Into the remote Kimberley part 2.3 – the reptiles and a frog

The Kimberley adventure continues with this post on the one frog I photographed plus a few reptiles.

The frog was brought back by Mike Hammer from a remote fishing trip where one of the Traditional Owners showed them how to dig them up. They use them for grunter bait. It turns out it was a new species for me, the Small Toadlet (Uperoleia minima), a tiny escarpment species growing to only 2cm or so.

The small toadlet is tiny.

Turtles were relatively common. This next one is an odd one indeed. Known by the Kakadu name of Burrungandji, it is found only in Kakadu, the Kimberley and nowhere else (we know of). So the two populations are widely separated and may represent two species. We don’t yet know. However it has no stink gland (unlike other long neck turtles) and a long, flat head on an even longer neck. It lives above the escarpments, ambushing fish from under rocks. We found two of them in the shallows, only one could fit in the tank. The other was a giant, over 60cm long!

The Burrungandji (Chelodina burrungandji) is a hard turtle to photograph! They constantly shed white flakes of skin, quickly polluting the water!


Another turtle we found was this Northern Red Faced Turtle or Victoria River Turtle (Emydura victoriae). This specimen was lovely burnt orange. And yes, the white balance is just right…

He looks either evil or not very bright. You decide.

A lovely turtle.

The mystery turtle…

This mystery turtle is remarkable. But what it is is, for now a mystery. It matches the description for the Kuchling’s turtle, which coincidentally is only known from a tiny area around where we were working. The raised radiating ridges on each scute (scale on the shell) and presence of upturned edges on the shell separate it from the only other contender, the Northern long necked turtle (Chelodina oblongata [prev. rugosa])

However, recently due to lack of data, and the fact the type specimen came from a captive one overseas, Kuchling’s turtle was de-listed by many authors. So maybe this is a re-discovery? Who knows… yet. But Australian turtles are being re-classified because of some major stuff-ups and incorrect labeling of specimens. For example the name Oblong turtle was given to a species around Perth, but research found the specimen that was described came from the tropics… a long way from where the label said it did, so now the Northern long necked turtle has been changed from C. rugosa to C. oblongata, and the southern Oblong turtle (which did NOT match the specimen it was supposed to) has been re-named as well. Among this confusion, it is easy to see how a species can become de-listed. But maybe Kuchling’s turtle may yet be fully recognized. The DNA results may be a year away.

I found this one munching on a catfish in the shallows of Oomooloo Falls.

On white paper for easy ID of features, The suspected “Kuchling’s Long Necked Turtle” “Chelodina kuchlingi

Kuchling’s Turtle Chelodina kuchlingi in the water

There was a much bigger one scooting about in the deeper water but the vis was low and there were 26 crocodiles I could see so I didn’t bother.

The monitors were not seen much at all. Tracks were all over the sand and stone country, burrows were everywhere but we saw few. Around camp was a big old Yellow Spotted Monitor (Varanus panoptes) who posed wonderfully for a quick snap:

This guy isn’t happy. Varanus panoptes, the yellow spotted or floodplain monitor.

What an awesome lizard!

Finding this gorgeous Kimberley Rock Monitor was a funny little tale. At the top of Oomooloo Falls we were awaiting the chopper to come and collect us when Mike Hammer noticed a rock skink hurrying in and out of its shelter. He commented on this before finding a shady spot. I was talking to Glenn, the curator of fishes in the WA museum about rock monitors when I mentioned just how much I would love to see one. Meanwhile, Malcolm, a teacher visiting for the TeachLive program by Earthwatch called out that he had just seen the tail of a snake or lizard, and it had white rings around it. Mike called out that it was just the rock skink. I had a feeling it was something more, and knowing the only reptile with a ringed tail in the stone country is the Kimberley Rock Monitor, I raced over. He pointed out where it went, and there it was, sandwiched between two slabs of rock, just the thing they are good at doing. I managed to carefully extract him and took a bunch of photos. And the skink? Hanging out of the Monitor’s mouth! That totally made my day, and of course the Kuchling’s turtle we had.

Another view. Kimberley rock monitor (Varanus glauerti)

And yes, we did get one big snake. This is an Olive Python (Liasis olivaceus) at camp.

