About Me

My photo
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.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Colours in Nature; gingery shades 3 - reptiles and invertebrates

Here is the third - and for now at least the last, though there is another in the offing - in this instalment of the occasional series on colours in nature. Starting here I've been looking at shades usually referred to as reddish-brown, rufous, copper, chestnut, rusty and other evocative appellations, looking first at some birds and more recently at mammals. 

I have more rusty birds to share with you at some stage, but I want to give the too-often ignored players, invertebrates and reptiles, a starring role before you get bored with this topic.

Given the common origins of feathers and fur in scales, it seems reasonable to assume that the same phaeomelanins that produce these earthy colours in birds and mammals are found in reptile scales, but I doubt that much work has been done on the subject. Looking at some of my pictures of Australian desert lizards, it struck me how logical it was to employ rusty tones, as they match those of the iron-infused sands and stones they often inhabit.
Central Bearded Dragon Pogona vitticeps, near Coober Pedy, South Australia.
Spotted Military Dragon Ctenophorus maculatus, near Cue, central Western Australia.
Ctenotus brooksi Kata Tjuta NP, central Australia.
This is one of dozens of members of this genus, many of them desert-dwellers.
Gidgee Skink Egernia stokesii, Whyalla Conservation Park, South Australia.
A large skink which lives in ironstone-rich rock crevices; if threatened it puffs itself up to wedge itself
into a crevice, and presents its spiny tail.
On the other hand it seems there can be a point in being a rich bronze colour even if you live in tropical rainforest.
Hitherto unidentified (ie by me!) skink, Lacy Creek Reserve near Mission Beach, north Queensland.
Any suggestions welcomed.
One Australian reptile group (of three species) actually bears the name copperhead, but ironically I've rarely seen these snakes with such an adornment. On the other hand, this very handsome Lowland Copperhead Austrelaps superbus, crossing the road in Tasmania had a lovely glossy coppery body.
Lowland Copperhead, Bruny Island, southern Tasmania.
Other snakes, of other groups, also share such tones.
Anaconda Eunectes murinus, Yasuní NP, Ecuadorian Amazonia.
This magnificent animal (whose head is just visible in the centre of the coils) was resting on floating
vegetation at the edge of a lake.

Striped Bronzeback Tree Snake Dendrelaphis caudolineatus Labuk Bay, Sabah.
This elegant colubrid (back-fanged venomous snake) is common in the region.

And so to some coppery/gingery/etc invertebrates. There are of course many, and this is just a small selection across a range of groups. It is likely that the ubiquitous phaeomelanins play a role here too, but it is also likely that different groups have come up with different pigments, as is the case with other invertebrate colours. I have chosen examples from grasshoppers, beetles, bugs, butterflies, ants, snails and millipedes. As ever, I am unable to identify most of them I'm afraid.

As with the lizards above, camouflage seems to be an important driver in the rusty tones of many Australian desert grasshoppers.

Grasshopper, Kings Canyon, central Australia.
Long-nosed Lycid Beetles, Porrostoma rhipidium Family Lycidae, Namadgi National Park,
Australian Capital Territory. This colour combination is a warning that the beetle is both toxic and unpalatable
(or so I'm told!). Other chemically-protected insects adopt the same colours to reinforce the message, and still other,
quite edible, ones do so also to gain protection by deceit.
Double Drummer Cicada Thopha saccata, Nowra, New South Wales.
It is quite possible that these colours are such an attempt at protection by mimicry; most cicadas
are avidly sought by predatory birds.
Bullant Myrmecia sp., Currarong, New South Wales.
No bluff required here - bullant stings rate very highly on scales of 'sting pain'.
Yellow Admiral Vanessa itea Mount Granya NP, Victoria; please bear in mind that I didn't name it!
I love the gradation of rich rufous tones.
Antanartia sp. (I think) Family Nymphalidae, Bwindi Impenetrable NP Uganda.
Again, subtle and rich.
This huge snail came out in the rain at Rio Silanche Reserve, north-east of Quito, Ecuador.
I don't always think of snails as colourful, but this one certainly qualified.
And to finish off, another from the Ecuador rainforests, a millipede, a group of animals I always enjoy.
Millipede, Yasuní NP, Amazonia/

I hope you've enjoyed this coppery ride as much as I have; I've come to realise that these tones are high among my favourite colours, and of course any animal is among my favourites!

As previously mentioned I have another list of gingery birds to share with you one day, but perhaps it's time to take a break from the topic and talk about something else - next time I'll be back from warm Borneo in frosty Canberra, talking to you 'live'.


