Valentic, R.A. 2007 (a) Reptiles Australia Magazine 3(3): 26-33.
Introduction and Background
I can still vividly recall the first time I laid eyes on a series of head illustrations of the Bronzeback Legless Lizard Ophidiocephalus taeniatus. They were drawn from the type specimen by B.C. Cotton, in Waite (1929). I was ten years old and sitting quietly in the school library. I likened the large head plates and protrusive, wedge-shaped snout as bearing a striking resemblance to that of the Archaeopteryx, the earliest and most primitive bird. In line with most fanatical herps, I already had a solid grounding with Dinosaurs, my own considerable book collection now competing for shelf space with the ever-growing titles devoted to modern day reptiles. I remember day-dreaming of a time when I had my own car, and of finding an Ophidiocephalus taeniatus in the desert myself.....
The Bronzeback Legless Lizard is not only distinctive in appearance, being the sole representative of a genus unlike any other, but is also an important species historically. The holotype was formally described in 1897 by A.H.S. Lucas and Charles Frost at the National Museum of Victoria. The lizard was sent down by Paddy Byrne who was stationed at Charlotte Waters Telegraph Station in the southern Northern Territory during the 1890’s. Byrne was a keen collector of flora and fauna in that remote and inhospitable area, sending specimens to scientist's worldwide. Whether Bryne had collected the specimen himself from the precise locality of Charlotte Waters was speculative, it may have been brought in by aboriginals, or by line maintenance workers some distance from the Telegraph Station.
For another 81 years a brief taxonomic description and the preserved specimen was all that remained of Ophidiocephalus, setting the scene for much speculation and intrigue about its biology. The respected herpetological taxonomist Arnold Kluge was one of those to ‘throw his hat in the ring’ in this regard, speculating that the Bronzeback Legless Lizard was fossorial and perhaps a sand-swimmer, based upon its distinctive anatomy (Kluge, 1974). Hutchinson (1994) wrote; “So intriguing was the solitary type specimen, that there is a story that the museum curator where the specimen resides was offered considerable inducements by an overseas researcher if he would allow the specimen to be sent for partial dissection!”
Then in early January 1978, a breakthrough was made: two dedicated herpetologists rediscovered Ophidiocephalus whilst raking leaf litter roughly 26 km south of Charlotte Waters at Abminga, in far northern South Australia (Ehmann and Metcalfe, 1978). The men were targeting the species and after three days of intensive searching within a 40 km radius of Charlotte Waters were rewarded with 10 specimens. They later proposed the apt common name of Bronzeback Legless Lizard. Within days the news of their finds had reached the natural history museums in Australia and around the world (Davey, 1983).
It is worth digressing here for a moment to highlight the significance of this find beyond its obvious herpetological importance. Ehmann and Metcalfe worked ridiculously hard to make this discovery, in a self-funded trip to one of the most arid and inhospitable parts of the continent.
For those who have never experienced field work it is worth mentioning here that it is rarely easy, requiring immense physical effort and stamina, combined with a great deal of background research. In their rediscovery of the Bronzeback Legless Lizard, Ehmann and Metcalfe dug and set pitfall lines, raked litter and walked kilometres every day. The serious field worker has the insatiable desire to find their target species and this level of commitment can only be described as fanatical. The intensity poured into search techniques is difficult to explain to those not endowed with the passion. These special few never quit and if faced with failure, accept defeat stubbornly, only to raise the bar on their next attempt.
Most often these searches are conducted under extreme conditions, and the habitat of the Bronzeback Legless Lizard is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. It is gritty and desolate, with little shade during the day. The heat is intense and at times, unbearable. The constant annoyance of hundreds of flies and your own sweat stinging your eyes can be overwhelming. Despite the hardships, arid habitats are the ones that I love to be in, and yearn for most, when at home. When you locate a targeted species in these circumstances the excitement is so great that it often is hard to emulate.
Hence, the pair’s elation upon finding the second known specimen of Ophidiocephalus is worth repeating here: “Our shouts of excitement must have stirred Byrne, Lucas and Frost in their graves! It was the most wildly exciting thing that had ever happened to us. Very soon after that another specimen was found on the other side of the tree only to boost the excitement to fever pitch!” (Ehmann and Metcalfe, 1978). Returning to the herpetological significance of this find, the new specimens revealed much about the lizard's biology.
As suspected, the species was fossorial, wriggling within the loose soil and humus beneath the dense leaf litter accumulated under Gidgee Trees Acacia cambagei, growing along the sandy Abminga Creek channel. Within the mesic conditions created by the decomposing litter mats, the Bronzeback Legless Lizard was found to prey upon small invertebrates such as baby cockroaches and small beetles.