… The final night I was flown out with a Traditional Owner, Mark the Arachnologist (Spider man) and a community worker to a remote gorge to survey for the night. My mission was to collect tail tips from geckoes to get DNA from later, thus leaving the animal to re-grow it and survive. It’s dead easy to collect DNA from geckoes. Just gently hold the tail and they cast it off. No force required. It was cold and therefore difficult. We only got two species.

One of the most beautiful geckoes out there. Oedura gracilis, the Graceful Velvet Gecko

And the Kimberley Dtella, Geyhra koira

So that’s it for the reptiles and frog of the trip. The last post will be a wrap up of the odds and ends… stay tuned.

Into the remote Kimberley part 2.2 – the fish

As many of you know, fish are my thing, next to frogs and reptiles. On the Kimberley Bush Blitz, one of my major jobs was to photograph the fish species as they came in. Unfortunately many were in poor condition by the time they got back to the lab, and others were put into formalin before I got a shot. This is a snapshot of what I could photograph:

And the star of the trip – the Bindoola rainbow fish is an unnamed species related to the Exquisite of the NT. This is one spectacular fish!

A Prionobutis gudgeon from the salt. I have no info on these so far.

The Selheim’s gudgeon is one of the “sleepy cod” complex. It grows large, to a couple of kilograms and is a great table fish.

Unlike practically every other Australian catfish, the false spined (Neosilurus pseudospinosis) has no sharp spines

What we thought was a normal black catfish (Neosilurus ater) may be a new species

A pseudogobius yet to be described. Check out the blue tail margins.

Archer fish turned up in many places. This sevenspot has extra spots! These fish shoot jets of water at prey in overhanging bushes, knocking them into the water

The Kimberley Mogurnda is a purple spotted gudgeon native to the region

Mullet are usually on the heads of Western Australians but here is the fish variety – a greenback mullet (Liza subviridis)

This glassfish arrived in poor condition but is an interesting and undetermined species from the salt water.

The Northwest Glassfish is a name given to a whole complex of similar species from Darwin to Broome. This one might be new to science.

It’s the grunters that shine in the Kimberley. These tough fish fill many niches feeding on everything from algae to insects, frogs lizards and other fish! Some are vegetarian though, such as the species from the Syncomistes group:

The common large grunter in the Kimberley is the Western Sooty or Jenkins’ Grunter (Hephasteus jenkinsi). This is a juvenile.

Adult Jenkins’ grunters can develop “blubber lips” but nobody has an answer as to why.

Another look at them Jagger lips

The juvenile Butler’s grunter wears striped pyjamas

…but the adult is plainer. This species is named after conservationist Harry Butler.

Although a vegetarian, the teeth look like those of Tyrannosaurus rex!

As sub adults, the Kimberley grunter (Syncomistes kimberleyensis) has a prominent “duck bill”. It’s a vegetarian and until this trip was known from only 5 specimens!

…like the Butler’s, the juveniles have stripes.

The Drysdale Grunter is the closest relative of this unnamed species

So there you go, the fishy highlights of the Kimberley 2014 Bush Blitz! Next up are the reptiles and a frog.

Into the remote Kimberley part 2 – Bush Blitz

Wow. What a year so far!

Our base of operations was Home Valley Station on the Gibb River Road

Only a couple of weeks ago, my invitation was made official to join a team of scientists and researchers in one of the most remote places on earth, the Kimberley of Western Australia. I had two jobs, thanks to Dr Mike Hammer of the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT. Bush Blitz invited me to photograph and film (I mostly got film) the people and discoveries on this trip, as well as help Mike and his counterpart Glenn from Museum WA with fish research. It was a crazy two weeks of enormous days and loads to see and do.

Flying cars… check! Helicopters were our main form of transport. There are no roads most of the time.

A normal day for me was getting up at 0530 and not finishing work until 2230, hardly stopping at all. The days were spent in the field catching animals and photographing/interviewing/filming everyone I possily could, while the nights were spent in our field lab organising media, getting wrap-up footage and photographing any fish and turtles that managed to get back.

