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August is probably my favorite month! To start it out on a jaunty note, I wanted to find the most colorful pigeon out of all the many Columbidae. Now, as it turns out, there are a lot of beautiful tropical doves with tutti-fruity plumage, but one special candidate seemed like the clear winner. Allow me to present the rose-crowned fruit dove (Ptilinopus regina), a green dove with an orange belly, saffron eyes, a white-gray head and thorax, and a beautiful magenta crown (edged with yellow). Wow!
The rose-crowned fruit dove is a gentle fructivore which lives in lowland rainforests of northeast Australia, and various tropical islands of southern Indonesia. The female lays a single white egg in a nest hidden in the dense canopy and both parents look after it. Nestlings are solid green and do not develop the brilliant splashes of color until they reach adulthood.
Rose-crowned fruit dove (Ptilinopus regina) from arovingiwillgo.wordpress.com (photo by Joy)
I sort of hoped to tell some amazing anecdote about this lovely animal, but I could not find any. Apparently the bird’s brilliant plumage seamlessly blends into the vine and flower filled jungles where it lives. People rarely see it at all and are most familiar with the bird from its cries or from the noise it makes when it fumbles and drops a delicious fig. Just based on looks alone, though, it was still worth writing about!
Namorodo Spirit (Mick Kubaku, 1971, earth pigments on eucalyptus bark)
Ferrebeekeeper has not written about the undead for quite a while…so here is a terrifying monster from Australian aboriginal folklore. Namorodos (Namorroddos) are a type of evil nocturnal monsters from the mythology of Western and Northern Arnhem Land. Namorodos come from broken lands of rocks and sharp cliff faces. Made of dried skin, gristle, and bones, they fly through the night on howling desert winds. They are desiccated and thin and horrible—desert corpses brought to savage hungry life by supernatural force.
Like vampires and other undead, namorodos seek to suck the moist insides out of living humans (and thus transform the living into fellow namorodos). As with the horrible Alpine Krampus monster, namorodos seem especially fond of preying on willful children who become lost because they fail to listen. They seem like the savagery of the arid lands personified as a villain: a lesson written in horror.
Namorodo Flying in the Sky (Wesley Ngainmijra, 1988, Chalk on paper)
Namorodos are also illustrated in the beautiful art of Arnhem land. Look at these disquieting yet elegant pictures of the arid monsters.
We are entering the Yule season, the darkest time of year here in the northern world. Of course we have Christmas and Kwanza and Saturnalia to distract ourselves from the endless cold gloom, but it is still a bit early to write about those topics. I need something colorful and splendid…perhaps from the other hemisphere where everything is beautiful late spring majesty. Behold the stupendous color and masterful dance of the peacock…spider. I feel this jaunty little spider is a perfect spirit animal for artists.
The peacock spider (Maratus Volans) is a small jumping spider which lives in parts of Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia and Tasmania. The spider lives like almost all spiders—by capturing and eating tiny invertebrates, while avoiding hungry predators long enough to mate. However unlike most spiders, the male peacock spider is a mélange of exquisite hues and glistening iridescent color. In the manner of the eponymous peacock, he has a blue, orange, and gold abdominal flap, which he can raise and lower at will. He looks like he fell out of a particularly weird corner of paradise…and, on top of that, he is a great dancer. The female is rather more drab in appearance, and, ominously, she is much larger….
Like the Irish elk, the male peacock spider has a sexual selection problem on his (many) hands. If one is a small animal living in the dust-colored scrubland of the outback it is not necessarily an advantage to look like Liberace’s underwear drawer (!). Yet male spiders who are not sufficiently brilliant and nimble at dancing are liable not to mate…and !
If the male spider is not colorful enough, or if he fails to dance with heart-stopping terpsichorean majesty, the female spider will become “perturbed” and she is likely to attack him and eat him. Unsurprisingly, this dynamic seems to have produced a feedback loop wherein spiders are in a kind of arms race to be as colorful and flamboyant as possible. If they are not vibrant and ridiculous enough, the female eats them. If they are too brilliant and noticable, everyone else does.
This jaunty little spider should be the mascot of artists everywhere, for, like him (or like poor Marsyas), we are slaves to the fickle whims of an ever-more jaded audience. At the same time there is stronger competition than ever from all other quarters to be more practical and more buttoned down. I don’t know what the solution is, but the peacock spider seems to have found it. Look at him go! (Hint: he really starts dancing at 1:46)
The quokka is a small macropod. Hmm, maybe I better explain that a bit: macropods are browsing/grazing marsupials which use their long hind legs and muscular tails to aid locomotion —the most famous exemplars are kangaroos and wallabies. The quokka (Setonix brachyurus) is a small-kangaroo-like mammal about the size of a domestic cat (2.5 to 5 kilograms (5.5 to 11.0 pounds)). They are mainly nocturnal and live on some small islands along the coast of southwestern Australia, although there is a small dwindling population on the mainland.
