Aipysurus laevis 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Reptilia Squamata Elapidae

Scientific Name: Aipysurus laevis Lacépède, 1804
Common Name(s):
English Olive-brown Sea Snake, Olive Sea Snake
French Aipysure lisse
Aipysurus laevis ssp. pooleorum Smith, 1974
Taxonomic Notes: Molecular data indicate strong population subdivision around Australia between the Great Barrier Reef, Gulf of Carpentaria and Timor Sea Reefs (Lukoschek et al. 2007, 2008). In addition, there is a deep genetic divergence along the west Australian coastline between populations that occur in the offshore Timor Sea reefs and coastal populations that occur in Broome (Lukoschek unpublished data) and potentially further south. A. laevis pooleorum has been regarded both as a subspecies of A. laevis (Cogger 2000) and also as a species in its own right A. pooleorum (Wilson and Swan 2003). As described A. l. pooleorum occurs in Shark Bay, Western Australian (Cogger 2000, Wilson and Swan 2003), however, the recent genetic study indicates that it occurs as far north as Broome (V. Lukoschek unpublished data). Mitochondrial DNA sequence divergence also suggest that these populations should be a species in their own right (K. Sanders and Mumpuni unpublished data), however, a formal description of A. pooleorum has not been completed (despite its species designation by Wilson and Swan 2003).

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Least Concern ver 3.1
Year Published: 2010
Date Assessed: 2009-02-15
Assessor(s): Lukoschek, V., Courtney, T., Milton, D. & Guinea, M.
Reviewer(s): Livingstone, S.R., Elfes, C.T., Polidoro, B.A. & Carpenter, K.E. (Global Marine Species Assessment Coordinating Team)
This is a widespread and common species. It is frequently captured in prawn fisheries and has poor survival, however, this is not thought to be a major threat. This species lives in a variety of habitats. There has been some evidence of declines, but also of large fluctuations in population size. This species is listed as Least Concern, however, it is recommended that bycatch be monitored and efforts made to reduce bycatch with exclusion devices.

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:A. laevis (including the subspecies A. l. pooleorum) occurs throughout tropical northern Australia from Shark Bay, Western Australia to the southern Great Barrier Reef, east Australia (Cogger 2000). Its distribution extends east to the Coral Sea (Heatwole 1975) and Chesterfield Reefs (Minton and Dunson 1985) and New Caledonia (Ineich and Rasmussen 1997). It has also been reported from the southern New Guinea coastline (O'Shea 1996).


Countries occurrence:
Australia; Indonesia; New Caledonia; Papua New Guinea
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Indian Ocean – eastern; Pacific – western central
Additional data:
Lower depth limit (metres):70
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:This is the most commonly found sea snake species on coral reefs of Australia (Lukoschek et al. 2007a, Heatwole and Lukoschek 2008). Surveys of reefs in the southern Great Barrier Reef indicate that there have been some local population extinctions (at the level of individual reefs) over the last 30 years (Lukoschek et al. 2007a). There are also indications of larger-scale metapopulation dynamics for A. laevis in this region, thus it is unclear whether local extinctions indicate an overall decline in abundance or represent temporal fluctuations in the population (Lukoschek et al. 2007a). This species has also declined in abundance at Ashmore Reef in the Timor Sea, as have all other sea snake species at Ashmore Reef (Guinea 2006, 2007). Similarly, anecdotal information suggests that there has been a decline in abundance of sea snakes, including A. laevis, on some Coral Sea reefs over the past 20 years (H. Marsh pers. comm. 2009) however, dedicated surveys are needed to confirm this. The status of populations at other locations throughout this species’ range appears to be stable or is unknown.

Quantitative assessment of the impacts of trawling has shown that trawl mortality was not imposing a significant risk for this species at current levels of fishing effort in the Northern Prawn Fishery of Australia (Milton et al. 2008).
Current Population Trend:Decreasing
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:This species occurs primarily around coral reefs where it is found in many habitat types including the reef crest, slope, edge, and over sandy bottoms adjacent to outer shallow and deeper reefs, as well as in lagoonal areas. It also occurs in inter-reefal habitats, but is much more common in close proximity to reefs. It has been recorded to depths of up to 68 m (M. Cappo pers. comm. 2009, T. Courtney pers. comm. 2009), although it more typically occurs at depths ranging from 10 to 40 m (V. Lukoschek pers. comm. 2009).

