About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

On This Day, 27 June; John Latham's birthday

By the end of the 18th century, John Latham was widely regarded as the greatest ornithologist of his age. I'm unconvinced by that, but there is no doubt that circumstances alone ensured that he will always have a place in Australian ornithological history. He was at the height of his influence when bird specimens were flooding back from Australia (and elsewhere), ensuring that many of them passed through his hands; he was also hard-working and committed to his task.

John Latham, courtesy Wikipedia Commons
Born in London in 1840, he became a successful English doctor, but his passion was always natural history and especially ornithology. Sir Joseph Banks lent him many drawings from the Cook expeditions - many of which Latham promptly copied, and in many cases he used these copied sketches as the basis of scientific descriptions, with predictable results. He also received skins, though it was difficult to get them through the tropics intact, hence the significance of the drawings. The collection of botanist Alymer Lambert was also available to him, including works by various colonial artists including Thomas Watling. 

Even before this however he had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1775 and in 1788 was a moving force behind the formation of the immensely influential Linnean Society. His first great opus was the General Synopsis of Birds, published in six volumes from 1781 to 1785, in which he published the first descriptions of many Australian birds. However his great weakness was his failure at this time to appreciate the importance of the Linnaean system of unique binomial scientific names; basically he regarded Latin as foreign nonsense and couldn't see the point of it to an English scientist! One might then see an irony in his championing of the Linnean Society, or perhaps it was by way of atonement.

Glossy Black-Cockatoo Calyptorhynchus lathami, Nowra, New South Wales.
This tribute to Latham was paid by Coenraad Temminck, an eminent Dutch ornithologist, a generation younger than Latham; indeed when he named this magnificent - and now threatened - cockatoo in 1807, he was still only 29.
By 1791 he had realised his error and did adopt the system in his Index Ornithologicus, where he assigned Linnaean species names to his early idiosyncratic vernacular descriptions. By then however many of them had already been made invalid by others who had tidied up after him, applying their own names. Not all however, and many of Australia's most familiar birds bear the epithet Latham, indicating his authorship - Emu, Black Swan, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Willie Wagtail, Australian Magpie and some 50 others.

His later work A General History of Birds (1821-1828) was another huge undertaking. Throughout, he was a victim of the sheer volume of material cascading into the ports and the need to work often from drawings. Crucially, he had no familiarity with the birds in the wild, so he not infrequently described males and females, or young birds, as separate species, even within the one volume.

Swift Parrot Lathamus discolor, Canberra. Another threatened parrot species, whose genus was named for Latham by a French ornithologist and polymath, René Lesson, in 1830. It is the only species in this genus.
By our standards his perceptions of bird relationships were somewhat random; he lumped many unrelated Australian species as 'creepers', 'warblers and 'manakins'. However it was Latham who first applied the name honey-eater to Australian species, though for him it was a wide net indeed, encompassing bee-eaters, robins, whistlers, bowerbirds and whipbirds - plus some honeyeaters...

We ought not to be too judgemental however; the material available to him, the tools for studying it, and the communications for exchange of ideas, were all more rudimentary than we can imagine. By the time he died in 1837 aged 96 the world had changed - and he had played no small part in that.
Australian Brush-turkey Alectura lathami, (in rain!) Chichester State Forest, New South Wales.
This time the honours were done in 1831 by John Gray, a zoologist at the British Museum in London,
not long before Latham's death.


Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Dingoes; Australian Wolves

Most Australians would be bemused, to say the least, at the proposition that Australia is home to wolves, but detailed biochemical work has confirmed that the Australian Dingo is indeed Canis lupus (subspecies dingo), derived from a semi-domesticated wolf in Asia some 6000 years ago and brought here by Asian sailors not much more than 4000 years back.
Dingo near Windorah, south-west Queensland.
This is a classic 'pure bred' Dingo but in truth there would be very few Dingoes without domestic dog genes today.
It seems 'obvious' that indigenous Australians would have brought Dingoes here, but having arrived some 50,000 - 60,000 years ago, there is no evidence that the first Australians travelled back and forward from Australia to Asia, and no reason for them to have done so. Dingoes didn't arrive with a late wave of settlers, but with seagoing traders who regularly visited the north-western coasts in particular.

