5 minutes with Patrick Couper, Senior Curator, Reptiles

Today’s #CouchCurator is Patrick Couper, Senior Curator, Reptiles who is sharing some of his favourite items from the collection.

What is your favourite object/species in the collection and why?

My favourite species is Phyllurus isis, a small leaf-tailed gecko that I discovered on Mt Blackwood, north of Mackay, in the early 1990s.

This was one of my earliest species descriptions and is associated with fond memories of working in beautiful rainforests on the central Queensland coast.

In the early 1990s, only five species of leaf-tailed geckos were recognised. There are now 17 species and three subspecies. Most of these occur in Queensland and the museum’s herpetologists have played an active role in their discovery and description.

Do you have any interesting facts about your specialty area?

The Queensland Museum’s frog and reptile collections contain around 88,000 specimens.

Queensland has more than 500 species of named reptiles, a far richer and more diverse reptile fauna than any other state.

The rarest species in the reptile collection is a small blind snake, Anilios insperatus, from Warrill View in south-east Queensland. It is known from a single specimen found in the early 1990s and has not been seen since, despite a number of searches.

The Western Taipan is the world’s most venomous land snake. It occurs in far south-western Queensland and has enough venom to kill 250,000 mice in a single bite.

Six of the world’s seven marine turtle species occur in Queensland waters. The museum has a large collection of marine turtle bones/skeletons that have been used, amongst other things, for aging studies (looking at growth rings in limb bones) and identifying material excavated from rubbish middens during archaeological digs.

Queensland was home to two species of gastric brooding frogs, both of which are now extinct. The tadpoles of these frogs developed in their mother’s stomach, after she swallowed her eggs, and were later regurgitated as fully formed froglets.

Several foreign reptiles now occur in the Brisbane area. These include the Flowerpot Snake (a small blind snake introduced through the nursery trade), the Asian House Gecko (arrived with shipping cargo through our port) and the Red-eared Slider, a North American turtle (released from the pet trade).

I estimate that there are __ species waiting to be formally described in my area…

From 1970 – 2010 many highly distinct, easily recognised species were described from Queensland. These included a number of monotypic genera and were found through targeted surveys in areas that had not previously been investigated. Over the last ten years, there has been a marked shift to the description of cryptic species, which were initially identified through genetic data and diagnosed by subtle morphological differences or by genetic data only.

Tell us a little bit about your area and why do you love working in this specific research area?

Working at the museum has allowed me to make a significant contribution to documenting the state’s reptile fauna and to identify processes that may have shaped the current distributions of the species I describe. I like unravelling mysteries and there is an element of detective work in what I do. I also love natural history collections and it is a privilege to have a career studying fascinating specimens.

What is your favourite thing about your role at the museum? Why?

The diverse nature of my role. I enjoy describing new species, interacting with other scientists within the organisation and from external agencies and making contributions to the display and World Science Festival Programs.

What is one of the most interesting facts you have discovered through working at the museum?

Many species with rainforest ancestries have shifted to rock-rich landscapes during past episodes of climate change. This pattern is seen in both vertebrate and invertebrate species which include: leaf-tailed geckos, ring-tailed geckos, frogs, land snails, spiders etc.

What is your favourite gallery/exhibition at the museum (current or past) and why?

Living with Our Marine Reptiles, an exhibition that focussed on the life histories of marine turtles but also featured crocodiles and sea snakes. This exhibition, developed in the 1990s, was a pet project of mine and came about through a collaboration with Colin Limpus and the Queensland Turtle Research Program (now run by the Department of Environment and Science).

Anything else you would like to add?

I was looking forward to running the Hatchery at the World Science Festival Brisbane. When this was cancelled due to the current health crisis, the turtle eggs were returned to Mon Repos where they have now hatched.

Patrick Couper cleaning a reticulated Python skeleton
Patrick Couper cleaning a reticulated Python skeleton. Image by Jeff Wright. 

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Interested in learning more about Patrick? View his profile here.

3 thoughts on “5 minutes with Patrick Couper, Senior Curator, Reptiles

  1. Thee blog posts are great. Patrick and his colleagues are doing such fascinating and important work on the State’s biodiversity. The QM is an astonishing institution, and those who work there on the collections, research and public exhibitions are such a fundamental part of what makes the place so special. Cheers.

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