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Interview with an Aussie Herpetoculture Favourite - Dr Harold G Cogger.

Hal is to us Aussie herpers what Vegemite is to those weird Australians who don’t like reptiles. For over 50 years Hal has dedicated his time, knowledge, and enthusiasm to herpetology. Hal is one of the greats who have paved the way for us with herpetology in Australia. However, Hal’s accomplishments aren’t limited to the land down under. Hal has been involved in numerous projects internationally over the years and has made many contributions worldwide. (We borrowed his Goanna noose for a trip we were about to do a couple of years ago and were amazed at the number of international stickers that were on the noose’s case – that goanna noose was far better travelled than Scott and I are!) Not just in the field has Hal excelled. Hal’s working history is just as impressive as his herpetological achievements – curator of reptiles and then onto Deputy Director at the Australian Museum. Let’s not forget the impressive role of Conjoint Professor in the Faculty of Science and Mathematics at the University of Newcastle. An honorary Doctor of Science.

Hal was the first author to put to paper the idea of a comprehensive guide for Australian reptiles and amphibians. (Referred to affectionately here as “the bible”. Well by herpers and keepers anyway. I’m guessing those with an actual bible don’t use that term!) The first edition was published in 1975 and has been redone every 8yrs. Hal has numerous books under his belt, a swather of papers and peer reviews. (We are thankful Hal hasn’t slowed down at all in retirement as we’ve hit him up several times and his recommendations have been invaluable. I’m sure he loves those conversations that start off with “How much do you love me? (me) or “I need a favour please”! (Scott))

Hal recently undertook an App (Snake ID). He spent a lot of time working on this app and then donated sales from the app to the museum. (See why we love him?!)

Hal is also brilliant behind the camera and has been fortunate enough to get some fantastic shots over the years, especially of species now extinct. I love the weekends Scott and I can get away and sit round the coffee table at his house, listening to him and Heather retell stories from the past. (There are always chocolate biscuits to go with these stories which make it doubly great!) Acknowledgements of how much he is loved and respected, appreciation for the work he has done, the help he offers tirelessly and the all-round nice guy he is, are displayed in Hal the genus and eight species of reptiles named after him. Coggeria, Ctenotus coggeri, Emoia coggeri, Geomyersi coggeri, Hydrophis coggeri, Lampropholis coggeri, Oedura coggeri, and Diporiphora nobbi coggeri.

Ctenotus coggeri

Hal very kindly agreed to an interview with me. I’d love to say it was in his loungeroom with a cuppa and a Tim Tam, but Hal’s state is in lockdown, so it wasn’t possible. (I may have had Tim Tams anyway).

Tie: Are you a frog/snake/turtle/lizard/crocodile sort of person?

Hal: Definitely a lizard sort.

Tie: What was that lightbulb moment that made you realize reptiles and amphibians were your passion?

Hal: No specific event. Just an affection for and interest in the reptiles I was encountering and reading about as a 10-year-old schoolboy.

Tie: What was your first reptile?

Hal: I really can’t remember.

Tie: What species would you have loved to have kept or worked with and why?

Hal: The common Fijian iguana Brachylophus fasciatus because it’s easy to keep and breed, has a great temperament, is beautiful and possesses complex behaviour patterns.

Tie: What has been the favorite reptile or amphibian you’ve kept and why?

Hal: Next to Brachylophis (see previous question), I’ve been fascinated by the New Guinean crocodile skink Tribolonotus gracilis) which I kept for some time when working in the field – my favourite because of its abundance, colonial habits in ground litter, fascinating glands on its feet and belly and above all its angular head and “armoured” body form. I’d wished I’d had the opportunity to keep some in captivity for a more lengthy period to observe their behaviour, but live specimens could not be imported into Australia. With the export of thousands from Indonesia’s West Papua in recent years I suspect that most of my initial curiosity about its biology and ecology has been resolved by others.

Tie: What projects are you currently working on?

Hal: Documenting the long-term (50 year) decline in mallee dragons (Ctenophorus spinodomus) in arid mallee habitats in western New South Wales and comparative growth patterns in the Eastern Water Dragon (Intellagama lesueurii} of Australia, the Crested Iguana of Fiji (Brachylophus vitiensis) and the Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) of New Zealand.

Tie: What animal have you worked with that stands out the most in your mind and why?

Hal: Sea kraits of the genus Laticauda because I spent many field trips throughout the Ryuku Archipelago, most south Pacific countries and the Australian north-west shelf and the Great Barrier Reef with colleagues from Japan, France, the USA and Australia. Those trips were memorable for the great company, the beauty of coral reefs throughout the area, and the diversity, behaviour and ecology of the sea kraits themselves.

