You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Australian’ tag.
Sad news mars this bleak wintry day. The Shedd Aquarium’s beloved Australian lungfish “Granddad” has passed away. Granddad enjoyed basking sluggishly in his shallow pool until he beguiled viewers into not paying close attention to him, then he would rise to the top of his puddle and take a deep gasping (and very audible) slurp of air. Lungfish are said to be among the most endearing of pet fish and Granddad enjoyed it when aquarium keepers gently petted him. He also loved eating a nutritious vegetable paste or clams or shrimp… although his particular favorite was “worm Wednesday”. His diet changed several times during his tenure at the aquarium, as keepers learned more about how to look after him and as standards for lungfish husbandry progressed. In his early days, he ate crayfish gathered from the pond in a local Chicago cemetery!
With his muscular pectoral and dorsal fins, Grandad was quite magnificent, in a torpid way–like an intelligent cucumber spattered with mud and gold. At the time of his passing, he was the oldest fish in any public zoo or aquarium in the world. Shedd acquired him (as a full grown adult) in 1933. After a lengthy trip across the Pacific, he traveled across the United States in 3 days in a specially outfitted life-support railroad car.
A revealing historical passage from the Shedd aquarium’s lengthy and moving obituary describes the excitement over Granddad’s acquisition, “In anticipation of overflow crowds from the soon-to-open Century of Progress International Exposition just south of Shedd, aquarium director Walter Chute had written to the director of the Sydney aquarium with a wish list of fresh- and saltwater species. ‘We are, of course, particularly desirous of securing one or two specimens of Neoceratodus forsteri,’ he wrote, using the lungfish’s scientific name.”
Although these days I am closer to the African lungfish who live at the Bronx zoo, I saw Grandad back in the 90s when I lived in South Chicago and I was duly impressed by him. Indeed, in a memorable conversation during college, a group of my closest friends and I were talking about what we would wish to have as accessories if we were action figures. Although my buddies came up with lots of cool plasma guns, miniature vehicles, and humorous inside joke items, I feel I won the conversation by saying “lungfish.” Reading about Granddad only reinforces this feeling (although possibly these days, the “Wayne” action figure would have an avant-garde flounder rather than a clever lungfish).
Although Grandad was only around a century old when he left this world, lungfish have been here a lot longer. The sarcopterygians are nearly 350 million years old. Living Sarcopterygians include only the coelocanths and lungfish (although all amphibians, reptile, birds, and mammals descend directly from them and could arguably be considered Sarcopterygians). After 8 years of writing, I have been running out of things to say about catfish. Once again, Granddad reminds me that there is an even wider and crazier world of fish out there.
For example, did you know that lungfish have the largest genome among the vertebrates? It takes a lot more information to produce a “Grandad” then it does to make Einstein or Rihanna! Although we will miss our long-lived friend (and his mate, who died in 1980), he is survived by a passel of younger Neoceratodus forsteri, who can still be visited at the aquarium. Additionally the Australians are very protective of their dear lungfish. Although they are rare, the government watches after their habitat quite carefully. With any luck the lungfish in the Shedd aquarium will be around another 84 years, and the ones in Queensland will last another 350 million. Maybe we can take them with us to the stars and start some entirely new tetrapod lineages!
Today we feature one of Australia’s best-known and best-dressed snakes, the red-bellied black snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus). This exceedingly handsome reptile lives all along the eastern coast of the island continent and grows to lengths of 1.5 to 2 meters (5.5 to 6.5 feet). It is a generalist predator which eats small mammals, reptiles (including fellow red-bellied black snakes) arthropods, and above all, frogs. This fetching snake is a member of the elapidae family—a group of toxic snakes which includes such famous genera as coral snakes, cobras, and kraits.
The red-bellied snake is indeed venomous: its venom is a complex mixture of neurotoxins, myotoxins, and coagulants. However, when the snakes bites people (which they are loath to do) they rarely inject a lethal dose of venom. When threatened they try to hide in the urban woodlands, billabongs, or scrublands where they live. If backed into a corner they will make a threat display by extending their cobra-like hood and hissing. Australians, who live with many horrifying venomous snakes, seem to regard red-bellied black snakes as comparatively benign although I certainly wouldn’t want one to bite me!).
