In the desert…

Well, I have been back and forth from Alice Springs of late, and on the way I have been stopping to check out the wildlife. The word on the street is rain, rain and more rain! The desert is alive! So kick back and enjoy some pictures:

The desert crab (Holthuisana spp) is an amazing collection of species. It lives in burrows in dry creek beds, emerging after heavy rains flood them out. They browse on grass and anything dead that has washed in, and when times are tough will eat each other. The life cycle is unusual, most if not all other crabs have an aquatic stage where the young are free-swimming before settling. The desert crab does not. Young hatch as fully formed crabs in the mother’s burrow after she carries them under her abdomen. One species is currently recognized, but we now know there is a whole complex of un-described species…

Related to the desert crab is this unlikely animal, the shield shrimp, also known as the tadpole shrimp or Triops. These are remarkable, surviving as eggs blown about in the hot, dry dust for years until heavy rains cause them to hatch and grow rapidly, feeding on algae, smaller animals and anything else they can devour. Life is frantic, they only have days to breed before the puddles dry and all of the adults perish. The young will have to wait until the next big rain…

And an underside shot of a triops or shield shrimp, just to freak you out…

This is the Gillen’s or Centralian tree frog, Litoria gilleni. They live in rocky gorges around Alice Springs and are closely related to the Green or White’s tree frog found elsewhere in the country. They call after rain with a slow, deep “cawk…cawk…cawk” sound.

Found in the dry parts of tropical and subtropical Australia is the Stimson’s python (Antaresia stimsoni). A small python it takes frogs, lizards, mammals and birds. This one was at Ellery Creek near Alice Springs.

The most spectacular lizard in Australia’s north is the Frill Neck (Chlamydosaurus kingii) which uses its frill to frighten enemies or rivals. These are common after rain when they descend from the trees.

At the Devil’s Marbles there have been a number of juvenile Merten’s water monitors (Varanus mertensi) hunting desert crabs and tadpoles in the temporary creeks. Well outside their accepted range I have no idea how they got here, but I have never seen them here before…

An unusual monitor (goanna) lizard is the Spiny tailed (Varanus acanthurus) which normally lives in rocky outcrops or buildings but in this case was well out into the mulga woodlands. We found him with his head stuck in a beer can beside the road, so carefully cutting him free I got a picture before he rocketed off through the bush. Now I know how my Aboriginal mate Murray got the term “Runnin’ like a goanna in the spinifex…”

I had stayed at Banka Banka on the Stuart Highway just north of Tennant Creek a bunch of times but heard a new frog call. A burst of four rapid pulses. It didn’t sound far away, but 3km later I finally found the frog. Kneeling down I put my hand on a scorpion. OUCH! But I got some pictures of a frog I had never seen, the Blacksoil Toadlet (Uperoleia trachyderma). It is the size of a thumbnail or smaller.

Also out in force with a peculiar owl-like “whooping” call is the Nicholl’s or desert spadefoot toad. Globular and obese, they sit near ant hills and lap up the ants as they emerge. They are equipped with a nasty toxin they can release when upset. It is milky in colour and extremely sticky.

 

How could you not love this face?

 

Other burrowers have been at it too. The Main’s frog (Cyclorana maini) sounds like a sheep! This one was from Alice Springs.

 

But this one, Cyclorana cultripes, makes a rapid “wahhh.. wahhh…” call

A drying claypan with loads of tadpoles which may never make it…

 

Boo! This is a huge spider from the desert known as the Barking, Whistling or Bird eating spider (Selenocosmia). The names given to it mostly refer to the sound it can apparently make (never heard it) by rubbing the fangs on a special area. Just to make it creepier! It is massive, enough to cover much of your face. And yes, you’re welcome!

 

 

A day in Alice Springs

Right smack (almost) in the middle of Australia is the town of Alice Springs. It is a large town considering its location and is a major hub for tourists and truck drivers between Adelaide and Darwin. Right on the edge of the desert, human dwellings have meant that water is available to many animals and plants; an oasis of sorts.

