Weird and wonderful fungi

It’s October 2022, and Australia has entered its third La Niña event in a row. Part of a natural climate cycle over the tropical Pacific Ocean, varying sea surface temperatures shift weather patterns, bringing floods to some regions and droughts to other places. For most of Australia, La Niña raises the chance of rain, with increased potential for more extreme rainfall in eastern Australia. In other words, it’s wet.

This is good news for some and not so for others, depending on where you live and what species you are. For things like frogs and fungi, these are good times. As a fan of fungi, it’s been a great time to see all sorts of fascinating fungi appearing around us in backyards, parks and wilder places.

This blog post presents an article by Rod Hobson on a particularly strange-looking species of fungus with a fascinating history, as well as a gallery of images of some of the fungi I have had the pleasure of photographing recently, mostly within a short walk of my front door.

Behold! The Alien Space Fungus.
Rod Hobson

Winter in Toowoomba in the middle of August and I’m sitting over a computer in shirtsleeves! When I was growing up here August was miserable. The westerlies used to howl in off the Downs like a Mongol horde for days and stay. And stay and stay. “When blood is nipped and ways be foul …”, as Shakespeare so descriptively writes of winter in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

But the seasons are surely changing. Already Australian Magpies are nesting. Within the first fortnight of this month Martin Ambrose had recorded his first Painted Honeyeater of the season at his home in Dalby; a very early arrival of this lovely little spring migrant. Around this time, I also watched a foraging Spotted Black Snake Pseudechis guttatus for about ten minutes on Steele Rudd Road at East Greenmount, a magnificent reptile in glorious jet. It was out and about early in the unseasonably warm weather obviously hungry and intent on a meal. At one stage the snake passed within a hand’s breadth of my feet quite unconcerned about my presence. It was a lovely encounter. About a week before I found a pair of adult Condamine Earless Dragons Tympanocryptis condaminensis taking the sun at Evanslea, which is about a month before they usually raise their sleepy heads. There was a Shingleback Tiliqua rugosa out and about at Doctor Creek, Jondaryan, near the start of August.

For many of my friends who are of a like mind where things scaly, feathered or furred are concerned, winter however, is normally looked upon as a time of privation. The microbats and other small mammals are tucked up in torpor, the reptiles and frogs are hunkered down under stones and logs or at the bottom of the cracks in the black clays of the Darling Downs. The coastal mudflats and banks of our local wetlands are deserted. The shorebirds have taken wing for the tundras and shingle banks of the northern hemisphere to preen and strut their breeding colours. The snipe has quit our swamps, but they’ll be back soon; one of our earliest returning wading birds. The Dollarbirds, Channel-billed Cuckoos and Eastern Koels are off to warmer climes. The birdwatchers pass these dismal months contenting themselves with our scant winter visitors like the robins or the rare appearance of a Regent Honeyeater or Swift Parrot. A winter calling Powerful Owl causes all sorts of excitement. The social media hums into life. But the mammal and reptile enthusiasts are out in the cold, literally. I can appreciate their concerns but can’t really sympathise. It’s evolution. Specialists perish whilst generalists thrive. I’m interested in all sorts of stuff, ergo a generalist so can keep happily occupied throughout these drear months.

I quite look forward to winter especially if we have some good rain and mild weather, as has occurred this year. Who needs Animalia? These conditions animate many of our local plants into leaf and flower. And fungi thrive. Every winter I pass many an idyll in our bushland parks looking at terrestrial orchids and fungi. Duggan Bushland, Redwood Park and Glen Lomond are favourite hunting grounds. Two common terrestrial orchids have been out in numbers this winter in all these places. They are the Nodding Greenhood Pterostylis nutans and the Blunt Greenhood P. curta. In Glen Lomond Park recently I found over 130 Blunt Greenhoods “tossing their heads in sprightly dance” as a brisk breeze coursed down their shadowy gully.

Nodding Greenhoods, Redwood Park, Toowoomba.

Queens Park and the Botanic Gardens have been a haven for fungi. The mulch placed around the bases of the trees provides a fertile medium for a plethora of fungal species especially those of the family Phallaceae (order Phallales) more commonly, but unflatteringly known as stinkhorns and cage fungi. I’ve long been engrossed by the Phallaceae.

After rain, mulch around the base of trees in Toowoomba’s Queens Park erupts with a variety of emerging fungal fruiting bodies.

The most common of this family and one most often remarked upon is Aseroe rubra variously known as the Stinkhorn, Starfish or Anemone Fungus. In the United States, where this stinkhorn has been introduced it is also known as the Space Alien Fungus. Why should this not surprise us? Hollywood even in the dusty halls of the mycologist. Many readers will be familiar with this freakish fungus from their own back yards. I’ve known it all my life and it’s the Galah of the fungal world to me; ever so common but ever so beautiful (if you will concede that beauty is in the eye of the beholder in the stinkhorn’s case). It’s a fascinating fungus and the history and biology surrounding it is well worth pondering.

