Rare sea snake discovery off WA coast

By AG Staff December 22, 2015
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Two critically endangered sea snakes previously thought to be extinct have been spotted off the WA coast.

SCIENTISTS HAVE DISCOVERED new populations of two critically endangered species of sea snakes that were, until recently, thought to be extinct.

Previously, the only known population of the short-nosed sea snake (Aipysurus apraefrontalis) had been a small area on Ashmore Reef in the Timor Sea – where the species hasn’t been seen for more than 15 years.

Then, in April 2013, Grant Griffin, a WA Parks and Wildlife Officer, took a photo of a pair of snakes on Ningaloo Reef and sent it to Blanche D’Anastasi, an ecologist who specialises in threatened marine species at James Cook University in Queensland. 

“We were blown away, these potentially extinct snakes were there in plain sight, living on one of Australia’s natural icons, Ningaloo Reef,” said Blanche, who identified the critically endangered species in the photo.

“What is even more exciting is that they were courting, suggesting they are members of a breeding population,” she added.

Second surprise discovery

Leaf scaled sea snake

Critically endangered leaf scaled sea snake. (Image: Blanche D’Anastasi).

THE RESEARCHERS ALSO discovered a new population of the rare leaf scaled sea snake (Aipysurus foliosquama) in the seagrass beds of Shark Bay – 1700km south of its only previously known habitat, also on Ashmore Reef.

 “We had thought this species of sea snake was only found on tropical coral reefs. Finding them in seagrass beds at Shark Bay was a real surprise,” said Blanche.

Dr Vimoksalehi Lukoschek from the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies said it remains vital to understand why sea snake numbers are declining, as both species’ disappearance from Ashmore Reef in the past 15 years remains unexplained. 

“We need to identify the key threats to their survival […] if we are going to protect these newly discovered coastal populations,” she said.

The discoveries are published in the February 2016 edition of the journal Biological Conservation.