I had just taken a group down to Alice Springs and needed something to do for a full day before going home to Darwin the following day. As I am working on the Inspiring Australia wildlife app at the moment, there has been a need to gather as many wildlife photographs as possible. Birds especially are high on the list. They can be shy and I had been without a long lens for a while up until recently. The logical stop had to be the Olive Pink botanical gardens. Showcasing a variety of desert and semi arid plants native to the area, it attracts birds in numbers.

The yellow throated, or white rumped miner (Manorina flavigula)

The first bird to appear was possibly the most likely in much of Central Australia – the yellow throated miner. It is in fact a honeyeater, unrelated the the Asian mynahs. A social bird, families travel in groups, noisily proclaiming the fact they are present. Easy to identify, they tend to have pale rumps which are very visible as they fly away. Yellow throated miners may control their territory against rival families and even other bird species, taking over patches of woodland as they go. Also in the same trees but frustrating to try and photograph were the related yet not so social spiny cheeked honeyeaters.

Moving along, I eventually reached the gates of Olive Pink Botanical Gardens. After attempting a drink from the drinking fountain (which shot a jet about 4m into the sky, narrowly missing my camera and face!) I proceeded to the cafe area. On the way, the most visible (yet fast and difficult) birds were the ever present honeyeaters. But what I really wanted was a western bowerbird.

The female caper white being mobbed

They just had to be in here somewhere. The cafe was surrounded in butteflies, mostly the caper white (Belenois java) which were hatching out of their pupae and looking for mates. An endless procession of males were converging on one hapless female who had barely emerged from her chrysalis and still unable to fly as her wings were still saggy. One male got lucky and stuck with her for an hour or so before flying away. She soon left the scene.

A male sniffing around

Galah, known elsewhere as a Rose Crested Cockatoo. In Australia, Galah means “idiot” though these are smart birds.

Soon enough, a male western bowerbird arrived at the cafe, looking for either treasures to add to his treasure chest or a feed. Or maybe both. He hissed (as they do) and bounced around far too quickly for me to get a clear shot. But the galahs provided a worthwhile distraction. Several pairs clambered about in the trees munching on acacia seeds, not minding the intrusion at all.

Also joining in were a bunch of Australian ringneck parrots (Barnardius zonarius). Not closely related to the Indian species by a similar name, they are green and yellow with a dark blue head and distinct yellow collar. They sat quietly in the acacia trees and a couple took to the ground to see if the foraging was any better there. They were semi tame and allowed relatively close shots.

Tasty plant

The bees were also active:

A European honeybee incoming

And crested pigeons:

Wassup?

But it was now closing time and the real star of the show had just given away the locality of his treasure chest. I heard a loud hiss, followed by a mechanical sound and a whistle. The male bowerbird was performing nearby to a semi interested female. He allowed me very close, but it was too dark for an easy picture. He did the right thing and jumped up on an exposed branch to let me take a heap of pictures with my macro lens!

Hiss! The western bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus guttatus) calling.

Male western bowerbirds have a lovely pink crests

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…

Into the Red Centre – Dragons and Geckoes

Into the Red Centre – Dragons and Geckoes

You'll find many a dragon and gecko in places like this
Spinifex grassland

In September 2011, I traveled to Alice Springs to check out the red center of Australia, the first time in twelve years. With the increase in humidity and heat at this time of year, the animal activity has also increased. Relatively recent, heavy rains have no doubt had some effect too.

In terms of wildlife, the centre of Australia has little rain, and what’s more it’s also highly unpredictable. The sun is intense and the ground is either salt, red sand, dry rocks or small polished stone fields called “gibber.” Trees in many areas are scattered, those on the plains offer some shade, but not a great deal. The sand and rocks can heat up to temperatures that are lethal to many small animals. During the day the arid lands seem to crack and groan under the intense heat. Life, however is surprisingly abundant, though generally small and not easily seen. There are mammals, mostly mice and small marsupial carnivores and a couple of larger species such as the Red Kangaroo and Common Wallaroo. Birds are present, though in reduced numbers compared to wetter areas. Fish hold on in tiny permanent waterholes and frogs are represented by a couple of rock dwelling species and some burrowers. This harsh land however, truly belongs to the reptiles which thrive with the lack of competition.