Saturday, 14 May 2016

Colours in Nature: gingery shades 2 - mammals

In my last post I started a new thread in my irregular series on colours in nature, by featuring birds with 'rufous' or 'chestnut' in their names; I wonder if you were as surprised as I was how many there were? These rusty/gingery tones are widespread in animals, and are the result of reddish phaeomelanins combined with brown or black eumelanins. As I mentioned last time, we seem to have gone to more trouble with being precise about the colour with birds than we have with mammals, where we often just use 'Red' as a descriptor, though (or perhaps because?) very few mammals sport actual red tones. 
Red Kangaroos Macropus rufa, inland Western Australia.
This is a male and a youngster, which is probably male but not necessarily; females are usually bluish-grey,
but some 10-20% of each sex are the 'wrong' colour.
This is the common kangaroo of the arid inland and central deserts.
Red-necked Wallabies Macropus rufogriseus, Namadgi National Park, Australian Capital Territory.
A common medium-sized wallaby in near coastal eastern Australia.
Little Red Fruit-Bats (or Flying Foxes) Pteropus scapulatus, Cooktown, tropical Queensland.
They really are a gloriously rich colour, but still not really red....
These are part of a big colony which roosts in the mangroves just across the road from Cooktown's town centre.
Red Panda Ailurus fulgens, Adelaide Zoo. (Sorry, I try to keep my photos here 'wild' as far as possible.)
Another stunningly colourful mammal. Not at all closely related to the Giant Panda (which is a true bear)
but the only member of its own family, loosely allied to weasels and raccoons.
Red-tailed Squirrel Sciurus granatensis, Alanbi Lodge, north-western Ecuador.
Think too of Red Deer and Red Fox, not to mention 'red'-headed humans. However many other mammals share such hues, sometime overall, sometimes as highlights, without using 'red' (or any other colour word) in their name. Primates feature quite strongly, from both Old and New Worlds, though other major groups are also well-represented. I've left out Orangutans here because I included them in the Orange posting, but they're one of those many borderline cases.
Proboscis Monkey Nasalis larvatus, Sarawak (above and below).
This gorgeously pigmented monkey, the only one of its genus, is endemic to Borneo.

Patas Monkey Erythrocebus patas, Waza NP, northern Cameroon.
Another single-species genus, found across arid west Africa.
Coppery Titi Monkey Callicebus cupreus, Tambopata Reserve, Peruvian Amazon.
Just three members of this widespread neotropical genus were recognised until recently -
now there are 16.
Ecuadorian Squirrel Monkey Saimiri macrodon, Yasuní NP, Ecuadorian Amazon.
(I think that expression is concentration rather than a lack of enjoyment.)
Few bats are as strikingly rusty as the Little Red Fruit Bats above, but others have nice coppery highlights.
Short-nosed Fruit Bat Cynopterus brachyotis Nanga Sumpa Lodge Sarawak.
These tiny fruit bats are common in rural buildings and under eaves in northern Borneo.
Black Fruit Bats Pteropus alecto, Charters Towers, Queensland.
This is a big fruit bat, found across northern Australia and into New Guinea and Indonesia.
Grey-headed Fruit Bat Pteropus poliocephalus, Sydney Botanic Gardens.
Among non-kangaroo marsupials, the most beautifully rusty has to be the lovely Numbat Myrmecobius fasciatus, once found across Australia but reduced - mostly by fox and cat predation it would seem - to pockets in south-western Australia, where once-promising reintroduction efforts seem to be faltering for reasons uncertain.
Numbat, Perth Zoo. (I have old slides from Dryandra Forest, but they really are not worth showing here!)
Some antelope certainly meet our criteria for inclusion.
Bushbuck female Tragelaphus sylvaticus, Kruger NP, South Africa.
Impala Aepyceros melampus, Lake Mburo NP, Uganda.
Female and young African Buffaloes Syncerus caffer, can be quite rusty in colour (when not covered in mud)
unlike the very dark bulls.
(The Little Egret and African Skimmer are bonuses.)
And some carnivores are also handsomely rusty. But I still can't decide if tigers are just rusty or outright orange!
Sumatran Tiger Panthera tigris sumatrae, Adelaide Zoo.
Culpeo (or Andean Fox) Lycalopex culpaeus Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.
You wouldn't know it from this photo, but the legs are notably reddish.
This relatively large fox is found along the Andes from Tierra del Fuego to southern Colombia.
South American Coati Nasua nasua, Umbrellabird Lodge, southern Ecuador.
This beauty is undeniably rusty, but other individuals can be quite grey.
Which is about all I've got for you today, but I'll be back soon with an offering of gingery-looking invertebrates and reptiles. There is also another posting on rusty birds to come, but by then I'll be back from Borneo, and we might have a change of topic before returning to them.


