Four forms of the crab eating snake

Four forms of the crab eating snake

Today we will be looking at the weird crab eating snake (Fordonia leucobalia) which is found in northern Australia, New Guinea and Southeast Asia.

The sadistic crab eating snake

crab eating snake  Also known as the white bellied mangrove snake, the crab eating snake is a true specialist, feeding almost entirely on crabs. It’s weird for a snake to be eating crustaceans in the first place- only very few actually do this, but the crab eating snake takes weird to a whole new level.
 But first, a bit about how and where to find them. The crab eating snake is found in mangrove habitats, and is normally only seen at night. When darkness falls and the tide is low, you may see a crab eating snake or two out on the prowl for some tucker.
Crabs are located by smell, the crab eating snake has terrible eyesight. Once a crab is located the crab eating snake strikes with its mouth shut and pins the crab under its chin. Throwing loops over the crab keeps it under control. If the crab is small enough it is swallowed whole, but larger crabs are dismembered. This is where the crab eating snake is totally unique. The claws and legs are twisted off one by one and swallowed, leaving a legless crab on the mud!
 These photos show four color forms of the crab eating snake. Why are they so varied? Maybe because the habitat varies so much in terms of gravel, sand, mud and water height. But it may also mean the crab eating snake is particularly varied genetically.

Check out this video on the crab eating snake in action in Darwin, Australia…

Into the Victorian Mallee

Into the Victorian Mallee

I had an invitation to head out to the far northwest of Victoria, Australia on a scientific expedition led by Shannon Braun to study aspects of reptile life in the Mallee. It’s not the kind of thing I would want to miss out on, but I had brought back a souvenir from Borneo. A tropical ulcer on the calf of one leg must have contacted a blister on my other leg. It spread overnight and became the size of a playing card, so I had to miss the first few days of the expedition.

Mallee campsite on the Murray River

We arrived at the campsite on the Murray River after dark

But the next opportunity came a few days later and ecologist David De Angelis offered me a ride to the study site. This was out in the Mallee country of Victoria’s far north west, in a harsh environment dominated by tough trees, shrubs, salty soil and spiny grass. Needless to say it is fantastic reptile habitat and is home to a large variety of species. Shannon’s project is still ongoing and once published we will show some of the results here. But the project was just one of many reasons to go to the Mallee country.

Mallee habitat

Mallee habitat

Mallee explained

So, I guess it’s a good idea to explain Mallee before we go any further. Simply put, the harsh sandy and stony soils in the less wet parts of Australia are often dominated by a special group of Eucalypt (gum) trees, known as Mallee trees. These are highly adapted to such an environment. The trunk is below the ground and is sort of like a giant tuber known as a lignotuber. It stores energy and moisture, only the branches show above the surface. Fires can blaze through and burn the branches, but the lignotuber below the ground is unhurt and begins to send up new branches right away. A whole habitat is formed by Mallee trees and bears the same name.

The campsite itself is right on the river bank, a few kilometers from the Mallee. River red gums are massive eucalypt trees that grow right along the Murray River and provide so much habitat for so many animals. Flaking bark shelters geckoes, hollows are homes for birds, reptiles and tree frogs while the ground underneath and the fallen branches provide dwellings for many ground dwelling species. So a look around at night with spotlights revealed a number of them.

The tessellated gecko (Diplodactylus tesselatus) lives in cracks in the earth as well as under fallen logs.

The first animal to capture my attention was this tessellated gecko. Like most geckos, this one feels like velvet to the touch. It wanders about on the ground or on fallen branches under the river red gums and feeds on small insects.

The marbled gecko (Christinus marmoratus) is the most southern occurring of all Australian gecko species

The next, and the most common and widespread of all geckos in Victoria is the marbled gecko. A small species it is found as far south as the Mornington Peninsula and inner Melbourne, but is more common along the rivers in the red gums. At night they emerge to hunt insects and spiders on the tree trunks.

