About Me

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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.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Palms; old and successful. Part 2

This posting forms the conclusion of last week's post on palms; today I'm simply going to introduce some species from both Australia and elsewhere.

Alexandra Palms Archontophoenix alexandrae forming a swamp forest in Centennial Lakes, Cairns.
This is their normal habitat in the east Queensland tropics.
Climbing Palms Calamus sp., Atherton Tablelands, north Queensland.
The stems can be up to 200 metres long; they form no crown, but have leaves crowded along
the end part of the stem.

A climbing palm with the delicious name of Vicious Hairy Mary Calamus radicalis, north Queensland.
In addition to the spines on stems and leaf edges, it has savage spiny 'whips' of tendrils up to four metres
long that assist in climbing and will tangle horribly in clothes or skin.
Kentia Palm Howea forsteriana, Lord Howe Island.
This lovely palm is endemic to the tiny Pacific island, but has now spread around
the world as a cultivated plant. It was also the subject of one of my first ever blog postings,
nearly five years ago. There's a lot more information about it there.
Queensland Fan Palm Licuala ramsayi, Daintree NP, north Queensland.
Restricted to streamsides and boggy areas of lowland rainforest of far north Queensland.
Livistona is a genus of some 30 species scattered across southern Asia - Australia, and in north-east Africa.
Cabbage Palm Livistona australis in wet gully, Kioloa, south coast New South Wales.
The 'cabbage' refers to the growing tip which was cut out by settlers for food - this of course killed the tree
Less lethally the leaf fibres were woven into 'cabbage-tree' hats.
Sand Palms Livistona humilis in tropical woodland, Kakadu NP;
the species is endemic to the Top End of the Northern Territory.

Livistona benthami growing by Cooinda Lagoon, Kakadu NP, Northern Territory.
This is its typical habitat, here and in north Queensland and New Guinea.

Red Cabbage Palms Livistona mariae, Palm Valley, Central Australia.
This species lives in isolation along just two kilometres of creek, surrounded
by desert where it could not survive. More on it here.

Mataranka Palms Livistona rigida, Boodjamulla NP, north-west Queensland.
It has a disjunct distribution here and around Mataranka in the northern Territory.

Livistona victoriae, Gregory River NP, western Top End, above and below.
Only recently recognised as a species, described in 1988, and found only in the
Kimberley district of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Chilean Wine Palm Jubaea chilensis, La Campana NP, central Chile.
This species (shot here looking into the sun, of necessity!) is found only in a small
area north of Santiago. The wine is fermented from the sap.

While we're on that theme, this is an iLala palm Hyphaene coriacea in woodland east of Masindi, Uganda.
In South Africa I was told that iLala is from a Zulu word meaning 'lie down', for the
supposed effect of the wine brewed from it.
(Naturally it will have different names in other parts of its extensive range.)

Still in Africa, this is a Raffia Palm, Raphia sp., Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, western Uganda.
This has the longest leaves of any plant in the world - they can be over 20 metres long and three metres wide!
Mauritia carana, Tambopata Reserve, southern Peruvian Amazonia.
These big leaves are in high demand for roof thatching, for their longevity - they may not
need replacing for a decade.

The same species, I am almost sure, from Waqanki Lodge on the lower eastern slopes of the Andes
in northern Peru. This lovely lodge is on the outskirts of the busy town of Moyobamba, some of
which can just be seen in the top left of the photo.

Also in Tambopata, the distinctive prop stems of Walking Palms, Socratea sp.
Despite the attractiveness of the story that they allow the palm to perambulate to more desirable sites
by means of shedding roots on one side and growing more on the other, it has no basis in the real world.
I don't really blame guides who are loth to abandon such a good yarn however!
On the other hand nobody seems to have demonstrated a convincing alternative explanation for the structures either.
The genus was indeed named for the philosopher by German botanist Gustav Karsten, for no evident
reason other than his assumed admiration for Socrates.

I hope that this relatively brief foray into the world of palms has been of interest or enjoyment - or preferably both! They certainly deserve our admiration and attention.