Aseroe rubra, the Stinkhorn, Starfish or Anemone Fungus. In the United States, where this stinkhorn has been introduced, it is also known as the Space Alien Fungus.

The etymology of its scientific name can be translated roughly as ‘red and juicy with a disgusting smell’. Lovely stuff. The generic name comes from the Latin ase meaning disgust plus roe translating as juice, which refers to the tarry, foul-smelling spore-bearing gleba. The specific epithet rubra means red. This refers to the red, tentacle-like ‘arms’ of the fungal fruiting body; the part poking out of the ground. The gleba rests within the curvature formed at the base of these tentacles. Aseroe rubra has the honour of being the first fungus recorded from Australia. It was discovered by the French biologist Jacques Labillardière (1755-1834) and is described in his Relation du voyage a la recerche de La Perouse published in 1800, which became a best-seller in its day. In 1804-06 Citizen Labillardière also published his magnus opus Novae Hollandiae plantum specimen now widely regarded as ‘the first general flora of Australia’ (Duyker 2004). He was also the first to publish on the flora of New Caledonia. Many of Labillardière’s botanical specimens are now held in Florence.

French biologist Jacques Labillardière (1755-1834). Labillardière’s scientific collections from the d’Entrecasteaux expedition were seized by the British when the ships reached Java. After lobbying by Joseph Banks, the collections were eventually returned to Labillardière, who arrived back in France with them in 1796. [Sketch by Julien Leopold Boilly, lithographer unknown. The original lithograph is in the Wellcome Library, London. This image was taken from http://www.anbg.gov.au/biography/biog-pics/labillardiere.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=177282]

Labillardière was a member of the d’Entrecasteaux expedition that had been despatched by Louis XVI and France’s National Constituent Assembly to search for the la Perouse expedition that had disappeared without trace into the blue void of the Pacific Ocean. The expedition, under the leadership of Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse was last seen departing Botany Bay in March 1788.

The d’Entrecasteaux expedition was captained by Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni, chevalier d’Entrecasteaux. He was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1737 and was to lose his life on this enterprise. He died of scurvy in 1793 off the Hermit Islands in the Bismarck Archipelago, Papua New Guinea without finding any trace of de la Perouse.

Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni, chevalier d’Entrecasteaux led the expedition to search for the lost ships of Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse (often referred to as just La Pérouse). [Illustration by Antoine Maurin – http://www.janesoceania.com/oceania_dentrecasteaux/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=170041]

The d’Entrecasteaux expedition had set sail from Brest on September 28, 1791 and anchored in an unnamed bay in Van Diemen’s Land on April 23, 1792. d’Entrecasteaux had under his command two 12-gun frigates, the Recherche and the Esperance. The anchorage was named Recherche Bay, after one of these ships. This was the location where the fungus we now know as Aseroe rubra first revealed itself to western science collected there by Labillardiere on the first day of May that year. The Recherche was later captured by the Dutch at Surabaya in present day Indonesia. It was eventually returned to France in 1793 only to be sold back to the Dutch two months later for scrap. In honour of his many Antipodean discoveries, Labillardiere has had several plants and animals named after him including the Tasmanian Pademelon Thylogale billardierii, a skink, the Red-legged Ctenotus Ctenotus labillardieri and Common Tussock Grass Poa labillardierei. The Western Australian endemic Bluebell Creeper Billardiera heterophylla has escaped from cultivation in southern states and is now considered a serious environmental weed.

The two storm battered ships Recherche (under command of expedition leader D’Entrecasteaux) and the Esperance (commanded by Huon de Kermadec), at anchor in waters off Tasmania’s south-east coast. This waterway was later named D’Entrecasteaux Channel and the kidney-shaped bay they chose for their rest and repair became known as Recherche Bay. Image source: https://www.ourtasmania.com.au/hobart/recherche-bay

The d’Entrecasteaux expedition remained at Recherche Bay for five weeks then set sail directly for the Admiralty Islands where it had been reported natives were seen wearing French uniforms; an account later disavowed by the purported observer. No trace of the la Perouse expedition was ever uncovered by d’Entrecasteaux. The fate of the la Perouse expedition is still speculative, however there is evidence that his ships the Astrolabe and Boussole were wrecked in a storm off Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands where many of the survivors were massacred by the local inhabitants. Some were thought to have escaped this fate after constructing a small boat. They were to disappear at sea without trace. Ironically d’Entrecasteaux had earlier sailed by Vanikoro without dropping anchor. In one of those macabre footnotes that litter history on the very day d’Entrecasteaux reached Recherche Bay, Louis XV1 was taken to the Place de la Revolution (now the Place de la Concorde) to meet his fate. It is reputed that, on the eve of his death Louis asked ‘… a-t-on des Nouvelles de Monsieur de la Perouse?’ “Have you any news of Monsieur de La Perouse”. But there was none. Such is the fascinating history surrounding our fungus.