Centralian Bluetonged Lizard

Although becoming rarer in many areas due to introduced cane toads, Blue Tongue Lizards remain in healthy numbers in the Red Centre. This Centralian Blue Tongue (Tiliqua multifasciata) is a common inhabitant of the mulga woodlands and spinifex plains, where one would assume they burrow into the sand under spinfex or logs. A slow moving animal, they rely on dashing for cover in a short burst, or opening their mouth and hissing, exposing the dark blue tongue. If that fails, they will give a nasty bite. Feeding on plant matter and slow moving insects and other small, slow moving game they are very successful in the deserts, just as their relatives are on the coast.

The Dragon family


The Thorny Devil

For only a few weeks around the southern Spring and Autumn Equinox a curious little creature becomes active and is frequently seen crossing the roads, especially within 24 hours of rain. A dragon known in scientific circles as Moloch horridus and to the layman as the Thorny Devil, both names, as David Attenborough put it “are surely a slander upon its endearing nature” or something to that effect. The Moloch, in ancient texts was a demon that demanded human sacrifice and ate children. The ‘horrid’ part of the scientific name is undeserved as is the title of ‘devil’. Totally harmless and by all means endearing and inoffensive, the Thorny Devil feeds exclusively on ants. Sheltering under bushes and apparently Spinifex grass, they emerge, walking in a most bizzare fashion, every step is clockwork-like and jerky as if it is hesitating. Upon finding a trail of ants, this dragon leans down and laps them up one by one, sometimes consuming thousands in a single meal. Ants provide much of the water they need. But when rains do come this little dragon has a unique and wonderful technique for getting moisture. Any drop that hits their body is automatically channeled by capillaries towards the mouth. Even water the lizard is standing in will head the same way. When it reaches the mouth, they simply lick it up.

Although the Thorny Devil is truly one of a kind, they do have a multitude of close cousins in Australia. In the central arid zone a number of them may provide company on walks and be readily seen on roadsides.


Ring Tailed Dragon

A particularly diverse group of Dragon lizards (Agamids) are the two species of Painted Dragon (Ctenophorous species) which occupy some of the harshest environments of all.

Commonly seen perched on top of burning hot rocks in the heat of the day is the rather tough Ring Tailed Dragon (C. caudicinctus). Small and swift, they like many dragon lizards will communicate by waving an arm. This shows social status and depending on how it is done will determine if the individual in question is an attacker or submissive. Blending in extremely well, they make dashes over the hot rocks to grab flies and beetles. Like other members of the Painted Dragon group, they are able to change colour with ease.


Central Netted Dragon

Closely related though much larger and slower is the Central Netted Dragon (C. nuchalis). Able to change colour rapidly they usually show a fine network of pale spots on a darker background that can change from black through orange to yellow. Not common in rocky country they are common on the sand dunes, gibber and saltbush country, using any rock, termite mound or tree stump and even twigs to gain a better view of their surrounds. Preferring to sit still rather than dash for cover, they are easily approached and hardly react to handling except for a little hiss.


Centralian Earless Dragon

Pebbles and small rocks in the sparsely vegetated lowlands are home to one of the smallest dragons, the Central Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis centralis). Although swift and very agile they do prefer to rely on their excellent camouflage to avoid predators and it seems to work as they are extremely common. Named for their lack of visible ears, Earless Dragons are found in many of the drier parts of the country, usually associated with grasslands.


Long Nosed Dragon

Any area with water, and indeed many places without are home to the Long Nosed Dragon (Amphibolurus longirostris) which is a rather animated and common companion to walkers. Named for the long nose, and surprisingly not for the incredibly long tail it communicates to others with head rattling, arm waving and pushups.

 

 


Central Bearded Dragon

An old favourite, and certainly the most seen lizard around the Alice Springs region is the rather engaging Central Bearded Dragon (Pogona vitticeps). Given an unfortunate and false reputation for having a venemous bite, and often incorrectly called the Frill Neck Lizard they are usually shy and will drop off the boulders and stumps they are sunning themselves on to take cover in a burrow. Opportunists, they will happily eat plant material and any small animal they can catch. When threatened they flatten themselves out, extend the spiny ‘beard’ and snap at the attacker with surprising ferocity.