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Thursday, 13 April 2017

Palms; old and successful. Part 1.

Here is another in my irregular series on favourite trees (you can find the most recent one here, and work back from there). I've travelled a bit in some of the warmer parts of the world and I've found that palms can pop up just about anywhere in such places. The family arose by around 80-85 million years ago, apparently in Laurasia (the northern counterpart of Gondwana, comprising what is now Eurasia and North America) from where they spread south.

Kentia Palms Howea forsteriana Old Settlement Beach, Lord Howe Island.
By the sea in coastal forest.
Red Cabbage Palms Livistona mariae, Palm Valley, Central Australia.
In desert ranges.
Palms are flowering plants but despite their woodiness and fact that most of them are trees, they are monocots, like grasses, orchids and lilies. Their trunks differ from those of dicot trees (ie pretty much any other tree you could think of) in not having annual growth rings - unlike dicots, monocots don't produce secondary growth, ie thickening of the trunk with age by laying down new layers of cells annually from the cambial layer. (Quick revision. A 'normal' tree trunk comprises bundles of tubular vessels; the inner ones, the xylem, carry water and some nutrient up from roots to foliage - the innermost xylem tubes are dead and provide the trunk's support. The outer ones, the phloem, carry products of photosynthesis, notably sugars, down from the leaves. The cambial layer lies between them and produces annually new xylem on the inner surface and new phloem outside it.) A palm trunk is basically at full diameter below the ground, and grows only upwards.

In palms the vessels are in bundles encased in fibrous sheaths, scattered through the fibrous woody material. Towards the surface of the trunk the wood is surprisingly hard and dense, becoming softer toward the core. The effect is somewhat like that of a fibre-reinforced fishing rod, very flexible and capable of withstanding storm winds. 
This Coconut Palm on the beach at Cooktown, north Queensland, has survived the full brunt
of more than one tropical cyclone, due to its flexible trunk.
The leaves, generally at the tips of the single unbranched trunk (the exception being in climbing vine palms which may have leaves along the stem), are in one of two distinct forms.
Pinnate leaves on Alexandra Palms Archontophoenix alexandrae, Cattama Wetlands, near Cairns.
Such 'divided' leaves comprise many leaflets growing along the central leaf stem.

Palmate leaves on Queensland Fan Palm Licuala ramsayi, Daintree NP, north Queensland.
These are also compound, but the leaflets all grow from the tip of the leaf stem.
Individual flowers are fairly small and inconspicuous, but they grow in often mighty inflorescences, sprouting from within or just below the foliage.

Inflorescences of Sand Palm Livistona humilis; Litchfield NP above, and Kakadu NP below.
Some palms are wind-pollinated, but the attractiveness of Sand Palm flowers to butterflies is obvious!
Fruit may be berries (comprising a fleshy ovary with seeds embedded in the flesh) or drupes (where the fleshy ovary wall encloses a woody capsule containing seeds).
Alexandra Palms have huge bunches of berries, beloved of birds such as this
Metallic Starling Aplonis metallica, Centennial Lakes, Cairns.

Coconuts Cocos nucifer, Sabah, Malaysia.
These are drupes (the outer fleshy layer soon dries out) and are superbly adapted to long-distance
ocean dispersal, by which they have spread throughout the Pacific.
Coconuts are not the only palm of major economic significance to humans. Date Palms Phoenix dactylifera have been cultivated in the Middle East for at least 7,500 years for their fruit. Sago Palms Metroxylon sagu have long been harvested in south-east Asia for their starchy pith, which is a carbohydrate supply for the production of the palm's massive fruit crop, produced after some 15 years. The harvesters can't afford to let the sago be used for the purpose for which it evolved so the tree is cut down as soon at it flowers, and the trunk cut open to extract up to 300kg of sago! (I grew up with sago pudding, and would be very happy to leave it to the palm, but that's just me...)
Sago Palms, Klias River, Sabah. I think these are wild plants.
Oil Palms Elaeis guineensis, originally from West Africa, have now been spread far and infamously across the tropics, beginning when the Dutch took it to Java in the 1840s. Vast tracts of rainforest are daily being cleared for palm planting in Indonesia, Malaysia, South America and Africa.
Oil Palms west of Sepilok, Sabah.
No wildlife corridors or refuge forest blocks here.
Oil Palms crowding to the Mana River, which marks the boundary of Korup NP in western Cameroon.
 Palms feature widely in botanic gardens.
Darwin Botanic Gardens.

