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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.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Murnong and the Corella

The other day, on Gungahlin Hill, I came across a few Murnongs, or Yam Daisies, Microseris lanceolata. I am always pleased when this happens; they are not rare, but they are not an everyday discovery.
Murnong, Gungahlin Hill.


They are superficially similar to exotic Dandelions Taraxacum spp. and Catsears Hypochaeris spp. An easy distinguisher is the leaves.
Murnong leaves are erect, slender and smooth. Dandelions and Catsears have toothed-leafed rosettes flat on
the ground; Dandelions have smooth rosettes, those of Catsears are bristly.

When I say 'not rare', that is until you consider what used to be. Accounts from the grassy plains and open woodlands of southern New South Wales and northern Victoria tell of swathes of Murnong flowers turning the plains golden to the horizon. Their small sweet tubers were harvested by Aboriginal people, eaten raw or roasted to a delicious treacly consistency. European settlers learnt the trick from them.

There are stories of wagon wheels turning up thousands of Murnong tubers from the soft soil, leaving them to rot on the surface. Then the sheep came, eating the plants and learning to push into the soil to eat the tubers as well. The plough finished the job. 

One animal which relied heavily on the tubers is the Long-billed Corella, Cacatua tenuirostris, whose long slender hooked upper mandible evolved to extract the tubers from the ground. 
Long-billed Corellas, Urana, New South Wales.
The corella numbers crashed, steadying and then rallying only when they discovered that the grains that replaced the Murnong were also edible. This of course was a capital offence, and numbers went down again. Today they are common in limited areas, based on the Riverina area of central southern New South Wales and adjacent Victoria, though there are signs they may be steadily expanding their range, which I find to be good news indeed. I certainly saw more Long-bills on a recent visit to their heartland than I ever had before; my observations suggest that they are also eating exotic tubers in weedy areas now.

This recovery is due to their ability to adapt and change; sadly the Murnongs can't do that and only where native grassland and woodland remnants survive do they persist. Fortunately they also extend into the high country and while never abundant there, can still be found among the Snow Gums. I regret though that I'll never see the Murnong flowers spreading out of sight, and the clouds of corellas settling on them.

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