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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Reconsidering Kangaroos #2

This post follows my most recent one, which introduced the kangaroo family and explored the 'main line' of kangaroos and wallabies, the ones with which we're most familiar.

But the family is much more diverse than that, and becomes more so if we also consider the two other closely related families. So where did they all come from? The oldest Australian marsupials we know about were small carnivores, some of which climbed into the trees and apparently began utilising the abundant fruit and even more abundant but hard to digest foliage. Our fossil record of this time is still fairly sketchy, but it is evident that at some stage (more than 35 million years ago, but we can't yet be more precise) one of these arboreal groups came down again and resumed a ground level existence. These little pioneers were the ancestors of modern kangaroos and wallabies - those that stayed aloft were the grand-parents of the various modern possum groups.

Around 35 million years ago the ancestral macropods ('big foot', the convenient name for kangaroos, wallabies and kin - see last week's post) diverged into two lines. The descendants of both are still with us, though one whole line now comprises just one little survivor - all of its relatives (11 that we so far know about) are familiar to us only as fossils. The Musky Rat Kangaroo Hypsiprymnodon moschatus lives only in the rainforests of the Queensland Wet Tropics, and gives us an idea of what the oldest macropods might have looked like. With the widespread loss of coastal rainforest, they are mostly now found in the highlands, such as the Atherton Tableland.
 Musky Rat Kangaroo, Lake Eacham, north Queensland. The sole living member of the ancient family Hypsiprymnodontidae, this little animal is still regarded as a macropod (along with the next family we'll
mention) because of its close shared ancestry with the actual family Macropodidae.
They are only about 23cm long, plus a bare 14cm tail.
It differs from other macropods in important ways though - and after all it has had 35 million years to become different! It is only active in the daytime, it primarily eats fruit, it has five hind toes, and bounds along on all fours, rather than hopping. They can readily be seen crossing tracks or roads in the rainforest, or foraging on the forest floor, but are rarely as obliging as this one was, seen from the verandah of our rainforest cabin on a recent trip. As well as fruit - which they bury, with seeds, across the forest floor, greatly assisting tree seed distribution - they snack on invertebrates and fungi.

The remaining macropod line split again about 23 million years ago, giving rise to the modern potoroos and bettongs, in addition to the 'main line' macropods. These are also small mammals, dwelling mostly in dense understorey, from rainforests to coastal heaths. They are well known as 'environmental engineers', moving huge quantities of forest soil in their search for underground 'truffles', fungal bodies associated with the roots of trees and crucial to forest health. There are four living bettongs and three potoroos, several of them in serious danger of extinction. I can't offer you my own photos of these (because I don't have any!), but here's what they look like - just an example of each.
Long-nosed Potoroo Potorous tridactylus, courtesy Australian Museum.
This species, from wetter near-coastal forests of south-eastern Australia, is the only one of
the three potoroo species which is not listed as Threatened. Potoroos superficially resemble bandicoots,
but are unrelated, and soon reveal their macropod connections when they hop!
Eastern Bettong Bettongia gaimardi, courtesy Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary.
Once common in woodlands of south-eastern mainland Australia from Queensland to
South Australia, we had exterminated them by the 1920s. Fortunately they have survived
well in Tasmania, where Red Foxes have never established, and recently a population has been
established in a large fenced sanctuary at Mulligans Flat, a woodland nature reserve
on the northern edge of Canberra.
Of the other three bettong species, two are listed as Endangered, and the Boodie, whose range once covered more than 60% of the continent, is limited to a few islands off the west coast. Stories don't come much sadder.

Well, those are the two macropod families that are not the 'main stream' Macropodidae family that we introduced last time. Within that though are also several other groups of kangaroos and wallabies that we really should meet too.

We divide the family into two sub-families - on one side is just one species, the enigmatic Banded Hare-Wallaby, and on the other are all the other 60 or so species. 
Banded Hare-wallabies Lagostrophus fasciatus, from John Gould's superb
A monograph of the Macropodidæ, or family of kangaroos
(courtesy of the inestimable Biodiversity Heritage Library).
This fascinating animal - a link to the early origins of the kangaroo family - was once scattered across southern Australia from the west coast to Victoria and south-west New South Wales. It too now only survives on a couple of western islands.

For the rest there are tree kangaroos, pademelons, rock wallabies, nail-tail wallabies, hare wallabies, the New Guinea dorscopsis wallabies and a couple of 'outlying' species (Swamp Wallaby and Quokka). I will briefly introduce them all; hope you can bear with me!

