Higaturu: Buna Road mini-estates
Oro Province
19-24 October 2006

Map showing the routes and collection localities in Oro Province, PNG.
click to enlarge map

I was hoping to find New Guinea brownsnakes (Pseudonaja textilis) both for venom and DNA so that we could determine the toxicity of the venom, its composition in relation to the same species in Australia, where it is considered one of the most medically important snake species, and its relationships with brownsnakes from Australia and Indonesian New Guinea. Since the only other PNG specimen taken alive since the 1960s was the sickly Milne Bay Province specimen, captured by Chris Austin and now in the AVRU Serpentarium in Port Moresby, finding brownsnakes in Oro was the primary aim of the visit. To this end I decided to concentrate my attentions on the vicinity of Embogo, the mission where a large specimen was decapitated in the 1960s, the head being sent to the Australian Museum for identification.

For many years it was believed the scattered brownsnake populations in New Guinea were introductions with military equipment during or after WWII. Based on recent research we now believe these are indigenous populations and no introduction took place.

Turning off the Popondetta to Oro Bay road I found the old WWII Dobuduru airstrip from where wounded Allied troops were evacuated following the battles of Buna, Gona and Sanananda in 1942-43. Just beyond the airstrip are the remains of a wrecked B-24 Liberator bomber, one of the larger war relics in the area, there being many smaller items in the bush. Collecting these retics, even small items like buttons or bullets, is a jealously guarded right of the people living in the area and initially they were suspicious of my motives for visiting the area, believing I was poaching their war relics.

The road continues on to Buna on the coast and the mini-estates and Dobuduru airstrip are relatively close to Embogo, so the area struck me as likely habitat for brownsnakes.

Dobuduru Airstrip, from where wounded Allied troops were evacuated after the
Battles of Buna, Gona and Sanananda.
Habitat at Dobuduru,
Embogo Mission is beyond the trees.
Wrecked WWII B-24 Liberator alongside Buna road at Dobuduru.

In order to search for snakes in the mini-estates in the area, which are cooperatively owned by Higaturu and local village communities, I had to obtain the permission of the local councillor or head-man at Dobuduru village. I was also provided with 4-5 field assistants who would help Gabby and myself search for snakes. They were under strict instructions not to catch snakes, but to call me so I could capture it. We consider this an important aspect of our work, employing local persons as field assistants but at no time endangering their lives by encouraging them to capture snakes. Anyone sighting a venomous snake would receive a bonus on top of their daily rate, even if I then failed to secure the serpent.

Dobuduru village.

We searched two main Buna Road mini-estates. At Buna Road Mini-estate 1 we found Pelagic geckos (Nactus cf. pelagicus) and Forest skinks (Sphenomorphus sp.).

click to enlarge
Pelagic gecko, Nactus cf. pelagicus
Forest skink, Sphenomorphus sp.

We also found two snakes, a McDowell's ground boa (Candoia paulsoni mcdowelli) and a Long-tailed keelback (Tropidonophis multiscutellatus), but no brownsnakes.

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McDowell's ground boa, Candoia paulsoni mcdowelli
Long-tailed keelback, Tropidonophis multiscutellatus

We then turned out attention on the Buna Road Mini-estate 2 and very quickly an interesting snake was seen moving quickly over the bare ground around an oil palm - the ground vegetation here was kept to a minimum in stark contrast to the overgrown taipan habitat in oil palm plantations in southern Milne Bay Province. Pursued and captured, the snake turned out to be a New Guinea brownsnake.

Buna Road mini-estates, part of Higaturu Oil Palms.
The Buna Road
Interior of oil palm mini-estate on the Buna Road,
less dense than the southern Milne Bay plantations.
Mark and his team of locals assistants,
Gabby Cris on the extreme right.

The mini-estate contained some interesting spiders: Giant golden orb-weaving spider (Nephila pilipes) and Spiny orb-weaving spider (Gasteracantha sp.).

Giant golden orb-weaving spider, Nephila pilipes
Spiny orb-weaving spider, Gasteracantha sp.

With one brownsnake captured from Buna Road mini-estate 2 I decided to concentrate on this single mini-estate. I decided to employ Milne Bay taipan catching tactics, get out to the plantation for sun-up and catch the snakes are they emerged to bask. On the next trip out we were also accompanied by a young Australian doctor, Luke Mitchell, who I had met in Popendetta. This was opportune as he was able to photograph some of what occurred that day.

I did learn that regardless of when you arrived, unlike taipan which emerged around 06:00, the brownsnakes did not make an appearance until around 11:00.

At around 11:00 we caught our second brownsnake.

New Guinea brownsnake, Pseudonaja textilis,
a fast-moving, highly venomous snake, captured safely with padded Midwest M1 tongs.

Gabby Cris flicks open the Midwest Probagger (black bags are preferable to white) and in it goes, in seconds.
Photo sequence by Luke Mitchell

Shortly afterwards we bagged another Müller's crowned snake (Aspidomorphus muelleri).

A smaller snake is sighted disappearing into a frondrow, which is systematically dismantled, then it is seen again.

Carefully the snake is pinned with the soft handle of a Midwest "O'Shea signature hook" and picked up: Müllers crowned snake, Aspidomorphus mulleri,
one of the less dangerous but still venomous snakes of New Guinea.
Photo sequence by Luke Mitchell

We also caught a Mcdowell's ground boa (Candoia paulsoni mcdowelli) and a Ground snake (Stegonotus cf. cucullatus) which was unfortunately not retained, since it may well represent an undescribed species.

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McDowell's ground boa, Candoia paulsoni mcdowelli
Ground snake, Stegonotus cf. cucullatus
Müller's crowned snake, Aspidomorphus muelleri
New Guinea brownsnake, Pseudonaja textilis

Three brownsnakes were also missed, as was a treesnake (Dendrelaphis sp.).

The one that got away!
We sighted six brownsnakes and caught three.

One of the captured brownsnakes was encountered as it attempted to eat a ground boa. When it tried to flee the brownsnake was captured and the almost dead ground boa also collected and examined. It contained a Job skink (Sphenomorphus jobiensis). This observation constituted the first record of a brownsnake (Pseudonaja) feeding on a Pacific boa (Candoia) because the latter are absent from Australia where brownsnakes are common.

New Guinea brownsnake, Pseudonaja textilis,
attempted to eat

McDowell's ground boa, Candoia paulsoni mcdowelli,
that had eaten

Jobi forest skink
, Sphenomorphus jobiensis

Five days of fieldwork and I was returning to Port Moresby with two Müller's crowned snakes, two New Guinea small-eyed snakes, and three New Guinea brownsnakes. I had also missed three brownsnakes. It had been a very successful field trip.