The Anemone Fungus is a native of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It has also been recorded on several isolated Pacific Islands including Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands. In Australia it is found from south-eastern Queensland and southwards to eastern Victoria and Tasmania. This fungus is now known from many other parts of the world, however, where its spores have arrived in the potting mix and mulch of botanical specimens. In 1829 it fruited in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, southwest London and in 1992 it was collected from Oxshott Heath in the county of Surrey, southeast England (Pegler et al. 1995). It is thought to have arrived in England in potting soil via the Netherlands in 1828. Until recently (2019) all other recordings of the species in Britain have also been from locations in Surrey. Shortly after arriving at Kew, it was recorded in California, and has become well established in Hawaii and the south-eastern states of the USA. It is now the most common stinkhorn species occurring in the Hawaiian Islands (Hemmes and Desjardin 2009).

Despite the assertion that this fungus is most likely introduced to foreign locations in potting mix, it is difficult to account for its appearance in many isolated locations such as the small village of Kirinyaga in Kangaita, Central Province in Kenya. Kirinyaga is remote from any established gardens. A form with unbranched ‘arms’ Aseroe rubra var. zeylanica was described found growing in semi-evergreen to evergreen forests and high-altitude Eucalyptus stands in the Western Ghats, Kerala, India (Mohonan 2011). It should be remarked, however, that this particular fungus, and other subspecies (actinoloba, muelleriana, junghuhnii et al.) of Aseroe rubra are presently considered as synonyms of rubra by many authorities. Locally it is a very common fungus often encountered in the same situation as another common stinkhorn, the cosmopolitan Phallus rubicundus. Both these stinkhorns can be either solitary or gregarious and have certainly increased in numbers aided and abetted by gardeners’ use of mulch and wood chip that provide ideal growing mediums for them. Earlier this year I found 17 Aseroe rubra in all stages of development in wood chip under a tree in Queens Park near its boundary with Lindsay Street, East Toowoomba.

Anemone Fungus (Aseroe rubra). Queens Park, Toowoomba.

The first appearance of fungi generally lumped under the term stinkhorn and cage fungi is of a globose to ovoid immature body comprising a smooth peridium (outer casing) enclosing the gleba (spore bearing tissue) and the unexpanded receptacle, which will become the visible part of the mature fruiting body subtended or not by a column (pseudostipe) depending on species. This immature fruitbody is referred to as the ‘myco-egg’, an other-worldly looking gobbet, which I like to call the ‘Dr. Who stage’. The mature fruiting body of A. rubra is supported by a white to fleshy pink pseudostipe which grows to about eight centimetres high and three centimetres wide (Gates and Ratkowsky 2014). Atop the pseudostipe an array of gaudy red to reddish orange tentacles emerges enfolding at their base the foetid, sticky brownish spore mass of the gleba. The tentacles can reach a span of about 10 centimetres in diameter and can be single of bifurcated (divided) at their tips. The rhizomorphs or root-like structures found in fungi such as A. rubra and other Phallales attach themselves to buried wood hence their penchant for well-mulched garden beds.

The immature fruitbody of the Anemone Fungus is referred to as the ‘myco-egg’.

The Space Alien Fungus begins to emerge from the ground.

These fleshy red tentacles will soon sit atop the extended tubular pseudostipe, which grows to about eight centimetres high and three centimetres wide.

The Stinkhorn (Aseroe rubra) showing black, sticky spore mass and bifurcated ‘tentacles’. Queens Park, Toowoomba.

Atop the pseudostipe of the fully emerged fruiting body of the Anemone Fungus sits an array of gaudy red/orange tentacles, at the base of which is found the foetid, sticky brownish spore mass known as a gleba.

The Anemone Fungus is only weakly odoriferous compared to other members of the family. The unpleasant smell emanating from these fungi has often been described as resembling that of rotting meat. The purpose of the smell and the gummy consistency of stinkhorns’ spore masses is to attract flies and other invertebrates that will take up the fungus’ sticky spores thereby dispersing them to new areas. A small troop of Anemone Fungus growing in our home garden was regularly visited by the metallic green Australian Sheep Blowfly Lucilia cuprina.

The rotting meat smell emerging from the fungal spore mass attracts flies and other invertebrates that will take up the fungus’ sticky spores and disperse them to places afar.

A happy fly romps about the fungus, unwittingly picking up spores that it will carry off to new places.

This strategy of attracting flies and other invertebrates to the smell of rotting flesh or dung for the purpose of fertilisation or spore dispersal is a highly successful one. Aside to the fungi it has been adopted by several types of plants including the largest flowering genus in the world, the Rafflesia of Southeast Asia. Rafflesia arnoldi from the rainforests of Indonesia has the world’s largest flower although it is often claimed that the Titan Arum Amorphophallus titanum that is endemic to Sumatra, holds this honour. The Titan Arum, though, produces an inflorescence rather than a single bloom, a fine distinction in terminology within the botanical world. Semantics aside both these plants employ insects to fertilise their blooms. Rafflesia and Amorphophallus are both called corpse flowers and these giants of the plant kingdom employ similar tactics to our humble stinkhorns to ensure their continued survival. It should be stressed, however that the distinction between fungi and the flowering plants is that the fungi utilise these animals to disperse their spores whereas the plants need them to complete the fertilisation process. Fungi reproduce asexually by fragmentation (of hyphae), budding, or by producing asexual spores with the last being the most common strategy.