Emerald Botanic Gardens, central Queensland, which makes a special feature of its palm collection.
And of course humans (and Metallic Starlings) are not the only animals to appreciate palms as food or habitat. In Cape York Peninsula and New Guinea the huge Palm Cockatoo Probosciger aterrimus is in part associated with palm swamps, but there may also be a confusion here with unrelated Pandanus spp. too, the seeds of which it certainly also eats.
Palm Tanagers Tanagra palmarum (here in northern Peru) are certainly associated with palms (an observation
reinforced in both its scientific and Spanish names) but not exclusively.
They are found throughout the northern half of lowland South America.
The Palm-nut Vulture Gypohierax angolensis (here in Entebbe Botanic Gardens, Uganda)
is most atypical in eating mostly palm fruit, especially of Oil Palms.
And of course palms are excellent places just to hang around in!
Utilising the palms at Blanquillo clay lick, southern Peru, either while waiting to descend to the clay
(Red and Green Macaws Ara chloropterus, above),
or waiting for unwary prey (Zone-tailed Hawk Buteo albonotatus, below).

Brown-throated Sloth Bradypus variegatus in palm (you might need to click on the picture,
it was a long way off!), Yasuní National Park, Ecuador.
I had intended to conclude here with a walk-through of a series of palm species from different parts of the world, but that would make this just too long, so I'll wrap it up next time. I hope you'll be back for it.
Moon through palm fronds, Darwin.
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Thursday, 6 April 2017

Gomantong Caves; full of life

Malaysian Borneo contains some massive limestone cave systems, the best known of which are probably Mulu in Sarawak, and Gomantong in far north-east Sabah. Gomantong is only an hour or so's drive south of Sepilok, a major tourist destination, primarily for its Orangutan and Sun Bear rehabilitation centres; this is an area full of wildlife and we'll visit it together at some stage too.
Gomantong Caves locality, at the end of the red arrow.
Gomantong Caves are known best for being a major and long-term site for collection of swiftlet nests from the walls of the huge caves, for human food. Some might find this a little odd, given that they comprise bird saliva, but to each their own.
Looking into Simud Hitam, the Black Cave; this is the one that is open to visitors.
The caves - there are two major ones - were first mapped as late as the 1930s, but local people have known and used them for centuries. The caves are nesting sites for large (though dwindling) numbers of swiftlets; the nests have been harvested and traded as delicacies for at least 1500 years. There are three species of swiftlet involved, all of which use echo-location to navigate in the dark; they are physically indistinguishable, except by their nests. The White-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus) produces the most valuable nests, of pure bird spit. The Black-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus maximus) mixes its saliva with feathers and moss, which reduces the value to about a fifth that of the white nests. The Mossy-nest Swiftlet uses moss only and as a result is left to breed in peace.
Black-nest Swiftlet on nest, Gomantong.

Part of the Black-nest Swiftlet colony in Gomantong.
Mossy-nest Swiftlet Aerodramus salangana, Bako NP.
Even the keenest nidivore would be challenged by this nest served as a meal!
The valuable White-nest Swiftlets nest in the higher and larger cave, Simud Putih, or White Cave, which is not accessible to casual visitors. Traditionally the rights to harvest the caves were inherited and harvesting was carried out on a rotational basis. These days licences are sold by the Wildlife Department; at a cost of 300,000 ringgits (~A$90,000) per season they are not accessible to local individuals. Companies employ local gatherers, who still use traditional rattan and bamboo ladders to climb 90 metres up to near the roof. The harvest is carefully managed; one collection is made at the beginning of the season, as soon as the nests are built but before eggs are laid. The cave is then closed to harvesting while the birds rebuild and breed (guards are posted to prevent poaching) and the nests are gathered again after the chicks have fledged. A worker is paid somewhere around 3,000 ringgits (~A$900) for the entire season’s work. 
Harvesters' huts on the hillside near the entrance to the White Cave.