Individuals occupy linear home ranges along the vertical edges of coral reefs which overlap extensively with those of other individuals (Limpus 1975, Burns and Heatwole 1998). The snakes shelter in or under coral, sitting quietly and swaying in the current. They do not seem to return to the same shelter sites (Burns and Heatwole 1998). Mark recapture, sonic tracking and visual mapping studies of A. laevis from the Swain Reefs indicated that these snakes generally confine their movements to particular sections of reef (home ranges of about 0.18 ha for females and 0.15 ha for males) (Marsh et al. 1993).

This species feeds on crabs, prawns, fish eggs, and fish (Limpus 1975, Guinea 2007). It hunts in crevices at the junction of a coral or rock wall and in the sand substrate (Heatwole et al. 1978, Burns and Heatwole 1998).

Female Olive Sea Snakes are thought to reach sexual maturity at 4-5 years (Heatwole 1997) and may live to an estimated age of 15 years (Burns 1984). Larger older female sea snakes produce larger broods (Fry et al. 2001).
Congregatory:Congregatory (and dispersive)

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): The main potential threats to A. laevis are loss and/or degradation of coral reef habitats and bycatch in trawling.

This species is strongly associated with coral reefs and the degradation of this habitat is likely to pose a threat to species persistence. Mass coral bleaching occurs in association with episodes of elevated sea surface temperature and results in significant losses of live coral (Hoegh-Guldberg 1999). This reduces habitat complexity, with a consequent decrease in prey abundance (Pratchett et al. 2008) and the loss of refuge sites. Climate change may thus threaten all sea snakes which are coral reef specialists (Francis 2006).

This species also is potentially at risk from their incidental capture in trawls in Australia. It is captured in trawl fisheries throughout its range (Courtney et al. 2010, Milton et al. 2008, Ward 2000) and has the lowest capacity to sustain fishing mortality of any sea snake species caught in Australian trawl fisheries (Milton 2001). It is has poor survival from trawling (~10% were landed dead and post-trawl deaths were ~20%) (Courtney et al. 2010). Many individuals are caught before they breed. This is partly due to the life history traits of A. laevis: which does not reach sexual maturity until age 4-5 years (Burns 1985). In addition, this species has low reproductive output (2-6 offspring every second year) (Burns 1985) and catch data suggests that a large proportion of the fished populations are incidentally captured (Milton 2001). Therefore, this species is unlikely to sustain additional mortality from incidental capture in trawls (Milton 2001).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: There are no species-specific conservation measures in place. No sea snake species is currently listed by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).

Sea snakes are protected in Australia since their addition to the ‘Listed Marine Species’ by the Department of Environment and Water Resources in 2000. They are protected in Australia under the Environment Protection Biodiversity and Conservation Act (EPCB) of 1999. This requires that all Australian industries interacting with protected species, directly or indirectly, demonstrate sustainability for the species impacted by their activities (Milton et al. 2008). The Australian Fisheries Management Act 1991 requires fishing efforts to avoid captures of threatened and protected species such as sea snakes.

The Northern Prawn Fishery (NPF) in Australia is having the largest impact on protected sea snake populations of any Commonwealth-managed fishery. The EPBC Act, and the NPF’s commitments under its Strategic assessment by the Department of the Environment and Water Resources, led to a three year study on developing and implementing a long-term bycatch monitoring program for Australia’s NPF (Milton et al. 2008).

Since 2003, Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and Australia's Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) have jointly run industry workshops to train crew member observers in the identification, photographing and recording of information on sea snakes caught in the NPF tiger and banana prawn seasons.

Commercial trials of different Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRDs) used in the Northern Prawn Fishery of Australia showed that two devices, Fisheye and Popeye Fishbox BRDs, can reduce sea snake catch by between 40 and 85% (without significant prawn loss) when set closer to the cod end than the maximum legally required distance, but <10% of fishers have responded to these findings by moving their BDRs closer to the codend (Milton et al. 2008).

