27 May 2012

Wrapping up

Frosty mornings
24-5-12:  Things are starting to wrap up here.  The weather has cooled significantly in the last month, with our first frost appearing on the 6th May.  The cold nights mean the womas aren’t moving far: it’s too risky – they may be caught outside a warm cosy burrow overnight.  This cool weather also means that the radio tracking program is coming to an end.
With some warmer days last week 5 womas were caught and travelled to Australia Zoo, where expert reptile veterinarians Mel, Peter and Amber will remove their transmitters over the coming days.  This group of womas includes the two girls that incubated this year (Winnie & Lola).  Both of these gorgeous females are in good health but they have lost about 500g whilst incubating eggs over the summer so they are unlikely to try to breed again this year. 
Woma Katie in a log shelter
Beautiful big woma Katie is also at Australia Zoo awaiting transmitter removal.  This impressive girl has not laid eggs over the last 2 seasons, despite being very large and hanging out with several radiotracked males.  Will she breed this summer?  She’s certainly in good condition!
Handsome woma Romeo
The boys Romeo and Humphrey make up the last two womas in this first group to have their transmitters removed.  Romeo is an exceptionally pretty woma who is famous for eating a bearded dragon 10m high in a tree (see earlier blogs).  Humphrey is a most interesting woma – he was the first one to show us that woma pythons climb trees to attack and eat sleeping bearded dragons.  He was also the first woma found digging a burrow, and the only woma to move to a completely new area during the radiotracking program.
The young girls Ella and Gaillee have been very elusive over the last fortnight, coming out to bask infrequently; as has the male woma DC.  However we have been lucky enough to find 2 new female womas shacked up with DC for the winter.  Hopefully the remaining tracked womas will be caught over the coming month so they too can have their transmitters removed.
Woma Maxi
Unfortunately woma Maxi has disappeared.  During hot weather at the end of April his signal was lost and he could not be located again despite an extensive search.  There is a small chance his transmitter battery may have failed but it is also possible that he moved a long way out of his home range before going deep into a burrow where he couldn’t be detected during the search.Maxi has moved the furthest during the radiotracking program – 2.7km in 60hrs – so it is possible he has given us the slip. 
Woma James with a sand goanna
bulge in his belly
Finally, woma James was found deceased outside his burrow earlier this month.  This was a shock because he was a very large and healthy woma and he had been assessed only 7 weeks earlier and was in very good health.  A field autopsy couldn’t identify an obvious cause of death and it remains a mystery.
Yakka skink
So with the final stages of the radiotracking program coming to a close I have to say that it has been an amazing journey, with the womas showing us some fascinating behaviours and habits.  Who would have thought womas climbed trees to hunt prey?!  And we were surprised to find that they have such a close association with another rarely seen reptile – the yakka skink: both eating them and living in their warm and cosy burrows.  We have also been very pleased to find plenty of hatchling, juvenile, subadult, and large adult woma pythons at the field site, confirming that there is a stable population here that is protected and secure for the foreseeable future.

26 Apr 2012

Summer - hot and active!

Woma Gaillee with a food bulge

14 April 2012: What an exciting (and busy!) couple of months it has been!  The womas have been very active since the floods, regularly moving over 1km in 55hrs!  Did you know that these womas have one of the largest home ranges of any radiotracked snake?!  As active hunters, they don’t quite fit the usual sit-and-wait python lifestyle. 

Woma Humphrey with a BIG
food bulge!

With winter not too far away, there has been a lot of feeding action.  Womas Humphrey and Gaillee have both been sighted with very large, mysterious bulges in their bellies.  In fact Gaillee’s bulge was so fresh that it gave a reflexive ‘kick’ from her stomach when I found her! 

Woma food - sleeping
bearded dragon

Bearded dragons seemed to be the preferred food over summer.  And on any given warm night there was always a good chance of spotting a woma hunting a sleeping dragon.  In the last 2 months Maxi, Romeo and Katie have all been found hunting sleeping bearded dragons, bringing the total up to 7 sleeping bearded dragon hunting observations over the last 18 months!

