Photos capture feat of survival as predators and prey break boundaries to escape floods

By Shannon Verhagen 22 February 2018
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Broome’s record rainfall has flooded the region and forced local wildlife to flee to higher ground.

Record-breaking rain in WA’s Kimberley has seen animals take refuge from the floodwaters in the trees, rubbing shoulders with their predators in the name of survival.

This week popular holiday town Broome broke its annual rainfall record not even two months into the year, with a huge 1502.6mm falling since January 1.

Bureau of Meteorology Media and Communications Manager Neil Bennett says the colossal figure is the result of three tropical cyclones landing near the seaside town in the past two months – Hilda in late December, Joyce in early January and Kelvin, which made landfall south of Broome on Sunday.

“Broome was very much in the wet season, which runs from November to April, and it is normal to get bursts of intense activity – almost on a daily basis parts of the Kimberley will get a thunderstorm – but at times heavier activity can occur,” Neil explains. “This may come as a tropical low, monsoon trough or tropical cyclone.”

Due to a combination of all three, not only has Broome broken its annual rainfall record, but four more as well – the wettest January, second wettest January day, second wettest February, and the wettest February day, with a mammoth 370.6mm of rain falling on Saturday.

“I’ve been here for 30 years and we get the occasional deluge, but this one’s extraordinary, I’ve never seen this much rain,” local photographer Damian Kelly says.

And with two months left of the wet season, Neil says the record breaking figure will continue to climb. “There’s absolutely no doubt there’ll be more rain,” he says.

While record-breaking, the extreme weather has had a big impact on the region, threatening lives and homes, causing significant property damage, uprooting trees and leading to major road closures.

At time of print flood warnings remained in place for the West Kimberley District, Sandy Desert and the Nullarbor, Salt Lakes and Warburton District Rivers.

Stranded wildlife

The weather has also had an impact on the region’s wildlife, forcing animals to flee the rising waters and take refuge in the trees.

After Saturday’s record breaking downpour and gale force winds, Environs Kimberley ecologist Dr Malcolm Lindsay kayaked onto Buckley’s Plains –a large, usually walkable plain – and found a number of species sheltering in a singular tree.

“I’d heard from a few people of this happening when it floods, but often it’s hard to find,” Malcolm explains. “I was lucky to find it – if I was looking where there were more trees it would be a lot harder.”

“One small paper bark shrub alone had over 500 frogs, ten skinks, four blue tongues, two snakes and three goannas – that’s crowded,” he says.

He estimates six species of frogs, three species of goanna, four species of snakes, and seven other lizard species were taking refuge in the tree, in some cases on top of each other – a number of which share predator-prey relationships.

“The animals were escaping the floodwaters but Australian animals are generally pretty good at dealing with floods,” Malcolm explains. “The larger factor was that they had just endured 2 days of pre-cyclonic winds and rain hanging onto some scraggly paperbarks – they were exhausted.”

“It was mainly reptiles and amphibians huddling together waiting for the warmer weather, whereas the mammals could swim away,” Malcolm says. “I could’ve picked them up if I’d wanted to, they were so exhausted their predator and prey instincts appeared to be on pause.”

frog floods

Feat of Survival

Since the discovery, Malcolm has returned to the site daily to observe how they were coping – and estimates only 20 per cent remain perched in the branches, with the others moving on as the weather calms and warms.

“It’s not every day you get to see how animals respond to an event like this,” Malcolm says. “It’s been amazing watching the change over time, to see them slowly recover and disperse, but also to see the shear abundance and diversity – generally you’re out in the field for weeks doing biodiversity surveys and you won’t come close to these numbers.”

Local photographer Damian came with him to capture the display of survival.

“The photos have this cutesy, kind of novel look – but the reality is they’re in survival mode,” Damian says. “Water levels are dropping now and wildlife are on the move – three days ago they were paralysed, just wouldn’t move.”

“I think we underestimate animals’ abilities to survive these weather events – it’s probably a lot better than we think.”

frog floods

All photographs were captured by Damian Kelly. See more of his work here.