Snakes of this species are ovoviviparous—they hold their eggs inside their body until the young hatch. This is no mean feat, since mother snakes can give birth to litters of up to 40 little baby snakes!
Today’s post is simultaneously inspiring and hopeful and terrifying. Marine researchers have long been worried about the crown-of-thorns starfish, a monstrous invasive invertebrate which eats coral, doing irreparable damage to the Great Barrier Reef (the world’s largest coral reef). Human divers have proven ineffective at stemming the onslaught, so conservationists have teamed up with mad scientists to build COTSBOT—an autonomous killing robot submarine which will haunt the reef like a bright yellow uboat/shark. The COTSBOT will locate and identify crown-of-thorns starfish with robot eyes and then jet over and deliver a lethal injection to the vile invertebrates. The injectable solution is uniquely poisonous to starfish so any goddamn MFAs doing starfish cosplay projects on the reef do not necessarily need to worry about more than being jabbed and pumped full of weird chemicals by a nightmarish (albeit comic) undersea robot.
COTSBOT (which I should have mentioned stands for “Crown-OF-Thorns Starfish Robot”) is going to debut in Moreton Bay by Brisbane, a starfish free location where the operators can refine its navigation systems. If all goes well it will then move on the Great Barrier Reef itself. The robot (or fleets thereof) will scour an area of the reef killing, Then human divers will sweep in afterwards to mop up any hardened survivors. I am extremely impressed at how quickly science managed to make my futuristic ocean sketch come true. I am also struck with admiration at this high-cost high tech salvation for one of Earth’s most diverse and imperiled ecosystems. Take that, evil starfish! You have messed with a reef protected by the fell hand of man. The alarmist in me can’t help but notice that this is like the first 15 minutes of a horror movie, but, presumably if COTSBOT becomes sentient and decides to protect the reef from ALL dangerous invasive animals we can still pull the plug. I’m also a bit sorry that humankind has so injured the Giant Triton–nature’s COTSBOT–that the lovely snail can not do the job.
Two of the main subjects of this blog are mollusks and colors. One might reasonably believe that the two topics intersect most vividly in the form of nudibranch mollusks—the insanely colorful sea slugs which enliven even the coral reef with garish beauty. However in 2013 scientists discovered a brilliantly colored slug on land. Triboniophorus aff. graeffei was discovered on Mount Kaputar (which is part of the Nandewar range of Australia. The slug is brilliant fluorescent pink and grows to 20 centimeters (8 inches) in length.
Australia is famous for being arid—and dryness mixes poorly with slugs (in fact most mollusks prefer to be moist). Mount Nandewar however is an exception to the general climate of the island continent. A long-ago volcanic eruption sealed off a tiny corner of lush rainforest from the desertification which affected the rest of Australia. The hot pink slugs and their rainforest are in a little time capsule left from the great lush forests of Gondwana. It has been speculated that the bright pink coloration helps the slugs blend in with bright red tropical eucalyptus trees of Mount Nandewar—yet, since the slugs are not always on or near such trees their brilliant 1980s color scheme remains a mystery.
The Australian giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) is the world’s largest cuttlefish. Specimens can measure up to 50 centimeters in length and weigh up to 10 kilograms (23 pounds). Like other cuttlefish, the giant cuttlefish are masters of color transformation and can use the chromatophores (special transformative muscle cells) in their skin to instantly change the hue, reflectivity, polarization, and even the shape of their skin. They use this ability for hunting, hiding from predators, and for spectacular mating displays. Indeed, the giant cuttlefish is a remarkable animal in many ways, but, above all, it is notable for its operatic sex life!
