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 Post subject: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 8th, 2015, 11:28 pm 
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Location: Monterey Peninsula, CA
When I was a kid, I read through Archie Carr's "The Reptiles" (part of the LIFE Nature Library) repeatedly, and each time my eye would stop on page 27 to stare in awe at the photo of Moloch horridus and imagine that someday I would see one of these unbelievable creatures living wild in its native land. Ever since then, I have wanted to see a wild thorny devil more than any other animal on the planet.

In 2003 my wife and I visited Australia for three weeks, spending part of that time in the harsh desert at the center of the continent, one of the hotbeds of thorny devil activity. We saw many wonderful wild creatures, but no thorny devils. (As a consolation prize, I did get to hold a captive thorny devil for a minute or two.)

In 2005 my wife and I, along with another couple, visited Australia again as part of a trip that also included New Zealand. Our time in Australia was spent in Western Australia, between Perth and Shark Bay. Thorny devils don't live as far south as Perth, but Shark Bay is solidly in their range. I did the things one is supposed to do when looking for thorny devils, but was rewarded only with not one but two expired devils. One had been flattened on the road, clearly earlier that same day. The other was a desiccated husk in the desert, which filled me with excitement for a moment, before shattering my dreams. (Who sees desiccated husks of reptiles? Especially the very reptile that they were most hoping to find alive? That is just weird.) As in 2003, the trip was great, because it is difficult to visit Australia and not see all sorts of amazing animals, but it was sadly lacking in live wild Moloch horridus.

My next attempt was in 2009, when my wife and my sister and I took the Perth to Shark Bay trip again, as well as visiting Kakadu and other northern destinations. Once again, did I see any thorny devils? No I did not. I didn't even see any ex-thorny devils this time. This was getting ridiculous. Thorny devils are quite common within their range, say all the books. (Though the books do admit that with their amazing camouflage and slow movements they are not actually easy to find.)

In late 2014 I started planning another trip to Australia. This time I would be going by myself, so I could spend essentially all of my time herping. (My wife, sensible person that she is, prefers to mix in other activities on her travels.) This time I did more research to determine the best time of year to find thorny devils, and the best places to look for them. I wanted to see a wide variety of herps in addition to Moloch, so I studied maps showing which species had been seen where and at what time of year. I got excellent advice from various helpful people, including Andrew Hodgson, Aaron Fenner, and David Fischer. My plans converged to the month of October, 2015. I would spend that entire month in Australia, seeking thorny devils and whatever other critters I could discover.

Here's Part 1 of my write-up of that month. Parts 2 through 8 arriving soon.

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Flew into Sydney, drove to Wollongong and back


I flew across the world for about a thousand hours and finally touched down in Sydney. If you know your Thorny Devil range (which you do, right?), you will realize that I was not going to find any thorny devils near Sydney. I spent a few days near Sydney anyway, partly to get used to the 18-hour time zone difference from my California home, but more importantly to get a chance to spend time with David Fischer, who lives in that area. David is an extraordinary naturalist, and he and his wife Angie are the nicest couple you could ever hope to meet. David and I had "met" each other on fieldherpforum.com and FaceBook and through email, but never in person until now. He devoted a few days of his very busy schedule to hosting me at his home and taking me out herping.

After arriving in Sydney early in the morning and renting a car, I drove to David's home. One quick shower later, and Australian Herping Time officially began. (AHT is like Daylight Savings Time, but better in every way, including being nothing like Daylight Savings Time.) David took me first to a beautiful spot called Carrington Falls.

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Carrington Falls, though the actual falls are a little to the left of this picture


We quickly came across some Eastern Water Skinks, shiny, medium-sized skinks that as you might expect are often found near water, into which they will not hesitate to flee if disturbed. (I should point out now that Australian lizard sizes are on a different scale than U.S. lizard sizes. For example, a "medium-sized" Australian skink is the size of a "very large" American skink. But also, a "tiny" Australian skink is the size of an "extremely tiny" American skink.)

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Eastern Water Skinks (Eulamprus quoyii)


We waded through some shallow water to a spot where David had seen Cunningham's Skinks before. Cunningham's Skinks are large ("huge" in American), attractive, communal, rock-dwelling skinks that every sensible visitor would love to find. They are also quite shy, and we attributed our failure to find any of them to the number of people frolicking about in the general area.

