Monday 19 August 2013

Demi goeth and the snakes cometh.

Some more good news for all of us who like sea turtles, and who doesn't?
This week we were able to release a breeding age Hawksbill turtle called Demi.
All our turtles are important, but Demi was slightly above the line for a couple of reasons.
Hawksbills are critically endangered, apart from the threats that face all turtles, hawksbills suffer a historical disadvantage as they were the turtles commonly used to make spectacles out of, and so they were slaughtered in their thousands, so getting any Hawksbills rehabilitated and back in the ocean is a great day for us.
Also, with the help of James Cook Uni we were able to attach a tracker to her shell.
This is lightweight and doesn't interfere with her swimming, and allows us to follow her progress.
Why do we need to know?
Well it's probably best put by something said by Rick Shine, my former reptile lecturer. (That is, he is an expert on Reptiles, not covered in scales and sleeps on the radiator in the basement.)
He said (or words to this effect), "what we know about sea turtles is equivalent to studying the human race by only observing what goes on in maternity wards".
We only really observe turtles when the females come ashore to lay, and the littlies when they hatch and return to the ocean.
Once they start swimming, our knowledge is lost to the vast ocean, itself still largely mysterious to us.
To give you some idea of that, we still don't know much about the Blue Whale's life and it is the largest animal that has ever existed, so easily is an animal swallowed up by the briny depths.
Things have improved with modern technology, tracking devices and so forth, but there are still vast murky holes in the picture of the turtle's life cycle.
So with Demi we are first hoping to find out her home range, and hopefully, where she breeds.
Rochelle, who is conducting the research, conjectures that she breeds in far north Queensland, and this is a pretty safe bet.
However to get there she will have to fight the East Australian Current, which flows down from Qld toward NSW.
If she can't outswim that, she may take the path that the littlies follow and ride the current down to the NSW-Victoria border, then swing out into the Pacific above NZ, across to South America, up that coast and back across the pacific via the Galapagos and Hawaii to her "home" in north Qld.
The tracking unit will hopefully tell us that.
We certainly hope she breeds again and it would be of immeasurable satisfaction to all of us to see a second generation of turtles run down a Qld beach one day, knowing that the rehab work done by our hard working shed staff, paid for by our members' contributions, has been part of the cycle.
Elsewhere in the reptile world, a question I'm sometimes asked is, "Do I encounter many snakes in my gardening?", and the answer is surprisingly 'no'.
The reason for that is that my passage through the undergrowth is usually accompanied by the mower or whipper-snipper and the vibration (snakes don't have ears, they "hear" by vibration in the ground) gives them fair warning that I am coming and to get the hell out.
However on Saturday whilst working at Joanne's of Possum Creek (her of hula dancing fame), I got a double dose of our reptile friends.
These two pics show a carpet snake that was happily minding its own business in Joanne's gutter, when I came by cleaning the leaves out.
I was on the third rung of the ladder when my (thankfully) gloved hand reached out for the next sweep and I realised that the lichen-encrusted stick I was aiming at was indeed a 1.5m Carpet snake.
I was up a ladder at the time and nearly fell off the damn thing as well as nearly suffering involuntary evacuation of the bowel.
The green blobs on the left of the picture
are my gloved fingertips.
For the record, although carpet snakes are non-venomous, their mouth contains a lot of alien (to the human system) microbes and so if they do nab you, infection is a common side-effect.
I've had several people say to me since that, "that's OK then, carpet snakes aren't aggressive".
Well they can have their moments, believe me.
I have been struck at five times by Carpet snakes.
Once when working at the animal reserve in Bathurst on school work experience.
Once when cycling home along the edge of my gravelled road, and three times by a large male that was asleep on my engine block.
What happened was this.
My friend Antony had come up from Sydney to stay for the weekend, and he parked his car next to mine and for the weekend we walked and cycled to and from town.
I was still drinking then, and so walking home from the pub was a more sensible option, and it's relevant to what happened next believe me.
Sunday night he drove off to Brisbane for his flight home and I prepeared for the working week to come.