The ancestral tree kangaroo seemingly had second thoughts about its forebears' decision to come down out of the trees, and has again adopted an arboreal lifestyle. They are most closely related to the rock-wallabies, and it is not too hard to imagine such accomplished climbers adapting their rock-climbing skills to scaling trees to harvest the vast crop of rainforest leaves; most tree kangaroos are from New Guinea, and it is proposed that they arose there. This may have been a relatively recent move as they are not especially adept, but they can move on two legs or four along branches, and leap between trees or down to the ground from high in the canopy. Their forelegs are relatively much longer and more muscular than those of other kangaroos, and their feet are broader and with a grainy sole, like those of rock-wallabies. 
Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroo Dendrolagus lumholtzi, Malanda, Atherton Tablelands.
This plateau inland from Cairns in north Queensland is the centre of the remaining range of this,
the smaller of Australia's two tree kangaroo species. The name commemorates Norwegian explorer
and anthropologist Carl Lumholtz who introduced a specimen to science in the 1880s.
Bennett's Tree Kangaroo D. bennettianus lives further north on Cape York Peninsula, and there are about a dozen species in New Guinea, though more are being described and this number will rise - sadly, many of them are in serious trouble from over-hunting and forest clearing.

I discussed the wonderful rock-wallabies a while ago here, so won't reiterate the whole story, but in summary they seem to be closest to the rainforest and dense near-coastal shrubland pademelons (and the tree kangaroos) and have spread across the continent, specialising in cliffs and ranges, where their proficiency on sheer slopes is remarkable. Isolated now by predators (especially foxes and dingoes) and habitat loss, several species are in trouble. Key adaptations are short broad feet with rough soles like sandshoes and no protruding toe and claw, and a heavy non-tapered flexible tail to provide balance at speed. The following two photos show these characters, plus the colourful coats of some rock wallaby species, compared with those of most other macropods.
Black-footed (or Black-flanked) Rock-wallaby Petrogale lateralis, Alice Springs.

Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby, Flinders Ranges, South Australia. This is one of the oldest rock wallaby species,
though the group seems to have only diverged in the last few million years.

Black-footed Rock-wallabies on alert, Alice Springs Telegraph Station.
Pademelons comprise seven species of the genus Thylogale, small solid kangaroos of dense understories of rainforests and wet eucalypt forests (and sometimes coastal heaths). The name is an adaptation of the Indigenous name for them in the Sydney area. Colonial Botanist Richard Cunningham in 1827 used the form paddymalla (and went on to claim that it typically weighed 60 pounds!), and the obviously Anglicised paddymelon has also often been used (though we tend to use that more for various native and exotic species of 'cucumber').

I can show you all three Australian species, though it's not very hard to do as while they have suffered from habitat loss, they can still be quite common and even numerous where they persist, though they tend to be nocturnal and wary and rarely stray far from shelter.
Red-necked Pademelon Thylogale thetis, Mt Clunie, near Kyogle in inland far northern New South Wales.
These emerged to feed at the same time every day, as is typical of the species, which lives along the
sub-tropical east coast.

Tasmanian Pademelons T. billardierii, Narawntapu NP (formerly Asbestos Range), northern Tasmania.
Despite the name, this one used to live in mainland south-eastern Australia too; it has gone from there since
European settlement, but is common throughout Tasmania.
Like other pademelons the tail just drags behind, and is not used for support.