The population at Abminga remained the sole site known to harbour Ophidiocephalus until 1980, when the preserved remains of a specimen mistaken for a snake was sent to Peter Mirtschin by a doctor at Coober Pedy, some 320 km to the south (see Ehmann, 1980). It had been found in a house within the town. Another lizard was found within the Breakaways Reserve near Coober Pedy during a survey in the mid 1980’s. In 1988, severe sheet flooding at Abminga either washed the leaf litter mats away - or submerged them beneath layers of fine silt. Several searches thereafter had failed to locate the species (Hutchinson, 1994). Concern for the species conservation status mounted and in the early 1990’s, the lizard was listed as vulnerable due to its limited distribution and scarcity of records (Cogger et al., 1993).
During September of 1994-95, the Exploring Society (ANZSES) discovered another population in the Ackaringa region during biological surveys (Downes et al., 1997). These additional data have thus lead to a level of predictability regarding the preferred habitat of Ophidiocephalus. The Ackaringa specimens were located right between the two aforementioned localities and suggested that the Bronzeback Legless Lizard may have a much broader distribution than predicted in the past. Importantly, these specimens also provided confirmation of the species habitat and microhabitat requirements. With the exception of one bronzeback that was found beneath sparse leaf litter beneath a Mulga Tree Acacia aneura on an open rocky plain some 8km from a major watercourse, five lizards were raked from leaf litter mats beneath Gidgee Trees along a dry, sandy watercourse cutting through gibber plains.
Then, with much excitement, I learned of another recent bronzeback find. My mate and herp fanatic Chris Hay collected an adult Bronzeback Legless Lizard as it actively crossed the Stuart Highway on a stormy night about 6km north of Coober Pedy on the 8th of January 2002. The weather conditions were overcast with a gusting westerly wind and a few rain spots with intermittent lighting strikes to the west. The time was 8:55pm (Cental Standard Time) and the moon was in quarter phase. The road surface was measured at 29°C - the air temperature at 26°C. The specimen was sent to Mark Hutchinson and later lodged at the South Australian Museum. It measured 250mm in total length, 100mm snout- vent length, with an original tail when found. A creek line intersected the highway at the site of capture.
This was an intriguing find, as up until this point, it was assumed that the Bronzeback Legless Lizard rarely travelled far from the confines of the accumulated mats of Gidgee leaf litter. This was evidenced by the failure of night searches conducted at the Abminga sites and pitfall lines installed specifically to trap the species adjacent to creek channels known to support populations, at both the Ackaringa and Abminga sites.
Furthermore, the lizards were not seen to ever broach the surface when held in captivity (Ehmann, 1981). Thus, raking the leaf litter mats by hand was found to be the most effective method of locating the species. As I poured over Chris’ notes, I wondered if the bronzeback might be potentially present along any of the other drainages intersecting the Stuart Highway between Coober Pedy and Marla. Whilst traversing the highway over the years I had often thought that some of these sites mirrored the documented haunts of Ophidiocephalus.
Whilst packing the car for a six week field trip with my girlfriend Kelly in mid August 2005, I recall that the rake was the first item to go into the car, despite my knowing full well that it was going to be used on the tail end of the trip only. The excitement of all the other areas I was to visit couldn’t stifle the overwhelming anticipation of raking the Gidgee-lined channels in northern SA. I had planned months prior to leaving to time our arrival into bronzeback territory in late September, so the search would roughly coincide with the successful Ackaringa surveys.
As I turned right at the T intersection and onto the Stuart Highway having left behind the magical Uluru National Park, I recall feeling utterly content as I retraced the trip and the many special moments that we collectively experienced. We had travelled into every mainland state over the past weeks, photographing so many species and exploring an incredibly diverse suite of habitats. There are always herpetological finds that are unexpected and surprising, whilst others specifically searched for remain elusive. This trip was no exception and it is this unpredictability of discovery that makes each one so special.
With the nose of the car south bound and upon nearing the South Australian border, it was with this sense of uncertainty and anticipation that we headed into bronzeback habitat. I began to focus increasingly on the rake laying idle in the back as I drove along, deciding that upon leaving Marla I would stop at any promising creek crossing for a brief search. I would try to concentrate most on working the drainages just north of Coober Pedy where I knew, thanks to Chris, that a Bronzeback Legless Lizard had crossed the highway. Some distance north of Marla the abundant Netted Dragons Ctenophorus nuchalis begin to peter out, as the sandy plains they inhabit give way to heavily compacting and stony red-soil plains vegetated with Mulga shrubland. Netted Dragons are replaced by Western Netted Dragons Ctenophorus reticulatus on these heavier soils for some distance to the south of Marla. The Western Netted Dragon is one example amongst many species of fauna and flora that infiltrate South Australia through this habitat corridor from the west.