Corpse Flower Rafflesia keithii, Poring Hot Spring Reserve, Sabah. The Rafflesia produce the world’s largest blooms. They utilise flies and other invertebrates in their fertilisation process. Image courtesy Terry Reis.

In our home garden we have two African succulents. These belong to the Stapelia; a genus of succulents famed for their gorgeous, star-shaped flowers – and their putrid perfumes. Ours are Black Bells Stapelia leendertziae and Zulu Giant S. gigantea and, on a warm, still day, their odour is quite distinguishable to the noses of passers-by, human or canine. Members of this genus are often referred to collectively as carrion flowers. The Eastern Skunk Cabbage Symplocarpus foetidus from North America also employs this tactic to aid in its reproduction and wasps, flies, butterflies, and stoneflies have all been recorded attending its pongy blooms. Both its common name and specific epithet leave little doubt as to this plant’s ‘attributes’. There is a multitude of other plant and fungi species that could be cited in regard to these fascinating associations, but this should suffice the weary reader and, hopefully, give cause for a moment’s solicitude when you next encounter a Space Alien Fungus invasion of your veggie patch. “Woodman, spare that tree …”. Or fungus.

References:

  • Duyker E. (2004). Citizen Labillardiere, Melbourne University Publishing, Charlton.
  • Gates G. and D. Ratkowsky (2014). A Field Guide to Tasmanian Fungi, Tasmanian Field Naturalists Club.
  • Hemmes, D.E. and D.E. Desjardin (2009). ‘Stinkhorns of the Hawaiian Islands’ in Fungi Vol. 2:3
  • Mohonan C. (2011). Macrofungi of Kerala. Kerala, India: Kerala Forest Research Institute.
  • Pegler D.N., Laessoe T. and B.M. Spooner (1995). British Puffballs, Earthstars and Stinkhorns, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 

Footnote: Anyone wishing to follow up on the early French expeditions to the Antipodes especially in regard to their natural history contributions (which easily rival those of our more lauded Banks, Solander et al.) must read Michael Lee’s beautifully written and researched Navigators and Naturalists – French Exploration of New Zealand and the South Seas (1769-1824) published in 2018 by David Bateman Limited, Auckland. A great read and highly recommended.

[This article was first published in the October 2021 edition (767) of the The Darling Downs Naturalist, newsletter of the Toowoomba Field Naturalists Club.]

Rod Hobson is a naturalist and retired Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger who lives in Toowoomba, Queensland. Rod was awarded the 2021 Queensland Natural History Award by the Queensland Naturalists’ Club, an award that is presented annually to recognise people who have made outstanding contributions to natural history in Queensland.

[All photographs by Robert Ashdown, unless otherwise credited.]


A gallery of stinkhorn and cage fungi species, members of the family Phallaceae.

 

Rampage of the tiny blue pests

Every year the cycads in a corner of Toowoomba’s Botanic Gardens attract small, beautiful pests.

Cycad Blue butterfly preparing to go on a murderous rampage in the cycad section of the Toowoomba Botanic Gardens.

What exactly is a ‘pest’ species? Plant or animals that have been introduced, either deliberately or accidentally, to an area from somewhere else get the tag. Say, perhaps like when a dodgy wooden boat full of travel-weary northerners arrives uninvited at your place, a great southern continent, and everyone wants to hang around, well, forever. A refinement on the pest thing is the use of ‘invasive species’ — referring to those species that have ‘impacted the environment, often leading to declines in native species populations and the condition of ecological communities.’ Hmmmmm.

Native species can also be considered as ‘pests’, for reasons apparently real or just perceived. And a ‘pest’ may be in the eye of the beholder — consider the use of the word, often accompanied by terms like ‘plague’ or ‘infestation’, with flying foxes. These mega-bats are native species of incredible significance to the health of our forests, yet they often have incredibly negative interactions with humans.

A ‘native’ species transferred outside its natural range, or one that benefits in some way when the balance of things changes in an ecosystem, can end up being considered as a troublemaker. Native animals that cause havoc on our gardens can be regarded as real pests by keen gardeners. My mother-in-law, a wonderful and patient gardener, was outraged by the allegedly psychotic Australian Scrub Turkeys that seemed to enjoy destroying her garden. To her they were a real and present danger — and recriminations, and defenses, were the order of every day. The fact that this native bird species has flourished in the suburbs due to the work of such diligent gardeners and bush regenerators, who make the suburbs a better place to live for humans and other species, is a tad ironic.

To many gardeners the Cycad Blue (Theclinesthes onycha) a small, beautiful, native butterfly — is a bit of a monster. ‘Pest of the Month’, ‘A Pretty Name for an Ugly Problem’ are a couple of webpage titles addressing this insect and the havoc it causes. Known to many gardeners, strangely, as the Grey Moth (perhaps to deliberately avoid drawing attention to this being a native butterfly, or maybe because most people think of butterflies as large bright insects), this insect is one of a group known as ‘blues’, butterflies that all belong to the family Lycaenidae.