Red-legged Pademelon T. stigmatica, Kingfisher Park, Julatten, north Queensland.
This youngster probably shouldn't have been out on its own. This tropical species is found along
the east coast from north of Sydney to Cape York and into New Guinea, where there are
also another four species.
There are - or were - three species of nailtail wallaby, genus Onychogalea, small wallabies characterised by a  hard spur at the tail-tip, for no apparent purpose. Another characteristic is their gait - at speed a nailtail holds its arms out forward and down for balance, seemingly rotating, hence the old name of Organ Grinder. The Northern Nailtail Wallaby O. unguifera is still doing OK across northern Australia, but another one is Endangered and the other was very rare by the early years of the 20th century and extinct within a few decades - both had huge ranges across drier Australia.
Poignant portrait of Crescent Nailtail Wallabies O, lunata From John Gould's mighty Mammals of Australia, 1863.
At time they were common and widespread and remained so until the 20th century. Thereafter records rapidly
declined; the last substantiated records were in the 1930s.
The story of the Hare-wallabies, genus Lagorchestes, is sadly similar - four species, covering most of the continent in the 19th century, now only two and one of those has seen its range shrink from most of the central and western deserts to two small islands off Western Australia. This one, the Rufous Hare-wallaby L. hirsutus, remains a key story animal to many desert people and there have been determined attempts to reintroduce it to the central deserts; so far these attempts have been thwarted by cats and foxes, but there are good captive populations and hopes remain. (The hare-wallabies incidentally don't include the Banded Hare-wallaby that we discussed earlier! That was a case of mistaken identity, but the name stuck.)
Spectacled Hare-wallaby L. conspicillatus, also from Gould's Mammals of Australia.Only this species of the three is still widespread across the tropical grasslands, though even here there
are worrying signs of decline in some areas.
The Dorcopsis wallabies (genera Dorcopsis and Dorcopsulus) are rainforest dwellers of New Guinea and nearby Indonesia; I recall some in Adelaide Zoo around the 1970s but I don't think that there are any in Australia now.
White-striped Dorcopsis D. hageni, courtesy A to Z Animals. It is found across northern New Guinea,
though I'm sure this a captive animal. I recall this strange 'tripod' stance using the stiffly bent tail from
the Adelaide Zoo animals, though they were Grey Dorcopsis D. luctuosa.
Which brings us to the two 'loners', each quite familiar to most Australians with an interest in wildlife, the only members of their respective genera and with no close relations.

The Swamp Wallaby Wallabia bicolor is common and widespread along the entire east and south-east coast and hinterland; indeed it was apparently to this species that the Sydney language name of  'wallaby' (or something similar) was applied and adopted by Europeans for all the familiar smaller kangaroos. The names Black and Black-tailed Wallaby have also been used - and arguably more helpfully, though I have also read that the Swamp name refers to the rank smell and taste of the meat. The black tail, relatively small head and odd gait - hump-backed with head held low and tail stiffly out behind - immediately mark the Swampy as 'different' from other wallabies.
Swamp Wallaby, Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve, north Canberra. This is an attractive, colourful species.
It is more of a browser than grazer; this one is munching on a benign mistletoe leaf from a low-hanging clump,
but they are also seemingly immune to toxic fare such as Bracken Fern (poisonous to stock) and introduced Hemlock -
if only poor Socrates could have learnt that trick.
Lastly, and far from least, the Quokka, Setonix brachyurus, the favourite of many Australians, though they are only found in Western Australia, and only likely to be seen on Rottnest Island, off the coast of Fremantle, Perth's port. This was the second Australian marsupial to come to the attention of European explorers when Dutch navigator Samuel Volckerzoon reported 'wild cats' on an unidentified island near Perth in 1658. The poor Quokkas had to get used to being misrepresented, as later Willem de Vlamingh characterised them as 'a kind of rat big as a common cat'. Indeed he named their island Rottnest - ie Rat's Nest. They were common along the coastal plain but while still there they are scarce and not often seen; on Rottnest however they are completely accustomed to people.
Quokka, Rottnest Island. The round face, shaggy body and short tail make this engaging little
animal quite unmistakable.
So, a fairly extensive survey-cum-tribute to one of the most fascinating groups of mammals in the world, though most of us don't know much about most of them, and we've overall treated them very badly. We should never ignore them though, and I'd love to think I might have encouraged you to look more closely - and seek out more of them. Marvellous macropods. Thanks for coming with me.

NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 14 MARCH
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Thursday, 14 February 2019

Reconsidering Kangaroos #1

It's been some four years since I posted on kangaroos and in the meantime our understanding of the relationships of different kangaroo groups to each other has changed considerably, so it's probably time to revise and update that post. Moreover that post was only on the 'main line' of kangaroos and I've been meaning for some time to add a post on the 'other', equally interesting, members of the family. That will finally occur next week!

The story of people and kangaroos in Australia is at least 60,000 years old (and almost that old in New Guinea) but that story isn't mine to tell. The first kangaroo (and I'll be defining my terms soon) to have the misfortune to be killed by a European seems to have been a Dusky Pademelon Thylogale brunii on the South Coast of New Guinea in 1606, by Captain Don Diego de Prado y Tovar. Prado, apparently a Spanish nobleman, was in command of the San Pedrico which accompanied Luis Váez de Torres on the expedition which sailed between New Guinea and Australia, through the strait that now bears Torres' name. Soon afterwards, in 1629, the Dutchman Francisco Pelsaert described the first Australian kangaroo, probably a Tammar Wallaby Notamacropus eugenii, while rescuing survivors of the Batavia disaster off the west coast of Western Australia. The first English account was by naturalist-pirate William Dampier in 1699 also from northern Western Australia, seemingly this time the fascinating Banded Hare-wallaby (see next week).

