Doing Alice

After my close call with trying to reach my goal of seeing 50 new Australian reptile species in 2010, I decided to start early in 2011. With the new year just days old, a mate and I packed his car and drove out to Alice Springs. He had to get back work, so we didn’t have much time to look for beasts along the way. We did, of course, stop to investigate anything on the road that looked interesting, be it dead, alive, or in between.


Dead shield-snouted brown snake (Pseudonaja aspidorhyncha) seen on the Stuart Highway in South Australia.

We’d planned to spend our last night on the road near Woomera, so that we could have a poke around for the Pernatty knob-tailed gecko (Nephrurus deleani). We spent a few hours spotlighting in some sand dunes, managing to turn up only one knob-tail and one beaded gecko (Lucasium damaeum) which managed to escape without being photographed.

Pernatty knob-tailed gecko (Nephrurus deleani)
Pernatty knob-tailed gecko (Nephrurus deleani)

Scorpion
Scorpion

We arrived in Alice Springs late the next evening, having seen but not photographed about half a dozen desert skinks (Liopholis inornata) on the road just after sunset. The next two weeks were a mixture of spotlighting at night and poking around during the day. I managed to see a bunch of interesting beasts in and around Alice Springs, including an army of frogs brought out by the recent rains. The rains had turned the Red Centre bright green, but it was unfortunately largely due to the introduced buffel grass.

Long-nosed dragon (Amphibolurus longirostris)
Long-nosed dragon (Amphibolurus longirostris) in Simpson’s Gap.

Main's frog (Cyclorana maini)
Main’s frog (Cyclorana maini)

Trilling frog (Neobatrachus centralis)
Trilling frog (Neobatrachus centralis – possibly a junior synonym of N. sudelli)

Trilling frog (Neobatrachus centralis)
Trilling frog (Neobatrachus centralis – possibly a junior synonym of N. sudelli)

Trilling frog (Neobatrachus centralis)
Trilling frog (Neobatrachus centralis – possibly a junior synonym of N. sudelli)

Gillen's tree frog (Litoria gilleni)
Gillen’s tree frog (Litoria gilleni)

Desert tree frog (Litoria rubella)
Desert tree frog (Litoria rubella)

Stimson's python (Antaresia stimsoni)
Stimson’s python (Antaresia stimsoni)

Centralian carpet python (Morelia spilota bredli)
Centralian carpet python (Morelia spilota bredli)

Centralian carpet python (Morelia spilota bredli)
Centralian carpet python (Morelia spilota bredli)

Centralian carpet python (Morelia spilota bredli)
Centralian carpet python (Morelia spilota bredli)

Eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis)
A central eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

Mengden's brown snake (Pseudonaja mengdeni)
Mengden’s brown snake (Pseudonaja mengdeni). ‘pale head, grey nape’ form.

Mengden's brown snake (Pseudonaja mengdeni)
Mengden’s brown snake (Pseudonaja mengdeni). ‘pale head, grey nape’ form.

Mengden's brown snake (Pseudonaja mengdeni)
Mengden’s brown snake (Pseudonaja mengdeni). ‘pale head, grey nape’ form.

Mengden's brown snake (Pseudonaja mengdeni)
Mengden’s brown snake (Pseudonaja mengdeni). ‘Orange with black head’ form.

Mengden's brown snake (Pseudonaja mengdeni)
Mengden’s brown snake (Pseudonaja mengdeni)

Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis)
Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis)

Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis)
Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis)

Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis)
Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis)

Unbanded shovel-nosed snake (Brachyurophis incinctus)
Unbanded shovel-nosed snake (Brachyurophis incinctus)

Orange-naped snake (Furina ornata)
Orange-naped snake (Furina ornata)

Western hooded scaly-foot (Pygopus nigriceps)
Western hooded scaly-foot (Pygopus nigriceps)

Purplish dtella (Gehyra purpurascens)
Purplish dtella (Gehyra purpurascens)

Variegated dtella (Gehyra variegata)
Variegated dtella (Gehyra variegata)

Fat-tailed gecko (Diplodactylus conspicillatus)
Fat-tailed gecko (Diplodactylus conspicillatus)

Sandplain gecko (Lucasium stenodactylum)
Sandplain gecko (Lucasium stenodactylum)

Northern spiny-tailed gecko (Strophurus ciliaris)
Northern spiny-tailed gecko (Strophurus ciliaris)

Most reptile field guides don’t show southern spiny-tailed geckos (Strophurus intermedius) as occurring in Alice Springs, but they’re well-known from the area. They’re more than likely a new species, but the population can be assigned to S. intermedius pending a revision of their taxonomic status.