Woma Romeo 10m high, eating a
bearded dragon

One particularly warm night both Katie and Romeo were out hunting bearded dragons at the same time!  Katie had her work cut out for her with the beardie sleeping 4m out on a very flimsy branch.  But Romeo’s hunting prowess was most impressive!  When I found him just before midnight, he was 10m high in a thin tree with the head of a bearded dragon in his mouth!  After watching several womas fall whilst eating bearded dragons, I was quite concerned for him – it was a big drop!  But he was strong enough to hold on for the whole meal.  Richie and Jen from the zoo (who were out that night) watched him finish his tucker and slowly descend the tree using typical python ‘concertina’ movements.  I am constantly amazed at just how capable the womas are in trees!

Woma Gaillee digging/enlargening
a burrow

Two other exciting woma events have happened in the last 2 months.  Firstly, woma Gaillee was found digging out a burrow!  This is only the second time a wild woma has been seen doing this so it’s very exciting!  Whilst she didn’t dig anywhere near as much dirt as Humphrey (see earlier blog), Gaillee did show us something very unusual indeed.  As she was digging (with her head in the burrow), the last third of her body was jerking around in what I can only describe as ‘excitement’.  I have seen this only once before, as woma James attacked a sand goanna in a hollow log.  It is very different to the slow, deliberate movements of ‘caudal luring’ used by death adders and reported in captive woma pythons.  Was she hunting prey in a burrow that was just a little too small for her?  Is that why she was digging it out?

Woma Maxi - invisible under a
carpet of leaf litter.  He takes up
this whole image.

The second exciting event was when I found big woma Maxi curled up under a mat of leaf litter on a cool autumn day.  This is exciting because in over 1 600 tracking locations during the last 20 months, I have yet to find a woma hidden under leaf litter.  In fact, he had me so confused and was so well hidden that I spent about 5 minutes trying to pinpoint where he was!  Why did he decide to use leaf litter as a hiding place, I wonder?

A very young curl snake (Suta
suta) eating a box-patterned gecko

The things you find when you are radiotracking can be really interesting!  Whilst tracking DC just before dawn one morning, I heard a series of squeaks just 2m from where he was in a burrow.  When I investigated, I found a very young curl snake had just ambushed a box-patterned gecko from its tiny burrow and was starting to eat it.  What a lucky find!  This turned out to be quite a big meal for the tiny (10cm long) snake.  Amazing!

Woma Maxi eating a
bearded dragon - 5m high

Unlike last year, none of the womas have paired up yet and I haven’t found any other womas sharing burrows with the radiotracked womas.  In fact the shortest distance between any of the ten womas still being tracked is over 300m.  Most of them are still over 1km apart.  Will they come back together over winter?  It’s getting cool fast, but time will tell....

9 Feb 2012


The local (usually dry) creek crossing
in full flood
7 Feb 2012:  We live in a land of drought and flooding rains.  And nowhere is this more apparent than in the arid and semi-arid parts of southern Queensland.  After many years of drought we have now had three years of record-breaking floods.  As I write this, the town of St George is experiencing unprecedented flooding and has been evacuated, and residents of Mitchell and Roma are returning and recovering upstream.  This year the woma study site experienced record rainfall in the catchment leading to very swollen creeks, new wetlands and absolutely saturated woma burrows.