Classifications [top]

9. Marine Neritic -> 9.4. Marine Neritic - Subtidal Sandy
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.5. Marine Neritic - Subtidal Sandy-Mud
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.6. Marine Neritic - Subtidal Muddy
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.8. Marine Neritic - Coral Reef -> 9.8.1. Outer Reef Channel
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.8. Marine Neritic - Coral Reef -> 9.8.2. Back Slope
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.8. Marine Neritic - Coral Reef -> 9.8.3. Foreslope (Outer Reef Slope)
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.8. Marine Neritic - Coral Reef -> 9.8.4. Lagoon
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.8. Marine Neritic - Coral Reef -> 9.8.5. Inter-Reef Soft Substrate
9. Marine Neritic -> 9.8. Marine Neritic - Coral Reef -> 9.8.6. Inter-Reef Rubble Substrate

In-Place Research, Monitoring and Planning
  Action Recovery plan:Yes
  Systematic monitoring scheme:Yes
In-Place Land/Water Protection and Management
In-Place Species Management
In-Place Education
  Subject to recent education and awareness programmes:Yes
11. Climate change & severe weather -> 11.1. Habitat shifting & alteration
♦ timing:Future    
→ Stresses
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.2. Ecosystem degradation

5. Biological resource use -> 5.4. Fishing & harvesting aquatic resources -> 5.4.4. Unintentional effects: (large scale) [harvest]
♦ timing:Ongoing    
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

1. Research -> 1.5. Threats
3. Monitoring -> 3.2. Harvest level trends

Bibliography [top]

Burns, G. 1984. Aspects of population movements and reproductive biology of Aipysurus laevis, the Olive Sea Snake. University of New England.

Burns, G. 1985. The female reproductive cycle of the olive sea snake, Aipysurus laevis (Hydrophiidae). In: G. Grigg, R. Shine and H. Ehmann (eds), The Biology of Australian Frogs and Reptiles, pp. 339-341. Surrey Beatty and Sons, Sydney.

Burns, G. and Heatwole, G. 1998. Home range and habitat use of the Olive Sea Snake, Aipysurus laevis, on the Great Barrier Reef. Australia Journal of Herpetology 32(3): 350-358.

Cogger, H.G. 2000. Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia. Sixth Edition. New Holland Publishers, Sydney.

Courtney, A. J., Schemel, B.C., Wallace, R., Campbell, M.J., Mayer D.G. and Young, B. 2010. Reducing the impact of Queensland's trawl fisheries on protected sea snakes. Fisheries Research and Development Coorporation (FRDC) Project #2005/053 Final Report.

Francis, E.J. 2006. Morphology, population and distribution of the Dusky Seasnake Aipysurus fuscus. University of Wollongong.

Fry, G.C., Milton, D.A. and Wassenberg, T.J. 2001. The reproductive biology and diet of sea snake bycatch of prawn trawling in northern Australia: characteristics important for assessing the impacts on populations. Pacific Conservation Biology 7: 55-73.

Greer, A.E. 2006. Encyclopedia of Australian Reptiles. Available at:

Guinea, M.L. 2006. Sea snakes of Ashmore Reef, Hibernia Reef and Cartier Island. In: DEWHA Final Report Survey 2005 (ed.).

Guinea, M.L. 2007. Sea snakes of Ashmore Reef, Hibernia Reef and Cartier Island with comments on Scott Reef. DEWR Final Report Survey 2007.

Heatwole, H. 1975. Sea snakes found on reefs in teh southern Coral Sea (Saumarez, Swains, Cato Island). In: W.A. Dunson (ed.), The Biology of Sea Snakes, pp. 163-171. University Park Press, Baltimore, Maryland.

Heatwole, H. 1999. Sea Snakes. Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida.

Heatwole, H. and Lukoschek, V. 2008. Reptiles of the Great Barrier Reef. In: PA Hutchings, MJ Kingsfor and O. Hoegh-Guldberg (eds), The Great Barrier Reef Biology, Environment and Management, pp. 342-348. CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.