Monday I went out to start my car and as I went to put the keys in the ignition I noticed my waste bag was stuffed up under the steering column.(picture simulated right.)
I sat and stared at it for some time.
My hungover mind grappled with the problem, like, to quote Douglas Adams " a supertanker doing a three-point turn in the English channel".
We had sunk a bucketful of piss, but I couldn't remember doing that.
Eventually, with sinking heart, I arrived at the answer.
I grabbed agardening glove from the back seat and looked in the bag.
Inside was an empty chip packet I had carelessly left in the car.
The rats had taken the chip packet for food, grabbed my nice cotton bag, dragged it up and wedged it under the steering column, formed a nest and spent a confortable weekend there.
They also, as I now discovered when I turned the key, chewed all the wiring through to the engine.
The lights on the dashboard lit up, but the starter motor did not kick, even a little.
Not a sausage.
I called the NRMA and he came and examined the issue.
He turned my key in the door lock to make sure they key was functional, then opened the bonnet and hotwired the car into life.
He switched off and then said to me, "I don't know what they [the rats] have done, but all I can do is hot wire it and you'll have to get to the auto-electrician ASAP."
So he sent me on my way.
The auto-electrician examined things superficially and then he said, "I can't see from here where they've chewed, so to fix it I'd have to trace all the wiring, I may find it in one hour, it may take ten. I charge $80 an hour, so it could be $800 or $100 you're looking at."
I couldn't afford $1 really.
So I got him to show me how to hotwire the car and went on my way.
So for the next few days every time I wanted to start the car I had to turn the key to the on position, then open the bonnet and short out the ignition fuse in the engine bay.
Which was fine till Wednesday morning when I opened the bonnet and discovered a carpet snake asleep on my engine block.
Asleep that is till I opened the bonnet, and this snake, like Garfield the cat, did not like being woken up.
I had already had my patience tested this week and now this.
I stared at the snake wondering how to handle the situation, but I was in a hurry, so had to dive in.
I grabbed it by the tail, and it, affronted by this dastardly attack from behind, reared and threw a gaping jawed strike at me.
I leapt back like someone had set off a small explosive under my boots.
But I was in a hurry and my another grab and the same thing happened, I then said some uncomplimentary things about the snakes parenting and sex life ("You're a fucking bastard".), then made my third attempt.
Once more the snake showed no compunction to leave and demonstrated this by flinging its head at me, once more making it known that my depredations were not welcome.
So I called time on our wrestling match and said, "Look, Pal, I've got to go, sorry, but that's the way it is".
So I shorted the fuse, the engine started, I shut the bonnet and drove away.
When I got to town I re-opened the bonnet and found the snake gone.
So all fine from then on, but when I went out Thursday I wondered what next?
The rats had come to eat the potato chips, the snake had come to eat the rats, following the food chain upward, I was prepared to find a Wedge-tailed eagle on my car roof waiting to eat the snake.
So back to Possum Creek, the Carpet snake in the gutter was very placid and only wished I was gone.
But the first reptile Joanne and I encountered that day was a different kettle of fish.

I was whipper-snipping and Joanne came down to talk with me about what jobs needed doing.
I switched of the snipper and started talking to her.
Then, over her shoulder I saw a two metre Brown snake sunning itself in the grass, thankfully, five metres away.
I wasn't sure of Joanne's attitude to snakes, many visitors from the British isles, accustomed to the more placid and infinitely less toxic Adders of Britain, find our heavyweight snakes a little scary.
For the record, and it is hard to pin this down, but it is commonly quoted that six, sometimes five, of the world's ten most dangerous snakes live in Australia. (The inland Taipan, with a bite that can kill half a million mice is the frightening number one.)
Anyway, I interrupted Joanne, and gently tugged her arm and said, "could you come over here with me, please Joanne?"
I then reefed her around and she nearly broke her leg tripping over the whipper-snipper shaft, and was about to ask (I suspect) "WHAT THE SAM HILL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?", when I let go of her and pointed at the Brown snake.
She handled it well and said, "oh, yes, that's the one that lives in the base of that tree."
We then calmy discussed the gardening and she (Joanne) went on her way.