Just like that one kid in grade school, Quokkas have “a stocky build, rounded ears, and a short, broad head.” Early European explorers to Australia were perplexed by the quokka and wrote of them as cats or giant rats. Quokkas can climb trees and shrubs (which they graze on) and they live in semi-arid scrubland, dry forests, and in gardens and lawns.
Quokkas have dwindled greatly in their natural range due to habitat loss and invasive predators like cats, dogs, foxes, and dingoes. Somewhat sadly, quokkas have no natural fear of humans and will approach quite closely, particularly on Rottnest Island, where the highest population concentration is found. This leads to all sorts of unpleasant incidents–for humans are very dangerous indeed–so the local authorities have levied fines for touching or handling the animals (the fines are charged to the humans—the quokkas having thus far failed to master finance).
Although their plain brown fur and giant pupils keep them from top-tier internet fame, quokkas are pretty adorable. They look like a cross between kangaroos, squirrels, and koalas (which kind of also describes their lifestyle). Their lamentable fearlessness also leads to many great photos!
According to 1000 Symbols by Rowena and Rupert Shepherd, “Aborigines in the Wessel Islands of Australia’s Arnhem Land regard the squid as a healer. In their ancestral mythology, the female squid is believed to have created all the features of the landscape and the local family clans. The male squid then divides the land among the clans.” I could not find any other information about this myth, but I did discover the beautiful linocut above by Joel Sam–a Torres Strait Islander artist, raised in Bamaga, Cape York. I thought the print captured the spirit of the creator squid.
Last September (2013) Sydney Australia was the location of “Snailovation” a massive public art project featuring 24 giant fluorescent snail sculptures made of recycled plastic. The event was meant to highlight the importance of ecological consciousness (and, of course, to raise awareness of gastropods—and mollusks in general). According to Weekendnotes.com “The gargantuan gastropods were created by international artistic collective Cracking Art Group whose members include William Sweetlove, Renzo Nucara, Marco Veronese, Kicco, Alex Angi and Carlo Rizetti.” I’m sorry I didn’t notice this story in time for you to get to Sydney and check out the huge plastic snails—which came down last October—but you can still enjoy the amazing photos!
Occasionally in the geological past, extraordinary circumstances resulted in the near-perfect preservation of an entire ecosystem. These astonishing fossil beds are known as Lagerstätten (one of the first such finds was in Germany) and they provide one of the best sources of information about life on this planet. A particularly rich Lagerstätten is located in the arid scrubland of Riversleigh in northwest Queensland, Australia: there fossils from the Oligocene and Miocene epochs are preserved in uncompressed limestone (which allows paleontologists to recover 3 dimensional skeletal remains). During the late Oligocene, Riversleigh was a lush and vibrant rainforest filled with an incredible profusion of bizarre life forms. When the Oligocene ended, the region dried into grasslands (and the climate continued to dry out further in subsequent epochs until the present, when the area is a near desert).
All of this is backstory to a remarkable recent discovery. This week paleontologists studying the bats, snakes, and strange tropical marsupials of Riversleigh made an unexpected discovery–a giant hunting platypus twice the size of the living species. This big predator, Obdurodon tharalkooschild, was a formidable meter long (3 foot) creature with sharp teeth for grabbing crayfish, amphibians, aquatic reptiles, and fish. The newly discovered platypus lived in the long-lost rainforests of Queensland. It was a generalist with a much larger diet than the somewhat specialized modern platypus.
Monotremes (platypuses & the more recently evolved echidnas) are an extremely ancient branch of mammalian life which date back at least to the Jurassic–and more likely to the Triassic epoch or earlier. Platypuses are believed to have evolved in what is now South America and then spread to Antarctica and finally to Australia. The amazing giant hunting platypus indicates that there were hitherto unexpected branches of platypus evolution. I wonder if Obdurodon tharalkooschild was toxic (like the modern platypus). I also wonder what strange monotreme fossils lie beneath the ancient ice of Antarctica.