Southern spiny-tailed gecko (Strophurus intermedius)
Southern spiny-tailed gecko (Strophurus intermedius)

Marbled velvet gecko (Oedura marmorata)
Marbled velvet gecko (Oedura marmorata)

Bynoe's gecko (Heteronotia 'binoei')
Bynoe’s gecko (Heteronotia ‘binoei’). It’ll be described as a new species eventually.

Bynoe's gecko (Heteronotia 'binoei')
Bynoe’s gecko (Heteronotia ‘binoei’). It’ll be described as a new species eventually.


Spinifex and sand. Home to Ctenotus brooksi.

Brook's ctenotus (Ctenotus brooksi)
Brooks’ ctenotus (Ctenotus brooksi)

Brook's ctenotus (Ctenotus brooksi)
Brooks’ ctenotus (Ctenotus brooksi)

Central netted dragon (Ctenophorus nuchalis)
Central netted dragon (Ctenophorus nuchalis)

Central netted dragon (Ctenophorus nuchalis)
Central netted dragon (Ctenophorus nuchalis)

I was excited to have an opportunity to visit one of the few populations of Slater’s skink (Liopholis slateri, formerly Egernia slateri). In the 1960s, the species was apparently abundant around Alice Springs. Fifty-eight specimens were collected in the mid 1960s at the type locality just south of town (31 of those in just two days), but it now appears that the species is extinct at this site. The species is currently listed as endangered, and the introduction of buffel grass is correlated with its decline.

A guy I met at a bar offered to take me out to a site he knew of, and I jumped at the chance. Slater’s skinks live in complex burrow systems constructed under small shrubs. We staked out a number of burrows, but hours of patient waiting brought no results. Thankfully, as the sun set and the temperature dropped from ‘oppressively hot’ to ‘mildly unpleasant’, the skinks emerged from their subterranean lairs.

Slater's skink (Liopholis slateri)
Slater’s skink (Liopholis slateri)

Slater's skink (Liopholis slateri)
Slater’s skink (Liopholis slateri)

I decided I couldn’t leave Alice without climbing Mt Gillen in the majestic Macdonnell Ranges. Rising at 5 AM, I drove to the start of the narrow track that ascends the steep range. I made it to the top just as the sun was hitting the ground. A number of skinks and birds were going about their business before the rising heat forced them to seek shelter.

Mt Gillen
Climbing Mt Gillen, Alice Springs

Mt Gillen
The view from atop Mt Gillen, Alice Springs

Mt Gillen
Mt Gillen, Alice Springs

Rock ctenotus (Ctenotus saxatilis)
Rock ctenotus (Ctenotus saxatilis)

Lively ctenotus (Ctenotus alacer)
Lively ctenotus (Ctenotus alacer)

Dusky grasswren (Amytornis purnelli)
Dusky grasswren (Amytornis purnelli)

Grey-headed honeyeater (Lichenostomus keartlandi)
Grey-headed honeyeater (Lichenostomus keartlandi)

Grey shrike-thrush (Colluricincla harmonica)
Grey shrike-thrush (Colluricincla harmonica)

Well-camouflaged grasshopper
Well-camouflaged grasshopper

The arid zones of Australia are typified by a ‘boom or bust’ cycle. When decent rains fall, food abounds. Plants seed, insects multiply, and the effects are carried up the food chain. When things start to dry out, the populations of many species crash. The start of 2011 was definitely within a boom period. The countryside was verdant. The eucalypts were in flower. And the mice were out in force. Ryan had only just moved into his new place in Alice, and it evidently wasn’t vermin-proof. During my stay, I was sleeping on the lounge room floor on my camping mattress. Or rather, I was trying to sleep on the floor. The thing about the floor is, it’s the perfect height for mice. And the thing about my face is, apparently mice love it. For those of you who have not been kept awake by having mice crawl over your body while you’re trying to sleep, I suggest you do whatever you can to keep it that way. I did eventually devise a way to trap them in the bin, after which I exacted my (humane) revenge on them. Either there were only four of the little blighters, or the rest of them took the hint after the first four didn’t return home in the morning.

House mouse (Mus musculus)
House mouse (Mus musculus)

Littering is abhorrent for a number of reasons, not least of which is illustrated below.


This ridge-tailed monitor (Varanus acanthurus) got its head stuck in a beer can and was run over.

North of Alice, the rocky plains along the Macdonnell Ranges give way to sandy country. This area is home to a different suite of fauna. I had wanted to spend a bit more time in this area, but it was 200km out of town and Ryan was working during the week. I did get up there for one night and found one of the species I was chasing. I intend to poke around there more thoroughly the next time I get a chance.

