Finding reptiles

Important: In Australia, it is illegal to interfere with native reptiles unless you have the appropriate permit from the relevant fauna authority. Don't do anything illegal - your mum will get upset.


Preface - the reasoning behind this page

This page has attracted some criticism from people who are concerned that making public this sort of information will result in others going out and poaching reptiles from the wild. I believe this is an elitist attitude that is detrimental to herpetology, and zoology in general. I've conducted fauna surveys for work, research and pleasure. All of these activities were conducted with the relevant permits. I'm interested in sharing my thoughts with other field workers, and I'm especially interested in hearing the thoughts of such people. All of the information on this page is available elsewhere, such as in scientific journals, books, or online. A quick web search turns up dozen of pages that detail animal survey techniques, some even coming from a state National Parks and Wildlife Service site.
There are certainly some types of data that should remain private, such as specific locations of endangered species or vulnerable populations. I would never unnecessarily share information such as that. But I believe that sharing information on processes is in the best interest of people working in this field. Thoughts?


Weather conditions

Obviously, finding animals is a fairly important part of herping. There are numerous ways to find critters. At one end of the spectrum is stumbling around randomly until you bump into something exciting. At the other end is going to specific locations at specific times in the hope of locating specific animals.

As far as I know (and please correct me if I'm wrong), no one has yet figured out exactly what causes reptiles to leave their shelters and move around. There are, however, a number of weather conditions that appear to have some sort of influence.

New moon
A full moon will create a lot of moonlight. This means that the night isn't very dark. Many nocturnal animals prefer to come out when there is a new moon (i.e., no moon visible in the sky) so that they have a bit more privacy.

Sunlight
Diurnal reptiles generally like to bask in sunlight, so overcast days may yield fewer reptiles than a bright, sunny day.

Warm (but not too warm) temperature
Reptiles are generally more active in warmer temperatures. Daytime temperatures that are too hot will force most diurnal reptiles to seek shelter. Notable exceptions are some dragon and goanna species that can still be active when the ground temperature is very high. Sunny mornings and late afternoons can result in lots of reptile activity.

High humidity
High humidity at night tends to bring out insects and frogs, which in turn bring out many species of reptile.


Where to look

This one's a bit tricky. It's virtually impossible to assess the reptile density of a location without first finding reptiles there. But generally, large tracts of undeveloped land tend to support reptiles. A changing topography (e.g., mountainous areas with flat regions and a water source) will provide a greater variety of habitat types than a more consistent terrain, which will generally increase the species diversity of an area, though not necessarily its species density.


How to look

carpetOnRoad
This carpet python (Morelia spilota) was lucky the driver of the car was snake-friendly.
Thousands of reptiles are killed on the roads annually.

There are a number of ways to look for reptiles.

Road cruising
As the name suggests, this involves cruising along a road looking for critters on it. Some reptiles may be attracted to roads. Many heat-loving diurnal species (such as dragons and goannas) will bask on roads. The clear space above the road means there's little shadow, and the dark tar will absorb and re-radiate a lot of The Sun's energy. This tar retains much of this heat into the night, so the story is that nocturnal animals will also seek out roads as a heat source. This may be true for some species, but the vast majority of snakes I've found on the road at night have been moving, and appear to be simply crossing the road, not utilising it for heat. Geckos, on the other hand, do tend to sit on roads at night.

Regardless of why an animal is on the road, the fact remains that road cruising is one of the best ways to find reptiles, because:

  • you can cover a lot of distance
  • you've got your car's headlights
  • you can carry a lot of camera gear
  • you can carry a lot of snakes and other squirmy things (for sustenance)

Cruising along at about 40km/h will allow you to spot most objects on the road and give you time to stop for them. You will no doubt stop for a lot of sticks, but my thinking is that it's better to stop for a stick than to miss a snake.

Of course, animals and roads are a dangerous combination, and you will no doubt encounter a number of animals that have been hit and killed on the road. While this is a sad and unfortunate fact, you shouldn't waste the opportunity this situation presents. Firstly, the dead animal should be moved off the road. This prevents other animals being killed as they dine on the deceased. You should then identify the victim, both to test out your IDing skills and to see if the specimen is of particular interest. Many rare and unusual species have turned up dead on roads. If your find is noteworthy, you should give the details to your local museum. It's also very interesting to dissect any road-killed specimens that are reasonably intact, but this will require a permit.

