Sharing The Secret Part 2
Out at the Waddikee Tennis Club, the Friday night stories about skiing and kayaking exploits on flood-filled lakes turned biological.
“John you might know…. we saw all these worm things that weren’t worms floating on the edge of the Possum Flat lake”.
A quick google search confirmed my guess. Dylan and Chloe had seen blind snakes.
“What you mean they are snakes …. and they are blind?” No one clustering around the phone image had heard of blind snakes, let alone seen one. Buts that’s no surprise.
Although there are around 50 different species, most are seldom seen. These worm-thin, silver-pink snakes seldom grow longer than a school ruler, and never as thick as a drinking straw. They mostly live underground, which is why they are blind. They have a tiny forked tongue to prove they’re a snake and a pointy tail that would struggle to impale a marshmallow.
Blind snakes eat the eggs and larvae of ants and termites. Their scales are so tiny and smooth that ants can’t bite or sting them. Sometimes they are seen on the ground on warm nights, especially after rain, but I’ve seen way more blind snakes in the stomachs of feral cats than anywhere else. I’m hoping that one day I will discover a new species, gift-wrapped in tabby fur.
Like many other small and nearly limbless skinks and legless lizards, blind snakes often live in deep leaf litter that accumulates in dry swamps. These are the richest and dampest areas and usually hence the ideal place for many small reptiles. But when flooding rains arrive, this eutopia instantly changes into an inhospitable lake, and many thousands drown. Some are even noticed by passing kayakers.
Floods, like fires and cat guts provide amazing opportunities to find animals that are normally elusive. My most memorable flood-find was a marsupial mole that had drowned when a cyclone flooded the Great Sandy Desert inland of Port Hedland. This bristle-furred golden carcass could fit in the palm of my hand and remains the only mole I have seen in the flesh, despite knowing I have walked over them many times.
We’re going on a mole hunt
Marsupial moles are even harder to find than blind snakes, and, from the response at Waddikee, are just as poorly known. They are thought to only come to the surface if the sand is saturated, or if they are sick. Think about that for a second. Aboriginal informants and awestruck biologists believe marsupial moles eat, find each other, mate, give birth and suckle their young (in a backwards facing pouch so it doesn’t fill with sand) all in the sand up to a couple of metres deep.
Foxes are good at hearing and digging up moles. At some sites up to a third of fox scats have distinctive mole hair in them. Rarely their squiggly tracks can be seen on sand before they dive underground again. I’ve spent a couple of weeks out in the desert listening to their distinctive scratching noises with special geophones, metal disks spread out over the ground that enable us to pinpoint where they are and guess what they are doing. But by far the best way to find evidence of marsupial moles is to dig a grave-sized trench on the crest of a sandhill. After a day or so to dry out, the smoothed down sides of these trenches may reveal the near circular shape where torpedo-shaped moles have ‘swum’ through the sand. If the mole has been there recently, the uncompressed sand spills freely out of the hole, but older holes are only marked by a faint trace.
Digging mole trenches had enabled us to confirm that moles are more widespread than previously thought. I’d found them in the Great Victoria Desert near Maralinga, in very similar country to Secret Rocks. Indeed, the Pinkawillinie dunes and those stretching from Lake Gilles all the way to the Munyeroo coast near Cowell are essentially the extension of the Great Victoria Desert. Could moles live here too?
The January floods created a perfect mega mole trench when the biggest flood since the land had been cleared cut through dunes vegetated by centuries old native pines right next to Pinkawillinie Conservation Park. The resulting 3-5 metre sand cliff, stretching 100’s of metres, provided a far easier way of checking for mole holes than digging trenches with a shovel!
While others were assessing the damage to fences and paddocks, or skiing in newly-formed lakes, I rubbed down the sand-cliffs, searching for the tell-tale signs of moles. I found none in the dunes in mainly cropping land and, unfortunately for me, none of the massive dunes in the park had been cut by the floodwaters. It is probably unlikely that moles have joined other rare animals like sandhill dunnarts and malleefowl that spread from the Great Victoria Desert to the more isolated dunes of the Kimba district, but if you don’t look you won’t find.
Photo to follow next week, below.
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John L. Read, PhD, author-ecologist
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