Our consolation prize was a glimpse of a Grass Skink as it scurried away. This wasn't a particularly valuable consolation prize, because these small skinks are very common and not particularly interesting. And I didn't even get a decent picture. Nonetheless, here it is:

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Grass Skink (Lampropholis guichenoti)


David took me to a spot on Mt. Keira where we had a high probability of finding a couple of skinks more interesting than the poor maligned Lampropholis guichenoti. We looked under some rocks and logs and pieces of tin and quickly uncovered the two we were looking for. First we found the Three-toed Skink, which is the sole member of its genus (See? I told you it was more interesting than L. guichenoti!). Skinks in Australia come with all sorts of finger/toe quantities. Never more than five per limb, to my knowledge, but beyond that almost anything goes. These ones have three digits on each of their four limbs. (Skinks in Australia also vary in their limb count, with four, two, and zero all being popular values.)

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Three-toed Skink (Saiphos equali)


Under the same collection of movable objects we also found McCoy's Skink, which is also the sole member of its genus (See? See?). They come complete with the maximum complement of skinkian limbs (four) and digits (five per limb).

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McCoy's Skinks (Anepischetosia maccoyi), one with original tail and one with regenerated tail


Under a piece of tin that also covered some of the aforementioned skinks lurked my first frog of the trip. This is a Striped Marsh Frog, a species I had seen before in Queensland but was happy to encounter again in New South Wales. They are common enough in their range that one of their common names is simply "Brown Frog". But that's a bit misleading, as they have a distinctive, attractive pattern.

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Striped Marsh Frog (Limnodynastes peronii)


Shortly after we left the skinks-and-frog spot we saw a medium-sized lizard (again, "very large" in American) in the middle of the road. We stopped the car so I could try to get a picture but it had been spooked and ran into the roadside vegetation. This was an Eastern Water Dragon, a common species on the east coast. I ended up seeing only this one individual in my whole month of October, but then I was only in their range for the first three days. I did get one photo of it in the roadside vegetation before it disappeared completely.

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Eastern Water Dragon (Intellagama lesueurii lesueurii)


We then visited another spot where David had had success finding various creatures under pieces of tin that had been helpfully scattered about. Every herper starts salivating a little when they see this:

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What wonders lie beneath?


This particular piece of tin sheltered a large skink ("gigantic" in American). This was an Eastern Blue-tongued Skink, way bigger than any U.S. skink and approaching the size of the largest Gila Monster. We noticed that one of its legs (not visible in this photo) was seriously injured long ago, which caused David to realize that he had seen this particular skink several years earlier. An old friend, just trying to mind its own business.

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Eastern Blue-tongued Skink (Tiliqua scincoides scincoides)


David noticed that some no doubt well-meaning person or persons had cleaned up the vast majority of the pieces of tin that formerly festooned this area. This act of public service meant that we had far fewer opportunities to uncover interesting herps than we had hoped. We did manage to find one other, a common species but one that was new to me, the Eastern Small-eyed Snake. It was in no mood to pose for photos, wanting only to burrow into the leaf litter and sand.

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Eastern Small-eyed Snake (Cryptophis nigrescens)


Under the same piece of tin, I was surprised and somewhat horrified to find a large writhing mass of ants, which I have since been informed are Golden-tailed Sugar Ants. As a herper, I am used to finding unexpected large quantities of ants under things, but I am not used to them being arranged in thick piles of squirming horror. Also, I'm surprised that the snake wanted to hang out nearby. I have since tried to Google for info on associations between small-eyed snakes and ants, and also on the proclivity of this ant species to form huge oogly balls of skin-crawliness. But I had no luck on either front.

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A few gazillion Golden-tailed Sugar Ants (Camponotus aeneopilosus) creeping me out


Later, after a delicious home-cooked dinner (did I mention that David is an excellent chef too?), we went out to a rocky outcrop where David has often found a particularly nice type of local gecko. The evening was cool-ish, possibly too cool for reptilian activity, so we tried to keep our expectations low. The first interesting critter in our path was this impressive spider, which I have not identified:

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Unidentified but impressive spider


We had inspected a significant portion of the rocky outcrop in a depressingly gecko-free manner when a slight discoloration on the rock turned out to be our target, the Broad-tailed Gecko. We quickly found three others, and they were all cooperative about holding their positions while we doomed their souls to photography.

