Herping with Phil – Searching for reptiles in Darwin
No, I swear it isn’t what it sounds like! For many years, those that study reptiles and amphibians are regarded as Herpetologists and these animals are known as “herps.” It is unfortunate that later on, people thought you could catch warts from handling reptiles and amphibians, therefore some warts have been called herpes.
Moving right along… Zoologist and friend Phil Lewis and I caught up for a night’s herping (yes, this means looking for reptiles and amphibians!) around the northern city of Darwin. It had been hot and very humid, perfect for our scaly and moist skinned friends to be hunting on the road.
I called up Phil, as a night out on the town had been cancelled. My suggestion to look for reptiles was met with a very enthusiastic response from Phil in his equally heavy Scouse accent. After waiting for him to finish his dinner in what seemed an eternity, we had already missed the crucial hour after sunset. We pressed on south to Adelaide River anyway.
Looking for reptiles is best early in the night when the days are hot…
For a couple of hours we drove up the road, the only things to be seen were a couple of Tawny Frogmouths (Podargus strigoides), a couple of Northern Snapping Frogs (Cyclorana australis) and a load of noxious Cane Toads (Bufo [Rhinella] marinus). Things were not looking good for reptiles…
…Until a large snake was sighted on the side of the road.
“What is it?” said Phil
“I’ll bet it’s a python or something common” I replied.
“Wow! It’s a King Brown” exclaimed a typically excited Phil
“Wait…” I remarked “It’s got the stripes on the head!”
This could only mean one thing. We had a Pigmy Mulga Snake, and a monster at that. After it lashing out at Phil and nearly getting him several times, we managed a photo or two. Pigmy Mulga Snakes (Pseudechis weigeli) are smaller cousins of the more well known Mulga or King Brown snake. This one was a giant, at approximately 1.3m or more. They differ in having three thin lines behind the head, but are equally dangerous. A bite can have serious complications including organ and tissue destruction. Phil was exceptionally close to a bite, I reckon he could have felt the wind from its teeth…
We turned around, dodged a heap of Antillopine Wallaroos, a shaggy, sandy coloured Kangaroo common in the savannah country of the area and nearly ran over another snake. “I’ll bet it’s a Shovelnose” I joked, expecting something far more common. The Northern Shovelnose snake is rarely seen, even by researchers. Despite the fact I was joking when I said it, a Northern Shovelnose is exactly what it was. Like other shovelnose snakes, it is likely a specialist on the eggs of lizards and other reptiles, pushing through the soil with its sharp, flat snout. A cousin of the cobras and all of the deadly snakes in Australia it rarely bites, even when handled. It is likely harmless anyway. This one was a handsome specimen, with an orange body and thick dark bands.
A quick walk through the scrub saw a glimpse of a pair of Narbaleks (Petrogale concinna) on a rocky outcrop. These are tiny Rock Wallabies, living their entire life in and around the cliffs and boulder piles. Not much larger than a hare and carrying a bushy tail, they are shy and almost never seen, well not for long anyway. These two bounded off at great speed, vanishing in the boulders. I looked down and nearly backflipped when I saw another one of the reptiles I really wanted to see at my feet. Not that I was scared, but pleasantly shocked.
The unmistakeable Bandy Bandy is vivid black and white. Another snake with a strange diet it feeds entirely on a particular group of reptiles – the elusive Blind Snakes. Like their prey, the Bandy Bandy emerges on rainy nights to travel for mates. The blind snakes (family Typhlophidae) are basically blind, wormlike reptiles that feed exclusively on termite and ant larvae, posting up deep in their nests, moving only when food runs out or it’s time to find a friend. The Bandy itself is a venemous, yet highly inoffensive snake that also rarely bites, though a bite is supposed to be very painful. The main method of defence for a Bandy Bandy is to loop itself and thrash around in a confusing mass of black and white stripes.
Finally, as the sun was nearing the horizon, we had a quick look at a small swamp. The rains of the Wet season had filled it up, and the idea was that all of the reptiles in it would have moved to the edge and under the rocks to seek safety from the rising waters. The hunch turned out correct, and under a large rock was a pair of hind legs and tail poking out of a small hole. Carefully we lifted it out. It was a fully grown Pigmy Spiny Monitor (Varanus primordius) at around 35cm. In Australia we have a variety of monitor lizards, half of the world’s 40 or so species. What most people don’t know is that most of them are small, shy animals that look much like skinks. Despite their diminutive size, these small monitors are miniature versions of the larger species, like the Komodo Dragon, right down to their intelligence and swaggering, arrogant gait as they walk. Thinking that we had disturbed this lizard turned out wrong. Much to our surprise it took a swipe at a passing termite, then another. So for the next hour we handed it more of them. It even continued to snap at termites while being handled. We carefully replaced the rock and put the tiny monitor back under it, much better fed and in better condition than we found him in.