All this means that when Captain James Cook's crew encountered (and cooked) Eastern Grey Kangaroos in northern Queensland in 1770, they were not quite as surprised by the creatures as they are sometimes portrayed as being.
Eastern Grey Kangaroos Macropus robustus, Namadgi National Park, south of Canberra.
In vernacular, we tend to use 'kangaroo' for the larger members of the family Macropodidae (which has some 60 members), and 'wallaby' for smaller ones, but it's not taxonomically meaningful. Indeed until very recently all the best-known Australian kangaroos and wallabies were included in just one genus Macropus (ie 'big foot'), from which the kangaroo family name Macropodidae derives. I use 'kangaroo' loosely to refer any member of the family, but better still is the word macropod, which I'll use from now on. 

It was only by accident - literally - that we use the word kangaroo, that being the name for Eastern Grey Kangaroo in the Guugu Yimithirr language of north Queensland. It came to our attention when Cook's Endeavour struck a reef in 1770 near where Cooktown now stands, necessitating an extended stay, during which naturalist Joseph Banks learnt the word for the animal his greyhounds caught. I like to muse that had Cook sailed on by, as he'd intended, we'd almost certainly be calling them something like Patagarang or Badagarang, that being the word in the language of the people who lived in the area where the first settlement intruded on them, in 1788 where Sydney now stands. 'Wallaby' also comes from the language of the Sydney people (a language often referred to as Dharug, though there seems to be some doubt about that), apparently being the word for what we call Swamp or Black-tailed Wallaby Wallabia bicolor. 

And to head off another oft-asked question, 'wallaroo' is not a kangaroo-wallaby hybrid, but any of three species of mostly stocky muscular hill kangaroos; unfortunately the hybrid name furphy was recently perpetuated again in a widely read on-line ABC story on kangaroos. Wallaroo is yet another Sydney language word. This term is used for Osphranter robustus along the Great Dividing Range along the east coast, while the word Euro (from the Adnyamadhanha language of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia) is used throughout the inland for the same species.
Wallaroo, Nangar NP, New South Wales.
Wallaroos (mostly from the Great Dividing Range) are blue-grey, while Euros (from the drier inland)
are reddish grey, despite being the same species.
Note the shaggy coat and big ears.
Euros, Broken Hill, far western New South Wales, in typical rocky range habitat.
Those who are familiar with kangaroo species names might now be getting agitated about my use of unfamiliar genus names Notamacropus and Osphranter instead of the familiar Macropus. May I explain my temerity? Macropus as we generally understand it was not always set in stone. Osphranter was actually coined by Gould back in 1842 for the euros and, despite being included in Macropus by some authorities later in the 19th century, Osphranter was still being used by respected macropod taxonomists such as Ellis Troughton and Tom Iredale into the second half of the 20th century. (At this stage, and even later, Megalaia was also widely used for the Red Kangaroo.) In 1985 Terence Dawson (one of the greatest kangaroo field ecologists of all) and Tim Flannery, eminent marsupial zoologist (et alia!), proposed three sub-genera within Macropus. Macropus itself contained just the two grey kangaroos; Osphranter held the three wallaroos plus the Red Kangaroo; Notamacropus comprised the 'main line' wallabies. This was widely accepted by science, but had little effect on the wider world, as no-one else takes much notice of sub-genera.

This changed in 2015 with the monumental tome Taxonomy of Australian Mammals, by Stephen Jackson (widely published on marsupials, working for NSW government) and Colin Groves (of the Australian National University, and a doyen of world mammal taxonomy until his untimely death last year). They raised the three sub-genera to full genus level and I found their reasoning to be interesting, and indeed refreshing. "... we urge an objective standard for the recognition of genera, and ... the only one that seems readily applicable is time depth; and our preferred time depth for a genus is 4-5 million years." These three groups seem to have separated 8-9 million years ago, so readily meet this criterion. Indeed, the proposal seems to have been near-universally accepted by those in the field, so I could hardly do otherwise, even were I so inclined.

