An olive python moves through wetlands

Monitoring the endangered Pilbara Olive Python

A two-year monitoring program of an endangered python at our Western Australia Iron Ore (WAIO) asset is providing valuable insights into a cryptic and hard to detect sub-species. 

The Pilbara Olive Python is a large snake that’s protected under state and federal legislation and not commonly recorded within this region of Western Australia. It’s a mysterious species by nature, spending much of its time hidden within rocky habitats or thick vegetation, which has resulted in low detection rates.  

Led by WAIO’s Biodiversity team, the Pilbara Olive Python Monitoring Program is tracking movements and gathering information on the genetic characteristics of the population. This has enabled a better understanding of this python sub-species’ abundance, relatedness and behaviour (including where they hunt and breed), and how this differs during changing seasons and the highly variable climate of the Pilbara. 

Using innovative new technology for detection and tracking, rather than the traditional surveying techniques of opportunistic searching, the program is revealing where and how the pythons move and interact on a temporal and spatial scale.  

The pythons are initially captured and taken to the laboratory where a veterinarian installs a very high-frequency radio transmitter while the python is under anaesthetic. They’re held for 24 hours to monitor for health and recovery and, although the process is invasive at the time, all have responded positively after recovery and release at their location of capture. The methodology is subject to scrutiny through the permit and ethics approval requirements applied by state regulatory bodies for conducting this type of work. 

Currently 16 pythons have been pit-tagged and fitted with VHF radio transmitters for tracking. Ongoing sampling of these individuals is now providing a better understanding of the python’s basic biology and ecology. 

The team is also using environmental DNA (eDNA) extraction techniques from water samples. This preserved, but often degraded, genetic material provides a means to audit species composition and communities at a given location. The eDNA can provide another tool for recording the pythons in a rapid, cost-effective and non-invasive manner.

Both techniques are part of a multi-team approach involving BHP, program consultants Helix solutions and Biota Environmental Sciences, and the eDNA Frontiers Laboratory at Curtin University.

Although in its infancy, the results and potential of this program are encouraging. BHP is looking at opportunities to expand the Pilbara Olive Python Monitoring Program to include additional sites and obtain a more regional perspective of the Pilbara Olive Python population.

It’s also giving the WAIO team the ability to contribute to knowledge about this species across the region. The program could also be adapted to other threatened species, particularly those listed under Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation legislation.  

Banner image supplied by Zoe Hamilton