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Broad-tailed Geckos (Phyllurus platurus), with original (top) and regenerated (bottom) tails


We spent most of the next day in different parts of the Blue Mountains, which aren't especially blue but are quite beautiful.

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A typical Blue Mountains overlook


First we looked for the Blue Mountains Water Skink, which has a teeny-tiny range. We failed to find any in an area where David had seen them before, perhaps due to the cool, overcast weather. We did find a nice commemorative sign though:

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This sign was misleading, as no actual skinks were found nearby


At another Blue Mountains locale we looked for another population of Cunningham's Skinks that David had seen before. This time luck was with us and we spotted several shy little ones and one only-slightly-less-shy big one.

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Cunningham's Skink (Egernia cunninghami), ready to disappear


Near the Cunningham's Skink colony I spotted another type of skink that was new to me, the Copper-tailed Skink. Have I mentioned yet that Australia is home to more skink species than the human mind can comprehend?

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Copper-tailed Skink (Ctenotus taeniolatus)


We then hiked a trail at the poetically named Govetts Leap, where we saw (surprise!) more skinks. Most were tiny-to-small ones that vanished before we could photograph or identify them, but this Yellow-bellied Water Skink held its ground for a few moments.

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Yellow-bellied Water Skink (Eulamprus heatwolei)


The Blue Mountains were socked in by clouds all day, keeping the temperatures fairly low, and I was tiring out rapidly, so we didn't push it too much and headed back home for another delicious home-cooked meal. After dark we headed to Dharawal National Park to seek out some frogs. A decidedly non-froggy species that we quickly spotted was the Common Ring-tailed Possum.

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Common Ring-tailed Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus)


The frogs we had hoped to find did not disappoint. We saw many Blue Mountains Tree Frogs, most of which were hunkered down on streamside rocks rather than honoring their common names.

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Blue Mountains Tree Frogs (Litoria citropa)


Mixed in with the many Blue Mountains Tree Frogs were a handful of Stony Creek Frogs, which had the common decency to be hanging out alongside a stony creek.

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Stony Creek Frog (Litoria lesueuri)


The next day was very hot, record-breakingly so. We had originally intended to visit the popular Royal National Park, which is right along the coast, but decided that the combination of hot sunny weather and the day being an Australian holiday would mean so many visitors to Royal National Park that it would take us hours to park and then all of the reptiles would have been scared away by throngs of people anyway. So instead we visited nearby Heathcote National Park, where there were not throngs of people, but most of the reptiles had been scared away by the intense heat. I got no photos of herps at all, and only brief glances of several skinks. But to my delight I did see my first ever wild monotreme, a Short-beaked Echidna.

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Extra-bad picture of an extra-good animal, the Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)


By early afternoon I was completely exhausted by what I assumed was the combination of the heat and late-onset jet lag, and we headed back to the Fischer's abode where I napped the rest of the afternoon away.

David's wide-ranging naturalist interests have lately been concentrated on moths, and his back porch includes a (semi-?)permanent "moth cloth", which is a hanging sheet onto which is shined ultraviolet light, irresistible to moths. At some point after I arose from my fitful slumber, David showed me a back porch visitor that was taking advantage of this situation by snacking on the tastier winged insects. As punishment, this little Weasel Skink had to pose for some photos in the backyard.

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Weasel Skink (Saproscincus mustelinus)

[edit: comments below reveal that this is not S. mustelinus but rather a Pale-lipped Shadeskink (Saproscincus spectabilis).]


The next morning I was sorry to say goodbye to the extremely hospitable David and Angie, and I drove north towards Sydney. Since it was no longer a weekend or a holiday, I stopped at Royal National Park and hiked the trail that we had originally planned to hike the previous day. I saw a Yellow-faced Whipsnake (Demansia psammophis) on the road into the park, but it skedaddled before I could get any photos. A little later in the morning I came across another snake crossing the trail, but it too escaped unphotographed and I couldn't match my memory of its appearance definitively to any of the local species. (It was the size and shape of an average U.S. gartersnake, dark in color, without any obvious patterning.)