Woma Gaillee's coil at her burrow entry.
Note the water level!
What does a woma do when his or her burrow is flooded by record rainfall?  Most (but not all) of the womas took option 1 – they escaped into a dry hollow log nearby.  However womas Humphrey and James took option 2 – they abandoned shelters all together and hid under fallen stems and in grass clumps.  Woma Gaillee was unique in taking up option 3 - staying coiled up and squashed into the burrow entry (in the water) and leaving her nostrils free so she could breathe every now and then.  Formerly incubating woma Lola had a slight twist on this last option – she stayed stretched out in her burrow, completely submerged, with her head partially above water at the burrow entry so she could breathe. 
Woma Lola at the entry to her flooded
Imagine my alarm and concern when I pinpointed Lola's signal 1m down a completely flooded burrow!  I was very relieved when I finally spied her little yellow head just back from the entry.  She was alive!  But aquatic.  I really hope her eggs hatched before the floods.  It is well past the 65 day mark since we believe she laid her eggs so here’s hoping that her little ones escaped the eggs and escaped the floods.  I’m not sure if the yakka skinks living with the womas in all these ground burrows were so lucky though.  I hope so.
Woma James eating a sand
goanna outside his log
There have been two other exciting events over the past few weeks.  Firstly, I was lucky enough to see woma James eat an adult sand goanna!  In fact I saw the goanna basking in the sun before it tried to retreat into James’ hollow log.  The strange thing is that there were plenty of logs around but the goanna decided it wanted to go into THAT log – bad decision.  James was so fast!  I didn’t see the strike but I definitely heard it!  The goanna was hardly inside the log before James responded with a bite to the neck and the goanna pulled James (a big woma!) out of the log!  James managed to throw a few more coils over the goanna once he was free of the log and within 1m he had it wrapped up and was stopping it from breathing.  It was midday on a hot day so James didn’t mess around – he swallowed the goanna in less than an hour, before retreating back into his log to digest.  Unlucky goanna, lucky James!
Woma Chilli - a rare sighting
The second exciting happening was that the first woma implanted for this project was caught after 15 months of tracking so he could have his transmitter removed!  Amazingly, despite their incredibly elusive nature, woma Chilli was found on only the fourth day of this project - back in October 2010 – and yet he has been particularly elusive ever since, even for a woma!  In fact, I’ve only seen Chilli out and about during 5 out of over 200 tracking sessions, so I was very lucky to find him cruising along on a warm night at the end of January.  Chilli has now had his transmitter removed by the vet team at Australia Zoo and he will be cared for there until his wound has healed.  He is doing very well and we are expecting to release him back into his last known burrow – a hollow log – in another few weeks.  We are very thankful to Chilli for teaching us so much about womas in the Brigalow Belt!
Since the rain stopped, the womas have certainly become active again!  I’m sure they will provide me with many more stories to tell you in the months to come!

14 Jan 2012

Eggs lost :-(

Bell's form Lace Monitor (goanna) raiding a woma burrow

11 Jan 2011:  Well it looks like the crystal ball is out of whack – after all our predictions and all the time she spent with the boys, Katie hasn’t produced eggs this year.  But we do have womas Lola and Winnie incubating eggs!  That was until today anyway.  As far as we know Lola is still on eggs, but woma Winnie just had her burrow raided by a big adult lace monitor.  We’re not sure if she was unable to defend the nest (unlikely) or if she abandoned the eggs.  We have a few pieces of evidence though – 1. Motion sensor camera images of the goanna digging into the burrow and eating a woma-sized egg, and 2. Winnie moved from her incubating burrow for the first time in months either before or after the goanna raided the burrow.
We are confident Woma Lola is incubating because we sighted her with a distended posterior end in late November (she was so swollen I could see a bulge from her transmitter!) and four days later she was sighted basking again but she was no longer swollen!  So we are fairly confident of her laying date, which was about 60 days ago.  That means her eggs are pretty much due to hatch any day now!

Woma Big Bobby, one of several times he crossed a public road

We have some sad news I’m afraid - unfortunately woma Big Bobby was found dead late last week.  He was a very old snake – we could tell this by the big knobbly scales around his eyes, his dark colouration, and his big size (>210cm snout-vent length) – and he spent some time being nursed at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in winter this year after suffering concerning weight loss.  With care, he returned to his original weight and we were relieved to find that he was able to hunt and eat after being released (see previous blogs).  We felt he would probably survive the summer but unfortunately it was not to be.  For the last ten days or so he decided to hang out next to a public road where there was the danger of being hit by a car and very few ground burrows where he could escape the intense summer heat (up to 40oC).  We are not sure what happened to him but we are blessed that he was able to share his final months with us and help us learn more about woma habitats and habits so we are better equipped to ensure the long term survival of the Brigalow woma python. 

