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Rainforested headland on a Wunambal Gaambera island. By Stefania Ondei
Rainforested headland on a Wunambal Gaambera island. By Stefania Ondei

The Galapagos of the Kimberley

Words by Kate Sutton
Location : Wunambal Gaambera Country, The Kimberley, Northern Territory
Published 27 Mar 2023

A diverse discovery has been made on islands off the coast of Wunambal Gaambera Country, Western Australia.

Amongst the wulo (rainforest) on islands and throughout inland rainforest patches in the North Kimberley, Wunambal Gaambera Country, lives an unassuming group of animals.

The species slime their way along the forest floor eating decaying leaf litter and are part of why this extraordinary archipelago is listed as an area of national heritage significance.

They are an incredibly diverse group of land snails from the Cameanidae family.

Like Charles Darwin observed how finches speciated on the Galapagos Islands, the snails evolved through geographic separation. Rainforest patches and offshore islands have expanded and contracted over time from the early Miocene, 20 million years ago when the climate was warmer and wetter, followed by the ice ages when the climate became cooler and drier and sea levels fell.

A land snail found on Bigge Island. By Vince Kessner

Throughout all these changes, the Cameanidae snails survived and evolved into their present-day forms.

Snails play an important support role in the wider ecosystem. They contribute to the natural world by decomposing leaf litter, renourishing the soil and are called upon to complete rainy-day pollination when other species opt to stay dry.

Also, snails’ hypersensitivity to their environment makes them an important indicator species for monitoring ecosystem health.

The land snails of Wunambal Gaambera Country were first brought to scientists’ attention after two surveys were conducted: a survey in the late eighties on Kimberley rainforests and another survey between 2006–2010 on Kimberley islands.

During the surveys, Traditional Owners worked with scientists Norman McKenzie, Frank Köhler, Roy Teale and Vince Kessner to collect the snails. The Wunambal Gaambera names for land snails are yabuli and nyaliga.

Traditional Owners and Uunguu Rangers Jeremy Kowan and Desmond Williams remember collecting the snails on Wunambal Gaambera islands.

Uunguu Ranger Desmond Williams. By Kate Cranney

“I remember doing the surveys with the scientists on the islands. We were turning over the rocks, looking for the snails. We used a stick to move the leaves and our hands to move the rocks and find the snails. They hide under there where it is cool and moist. It is good to see we can now describe them and that they are so important for our Country,” Jeremy Kowan, Uunguu Ranger and Wunambal Gaambera Traditional Owner.

Norman McKenzie, one of the scientists who went on both surveys, remembers working alongside the late Geoffrey Mangolamara, Wunambal Gaambera Traditional Owner, in the late 1980s.

“Geoffrey made sure we were doing everything correctly when we were on Wunambal Gaambera Country. We were told where the best spot to land our helicopter was. He made sure we were across all the right cultural protocols and best practice to respect the Country and their culture.

He adds: “This is an example of how very diverse the plants and animals which live in this unique ecosystem in the north Kimberley are, and why it is so important to protect. The Wunambal Gaambera Traditional Owners and their healthy country team, have an important job to protect this extremely unique and biodiverse environment.”

Most of the snails are found within the rainforest patches of the Kimberley islands. On Boongaree Island, one of the larger islands, there are 13 species of Camaenids, including the Globorrhagada wunandarra, which is also the Wunambal name for Boongaree Island.

Wulo (rainforest) is prime snail habitat. By Kate Cranney

While some Camaenid snails are found in woodlands, around half the species are restricted to rainforests and many species of snails are restricted to just one or two patches. Several rainforest patches are so diverse in Wunambal Gaambera Country, they have 18–19 species.

With over 6300 rainforest patches in Wunambal Gaambera Country, it raises questions as to whether there could be more undescribed species?

Bush Heritage has worked alongside Uunguu Rangers and Wunambal Gaambera Traditional Owners to keep their Country healthy and intact for the past ten years. It was with the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation and other partners that Bush Heritage implemented the first Healthy Country Plan. An approach to the management of Indigenous Protected Areas that has since been adopted by other Aboriginal Groups in the Kimberley and across the country.

“Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation and Bush Heritage Australia have a strong partnership. Bush Heritage support Traditional Owner groups to look after their Country and the Healthy Country Plan provides a framework for them to do this. The presence of these snails on Wunambal Gaambera Country is another example of how unique the ecosystem is and how important it is to protect it,” says Tom Vigilante, Healthy Country Manager.

Ranger Coordinator Tom Vigilante and Uungu Ranger Jaslyn. Photo by Mark Jones

Developed together through a series of workshops and field trips, the plan set a roadmap for how Country was to be managed including fire management, weed and feral animal control, visitor management, conservation of cultural heritage and monitoring the health of plants and animals.

Now, Bush Heritage is supporting Wunambal Gaambera’s development of the next Healthy Country Plan. A plan that will continue to keep Country healthy including the lives and homes of the diverse Camaenid gastropods (snails).

Our podcast, Big Sky Country, featured the following episode with Wunambal Gaambera Traditional Owners and leading scientists sharing their experiences developing plans to protect Country and the Camaenids. 

Amongst inland wulo (rainforest) and on islands in the North Kimberley, Wunambal Gaambera Country, lives an unassuming group of animals. The species slime their way along the forest floor eating decaying leaf litter and are part of why this extraordinary region is listed as an area of national heritage significance – they are an incredibly diverse group of... snails!

Episode details >

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