So, are Dingoes native or feral Australians? I've struggled with this one for a long time, but of course there are no rules as to when an animal becomes 'native'; my own feeling is that 4000 years is probably too short a time for everything to have fully settled into a new balance, but plenty would disagree. The extinction on mainland Australia of Thylacines and Tasmanian Devils - marsupial carnivores which the Dingo would have competed with and quite possibly hunted - took place since the Dingo's arrival. The timing is too close to be coincidental, as is the fact that both these big native carnivores thrived in Dingo-free Tasmania - isolated 8000 years ago at the end of the last glaciation, before Dingoes arrived - at least until European settlement.
Tasmanian Devil Sarchophilus harrisii, Adelaide Zoo;
they didn't survive the advent of Dingoes on the Australian mainland.
Their rapid spread throughout the continent was doubtless assisted by Aboriginal Australians, who regularly domesticated young Dingoes as hunting and camp companions. Dingoes readily adapt still to human presence when not persecuted.

Bold, intelligent and inquisitive, Dingoes have learnt to scavenge around campgrounds,
though they are regularly shot around homesteads and stockyards.
Redbank Gorge campground, Western MacDonnell Ranges, central Australia.
Our own most recent experience with a Dingo was not a happy one. Camped at beautiful Redbank Gorge in the West MacDonnells, we returned from a long walk to find that a Dingo had torn holes in our tent and ransacked sealed containers looking for food; it wasn't smelling anything, as all our fresh food was locked away in a gas fridge, and the rest was in screw top plastic containers which it bit into. I emphasise that this was a most atypical situation; in my long experience of Australian bush camping, the only animals I've known attempt forced entry to a tent are goannas, or (exotic) mice and (native) rats, when they are experiencing a population boom. (Though I'm told that in Tasmania Brush-tailed Possums and even Tassie Devils can be a camping challenge on busy walking routes.) The problem here was previous campers who'd ignored ubiquitous warnings (and common sense!) and indulged themselves by feeding this Dingo, and leaving before the consequences came to bite them. 
Dingo on beach, Fraser Island, Queensland.
This is an area where visitor numbers and Dingo numbers are both high, and problems have arisen, again generally originating with irresponsible visitors (generally not the ones who eventually suffer!).

Once found throughout the mainland, Dingoes have largely retreated from the populous south-eastern corner, where their appreciation of sheep flocks was not reciprocated. Elsewhere despite constant and ferocious programs of shooting, trapping and poisoning they are still common. It is not uncommon to see Dingoes - mostly individuals or pairs - trotting near roads in remote areas, and to hear them howling at night, as the packs stay in contact and gather to hunt. 

Astonishingly, in the 1880s a 5600km dog-proof fence was built to isolate the south-eastern sheep lands from the Dingo 'bad lands' to the north and west.
Dingo-proof fence, courtesy Wikipedia.
The indicative distribution of 'pure' and 'hybrid' Dingoes is overly simplistic.
It is still maintained, though in large areas feral camels are defeating the efforts. To a large extent it still determines the boundary between sheep and cattle country in the Australian rangelands.

As pack animals hunting prey larger than themselves, Dingoes now fill the niche occupied by wolves (unsurprisingly!) in Eurasia and North America, and Cape Hunting Dogs in Africa. Their main large prey is various kangaroo species, and wombats in the south-east, though almost any smaller animal can be taken. They are probably important regulators of kangaroo populations, and seem to play a role in controlling rabbit and fox numbers where Dingo populations are healthy.

To my surprise, I've found myself coming to the view that, even though the Dingo is a recent arrival, it does play the role of top mammalian predator in the absence of the original ones, and should probably be permitted to do so to assist in control of excessive numbers of kangaroos and some pest species. I don't expect this view to meet universal acclaim however...

Regardless, this is a beautiful animal, now an integral part of the Australian landscape, doing what it does very well indeed. 

Dingo, West MacDonnells.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Yellow in Small Scale