Thursday, 5 May 2016

Colours in Nature: gingery shades 1

It's been a while now since I did my last posting in the ongoing but irregular series on colours in nature; that one was the third in a series of orange in animals, a topic that gave me some angst, in that I found it very difficult to say just where orange ends and rufous-ginger-chestnut colours begin. I doubtless included some examples that you don't agree were really orange, and I'm not going to argue; in addition to our propensity to define colours differently from each other, the limits of 'orange' do seem to be very blurry indeed.
Chestnut Teals Anas castanea, south coast New South Wales, females on the left, males on the right.
The rich rusty colours on the males are the ones I'm talking about today.
Not that it really matters of course; the ultimate purpose of these postings, in addition to saying a little about how colours come about, is to revel in a parade of glorious animals (not many flowers in this colour category, though I may look into plants again in this context in the future). Once I started looking at potential examples of gingery-coloured animals, I realised that the options are very plentiful indeed. Indeed, I reckon I've got material for four postings; as it happens I'm going back to Malaysian Borneo next week, so I'll prepare another two postings on this topic to tide us over until I return in late May.

While perusing the possibilities, I realised that we use different terminology when talking about rusty birds and the same-coloured mammals. We use 'red' fairly carelessly in mammals (think of Red Kangaroos, Foxes and Deer for instance, not to mention 'red'-haired humans) but not nearly so much in birds. In fact for today's posting I'm going to concentrate solely on birds with Chestnut or Rufous in their name - and there are very many indeed. 

The chemicals that make the Chestnut Teals chestnut, and red-headed people 'red', are a class of melanins called phaeomelanins (or pheomelanins). Melanins are produced in the body, unlike some other pigments we've discussed in the past which can only be obtained in food. Combinations of various phaeomelanins and brown or black eumelanins give rise to all the shades we'll be looking at over the next few weeks, plus others. And now, let's just enjoy some Chestnut and Rufous birds.

Chestnut Quail-thrush Cinclosoma castanotum near Norseman, inland southern Western Australia.
Quail-thrushes of course are neither of these bird groups, but belong to an ill-defined family of Australian
(and possibly New Guinea) passerines.
Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon Petrophassa rufipennis, Kakadu National Park.
A little more about this lovely sandstone endemic here; the chestnut quills are just visible.
Chestnut-breasted Mannikin Lonchura castaneothorax, Darwin.
Chestnut Munia Lonchura atricapilla, a close relative of the previous species,
though 'munia' is not much used in Australia.
Chestnut-bellied Starling Lamprotornis pulcher, Waza NP, northern Cameroon.
This attractive starling has a huge range across arid sub-Saharan Africa, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.
Chestnut-breasted Coronet Boissonneaua matthewsii, Guango Lodge, northern Peru.
A gorgeously rich hummingbird from the cloud forests of the northern Andes.
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta Grallaria ruficapilla, Paz de las Aves, Ecuador.
Without the patient habituation to being fed worms by the Paz brothers, such a sighting would be almost impossible.
Chestnut-hooded Laughing-thrush Garrulax treacheri, Kinabalu NP, Sabah.
Not a thrush at all, but an Old World babbler.
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan Ramphastos ambiguus, Milpe Reserve, north-west of Quito, Ecuador.
It is assumed that phaeomelanins are also responsible for such tones in bills and legs too, but
as far as I know it has never been demonstrated.
Which brings us from Chestnuts to Rufouses - and I suspect that if I jumbled them up and didn't tell you which was which, you'd have some real trouble allocating them correctly!
Rufous Treecreeper Climacteris rufus, Porongorups NP, Western Australia.
The Australian treecreepers are a very ancient passerine lineage.
Rufous Owl Ninox rufa, Yungaburra, tropical Queensland.
Rufous Fantail Rhipidura rufifrons, Monga NP, New South Wales.
A very active and attractive flycatcher of wet forests of eastern Australia and beyond.
Rufous Whistler male Pachycephala rufiventris, near Canberra.
A rather more washed-out rufous than most we've met so far.
Rufous-banded Honeyeater Conopophila albogularis, Kakadu NP, Northern Territory.
A small tropical honeyeater also found in New Guinea.
Rufous Songlark Megalurus mathewsi, near Georgetown, north Queensland.
Not quite as silly as it sounds - the rump is rufous, just visible here.
Rufous Antpitta Grallaria rufula, Yanacocha Reserve, north-west of Quito, Ecuador.
A shy resident of high altitude cloud forests.
Rufous Motmot Baryphthengus martii, Arasha Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador.
Rufous Hornero Furnarius rufus, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
A common ground-dwelling ovenbird in Buenos Aires parks.
Rufous-bellied Thrush Turdus rufiventris, another common Buenos Aires bird.
Rufous-collared Sparrow Zonotrichia capensis, Machu Picchu.
One of the most ubiquitous and delightful South American birds, found the length and breadth
of the continent, and from sea level to the high Andes.
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird Amazilia tzacatl, Alanbi Lodge, Ecuador.

Rufous-tailed Plantcutter Phytotoma rara, Chilean Patagonia.
For now at least regarded as a cotinga.

Rufous-crested Coquette Lophornis delattrei, Waqanki Lodge, north-eastern Peru.
Even by hummingbird standards, this one is over the top!

And with that I think we can leave it for today; there were others I could have featured and of course there are many rufous/chestut/etc birds which aren't called that; we'll visit some of them in due course, but I think that next time we'll look at some rusty-coloured mammals.