Sea snakes thought to be extinct show up in Australian waters

December 23, 2015 5:45 pm

 

The
short-nosed sea snake was discovered recently in Western .
Photo / Grant Griffin, W.A. Dept. Parks and Wildlife via Washington Post

Humans haven’t seen a living short-nosed sea snake in 15 years. But
there they were, two such snakes swimming along in the waters of the
Western Australian Ningaloo Reef. Luckily, a park ranger snapped a photo
of the pair and submitted it to scientists.
Researchers
published the discovery of living Aipysurus apraefrontalis snakes, along
with another thought-to-be-extinct snake species, in the journal Biological Conservation on Monday.
“We
were blown away, these potentially extinct snakes were there in plain
sight, living on one of Australia’s natural icons, Ningaloo Reef,” study
lead author Blanche D’Anastasi said.
“What is even more exciting
is that they were courting, suggesting that they are members of a
breeding population” added D’Anastasi, a scientist with the ARC Centre
of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in
Australia.

The short-nosed sea snake has been listed as critically
endangered since it disappeared from its only known habitat, the Ashmore
Reef in the Timor Sea. “This species has gone from being the third most
commonly recorded sea snake in the 1990s to no individuals being
recorded in intensive surveys since 2000, indicating a decline of at
least 90 per cent in the past 15 years,” according to the International
Union for Conservation of Nature.
Researchers also discovered a
group of leaf-scaled sea snakes, or Aipysurus foliosquama, living in
Western Australia more than 1600km away from their only known habitat,
Ashmore Reef.
“We had thought that this species of sea snake was
only found on tropical coral reefs. Finding them in seagrass beds at
Shark Bay was a real surprise,” D’Anastasi said.
The leaf-scaled
snakes went from making up half of the recorded sea snakes on the reef
flats in the 1990s to no individual sightings since 2001. Like the
short-nosed snake, threats to its viability “are largely unknown,
however, declines are possibly due to habitat degradation from coral
bleaching and decline of ecosystem health”, according to the IUCN.
The
study authors note that their data “significantly increases the known
geographic range and habitats” of the leaf-scaled sea snakes.
While
sea snakes can be vulnerable to trawling, a method of fishing, “the
disappearance of sea snakes from Ashmore Reef could not be attributed to
trawling and remains unexplained”, Vimoksalehi Lukoschek of the Centre
of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies said.
“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,” Lukoschek said.

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