Sepia apama ranges in all coastal habitats from Brisbane on the Pacific to Shark Bay on the Indian Ocean (effectively the entire southern coast of the continent). Thanks to jet propelled speed, color-transforming ability, sharp eyesight, high intelligence, and lightning fast grab jaws (which are located on two extendable arms), these cuttlefish are terrifyingly effective hunters of fish and crustaceans. Australian giant cuttlefish from different regions of the coast do not interbreed, even though they are genetically the same species. Like humans, the giant cuttlefish seem to form different sorts of societies with different mating customs: for example the giant cuttlefish of the Spenser Gulf region are unique (apparently among all cuttlefish) in that they join together for a spawning aggregation in the waters immediately around Point Lowly.
Unlike humans, there are eleven male cuttlefish for every single female giant cuttlefish! Large dominant male cuttlefish carve out territories with aggressive posturing and insanely bright flashing color displays. Smaller males (who do not wish to be ripped apart), distract the alpha male cuttlefish by adapting the color schemes of female cuttlefish and courting him. They then abruptly change color and pay (rapid) court to the polyandrous females. The female stores sperm packets from several males and she chooses the paternity of her offspring only after she lays her eggs. Cuttlefish are semelparous—they mate only once, and then they immediately die. The whole beautiful horrifying op-art orgy in the waters around Point Lowly is of paramount importance—and is also reckoned to be one of the unrivaled diving spectacles of the world.
Unfortunately all of the Spenser Gulf cuttlefish tend to be in one place at once. Since they only reproduce one time, they are very vulnerable to fisherman, who, up until the mid nineties, descended upon the area, captured most of the cuttlefish, and chopped them into bate for snappers. When one cohort was removed, the next was seriously attenuated!
Fortunately the spawning waters of Spenser Gulf are now a protected refuge, yet hydrological changes, agricultural run-off, and industrial development could still threaten the entire population. Perhaps the other Australian Giant Cuttlefish (who conduct their romantic affairs in a more disparate manner) are on to something.
Horses are first known to have arrived in Australia in 1788. They came as part of an invasion fleet—the “first fleet,” which consisted of eleven British ships filled with marines, soldiers, “free” (but penniless) crown subjects, male and female convicts, horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice, bedbugs, fleas, smallpox, and a handful of King George’s officers. Some of these various life-forms quickly escaped the hungry sweltering colony on Sydney Cove and began to alter the island continent. The first rogue horses were seen around Sydney in 1804. In subsequent years other colonists and business concerns brought yet more horses. Australians imported “Capers”, robust horses from South Africa. In the North, tiny Timor Ponies (renowned for toughness and the ability to thrive in the tropics) were purchased from Indonesia. Miners brought in hard-headed ponies from Cornwall, Wales, and Dartmoor. Wealthy squatters (land barons) brought in thoroughbreds and Arabians. Farmers brought Clydesdales and Percherons. Most of these horses ended up pulling wagons, ploughing fields, or carrying rich men on their backs—they were domestic horses doing human bidding–but a few lit out for freedom in forests and deserts which had never before known the hoof.
The result of the mixture was the “brumby”, the wild horse of Australia. In a continent where the largest native grazer was the stolid wombat, horses quickly began to thrive. In a few generations, feral horses completely adapted to the harsh arid climate of Australia. Huge herds roam the wasteland (particularly in the Australian Alps).
Thanks to natural selection, brumbies quickly reverted to the appearance of wild ancestral horses. Iliveforhorses.com describes the brumby with no particular enthusiasm:
The Brumby varies in conformation but generally has a heavy head with a short neck and back, straight shoulders, sloping quarters, and strong legs. Their shape is generally poor although the occasional one has a through back to Thoroughbred ancestry and will have some quality, especially in the head region. They can be any color and their height varies but they tend to be small.
The same website is equally censorious about brumby temperament, noting that brumbies, “are, like any feral animal, extremely difficult to capture and tame, and have rebellious and willful natures.”
