Short-nosed sea snake previously thought to be extinct
There have been sightings of two species of sea snakes in Australian waters, one of which was thought to be extinct while the other species is critically endangered.
In the first sighting, Western Australia Parks and Wildlife Officer Grant Griffin spotted two beige sea snakes engaged in courtship behaviour at Ningaloo Reef. Thinking that they might be short-nosed sea snakes (Aipysurus apraefrontalis) – previously found in the Ashmore Reef in the Indian Ocean, most recently in 1998, and considered to be extinct – Griffin photographed them. He sent the photo to Blanche D'Anastasi, a PhD candidate from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
D'Anastasi confirmed his suspicions, saying, "we were blown away, these potentially extinct snakes were there in plain sight, living on one of Australia's natural icons, Ningaloo Reef.”
“What is even more exciting is that they were courting, suggesting that they are members of a breeding population,” she added.
The other discovery involved the critically endangered leaf-scaled sea snake (Aipysurus foliosquama), found in the lush seagrass beds of Shark Bay in Western Australia. In fact, it was a significant population of the sea snakes, sighted 1,700 kilometres south of the species' only known habitat on Ashmore Reef.
foliosquama) © Blanche D'Anastasi
D'Anastasi called the find a real surprise, adding that they had thought that the species was only found in tropical coral reefs.
The populations of sea snakes in Australian marine reserves have been declining. Although scientists have been unable to explain the decline, some sea snakes do fall prey to prawn trawling. There may also be other reasons that originate from the animal's biology.
“Clearly we need to identify the key threats to their survival in order to implement effective conservation strategies if we are going to protect these newly discovered coastal populations,” said Dr Vimoksalehi Lukoschek, a Research Fellow from the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
In the meantime, D'Anastasi regards the (re)discovery of the two species as a fresh opportunity to better protect and study them. “The discovery is really exciting, we get another chance to protect these two endemic Western Australian sea snake species,” she said.
The researchers have published their findings in a recently published issue of the Biological Conservation journal (Link to study).
Further information: www.coralcoe.org.au