I went back to the car for my phone, but by the time I returned and approached closer hoping for a close pic, the snake, alerted by my tread, had decided that things were getting too crowded here in its favourite sunny patch and wriggled off.
(I just caught it's tail with the camera here to the right).
Which reminds me of a scottish friend of mine, Nicola's, story of her parents visit to Australia.
Nicola's mum and dad were staying in Cairns at a tropical resort and her mum phoned Nicola back in Scotland using a public phone (remember them?) outside the reception area.
Nicola said they were talking normally, when her mother screamed like she was being murdered, dropped the phone and all Nicola could then hear were the sounds of the Australian tropical night.
She hung on for some time, but there was no further word from her mother, so she hung up and rooted frantically about trying to find the name of the resort so she could ring back and see what on Earth had happened.
She couldn't find anything useful and this was in the nineties before mobile phones were widespread, so she spent nearly a day in agony wondering if everything was all right.
Eventually, her father rang back and said that a green tree frog had dropped on her mother's head.
Worried, scratch that, TERRIFIED, her mum had dropped the phone and run screaming into the night.
A green tree frog of course isn't dangerous, but I think any of us having a bit of the local wildlife parachuting in would give my one-legged standing long jump record a good shake.
PS: Apparently her mum washed her hair fifteen or so times before she felt clean, and developed an understandable aversion to using a public phone.
PPS: Although a green tree frog is not dangerous, I have related previously of getting one smack in the mush at 3am and believe me,  I jumped as well.
Encountering anything in the dark suddenly can be terrifying.
I might add that Nicola's mum being scottish was already hypertense about life in Australia and the things here that can kill you, best put by Bill Bryson, himself the epitome of the nervous visitor to our shores, when he wrote: "I looked up this animal in 'Things that Can Kill You in Australia, Volume 27, chapter 23.'"
And it has to be said that we have a lot of venomous things, I mean a lot.
The world's deadliest spider, the Funnelweb lives here and to put things into context about this spider, it leaves the Red-back behind in a trail of venomous dust, and the Red-back is the Australian analogue of the much feared Black Widow of the United States.
Can you tell which of the spiders on the right is the Red back and which the Black Widow?
(Red-back is the lower pic. You can see how similar they are.)
And both these species pale dawdle far behind in the dangerous stakes when compared with the Funnelweb.
Even the Funnelweb's scientific name, Atrax robustus, gives you an insight to its nature.
The story I remember most about Funnelwebs was from my friend Johnno, a gardener I learned a lot from while working with him on the northern beaches of Sydney.
Johnno picked up a double handful of leaf litter that he was going to put in the wheelbarrow and as he lifted it he suddenly saw on top of the pile, getting nearer his face with each passing millisecond, a Funnelweb raised in aggression posture.
No one, not even Johnno really knows what happened next, best guess is that Johnno set a record similar to my one-legged standing long jump, but for mulch hurling.
He was working in Frenchs Forest at the time and we believe his double handdful of leaf litter landed scattered over parts as far north as Mona Vale, approx. 20 kilometres away.
The Blue-ringed octopus, if this colouration
doesn't tell you to watch out,
you deserve to get bitten.
So apart from the Funnelweb, a spider apparently designed by Hell labs, we also have the box jellyfish, with a sting so painful that a victim can still be screaming after morphine has been administered.
The Blue-ringed octopus has a venom that defies local strategic arms treaties, snorkellers were sometimes bitten when they put a shell in their pocket and the Blue-ring swam out to find out who was messing with its house.
We even have the only poisonous mammals, the Echidna and Platypus, with the male of the species equipped with a poisonous claw on it's rear foot. (No one is clear why it's there. It seems to be to do with mating and dominance.)
The Cone shell is another beauty with a venom that paralyses the small fish it preys on.
Don't do this in Australia.
The Brazil Cone Shell is the most venomous, but our species are no slouches that's for sure.
One source I consulted said this: "Due to the toxicity of the venom Cone shells should be handled very carefully, if at all".
So I was astonished to find this picture on Google images.
This young woman will almost certainly appear next in the Darwin awards.