Heatwole, H. Minton, S.A., Taylor, R. and Taylor, V. 1978. Underwater observations on sea snake behaviour. Records of the Australian Museum 31: 737-761.

Hoegh-Guldberg, O. 1999. Climate change, coral bleaching and the future of the world's coral reefs. Marine and Freshwater Research 50: 839-866.

Ineich, I. and Rasmussen, A.R. 1997. Sea snakes from New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands (Elapidae, Laticaudinae and Hydrophiinae). Zoosystema 19(2-3): 185-191.

IUCN. 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (ver. 2010.4). Available at: (Accessed: 27 October 2010).

Limpus, C.J. 1975. Coastal sea snakes of subtropical Queensland waters (23° to 28° south latitude). In: W.A. Dunson (ed.), The Biology of Sea Snakes, pp. 173-182. University Park Press, Baltimore, Maryland.

Lukoschek, V., Heathwole, H., Grech, A., Burns, G. and Marsh, H. 2007. Distribution of two species of sea snakes, Aipysurus laevis and Emydocephalus annulatus, in the southern Great Barrier Reef: metapopulation dynamics, marine protected areas and conservation. Coral Reefs 26: 291-307.

Lukoschek, V., Waycott, M. and Keogh, J.S. 2008. Relative information content of polymorphic microsatellites and mitochondrial DNA for inferring dispersal and population genetic structure in the olive sea snake, Aipysurus laevis. Molecular Ecology 17: 3062-3077.

Lukoschek V., Waycott, M. and Marsh, H. 2007. Phylogeographic structure of the olive sea snake, Aipysurus laevis (Hydrophiinae) indicates recent Pleistocene range expansion but low contemporary gene flow. Molecular Ecology 16: 3406-3422.

Marsh, H., Corkeron, P.J., Limpus, C.J., Shaughnessy, P.D. and Ward, T.M. 1993. Conserving marine mammals and reptiles in Australia and Oceania. In: C. Moritz and J. Kikkawa (eds), Conservation Biology in Australia and Oceania, pp. 225-244. Surrey, Beatty & Sons, Chipping Norton.

McCosker, J.E. 1975. Feeding behavior of Indo-Australian Hydrophiidae. In: W.A. Dunson (ed.), Biology of Sea Snakes, pp. 217-232. University Park Press, Baltimore, Maryland.

Milton, D.A. 2001. Assessing the susceptibility to fishing of populations of rare trawl bycatch: sea snakes caught by Australia's Northern Prawn Fishery. Biological Conservation 101(2001): 281-290.

Milton, D., Zhou, S., Fry, G. and Dell, Q. 2008. Risk assessment and mitigation for sea snakes caught in the Northern Prawn Fishery. Final report. CSIRO, Cleveland, Queensland.

Minton, S.A. and Dunson, W.A. 1985. Sea snakes collected at Chesterfield Reefs, Coral Sea. Atoll Research Bulletin 292: 101-108.

O'Shea, M. 1996. A Guide to the Snakes of Papua New Guinea. Independent Publishing, Independent Group Ltd., Port Moresby, PNG.

Pratchett, M.S., Munday, P.L., Wilson, S.K., Graham, N.A.J., Cinner, J.E., Bellwood, D.R., Jones, G.P., Polunin, N.V.C. and McClanahan, T.R. 2008. Effects of climate-induced coral bleaching on coral reef fishes - Ecological and economic consequences. Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review 46: 251-296.

Voris, H.K. and Jayne, B.C. 1979. Growth, reproduction and population size of a marine snake (Hydrophiidae). Copeia 1979(2): 307-318.

Ward, T.W. 2000. Factors affecting the catch rates and relative abundance of sea snakes in the by-catch of trawlers targeting tiger and endeavour prawns on the northern Australian continental shelf. Marine and Freshwater Research 51: 155-164.

Wilson, S. and Swan, G. 2003. A Complete Guide to Reptiles of Australia. New Holland, Sydney.

Citation: Lukoschek, V., Courtney, T., Milton, D. & Guinea, M. 2010. Aipysurus laevis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2010: e.T176704A7286736. . Downloaded on 23 September 2018.
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