The butterflies themselves are pretty, and gardeners may like the look of them. However, they are a problem. Looking more like a large moth than a butterfly, they can cause a lot of damage unless controlled. Nurseries Online Australia

There are two subspecies of Cycad Blue butterfly (Theclinesthes onycha). Sub-species capricornia occurs along coastal Queensland from Cape York to about Mackay and Rockhampton, while onycha (seen in the photographs in this post) occurs from about Rockhampton to as far south as Mt Dromedary, near the New South Wales-Victoria border. The onycha sub-species is found along the coast and inland regions, as far west as Carnarvon National Park in Queensland, and Coonabarabran in New South Wales.

There are over 60 species of butterflies known as ‘blues’ in south-eastern Queensland, ranging in size from 14 to 53mm in wingspan. The common name comes from the iridescent blue scales on the upper wings of many in the group (others have iridescent scales of copper, orange or purple). Some species have a symbiotic relationship with specific species of ants. Like many butterflies in the family Lycaenidae their larvae are often attended by ants. The ants provide protection for the larvae in exchange for the sweet fluid exuded by the butterfly larvae.

Orange-tipped Pea Blue (Everes lacturnus) in flight, Sundown National Park. As Paul Kelly sings, “So blue.”

The Cycad Blue is just one of over 60 varied, often beautiful, species in the family Lycaenidae — the ‘blues’. This Emerald Hairstreak (Jalmenus daemeli), at rest with open wings, reveals the iridescent blue scales on the upper wings that give this group its name. Unlike the Cycad Blue, larvae of the Emerald Hairstreak feed on the foliage of acacias and eucalypts.

Common Grass Blue (Zizina otis labradus), common in grassy backyards everywhere.

Orange-tipped Pea Blue (Everes lacturnus), Main Range National Park.

Common Grass Blue (Zizinia otis labradus). Girraween National Park.

Male Pencilled Blue (Candalides absimilis). Photograph courtesy Jane Sparks.

Female Pencilled Blue (Candalides absimilis) on mistletoe. Photograph courtesy Jane Sparks.

An Indigo Flash (Rapala varuna), another spectacular member of the Lycaenid butterfly family. Redbank Plains. Photo courtesy Jane Sparks.

The Cycad Blue is the only butterfly in Australia whose larvae feed on cycads or any other Gymnosperm (cone-producing plants including conifers, ginkgos and cycads). The butterflies, seen fluttering around cycads in spring, lay their eggs in the newly emerging crown of the plant before new fronds grow. The eggs hatch within several days and the caterpillars immediately start eating the new foliage as it unfurls, only eating the soft new foliage for several weeks before it hardens up. This causes the fronds to appear brown and scorched, an undesirable look if you are a gardener. Large numbers of the caterpillars can cause a complete loss of leaves. As cycads do not produce foliage continuously, the plants don’t regenerate until the following year — they do recover, but this is an annoying event for gardeners and can indeed be quite a serious economic problem for horticulturalists.

Cycad Blues flutter around a cycad on a sunny day — battling over territory and laying eggs on the plant.

Cycad Blue on a cycad leaf. All parts of cycads are toxic, but the seeds contain higher amounts of cycasin (a carcinogenic and neurotoxic glucoside) than do the other parts of the plant.

The tiny larvae of the Cycad Blue at work munching on cycad foliage. While the larvae of native butterflies feed on all sorts of plants, only the Cycad Blue can cope with the toxic compounds found in cycad leaves. These compounds are toxic to most animals, and many species that feed on toxic plants use the absorbed chemicals as a defense, as they can be unpalatable to predators. Such species often warn of this with their bright colors (known as apomatism) — ladybugs with their bright orange, red and black markings are a good example.

Suggested responses range from covering garden cycads with netting to all sorts of chemical pesticide warfare. The Yates gardening page on the species focuses on prevention of damage to the plants rather than cure, explaining how to net the plants and keep an eye out for the butterflies. 

One factsheet mentions that the best method to manage this butterfly is to grow plants that are not susceptible to damage, as some cycad species are more vulnerable to the blues than others. It is recommended that horticulturalists note information on plant tags about the cycad species being sold so that home gardeners can buy these plants confident that they will not receive damage.

The Australian Butterfly Conservation Facebook page puts things in perspective for those of us who love native butterflies.

The dependence (of this butterfly on cycads) is becoming a problem — as there are a lot less cycads than there used to be! Australia’s native cycads are in decline, many are already threatened or endangered. The lack of available cycads in the bush is also forcing these butterflies into gardens – where they are considered pests. As suitable cycads are not as numerous, nor widespread, as they used to be, the Cycad Blues are often unable to move-on their colonies to new plants – which means they may outstay the cycad’s ability to recover. If you (or your friends) live where the Cycad Blue butterfly lives you can help these special native butterflies by planting cycads in your garden, verge — or even in a pot! Cycads require little maintenance or water — just some shade from the worst of the midday sun.