Arriving in Marla later that afternoon, we fuelled up and drove on. I was becoming increasingly anxious as I scanned the horizon for a channel, itching for the maiden run with the rake. Approaching the first channel 10 km south of Marla I stopped the car, grabbed the rake and raced up the sandy creek bed toward a section dotted with Gidgee Trees. As I inspected the small litter mats below the trees, I noted that they were shallow, indicating the area had been recently flooded. I saw piles of flood debris lining the trunks of some trees along a higher embankment, confirming my suspicion. Upon my approach, I saw a Western Netted Dragon dart into a burrow at the foot of a rise. As I began excavating the burrow that I knew from experience would be shallow, single-entranced, and terminating in a small chamber, I was momentarily distracted by a smaller side chamber running off the main entrance. As I poked it, a Striped Skink charged out in a blur and I pounced wildly. It was my first Striped Skink Ctenotus leonhardii and as always with hand collecting any striped bullet, I was very lucky to secure it. Skink in one hand, I continued digging, eventually feeling the head of the Western Netted Dragon. I gently extracted him from the chamber and was rewarded with a fine male specimen. Returning to the car we spent the next hour photographing the two lizards before their release.
The next creek encountered was Wintinna Creek, a major outflow with steep, wide-braided channels and densely lined with Gidgee stands. Wintinna Creek is fed by an upper catchment to the east incorporating Ackaringa Creek which is, of course, a known bronzeback haunt. With the light rapidly fading, I furiously raked these substantial leaf mats without success until it was too dark to see.
The temperature was still 32°C well after sunset and the slight afternoon breeze had waned. A huge cloud band moved slowly overhead and could potentially insulate the area against rapid heat loss well into the night. Past experience indicated that these conditions were ideal for a night drive. The cloud cover would also partially cloak the harsh brightness created by the full moon overhead. We consistently find higher densities of nocturnal reptiles and greater species diversity on black lunar phases. We knocked up a quick feed then slowly drove towards Coober Pedy, planning to make camp shy of the town.
Roughly three hours later we veered off the highway about 30km out of the town, having made frequent stops for any reptiles seen active on the road. We observed the following species; two adult Ringed Brown Snakes Pseudonaja modesta, one Monk Snake Parasuta monachus, one Curl Snake Suta suta, two Western Hooded Scaly–foot Legless Lizards Pygopus nigriceps and two Fat–tailed Geckoes Diplodactylus conspicillatus. The Monk Snake was the only specimen photographed, as I had not found a South Australian specimen before.
We awoke at sunrise, to flies stuck in our eyes. The billy was fired for the mandatory caffeine hit, washed down with cereal and two fruits. I was keen to get cracking in order to thoroughly investigate every channel towards Coober Pedy in the cooler conditions. Kelly was keen to hide out from the annoying flies, staying put inside the car for a while. The habitat was elevated gibber plains, sparsely vegetated with perennial grasses and stunted Saltbush. As we drove on I was becoming frustrated by the few channels present, those that were being either devoid of Gidgee Trees or dominated by stands of Mulga.
Setting the odometer in readiness of nearing the 6km north mark (where Chris had found his bronzeback), I soon identified the only drainage that could possibly harbour Ophidiocephalus. It wound along a gently sloped gully on an undulating gibber plain. There was a tight cluster of smallish Gidgee Trees lining the creek bank for 50 odd metres on the western side of the highway and beginning at the road verge. Climbing onto the roof of the car to get a better view, I plotted the creek line as it meandered through the plain. This cluster was the only one as far as the eye could see in either direction. Upon describing the features of this drainage to Chris upon our return home, the site accurately matched his initial assessment of the bronzeback’s immediate habitat contained in his field note entry.
With rising anticipation and rake in tow, I bolted into the Gidgees with renewed confidence. I attacked what I would call the ‘marginal’ litter mats on offer eagerly, considering that this patch was the only site going with any potential thus far. I was not going to miss what could be my last opportunity at a shot with the bronzeback half–cocked! In the midst of the fever, I kept reminding myself to rake gently, but swiftly. Rough sweeps provided rough outcomes, and were no faster. Experience over the years with prized finds sporting detracting scuffs or grazes from overzealous raking by yours truly, is a soul destroying lesson best avoided like the plague.
