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Rare Sea Snakes Thought To Be Extinct Spotted Off Coast Of Western Australia

Dec 21, 2015 02:51 PM EST

Rare leaf scaled sea snakes have not been spotted in over 15 years, suggesting the animals had long gone extinct. However, these snakes, along with rare short nose sea snakes, were recently spotted off the coast of Western Australia, according to researchers from James Cook University (JCU).

"This discovery is really exciting, we get another chance to protect these two endemic Western Australian sea snake species," Blanche D'Anastasi, study leader from the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU, said in a news release. "But in order to succeed in protecting them, we will need to monitor populations as well as undertake research into understanding their biology and the threats they face."

Rare leaf scaled sea snakes are endemic to the Ashmore Reef in the Timor Sea, but researchers found a significant population of these sea critters living 1700 kilometres south of their natural range in Shark Bay.

"We had thought that this species of sea snake was only found on tropical coral reefs. Finding them in seagrass beds at Shark Bay was a real surprise," D'Anastasi added.

On the other hand, the discovery of short nose sea snakes was made near the Ningaloo Reef, off 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, Ningaloo Reef," D'Anastasi continued. "What is even more exciting is that they were courting, suggesting that they are members of a breeding population."

Both of these sea snake species are listed as critically endangered and protected under Australia's threatened species legislation. While these rare snakes can now reclaim their existence, populations of these animals have been declining in several marine parks and scientists are unsure why.

"Many of the snakes in this study were collected from prawn trawl by-catch surveys, indicating that these species are vulnerable to trawling," Dr. Vimoksalehi Lukoschek, one of the study co-authors from the ARC, said in the release. "But the disappearance of sea snakes from Ashmore Reef, could not be attributed to trawling and remains unexplained. Clearly we need to identify the key threats to their survival in order to implement effective conservation strategies if we are going to protect these newly discovered coastal populations."

Their findings were recently published in the journal Biological Conservation.  

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