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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. I am now 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. 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. As part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past few years.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Proteaceae; the form-changers from Gondwana

I thought it was time to write something more Australian than I've done recently, and it being gloriously spring here at last (and unsurprisingly, with each year spring becomes more precious) flowers seemed an appropriate topic. For no especial reason I thought of the lovely and diverse Grevilleas as a topic, but when I started planning the post I realised that we needed a bit more context, so felt obliged to start with the wider family, the wonderful Proteaceae. (There's probably a name for a brain that obliges me to be so structured, but it doesn't matter because that's the only one I've got, or am likely to have.)

The family is essentially Gondwanan and old one, centred on Australia but represented strongly in southern Africa and to a lesser extent in South America, India, New Caledonia and New Zealand. It has spread north into Africa, into Indonesia and south-east Asia, and into central America and Mexico. There are some 1700 species in about 80 genera; of these 1100 species and 46 genera are Australian.
Woolly Grevillea G. lanigera Namadgi NP near Canberra.
This is the largest genus with some 360 species, virtually all Australian.
The typical Proteaceae flower - though no single statement is likely to be universally true in such a
diverse family - has four tepals (the term used for petals and sepals which can't be reliably
defined as one or the other) with a style which first bears pollen and later receives it.

Notro or Firebush Embothrium concinnum, Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.
A small but spectacular South American genus whose close relationship with the
Australian waratahs (Telopea) is evident.
Protea nitida near Cape Town - a scan of a somewhat faded old slide.
There are nearly as many Protea species as there are of Grevilleas.
This is the genus from which the family takes its name - in other words it was the first
genus in the family to be named. The great Linnaeus named it for the Greek god of that name,
noted for having many shapes. That description is appropriate for the entire family too,
but despite some assertions that was not why the family was named!
The Gondwanan distribution has generally been taken at face value - ie evidence of an ancient group which was present when the southern continents went their own way. Recent molecular dating work (eg DNA sequence research), especially involving Dr Peter Weston of the New South Wales Herbarium, suggests that, counter-intuitively, the various groups dispersed outward from Australia at different times to colonise the rest of their current range by oceanic drift. (A similar result was recently suggested too by research into the ratites - the giant flightless southern birds - suggesting that they must all have flown to their current sites across the southern hemisphere and then all independently lost the power of flight.) All things are of course possible, and I claim no expertise, but both these scenarios seem remarkable to say the least, when compared with the more obvious traditional explanations. I wonder if there is more to be said on this.

Proteaceous plants can be trees, big shrubs, sprawling ground covers and even, in some cases, herbs. In addition to the characteristics noted above under the Grevillea photo, in many species the anthers are attached to the inside of the floral tube. The tip of the style, the stigma, is touching the pollen; as the style grows it puts pressure on the sides of the flower tube until it splits; at this stage the stigma springs out, still bearing the pollen which is taken by either insects or birds depending on the species. Shortly afterwards the stigma grows a brush and becomes a conventional pollen receptor. Flowers may be single, paired or in large spikes.
Grevillea pectinata near Salmon Gums, southern Western Australia.
The upper styles have emerged, the lower ones are still trapped in the flower tube.
Fruits are dry capsules opening to release just one large winged seed; the capsules may be embedded in a cone for species with large inflorescences; if single they may be hard, woody and fireproof or fragile and papery. Persoonias are exceptional in having fleshy fruit.
Banksia speciosa cone near Esperance, southern Western Australia.
Only a few of the numerous flowers are usually fertilised.
Recently burnt fruit of Mountain Devil Lambertia formosa, near Nowra, New South Wales.
The devil's head will soon split to drop the seed into the ash bed.
Hakea microcarpa fruit, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra.
Most Hakeas have thick woody cones, but this one has smaller more fragile ones;
Grevillea and Lomatia have even more papery fruits.

Persoonia sylvatica fruit, Tinderry Nature Reserve south-east of Canberra.
Another family characteristic (though again not univeral) is the presence of curious root structures called proteoid roots, which grow annually as short very dense masses of root hairs from the sides of normal roots. Their function is similar to that of mycorrhiza (fungal 'hairs' associated with a plant's roots) in other plants, providing a greatly increased root surface area to contact scarce soil nutrients and water. Proteaceae don't have mychorrhiza; the proteoid roots seem to have an association with soil bacteria.

Species are found from very arid central deserts to wet near-coastal forests.
Hakea lorea, Kata Tjuta NP, central Australia

Monga Waratah Telopea mongaensis, Monga NP, south-eastern New South Wales.
Most plant families have either vertebrate or invertebrate pollinators, but it is probably unsurprising that such a large family should have many strategies; mammals, birds and insects all have roles in different branches of Proteaceae.
Western Little Wattlebird Anthochaera chrysoptera on Banksia speciosa, Esperance, Western Australia
Native bee on Persoonia sp.
(Probably Xylocopa sp. - thanks Susan.)
Five subfamilies are recognised, all being present in Australia. 

