About Me

My photo

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, 10 August 2017

Ghost Gums; spirits of the desert (updated from an earlier post)

I am away for a bit over two weeks and, instead of preparing new posts for that time, I have opted to update a couple of earlier posts, which are more than three and a half years old and which you may well have missed. I hope you find them interesting. This one first appeared in an earlier form on 7 January 2014. I'll be back 'live' on Friday 18 August.

Of all the things that thrill me when I go to central Australia - and there are many - the first sight of a Ghost Gum is particularly special. Like many Australians - I'd like to think most of us, but that may be optimistic - I knew of Ghost Gums before I saw them, courtesy of the truly great Arrernte Australian artist Albert Namatjira. (An image search on your favourite search engine for 'Namatjira ghost gum' will give you lots of examples.)

Their superbly white trunks, powdery to the touch, against red cliffs or vast dry plains catch at the breath and the heart every time. They are found across a huge expanse of dry Australia; various of the photos that follow were taken across Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland at localities up to 1500 kilometres apart, and even that is not the full extent of their range.

Roadside Ghost Gum, west of Windorah, south-west Queensland.
Coming from the south-east, this is one of the first examples you'll encounter.
For much of my life I knew them as Eucalyptus papuana, but two things happened then. Firstly, the respected botanist Lawrie Johnson of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney grasped a very large and forbidding nettle indeed when he tackled the problem of what to do about Eucalyptus. The problem, in a gum-nut shell, is that the differences between Eucalyptus and Angophora are no greater than between the various sub-groups of Eucalyptus. Logic demanded either incorporating Angophora into Eucalyptus, or splitting Eucalyptus; Lawrie boldly chose the latter. Before his sad death from cancer in 1997 he had got as far as separating out the bloodwoods, spotted gums and ghost gums as Corymbia; they remain in most books now as the only other non-Eucalyptus eucalypt. This is an interesting enough subject in itself, but I'll leave it at that for now.

The other development was the realisation that 'Eucalyptus/Corymbia papuana' in fact comprised several closely related species. The species was based on a specimen described by Ferdinand von Mueller from New Guinea; as now recognised that species is limited to New Guinea and Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, so the others needed their own names. The central Australian one, our subject today, growing cross the harsh central deserts from eastern Western Australia to central Queensland, was delightfully called Eucalyptus (or Corymbia) aparrerinja, that being a name used by the central desert peoples.
Ghost Gums at Boodjamulla (formerly Lawn Hill) NP, north-west Queenland.
I think these are aparrerinja, but they could be another of the former papuana complex, such as bella.

But in this lovely indigenous-based name lies a curious tale, for which I am very grateful to David Nash, a highly regarded Australian National University authority on Northern Territory languages and I can do no better than quote him. "How aparrerinja came to be applied is a bit mysterious. It was recorded as the word for 'Ghost Gum' only by Basedow (in 1925 near Gosse's Bluff). In his orthography nj is the palatal nasal. It is not understood why he did not record the common Arrernte 'Ghost Gum' word ilwempe, and why instead his term is built on the 'River Red Gum' term apere (in modern orthography), meaning 'similar to apere'. Note that the River Red Gum is commonly considered in central Australia to be the most similar tree to the Ghost Gum." It doesn't seem that this mystery is soluble, but it's good to know the questions at least.

Uses recorded by indigenous people (which may include other closely related Ghost Gums) include its value as a very good firewood, resistant even to rain; gum was used further north as a leech repellant, and more generally as antiseptic and topical relief for burns; bark infusions were drunk to assist in fighting chest infections, and to bathe sore eyes.

You're most likely to first encounter Ghost Gums on the plains, like the south-west Queensland outlier featured above. I hope you don't think I've gone overboard with the photos - personally I don't think there is any such thing as too many Ghost Gums!
Ghost Gums towering over the plains near Simpsons Gap, MacDonnell Ranges.
Ghost Gums along the Gary Junction Road, southern edge of the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.
Much denser Ghost Gum woodland, deeper into the Great Sandy, well to the north of the previous photo.
This is at the base of a large red sand dune, and it is possible that sub-surface water has accumulated here.
Old Ghost Gum, Telegraph Station reserve, Alice Springs.
Another magnificent old specimen, Simpsons Gap, central Australia.

Ghost Gums by the Plenty Highway, far eastern Northern Territory.
Ghost Gum estimated to be 300 years old (by the Northern Territory Parks Service)
near Trephina Gorge, East MacDonnell Ranges.
They can be found at the edge of the ranges, on the break of slope or on gentle stony hillsides.
Ghost Gums and spinifex (Triodia sp.), East MacDonnell Ranges, central Australia.

Ghost Gum alongside the ridge, Telegraph Station reserve, Alice Springs.
However to my eye, it is among the rocks, in the gorges and on the cliffs of the ranges that Ghost Gums are at their most dramatic and striking. It is remarkable where such big trees can gain a toehold, and the white trunk against red rock and bluest sky is just stunning.
Above and below, Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Ranges.

