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, 24 August 2017

Kata Tjuta; mighty rocks close to Australia's heart

Last year I posted on one of the truly special parts of this land, to me and to many others - great Uluru. You might like to visit that post again, to put this one into some context; I'll not repeat here the history and traditional aspects that are common to both. If you're not yet familiar with the area, they are part of the same national park, and clearly visible from one another across the plains, though 25km apart. Though, understandably, great Uluru usually gets star billing, many of the early European visitors - and indeed many later ones that I know of - regard Kata Tjuta with even more awe. I don't see a need to cast a vote; each is unique and truly wonderful (even awesome, a devalued word I make a point of very rarely using!).
The domes of Kata Tjuta from the south.
The name can be translated from Pitjantjatjara-Yankunytjatjara as 'many heads'.
Ernest Giles, perhaps the toughest of all the European desert explorers (though one could equally say the same of John McDouall Stuart or Edward John Eyre) saw the domes from a distance in October 1872, but the normally dry Lake Amadeus was boggy and kept him away. He, unfortunately, named them Mount Olga for the Spanish queen! (She, and her husband Amadeus, or Amadeo, were regarded by him as 'enlightened patrons of science'.) The name stuck until recent times, when the original name was reinstated. Shortly afterwards William Gosse 'discovered' and renamed Uluru as Ayers Rock, and visited Kata Tjuta searching for water. 
Some of the domes from closer up. It is hard to appreciate the scale of them unless you are among them.
Arthur Groom was a Queensland-based pioneer conservationist and author who in 1950 published
I Saw a Strange Land, an account of wanderings with camels in central Australia (he was a prodigious walker).
In it he wrote "The smallest dome could have crowned the world's greatest cathedral and the greatest
was a red immensity of rock that would have completely dwarfed the same edifice".
In less lyrical figures, the highest dome towers nearly 200 metres above Uluru, at 550 metres above the plain. There are 36 domes and the whole complex covers some 35 square kilometres with a 24km circumference. 

I realise that in the Uluru posting I omitted to include a map, perhaps making too many assumptions, so I'll rectify that now.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, deep in the central deserts (360km south-west of Alice Springs)
at the end of the red arrow.
On a later visit, Giles described the domes as being 'composed of untold masses of rounded stones of all kinds and sizes, mixed like plums in a pudding'. The materials which have since eroded away to form the exposed vast masses of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta were laid down at roughly the same time (give or take a few million years) but in different events, from the erosion of great mountain ranges to the south and west. These alluvial fans spread across the plain, becoming buried and compressed into hard stone, which eventually became partly exposed again. Uluru comprises relatively fine sandstone but, as Giles observed, Kata Tjuta is formed of conglomerates of granite and basalt rocks ranging from pebbles to boulders, glued together with sandstone. 
Conglomerates, above and below, Valley of the Winds Walk, Kata Tjuta.

Caves, eroded by wind and water out of the conglomerate.
The first view of Kata Tjuta for many people is from the sunrise viewing area at Uluru; the following were taken from there and a nearby dune.
This photo and the one below were taken from a dune near Uluru on the same morning.
(Part of a much longer series, which I'm sparing you!)

This was taken on a different occasion, from the Uluru viewing point.
There are two separate sites that most visitors explore. The first is the Valley of the Winds Walk, a superb six kilometre circuit among the domes and across the adjacent plains. It is one of our favourite walks in all Australia.
Start of the walk.
Pool among the domes.

It is only here among the domes that their immensity becomes overwhelmingly obvious.

Fluted dome.
The highest point of the walk is at Karingara Lookout, from where we can look out over the plains and back into the domes.
Looking out to the plains between outcrops from Karingana Lookout.
This is a lovely spot for a rest and a snack. It's also where many of the backpacker tour groups come
to shout for echoes, not always seeking peace and solitude. On the other hand they're generally on
a tight schedule so usually turn back from here, leaving the rest of us continue in tranquility.
The other popular site is Walpa Gorge, involving an in and out 2.5km return walk across a rock sheet and into a lovely deep shady gorge.
Part of the mighty Walpa Gorge wall.
Walpa is a perfect place for both reflection and reflections.
Head of the gorge; this was on a different visit, in a drier year, from the previous photos.
In a forthcoming post (by the end of September, promise!) I'll return to Kata Tjuta to talk about some animals and, more especially, plants of the domes, but that's too big a task for today.