Symphionematoideae comprises just three species in two genera; Symphionema in New South Wales and Agastyachys in Tasmania

Bellendenoideae has just one species, from the highlands of Tasmania.
Mountain Rocket Bellendena montana, Ben Lomond NP, Tasmania.
The flowers form white spikes in summer; these are the seed capsules.
Persoonoideae comprises five genera; four are very small and recent work suggests that three of them should properly be included in the best-known genus of the group, Persoonia.
Persoonia linifolia; the tepals have rolled back to expose the four anthers and central style.
Proteoideae is a bigger grouping, containing 25 genera including nearly all the African ones.
Stirlingia latifolia, Badgingarra NR, north of Perth.
Commonly known as Blue Boy because cement made from the sand it grows in turns blue!
Stirlingia has just seven species, all from Western Australia.
Conospermum distichum, Cape le Grande NP, south-west Western Australia.
Members of the genus are known as smoke-bushes, as they grow en masse
on heathy sandplains, causing the landscape to appear hazy.
Fifty species are found across southern Australia.

Isopogon divergens Kalbarri NP, Western Australia.
(My thanks to Phil Trickett and Catriona Bate for identifying this beauty for me.)
Often known as drumsticks for their globular seed cases, the 35 species are found across Australia,
though most are in the west.
Petrophile pedunculata cones, Nowra, New South Wales.
These are generally called conesticks from their more elongate woody fruits.
There are some 70 species, again mostly in the west.

Adenanthos terminalis Heggarton Conservation Park, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.
The jugflowers or woolly-bushes are most atypical in the family, not least in having just
one flower in the inflorescence.
This species from the South Australian mallee, and one from Victoria, are the only
two of the thirty species not restricted to Western Australia.

Grevilleoideae contains the 'big three' Australian genera, plus most of the Australian rainforest species, the Malesian species, and the American ones.
Grevillea juncifolia, central Australia.
A spectacular desert-dwelling member of the biggest genus (370 species, nearly all being Australian).
And it will get its own posting in the not too distant future...
Massed Banksia menziesii (red) and M. hookeri, Lake Logue NR, north of Perth.
Banksia inflorescences can have thousands of individual flowers and are immensely
attractive to mammals, birds and insects.
They too warrant their own posting, not least because there are 170 species, but...
'Dryandra formosa' near Albany, Western Australia.
In 2007 this large genus was absorbed into Bankia based on evidence that appears to me comprehensive but has by no means been accepted by authorities much more qualified than I, including the Dryandra Study Group of the Australian Native Plants Society, and eminent West Australian botanist Alex George.
For those who do accept this radical change, this more than doubles the number of Banksia species, including this
species which would be known as Banksia formosa.
Hakea multilineata near Norseman, inland southern Western Australia.
There are 150 Hakea, found throughout Australia, though again concentrated in the west.
The similarities with Grevillea may not be coincidental - there are rumblings that suggest there
may soon be over 500 Grevilleas and no Hakeas!
Lomatia polymorpha, Mount Field NP, Tasmania.
This genus of 12 species is found on the Pacific sides of both Australia and South America.
Lomatia hirsuta, Volcano Orsono near Puerto Montt, southern Chile.
Lambertia formosa Nowra, New South Wales.
These flowers produce the Mountain Devil fruit pictured above.
This is the only eastern species, but well known; there are another nine in the west,
where they are widely known as honeysuckles.
Woody Pear Xylomelum angustifolium fruit, Lake Logue NR, north of Perth.
A striking small tree, and an unusual genus in this context in that there are more species
in the east (four) than in the west (two).
Orites lancifolia, high Namadgi National Park, above Canberra.
In addition to the seven Australian species (most of which are Tasmanian) there are two in South America.
Well, if you're still reading after all this - thank you! I hope it's been worth it. As noted, there will be postings on two or three of these genera in the future but for now that's enough! If you can go and see some actually growing now, so much the better.


Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Pisagua; town of ghosts and birds