I saw several more Eastern Water Skinks and Copper-tailed Skinks and various Small Nondescript Photography-evading Skinks, but nothing of special note on the rest of the hike. The hike quickly drained what little energy I had woken up with, but the beautiful scenery took my mind off of my exhaustion and my lack of new herps to photograph.

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View from trail in Royal National Park


I then made it back to Sydney and rested for the remainder of the day, with the next leg of my trip scheduled to begin with the following morning's flight to Alice Springs. Would the rest of my entire trip be scuttled by my mysterious lack of stamina? You won't know until you read part 2 of my account, coming soon... (Well, you can probably guess, given that I have already promised 8 parts.)


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 9th, 2015, 5:36 am 

Joined: June 17th, 2010, 4:51 am
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Great start, I cannot wait to read the remaining installments. I will also have to read through your past reports on your website. I briefly looked at one and it was quite a treat. Thanks for putting this together.


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 9th, 2015, 6:41 am 
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The Echidna might have been my favorite thing.


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 9th, 2015, 7:32 am 
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Thanks, John, I always love your reports, excellent story writing. This series surely has more than my special attention, because Australia is in my top 3 of places to go herping in the next years!


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 9th, 2015, 9:55 am 
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Very entertaining read! Can't wait for the next part!


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 9th, 2015, 12:07 pm 

Joined: March 30th, 2014, 12:16 pm
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Very nice stuff! Every time I see a post from the east coast of Australia it makes me figuratively "home sick". It's an amazing and beautiful place with some truly fascinating herpetofauna and other wildlife in general for an American herper.


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 9th, 2015, 12:13 pm 
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Nice finds! I recognize that water skink sign. I unfortunately arrived on a cold overcast day as well so had similar success finding one. My heart jumped a little when I flipped a rock and uncovered a Eulamprus but it turned out to be one of the more common species. Looking forward to the rest!
-Elliot


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 9th, 2015, 7:27 pm 
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Great start to the series! Wonderful variety of critters. I am really looking forward to seeing the rest.

We were over there back in January, and I wanted to catch up with David, but unfortunately his work schedule had him out of town so we were unable to meet.

That echidna is awesome! I wish that we had gotten to see one. And that bluetongue too! Oh man! The only one of those that I saw was DOR, and I saw it from the window of a shuttle as we drove past it.

Thanks for sharing!
--Berkeley


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 9th, 2015, 7:48 pm 
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Awesome post man., Looking foreword to the rest.
I am surprised you only saw one Eastern Water Dragon. When I was there in 84' they were present in every waterway, and in large numbers. Wonder what happened.

Lawrence


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 9th, 2015, 7:52 pm 
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Brilliant so far. Can't wait for episodes 2, 3, 4. etc.

It's almost enough to inspire me to write up my trip from a year ago. :oops:


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 9th, 2015, 10:46 pm 
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That was a blast. I can't wait for the rest!

JimM


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 10th, 2015, 6:03 am 
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Thanks everyone! I'll try to get part 2 out in the next few days at most.

Finding an echidna was probably my highlight of this part of the trip. It was about 10 feet off the trail making a lot of noise as it slowly crunched through the vegetation. I recognized it quickly due to its unmistakable spines, but it was turned away from us so I didn't actually see its silly little head for a while. There was no position enabling a good photograph, but just having seen it was a high.

I also came very close to seeing a wombat, but failed. We looked for them on the sides of a particular road at night where David knew they often wandered. He saw one at the edge of the road, but the wombat was on the move and I didn't see it before it shoved its way into the bushes. We got out with flashlights and could hear it pretty clearly moving around, but the thick vegetation prevented any glimpse. Next time!

Jeroen: You absolutely need to go herping in Australia! The only downside is that the country is so vast you can only visit tiny portions of it in any reasonable amount of time. But it has amazing herps in every nook and cranny.

simus343: Did you live on the east coast of Australia, or just visit? I'm toying with the idea of returning to Queensland in a year or two and would love any advice you might have to offer.

Elliot: I know just what you mean. Reminds me of when I saw that dried-up thorny devil husk in the desert. So exciting, for such a brief moment.

Berkeley: Too bad you missed out on seeing David. He is even more charming and knowledgeable in person than in his posts, if that's possible.