Kings Canyon Rim Walk, George Gill Range, central Australia.
Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges.
In the film Man From Snowy River, the famous ride down the precipitous mountain was purportedly filmed by sticking smallish trees into the ground at an angle, then tilting the footage to make it look steep. No such trickery is necessary for this amazing tree, though it takes a while to persuade the eyes what they are seeing!
I have even seen these glorious survivors eking out a living on stony substrate too hostile to even permit their roots to grow beneath the surface!

Tenacious Ghost Gum, surely much older than its stature suggests, growing on
an unwelcoming stony plateau at Bladensburg NP, central Queensland.

Another lovely tree surviving on the surface of sheet rock on the rim of Kings Canyon,
central Australia.
 As you will have divined, I love Ghost Gums; please go and see for yourself one day.

(And remember that you can get a reminder when the next post appears by putting your email address in the Follow by Email box in the top right of this screen.)

I shall be away until 15 August and will not be able to reply to any comments
you make until after that.
I shall certainly do so however, so please check back.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Dingoes; Australian Wolves (updated from an earlier post)

I am away for a bit over two weeks and, instead of preparing new posts for that time, I have opted to update a couple of earlier posts, which are more than three and a half years old and which you may well have missed. I hope you find them interesting. This one first appeared in an earlier form on 25 June 2013. Back 'live' on Friday 18 August.

Most Australians would be bemused, to say the least, at the proposition that Australia is home to wolves, but detailed biochemical work, based on mitochondrial DNA analysis, 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. Even more recent work (2016) has muddied the waters a little by increasing the margin of error so that their arrival could have been somewhat earlier than that. It seems certain that they were never in Tasmania (for instance on the mainland Thylacines, Tasmanian Devils and Tasmanian Native Hens did not long survive their apparent arrival), so the earliest they could have arrived would have been 12,000 years ago, when Tasmania ceased to joined to the mainland. However, I think it is telling that the oldest known Dingo bone remains - too young to have fossilised - are less than 3,500 years old (from the Nullarbor Plains cave system).
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 might seem intuitive 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. If the Dingoes didn't arrive until recently, as the DNA is telling us, they must have either come with a late wave of settlers, who seem not to have existed, or with seagoing traders who regularly visited the north-western coasts in particular. The latter proposal is strengthened by close genetic ties of Dingoes with Taiwanese village dogs.

There have been suggestions by some, who really want the Dingo to have been here longer than that, that a painting of a Thylacine at Ubirr in Kakadu National Park in the Top End of the Northern Territory is actually a Dingo, but apart from the general body shape and posture, it even shows stripes on the hindquarters. (I was there last year, but frustratingly failed to notice it on the wonderful galleries, so have had to rely on Wikipedia for this image!) I have had it suggested to me that the 'Dingo' picture is 28,000 years old, but I can't find evidence for that; the issue however is moot.
Ubirr Thylacine; even though it certainly doesn't resemble a Dingo, it's a remarkable
snapshot of a then-living animal which was probably driven to extinction by the Dingo.
Courtesy Wikipedia.
So, are Dingoes native or feral Australians? I've struggled with this somewhat philosophical 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 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.
A recent experience of our own 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.

In Alice Springs they have become emboldened in recent times, having been driven into town by the drought of the first decade of this century. At the Telegraph Station Reserve on the northern edge of the suburbs there are now signs warning people to keep dogs under close supervision; a friend of ours had a pet killed by Dingoes there while she was present. This is no-one's 'fault', it's just what can happen when efficient predators are forced into close association with human habitation.
Dingo observing us - with no trace of apprehension on her part - at the
Alice Springs Telegraph Station Reserve.
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, although some graziers are coming to this view too; to date however they are still in a minority.

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

Dingo, Luritja Road, central Australia.
(And remember that you can get a reminder when the next post appears by putting your email address in the Follow by Email box in the top right of this screen.)

I shall be away until 15 August and will not be able to reply to any comments
you make until after that.
I shall certainly do so however, so please check back.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

An Alphabet of White Flowers

I have in the (fairly distant) past, compiled alphabets of both yellow and red flowers. Today, on a mere whim, I have decided to do the same with white flowers. The 'rules', as before, are that where possible I've illustrated each letter with a genus, but where that proved unachievable I've settled for a species name. In this way I've managed to fill every letter except Z - even the hitherto unattainable Y! (Y is highly problematic because it doesn't exist in Latin.) The focus is on Australian plants, but I've included some lovely examples from both South America and Africa. It's not meant to be too deep, and I'm going away for a couple of weeks tomorrow (inter alia gathering lots of material for future posts!), so I've kept it pretty simple. Let's start - I hope you enjoy the journey!

