Friday, September 18, 2009

Papua blacksnake not ‘extinct’

The Papuan blacksnake.-Picture by DAVID WILLIAMS
The deadly Papuan taipan, one of the most-venomous snakes in the world, which is often mistaken for a Papuan black.-Picture by DAVID WILLIAMS
The Papuan blacksnake, thought to have become extinct due to cane toads, is alive and well in parts of the Central province.
However, snake expert David Williams, says it is unlikely to bite people like the deadly Papua taipan and should be protected and preserved as part of Papua New Guinea’s natural heritage.
“It is important that people also be told that our studies of the behaviour of this snake, suggest that it is very shy, extremely reluctant to bite, even when handled, and combined with the knowledge that none of the patients seen at Port Moresby General Hospital in the past five years had been bitten by blacksnakes, it is very unlikely to cause snakebites,” he said.
“ As a potentially-threatened species, and one that is well known to all Papua New Guineans and expats alike as a native animal symbol of PNG, it should be protected and preserved as an important part of PNG’s natural heritage.
“In January 2006, we were finally able to confirm the continued presence of Papuan blacksnakes in Central province, with the discovery of a freshly-killed specimen on the Magi Highway about 45km out of Port Moresby.
“On dissection, we found that the snake in question had been feeding on rodents, which offered a possible explanation for the survival of the species in an area that was heavily infested with cane toads.
“The snake was also found close to a forested area that backed onto swamplands: undisturbed natural habitat.
“In June 2008, a second specimen was given to us by staff from the Exxon-Mobil LNG project after it was killed near one of their buildings at the project site along the Lealea road.
“This was followed in December by the discovery of another adult specimen from the same area, which died from injuries incurred when it was caught by LNG workers.
“These two snakes are strong evidence that a population of these very shy snakes still exists in the Boera-Papa-Lealea area.
“Then just before Christmas, we were given a live juvenile blacksnake by Andrew Taplin, a biologist working with Department of Environment and Conservation.
“Andrew caught the snake while bushwalking near Sogeri in thick rainforest at an altitude of around 950m.”
Mr Williams said this was a very important discovery, because it was the first time that this species had been discovered living in forest in mountainous country, and opened the possibility that the species may be much more widely distributed than had ever been thought before (it was always believed to be restricted to low-lying areas along the southern side of PNG, typically in areas of scrub, grassland or swampland), and could perhaps even occur on the northern side of the Owen Stanley Range in Oro or Milne Bay provinces where the mountain ranges are below 1, 000 metres.
“We have heard stories from Oro and Milne Bay people about ‘blacksnakes’ being found there, and this now seems very possible, since the discovery of this snake at Sogeri means that mountains below 1,000m are not a barrier confining their distribution,” he said.
“The other important thing is that until these four specimens were found, this species had not been positively identified in Central province since 1992 and was considered to be at risk of local extinction east of Gulf province (it is still common in the South and Middle Fly districts of Western province).
“The discovery of these four snakes proves that there are at least three different populations of Papuan blacksnake in Central Province, and probably many more.”

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