Bush walking
Walking along tracks is not only a good way to see animals, it's also better for the environment and increases your fitness level. Quite often you will hear an animal before you see it - the rustling of leaves off to the side alerting you to its presence.


Gear you'll need

How ever you go about looking for critters, make sure you take some essentials:

  • a first aid kit with plenty of bandages (and make sure you know how to use them)
  • mobile phone
  • water
  • food
  • a good ID book
  • a calendar to keep track of what you find and when

Torches
If you're going out at night, a good torch is essential. Head torches allow hands-free lighting where ever you go. My personal favourite model is the Petzl Duo. It might make you look like like a moron, but the on-off switch is easily operated with one hand and it has three levels of LED-based lighting for close up work plus a high-powered halogen light that travels about 100 metres. It's also waterproof to 5 metres. I've also got a Petzl MyoBelt, but to turn it on and off you need to rotate the bezel, an operation that requires two hands. When you've got a camera in one hand and an angry snake in the other hand (plus the appropriate permit in your back pocket), finding two spare hands can be problematic. I'm waiting for the Petzl Mindreader that features no-hand operation.

In addition to the light on your head, a stand-alone torch is also handy. I like LED-based torches, as they have great battery life. The trade-off is that their beams don't travel very far, so something like a Dolphin is also useful.


Trapping

Note: you will require a permit from the relevant fauna authority to undertake any sort of trapping of native vertebrate species. You've been warned.

molochPitFall
A thorny devil (Moloch horridus) about to fall into a pit trap

Pit-fall traps
Very simple:

  1. dig a hole in the ground
  2. shove a bucket in it
  3. wait for things to fall in

Great for building upper body strength, especially when working in heavy soils. Made much more effective by using with a drift line (see below). For increased effectiveness, use a combination of 20 litre buckets (good for reptiles) and small diameter pipes (good for mammals).1

Animals in the bottom of pit-fall traps are obviously very vulnerable to rain, heat and predators. Pit-fall traps should always contain some shelter, such as loose soil/sand and leaf litter. I always dampen the trap with water, to make sure any trapped amphibians don't desiccate. You should also ensure that animals won't drown if the trap fills up with water. You can do this by putting drainage holes in the bottom, but you might then have issues with small creatures (such as small skinks and blind snakes) escaping through the holes. My preferred method is putting in the bottom of the trap something that floats (like polystyrene or wood). If the bucket fills with water, little critters can climb on the floating object and avoid drowning. If you encounter heavy rain while trapping, you might want to close your traps.

Funnel traps
Much easier to set up:

  1. unfold one
  2. put it on the ground
  3. admire your handywork

Also made more effective by placing alongside a drift line. Make sure there's no gap between the fence and the funnel. Use some dirt/sand/whatever to make a smooth, clear entrance into the funnel. Funnel traps should be covered to prevent animals overheating. I use hessian sacks, which can be saturated with water in hot weather.

Drift line
A small fence dug into the ground. Traps, such as pit-falls and funnels, are placed along this fence. The idea is that animals encounter the fence and walk along it until they enter a trap, thus becoming trapped. Even arboreal species will often run along a fence rather than go over it. The most commonly used materials for drift lines are aluminium flyscreen and plastic damp course.

Elliott traps
Baited with strong-smelling food, such as fish, dog food, or a peanut butter and oats combination. Elliotts are normally used for small mammals (such as rodents), but are also quite good at catching medium skinks and goannas.

Animal welfare
It's incredibly important that traps are checked regularly, and that the welfare of any animals in the traps is of the utmost importance. Rain, sun and predators (especially ants and centipedes) can all cause the death of trapped animals. You definitely don't want that to happen.


References

  1. Thompson, S.A.; Thompson, G.G.; & Withers, P.C. (2005). Influence of pit-trap type on the interpretation of fauna diversity. Wildlife Research, 32(2):131-137. - search web for this article

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