To balance the earlier sunrises, let's end with a couple of Kata Tjuta sunsets, which can be equally breathtaking.
Kata Tjuta at sunset through the flowering spinifex, above and below

It probably wasn't news to you but, just in case, this place is very very special indeed. You need to experience it, either for the first time or again - it's different every time.

BACK ON FRIDAY; there's a good reason for making it 1 September!
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Friday, 18 August 2017

Madagascar: 'the eighth continent'

We have just returned from a memorable, enthralling (and often challenging) 17 days in Madagascar, which has long been a distant dream of mine. Some years ago I gave up on it, largely in view of the many grim reports I was getting on the extent of environmental destruction there, but events offered me an opportunity, and I was persuaded that though the damage is very real, the reserved areas and their amazing biota warranted a visit. Both aspects of that assessment were borne out by our experience there. 
Indri Indri indri (!), largest of the living lemurs, Andasibe-Mantadia NP.
I am still pretty wrung out by it all (we've been back less than 72 hours) so this is just a brief overview of the astonishing island and its nature; there will be more detailed posts on various animal groups and individual parks in times to come.

The 'eighth continent' moniker is often cited and, while probably unsupportable, it does indicate an important truth - Madagascar is in no way part of Africa. Indeed its most recent direct contact with the rest of the world was when it split away from India 88 million years ago; it drifted more recently to its current position off the south-coast of Africa, 450km from it across the Mozambique Channel.
Location of Madagascar in the western Indian Ocean (per Mobot ).
If slid east along the latitudes to overlay eastern Australia, it would cover the area roughly
from mid Cape York Peninsula to Fraser Island; at 1600km from north to south,
it is big. At 593,000 square kilometres it is roughly the size of Spain, or twice that
of Britain and Ireland.

Madagascar map (per Maps of the World); most of the locations referred to below can be found here,
though you'll need to click on it to see detail.
Another important reason that it is not truly African is that its people are not - the original Malagasy inhabitants arrived, probably less than 1500 years ago, and from the east. Specifically they were from Borneo (attested to in the modern Malagasy language, as well as ethnically), blown across the Indian Ocean in outrigger canoes. Later on colonists certainly arrived from Africa, and blended with the Indonesians (and later other peoples) to form the modern Malagasy people.

By the end of the 15th century amalgams of people from different parts of the island began to form 'kingdoms' which struggled for supremacy, though the Merina kingdom of the central highlands, around the modern capital of Antananarivo, came to dominate. This lasted until the late 19th century, when a French invasion, followed by political skulduggery, reduced the independent nation to a French colony, which it remained despite strong resistance until eventual re-independence in 1960. Sadly this was only after an unprecedentedly brutal crushing of an uprising, wherein French troops slaughtered at least 100,000 civilians. Today Madagascar is one of the world's poorest countries, with a per capita Gross National Income of less than US$400, and a rapidly growing population of 24 million.

The extent of habitat destruction across the highlands - which represent the majority of the land area - is shocking. We drove for whole days without seeing any native vegetation; sadly for us, invasive eucalypts are a huge problem, though local people rely heavily on them for firewood, charcoal and building materials.
Central highlands (above and below), south of Antananarivo; virtually all the trees visible are eucalpyts
(of a surprising number of species) with some pines.

It's hard to know just what was lost, but it seems to have been a mix of closed evergreen forest higher up, and more open woodland lower down. Until well into human times this region supported giant lemurs (some of them larger than modern gorillas), several species of the giant elephant-birds, and giant tortoises. I can say that it is extremely dispiriting to drive for hour on hour through such devastation (and no, I'm not making value judgements, just responding to what has been lost).
Eucalypt-dominated landscapes south of Antananarivo, above and below.
(Most of the pictures were taken from the bus window.)

