Scientists from the prestigious James Cook University (JCU) in Australia have discovered two critically endangered species of sea snakes, previously thought to be extinct, off the western coast of the land down under.
According to the researchers, it is the first time that the snakes were spotted alive and healthy since they seemed to disappear from their only known residence on Ashmore Reef more than 15 years ago.
The study’s lead author Blanche D’Anastasi from JCU stated that, “This discovery is really exciting, we get another chance to protect these two endemic Western Australian sea snake species. But in order to succeed in protecting them, we will need to monitor populations as well as undertake research into understanding their biology and the threats they face.”
The discovery of the endangered short-nosed sea snake was confirmed after an Australian Parks and Wildlife Officer sent a photo of a pair of snakes on Ningaloo Reef to D’Anastasi for identification.
D’Anastasi exclaimed that, “We were blown away, these potentially extinct snakes were there in plain sight, living on one of Australia’s natural icons, Ningaloo Reef. What is even more exciting is that they were courting, suggesting that they are members of a breeding population.”
At about the same time, the scientists made another unexpected, surprise discovery when they uncovered a population of the rare leaf scaled sea snakes in the seagrass beds of Shark Bay.
The discovery was made on Ashmore Reef, about 1,000 miles south of the snakes’ only known habitat.
D’Anastasi explained that, “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.”
Both types of sea snakes are listed as Critically Endangered under Australia’s legislation.
Despite the good news, sea snake numbers have steadily declined in many marine parks, and scientists cannot explain why.
Dr. Vimoksalehi Lukoschek from the Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies noted that, “Many of the snakes in this study were collected from prawn trawl by-catch surveys, indicating that these species are vulnerable to trawling. But the disappearance of sea snakes from Ashmore Reef, could not be attributed to trawling and remains unexplained.”
Lukoschek further added that, “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.”