Pisagua is now a fishing village of only a couple of hundred people on the Atacama Desert coast of northern Chile. Only a century ago however it was one Chile's great ports, hosting internationally famed opera singers; more recently it has been, on three separate occasions, a terrible concentration camp for opponents and victims of extreme right-wing military-style governments.
The approximate position of Pisgaua is indicated by the end of the red arrow, on the sea 40km west of the
Pan American Highway, between the major cities of Iquique and Arica (which is almost on the Peruvian border).
Pisagua huddled against the desert coast, from Punto Pichalo, north of the town.
The waterless tracts hemming it in made it an ideal prison site.
The road to Pisagua from the east, with the camanchaca - the sea mist produced by the
cold onshore Humboldt Current - dominating the skyline.
Pisagua was founded back in the early 17th century as a port associated with major silver mines in Bolivia, but boomed in the 19th century with the rise of the guano-mining industry, when centuries of droppings from vast seabird colonies on the coasts of Chile and Peru were mined and exported as fertiliser.
Guano (from cormorants, boobies, pelicans and terns) on an island off Pisagua.
At this stage Pisagua was in Peru; south of here Bolivia stretched to the sea, with Chile further south again (north to approximately Antofagasta on the map above). After the War of the Pacific, one of the great conflicts of the latter 19th century, in which Chile defeated both of its northern neighbours, Bolivia lost its sea access in 1884 and Chile moved its northern border some 500km further north, well into Peru. Pisagua became, and remains, Chilean.

At around this time Pisagua had become much more significant as the port for the new nitrate-mining industry, exporting vast quantities of nitrate from mines in the desert to the fertiliser and explosives industries of North America and Europe. Indeed, by the beginning of the 20th century it was, with Iquique and Valparaiso, one of the three great ports of Chile. With banks, schools, telegraph offices and railways, and the magnificent Teatro Municipal on the waterfront, its population of nearly 10,000 lived well. Steamships brought fresh food and flowers twice a week. Its decline began with the end of the nitrate boom in the 1920s, and its glory turned very grim as a series of brutal presidents used it as a remote prison camp. In the late 1920s Carlos Ibáñez del Campo dumped gay men there; around 1950 Gabriel Gonzalez Videla did the same with communists; and much more recently the infamous General Pinochet sent very many leftist opponents there. Many of those sent there died or simply vanished.

Today most of the town's buildings, including the theatre, are empty and the attraction is mostly in the abundant wildlife. One 'must-do' activity is the two kilometre walk along a narrow road above the sea, to Punta Pichalo to the north of the town.
Pisagua from a lookout by the road, which can be seen zig-zagging down the steep hillside above the town.
Punta Pichalo is at the right of the picture; the track to it leaves from the hairpin bend
just past the town.
The track to the point; the total lack of vegetation is typical of much of the Atacama.
The effective rainfall for Pisagua is - zero...
The cold Humboldt Current, bringing nutrients up from the ocean depths, is one of the richest parts of the planet, and the world's most productive marine ecosytem. It produces some 20% of the global fish catch (by humans) and the bird and other animal life abounds.

Peruvian Pelicans Pelecanus thagus, above and below.
Formerly considered a sub-species of Brown Pelican, it is now recognised as a full species,
extending south from northern Peru.
South American Sea Lions Otaria flavescens on an islet off Punta Pichalo.
The only member of their genus, they are not closely related to other sea lions.
South American Sea Lions and Inca Terns Larosterna inca.
Inca Terns (below) also comprise a single-species genus, as well as
being arguably the most beautiful term in the world.
With all the activity it was inevitable that there would be dolphins around and
a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins Tursiops truncatus swam past the point.
Turkey Vultures Cathartes aura constantly patrol the shoreline and sea lion colonies.
However the highlight was an extraordinary conversion of pelicans and cormorants (Guanay and Red-leggd) on what must have been a huge school of small fish that moved past the point and out to sea, attracting thousands of birds, and presumably large predatory fish and dolphins too.
The number of small fish to attract this number of birds - and there was a constant stream of cormorants
and pelicans leaving the land to join the feast - must have been in the millions.

Humans have been sharing in this wealth for a long time too, judging by the huge midden on the point.
Shell midden with charcoal, evidence of many cooked meals.
Back in town there is a nice waterfront park with shelters, ideal for lunch - and further wildlife watching.
Neotropical Cormorants Phalacrocorax brasilianus are found throughout South America
and north to the southern US.

Peruvian Pelicans loaf about the port scrounging for scraps.
Band-tailed (or Belcher's) Gull Larus belcheri is readily distinguished from the
more widespread Kelp Gull L. dominicanus by the eponymous black tail band.
Blackish Oystercatcher Haematopus ater; its elegant white legs are highly distinctive.
A pair patrols the rocks in front of the picnic shelters.
And while not many passerines make the seafront their home, one species here does and is rarely found away from the waves.
Chilean Seaside Cinclodes Cinclodes nigrofumosus;the cinclodes form a group of ovenbirds, one of the two ancient groups of South American passerines.
Most of the 15 or so species are dwellers of the high Andes, but not this one.
Lizards are also not generally found in the spray zone, but the Atacama Lava Lizard Microlophus atacamensis
is at home there; it is common along the Atacama coast.
This one appears to have regrown an amputated tail.
Pisagua is not on the main tourist trails of Chile, but that's no reason not to go there - one might indeed argue the opposite. Its recent past was grim, but we should not forget that such barbarism exists.

And for a naturalist, Pisagua has abundant rewards.