There are some remnants of the original highlands vegetation left in reserves on the northern and southern fringes of the highlands, but not of the central highlands. The following photos are of sub-humid forest types representative at least of the regions where they survive.

Ankarana NP, just south of Amber Mountain.

Anja Community Reserve, in the south, near Isalo NP on the map.
In the eastern lowlands are rainforests, which are better conserved. Andasibe-Mantadia (east of the capital) and Ranomafana (further south) are very important rainforest reserves.
Rainforest, Andasibe-Mantadia NP.

Rainforest, Ramanofana NP, above and below.

Forests which we would call vine or monsoon forests (formally Dry Deciduous Forests in Madagascar) once covered vast area of the west (which we did not visit) and the far north, but they too have been reduced to fragments. Nonetheless the World Wildlife Fund describes them as "one of the world's richest and most distinctive tropical dry forests". Such forests grow in regions of high seasonal rainfall followed by months of drought.
Amber Mountain NP, far north.

Dry deciduous forest, Ankarana NP in the north.
In the far south and south-west succulent woodlands grade into the very arid and remarkable spiny forests, like nothing else on earth. Octopus Plants (Alluaudia spp.), baobabs and euphorbs predominate.
Ifaty spiny forest (north of Toliara on the map).

Octopus plants and baobabs, Ifaty.
On the subject of baobabs, Madagascar is home to six of the world's nine species (there are also two in Africa, one of which was only recently described, and one in Australia). 
Fony Baobab Adansonia rubrostipa, Ifaty forest.
Madagascar is also home to some 200 species of palms - three times as many as the whole of continental Africa.
Bismarck Palms Bismarckia nobilis, far south; among the very few native plants spared in this landscape.

Remnant palms, Toliara.
These groups in Madagascar originated in Africa, but others, such as the pitcher plants, came from the opposite direction (like the people), drifting from Asia.
Nepenthes madagascarensis, Pangalenes Lakes, east coast.
It's not hard to imagine baobab or palm seeds floating, or palm fruits carried by birds, from Africa, but what about non-flying animals? Their ancestors can only have floated in on rafts of vegetation, a phenomenally unlikely event; moreover the ocean currents which made it possible ceased to flow between 15 and 20 million years ago. This means that very few animal groups have made the crossing, they have had plenty of time to diversify in isolation.

Endemism - ie living nowhere else on earth - is very high indeed. For instance all the native non-flying mammals, 99% of the frogs, 95% of reptiles, nearly 90% of flowering plants and 44% of birds are endemic to Madagascar.

The most famous of these are of course the lemurs, whose ancestors were an ancient primate which later also gave rise to bushbabies and pottos in Africa, and lorises in Asia; modern monkeys didn't appear for tens of millions more years. They arrived in Madagascar an astonishing 50 to 60 million years ago, and have diversified into five living families - a third of the world's living primate families. In addition three lemur families have become extinct since the advent of humans.

Here is a sample of lemur species.
Ankarana Sportive Lemur Lepilemur ankaranensis, Ankarana NP.

Eastern Grey Bamboo Lemur Hapalemur griseus, Pangalenes Lakes, east coast.

Red-fronted Brown Lemur Eulemur rufifrons, Isalo NP; gathering fallen figs from the forest floor.

Surely the most extraordinary of living lemurs is the Aye-aye Daubentonia madagascariensis, the only living member of the family (though a second became extinct in recent times).
Here at Pangalenes Lakes a small population is isolated on an island and has become partially habituated
under very strict control. She has used her amazing incisors to open the coconut provided; normally she uses them
to cut into wood, from which she extracts grubs with a slender adapted forefinger.
(No flashes allowed!)
And yes, there will be a post entirely devoted to lemurs in the near future.

