Both the short-nosed sea snake (Aipysurus apraefrontalis) and the leaf-scaled sea snake (Aipysurus foliosquama) are listed as critically endangered by the Australian government’s Dept. of the Environment.
Previously endemic to the Ashmore and Hibernia reefs in the Timor Sea, these snakes disappeared from public sight over 15 years ago.
Now, scientists with James Cook Univ.’s Arc Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies have released a study in Biological Conservation regarding recent sightings of the creatures.
Grant Griffin, a Western Australia Parka and Wildlife Officer, sent a photograph of a pair of short-nosed sea snakes to the study’s lead author Blanche D’Anastasi, who identified the species from the photo. The photograph was taken on Ningaloo Reef, located further south down the coast of Western Australia.
“We were blown away, these potentially extinct snakes were there in plain sight, living on one of Australia’s natural icons,” said D’Anastasi. “What is even more exciting is that they were courting, suggesting that they are members of a breeding population.”
In Western Australia’s Shark Bay, the researchers discovered a “significant population” of leaf-scaled sea snakes among the Bay’s seagrass beds. The location was approximately 1,700 km from the Ashmore Reef, and 500 km further south than any other sighting of the species.
“We had thought that this species of sea snake was only found on tropical coral reefs,” said D’Anastasi. “Finding them in seagrass beds at Shark Bay was a real surprise.”
According to the researchers, most sea snakes involved in the study “were collected from demersal prawn trawl by-catch surveys, indicating that these species are vulnerable to demersal trawl gear.”
“Nonetheless, the disappearance of these two species from Ashmore Reef (which coincided with extirpations of at least three other sea snake species) could not be attributed to trawling and remain unexplained,” the researchers added.
The researchers call for identifying key threats to the species’ survival.