Speaking of spiders…

If a gecko isn’t careful it may stumble into one of these. Known as huntsman spiders in Australia, there are many unrelated yet similar looking species and none of them are dangerous to humans. This species is one of the larger ones, nearly the size of a human hand. They sit head-down on the tree trunks and feel for nearby movement, lunging suddenly to capture prey. They do not build a web, but shelter from predatory wasps and birds under loose bark by day.

Banjo anyone?

Also under the redgums was this handsome eastern Banjo Frog (Limnodynastes dumerilii) which burrows into the soft soil by day and emerges at night to feed when it is warm and humid, or after rain. The call is a short, explosive “bonk” much like the plucking of a banjo string. A chorus of these frogs is an amazing sound.

Ants are also common. This is a Polyrachis of sorts. Normally I wouldn’t post about them, but this one is particularly interesting because it has an impostor…
  This is not an ant, but a species of spider that specifically imitates the Polyrachis ant above. It is the same size, has the same colours and imitates the way they move. Seriously! I have an article <click here> that goes into more detail about this exact thing in North Queensland.

But the Mallee was needing to be explored. It is a reptile’s paradise, as reptiles are more efficient with energy and usually require less water than many other animals it is perfect habitat for them. Basically the terrain is old, undulating dunes with swales (small valleys) in between. On top and on the sides of these dunes a nasty grass, spinifex dominates. It is like someone carelessly dropped a bunch of hypodermic syringes the size of knitting needles in a pile. Small reptiles love it, they build burrows under it and live among the spines, largely safe from predators.

Mallee dragon

The most obvious of the reptiles is the tiny Mallee dragon (Ctenophorous fordii) which shuttles about from clump to clump of spinifex grass, snatching up insects as it goes.

But after dark is the best time to find many of the Mallee reptiles.

Strap snouted brown snake

While filming a desert skink for an upcoming video, Ryan, one of the team called out that he had spotted a snake. It was the newly described strap snouted brown snake (Pseudonaja aspidorhyncha) which was previously known as the Mallee form of the western brown snake. Still very deadly to humans, it sat perfectly and we kept our distance, but managed some great photos.

Stone gecko

Sitting on branches near ground level were many stone geckos (Diplodactylus vittatus) which, like most geckos feed on small insects that may wander past.

Beaded gecko

Living in burrows in the sand, or commandeering the burrows of smaller animals is the beaded gecko (Lucasium damaeum) which blends in well with the sand.

The coolest of the Mallee geckos…

Every now and again we spotted the normally elusive southern spiny tailed gecko. A slow moving species of the Mallee they rely on two things to evade detection. First is great camouflage, but if that fails they can ooze a honey-like fluid from the tail which causes great irritation to the eyes of attackers. The most striking thing about this gecko is the blue lining of the mouth.

Well, that is all for the Mallee for now but keep an eye out for the never before filmed behavior of the desert skink…

What you see aint what you get

What you see ain’t always what you get

Guess which one of these three is in for a shock…

Most flowering plants offer a reward for insects and other animals in the form of nectar when they visit a flower. With orchids deception is fairly common. But how do they do it… and why?

Orchids like this (blue sun orchid)…

…And this (salmon sun orchid) may imitate…

…other plants like this (chocolate lily)…

The first is the simplest method of deception that orchids sometimes employ- they simply pretend to be a plant that offers sweet nectar to drink. This is well employed in several species of sun orchid (Thelymitra) found in Australia. They only flower for one or two days a year, usually the first hot day of November in the south of Australia. Before then the flowers stay closed, and after that day or two in the sun they close and shrivel. The other interesting thing about sun orchids is that some are capable of producing blue flowers- a very rare ability for an orchid. The flowers they may mimic are usually lilies such as the blue flax lilies and the chocolate and fringe lilies that are all in flower at the same time. Some species of sun orchid are even self pollinating and if there are no hot days when they are ready to open, they simply self pollinate and shed seeds anyway. They rely on insects like bees picking up on the ultraviolet signature of the flower, visiting and flying away, ripped off by the lack of something to drink. If the bee lands on another flower, the pollen it picked up will be transferred and cross pollination can occur. What would the flower do this for? They live on poor soils and making nectar is expensive, so they make themselves look pretty but have nothing to offer, and the insect doesn’t know until it visits.