Military Dragon

Painted up like a soldier marching about the dunes and pausing occasionally to rest on its heels in the hot sand in the dunes is the appropriately named Military Dragon, Ctenophorous isolepis. It is a wider- ranging version of the other painted dragons discussed earlier, zipping from one clump of spinifex to another to snap up small insects on the hot sand.

The Geckoes

Though Dragons and Blue Tongues are the most prominent during the day, the night certainly belongs to the Geckoes. During the cooler months they may as well not exist as there is practically no sign of them. When the weather warms, things change. Out of burrows under the spinifex come loads of ground geckoes that sport claws rather than adhesive pads on the fingers and toes while from tree hollows and under slabs of bark come other species adapted to a life in the branches. Either way it is a miracle that such tiny, delicate looking creatures can survive at all in this dry, burning hot region.


Hooded Scaly Foot

Although a lizard that looks like a snake, Australian Legless Lizards (Pygopodidae) are thought to be geckoes! This is due to the fact they have a voice, always lay two eggs and lick their eyes instead of blinking. Pygopus nigriceps, the Hooded Scaly Foot is common in the Red Centre, usually active by night. They feed on unlikely prey items like scorpions and wolf spiders. The markings of this species wonderfully mimics the markings of young Brown Snakes (Pseudonaja spp) and as such are often treated as dangerous. Many a Scaly Foot has been squashed due to mistaken identification.

The trees that do exist form homes to this unusual creature. The Spiny Geckoes (Strophurus ciliaris) prefer to live on exposed branches by day, flattening themselves down. Specimens have been recorded toughing out direct sun on days exceeding forty degrees Celsius! By night they crawl slowly along the branches or ground picking off insects and spiders. The spines are soft, but glands in the tail can spray a honey-like liquid that dries quickly and causes extreme irritation to the eyes of an attacker, although after having encountered dozens of them I am yet to see it. In the lack of trees these adaptable lizards are able to use the spiny Spinifex clumps as homes.


Purple Dtella

Other tree-dwellers are common such as the Purple Dtella (Geyhra purpurescens) which is common around almost any building, especially those with lights. Most comfortable away from the ground, warm drizzly nights are good for finding them foraging around the leaf litter or on open sand.

 


Smooth Knob Tailed Gecko

But for me personally the most fascinating are the ground geckoes. One of the larger and more spectacular is the Smooth Knob Tailed Gecko (Nephurus levis) which lives in tunnels under the spinifex and prowls about by night for insects and smaller geckoes. They, and their close relatives are known as Knob Tails due to the tip of the tail which bears a little knob-like structure. Other species have practically lost the tail entirely and only have the ‘knob.’ About 15cm long and very heavily built some individuals stand up to attackers, squeaking with an arched back and open mouth, followed by a nasty bite. When not threatened they are quite an engaging little creature and one worth looking for.


Beaked Gecko

Other ground geckoes include the exceptionally abundant Beaked Gecko (Rhyncoedura ornata). With a small conical snout much like a beak they taste the air with their tongue, as with other geckoes seeking out small insects. Although small, they will happily latch onto a finger if handled.

 

 


Fat Tailed Gecko

Like other geckoes spending the day underground, the Fat-Tailed Gecko (Diplodactylus crassicaudata) surfaces at night to feed. Unusual for geckoes, it uses its tail to plug the entrance to its burrow.

 

 

 

 

 


Crowned Gecko

The last species found to date on the dunes is the rather variable Crowned Gecko (Diplodactylus stenodactylus). These two were found just outside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Named for the light stripes that dross the eye and join behind the head in sort of a ‘Y’ intersection, the Crowned Gecko is common on sandy and low rocky soils through most of Central Australia.

 


Adult Marbled Velvet Gecko

In the rocky outcrops the most common gecko is the Marbled Velvet Gecko (Oedura marmorata) which is also one of the largest. Named for its skin, which feels rather like velvet, it is rare to see two that are the same colour or pattern, although in the drier regions, the more common colours are similar to this adult pictured here. Juveniles are superbly marked like this one with light bands on dark skin.

Stay tuned for more geckoes and a dragon or two