Sunday, February 15, 2015

[Herpetology • 2015] Molecules and Morphology Reveal Overlooked Populations of Two Presumed Extinct Australian Sea Snakes; Aipysurus foliosquama & A. apraefrontalis

Fig 2. Photographs of A,C: Aipysurus apraefrontalis (SAMA R68142) from Ashmore Reef;
and B, D: A. foliosquama (WAM R150365) from Barrow Island. 


The critically endangered leaf-scaled (Aipysurus foliosquama) and short-nosed (A. apraefrontalis) sea snakes are currently recognised only from Ashmore and Hibernia reefs ~600km off the northwest Australian coast. Steep population declines in both species were documented over 15 years and neither has been sighted on dedicated surveys of Ashmore and Hibernia since 2001. We examine specimens of these species that were collected from coastal northwest Australian habitats up until 2010 (A. foliosquama) and 2012 (A. apraefrontalis) and were either overlooked or treated as vagrants in conservation assessments. Morphological variation and mitochondrial sequence data confirm the assignment of these coastal specimens to A. foliosquama (Barrow Island, and offshore from Port Hedland) and Aapraefrontalis (Exmouth Gulf, and offshore from Roebourne and Broome). Collection dates, and molecular and morphological variation between coastal and offshore specimens, suggest that the coastal specimens are not vagrants as previously suspected, but instead represent separate breeding populations. The newly recognised populations present another chance for leaf-scaled and short-nosed sea snakes, but coastal habitats in northwest Australia are widely threatened by infrastructure developments and sea snakes are presently omitted from environmental impact assessments for industry. Further studies are urgently needed to assess these species’ remaining distributions, population structure, and extent of occurrence in protected areas.

Kate L. Sanders, Tina Schroeder, Michael L. Guinea and Arne R. Rasmussen. 2015. Molecules and Morphology Reveal Overlooked Populations of Two Presumed Extinct Australian Sea Snakes (Aipysurus: Hydrophiinae). PLoS ONE. 10(2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0115679