Dr Michael Hammer with Kath and Buster looking at specimens

One of the strangest discoveries was made by yours truly. One morning I awoke, stumbled over to the shower block and found in interesting butterfly on the wall. I put it in a jar on the Entomology desk in our makeshift lab. That night at dinner, one of the Entomologists asked who put the butterfly on the desk. Apparently it was a brand new species for WA, the Chrome Awl. A small, fast shiny skipper type butterfly it was a happy accident to find it and the first new butterfly for WA in 10 years! I have no pictures as they promptly made it into a specimen before I had a chance.

The lab was a buzz of activity. Here, scientific photographer Rob Whyte is at work with some specimens to photograph

This post will focus on a bunch of people and location shots. Next up we start on the wildlife.

You can see how remote this country is. No roads or even tracks of any kind over most of it.

Just getting into these places was crazy. Helicopters were the only realistic option, cars might take weeks to find a track into just one of these. By track I mean making one. Walking would take longer. A typical flight would be 50km or more from base.

The gorges were plentiful, spectacular and unexplored. This is the approach to the secret and newly named “Cat’s Eye Pool” named by our pilot Dan.

A HDR image of upper Cat’s Eye Pool. The colours were so intense here that only HDR would do it justice.

This is upper Cat’s Eye Pool. This water was ridiculously pure and only had a few creatures living in it. Leeches, shrimps and insects were plentiful but nothing else was noted.

A HDR view of Cat’s Eye Pool

…However the lower pool was crammed with rainbowfish and mogurndas. Also a croc or two. Didn’t stop us getting in to collect specimens…

Let’s just say that it was all totally worth it. We worked hard to catch the fish in the most unlikely way…

Glenn giving it his all. Despite the unlikely method, we managed to collect a bunch of rainbowfish this way.

The rainbowfish in this pool were of a type new to science. Similar to the Exquisite of Kakadu/Katherine area I will show pictures in the next post. We tried all sorts of methods like coaxing them towards a gillnet, then surrounding a school (which all swam right through it!) before we settled on the “swim at them at full speed with a ridiculously tiny scoop net” which did the job!

Oomooloo Falls, the locality for the mystery turtle, the Kimberley Rock monitor and a great site for the new rainbowfish. However it is FULL of crocodiles, so far only the small Johnson’s Crocodile. I counted 26. Swimming was fun in here…

Obviously there was much more. Oomooloo Falls was a popular spot. In the two excursions there I managed to catch an unusual turtle (see the next post), a Kimberley Rock Monitor and the fish team caught a load of the new rainbowfish. The slightly unnerving thing was the huge number of Johnson’s (freshwater) crocodiles. Though normally harmless they have been known to bite people, sometimes without an obvious reason. I had 26 of them in the water with me (well, I counted 26!) Let’s say it is a little spooky when everyone else flatly refuses to get in with you.

…Well some got in, though reluctantly. This is seine netting the rainbowfish.

Boabs were plentiful in the gorge country

Mike and Glenn electro fishing

Because I was on the “fish team” most of my time was spent with them. We went to some amazing spots like Durack Falls which was a gold mine for endemic grunter species. See the next post for more details.

Durack Falls was a total hotspot for many fish species

The Pentecost estuary was great at sunset. That is the Chamberlain Range

Working with the local Indigenous community was central to our operation. They were fantastic with helping us with everything we asked for, and as a result of Bush Blitz they are aware of a bunch of cultural sites that had been lost to history. They were a fun group, and they came along on many of our activities. I had fun fishing with Aunty Gene and LJ in a gorge. The fishing was so good we had no trouble catching black bream (Western sooty grunter) and archer fish on lures made from bits of plastic bag! Community Day was a time of relaxing and celebrating with them. We spent much of the time sitting around chatting, fishing and playing football.

Meeting with the Traditional Owners was vital. They are just out of frame

On the community day we hung out with the Traditional Owners on the river bank

Catfish are prized on the table in Indigenous communities

The kids had a blast

We had an open day where students from Kunnunurra and Wyndham came over to see botany and zoology work first-hand.

One of the “local” schools sent out students for our open day. Here are some on the hunt for insects

It was great fun. Anyway, stay tuned for the next post on the actual species we found…

Into the remote Kimberley… Part 1

Into the remote Kimberley… Part 1

Wow… Just wow! I have been a little inactive online lately, but at least I have an excuse. I have been so incredibly caught up in actually doing all of the things I should be writing about, so much so that I have had no spare time to report back. 16 hour days, travel etc. No, I’m not complaining at all, but it is about time I filled you all in on the details of what’s been going on.