I hear so many stories of people coming to Australia and expecting to see kangaroos in the main streets that I suspect that some of them must be true. And here in Canberra it's pretty close to the way things are! In suburbs near the numerous hill reserves which are scattered through the urban area it's common to see roos grazing the lawn or drinking from garden ponds in dry spells. And driving anywhere in Canberra can be potentially hazardous when the roos are on the move. I could meet you at the airport and pretty much guarantee to find you Eastern Grey Kangaroos within about 10 minutes. The abnormally very high numbers of this species in precious Canberra grassy woodland reserves has led to science-based regular culls to keep kangaroo numbers within sustainable levels, which has of course led to community conflict. No sane person enjoys killing animals, but our stewardship of the natural world comes with sometimes difficult responsibilities.
Eastern Grey Kangaroos Macropus giganteus, just a few minutes from my Canberra suburban home.
The animals in this photo are showing the classic kangaroo characteristics of powerful hind legs, short forelimbs with grasping paws and a long heavy counter-balancing tail. Lounging about stretched out on the ground is typical daytime behaviour too.
Eastern Grey Kangaroo lounging, Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve, northern Canberra.
The long hind legs are an adaptation to hopping, a form of locomotion which seems to have arisen in the ancestral kangaroos somewhere between 15 and 20 million years ago, though this is a relatively unusual situation where the fossil record has so-far unfilled and frustrating gaps. While members of a few rodent families, and a member of one other family of small marsupials (the carnivorous Kultarr) have independently evolved hopping, the kangaroos are the only large vertebrates ever to have developed the trick. (Tales of hopping dinosaurs seem to be no more than tales.)
Eastern Grey Kangaroos on the move.
The leaps that these legs can power are sometimes astonishing. These Eastern Greys were moving back from early
morning feeding in the paddocks to the shelter of Mt Ainslie Nature Reserve. Most went under the fence, as is
normal - I was still probably 100 metres away and they were in no panic - but this relatively young
animal went over the fence from a standing jump with little effort.
You can see the height of the fence relative to the size of the hopper.
Hopping is not an efficient mode of locomotion at low speeds; at less than 12km an hour a trotting dog for instance uses less energy. As speed increases however the hopping kangaroo begins to pull ahead energetically, and increases its relative efficiency further as its speed increases. At 22km per hour, the highest speed that I'm aware that energy expenditure has been measured, a hopping kangaroo uses less than 75% of the energy a similarly sized dog would. At speeds of 40kph - which a kangaroo can readily achieve - it would be expected to be twice as efficient. 

The reason for this has been tentatively suggested in terms of the muscles and tendons acting like springs, storing kinetic energy which is used in the next leap. Doubtless this occurs, but we now know that galloping animals also utilise this 'bouncing ball' strategy, so a roo's advantage can't be attributed solely to this. It seems that the explanation lies in the much longer stride a hopping kangaroo can achieve. An animal can increase speed either by taking longer strides, or by taking more steps or hops per minute; it is the latter which uses much more energy. A kangaroo's gait allows it to simply to take longer and longer hops as it accelerates, to more than four metres per bound. At very high speeds it will also start to put in extra hops, which presumably uses more energy.

At very low speeds however, such as when feeding, a kangaroo 'caterpillars' along, using five limbs, the tail being co-opted for this purpose. 
Big male Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Namadgi National Park.
To get to the next patch of desirable grass, the animal swings its back legs forward together,
while balancing on its forelegs and tail.
As we approached he simply rose and began hopping to put a bit of distance between us.
Curiously, when swimming, a kangaroo suddenly learns how to move its hind legs independently of each other, the only time it seems able to do so.

The drive from the ground is conveyed by an elongated fourth toe and strong claw, as demonstrated by this laid-back wallaby.
Extremely relaxed Red-necked Wallaby N. rufogriseus, Mount Clunie, near Kyogle, northern New South Wales;
note the long fourth toes and strong claws, on either side of the tail.

Tail, hind legs and the wicked fourth claw are all used in combat too - in defence against predators (especially dogs and dingoes), and in fights with rival males over mating rights. Usually such fights are largely ritualised demonstrations of strength and experience, but when in earnest real damage can be done by the power of the legs and the tip of the claw.
As can be seen here (in Namadgi National Park, south of Canberra) the male balances briefly on his tail
while launching a kick - with limited intent of malice in this case. The imposing front claws too can be
used to attack the opponent's face, so the head is usually held back by the defender.
As marsupials, embryos develop externally, but in the pouch (ie the marsupium). In the case of the big kangaroos time in the pouch varies with species from 200 to 300 days.