Last time I looked at yellow colouring in vertebrates; today it's the turn of the 'little world', where of course most of the action really happens. Like birds, many insects use plant-derived carotenoids, though many other pigment groups, including anthraquinones and flavinoids, are involved. 
Yellow Monday Cicada Cyclochila australasiae, Nowra, New South Wales.
This is the yellow form of a species which can also be green - when it is called the Greengrocer - when a blue pigment is also present.
In some beetles - notably ladybirds - it seems that the yellow is carotenoid-based, but that it doesn't come from plants. However the beetles can't make it either, but apparently derive it from symbiotic bacteria.
Ladybird, probably Harmonia sp., Brindabella Mountains near Canberra.
Leopard Longicorn Beetle Penthea pardalis, Cooktown, tropical Queensland.
Possibly a similar story to the ladybird, but I doubt that the details of its colouring have been studied.
Sawfly larvae, family Pergidae, eating Snow Gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora) leaf, Namadgi National Park near Canberra.
I would tentatively suggest that their yellow is due to leaf-derived carotenoids. The yellow and black is almost certainly saying "I taste bad - eucalyptus oil, yuk! - leave me alone".
Yellow and black wasps are saying the same thing, though they're not relying on being unpalatable; their sting is a very effective reinforcement of the message. Their yellows are mostly xanthopterins, which are also responsible for animal urine being yellow. There are exciting suggestions around that in at least some wasps the xanthopterin is converting sunlight to electrical impulses across the cuticle, enabling extra activity during the peak of the day when other insects are avoiding the sun. The main work seems to have been done on the Oriental Hornet Vespa orientalis; I have no idea if others can perform the same trick.
European Wasp Vespula germanica (on chicken), Canberra.
This has become an environmental and social scourge since being introduced to Australia.
Spider-hunting wasp, Isla de Chiloe, Chile.
In some circumstances however yellow can be a most effective camouflage. I only noticed this little flower spider when it moved as I was interpreting the flower structures to a class group!
Flower Spider, family Thomisidae, probably Diaea sp.
National Botanic Gardens, Canberra. I have no idea of the origin of its yellow, though its purpose is clear.
 Butterflies and moths don't utilise carotenoids, unlike most of the other groups I've mentioned, but many take flavonoids from plant sources.
Butterflies, San Pedro area, southern Peru.

Moth, Limbe, western Cameroon.
 In the pierids (family Pieridae, including the familiar Cabbage White), dark colours are due to pigments strongly bonded to chitin in the wing scales, while bright ones - including yellow - are powdery on the surface of scales.
Large Grass Yellow Eurema hecabe (Pieridae), 40 Mile Scrub Nature Reserve, north Queensland.
Some butterfly groups however are more specialised in their pigmentation.The wonderful swallowtails, family Papilionidae, have their very own pigments, papiliochromes which are yellow or red-brown.
Papilionid, Manu National Park, Peruvian Amazonia;
showing off its papiliochromes.

I should offer at least a gallery of yellow flowers too to complete this mini-series, though it will be hard making a choice - yellow is a very popular colour in the plant world!


Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Yellow, not so Mellow in Nature

[This is another in a sporadic series of postings on colour in nature; the most recent one is here, from where you can find links to older ones, or you can find them all by clicking on Colours in Nature under Labels on my blog home page.]

Yellow, like red, is mostly worn to be seen. "Here I am! Come and share my genes!" or maybe "Here I am! Come and feed with me, we'll be safer together", or even perhaps "Here I am! Take the hint and leave me alone, or it might be unpleasant for you."
Yellow Warbler (or Mangrove Warbler) Dendroica (or Setophaga) petechia - this is a bird who has an identity crisis, though it doesn't know it! - Puerto Ayora, Galapagos.
Like most birds, this glorious and friendly little warbler derives its rich yellows from carotenoids in its diet - fat-soluble plant pigments which may come from leaves, fruit or seeds, or from insects which have eaten carotenoid-bearing plants.The same plant carotenoids may be utilised in different ways by different birds, so may appear as reds or oranges also.

Many birds have opted for yellow plumage - though most have it as part of the overall ensemble, rather than the dominant theme like the Yellow Warbler.
New Holland Honeyeater Phylidonyris novaehollandiae on Calothamnus sp.,
Cape le Grande National Park, Western Australia. The yellow wings are particularly prominent
when this abundant honeyeater flies out of a feeding bush; perhaps warning others of potential danger?
Eastern Yellow Robin Eopsaltria australis, Monga National Park, New South Wales.
Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater Merops oreobates, Bwindi Impenetrable Park, Uganda.
Colour is in the eye of the beholder, and I reckon this lovely bird's chest is yellower than any cinnamon I've met.
Gilded Barbets Capito auratus, Sacha Lodge, Ecuador.
A bird of the rainforest canopy, where yellow may be a good marker for others of its kind to see it.
White-browed Robin-chat Cossypha heuglini, Entebbe, Uganda
Black-chinned Mountain Tanager Anisognathus notabilis, La Paz de las Antpittas, Ecuador.
This species and the next live in the gloomy understorey of the tropical forests; again yellow is a way to enable
mates to keep in touch.
Western Violaceous Trogon Trogon ramonianus, Cerro Blanco Reserve, Ecuador.
The distribution of carotenoids in a bird's body is not limited to feathers however. Bills, legs and bare skin may also be carotenoid-yellow.

Choco Toucan Ramphastos brevis, Rio Silanche Reserve, Ecuador.
Both feathers and bill contain yellow carotenoids.
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill Tockus leucomelas, Etosha National Park, Namibia
In some species exaggerated exposed skin - particularly in the form of wattles - is used for display.
African Wattled Lapwing Vanellus senegallus Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda.
This species has opted for yellow bill, legs and wattles!
Uniquely among birds, apparently, parrots synthesise their own yellow pigment - psittacofulvin.