Brumbies might have poor shapes and willful natures, but they have proven excellent at surviving in the wild. During the 19th century, horses were in such demand that round-ups occurred and wild brumbies were “broken” back into domestication, but as mechanization increased during the 20th century, huge herds of brumbies ran roughshod over the Australian ecosystem. Environmentalists, farmers, and politicians implemented the same solution to this problem which they had first used for the rabbit infestation—the gun. Huge numbers of brumbies were shot for meat and hide (apparently there is still a thriving horsemeat market in Europe). Others were simply left for dead, whether cleanly killed or not. Animal lovers reacted with outrage to the slaughter and have demanded more humane solutions to the brumby problem (such as round-ups or mass sterilization). Implementing these solutions has, however, proven costly (and not entirely efficacious) so the fate of great herds of brumbies has become a political wrestling match between environmentalists on one side and animal lovers on the other. Whether herds are larger or smaller, there is no way to eradicate them entirely. Horses have joined kangaroos, echidnas, koalas, platypuses, numbats, and crocodiles as one of the characteristic natives of Australia.
The largest marsupial known to science is the now extinct diprotodon. Also known as the giant wombat or the rhinoceros wombat, this mighty marsupial grazer stood nearly 2 meters (6 feet) tall and stretched 3 metres (9.8 feet) from nose to tail. The animals flourished throughout much of the Pleistocene. From 1.6 million years ago until about 40,000 years ago, herds of Diprotodonts roamed across all of Australia. These giant wombats were indeed closely related to today’s wombats and koalas: jointly such creatures make up the Vombatiforme suborder Considering how formidable the bulldozer-like living wombat is, diprotodons must have indeed been like rhinoceroses and they probably occupied a similar top spot in the Australian web of life.
Unfortunately, like a substantial portion of Australia’s mega-fauna, the giant wombats disappeared shortly after humankind reached the island continent. The creatures apparently were destroyed by some combination of climate change, human hunting, and slash-and-burn land management. Aboriginal dreamtime lore makes extensive mention of a mighty furred beast called the bunyip–which has led anthropologists and paleontologists to speculate that the diprotodon has lived on in oral tradition for tens of thousands of years.
Woodblock prints of ages past show giant octopuses ripping apart boats and feasting on sailors like popcorn. These artifacts of ancient sea-lore make for rousing images, but they are quite wrong: octopuses are fierce and cunning hunters but they present little danger to humans—with a noteworthy exception. The truly dangerous octopuses are not giant monsters (perhaps the artists of yesteryear were thinking of the mighty giant squid?) but rather tiny jewel-like beauties from the genus Hapalochlaena which includes only three or four species. Known as blue-ring octopuses the tiny creatures swim in tide pools and shallows of the Indo-Pacific Ocean from Japan down to Australia (where they are most prevalent). Blue-ringed octopuses live on shrimp, crabs, minnows, and horseshoe crabs. They are tremendous hunters who use camouflage, stealth, and guile to catch their prey. However, these tools pale before their greatest weapon: the little octopuses are among the most poisonous creatures on planet Earth.
Like the flamboyant cuttlefish, the blue-ringed octopus does not like to bite without giving warning but advertises its toxicity with vivid coloration. The octopus can conceal itself with tremendous prowess however, as soon as it becomes aware of a predator or some other threat, it dials up its coloration changing from muted reef tones to brilliant yellow with iridescent blue rings. If you see something like this in the ocean, for heaven’s sake don’t touch it. The octopus’s warning colors let ocean predators know to leave it alone but immediately attract humankind’s magpie urge to grab shiny things. Although blue-ringed octopuses are good natured and have been known not to bite people who were provoking them rather intensely, their bites have caused more than seventy recorded fatalities in Australia. The octopus has a tiny beak and often a victim does not realize they have been bitten until they began to fall into paralysis and their respiration starts to fail.