Agile Wallaby Notamacropus agilis with joey, Cape Hillsborough NP, tropical Queensland.
This one is starting to explore the world, but retreats to safety when it feels the need.
Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Canberra. The joey dives in head-first, then reorganises itself while inside.
More seasonal climate species, such as the Eastern and Western Grey Kangaroos M. fuliginosus, breed seasonally, but the extended pouch life means that the female is usually caring for a pouch young and a still dependent joey 'at foot', who follows her around and feeds from her. Arid land species, such as Red Kangaroos and Euros, tend to breed continuously. In either case the female produces quite different types of milk from the two teats (protected in the pouch), with one of them elongated to assist the youngster leaning in from outside to feed. (It was long believed that the joeys developed directly from the teats.) Furthermore Red Kangaroo females will at any one time be not only caring for a pouch young and dependent joey, but will also be carrying a blastocyst (an embryo 'frozen' in development at only a few cells, some 0.25mm in diameter). This is released to grow when either the mother loses the pouch young, or it leaves the pouch as it grows. This is an adaptation to living in the boom and bust of an El Niño climate; populations can crash during droughts, and rebound rapidly in the irregular and non-seasonal good years.

There is of course a lot more to say, and I'll be saying some of it next week, but you've probably read more than your fill for now. Let's finish with a partial gallery of the kangaroos until recently called Macropus, though I'm missing four of the thirteeen living species. (These are Parma Wallaby N. parma, rediscovered in the wild in northern NSW coastal forests in 1967 after a 100 year hiatus; the Black-striped Wallaby N. dorsalis, a shy nocturnal dweller of dense NSW and Queensland shrublands; the Western Brush Wallaby N. irma of south-western Australian heathlands; and the rare and little-known Black Wallaroo O. bernardus of the sandstone escarpments of Kakadu NP and the immediate surrounds. I've seen the Black-striped and Western Brush Wallabies, but have no usable photos; pictures are easy to find on line though if you're interested.)

Big male Eastern Kangaroo, Canberra.
Like most of the big kangaroos (though not many smaller macropods), Eastern Greys have benefited
greatly from agriculture, which supplies pastures and water points. They are expanding well out of their
traditional range into the semi-arid zone, utilising farm dams.

Western Grey Kangaroos:
female, Cape Le Grande NP, Western Australia (above);
big male, Silverton, far western New South Wales, below.
Western Greys are really brown. They evolved in Western Australia when the south-west
was isolated from the east by arid conditions, and later spread east. They were only recognised
as forming a separate species from the Eastern Grey in recent decades.

Red Kangaroos M. rufus; Western Australia (above), south-west Queensland (below).
This beautiful animal is found throughout the arid inland.
Theoretically males are red and females blue-grey, but a substantial proportion of animals (varying
between populations) has the 'other' colour, or a blend.
Wallaroo, Nangar National Park, New South Wales.
Euro, Idalia NP, south-western Queensland
Big male Euro in stand-off with a Dingo, Telegraph Station Reserve, Alice Springs.
Kangaroo cave painting, Burrungkuy, or Burrunggui (formerly erroneously known as Nourlangie Rock),
Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory.
In this sandstone habitat, the painting probably represents a Euro.
Antilopine Wallaroos O. antilopinus, Kakadu NP.
This is the kangaroo of the tropical savannahs.
Agile Wallaby, Kakadu National Park.
Also a tropical macropod, though one that goes into the brushes more than the Antilopine does.

Male Agile Wallaby, Tyto Swamp, Ingam, north Queensland, in pre-dawn light.
The notably narrow face is obvious here.

Red-necked Wallabies N. rufogriseus, Namadgi NP, near Canberra, above and below.

The origin of the species name, rufogriseus, 'red and grey', is obvious.
In Tasmania (here Ben Lomond NP) the same species is known as Bennett's Wallaby.
Tammar (or Dama) Wallaby M. eugenii, Kangaroo Island, South Australia.
This engaging little animal is still common there, but scarce on the adjacent mainland
and in south-western Western Australia.
Whiptail (or Prettyface) Wallaby M. parryi, Undara NP, north Queensland.
This elegant wallaby is found throughout coastal and hinterland
tropical  and subtropical eastern Australia.
I hope you've enjoyed this brief introduction to a group of marsupials that many of us here take for granted, though they are fascinating and intrinsically beautiful and we should never do so. Next time I'll talk about the rest of the macropods in other genera.

NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 21 FEBRUARY
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Thursday, 31 January 2019

Pousada Aguapé; a Brazilian wildlife extravaganza #2

This is the conclusion of an exploration of the wildlife wonders of the southern Pantanal, as encapsulated by the fazenda (a working cattle property) on which stands the comfortable lodge Pousada Aguapé. Last time we were too captivated by the wildlife activity in the lodge gardens to venture further afield, but there is good reason to do that too. So climb onto the high-backed truck, decked with seats, from the platform provided, and come and explore the property.
Our group boarding - please join us!
(Photo courtesy of Murray Delahoy - thanks Murray!)
We were there in September, normally towards the end of the dry season, but the rains came early last year so there was a lot of water around, and waterbirds had begun to scatter across the Pantanal, but they certainly weren't absent.
Views, above and below, of the ephemeral wetlands starting to fill.
I believe that the round-leafed plant in the foreground is one of the Pickerel Weeds (a name used
for various species of the genus Pontederia, family Pontederiaceae).
If so, this one is P. rotundifolia, one of the dominant water plants of the Pantanal.






The water was already almost up to (or over) the tracks in places; later most of the area, save only
higher ground, will disappear under at least a metre and a half of water for a few months.

The land is managed, seemingly very successfully, for both cattle and wildlife.
Probably needless to say I couldn't identify most of the plants, but here are a couple of significant ones that I had some success with, including another species of Pickerel Weed. 
Pontederia parviflora, which seems to favour more shallow water than P. rotundifolia.

Salvinia auriculata, a floating fern native to the Americas, which has become a pest of waterways
in some parts of the world. It is in the same family as Azolla, familiar in Australia.
And despite my earlier comments about relative scarcity of waterbirds, there were still enough to bring great satisfaction - here are some of the birds we encountered in the rising waters.
Wattled Jacana Jacana jacana, a common - and always welcome - sight pretty much throughout
South American wetlands east of the Andes. Its amazing toes, to spread its weight to enable it to
walk on floating leaves, aren't visible here, but...
... they have other uses, as shown in this somewhat blurry action shot. The smaller size of the male is
also clearly seen here; she is the dominant member of the pair and he is responsible for eggs and chicks.
Jabiru Jabiru mycteria with a very large lunch - amazingly, and after a struggle, it went down too!
Maguari Stork Ciconia maguari. This impressive bird is the only member of near-worldwide stork genus
that includes the familiar European White Stork C. ciconia. Although reasonably widespread it
was my first encounter with it.
Bare-faced Ibis Phimosus infuscatus, a bird whose range seems to be increasing with clearing of forests.
(This flock was actually outside of the fazenda, but part of the same system.)
Black-bellied Whistling Duck Dendrocygna autumnalis, a common and widespread - and very attractive -
duck which ranges north to southern North Amrerica. (It also features, out of focus, in the foreground of
the preceding photo.)
Brazilian Teal Amazonetta brasiliensis, another widespread species, and the only member of its genus;
despite the 'teal' part of the name it is not closely related to the main group of dabbling ducks.
And of course various small birds use the emergent wetland vegetation, but not the water itself.
White-headed Marsh Tyrant Arundinicola leucocephala; this lovely little tyrant flycatcher was perched up hunting insects
and tending the beautiful nest below, made of grass and lined with feathers, accessed by a side door.
It too is the only one of its genus.


Wedge-tailed Grassfinch Emberizoides herbicola; despite its name, it's really a tanager.
As I alluded to last time, tanager-associated taxonomy is a very tangled web indeed!
Smooth-billed Anis Crotophaga ani are familiar and highly gregarious non-parasitic cuckoos,
which cooperate in brooding and chick feeding, with several females laying in a nest.
They are often found near water, but are not restricted to watery habitats.
And of course birds aren't the only inhabitants of the wetlands.
Capybaras Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris are the world's biggest rodent, are supremely at home in the water, and are
seemingly ubiquitous in the Pantanal - above and below.


Male Marsh Deer Blastocerus dichotomus, South America's largest deer, reliant on swampy situations
where it wades for food in up to 60cm of water and swims strongly. It formerly had a huge range
in central South America, but that is now terribly fragmented by loss of wetlands.
Where the grasslands and open woodlands have not yet flooded, different animals can be found, including some of the most exciting from our point of view.


Greater Rhea Rhea americana, the largest of three (or larger of two, depending on who you ask)
rhea species in South America. Numbers are dwindling due to hunting and habitat loss, but they
are still a common sight - and not nervous of humans! - in the Pantanal.
Blue-crowned Parakeets Thectocercus acuticaudatus. These lovely - and it must be said engaging -
little parrots are in the Pantanal only found in the south-western woodlands.
Red Pileated Finch Coryphospingus cucullatus, common enough in its eastern South American range,
but still a delight for visitors like us.
Chotoy Spinetail Schoeniophylax phryganophilus.
The spinetails form a group of the ovenbirds, a large solely South American group of ancient passerines;
this one is limited to the south-east of South America.