Night skink (Liopholis striata) habitat
Night skink (Liopholis striata) habitat

Night skink (Liopholis striata)
Night skink (Liopholis striata)

Night skink (Liopholis striata)
Night skink (Liopholis striata)

I’d been to Alice just once before back in 2007, but I didn’t get a chance to do much in the two nights I was there. The few weeks I was able to spend there this time enabled me to visit the megalithic icon of the Red Centre, Uluru.


Uluru


One of the myriad sand dunes around Uluru. These dunes are home to many small skinks and geckos, including pale knob-tailed geckos (Nephrurus laevissimus)

Pale knob-tailed gecko (Nephrurus laevissimus)
Pale knob-tailed gecko (Nephrurus laevissimus)

Pale knob-tailed gecko (Nephrurus laevissimus)
Pale knob-tailed gecko (Nephrurus laevissimus)

Uluru sand dune
Black-breasted buzzard (Hamirostra melanosternon) soaring over Uluru

Centralian blue-tongued skink (Tiliqua multifasciata)
Centralian blue-tongued skink (Tiliqua multifasciata)

Centralian blue-tongued skink (Tiliqua multifasciata)
Centralian blue-tongued skink (Tiliqua multifasciata)

Centralian blue-tongued skink (Tiliqua multifasciata)
Centralian blue-tongued skink (Tiliqua multifasciata)

Massive-gibber ctenotus (Ctenotus septenarius)
Massive-gibber ctenotus (Ctenotus septenarius)

Centralian earless dragon (Tympanocryptis centralis)
Centralian earless dragon (Tympanocryptis centralis)

Centralian earless dragon (Tympanocryptis centralis)
Centralian earless dragon (Tympanocryptis centralis)

Centralian earless dragon (Tympanocryptis centralis)
Centralian earless dragon (Tympanocryptis centralis) admiring The Olgas (Kata Tjuta)

Uluru sunset
Uluru sunset

Two weeks in Alice gave me 13 new repticks, one amphibitick, a few new birds and a gastropotick. This took my lifetime total to 313 Australian reptile species. I was well on my way to seeing 50+ this year.

Repticks:
Nephrurus deleani
Lucasium damaeum
Strophurus intermedius

Nephrurus laevissimus
Ctenotus leonhardii
(not photographed)
Ctenotus septenarius
Tympanocryptis centralis

Morelia spilota bredli (subspecies tick)

Ctenotus saxatilis
Ctenotus alacer

Liopholis (Egernia) striata

Ctenotus brooksi
Ctenotus schomburgkii
(not photographed)
Liopholis (Egernia) slateri

Lifetime total: 313 Australian reptile species

Notable absences:
Nephrurus amyae
Acanthophis pyrrhus
Diplodactylus galeatus

About Stewart Macdonald

I'm a wildlife ecologist living and working in Queensland, Australia. I spend most of my time in the bush finding and photographing wildlife.
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5 Responses to Doing Alice

  1. Nick says:

    once again beautiful!
    some stunning creatures there mate!, love the laevissimus and the bredli is a stunner!
    the scorpion is from the urodacus genus.

  2. Amanda says:

    Thank you so much for showing people what amazing biodiversity Central Australia has. The photos are awesome.

    Hope you went to Alice Springs to see the slaterii, too :)

    These guys were spotted by a ranger working there in around 2005 who was a bit of a reptile geek. He saw some unusual holes and say around waiting to see what was in them… out popped a little reptile and he couldn’t believe his eyes. He wasn’t sure at first. Came back to the office, got out the reptile book and went back for to confirm.

    This caused lots of excitement and lead to Parks & Wildlife setting up monitoring sites and even better, involved local Aboriginal people in the monitoring. There’s since been several scientists come up to study them. (My husband was the senior ranger on the park at the time, so I can relate this story with 100% accuracy!).

    The slaterii have now been recorded on quite a few parks west of Alice, as well.

  3. Stephen says:

    That is a really nice M. spilota bredli.
    Great pictures.

  4. Boris Demovič says:

    Stewart,

    I much like reading your herpeto-trip reports, although I am from Slovakia, but still dreaming about getting once to your reptiles-rich unique country.
    I´d like to ask you one herpetological question – what was the name of Antaresia stimsoni before 1985? Because such very well known species with such large geographical areal had to be known long before that year, when it was described by Smith, I think. But I am not able to find out its earlier synonym/s.

    Thank you in advance if you know the answer on my question.
    And sorry for mistakes.
    Regards
    Boris

  5. Hi Boris!

    Stimson’s pythons were just known as Children’s pythons (Antaresia childreni) prior to Smith splitting them off.

    Stewart