Ah, lovely Australia…the land down under is famed for its magnificent coral reefs, its dreamlike wastelands, its proud citizens, and, above all, its innumerable toxic animals. Although the hordes of poisonous jellyfish, spiders, snails, centipedes, and octopi are alarming, humankind is particularly hardwired to be afraid of snakes and it is in this reptilian realm that the island continent especial shines. In fact, the most venomous land snake in the world, the inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus) lives in Australia. A single bite from an inland taipan has enough poison to kill up to 250,000 mice! Yet the inland taipan is far from the most formidable snake in Australia (indeed, it is a very shy and retiring serpent which lives in the inhospitable dry scrubland of central/southeast Australia). The snake which Australians truly fear is (slightly) less toxic, but vastly more numerous and also far more prone to bite first and ask questions later (insomuch as snakes ever examine their actions).
Brown snakes (Pseudonaja) constitute an entire genus of venomous elapid snakes which are found throughout almost the entirety of Australia. There are nine different species of brown snakes which vary somewhat from location to location, however almost all brown snakes can be aggressive and they are apt to bite or even attack a much larger animal when provoked (although hopefully they will overlook the occasional fear-mongering blog post). The eastern brown snake is the second most toxic land snake in Australia (and arguably the world) and, appallingly it lives all sorts of places—scrubland, eucalyptus forests, woodlands, grasslands, and farmlands (though not swamps, rainforests, or true deserts). Because it is so adaptable, the eastern brown snake easily thrives in gardens, suburban lawns, and even in urban habitats. Eastern brown snakes live along the highly populated southeast of Australia, up the coast to the York peninsula and into Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. They also range through the Northern territories to Western Australia.
The venom of the eastern brown snake is a heady cocktail of neurotoxins and blood coagulants. Bites begin by causing diarrhea, dizziness, and collapse—which can then develop into convulsions, renal failure, paralysis and cardiac arrest (symptoms which hold true—although to a lesser degree for the other brown snakes). Fortunately all species of brown snakes have tiny fangs and they do not usually deliver much venom per bite. Additionally, the snakes can control how much venom they inject per bite and they frequently give a venom-free warning bite out of good sportsmanship (although if you are bitten by one of the world’s most toxic snakes, the fact that the snake might not have injected you with a lethal amount of poison will be scant comfort). A person’s weight matters greatly when it comes to surviving bites—so small children are particularly at risk.
Brown snakes eat rodents (which were introduced to Australia), small mammals, amphibians, birds, eggs and other reptiles. They are a helpful (albeit scary) part of the ecosystem, although considering their honed deadliness, they could afford to be a bit more flamboyant. Also, humans have effective antivenins for all the brown snakes (so if you are bitten by a modestly colored but oddly insouciant snake while you are down under, you should probably contact some health-service providers).
It’s time to revisit our dear friends, the wombats. Although this blog featured a post about the living wombats in general and a post about the extinct giant wombats which once roamed Australia, we have not concentrated individually on the extant species. Today we will remedy that oversight by writing about the northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) which is one of the world’s rarest large mammals. The hairy-nosed wombat is the largest of the world’s three wombat species weighing up to 32 kgs (about 70 pounds). The animal also has longer ears and softer (grayer) fur than other wombats but its behavior and general lifestyle is very similar to its relatives.
Although the hairy-nosed wombat is one of the most efficient of all mammals in turns of water consumption, the continuing desertification of Australia hit its territory hard and caused the species to decline. The animal was already rare when English settlers came to the island continent and the population dropped even further when forced to compete with European predators and farm animals and contend with habitat loss to farming and development. Perhaps most seriously (and insidiously) the grasses which the wombats prefer to graze are being replaced by invasive species. By the 1970s, the entire species probably only numbered around 20 or 30 individuals.
Today the hairy-nosed wombat numbers between 100 and 150 in the wild. The creatures were long confined to a habitat about the size of Central Park (approximately 3 square kilometers) although a second wombat preserve has recently been created for them. Australians are kind people who have been trying hard to save the fetching whisker-nosed marsupial, but the fate of the species is still unclear.
The day has completely slipped away from me (as is the way of Mondays in January) but–even though I haven’t written a proper blog post–I wanted to share some photos of an extremely fancy tropical tree python with you. The green tree python (Morelia viridis) is found in southern Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Cape York Peninsula of Australia, all of which sound far preferable to the cold gray pall of Brooklyn. The snake has a long slender body which measures from 1.5 to 1.8 meters (about 5 to 6 feet) and has a pronounced head with a heavy square nose/muzzle.
The species is arborial and is notable for coiling up into a saddle position when sleeping or resting. Green tree pythons feed mostly on tree-dwelling mammals (which they catch by hanging their necks and heads into an S-shape and imitating vines) and smaller reptiles which live up in the rainforest. As with the green vine snake, the sinuous almost abstract beauty of the green tree python always makes me think of lush tropical forests on far-away continents and its exquisite green/yellow/chartreuse color reminds me of the beauty of nature.