The venom of the blue ringed octopus is a complicated pharmacological cocktail which includes tetrodotoxin, 5-hydroxytryptamine, hyaluronidase, tyramine, histamine, tryptamine, octopamine, taurine, acetylcholine, and dopamine. The most active ingredient tetrodotoxin blocks the sodium channels which conducting sodium ions (Na+) through a cell’s plasma membrane. This causes total paralysis for the octopus victim, however if clever and persistent rescuers are present at the time of the bite they can rescue the unfortunate soul with continuous artificial respiration. This is no small matter as bite victims are often rendered completely unresponsive by the paralytic victim. Although completely conscious they are unable to communicate in any way or even breathe. If artificial respiration is initiated immediately and continued until the body can metabolize and eliminate the toxin, bite victims can survive (although it sounds like rather an ordeal).
Blue ringed octopuses are tender and solicitous mothers. The mother octopus lays a clutch of approximately 50 eggs in autumn which she incubates beneath her arms for about six months (during which time she is unable to eat). When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies. The baby octopuses reach sexual maturity in about a year. Despite their cleverness and beauty, the animals are as ephemeral as they are deadly.
The numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) is a small marsupial termite eater with lovely banded fur and an incredibly long sticky tongue. These animals are also known as walpurtis. Although the creature’s claws are not strong enough to break into termite mounds, the numbat digs where termites are traveling between their mounds and their feeding grounds. It then rapidly gathers them up with its amazing tongue. Numbats are at most 45 centimeters long (about 18 inches) half of which is bushy tail. Large individuals only weigh half a kilogram (a bit more than a pound). They were discovered to Europeans in 1831 by an English naturalist who was delighted by their delicate appearance.
Numbats are not closely related to other marsupials and it is speculated that their nearest relative might be the thylacine, a marsupial predator extinct since 1936. Although once widespread, numbats had a near brush with extinction themselves: their population dipped below 1,000 during the late seventies. Foxes (which were introduced to provide sport to landowners before becoming deadly invaders) and other introduced predators were to blame for the near obliteration of the species. Even though they are now protected, numbats remain extremely endangered. Today they can only be found in miniscule protected habitats and in zoos. Speaking of zoos, the zooborns website features this ridiculously endearing clip of Australian zookeepers hand-rearing baby numbats.
It’s the final day of Furry Mammal Herbivore week which has so far featured two different lagomorphs, one rodent, and the enigmatic hyrax. To mix things up a bit we are ending with a marsupial–the stolid wombat. The wombat’s unusual moniker comes from the Eora language which was spoken by the Aboriginal people who originally inhabited the Sidney area. There are three species of wombats and all are powerful burrowing herbivores which are active mostly at twilight and at night. Wombats are marsupials but the openings of their pouches face backwards to prevent dirt from getting inside as they dig. Although wombats are not often seen, their presence can be identified by the many burrows which they excavate and by their distinctive cubic scat which looks like bouillon cubes (you’ll have to look it up on your own).
Wombats are larger than this week’s other herbivores, reaching nearly a meter (3 feet) in length. Although they are preyed on by dingos and Tasmanian Devils, their large muscles and heavy claws give them some protection (as does their tailless haunch which is composed largely of dense cartilage). A predator following a wombat into a burrow is confronted not only with the shield-like flesh of their rear-quarters but also with fearsome donkey kicks from their powerful back legs. Wombats are never far from their burrows since they construct up to 12 at various spots around their territory. Even if they are related to the dimwitted koalas, wombats are said to have a more complicated brain than other marsupials (although their intelligence in no way approaches that of the brilliant monotreme echidna) and they often surprise trappers and zoologists with their clever evasive thinking. Additionally, when hard pressed, they can run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds—impressive when one learns the human world record is 9.58 seconds.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter, poet and weirdo, used the wombat to parody the Victorian taste for overly lugubrious gothic melodrama in his sad drawing “The death of a Wombat” (above). The drawing shows a plump 19th century gentleman weeping for his deceased wombat friend while declaiming the following lament:
I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!
The work might be a parody but I find the poor dead wombat curiously affecting. Fortunately all wombats are now protected by Australian law. Despite such protection, the creatures are still having trouble competing for grazing with cattle, sheep, and above all rabbits. Hopefully wombats will continue to endure–the endearing little bulldozers are an irreplaceable component of Australia and Tasmania.