First of all, there’s the Kimberley. A vast, harsh, rocky range in Australia’s far northwest that is known for being tough and hard to access. It’s a biological hotspot for endemic species. It’s one of the places I have always wanted to see, and this year I finally had the means to get out there and do it. So in March I enlisted Linda, a German biologist to come along and help me explore the eastern edge of the Kimberley, from Kunnunurra on the Western Australian border.

I filled up the car in Darwin, then south at Katherine filled an extra 40L in jerry cans in readiness for the high fuel prices in WA. Much to our later shock, the fuel is often WAY cheaper in the remote Kimberley than Darwin, Wyndham was 15% cheaper in fact!

After 10 hours driving the still wet roads we crossed the customs checkpoint and were both in Western Australia for the first time!

The mission was to photograph the frogs of the region, and simply have a look around. The problem was it was far too late in the season for most of them, as they had all but finished breeding. However we still managed a few, plus a couple of reptiles. Access was severely limited all round due to the high water levels about the place, most roads were still isolated. Most of the time we hung around the Grotto between Kunnunurra and Wyndham, a wonderful rocky escarpment fed by a couple of waterfalls. A day to day account would be far too tedious as it involves loads of backtracking, so I will let the pictures talk…

Kunnunurra – the gateway to the Western Australia

We didn’t see much of this area as we were only passing though…

On the border of the NT/WA we found a bunch of Stonemason toadlets (Uperoleia lithomoda) which are named after their call which sounds like someone chipping a stone. The harsh tap sound hurts the ears at close range.

Once known only from the Barkly tableland in the NT, the Daly Waters Frog (Cyclorana maculosa) has turned up in the Kimberley, treated as a form of the Long Footed Frog (Cyclorana longipes)

This boab looks great in full leaf

Around Kunnunurra the reedbeds were home to Crimson finches.

The Grotto – a slice of escarpment in the savannah

At sunset I photographed this awesome looking dragon which still lacks an ID

Moon setting at camp

The only common gecko was the Kimberley Dtella, Gehyra koira.

The cute little plug tailed gecko was found crossing the Grotto carpark

In the Grotto carpark we saw a couple of Australian Owlet Nightjars (Aegolethes cristatus) sitting around waiting for insects.

At the Grotto, white quilled rock pigeons (Petrophassa albipennis) were common.

The main frog species I wanted at the Grotto was the Staccato or Chattering rock frog (Litoria staccato) but all we found was the very similar Copland’s rock frog (Litoria coplandi) which is common all over the Kimberley and the NT

The carpenter frog (Limnodynastes lignarius) has a call just like someone banging a nail into a long plank of wood. It has huge eardrums too.

Adults are commonly found on rock ledges like this one.

The bilingual froglet gets its name from the two different calls they make, often switching from one to another.

In a soak were a few Northern Toadlets (Uperoleia borealis) calling happily. Looking much like small cane toads to the untrained eye, they are thankfully native.

The Watjulum frog is a common sandstone species, breeding in small flowing soaks and streams. During the breeding season males are bright yellow.

A front view of a pale green Magnificent or Splendid tree frog (Litoria splendida)

The splendid tree frogs were also seen on trees nearby.

The desert or little red tree frog (Litoria rubella) is supposedly an Australia-wide species. Here in the East Kimberley they are distinctive.

The town of Wyndham is surrounded in salt flats. Nice.

Although harsh, the salt flats are full of life, including some very tough fish species, especially gobies that spawn in the hypersaline pools.

 The Gibb River Road – What little we could see

Boab trees are a feature of the Kimberley. Legend says they were once a tall, proud, boastful tree that was punished for being too proud by being upended and replanted upside down.

At sunset they are great to look at. The undergrowth after the wet season made photography hard.

The Gibb was mostly flooded, well too much so for my Outback, but I did get a few sunset shots at a swamp

Fishing the Pentecost River was largely uneventful. This was the limit for the car as it was too deep to cross…

On the Gibb River Road we found this Bandy Bandy (Vermicella intermedia?) next to a creek. This vivid snake is harmless to humans and only eats blind snakes.

Well, that is the best of the Kimberley for this installment. Check out part 2, Bush Blitz. Coming soon!