Australia’s Kimberley Islands a Biodiversity hotspot

11/24/2009

Amplirhagada NSP - Boongaree Is-1

A camaenid land snail (Amplirhagada sp.) found on Western Australia's Boongaree Island/
Copyright (c) 2009 Vince Kessner

I don't know about you but I've always been a snail (and slug) fan. I grew up in my younger years in the Pacific Northwest, where slugs and snails abounded. As a kid, tomboy that I was, I thought they were rad! I guess I'd have a heyday if I ever visit the far northwestern coast of Australia, the Kimberley Islands, where scientists have recently discovered a whole bunch of new species of land snails. Australia’s Kimberley region lies in the north part of the state of Western Australia, bordered by the Indian Ocean, and many of the islands had never before been explored. This is the same Kimberley Coast region mentioned in my post on the massive Montara oil spill offshore, which was finally plugged November 3rd.

Back to snails and other creatures... A team of biologists from the Australian Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), the Western Australian Museum, the Australian Museum, and the Kimberley Land Council have been surveying 22 of the region’s largest islands during both wet and dry seasons since 2006 for all manner of flora and fauna, and have been surprised and delighted to find so many new species- a whopping 84 camaenid land snail species, 72 of which appear to be new to science. Turns out, these Kimberely islands are one of Australia’s biodiversity hotspots, especially for snails. The survey team still has nine islands to go.

Scientists distinguish snails by their private parts. Yep, you read that right. Species that look the same on the outside may have very differently shaped male reproductive organs, and that is how a malacologist tells the snails apart. Frank Köhler of the Australian Museum, the malacologist on the expeditions who identified the snails, says a high diversity of snails can be used to indicate the general health of an island’s ecosystem and threats posed by various factors. The overall purpose of the four-year survey of flora and fauna was to identify species at risk from threats including fire, invasive plant species, human activity, and cane toads, a non-native species that has wreaked havoc on native mammals that die when they ingest the poisonous toads.

The surveys also found new populations of Australian vertebrates and doubled the number of species documented on most of the islands. Biologists found 139 bird species, and caught 2,500 reptiles and amphibians of 83 species. Although none of these were new to science, several had never been documented on these islands before. They did not find any threatened or endangered species, but did find evidence that endangered green and olive ridley sea turtles nested there. Some other cool species include the Merten’s Water Monitor and the Yellow-spotted Monitor, both of which have declined throughout their range since the cane toad’s arrival.

And on  a completely separate note, there's a new land snail on the opposite side of the country now named... Crikey steveirwini. It lives in the Wet Tropics of Queensland.


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