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People and ecosystems

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Ecosystem dynamics: past, present and future

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Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au

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New research suggests an urgent need to find out why sea snakes are disappearing from known habitats, after it was discovered some seemingly identical sea snake populations are actually genetically distinct from each other and can’t simply repopulate if one group dies out.

Lead author, Dr Vimoksalehi Lukoschek from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University collected genetic samples from more than 550 sea snakes around Australia.

She said scientists were previously unaware of how genetically different sea snake populations on the Western Australian coast were from populations on reefs in the Timor Sea, Gulf of Carpentaria and the Great Barrier Reef.

“The previously unappreciated genetic distinctiveness in coastal Western Australia is critically important. It means that this region is home to genetic diversity not found elsewhere in Australia. If those populations die out, then that biodiversity and potential for adaptation is lost forever,” said Dr Lukoschek.

“Also, genetic differences of sea snakes between reefs around Australia mean that if a species disappears from a particular reef, they are unlikely to be replenished by dispersal of juveniles or adults from adjacent reefs.”

Dr Lukoschek said the sudden disappearance of sea snakes on the highly-protected Ashmore Reef in the Timor Sea remained unexplained, as were sea snake declines on protected reefs in New Caledonia and the southern Great Barrier Reef.

“We observed none of the obvious threats, such as changes in the habitat or fishing, so we are left with a list of other possible causes including disease, invasive species, pollution, seismic surveys or recruitment failure.”

Dr Lukoschek said targeted research on habitat and diet requirements, reproductive biology, disease susceptibility and the impacts of man-made processes, is crucial.

“It’s important we investigate sea snakes in particular, as traditional conservation actions that focus on tackling common causes of species decline, such as habitat loss, may not optimise the conservation of genetic divergence and diversity in these vulnerable populations,” she said.

Dr Lukoschek said conservation planners should incorporate genetic information, including identifying and prioritising evolutionary significant lineages, into their work.

“In the meantime, the findings suggest it is imperative to reduce stressors to coastal WA habitats including minimising the impacts of trawling and reducing the numerous anthropogenic impacts on the environment,” Dr Lukoschek concluded.

The paper “Congruent phylogeographic patterns in a young radiation of live-bearing marine snakes: Pleistocene vicariance and the conservation implications of cryptic genetic diversity” is published today in the journal Diversity and Distributions.

 

Images are available here. Please caption and credit as marked.

 

Media Contact:

Dr Vimoksalehi Lukoschek
E: vimoksalehi.lukoschek@jcu.edu.au
P: +61 (0) 410 340 609 (GMT +10)

For More Information:

Ms Catherine Naum
Communications Manager
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
E: catherine.naum1@jcu.edu.au
P: +61 (0)7 4781 6067 / +61 (0) 428 785 895 (GMT +10)

Scientists from James Cook University have discovered two critically endangered species of sea snakes, previously thought to be extinct, off the coast of Western Australia.

It’s the first time the snakes have been spotted alive and healthy since disappearing from their only known habitat on Ashmore Reef in the Timor Sea more than fifteen years ago.

“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”.“This discovery is really exciting, we get another chance to protect these two endemic Western Australian sea snake species,” says study lead author Blanche D’Anastasi from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU.

The discovery of the critically endangered short nose sea snake was confirmed after a Western Australia Parks and Wildlife Officer, Grant Griffin, sent a photo of a pair of snakes taken on Ningaloo Reef to Ms D’Anastasi for identification.

“We were blown away, these potentially extinct snakes were there in plain sight, living on one of Australia’s natural icons, Ningaloo Reef,” says Ms D’Anastasi.

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

The researchers also made another unexpected discovery, uncovering a significant population of the rare leaf scaled sea snake in the lush seagrass beds of Shark Bay.

The discovery was made 1700 kilometres south of the snakes only known habitat on 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,” says Ms D’Anastasi.

Both leaf scaled and short nosed sea snakes are listed as Critically Endangered under Australia’s threatened species legislation, which means they have special protection.

Despite the good news of the find, sea snake numbers have been declining in several marine parks, and scientists are at a loss to explain why.

“Many of the snakes in this study were collected from prawn trawl by-catch surveys, indicating that these species are vulnerable to trawling,” says Dr Vimoksalehi Lukoschek from the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

“But the disappearance of sea snakes from Ashmore Reef, could not be attributed to trawling and remains unexplained.

“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,” Dr Lukoschek says.
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Paper
The paper: New range and habitat records for threatened Australian sea snakes
raise challenges for conservation by Blanche Renee D’Anastasi, Jean-Paul Hobbs, Colin A Simpfendorfer, Lynne Van Herwerden, Vimoksalehi Lukoschek is published in the journal, Biological Conservation

Images

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/fexujkg4zqyxywj/AAAI10FlIJ9ZpL448IQcJ_bga?dl=0
(Please use image credits supplied in Dropbox folder)

Contacts

Blanche D’Anastasi – blanche.danastas@gmail.com, +61 (0) 439 896 697
Twitter: @SeaSnakeBlanche, https://www.facebook.com/groups/769160779847732/
Dr Vimoksalehi Lukoschek – vimoksalehi.lukoschek@jcu.edu.au, +61 (0) 410 340609

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Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au