Lawrence: I saw lots of eastern water dragons in 2003 also. I think that they are still very common, and we just didn't happen to visit the right habitat for them. (On the rest of my trip I was west of their range.)

chrish: I look forward to your long-delayed writeup and its awesome photography! Have I guilted you into doing it yet?

John


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 10th, 2015, 6:19 am 
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I think everyone said it all.. :thumb:
Pics + script took us right along with you and we all got egged on by the echidna.

Looking forward to more.


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 10th, 2015, 11:34 pm 
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Part 2 is now available here: viewtopic.php?f=2&t=22870


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 11th, 2015, 6:37 am 

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Ribbit wrote:

simus343: Did you live on the east coast of Australia, or just visit? I'm toying with the idea of returning to Queensland in a year or two and would love any advice you might have to offer.



I lived in Canberra and spent a lot of time visiting areas and hiking in the mountains all through eastern New South Wales and made a week visit to QLD in '04 before I moved to the Canberra in early '07. While there I also visited for a week each and did some exploring in NE Northern Territory (my personal favorite for wildlife and weather), and SW West Australia which had some neat, cavernous caves with easy stair access (tourist caves). If I went back to Australia I think I'd have to move there haha.


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 12th, 2015, 7:33 pm 
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John,

It was great to meet you. I hope that you are able to return again someday. Looks like you had a very successful trip. Your photos and descriptions are excellent!


Regards,
David


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 Post subject: Saproscincus spectabilis
PostPosted: December 20th, 2015, 6:22 am 
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Image

What you've found here is actually a Pale-lipped Shadeskink (Saproscincus spectabilis). Whilst very similar in habit and appearance to the Weasel Skink (S. mustelinus), it's a much less widespread species, having a disjunct distribution and relatively isolated populations; the Sydney population being the most southerly. This is the furthest south that I've ever heard of this species being found and may represent a slight range extension. It's quite a find and one that you and David might want to consider reporting.

You've taken a good enough photo of it that it can be positively identified. Most notably is the lack of a postocular white dash, which is characteristic of S. mustelinus. Another key difference between these two species is the presence of distinctive bright yellow or cream markings on the back of the thighs adjoining the base of the tail. Sometimes these markings are cream in colour and my personal observation is that the yellow colouring of these markings are stronger in males during the breeding season (as it is on their underside) suggesting that this specimen is probably a male.

Patrick


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 22nd, 2015, 1:45 pm 
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Patrick, thanks very much for the correction. I wasn't aware of the distinctive postocular marks on S. mustelinus, but now that I look at the descriptions in my books I see that everyone mentions them.

I'll call David's attention to this since he is the one who found the skink, plus it was in his backyard, plus he has contacts in the Australian herpetological community that I do not. Neat!

John


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 Post subject: Saproscincus
PostPosted: December 22nd, 2015, 7:26 pm 
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No worries. They're otherwise very similar in colour and pattern, as well as preferred habitat.
I'm very familiar with both these species, having observed them in the wild and examined them closely in the hand.
Other differerences are their proportions, with spectabilis having relatively longer limbs, strongly overlapping when adpressed but not in mustelinus. The Weasel Skink is appropriately named in that way, as it's more elongate bodied. Weasels also usually have much richer, orange-red dorso-lateral streaks over the rump onto the base of the tail.
Last but not least is the way they move. I actually first noticed spectabilis because it moved differently to the way mustelinus moves.


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: December 28th, 2015, 1:35 pm 
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Wow, that is very interesting, Patrick. Thanks for the info about the species. I was not aware of this species. I will have to check other photos that I have of "Weasel Skinks" since I may not have identified these correctly. I occasionally rescue them from our pool in the summer when they seem to be the most active.

Regards,
David


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 Post subject: Saproscincus spectabilis
PostPosted: December 30th, 2015, 9:25 pm 
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My pleasure David. I've only found a few myself in Sydney and they seemed to be quite isolated populations.
You're lucky to have them in your garden. 8-) You'll have a good opportunity to see how they move differently to Weasels when they move about, hunting in the mulch.


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 Post subject: Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Prelude and Part 1, Sydney area
PostPosted: January 8th, 2016, 5:55 pm 
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awesome - and this is just the hors d'oeuvres :)

-Mike


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