Victor Valley College Tropical Research Initiative
Herpetofauna of Timor-Leste
Comoro River, Aileu District
One of the things we usually do when we arrive in Timor-Leste with a new team, is a short field trip to a locality close to Dili to get the students into the flow of finding and catching amphibians and reptiles. One of our chosen locations is the confluence of the Comoro and Bemos Rivers, 8 km south of Dili.
This location forms the boundaries between three districts: Dili, Liquiça and Aileu, with banks of the rivers in all three areas. We have made collections at various locations in on all three districts' riverbanks.
Because of my back injury it was decided Hinrich would take the team out to the confluence, picking up Laca and Paulo enroute, while I remained at TLH to do the specimen photography.
The Comoro-Bemos Rivers confluence forms the border between three districts.
In 2013 during Phase VIII we were collecting south of the confluence in Aileu District. Mouse-over the map to see a satellite version of the confluence and click for an enlarged view.
The team spread out to herp the dry Comoro River bed at the confluence
All photos Hinrich Kaiser
Sven rolling a rock for toads and skinks
Searching a river cliff for specimens
Banana gardens, not usually productive,
until this time
Stripping away dead banana leaves
Duttaphrynus melanostictus click image for a close-up
Photo: Hinrich Kaiser
Common house gecko, Hemidactylus frenatus click image for a close-up
Photo: Hinrich Kaiser
There is a lot of life out there if you are prepared to look for it
Photos: Hinrich Kaiser
Wolf spider at the water's edge
Tadpoles in the rock pool
When doing fieldwork you search every microhabitat, from behind leaf-axils to leaf-litter, rock pools to under logs and rocks, in the hopes of uncovering a niche occupied by a reptile or amphibian. Sometimes you need very good eyesight and fast reactions. There are many microhabitats and often they are overlooked. Once a particular habitat gets a reputation as unproductive it is often inadvertently or deliberately ignored, and important specimens are missed. We had proved this twice previously when we found the first ever Timorese specimens of Dwarf tree gecko (Hemiphyllodactylus typus) in clumps of bamboo at Ossohuna, Baucau District, during Phase VII, and our first specimens of Indo-Pacific house gecko (Hemidactylus garnotii), also in bamboo at Maganuto, Bobonaro District, both during Phase VII.
Banana plantations have also proven to be fairly unproductive in the past and we tend to skirt around them, but on the Comoro River the team were searching a banana garden when Sven found a small specimen of Boulenger's pipesnake (Cylindrophis cf. boulengeri). This species is known from one specimen from Wetar Island to the northeast, one from Babar (which is probably something else), two specimens from West Timor, eight specimens from East Timor (all collected in the 1930s at Baguia, Baucau District, but where we had failed to find it) and a single specimen collected by Laca in 2012 from Raça, Lautém District. Sven's specimen is only the 13th specimen ever collected, the first live specimen any of the team, except Laca, had seen and a major target species for us for several phases. The photographs below are the first ever studies of a live specimen.
For the non-herpers, pipesnakes belong to a primitive family of snakes known as the Cylindrophiidae, which comprises fewer than a dozen species occuring from the Southeast Asian mainland to Maluku (Moluccan Islands) of Indonesia, with one species extra-limitally distributed on Sri Lanka. Two to three species are well known and widespread, the rest are poorly documented, often confined to type localities or single islands. This is especially true of the species from the Lesser Sunda Islands. Unlike more advanced snakes, pipesnakes cannot open their mouths wide so they tend to prey on cylindrical animals such as blindsnakes. Being fossorial (burrowing) they are often overlooked and poorly sampled in collections. Indonesians and Timorese refer to the pipesnake as a "snake with two heads" due to its defensive behaviour of elevating the tail whilst hiding the head in its coils. Around the world the term "two-headed snake" is often used for burrowing species, from a variety of families, with short, blunt rounded head-like tails.
Cylindrophis cf. boulengeri
Top and tail
The team also collected a Four-fingered skink (Carlia sp.), our first from Dili District, and a series of Asian black-spined toads (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) for stomach content analysis. This introduced toad may be a threat to the local wildlife, as the Cane toad (Rhinella marina) has proven to be in Australia, New Guinea and other places where it was introduced. A few phases ago we documented a toad which had eaten a blindsnake, the first record of the species preying on a vertebrate, and this is what initiated this project to examine gut contents in black-spined toads from different locations across Timor-Leste, as we also monitor their spread westwards.
That evening Hinrich took the students outside onto the TLH verandah to tell them 'war stories' about fieldwork, while I had a very painful but hopefully therapeutic Thai massage for my back injury - there are no photographs!