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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Littering is abhorrent for a number of reasons, not least of which is illustrated below.
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.
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.
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.
Ctenotus leonhardii (not photographed)
Morelia spilota bredli (subspecies tick)
Liopholis (Egernia) striata
Ctenotus schomburgkii (not photographed)
Liopholis (Egernia) slateri
Lifetime total: 313 Australian reptile species