Nearing the final tree I began to sense defeat. During this search that lasted well over an hour, I had felt confident of success twice… and only fleetingly. Two little patches offered hope whilst the remainder were too thin, lacking the finer, humified lower layers. Through the blurry haze of squadrons of marauding flies fixated on my face, blocking vision temporarily, I saw that this last tree had Gidgee litter accumulated around its trunk with some depth. The flies caused havoc comparable to the interrupted flickering cast upon the cinema screens of old, as the final roll of film wound off the projector reel. The flies are devoted to the task from sun up till dark, sleeping on grass stems right beside you like your best mate- ensuring a quick morning start!
I hastily raked some piled branches aside that would permit my access to the underlying litter, only to see a wriggling, broken tail upon the remaining twigs. Identifying the tail as the property of one Marble-faced Delma Legless Lizard Delma australis, I gently raked the litter pile, exposing the rest of the owner.
This species is sympatric with the Bronzeback Legless Lizard, with both frequenting the same Gidgee litter mats. While this find was encouraging, it was marred by the tail loss. These northern populations of Delma australis occur on heavier soils compared to the sandy habitats occupied by more southerly forms. So distinct is their appearance in fact, that they may warrant sub-specific or even full species status. Indeed, recent authors suggest that the species is composite (Wilson and Swan, 2004).
I had never filmed this northern form of D. australis and briefly contemplated a close-up shot. I dislike these shots however and rarely take them, preferring to capture the whole subject full-frame. I decided to release the lizard and hoped that one day I may find a complete specimen. After sorting through all of the remaining litter below this last promising Gidgee, we reluctantly headed into Coober Pedy for fuel and a hamburger each. As we ate, I wondered if there might be just one channel south of town awaiting me, before having to turn our back on Ophidiocephalus.
The weather conditions were clear and sunny with a warm breeze. The town reached a top of 36°C later that day. At 9.50am, we were again southbound on the Stuart Highway. Within moments I noticed a roadside rest area on a hilltop, roughly 5km out of town and on the eastern side of the highway. Driving past I could see that the barren hillside sloped gradually downward for some distance. It bottomed onto a broad valley with several hills rising steeply on the far side. Surely the valley would have a channel? As I contemplated the substantial catchment area encapsulating this valley, I caught a brief glimpse into its floor - and a tell tale tree-line within!
Pulling up, I could see that a walk down to the creek channel from this rest area was a considerable one. I knew that it was not an option at that time of day, so I set off, driving slowly for a further 500 metres before locating a rough, secondary track descending into the valley. I could trace the track meandering into and along the slopes of the far hills. I assumed it to be an access track for residents, as I could make out several dug out dwellings dotting the slopes. I followed it for several kilometres until reaching a point where it intersected the drainage. The creek bed was shallow - 350mm deep at most - and 1.2 metres in width at its widest point. The banks were lined continuously for some 100 metres with 20 or so mature Gidgee Trees, the tallest standing around six metres high.
I began to work carefully through any potential mats in sequence from north to south. The trees were in a harsh environment, as evidenced by the many dead and dying limbs. The foliage cover was sparse in comparison to the well-watered stands with their dense canopies and good litter deposits along Wintinna Creek. The mats here lacked sufficient depth and cover, yet again, to offer much promise. The very last tree on the northern side was notably greener than the rest. It was compact, with a proportionately thicker trunk and dense canopy spread, casting a lot more shade. Growing at the base of a sloping channel, it would likely receive the most runoff. Upon inspection, it had the thickest and most continuous litter coverage of any tree I had raked beforehand.
I began to rake through the layers gently and thoroughly, focusing on clearing away the sifted matter prior to raking new areas, in order to avoid clutter in case I flushed something. Reflecting now, it is obvious that I wanted to prolong the experience and maintain the high expectation, as this was surely the last tree that I would search on this trip and also one with most potential.
I had finished searching through the litter on the fully shaded western side of the tree. I stopped and bent down, in an effort to appreciate and absorb the microhabitat in peace - bar the persistent drone of a massive throng of flies, all humming as one! The light brown, loamy soil (referred to as the ‘float’) was moist, as was the rich humus interface, the soil randomly laced with contrasting red gibber stones. I finally had found a textbook Gidgee mat and stopped to fill a freezer bag with soil, select gibber stones and a section of leaf litter to smell and examine back at home. The rising mid-morning sun began filtering through the tree canopy on the north-easterly side, bathing the underlying leaf litter in a patchwork of diffuse light.