Yellow Rosella Platycercus elegans flaveolus, Berri, South Australia.
Formerly given full species status.
Superb Parrot Polytelis swainsonii, Canberra.
Superb Parrots spend a lot of time feeding on the ground in grass, where the yellow and red chin and cap stand out.
Very recently it has been recognised that Macaroni Eudyptes chrysolophus and King Penguins Aptenodytes patagonicus, with yellow crests and necks respectively, utilise a pigment never before seen in birds; to my knowledge it has still not been described. 

Other birds manufacture a different group of pigments again, the pterins, specifically to produce yellow eyes; these too seem not to have been widely studied.
Powerful Owl Ninox strenua, National Botanic Gardens Canberra.
Spendid Starling Lamprotornis splendidus, Entebbe Botanic Gardens, Uganda.
Other vertebrates do things differently again. Mammalian hair colour relies on melanins; pheomelanins produce red-yellowish colours, though rarely as bright a colour as some of the bird pigments produce.
Yellow-footed Rock-Wallaby Petrogale xanthopus, Flinders Ranges, South Australia
Sumatran Tiger Panthera tigris sumatrae, Adelaide Zoo.
In fish, frogs and reptiles, most yellow is produced by the presence of xanthopores within the skin, containing pigments, primarily pteridines, produced by the animals rather than acquired from plants.
Northern Corroboree Frog Pseudophryne pengilleyi, captive animal, Canberra.
One would suspect that this colour combination signals a poisonous defence.
Holy Cross Toad Notaden bennetti, Cunnamulla Queensland.
After rain thousands of these dramatic frogs emerge from burrows. There are no true toads native to Australia.
Yellow-spotted Goanna Varanus panoptes, Bladensburg National Park, Queensland
And that's quite long enough a posting for today, though it would have been easy to continue on. Instead I'll talk a bit about yellow invertebrates next time.


Friday, 14 June 2013

When the Past Lives On

I like to be reminded - and I think it's good for all of us - that we are here by merest chance at just this moment. Things could have been very different had we happened along even just a few thousands of years ago or hence. Such reminders abound in the rocks, including fossils such as the dinosaur footprints we talked about recently, or snapshots in stone of past conditions.
Fossil seashell, Morton National Park, New South Wales,
in a site that is now 50km inland and a couple of hundred metres above sea level.
Ripple marks laid down on ancient shoreline, Watarrka National Park, central Australia.
There are plenty of such stories to be told, but that's not my intent today. Rather I wanted to look at a couple of living examples, both from central Australia. 

I recently had the pleasure of finally getting to the renowned Palm Valley, 22km south of Hermannsburg community along a rough road, then a challenging creek bed. Here, along just two kilometres of creek bed grow the remarkable Red Cabbage Palms - remarkable because the nearest palms are some 1000km away, across country far too arid to support palms. 

Red Cabbage Palms Livistona mariae, Palm Valley.
It is 30,000 years at least since the great central salt lakes were permanently full and the inland rivers ran as the norm. We're not sure what the rest of the land looked like then - the rainforests were long gone - but it is quite plausible to suppose that palms survived in oases from an earlier even wetter time, and perhaps even the fruit were carried by people as food or trade items. 

Their survival  here is due to an unlikely combination of events. It seems to me that the sheet sandstone that makes vehicle access both possible and very rough is a key factor, acting as a basin for water running down through the porous sandstone of the surrounding hills. It is a remarkable, and remarkably beautiful, place, and one guaranteed to set any rational person thinking.
Sheet sandstone creek bed, Palm Valley.
(Some recent work suggests that the nearest relation is the Mataranka Palm L. rigida, 1000km to the north, from which it diverged only 17,000 years during the last arid glaciation, in which case human vectors seem the most likely explanation for its presence, rather than being remnant vegetation. The story is still to be resolved.)

Another ancient plant found in these inland ranges has a larger range than the palm, but this range still only represents a dot on the map of Australia. Cycads are far older, as a group, than the flowering plants (including palms); they evolved in lush forests and while some modern cycads have adapted to drier situations, they can't cope with deserts. Again, the sheltered gorges of the Macdonnell and George Gill Ranges have enabled them to survive long after their relatives disappeared for well over a thousand kilometres around - long enough for them too to have evolved into a distinct species. 
MacDonnell Ranges Cycad Macrozamia macdonnellii, Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Ranges.
It is always something of a surprise - and delight - to come across them in the sheltered gorges and cooler east- and south-facing slopes. 