Woma Ella 5m up a mulga tree, stalking
a sleeping bearded dragon!

On a brighter note, the tracking has been very eventful of late!  We had a very cold and wet December here so the womas slowed down for a while and didn’t get out very much at night.  However with the weather warming (and drying) up recently, there have been another two sightings of womas up trees!  The first one was woma Ella, who was 5m high in a big old mulga tree, chasing a sleeping bearded dragon.  Not even an hour later I found Katie descending a small false sandalwood tree!  It was a very warm night so the dragons were sleeping out on the tree limbs and the womas were making the most of it!

New woma Jade - a lucky find!

That same warm night I was lucky enough to stumble across a new woma python.  She is a big, beautiful, calm python (1.85m SVL, 3.3kg) and I found her by sheer luck!  It was dark and I was tracking woma Maxi through some thick regrowth mulga when I came to a big pile of logs that had been raked up when the mulga was cleared many years ago for sheep or cattle grazing.  This log pile extends for hundreds of metres in either direction and I have to climb over it to get to Maxi in his current position.  As I was contemplating the best route I noticed a yellow head poking out of a hollow log in the pile – yep she’d just popped her head out and started to taste the entry for chemical scents.  After a little gentle persuasion I managed to extract her from the hollow log and pop her in a bag so I could ID tag and measure her at the quarters before returning her to her home.  What a beautiful snake!
Well there certainly is a correlation between warm weather and interesting woma activity!  With summer only half over there is sure to be more interesting news to come.  Stay tuned!

More woma pythons up trees and digging burrows!

27-11-11: Wow, the womas are really moving!  November has been particularly hot and dry and the womas seem to be making the most of these conditions to feed up.  Some have been moving over 1.5km in between tracking sessions!

Woma DC 5m up a poplar box tree!

Last blog I mentioned that we found a woma 3m up a tree.  Well now I’ve also found a woma (DC) resting 5m up a smooth and straight poplar box tree!  Not only that, the next time I saw him (1 week later) he was up a small false sandalwood shrub stalking a sleeping bearded dragon!  I think there’s no doubt now that the womas are taking advantage of the reptiles that sleep out in the tree branches on hot nights.

And it gets better!  Woma Ella (the smallest woma I am tracking) has been eluding me for 6 months but I found her out just the other night.  And she was 2m up a dead tree – stalking a medium-sized sand goanna!  Luckily Australia Zoo croc keeper Richie Jackson and USA Matt were helping me track that night and were able to give me a leg up to catch her just before she disappeared into a hollow section of the tree.  I really wanted to watch Ellas attempt to catch and eat the sandy but because I hadn’t seen her since she was released, I really needed to check her stitches and make sure she was ok.  Luckily I did because she needed a quick trip to the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital to fix up a slightly protruding antenna.

Woma Humphrey digging a burrow!

 There’s still more woma news!  Just last week I found new woma Humphrey digging a burrow!  Ok, so this isn’t really that unusual for womas – they dig burrows in sand in captivity all the time.  But here in the Brigalow Belt, the soil is very cloggy clay and difficult to dig so we were unsure if the womas would show this behaviour.  It’s great to be able to confirm this activity!  Woma Humphrey is certainly an interesting woma – he was the first to show us that womas climb; the first to demonstrate catching, killing and eating a bearded dragon (and up a tree at that!); the first to demonstrate burrow digging in the Brigalow woma population; and the first to be photographed coiled up inside a ground burrow (see picture).  What’s next for Humphrey...?

