5 minutes with Dr Andrew Amey, Collection Manager of Herpetology

What is your favourite object in the collection and why?

My favourite object is a large, stuffed turtle said to be from the Fly River region of New Guinea, donated to us in the 19th century.  Ogilby, a curator at Queensland Museum, described Devisia mythodes in 1907, in honour of Charles De Vis, the Director of the museum at the time.  It was a most unusual turtle for our biogeographic area, being from a group of turtles (the Cryptodira, characterised by pulling their head straight into the body as opposed to our Pleurodira turtles who tuck their head and neck in to the side).  For years, it stood alone as the only known specimen of this group of turtles from our area.  Then, in 1940, an American researcher pointed out that the specimen was in fact an American Snapping Turtle.  It seems there had been an embarrassing mistake in the labelling of the specimen.  For me, this is a great example of the importance of good record-keeping, as well as a reminder that even museum curators are only human!

Do you have any interesting facts?

  • The largest item would be the complete skeleton of Holey, the Saltwater Crocodile.  Holey was resident at Currumbin Sanctuary before he died of cancer in 2013.  He was reputed to be the second largest crocodile in captivity and measured 5.1 m in length. 
  • Several of Queensland’s microhylid frogs, Cophixalus spp., measure at most 25 mm in total length.  They live on the rainforest floor and the male guards the eggs in a nest under leaf litter.  The eggs develop directly, that is, they hatch out as tiny frogs, there is no tadpole stage.  The newly hatched frogs are replicas of the adults, except they are even tinier!
  • The strangest species would have to be the Gastric-brooding Frogs (Rheobatrachus).  These two species, known only from Queensland, had a method of reproduction unique amongst vertebrates, and possibly any animal.  After external fertilisation, the female would swallow the eggs.  Her stomach would convert to a womb, where the eggs would hatch and undergo their tadpole stage in the safety of the female’s body.  At the appropriate time, the mother would vomit up her new babies.  It is a great tragedy that these species went extinct in the 1980s, shortly after their scientific description, due to the pathogenic fungus, chytrid.
  • We have the largest collection of type specimens of Queensland’s amphibians and reptiles in the world.  Type specimens are used by scientists to describe new species and act as the ‘standards’ by which we can assign other specimens to their correct species.  As they were the original specimens, they are irreplaceable.  In a recent publication, it was shown that the Queensland Museum ranked 16th in museums holding the most number of herpetological types in the world.
  • From time to time, Biosecurity Queensland finds exotic reptiles, either in newly-arrived shipping, held illegally, or occasionally loose in the wild.  They bring these specimens to us to identify and add to the collection.  A few years ago, they brought us a snake that was a beautiful snowy white.  Albino snakes are not uncommon in captivity, but they usually have some faint indication of the original pattern and this one had nothing.  Normally, the scales would then enable identification, as each species of snake has a unique combination of scales, things like midbodies, ventrals and head scales.  This one, however, would not key out to anything recognised.  It was certainly not Australian and, as it was obviously bred in captivity, we checked worldwide guides to snakes, but still could not identify it.  Sending photos and scale counts to overseas colleagues was also unfruitful.  It remains a mystery, the most likely reason being it is an uncommon hybrid of at least two different species of snake.
  • Queensland’s frog and reptile fauna is diverse and poorly known.  In many cases, the scientific description is all that is known about the species and the type specimens held at the Queensland Museum are the only known specimens. Examples of this include the Fassifern Blind Snake, the Bulleringa Fine-lined Slider (a skink) and Lyon’s Snake-eyed Skink.
  • We want to document the occurrence of all species of amphibians and reptiles in Queensland, so we even have specimens of Cane Toads from all over the state!

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

Impossible to say!  There are approximately 680 species of amphibians and reptiles known to be native to Queensland.  However, many new ones are described every year.  For example, 2019 saw the description of nine new Queensland species.

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

I look after the collection of amphibian and reptiles.  The majority of my collection is preserved in ethanol (spirits), but there is a good collection of skeletal material as well.  I love the diversity of the collection, there is everything from a spirit-preserved Komodo Dragon from Indonesia, to a small legless lizard known only from a very small area in Queensland, that has been preserved in glycerol to make it transparent.  The skeleton is dyed so each tiny bone shows up red in wonderful detail.

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

Skinks can gain or lose toes really easily!  You would think the number of toes a specimen has would help to identify which species it belongs to.  It turns out this is not necessarily the case.  I work on a genus of skinks, Lerista, which is characterised by a tendency to reduce limbs.  This is probably because they live in loose sand and usually move by ‘swimming’ through the sand.  Limbs seem to be a bit of an encumbrance to this mode of locomotion.  There are almost 100 described species of Lerista and you can find nearly all states from species with all five fingers and toes, to no front limbs, to only a single toe on the hindlimb, to no limbs at all.  You would think that species with similar arrangements of fingers and toes would be most closely related to each other, but genetic work has shown this is not the case.  In fact, it seems members of this group of skinks have started losing fingers and toes at least seven times.  Not only that, but the number of fingers and toes can vary within a species.  I have found several examples now where it looked like we had a new species but closer examination showed that in fact, it was just a known species with another limb arrangement we didn’t know they could have. 

Learn more about Dr Andrew Amey here.

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