Tie: Are reptiles/amphibians a family passion or just yours?

Hal: Just mine, although all the family help out in the field when asked.

Tie: Can you share with us the moment that has given you the biggest laugh in your career?

Hal: When working in the highlands of New Guinea on the Ramu/Sepik Divide 60 years ago with an anthropologist friend, I was trying to locate an otherwise uncollected frog that was occasionally calling from deep burrows in the rainforest. When I asked local tribesmen to help me locate the frog they assured me the caller was not a frog but an earthworm! The next day when we heard the frog calling I stopped everybody while I spent nearly an hour slowly digging out the burrow to eventually locate a very large earthworm. I never was able to positively attach the call to any of the local frogs, but my anthropologist colleague was able to publish a serious paper on identification conflicts between western scientific specialists and local tribesmen!

Tie: You’ve spent 50yrs working with Mallee Sand Dragons. What has surprised you about them?

Hal: The fact that they are essentially an annual species in which most individuals die at the end of their first year, making them very vulnerable to massive reductions in their numbers, particularly if they are subject to high mortality (of adults or eggs) due to environmental conditions during their breeding season in later spring.

Mallee Sand Dragon site
Mallee Sand Dragon site

Tie: What was your favorite herp trip and why?

Hal: It’s hard to pin down a single trip, but a sea snake study trip organised by Dr Bill Dunson of Pennsylvania State University on the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Research Vessel Alpha Helix in 1972 involved diving daily on beautiful coral reefs among hundreds of sea snakes in one of the richest and diverse sea snake faunas in the world.

Tie: What is a piece of advice you were given that you would like to share?

Hal: If, when collecting live and lethal venomous snakes there is even the slightest chance of being bitten, walk away.

Tie: What was your highest moment in the hobby?

Hal: Always the last field trip I was on.

Lampropholis coggeri

Tie: What was your lowest moment in the hobby and what did you learn from it?

Hal: Being put ashore alone on a small island off Lord Howe Island on a beautiful calm morning to study its lizard fauna, only to nearly drown when having to swim to the boat with my camera and specimens seven hours later when the boat returned to collect me in rough seas.

What did I learn? Don’t work in the field alone, unless absolutely necessary.

Tie: In your eyes, how has the hobby changed over the years?

Hal: I have never kept large numbers of live herps, but I’m these days impressed by the incredible diversity of equipment, facilities and foods that make herp keeping easier, combined with our greatly increased knowledge of husbandry.

Tie: Who helped you along the way, has given you inspiration?

Hal: Too many to identify individually, but I’m most grateful to those who enthusiastically encouraged my interests and education as a schoolboy.

Tie: Can you tell us about your most memorable call out?

Hal: In retirement I am often called out in our small village to move snakes from homes. A recent unwanted adventure was being caught in a large, cluttered garden tool cupboard with a very angry tiger snake (Notechis scutatus) .

Tie: Which of your publications holds a special place in your heart and why?

Hal: Probably a little book called “Australian Reptiles In Colour” which went through many editions and which was later shown to have sparked a life-long interest in reptiles by many children.

Tie: What is your biggest achievement to date?

Hal: Surviving to my current age.

Tie: What motivates you?

Hal: Curiosity.

Tie: What has been your favorite memory of the hobby?

Hal: Though it wasn’t a pet, having a harmless carpet python in my lab escape into the air conditioning ducts where it regularly poked its head into other labs to frighten the inhabitants - before eventually being caught.

Tie: Do you collect anything other than reptiles?

Hal: I usually have a tropical fish aquarium set up as I find their colour and movement very soothing.

Tie: What is one thing you will never do again?

Hal: Fail to check that a dinghy is really secure when using it as a base for diving on coral reefs .

Tie: Biggest fear?

Hal: Drowning.

Tie: What is your favorite way to unwind?

Hal: Bushwalking.

Tie: What can you not live without?

Hal: My laptop

Tie: Pet Peeve?

Hal: Politicians of all political persuasions.

Tie: What do you excel at?

Hal: Enthusiasm for herpetology.

Tie: What are you not very good at?

Hal: Statistics.

Tie: What’s your favorite food?

Hal: Chocolate.

Tie: Tell us something that is true that almost nobody agrees with you on. (E.g. pineapple on pizza)

Hal: That Homo sapiens is a deadly invasive species.

Tie: If you were to compare yourself with any animal, which animal would it be and why?

Hal: That’s for others to decide…….

Image courtesy of CSIRO

TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@nature_for_u

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Oedura coggeri


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