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, 18 August 2016

Ferdinand von Mueller; botanical giant

It's now 120 years since Ferdinand von Mueller, the colossus of 19th century Australian botany, died. And it's high time I paid him some tribute here!

Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich Mueller, in his role as President of the Royal Society of Victoria.
Photo courtesy of Encyclopaedia of Australian Science.
He was born in 1825 in north-western Germany and, though trained as a pharmacist, carried out botanical research at the age of 15, and took his PhD in botany at Kiel aged just 21. (It was normal to combine botany with studies involving medicine, because of the herbal aspects.) He came to Australia for his health – or perhaps that of his sister, who travelled out with him. The Australian climate was probably recommended to him by Johann Preiss, a German naturalist who arrived in Perth in 1838, became a British subject in 1841, and the following year returned to Germany to live... Later, von Mueller was to recognise Preiss's contribution to his life by naming several species for him (but beware, so did many other botanists, especially Germans).

Mueller (as he was then) gained work for a pharmacist in Adelaide, but well before that he began collecting plants, just a few hours after landing.  He explored botanically the Mt Lofty and Flinders Ranges, to which he walked, a distance of nearly 300km.  He became a citizen soon after arriving. He published his findings initially in German scientific journals, then in 1852 in the prestigious journal of the Linnean Society of London; this came to the attention of Sir William Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens.

Coast Mistletoe Muellerina celastroides, Myora, south coast New South Wales.
There is no genus Muellera, because the name was pre-empted by a pea genus named for Danish botanist Otto Mueller.
However there is this genus, named just before von Mueller's death by French botanist Philippe Tieghem.
Restless, despite having obtained eight hectares of land and building a cottage outside of Adelaide, he moved to Victoria to open a pharmacy on the goldfields, but before he could open its doors, was appointed by Governor Latrobe as government botanist on the recommendation of Hooker. This was the first time a colony had made a botanical appointment separate from a botanic gardens, and he held it from 1853 to 1896 when he died. His botanical explorations of his new domain began immediately, and never really stopped. Within nine days of his appointment, he set out in February (often the hottest month of the year) on a 2,400km, four month, tour of the colony, heading north through the Strathbogie and Warby Ranges to Mt Buffalo and Mt Buller in the alps, thence east to Gippsland and home via Wilsons Promontory. 

In November he set out again, and spent five and a half months months travelling to the Grampians in western Victoria, then followed the Murray downstream from the Darling to Albury, continuing into eastern Victoria again. More trips followed, to the alps and Gippsland again; he crossed into New South Wales, arriving at Mt Kosciuszko, Australia's highest peak, on the first day of 1855. Altogether he covered 9,000km of trackless country, mostly alone, collecting thousands of specimens, including 500 species new to the colony. In subsequent decades he made another 15 expeditions to further his already prodigious knowledge of Victoria's flora.
Alpine Gentian Chionogentias (or Gentianella) muelleri, Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales,
above and below. More widely the group is regarded as part of the widespread Gentianella,
but in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory Chionogentias is recognised.
This beautiful alpine species was named only in 1995 by renowned Australian botanist Lawrie Adams
(famous for splitting Eucalyptus, a task unfinished at the time of his death) to honour von Mueller's alpine work.
In the same paper he introduced the genus Chionogentias to separate Australian gentians from ones
elsewhere in the world. Lawrie's work was pioneering and often attracted controversy!

He also explored the Tasmanian highlands, and for two years from 1855, when economic depression caused the retrenchment of many Victorian public servants, he took leave of absence and joined Augustus Gregory's highly significant North Australian Exploring Expedition, which covered much of the tropical north. In the process he collected 800 new plant species. On his return in 1857, he also became Director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. Under him the National Herbarium in Melbourne, which he had built, became the centre of Australian botanical studies; in 11 years it increased from 45,000 specimens (mostly his own, which he contributed) to 350,000. His duties also, strangely, included responsibility for the Zoological Society's animals. In 1873 he had to give up the Gardens because influential citizens wanted a 'pretty' gardens, not one arranged scientifically according to plant families, and the government, extraordinarily, dismissed him. This remained a distress to him for the rest of his life, though he retained the position of government botanist.
Yellow Kunzea Kunzea muelleri (above and massed below), Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales.
Another alpine species commemorating von Mueller, though this one was named long ago,
by George Bentham, his collaborator on the mighty Flora Australiensis (see below).

He was made first president of Victoria's Royal Society, and was very involved in the Acclimatisation Society, now regarded as a pernicious introducer of exotic species. He first introduced Monterey Pine Pinus radiata (now by far the chief softwood plantation species in Australia) and, reputedly at least, spread blackberry on his travels, partly as a source of nutrition for gold miners! With the chemist Joseph Bosisto he experimented on the distillation of essential oils. He also propounded the conservation of forests, though primarily for timber extraction. He helped to organise the Victorian Exploring Expedition (the notoriously doomed Burke and Wills Expedition, though most of its misfortune was of its own making, not that of its organisers), the search for the missing explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, the foundation of the Royal Geographic Society of Australasia, and the scientific exploration of both Antarctica and New Guinea. He was a truly remarkable and dynamic man.
Poison Morning Glory Ipomoea muelleri Family Convulvulaceae, Windorah, south-west Queensland.
Found across much of northern and inland Australia, this scrambler was also named by Bentham
to  honour his collaborator.
He was chief collaborator with English botanist George Bentham for 18 years on the 7-volume Flora Australiensis. This was a gracious act on his part, as it was a project he had much wanted to do himself, and he was of course the most eminently qualified person to do it. However he was a mere colonial, and the power of Kew was too great. He was the sole author of 1000 books and papers (including school textbooks), and 2000 new species, 1000 of which he had discovered himself, including most of the Australian alpine plants we now know. He was also reputed to write up to 3000 letters per year!  Unsurprisingly, he never found time to get married, though he was twice engaged.