Grey Monjita Xolmis cinereus, a tyrant flycatcher (the 'other' big group of uniquely South American
old passerines); there are three species of monjita at Pousada Aguapé.
Guira Cuckoo Guira guira (just in case you weren't sure of the name!).
Like the anis above, these are big sociable cuckoos, widely found in the south-east of the continent,
and often also lay eggs in shared nests, though they will also breed separately.
Long-tailed Ground Dove Uropelia campestris, limited to central-west Brazil and adjacent Bolivia;
one of several species of small ground-foraging doves in the Pantanal.
And of course with this richness of birds, there are predators and scavengers.
Roadside Hawk Rupornis magnirostris, a common hawk of a vast swathe of eastern South America, loitering with intent.

Immature Savanna Hawk Buteogallus meridionalis, testing its wings; probably not too much of
a threat yet, but later small mammals, birds, frogs, reptiles, eels and invertebrates, including crabs,
will all be at risk from it.

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture Cathartes burrovianus, a constant sight in the Pantanal,
where it cleans up carcasses.
Pampas Deer Ozotoceros bezoarticus; I'd normally spare you such a poor photo, but this is an uncommon
and globally threatened species, and worth recording. Its once huge range has now contracted and mostly
comprises the Pantanal.
And a better photo, of a female, again courtesy of Murray Delahoy.
But one of the creatures we most wanted to see proved to be fairly common and accessible in the Pousada Aguapé grasslands and woodlands. What a thrill!
Giant Anteater Myrmecophaga tridactyla, an ancient South American I'd wanted to see in the wild since
being introduced to them in a black and white David Attenborough movie while a young schoolboy.
This was one of those moments that will endure for the rest of my life.
Lastly, there are the riverine forests and forested ridges, which don't usually flood and which support rich wildlife.
Collared Peccary Pecari tajacu. A distant shot of, unusually, a single animal, though they don't
form the vast herds that White-lipped Peccaries do. They used to be regarded as pigs,
but are now recognised as comprising their own family of just three (or perhaps four) species.

Amazonian Motmot Momotus momota; the motmots are a South American insect-eating group
close to the kingfishers. In Spanish they are often called el reloq, the clock, for the tail which
flicks from side to side like a pendulum. It seems that this is a message to watching predators
that 'I've seen you'.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar Galbula ruficauda; the lovely needle-billed jacamars are relatives of the woodpeckers,
aerial insect hunters, some 20 species found from Mexico to the South American tropics.
Black-crowned Tityra Tityra inquisitor; the tityras are mostly fruit-eaters which feed their young on insects
they now form their own family of some 45 species in the Neotropics, including mourners, becards,
royal flycatchers and purpletufts.

Blaze-winged Parakeet Pyrrhura devillei; a small parrot essentially restricted to the Pantanal.
Scaly-headed Parrot Pionus maximiliani, which has a wider distribution in the east of the continent.
Grey-crested Cachalote Pseudoseisura unirufa, another ovenbird, but one which is mostly restricted
to the Pantanal. As this photo might imply, I've found this attractive bird hard to photograph.

Narrow-billed Woodcreeper Lepidocolaptes angustirostri, yet another ovenbird, but this one
is a member of a large group of bark-probing insectivores. Like Australian treecreepers they
forage by spiralling up tree trunks (or fence posts!).

Red-billed Scythebill Campylorhamphus trochilirostris; I love this bird and that bill!
They too are woodcreepers, but obviously can probe more deeply than their relatives.
And let's finish with a couple of owls, always a highlight, whether we see them roosting by day or in a spotlight at night.
Ferruginous Pygmy Owls Glaucidium brasilianum, a small bird with a huge range from the southern US
to Argentina (despite the species name). They have a range of foods too, mostly insects but including rats
larger than themselves and birds such as hummingbirds which they ambush on the wing, having
studied their flight paths. They mostly feed in the evening and early morning but, as the last comment suggests,
also sometimes by day.

Spectacled Owl Pulsatrix perspicillata, an owl with anther very large distribution. It is much
larger than the pygmy owl, some ten times its weight. It takes mammals to the size of agoutis, skunks, opossums
and rabbits - and even a 4kg sloth! Bird prey includes doves, motmots and jays, and it's been known to
eat iguanas, frogs, bats and insects.
Well, it's been a long day in the truck, so time to drop you off home. Thanks for your company, and I hope you've been inspired to repeat the safari in a less virtual way!

NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 14 FEBRUARY
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