnaeus devised the binomial nomenclature system (i.e. genus followed by species name, both in Latin) for classification of living organisms, he based his revolutionary work on morphological characteristics to distinguish clades and species from each other. This would remain unchanged for over two centuries, perfectly integrating into the new evolutionary framework established by Darwin & co. long after Linnaeus’s death. However, another scientific revolution- the discovery and description of DNA and the subsequent rise of genetics- resulted in a major upheaval for taxonomy and systematics in the long term. Why? Well, species do not only differ in their phenotypes (i.e. physical features, roughly) but also in their genotypes, meaning the sequence of their DNA. Actually, sometimes genetic patterns can reveal consistent differences that do not appear on the outside- after all, natural selection acts on the phenotype, which therefore can converge even in distantly related organisms subject to similar selection pressures. However, their DNA still gives them away as belonging to different lineages- provided the identity between the two sequences is lower than a certain threshold. Eventually, species identification by sequencing of particular DNA markers (or “barcodes”) turned out to be a major breakthrough in taxonomy, with countless cryptic taxa being elevated to species status and equally numerous ones synonymized with other taxa due to low genetic divergence despite morphological evidence. Not that DNA barcoding is infallible- on the contrary, sequencing errors, incomplete genetic material, and contamination can dramatically bias species classification and phylogenetics (which was likely the case for the aforementioned study on Australian frogs). Besides, the tables can turn when species with nearly identical genotypes are unmistakably divergent in terms of morphology and behavior- think of bonobos, which share literally 99% or our genetic makeup but certainly do not count as human. Nowadays, phylogenetic and taxonomic studies ever more often include both morphological and genetic data, although the latter are still not strictly required by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) to describe new taxa.

To cut a long story short: it’s a mess.

Yet again, the night was proving James right in taking us herping for the weekend- herps were all out to enjoy the last of summer before the “cold season” (ha, nice joke there- for us endotherms, at least). It got even better when we spotted a big broad-banded sandswimmer (Eremiascincus richardsoni) showcasing its golden glow under the light of our headlamps. This lizard was a most welcome find- James and Richard had mentioned it a couple of times, describing it as rather elusive and definitely not the easiest to come across. Interestingly, this big boy was missing its right front leg, which took me a while to notice since my attention was captured by its tiger-like striped pattern. A nocturnal forager, the broad-banded sandswimmer (which, despite its name, is by no means restricted to sandy soil habitats) preys on a variety of arthropods that it hunts actively. In terms of distribution and spatial ecology, this lizard is uncommon throughout its range, occurring in relatively scattered populations- a pattern shared by many other lizards in the Australian outback, which are generally found at low densities. This fits into a broader phenomenon common to many- if not most- ecosystems around the world, which is often summarized as “common species are rare, rare species are common”. In fact, only a few species occur at high densities in high numbers, whereas the majority are often rare- which makes sense considering that ecosystems cannot support an exceedingly large amount of common taxa. While this results in especially high diversity at times, it also highlights the delicate balance of ecosystems at large: rare species are more vulnerable to disturbances, meaning they are more susceptible to extinction and therefore disruption of the system’s equilibrium (although, again, this is not universally the case). See, this is why I love nature- all organisms, even the tiniest ones, provide us with insights as to how the interconnected network they are part of functions at an ever larger scale. And, like this beautiful shiny skink, they have absolutely no idea about any of that.

Broad-banded sandswimmer (Eremiascincus richardsoni)
Broad-banded sandswimmer (Eremiascincus richardsoni)

The tale of our herping escape in the Australian outback could end here, with us happily returning to camp after a memorable weekend full of wildlife and fun. However, I kept what is perhaps the biggest gun for last. This animal flashed before our eyes early enough during our second night, but I thought it would be best to save it for the end. Before I introduce you to such a special guest, allow me to take a step back.

When we set out for the trip two days prior, Richard and James were already talking about their main target species for the weekend. One was the woma python, which we would eventually find on our first night out. The other was part of one of the most famous Australian elapid genera, Pseudechis, whose members are commonly referred to as “black snakes”. Indeed, most of them are especially dark in color- the best known example being perhaps the red-bellied black snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus)- and greatly resembles cobras in appearance, even resorting to hooding-like defensive displays when cornered. If that fails, black snakes can rely on a highly potent venom with tissue-destroying and generally anticoagulant effects (bar the red-bellied black snake, which presents procoagulant activity instead). While they will never seek confrontation with humans deliberately, these animals are not to be messed with. Black snakes comprise a total of 10 species to date, but it was one in particular we had our minds set on: the mighty and elusive king brown (Pseudechis australis).

No, that was not a typo. Despite the name, the king brown is indeed one of the black snakes regardless of its undoubtedly lighter coloration- sometimes bordering yellow/ocre even. However, the name does create confusion as it sounds more akin to a different genus of Australian elapids, the brown snakes (Pseudonaja). Luckily- as James never ceased to remind me- the king brown also goes by the name “mulga snake”, after a tree species (Acacia aneura) common throughout part of the snake’s vast range spanning from the coast of Queensland deep into central Australia and all the way south to Melbourne. That said, the epithet “king” is legitimate beyond doubt- this species is the largest of the black snakes, often growing past 2.5 meters, and is known to feed on other highly venomous snakes on occasion. Besides, James enthusiastically explained that the population around our camping area sported a fiery red coloration that made it nearly unique in the region, further fueling my curiosity and excitement. When we finally found one on the edge of the road and James filmed it with his GoPro, the feeling went even beyond my expectations.

King brown or mulga snake (Pseudechis australis). Courtesy of James Dobson.

This individual was still a subadult, measuring below 1.5 meters- yet, it was a magnificent sight to behold. Its color was not as bright as the standard for mulgas in the area, instead tilting towards a darker crimson tone. Now, look at how the “big, bad venomous snake” reacted when we approached it. As James aptly points out, it was only trying to escape from us, searching for a crack in the rocky soil to sneak into. Sure, it did flatten down its neck to give some hooding warnings, but not once did it even attempt to strike at us. I wish we could show this video to the lady who had spitefully claimed that the only good snake is a dead snake the day before- alas, we left way too early in the morning after getting back to camp for a well deserved night of sleep. The party was over- it was time to go back to the messed up world we had escaped from, to COVID-19, to hectic work days to evade the pandemic. Still, the trip allowed me to find positivity even in such bleak circumstances- I was immersed in the most beautiful natural landscape, came face-to-face with uniquely fascinating animals, and saw two colleagues become valued friends. Now that four months have gone by, I can confidently say that’s all that matters.

The black snake fled into the desert, and the herpers followed.

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