The King of Wurtemberg made him a Baron (whence he was entitled to be 'von Mueller'); he became Sir Ferdinand in 1879 and has it been suggested that he is probably the most decorated Australian citizen ever. He died, in harness at age 71, in 1896.
Yellow Stringybark Eucalyptus muelleriana, Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales.
Named by English-born Alfred Howitt in 1891; Howitt was a very impressive self-taught bushman
and explorer, naturalist and anthropologist.
Simple arithmetic on the figures above reveals that von Mueller named 1,000 plant species that other people supplied to him. Next time I want to introduce some of those collectors - some were professionals, others collected as they did their day jobs - who von Mueller thanked by naming plants for them.

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Thursday, 4 August 2016

Colours in Nature; gingery shades 5 - overseas birds

It's turned into something of an odyssey, but here is the final episode in this series celebrating animals with colours we variously refer to as chestnut, ginger, rusty, rufous or copper among others. The series began back here and my most recent posting was the penultimate one. I won't reiterate what I said then about the chemical basis of such colours, but will proceed to introduce you to some more birds which bear them, crossing three continents in the process. As I've mentioned more than once in the course of this journey, I find the richness and subtlety of these shades most appealing indeed. 
Ocellated Tapaculo Acropternis orthonyx, Refugio Paz de los Aves, northern Ecuador.
This is a relatively large and very vocal bird, but normally near impossible to see in the forest.
The patience and skill of Angel Paz in habituating it to come in for food is astonishing.
Wattled Jacana Jacana jacana, near Guayaquil, Ecuador.
The jacanas form a group of eight species, found throughout the world's tropical zones,
which specialise in walking on floating leaves by means of hugely extended toes. This one is found throughout
most of South America east of the Andes, plus this isolated near-coastal population in Ecuador.
This species gave its Tupi name, from Brazil, to the entire group.

Grey-headed Sparrow Passer griseus, Entebbe, Uganda.
An Old World sparrow which has adapted to human habitations like some other family members,
including the next one.
Tree Sparrow Passer montanus, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
A sparrow with a huge natural range across Europe and Asia, as well as having been
introduced to North America and Australia (where it is rare and declining).
I like the fact that these two closely related species flaunt their chestnut tones in different places.
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis, Puerto Ayora, Galápagos.
Cinnamon Flycatcher Pyrrhomyias cinnamomeus, San Isidro Lodge, northern Peru.
A common and widespread little beauty of the forests.
Raffles's Malkoa Rhinortha chlorophaea female, Sepilok, Sabah.
The malkohas form a group of large non-parasitic cuckoos.
Black-throated Flowerpiercer  Diglossa brunneiventris, Chivay, southern Peruvian Andes.
The flowerpiercers are a group of tanagers which use their awl-shaped bill to pierce the base
of tube-flowers to 'steal' nectar without pollinating the flower.
The next two, both kingfishers and quite similar, though in different genera and from different continents, are normally admired for their blue plumage - and quite rightly too - but their rusty undersides are an important part of the striking overall effect.
Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting, Sepilok, Sabah.
A beautiful kingfisher found widely in southern and south-east Asia.

Malachite Kingfisher Corythornis cristatus, Lake Mburo NP, Uganda.
An exquisite little bird found across sub-Saharan Africa.
So far the species features have varying amounts of the chestnut shades, from small highlights to up to half of their bodies; other birds however are virtually wholly coloured thus.
Andean Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis (above),
and Cinnamon Teal Anas cyanoptera (below),
both males and both on Lake Titicaca, Peru.
In both species the females are much less conspicuous, in mottled browns.
In the wonderful Torrent Duck Merganetta armata however, the rusty roles are reversed, with the females wearing it.
Torrent Ducks displaying, Urabamba River, Peruvian Andes.
Males on the left, female on the right.
Rufescent Tiger-Heron Tigrisoma lineatum, YasunĂ­ NP, Ecuadorian Amazonia.
A beautiful heron often seen along streams by visitors travelling by boat.
(And 'rufescent' is a name borne by only three bird species in the world!)
Almost the last, two superficially similar rainforest woodpeckers from opposite sides of the world - and both taken in very poor light conditions, unfortunately.

Cinnamon Woodpecker Celeus loricatus, Rio Silanche Reserve, north-western Ecuador.
Rufous Woodpecker Micropternus brachyurus, Sepilok, Sabah.
This pretty little woodpecker is found right across southern and south-east Asia.
And finally, a very handsome, and very rusty, big South American cuckoo.
Squirrel Cuckoo Piaya cayana, Manu NP, Peru; a lovely and active non-parasitic cuckoo found
from northern Mexico to Uruguay.
I hope you haven't felt I've gone on with this theme for too long, but I felt, apart from anything else, that it was a chance to meet some possibly new birds, and hopefully simply enjoy them.

I'm off again soon, on an extended holiday to tropical Australia, and will leave just a couple of offerings to tide us over until I get back in mid-September. Normal service will resume then!

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