Even on close up I can't confirm is she is holding a Cone shell in her palm, but take it from me, don't go messing around with any shells on the Barrier reef, if the rest of the country's pattern of toxic animals is any guide, treat everything as if it's venomous.
So I'll close with a few stories about snakes, since that has always been my main area of interest.
Ironically, it was one of the third year subjects I failed at Uni, but unlike all the other things I failed it was nothing to do with drinking, smoking pot and playing soccer, I failed becuase I was too interested.
How's that?
Well, so fascinated by the animals themselves, I spent all my time reading esoteric and odd facts, some of which I will finally put into use here, that I didn't read the coursework properly, and so failed.
Anyway, when white settlement began the english settlers and convicts began recording the animals they saw, the Brown snake being one of them.
It was quickly realised to be deadly and to be avoided.
The Brown went on the list with the Tiger and Death Adder as snakes that would kill you if bitten, certainly in the days before anti-venine.
It even happened for me.
When I moved to Byron Bay I did various jobs and one of the best was as warden on South Ballina Beach for the Shore Bird protection patrol.
One sunny summer afternoon my partner and I discovered a snake slithering among the rocks of the south wall.
I thought it was a Brown snake, but the colouration was a bit different to the standard pattern.
I could tell though it was an Elapid, that is the family that Australian venomous snakes belong to, and ensured everyone avoided it.
The Rough-Scaled snake.
When I got back to my computer, I looked it up and discovered it was a Rough-Scaled Snake, I'd never heard of it, but sure enough, I had stumbled across, not literally thank the lord, another brown snake that is, and here I quote from Sciencentre, : "A dangerously venomous species with strongly neurotoxic venom.  It is a ready biter and is responsible for at least one human death and several severe envemomations.  If bitten, apply first aid and seek urgent medical attention."
Great, now I'm discovering them in my own backyard.

Then the settlers began to move into Queensland and began reporting another "brown" snake, larger than the Brown previously reported, this was the King Brown or Mulga snake, and it was as deadly as the Brown.
Things went on and then reports began coming in of another "brown" snake, the scientists once again went out and examined this beast and classified the Taipan, and yes, it was even more unhealthy to be up close and personal with.
Tai Pan incidentally is derived from Cantonese and means "Big Shot", an appropriate name that's for sure.
So by then I had a mental picture of reptile scientists cowering in their laboratories, dreading the next phone call saying "we've found another 'brown' snake", then going out and finding the arms race has ratcheted up another notch.
Sure enough.
Long term settlement in the "dead" heart of Australia meant that the animals came under closer scutiny, and differences were noted about the local taipan.
For one, it changes colour from winter to summer, so it was contended that there may even be two new species out there. (god help us)
Once again some death-defying scientists went out for a look and discovered a single new species, the Inland Taipan, rejoicing in the scientific name of oxyuranus microlepidotus.
And sure enough, it set a new standard for venom.
A single drop can kill 100 adult humans, and a single bite may contain a hundred drops.
As of this writing date the Inland taipan is the most venomous land snake on earth, but due to its (thankfully) shy and retiring nature, there have been no recorded deaths from this beast.
And so to the list.
You may in your travels have heard things said like "of the world's ten most deadly snakes, 8 of them live in Australia."
The number varies from list to list, but the list below from Listverse is a good general model.
It puts the Coastal Taipan below the Brown, which I disagree with, but it's reasonable.
It declares that five of the world's worst snakes are Australian, and 50% is enough to be going on with, believe me.
10. Rattlesnake - North America
9. Death Adder - Australia
8. Vipers - a group of folding fang snakes including the Gaboon Viper with fangs 60mm long, eek! From many continents
7. Phillipine Cobra - Asia
6. Tiger Snake - Australia
5. Black Mamba - Africa
4. Taipan - Australia
3. Blue krait - Asia
2. Brown Snake - Australia
1. Inland Taipan - Australia

And in conclusion I'll say this, I've never seen a snake at Possum creek before last Saturday when I saw two in one day.
So I predict that this is going to be one of the worst snake summers we've had in a long time.
Let's just pray that we don't discover a new species of "brown" snake that is even worse than the Inland Taipan.

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