The second method of deception is far more primal. In this case the flower offers much more and definitely doesn’t deliver. Meet the green combed spider orchid (Caladenia dialatata). It employs a method that is surprisingly common among orchids… real seduction with no reward.

A colony of green comb spider orchids

In the southern hemisphere springtime, many insects emerge, and among them are a number of wasp species. They are not communal like wasps most people are familiar with, but eggs laid the year before under the ground have hatched and the larvae have pupated. The adults dig their way to the surface, first the males, then the females. The orchids take full advantage of this delayed timing. As the males are already out, they are patrolling for the wingless females which climb up grass stems and await a winged male to literally carry them off. But the orchid flowers just before the female wasps are due to emerge. The orchid bears a resemblance to the female wasp and even mimics the smell. The desperate males only have a short time to find a mate so they will go for anything that looks remotely like one. They tackle to flowers, landing on the labellum (the ‘lip’ of an orchid flower) and trying to carry it away. It is hinged so the confused male wasp swings upward and collects a head of pollen. He eventually realizes it is a case of mistaken identity and flies off. If he is fooled again by another flower the process is repeated and the flower is pollinated.

This is by no means restricted to spider orchids – many orchids rely on a specific wasp or bee species to be fooled into trying to mate with them.

A beautiful green comb spider orchid, though beauty in this case is in the eye of the beholder

This dwarf spider orchid only flowers en mass for three days or less every year.

An encounter with the Asian “Poo Fruit”

My encounter with the Asian “Poo Fruit”

It smells like a fruity sewer. What would posses anyone to actually put it in their mouth is totally beyond me.

Living conditions here, on average are rather poor

My first encounter with it was in Java, Indonesia. I was backpacking solo in Indonesia for the first time back in late 2008. On the map was a town known as Durjo, outside of Jember right up in the mountains. I arrived there with my backpack in a small, busted up taxi. A mini van, it had no door and rattled up the potholed track (which could be viewed through the rusty floor) into the hills. A cocoa and coffee growing town, it was surrounded by plantations. When I stepped out of the taxi and bid the driver farewell things became interesting…

Around Durjo. Nice backdrop!

The town seemed empty… for a few seconds. Then without warning people spilled out of every building and in an instant I was surrounded in a sea of Javans. All of the children had run out of school and stood the closest, poking at my legs to see if I was real (I am a great deal taller than anyone in Java). In fact this is the reaction I would expect if I was the first white person there. I would not be at all shocked if that were actually the case. Certainly nobody spoke even a single word of English. My Lonely Planet phrasebook came in very handy here, and I struggled, but managed to converse with the locals. I organized a guide to take me looking for snakes. Though I doubted it, they claimed that forest pigs and barking deer are regularly taken by giant reticulated pythons in these hills. The reticulated python (Python reticulatus) is likely the longest snake on earth and has been known to take people, but in such a densely populated place like Java the existence of giants seems unlikely. We did find a few toads, a flying lizard and some monkeys but there really was very little to see in the way of wildlife.

They wanted photos with me! They had never met a real giant, and likely never met a white person in their village before either

It was later that night (actually New Year’s eve!) that I was invited into the house of the most influential man of the village. I was staying with another family nearby who were very kind in taking me in.

This man owned the general store and possibly some of the plantations and was very highly respected in Durjo. He was only forty or so, had a goatee and a warm smile. The living room was furnished with carved wooden seats and decorated with pictures and tiny cages with songbirds. Among them were striated doves and a sort of local robin-like species. So I was ushered into his living room in what would be one of the most awkward conversations ever- due entirely to the language barrier. As this village is strictly Islamic, the local Imam came in as well. He was much older and also sported a thin, wispy goatee. He said almost nothing, in fact hardly anything at all was said, all three of us just looked awkwardly at each other. Some chicken was served by my host, and then he told me I was in for a real treat… the famous Durian!