Grow cycads to feed the butterflies. I like that approach. I love seeing these shimmering, fluttering jewels in the sunlight each spring, floating around a cycad, oblivious to annoyed gardeners. To have a perfect cycad while working to eliminate one of the fascinating relationships that exist between native insects and plants seems kind of pointless to me. But then, our garden has not won any prizes. Yet.

Two male Cycad Blues facing off during a territorial dispute. Gorman’s Gap, Lockyer Valley.


A gallery of blues (click on any image for information).


Links:

Thanks to Rod Hobson, Wes Jenkinson and Jane Sparks. All images, unless otherwise credited, copyright Robert Ashdown.

Along came a spider …

Rod Hobson

As many of my friends, including several of the Toowoomba Field Naturalists, are now aware I have spent a good portion of the first four months of 2022 house bound following the total replacement of my left knee. To say the least this gave me a great deal of time for sombre reflection on life in general and, for Betty, on the institution of marriage in particular.

About two months into my confinement, I was able to get about our yard with the aid of a stick and renewed some of the simple delights of the suburban garden that have been, over the years, displaced by frantic dashes around the country in pursuit of the exotic and fabulous. I became reacquainted through circumstance with the beauty of the commonplace, the gorgeous livery of a male Australian King Parrot, the spectacle that is a female Orchard Swallowtail or the aerial wizardry of an Australian Duskhawker.

Aerial sunlight backyard dancer. Orchard Swallowtail (Papilio aegius), Toowoomba. (Photo: Robert Ashdown)

I also caught up on a lot of reading. This has resulted in the following amalgam of reminiscences, obscure facts, and trivia that, hopefully, will bestow upon the reader some moments of pleasure no matter how tenuous are the strands that compose the essence of the story, an invalid’s story, anecdotes of a curmudgeon. In other words, a rambling discourse on things varied and curious.

To begin gathering the disparate mycelia that should, hopefully, form a cogent whole first credit must be given to my old mate and fellow Toowoomba Field Natter Michael Rooke. Michael is an old newspaper man and of my vintage. We have a great fondness for words and are stout defenders of the semi-colon. And not to mention the interrobang. Etymology and punctuation are our thing. Just the sorts of blokes to add glamour and glitz to your dinner party! Another passion we have in common is the local news, though not the stuff about a new bikeway, netball team or shopping centre but what’s going on around your back yard, local swamp, or patch of remnant bushland, which denizen feathered, furred, or squamous has popped up there lately. How many of your avocados, tomatoes or electrical wires did it chew through? The guts of a good newsletter. Michael has been the untiring champion of local content for many a year now and has contributed more than his fair share to our newsletter. Thanks, Michael.

As I said my recent forced confinement to barracks gave me ample spare time to sit and think, usually on our back stoop if a sunshiny morning. During that time, a Satin Bowerbird established his bower under the drooping branches of one of our avocados. Australian Admirals, White-banded Planes, Tailed Emperors, Pale Triangles and Tau Emeralds, usually occasional visitors to our yard at best were around in numbers. One morning, by our front stairs, as I was staring, mind blank, into our overgrown flower garden I suddenly became aware of the skeletal form of a male Net-casting Spider Deinopus subrufa suspended, as if frozen in time, in an angle of the house wall. I’ve often encountered this spider in our yard over the years and it certainly appears to be a common local species. It’s a favourite of mine and never fails to elicit comment from people who encounter it.

Net-casting spider – a fence-dwelling, ogre-faced urban arachnid. (Photo: Robert Ashdown)

Over this last spring/summer I have received two reports of this spider from the Ashdown residence east Toowoomba, and one each from the Thorn Street wall of the Toowoomba Office Works and from Duggan Bushland and near Bunkers Hill State School. Further afield I’ve received recent reports of the spider from a friend’s house yard in Redbank Plains (J. Sparks pers. comm.). There is a skate park, one of those lekking grounds for disenchanted youth, near Lake Annand. For all this summer a female Net-caster has been in residence there tucked up under a concrete lip out of sight, out of mind despite the almost constant hubbub around her.

Adult male net-casting spider (Deinopsis subrufa) not caring a jot about camouflage as it hangs about the wall of the Toowoomba Office Works. (Photo: Robert Ashdown)

One of my first spider books that I acquired in my early teenage years was Keith C. McKeown’s Australian Spiders first published by Angus and Robertson in 1936 as Spider Wonders of Australia. Mine is the version revised by N.L. Roberts and published by Sirius Books in 1963. I still have it and it is beside me as I write. I remember seeing my first net-caster long before I got this book. It was holed up under Pat Walker’s Japanese Honeysuckle vine at his home in Jennings Street. I have never lost my fascination with this spider. The Net-caster Spider goes under the aliases Ogre-faced Spider, Stick Spider, Gladiator Spider and Retiarius, the last of which is used by Mc Keown in his book above. I’ve always preferred Retiarius likely from the early influence of this book. The scientific name of our local net-caster is Deinopis subrufa (family Deinopidae). Deinopis is from the Greek deinos meaning fearful plus opis meaning appearance. Deinopis subrufa was described by the German entomologist and arachnologist Ludwig Carl Christian Koch (1825-1908). Its specific epithet means light red. The light red, fearful-looking spider.

