A pair of sea snakes considered extinct has suddenly appeared off the coast of Western Australia, according to a study by researchers from James Cook University (JCU).
The scientists say it has been more than 15 years since the short-nosed sea snake was last spotted -- in the waters of Ashmore Reef, in the Timor Sea
The sea snakes were first observed by a Western Australia Parks and Wildlife officer, who took pictures of the long-forgotten marine reptiles on Ningaloo Reef and shared them with JCU's Blanche D'Anastasi, lead author of the study.
"We were blown away," said D'Anastasi in a release. "These potentially extinct snakes were there in plain sight, living on one of Australia's natural icons, Ningaloo Reef."
The news got even better for researchers, when it seemed that there was love in the water.
"What is even more exciting is that they were courting, suggesting that they are members of a breeding population," D'Anastasi said.
The short-nosed sea snake is formally listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "red list" of threatened species and is protected under Australian law.
Researchers are not yet sure what caused the snakes to disappear from the Ashmore Reef, though the IUCN listing suggests coral bleaching may have played a part.
The JCU researchers also got good news about another critically endangered sea snake, when a sizable population of the rare leaf-scaled sea snake was found in the waters of Shark Bay.
"This discovery is really exciting," said D'Anastasi of the finds. "We get another chance to protect these two endemic Western Australian sea snake species."
"But in order to succeed in protecting them," she added, "we will need to monitor populations as well as undertake research into understanding their biology and the threats they face."
The researchers' findings have been published in the journal Biological Conservation.