Another surprise is finding a fig, but Rock Figs too survive in the gorges, and even in the harsh world of the canyon edges. This one isn't limited to the centre, but is found in suitably sheltered situations from here north-west to the distant coast, though the centre represents its south-eastern limits. Its ancestors were rainforest inhabitants, as are most of its relations today.
Rock Fig Ficus brachypoda; Ellery Creek Big Hole, West MacDonnell Ranges (above);
Watarrka National Park, George Gill Range (below).

Time fascinates me, so doubtless we'll be exploring variations of this theme in times to come.


Tuesday, 11 June 2013

On These Days, 10 and 11 June; celebrating Portugal and John Stokes

OK, it's cheating, but I wasn't here yesterday, and you don't really want to miss a good story do you? (And anyway it's still 10 June in some parts of the world as I type!)

10 June is Portugal Day. Portugal Day is unusual among national days in that it commemorates the death of a poet - Luís de Camões in 1580. He was responsible for Os Lusíadas, an epic poem celebrating Portugal's exploratory achievements (I've not actually read it, you understand). He knew something about his topic, having been shipwrecked in Indochina and (so the story goes) swimming ashore with the precious manuscript held aloft. Why his deathday? For the very practical reason that his birthday is unknown.

Portugal and Australia? Yes, indeed. The stories of the first maps to show 'Australia' are tangled webs indeed, and well beyond my limited expertise, but some of them from the 15th Century show a continent south of Java with surprisingly Australia-like features; the cartographers said that this was because information was gleaned from unnamed Portuguese sailors trading spices from the nearby Moluccas. This is not verified, but it's certainly plausible - the Portuguese were great sailors and map-makers. One of our iconic birds, the Emu, takes its name from the Portuguese Ema, signifying a crane (or any other large bird); more information here

Moreover, a very eminent Portuguese polymath gave his name to a very beautiful, and familiar, genus of Australian wildflowers.

Correa pulchella, Coffins Bay National Park, South Australia.
The genus is for Jose Francisco Correia da Serra.

Da Serra, born in 1750, was an abbé of the church who took a law degree in Rome. He was also an enthusiastic geologist and botanist who founded the Portuguese Academy of Sciences at Lisborn. In 1795 he fled to London to escape the inquisition, but managed to secure a position as secretary to the Portuguese embassy in England. He also did some very significant biological research there, became a fellow of the Royal Society and became acquainted with the great botanists of both England and France, including Banks, Cuvier and von Humboldt.
Correa lawrenceana, Kosciuszko National Park.

His liberal sympathies made his position at the embassy difficult, and he moved on to France. Here his research continued, and he facilitated significant cooperation between British and French scientists. At the Paris museum he described some Rutaceae genera - the family to which Correa, as well as citrus fruit, belongs - mainly from south-east Asia. When Napoleon invaded Portugal (and the Portuguese government shifted to Brazil), Napoleon ordered da Serra to write a letter supporting his rule of Portugal. He refused and went to the US in 1813, where he met Thomas Jefferson who described him as “the greatest collection, and best digest of science in books, men, and things that I have ever met with; and with these the most amiable and engaging character”.
Correa bauerlenii, Eurobodalla Botanic Gardens.

He stayed for nine years and in 1816 he was appointed Portugal's minister plenipotentiary to the United States. From the US he finally returned to Portugal in 1821, on the advent of a liberal government there. He died just two years later, a vastly respected scientist on both sides of the Atlantic – but barely recognised in his home land.
Correa alba, New South Wales south coast. An unusual Correa in not having the four petals fused into a floral tube.

The English botanist Henry Andrews honoured him with the name in 1798, while da Serra was living in London.

And now, as they say, for someone completely different.

John Lort Stokes was a naval officer who moved in exalted biological circles. He spent 18 years on the Beagle, including five sailing with Charles Darwin; later he succeeded the irascible Scot John Wickham as captain. I love the report that, exploring ashore on the Gulf of Carpentaria he wrote of ‘the exquisite joy of discovery’. He later commanded surveys in New Zealand and the British Channel. He was regarded as a genial fellow, and was promoted to an admiral – but only, as far as I can confirm, after his retirement...

I hope he was glad to have this very handsome dry country lizard named for him, in 1845 by, I'm almost certain, John Edward Gray, then Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum. Stokes (now captain) had been surveying in Western Australia a few years previously, and it is quite possible he collected the species from one of its two small isolated coastal populations there (it is much more widely distributed further east).

Gidgee Skink Egernia stokesii, Whyalla Conservation Park, South Australia.

Stokes died on this day in 1885; not a scientist of the calibre of da Serra, but I think geniality counts.