Woma humphrey coiled up 1m down a
ground burrow system

It’s just about egg-laying time for the womas and I’m tracking 3 f emales that are definitely breeding size and have been with tracked males over the breeding season so it will be interesting to see if they settle for the next few months – womas coil around their eggs to incubate them.  In fact Winnie and Lola have just moved into the same burrow system – a communal nesting site?  Woma Katie (who we are confident will breed this year) is still active but I saw her out the other night and she is very solid!  Woma Gaillee may also lay eggs because she spent a lot of time with woma James earlier this year.
The hot weather has only just begun and the womas have already shown us some very interesting behaviours and movements.  Be sure to stay tuned over the summer – I’m sure there is much more to come!

10 Nov 2011

It's getting hot!

It’s hot out here now and the womas have are starting to really move!  The nights have just become warm enough now that the womas can confidently leave their winter ground burrows and be sure they won’t freeze overnight if they don’t find another underground shelter.

Katie and James have well and truly split up, although they had a brief moment in the same burrow last week – 10m apart though!  Even James and Gaillee have gone their separate ways for spring time.  In fact none of the tracked womas are sharing burrows now – Lola, Winnie, Toby, Romeo and DC, who were all found to be using the same burrow system over a 3 week period have spread out over a 2km x 2km area.  Unlike most snakes, womas in captivity do most of their breeding during late summer and early autumn, rather than during spring.  So they have no need to be together at this time of the year. 

Big Bobby with a food bulge (he's old
and had some trouble shedding)
So food seems to be what is on the womas minds at this time of year and I’ve been lucky enough to record two feedings already!  The first was a big bulge in Big Bobby’s stomach last week.  We’re not sure what he ate but it was long and not very wide so volunteer Eridani from AWC suggested it might have been a goanna or large skink based on the shape and I agree with her. 
Eridani and I were really lucky to see the second feeding - woma Humphrey stalked, killed and started eating a bearded dragon that was sleeping 3m up in a false sandalwood (Eremophila mitchellii) tree!  That’s right, up a tree!  So much for them being a strictly terrestrial python!  We were searching everywhere on the ground for him with no luck – we couldn’t even see any burrow entries where he could have gone underground.  Then Eridani made a joke - ‘maybe he’s turned arboreal on us’ - and looked up to find him stalking the bearded dragon!  We couldn’t believe it!  He was only 30cm away from the sleeping dragon but it took him at least another 15 mins to cover that last 30cm and attack it.  As he struck, Humphrey and the beardie fell off but Humphrey held on with his tail to hang 1m below the branch, where he coiled the beardie up and killed it.  The beardie had immediately puffed up with air after it was struck so Humphrey had a big mission ahead of him to devour this very round, very spikey dragon!  In fact he had only just started eating the head end when he lost his grip and fell 2m to the ground.  Then it took him over an hour to swallow his meal – longer than it took Katie to eat the hare!  So it was well after midnight by the time he finished, but he still managed to move 400m away over the next 36hrs.  Next time we found him it was early morning and he was basking outside his burrow in the only patch of sunlight available – he had a big dragon to digest!
Bearded dragon - Humphry's food
All of the womas have now moved away from their winter burrows with some moving around since late September, others moving just this week.  The winter burrows provided really good insulation against the winter cold with the snake body temperatures never dropping below 13oC despite the outside temperatures regularly dropping below 0oC and two mornings that were below -4oC!  It seems these burrow systems are really important for the womas to survive the harsh winter conditions out here.
There’s sure to be lots of action over the summer and I will do my best to keep you updated from out here during this busy season.  Stay tuned...

15 Sept 2011

Slow start to spring

It's been a slow start to Spring with the womas showing little sign of movement.  Gaillee had a short and brief foray 60m away before returning to James' burrow (but still 15m away from him!).  And Katie is very settled within a 1m x 1m area deep underground - maybe she's getting ready to lay eggs?!  With the nights still at <5oC it makes sense for the womas to stay in their warm winter burrows just a little longer.