Herp Hunting in the Northern Territory, Australia
Appeared in ‘Reptile Care’ quantity 3, Issue 3
The northern territory is well known for being ‘the real bush’. It has a population of less than 200’000 people, over 90% of which live in Government areas. These government areas only cover 5% of the Northern Territory, which leaves over 1.2 million square kilometres virtually deserted. This area is nearly five times the size of the UK! As you can now imagine, this is an incredibly large and different scenery! There are approximately 300 species of reptile, and 50 species of amphibian in the Northern Territory. Slightly more different one might say, than the UK’s species count of only 6 reptiles and 6 amphibians!
I spent the complete year of 2005 travelling around Australia. I went to every State, every major city, drove across the longest straight road in the world, twice, and travelled the complete circumference of this beautiful country. But the Northern Territory was in my books, by far the most fantastic place I have ever been. I spent 3 months in Darwin, and several more weeks travelling around the NT, going as far south as Alice Springs and Ayers Rock (Uluru in Aboriginal terms). I knew the place was for me when, only a few days after I drove by, I saw my first wild Black Headed Python (Aspidites melanocephalus) crossing the road. What a shock! This was the first snake I had seen in Australia and I had already pushed thousands of kilometres. I nearly ran it over, but swerved suddenly, missing it by millimetres! I turned around and went back, moving it off the road before the 50 metre oncoming road aim ploughed straight by us all! It was a beautiful, 2 metre female in perfect condition. It was different seeing such an animal in the wild, after seeing many of them in friends’ collections, it did not compare to the wonderful feeling of seeing her out in the bush and lending her a helping hand getting across the road. This was definitely for me! I knew there was plenty more where she came from, and I would definitely find them!
During my time in the Northern Territory, I spent 3 months working at ‘Crocodylus Park’. A crocodile research and education centre, home to approximately 8’000 saltwater crocodiles and a number of other crocodilian and animal species. This was certainly an experience of a lifetime. Not only to work with such a large number of large crocodiles, but also to meet a whole group of bright ozzies! Myself and my girlfriend Eirlys stayed with an Australian associate; Cade & Holly. Cade knew the area and had been working at the park for a associate of years. He told me of a place he goes to on a regular event. He said to me; “We excursion out after the sun sets, about 45 minutes out of town and just cruise for snakes.” Well, that just sounded too easy for me, but I definitely wanted to give it a go!
Only a few days later, Cade had organised a few of his mates to join us on a night out ‘herping’. We set off in convoy, Cade and 3 others in his car, closely followed by Maddy’s car with me in the back and another associate of people! 45 Minutes later and we arrive at Fogg Dam. This place wasn’t what I expected, it didn’t look so amazing. We started driving very slowly along this road, which soon turned quite thin, with a 2 metre drop off either side into thick, wet marshland. This was however, the dry season. In the wet season this road is not already visible, being completely submerged in water. Only a few seconds after driving along, comes our first catch of the night; a Yellow-Bellied Water Python (Liasis mackloti)! This was very closely followed by another, then another, then another. Within half an hour we had picked 14 water pythons off the road, already catching 2 or 3 at a time! Of course, all of these were released straight back into the marshes. I certainly had second thoughts about this place, it was amazing!
After our successful water python round-up, we took the time to sit by the road and see what we could identify. Out came our big torches, shining into the marsh either side of the road. The eyes of at the minimum 20 crocodiles shone back at us. Most were the freshwater crocodiles (Crocodylus johnstoni), but some eyes were larger and further apart, these were the bigger, saltwater or ‘estuarine’ crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus). I had seen this on TV many times, but it was quite different to see this naturally. I must let in, already working with crocodiles all day; knowing that we were surrounded by hundreds of them was certainly a scary thought! The night was topped off by a find I was desperate for, a Northern Death Adder (Acanthophis praelongus)! An absolutely beautiful one too, camouflaged so well into the road we nearly turned it into another piece of ‘road-kill’. This was a successful night!
I later found out, ‘Fogg Dam’ has the largest concentration of predatory animals in the world! The water pythons on their own, represent the largest density of predatory species in such a concentrated area. Their prey is the dusky rat, which are said to be in numbers of 15’000 per square kilometre. From these numbers of prey, it is easy to understand their success.
Darwin is a small capital city, with just over 100’000 people, over half the population of the complete Northern Territory. You only have to excursion an hour out of the city centre to reach Litchfield National Park; a 1’500 square kilometre oasis of Northern Territory habitat, including one of the most famous termite mound spectacles in the world, a number of amazing water falls, rock formations and forested areas. A associate of hours due East is the already larger Kakadu National Park, covering nearly 20’000 square kilometres of land, nearly the same size as Ireland! This is one of the most famous National Parks in the world and it certainly should be. Home to thousands of species of flora & fauna.
It was nice to get out to Litchfield National Park on weekends, being only a short excursion away. I went several times during my stay in the NT. It has an abundance of wildlife visible during the day, but at night it really comes alive! Litchfield is famous for it’s Magnetic Termite Mounds, so called because they are all north – south facing. The structures are approximately 3metres tall and built so that the narrowest edge is facing the extremely intense sun for the midday heat. With so many termites, come so many predators. Many species of skinks and other small lizards are shared here. The Northern Territory is home to approximately 100 species of skink, many rely on small insects such as termites. With so many small lizards, come many reptiles that satisfy upon these lizards, including the Burtons Legless Lizard (Lialis burtonis). This is one of the larger species of legless lizard, and has the uncommon, snake-like characteristic of being able to un-hinge it’s jaw to allow an easy passage for their larger food items. These are very shared in Litchfield, and I was fortunate enough to see many. All of which varied in colour.
Orange-naped snakes (Furina ornata) are abundant in the Northern Territory, although they are not seen nearly as often as other species. I was lucky enough to identify this guy slithering across the road one night. My tour guide for the night was Maddy, one of Cade’s mates. He had been herping for years around the Territory, and was familiar with the different species of reptiles you might find on the different nights, at certain times of the year. He thought I must be a good luck charm, as this was the first Orange Naped Snake he had ever caught here!
I have dealt with hundreds of species of snake in the last few years, but I really wanted to get a taste for the ‘lethal’ stuff. The Northern Territory was certainly the place to do it; and at this point I had already encountered a Death Adder in the wild. That though, wasn’t enough. The Coastal Taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus) was a scarce sight and although I hoped to catch a glimpse of one, the opportunity never came. I was more fortunate however with the Brown Snakes! I saw 2 Western Brown snakes (Pseudonaja nuchalis) within a few kilometres of each other in Litchfield National Park. Unfortunately though, my one and only sight of a wild King Brown (Pseudonaja australis), was a juvenile victim of a car tyre. It had only just happened, we had passed the same identify just half an hour earlier, however on our way back by, the snake had appeared, dead.
A number of reptile and insect species can be found in and around the Darwin area. While living in Karama, we had a number of visitors to our backyard. Green Tree Snakes (Dendralaphis punctulatus), Two-Lined Dragons (Diporiphora bilineata), Striped Tree Dragons (Amphibolorus temporalis), Australian House Gecko’s (Gehyra australis), Asian House Gecko’s (Hemidactylus frenatus), Garden Skinks (Carlia gracilis and Carlia munda)and Mertens’ Water Monitor’s (Varanus mertensi). Huntsman and Redback spiders are also shared in households and gardens.