He left for a moment and came back with this most unusual fruit, about three kilograms in weight. Already it had put up its defenses to avoid being eaten. The smell was overpowering, if an open sewer flowed past a fruiterers shop you would get something similar. Even the air around it seemed to thicken. The Durian’s second line of defense is the coating of needle-sharp triangular spines. Carelessly handling them will draw blood. My host cut along a weak spot and pulled the fruit open. What I saw was even more repulsive. It broke into five segments, inside each one was a soft pulp which looked just like an off-white human poo! It was even pointed at both ends! Combined with the horrible smell it is something that does not really appeal to the senses. If it were lying on the lawn or inside a baby’s pants you would leave it well alone. But people eat it! I was offered a “durian turd” which smelt like feces, looked like feces and felt mushy like I imagine feces to feel like. I put it in my mouth, I would not have- had I not seen it come from the fruit before my eyes. It was fruity and soft, and oddly tasted not much at all like the smell of the fruit. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t as amazing as people say. In fact my Bornean friends still laugh at the fact I’m not a huge fan of it, though I will eat it if offered. But to Asians it is called the “king of all fruit” and, judging by its popularity and matching price tag I don’t doubt that at all…

Picture of a durian as shown on www.anthonyinphuket.wordpress.com

Frogmouths

Frogmouths!

The Oscar the Grouch of frogmouths!

So… Oscar the Grouch is real…

Most people see these birds and simply call them “owls,” well that’s if they see them at all. In fact not only are frogmouths not actually owls at all, they are very hard to find during the day.

To find frogmouths:

This is because they have remarkable camouflage that blends in extremely well with the bark of the trees they sleep on. They cannot change the colour of their feathers, but you will find there are some regional differences in colour shade. Have a look at the frogmouths in the pictures, the camouflage is amazing.

Each feather on the frogmouths look like a flake of bark when ruffled up, but when pressed against the body they give the appearance of a rough, broken branch stump. This makes them simply melt into their surrounds and ensures a good day’s sleep.

Where do frogmouths fit in?

No wonder frogmouths are so hard to find by day!

To the part about owls. They are more closely related to nightjars (Caprimulgidae) and Asian frogmouths (Batrachostomidae) than owls. There are some key differences, but the main one is the feet, in owls the feet are “zygodactyl” which means they can grip with two toes forward and two toes back. Frogmouths have the more “standard” anisodactyl toe arrangement of three forward, one back. Frogmouths differ from owls in other ways too, but all we need to know for now is that they are not owls at all. In fact, owls prey on frogmouths at times. The barking owl (Ninox connivens) is a major predator of the tawny frogmouth at least.

More info on frogmouths

The tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) is the most common and widespread of all the frogmouths in Australia and is found in every habitat. The Papuan frogmouth (Podargus papuensis) is found in New Guinea and the far north of Queensland while the marbled frogmouth (Podargus ocellatus) is very rare and found in New Guinea, far northern Queensland and a small area near the NSW/QLD border on the east coast.

 

The largest of the frogmouths – the Papuan frogmouth, this one photographed in Tully, Queensland.

During the day, frogmouths will sit on a branch and do their best to look like part of it. They will peer at an observer through nearly closed eyes, only flying away at the last minute if they think they have been discovered. Sometimes you will find the same one in the same place for weeks, months or even years. When breeding they build a flimsy nest on a branch, raising one to three young in a normal year.

At dusk the frogmouths will announce their presence with calls, the common tawny frogmouths making a deep “oom oom oom” call, or sometimes a coughing sound. They sit on branches and drop down to ambush worms, frogs, insects, scorpions, snakes and anything else that massive heavy bill can snap up.

 

Frogmouths in a family group

Frogmouths are great birds and worth looking out for. See if you can find them in you local area!