Looking out the 'back door' of Black Cave; the objects in the foreground belong to the cave guards.
The caves are home to more than just swiftlets however. Colonies of bats are found near the ceiling of the caves.
Wrinkle-lipped Free-tailed Bats Chaerephon plicatus high up in Black Cave.
Huge numbers of bats stream out at dusk, and as a result there are always birds of prey in the vicinity of the cave exits.
Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela in a coconut palm just outside the cave entrance.
The amount of guano produced by both birds and bats is immense, and the ammonia smell is very strong indeed.

Huge mound of swiftlet and bat droppings on the floor of the cave.
There are huge numbers of cockroaches living on the guano, along with millipedes, other insects and their larvae, hunted by wood centipedes and spiders. 
Some of the millions of cockroaches which inhabit the caves (above and below),
doing an essential clean-up job.

Scutigeran, or Wood Centipede, hunting the cave walls.
There are even freshwater crabs on the cave floor – it is a bustling ecosystem.
Freshwater Crab; unfortunately my flash wasn't working on this occasion...
The rainforest around the caves - it is about a ten minute walk in, on well-maintained trails with boardwalks in the muddier sections - is of course full of life, of every sort. It can be a slow walk! All the following photos were taken along the walk and around the forest clearing outside the caves.
A magnificent millipede.
Carpenter Bee Xylocopa sp. (I think!).
Probably Great Eggfly Hypolimnas bolina, which has a huge distribution from Madagascar through
south-east Asia to Japan and the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand.
(Thanks for the tip below Susan!)
Red Grasshawk Neurothemis fluctuans; this one I'm pretty sure of.
Freshwater snails in stream along the track.
I feel more confident in putting names to vertebrates!

Green Crested Lizard Bronchocela cristatella;
portrait below.

This lovely dragon is found throughout much of south-east Asia.
Sumatran Gliding Dragon Draco sumatranus; this little lizard glides
by means of flaps of skin along its sides, supported by highly extended ribs.
(The former name of D. volans was applied when it was believed that the same species occurred throughout
south-east Asia. That name is now used only for lizards on Java and Bali; Sumatran gliding dragons are
found in peninsular Malaysia, southern Thailand, Sumatra and Borneo.)
Asian Water Monitor Varanus salvator; a common monitor (goanna in Australia),
this one was lying on some bags outside the workers' accommodation.
Pied Fantail Rhipidura javanica; a very familiar genus in Australia, it extends through south-east Asia to India.
Rufous-backed (or Oriental Dwarf) Kingfisher Ceyx erithaca.A diminutive (only 12cm long) and gorgeous little forest kingfisher.

Maroon Leaf Monkeys Presbytis rubicunda, above and below.
This beautiful monkey is endemic to Borneo.

A family group of Maroon Leaf Monkeys.
Large male Southern Pig-tailed Macaque Macaca nemestrina.These are powerful and potentially dangerous monkeys.
The highlight of my second visit to Gomantong however was undoubtedly another primate, and one quite unexpected. Bornean Orangutans Pongo pygmaeus can potentially turn up anywhere there is an expanse of rainforest, but they are thin on the ground. This mother and boisterous youngster delighted us for a long time. (Actually the mother was much shyer and stayed high up and among foliage; the young one had no such inhibitions.)

The fact that this was an entirely wild animal, not one used to people like the rehabilitated animals
at Sepilok, just added to our pleasure.
I hope you do find your way to Sabah one day, it is a special destination. If you do you must of course go to Gomantong, but don't make the mistake of just hurrying along the track to the caves. You'd miss a lot if you did.

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