Lamp-shade ornament – net-casting spider indoors. (Photo: Robert Ashdown)

The Deinopidae was first described by the British civil servant and entomologist William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865) (Macleay, 1839). This is a pantropical family of sixty-seven species in three genera, the Asianopsis, Deinopis and Menneus (= Avella) (Friedrich and Lehmann, 2020). The World Spider Catalog (Natural History Museum Bern, 2021) lists nine species of Asianopsis confined to SE Asia and China and fourteen species of Menneus found in Australia as well as Lord Howe Island, New Caledonia, “possibly New Guinea”, and South Africa. The Catalog lists Deinopis as the largest genus (44 species). It is found on all continents except for Europe and Antarctica. All Australian Deinopis were described before 1900 with six species entering the literature. These are (fasciata, ravida and tabida, Queensland; schomburgki, South Australia; unicolor, Western Australia and subrufa, eastern Australia). All except subrufa are now considered nomen dubia. Nomen dubium (doubtful name) is a name used in zoology that is of unknown or doubtful use i.e., dodgy. This also includes a spider originally named Deinopis bicornis that is now recognised as subrufa.

Certain individuals of subrufa have two dorsolateral bumps halfway along their abdomen that initially gave rise to bicornis being thought a separate species. Toowoomba arachnologist Dr. Ron Atkinson, and other authorities (Volker et al., 2014; Whyte and Anderson, 2017) acknowledge that the taxonomic status of Australian Deinopis, though, is not yet fully resolved; a refrain echoed ad infinitum by taxonomists in disciplines not solely confined to arachnology. The local species, however, is certainly subrufa (R. Atkinson pers comm., 01/06/2022). Two subrufa, a male and a female have even managed to cross The Ditch to New Zealand (Forster and Forster, 1999). There have been no recent observations of net-casters, however, in that country.

Deinopis subrufa with the pair of dorsolateral “bumps” that led to this form being originally described as Deinopis bicornis. (Photo: Jane Sparks)

The Menneus or hump-backed spiders were originally placed with the cribellate orb-weavers but moved to Deinopidae in 1967. There are seven species in Australia (Coddington et al., 2012) that include two Queensland species viz. aussie and trinodosus. The pair are found in New South Wales, as well with aussie extending to Lord Howe Island. Aussie is suspected of being in New Guinea, too. For brevity in scientific names, it be hard to go past the Western Australian species Menneus wa. And who said taxonomists are humourless types. Western Australia also has Menneus quasimodo. Howzat for a name for a hump-backed spider? The net-caster genus Asianopis was only described in 2020 (Lin et al., 2020a) and is absent from Australia. The three genera have all adopted ‘net-casting’ for procuring prey, though with slight variations in techniques across the genera.

Net-casters have an elongated body hence Stick Spider being a popular vernacular. The legs are long, spindly with the third pair being the shortest. Body length across the family ranges from 5-28 mm. The prey capturing strategy within this family is unique. The spider’s snare is produced from an organ on the ventral side of the abdomen near the spinnerets called a cribellum. The snare is entire and broad resembling a net hence the spider’s name. This rectangular snare is held by the spider between their first three-pairs of legs with the spider, in turn, suspended by its hind legs by what is thought to be a reduced web. On the arrival of an unsuspecting feed the spider stretches its legs thereby expanding its net. Following the release of its fourth limbs the spider is free to throw its net over the prey. The net can be dispatched to capture aerial or ground dwelling prey. Aerial prey capture is more usual in the Menneus whilst Deinopis generally hunts pedestrian prey, however methods are not mutually exclusive (Volker et al., 2014). Prey as large as trapdoors and gryllacridid crickets are taken. To increase the spider’s net-casting efficiency it often deposits white faecal spots on the leaves below its ambush used as aiming spots by the arachnid. It’s a touch and go strategy and the spider is often left holding an empty net. The spider’s net is dismantled during daylight hours, and it retreats into the surrounding area where its lanky morphology and stoical demure provides excellent camouflage from hungry predators.

A net-caster Deinopis subrufa with net in place awaiting its next meal. (Photo: Robert Ashdown)

A closer scrutiny of Deinopis will quicky reinforce another of its trivial names, Ogre-faced Spider. It’s got a physiognomy that only a mother could love. The most conspicuous feature of the spider’s head is two massive staring jet eyes, the posterior median eyes in the crusty parlance of science. These, along with a huge set of jaws seem to almost comprise its entire ‘face.’ Four additional but miniscule eyes, by comparison, subtend these mighty, beetle-browed gogglers. There are also another two small eyes behind the posterior median eyes so, eight eyes in all for the net-casters, which is standard for most species of spider. Asianopis has similar-sized posterior median eyes, however these are smaller and more widely spaced in Menneus. Net-caster eyes are remarkable organs. They are far more efficient in gathering light than in animals such as cats and owls. This is despite the spider lacking the reflective layer (tapetum lucidum) present in the eyes of many vertebrates. The tapetum lucidum is a layer of tissue immediately behind the retina, a retroreflector that increases the light available to the photoreceptors (image forming cells). In our spiders a large area of light-sensitive membrane is produced within the eyes nightly which, since spider eyes lack irises, is rapidly destroyed by the arrival of day. The spider’s enormous posterior median eyes give the animal a very wide field of vision to complement its excellent night vision. The post median eyes of Deinopis are believed to be the largest ocelli relative to body size of any invertebrate with those of subrufa measuring up to 1.4 mm in diameter (Volker et al., 2014).