Mountain Celery Aciphylla glacialis Family Apicaceae, Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales.
This beautiful herb is limited to the high mountains of southern New South Wales and Victoria.
It has recovered from a parlous situation since stock grazing was removed from the alpine parks.
Snow Daisies Brachyscome nivalis, Namadgi National Park, Australian Capital Territory.
Another species from the south-eastern alps (and nothing in the rules says they have to be completely white!).
Swamp Crinum Crinum uniflorum Family Amaryllidaceae, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory.
This lovely lily is found in damp sandy situations across northern Australia.
Disa sp., Bamenda Highlands, western Cameroon. One of some 180 species of this orchid genus,
mostly from Africa. The Bamenda Highlands are being rapidly denuded of rainforest by small-scale farming
and eucalypt plantations.
Pinkwood Eucryphia moorei, Family Eucryphiaceae (sometimes Cunoniaceae),
Monga National Park, southern New South Wales.
This is a tree of the cool rainforests, and an ancient Gondwanan; the genus is also found in South America.
Caladenia (or Arachnorchis) flindersica, Alligator Gorge, Mt Remarkable National Park, South Australia.
The species name (I always seem to have trouble with F-genera!) refers to its home in the Flinders Ranges.
Mueller's Snow-Gentian Gentianella muelleriana (above and below), brightening a wet misty summer's day
in Kosciuszko National Park. (For a while the Australian and New Zealand snow-gentians were given their
own genus Chionogentias, but they have more recently been returned to the widespread Gentianella)
Snakebush Hemiandra sp, Family Lamiaceae, Norseman, Western Australia.
And no, I'm afraid I can't shine any light on the unlikely-sounding common name.
Wee Jasper Grevillea Grevillea iaspicula Family Proteaceae, Southern Tablelands Ecosytems Park, Canberra.
The species name is an attempt at Latinising the quaint locality name (near to Canberra).
This is the only photo here not taken in the wild; this is a highly localised and threatened species.
Jonesiopsis incensa, Wubin, Western Australia.
Note that this genus name, commemorating eminent Australian orchid taxonomist and iconoclast David Jones,
is no longer widely recognised. (J-names are not easy to find though!)
    Kunzea muelleri, Family Myrtaceae, Kosciuszko National Park, where it can be a dominant shrub
in the alpine heaths. The genus commemorates German botanist Gustav Kunze.
Arrayan Luma apiculata Family Myrtaceae, Alerce Andino National Park, southern Chile.
This beautiful tree grows in wet forests.
Carpet of Snow Macgregoria racemigera Family Celastraceae, Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.
This delightful and surprising little plant can indeed carpet the desert sands in good seasons.
Giant Waterlily Nymphaea gigantea Family Nymphaeaceae, James River, Barkly Tableland,
north-eastern Northern Territory. Found across northern Australia and in New Guinea.
Huilmo Olysnium biflora Family Iridaceae, Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.
This is a genus of 17 iris species, all South American except for one in North America.
Broad Foxtail Ptilotus nobilis Family Amaranthaceae, far northern South Australia.
Found right across inland Australia, this handsome ephemeral can stretch to the horizon after good rains.
Sturt's Pigface Gunniopsis quadrifida, Family Aizoaceae, Lake Hart, South Australia.
A succulent also found across the dry Australian inland, growing on the shores of dry salt lakes.
Splendid Everlasting Rhodanthe chlorocephala, near Cue, inland central Western Australia.
A truly magnificent daisy, found only in this region of the west.
Sobralia virginalis, eastern slopes of the Peruvian Andes, east of Cusco.
A striking big orchid, in this case just growing on the roadside.
Tufted Grass Lily Thelionema caespitosa Family Hemerocallidaceae, Tallong, southern New South Wales.
Prickly Moses Acacia ulicifolia Deua NP, southern New South Wales.
A very pale-flowered wattle, common around Sydney, where its common name arose
as a mangling of the original Prickly Mimosa.
Valeriana rigida Family Valerianaceae (or Caprifoliaceae), El Cajas NP, southern Ecuador.
A smallish genus from both Europe (including the medicinal herb) and the Americas.
This one forms stiff mats at high altitudes - here at close to 4000 metres above sea level.
Tineo Weinmannia trichosperma Family Cunoniaceae, Salto Petrohue, southern Chile.
A tree of the southern Andean wet forests, from an old Gondwanan family.
Southern Cross Plant Xanthosia rotundifolium Two Peoples Bay NP, southern Western Australia.
A remarkable-looking member of the carrot family - and a valid 'X'!
Yalata Mallee Eucalyptus yalatensis, Nullarbor Plain, far western South Australia.
Y-names are very rare in botany, as Latin lacks the letter; however this one was named for the
locality of Yalata, an indigenous word.
Which, in the sad absence of a Z plant, brings us to the end! I hope you've enjoyed this bit of trivia, and perhaps met some lovely flowers for the first time.

BACK ON THURSDAY (with one I've prepared!)
(And remember that you can get a reminder when the next post appears by putting your email address in the Follow by Email box in the top right of this screen.)
I shall be away until 15 August and will not be able to reply to any comments
you make until after that, unless you do so very soon after this posting.
I shall certainly do so however, so please check back.