PAPUA NEW GUINEA 2010

 

Hiritano Highway: Laloki River to Brown River

 

Although it is still possible to find Carpet pythons (Morelia spilota harrisoni), mostly DOR (dead on road), around Port Moresby, and other species do turn up occasionally, serious herping on the Brown River road does not start until one crosses the Laloki bridge, just below the confluence of the Laloki and Goldie Rivers. The latter was not visited during the 2010 but was a focus of interest to the author during the 1990s. There are plans to carry out further fieldwork on the Goldie River on future trips.

 

Even then, the stretch out to beyond the Sabusa Sawmill and Mt Lawes is fairly depauperate when it comes to snakes, most large species falling foul of either vehicles or bush-knives.

Species that can still be found along this stretch include the ubiquitous Brown treesnake (Boiga irregularis) and the Slatey-grey snake (Stegonotus cucullatus). Similar results have been observed on other well-established roads around Port Moresby that the author first cruised for snakes in 1980s.


 

 

Map of Hiritano Highway from Laloki River to Brown River.
click to enlarge map


LALOKI RIVER
View upstream.
Laloki River bridge.
View downstream.

Boys diving off bridge.

The Hiritano Highway crosses numerous river bridges on its journey north and then northwest: Laloki, Brown,Vanapa, Veimauri and Kuriva. All are crocodile rivers that feed into the crocodile infested swamps of Galley Reach a few kilometres downstream, yet all are the play-grounds of village children who leap from the bridges and play in the brown waters, and the places where village women do their laundry.

 

The dominant habitat along the Brown River stretch of the Hiritano Highway is eucalypt savanna: gum trees and other xerophytic species scattered across vast swathes of kunai grass. Side roads permit exploration of these environments and even allow access to elevated areas such as Mt Lawes or Little Mt Lawes since many of the roads were build as access roads for the mobile phone and other masts that bristle from the high points. The Owen Stanley Mountain Range, lies off to the north and northeast.

Along creeks may be found clumps of rain trees that cast great shadows over the road and produce cooler conditions, in contract to the often scorched habitats in the open.

 

Brown River habitat
Driving towards Owen Stanley Range.
Open eucalypt savanna.
Rain trees cast shade near creeks.
Side-roads worth exploring.

On one foray up a side road at Dasiama, we encountered a camp of sand-diggers, mining river sand for the construction industry, who claimed to see and kill many snakes. Having been taken to the cadavers of two snakes, we decided to concentrate our efforts in this region and spent time with the sand-diggers, following their bulldoser when it was working, collecting lizards and ground-dwelling tarantula spiders, and looking for snakes flushed from the vegetation by the machinery.

Dasiama
Dasiama side-road in late afternoon.
Dasiama habitat, eucalypt savanna.
Owen & Jasper at sand digger's camp.
Sand digger's bulldozer.

In woodland alongside a dried out creek we constructed a drift fence which was very successful for catching skinks until it was destroyed by a flash-flood. The sand-diggers also caught a few snakes for us, brown treesnakes and slatey-greys, a Southern white-lipped python (Leiopython hoserae) and a Southern giant blue-tongue skink (Tiliqua gigas evanescens) which they thought was venomous (a common belief in New Guinea).

Dasiama Fieldwork
Paul, Roger and Owen with drift fence.
Steve with treesnakes at digger's camp.
Jasper at the taipan capture location.
Jasper & Mark with the taipan trap.

Driving back from the sand-digger's camp we sighted a Papuan taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus canni) crossing the dirt road and were able to capture it before it make the safety of the kunai grass. Encouraged by this find we made Dasiama a search location to which we returned at least every 2-3 days and we installed a newly designed and build taipan trap in the hopes of capturing more specimens. At the time of leaving PNG, when the trap was temporarily closed down, it had not yet been successful, but the chances are good for when it is activated again later in 2010.

Dasiama Taipan
Papuan taipan, Oxyuranus scutellatus canni

The newly captured taipan was not in a photogenic mood and launched an attack at the photographer after only five frames were shot. The strike came directly after the second of these photographs was taken.

Mark O'Shea at Dasiama
O'Shea changing lenses.
O'Shea searching for taipan in kunai.

Mark O'Shea is sponsored by Lowe Pro UK. He found the Vertex 200 backback extremely versatile both as a carry-on camera bag for international flights, and as a comfortable pack in the field.

He is also sponsored by MidWest of Missouri, who manufacture snake catching equipment including the O'Shea Signature Snake Hook. Preferred equipment for taipan are the M1 tongs and a Probagger with black bags. The taipan captured at Dasiama was safely bagged inside 20seconds using this equipment.

Apart from the snakes, a wide variety of other herps were captured including three species, and size classes, of four-fingered skinks (Carlia spp.), the Pelagic gecko (Nactus cf. pelagicus), a Papuan wood frog (Hylarana daemali), Snake-eyed skink (Cryptoblepharus yulensis), the Dusky skink (Emoia obscura), the commonest species encountered, and the related but much less frequently encountered New Guinea tree skink (Emoia kordoana). Apart from tarantulas (Selenocosmia sp.) some interesting spiders were also captured at Dasiama (see below).

OTHER HERPS from DASIAMA
click on an image to enlarge
Papuan wood frog, Hylarana daemali
Southern white-lipped python, Leiopython hoserae
Pelagic gecko, Nactus cf. pelagicus
Papuan litter skink, Carlia macfarlani
Eastern bicarinate four-fingered skink, Carlia bicarinata (male)
Black-cowled four-fingered skink, Carlia luctuosa (female)
Yule Island snake-eyed skink, Cryptoblepharus yulensis
New Guinea dusky skink, Emoia obscura
New Guinea tree skink, Emoia kordoana

Releasing specimens is also sometimes as difficult as catching them. We released several of our snakes around Dasiama.

Ouch! that hurts !
Steve releasing brown treesnakes at Dasiama, and getting tagged for his trouble.
   
 
Brown treesnake, Boiga irregularis
 

 

SPIDERS from DASIAMA
click on an image to enlarge
Lynx spider, Oxyopes sp. [Oxyopidae] (male)
Hunting spider, Hygropoda sp. [Pisauridae]

[see also visits to Hiritano Hwy road trips in 2006 & 2008]