Only three more groups of land mammals ever made the crossing; the tenrecs, a uniquely African group of no close affinities 42-45 million years ago, the Madagascan carnivores 20-26 million years ago, and the rodents at about the same time.
Lesser Hedgehog Tenrec Echinops telfairi, Ifaty Forest.
Having been extracted from its daytime refuge (not at our request!) this one sensibly declined
to unroll in our presence. There are over 30 species, which have evolved to fill a range of habitat niches,
including those of burrowing moles, climbing rodents and small otters.
Ring-tailed Vontsira Galidia elegans, Amber Mountain NP.
There are eleven species of these uniquely Madagascan carnivores, which derived from the
'cat-like' carnivores; they are most closely related to (but still very distant from) the mongooses and hyaenas.
Madagascar is also the world capital of chameleons! The 85 species, all endemic, represent 42% of the world's species, in less than 0.4% of its land area. They include the world's largest and smallest species. 
Oustalet's Chameleon Furcifer oustaleti, Anja Community Reserve.
Arguably the world's largest chameleon (disputed by Madagascar's Parson's Chameleon),
at nearly 70cm long.

Amber Mountain Leaf Chameleon Brookesia tuberculata Amber Mountain NP.
I don't normally use photos of hand-held animals, but I'm sure you can see why I compromised here!
Barely 30mm long, it is close to being the world's smallest reptile.
It is also a stronghold for geckoes, with at least 110 known species (though that number is growing by the year); this is more than double the number for Australia, with 13 times the land area. A third of these are, unusually, daytime hunters.
Giant Day Gecko Phelusma grandis Ankarana NP.
Common Leaf-tailed Gecko Uroplatus fimbriatus Amber Mountain NP.
The camouflage of these leaf-tailed geckoes is truly astonishing.
There are just four snake families, including two of rarely-seen blind burrowers. The largest family is of mildly venomous back-fanged snakes, formerly grouped with the world-wide colubrids, but since 2010 included in the newly-recognised family Lamprophiidae, also widespread.
Madagascan Giant Hognose Snake Leioheterodon madagascariensis.This large snake grows to 180cm long, but specialises in digging up and eating lizard eggs with its tilted nose.
There are two species of boa, traditionally grouped with the South American boas, which posed some interesting questions, though that assessment is now in some doubt.
Madagascan Ground Boa Acrantophis madagascariensis, Isalo NP.
These are big hunters, up to three metres long.

Finally, for today, there are six bird families endemic to the island. One of these comprises just one species, the ancient Cuckoo-roller, which is also the sole member of its entire Order; to my disappointment this one evaded us. Another is a group of small warblers, only recently recognised as separate from more widely-spread warbler groups. Here are examples of the others.

The vangas (family Vangidae) are an astonishingly diverse group of hunters
which have evolved into 15 genera (with 22 species), filling every conceivable foraging niche
in every habitat on the island. This little beauty is Chabert's Vanga Leptopterus chabert, in the Ifaty spiny forest.

Sickle-billed Vanga Falculea palliata, Ankarana NP.
The ground-rollers (family Brachypteraciidae) comprise just six species in the same Order as true rollers. They are mostly ground-dwellers and elusive - we were lucky!
Scaly Ground-roller Geobiastes squamiger, Ramanofana NP.

Long-tailed Ground-roller Uratelornis chimaera, Ifaty spiny forest.
The mesites are more mysterious, just three species making up an entire Order in the family Mesitornithidae, probably most closely related to the sandgrouse (and, more distantly, pigeons). They are almost flightless.
Subdesert Mesite Monias benschi, Ifaty spiny forest.

Finally, there are the asities, a four-species family (Eurylaimidae) which, along with the pittas and broadbills, comprise the only members of the ancient Gondwanan sub-oscine passerines in the Old World; Madagascar never ceases to surprise!
Velvet Asity Philepitta castanea, Ranomafana NP; this is a non-breeding male.
So, just a brief outline of Madasagar - not too skimpy or disjointed I hope, and apologies for the lack of invertebrates. The island certainly deserves better, and as suggested earlier, we'll be back in posts to come! Thanks for being with me.

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