The temperature at the time was in the high 20’s and steadily rising. I had intentionally put off raking this sunlit section until last, as I have had the most success on fossorial reptiles (even Death Adders) in early spring around mid–morning when raking through litter bathed in dappled sunlight. I gently raked up the first clump, bending down to sort through it carefully by hand. I stood up and repeated the move with the adjoining clump. It too was lifted as a whole and rolled over toward me, landing upside down. As I lifted the rake out of the way a thin, golden ribbon lay motionless before me, resplendent in the sun and instantly unmistakable. A BRONZEBACK!!!!!
It seemed like a long time before I plucked up the lizard, but I can’t be sure. I have little doubt that I was in shock, initially. The flood of emotions was so intense that a years worth of mum’s menopause at once, with not one of them a downer, a fitting comparison! I am still riding that high to this day. I bolted back to the missus, who was slowly cooking inside the car with no air con., exposed to full sun, on a barren gibber plain. She had wound the windows high enough to permit entry to a select clientele of only a hundred odd flies. I was delirious and overdosing on raw euphoria, my shouting and acrobatics would have won me the Gold Logie over Linda Blair’s Exorcist performance, no drama’s.
The adult lizard had protrusive hind flaps that were extended when handled (see photo) and measured 89mm from snout–vent, with an original tail. It did not attempt to flee or move at all when uncovered. The bronzeback felt considerably cooler than the external air temperature. The lizard may have moved to this site for thermoregulatory purposes - perhaps residing there overnight (the mild low of 13°C negating the need to burrow deeper) and awaiting the warming rays of the sun to raise the temperature within the float-leaf litter interface where it lay.
We pitched a tent at the site, and then chased any meagre shade spots around while waiting out the heat of the day. As I cleaned my camera gear in preparation of filming my prize, it seemed like every fly had changed into a colourful butterfly that afternoon. Even the myriad three corn jack stubs and other splinters embedded in my feet and fingers had temporarily vanished. No negatives could crush the effects of the bronzeback buzz – I’ll give you the mail!
As the temperature eased off later that afternoon, I set a stage inside the shaded tent that replicated the microhabitat of the lizard, photographing Ophidiocephalus minus the distracting flies and excess heat that might further stress it. Before sunset we released the bronzeback at the site of capture, after carefully rearranging the disturbed litter, watching it glide effortlessly into the entwined leaves before disappearing.
A Few Finds for Dessert!
Packing up in the fading light, we drove on towards Glendambo, intending to make camp beside a large sand dune running parallel to the highway roughly 7km north of the town. Eight years earlier I had stopped to look at the remains of a small snake crushed by a vehicle at the site, excitedly recognising it as an adult Narrow–banded Shovel–nosed Snake Brachyurophis fasciolatus fasciatus, a small burrowing species preying upon reptile eggs and skinks. I was keen to search for a live one, spurred on by the numerous reptiles seen active on the previous night.
Despite marginal conditions with a full moon overhead, a clear sky and cooler temperatures, we found a live specimen after a few laps of the highway abutting the dune. We also picked up an adult Prong–snouted Blind Snake Ramphotyphlops bituberculatus roughly midway through the drive, along with a few Sand-plain Geckoes Diplodactylus stenodactylus. I pulled the rake for the last time after photographing the snakes at dawn, working a dense leaf litter pile at the base of a large Myall Tree near the campsite. I found my first Desert Burrowing Skink Lerista desertorum, a fitting reward as the last find on a trip that will never be forgotten.
Sincere thanks to my mates Geoff Heard and Grant Turner for their time and constructive advice in reviewing an earlier draft of this paper. Chris Hay kindly provided detailed notes relating to his observation of Ophidiocephalus. I would also like to thank Kelly for her understanding and encouragement in allowing me to fully pursue my all consuming obsession with herpetology.
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Downs, S., Foster, R., Molnar, C., 1997. New Insights into the Distribution and Habitat of the Vulnerable Bronzeback Legless Lizard Ophidiocephalus taeniatus. Herpetofauna 27(1):11-13.
Ehmann, H. and Metcalfe, D., 1978. The Rediscovery of the Bronzeback Ophidiocephalus taeniatus. Hepetofauna 9(2):8-10.
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Wilson, S. and Swan, G. 2004. A complete guide to reptiles of Australia. Reed New Holland, Sydney. 480pp.
Bronzeback Legless Lizard Ophidiocephalus taeniatus
The Bronzeback Legless Lizard Ophidiocephalus taeniatus.