A male Deinopis subrufa. The two large, clubbed organs at the bottom of the photograph are the palps, the reproductive organs in male spiders. (Photo: Bruce Thomson)

These spiders mature in summer. Mating and egg-laying occurs in autumn with spiderlings emerging in spring. Hatched spiderlings remain massed in a communal web before finally dispersing. Egg sacs are round balls up to 10 mm in diameter. The sacs possess a tough and intricately woven silk exterior of an ochre-brown, dark-flecked colouration. These are hidden, suspended in low vegetation, and camouflaged with bits and pieces of twig and leaf-litter. Up to four egg sacs are produced. The reproductive process in these spiders is ingenious and best described by Whyte and Anderson (2017) quote, “In this family the male’s inseminating embolus is tightly coiled up to 20 times in a spiral. The female organ has corresponding coils to receive it. During copulation the embolus unwinds, rotating itself into the female in a marvel of sexual engineering.” The net-casters are truly one of the wonders of our bushland and the world of arachnids generally.

So, “now for something entirely different” to explain my preferred colloquial name for Deinopis subrufa viz. Retiarius I’ll return to my sunny doorstep earlier this year. I was contemplating my Retiarius when I noticed, nary a spiderspit away, a small clump of those flowers that have entered Australian iconography courtesy of our celebrity Housewife from Moonie Ponds. That plant, of course, is the gladiola Gladiolus sp., one of over three hundred species in the Iris family Gladiolaceae. Ours have valiantly rejuvenated themselves every other year despite being completely ignored by the homeowners. It dawned on me that, perhaps, the origin of this plant’s name came from the Latin gladius meaning sword. And so, it proved and refers to plant’s sword-shaped leaves.

The gladius was a short sword perfectly designed for close combat. It reached its zenith as a combat weapon in the hands of the legions of the Roman Empire. Roman foot-soldiers adopted this sword from that used by the Celtiberians in Hispania late in the Punic Wars (264-146 BC). The sword was also used in the Roman arena hence we also have the word gladiator or swordsman from this root. There were distinct types of gladiators and one, armed with a trident (fuscina), dagger (pugio) and a weighted net (rete) was known as the net-man (retiarius). The retiarius was usually matched against the secutor (follower or chaser) who was more heavily armed with a gladius and curved, rectangular shield (scutum). The secutor’s head was encased in a distinctive, claustrophobic helmet, with only two small holes for the eyes, to prevent a trident thrust into the face. The secutor, being much more heavily encumbered than the lightly armed retiarius had to finish the combat quickly before being overtaken by exhaustion hence his name of follower or chaser (secutor). The was also a gladiator who was known as the contraretiarius or contrarete. This was simply another name for a retiarius pitched against a second retiarius. So, hereby hangs my tale with three of my favourite subjects, zoology, history, and etymology coalescing on that sunny morning.

“What have the Romans ever done for us,” Reg, the leader of the People’s Front of Judea harangues his audience in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Well, Reg, aside to aqueducts and roads they have bequeathed to us a great name for an amazing spider. Viva Retiarius may your casts be fruitful these summer eves.

I would like to thank Toowoomba arachnologist Dr. Ron Atkinson for his comments on the taxonomy of the Deinopidae. Ron’s sharing of his extensive arachnological knowledge over many years is also acknowledged. Thanks Ron.

References

Coddington J.A., Kuntner M., and Opell, B.D. (2012). Systematics of the spider family Deinopidae with a revision of the genus Menneus. Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology. 636:12.

Forster, R., and Forster, L. (1999). Spiders of New Zealand and their Worldwide Kin. University of Otago Press, Dunedin.

Friedrich S. and Lehmann T. (2020). Second record of Net-casting Spiders in Peru. Spixiana. 43 (2): 304.

Lin, Y.J., Shao, L., Hangii, A., Caleb, J.T.D., Koh, J.K.H., Jager, P. and Li, S.Q. (2020a). Asianopsis gen. nov., a new genus of the spider family Deinopidae from Asia. Zookeys 911; 67-69.

Macleay, W.S. (1839). “On some new forms of Arachnida” in Annals of Natural History. 2 (7): 1-2.

Volker, W.F., Baehr, B.C., and Zborowski, P. (2014). A Guide to the Spiders of Australia. Reed New Holland Publishers Pty Ltd., Sydney.

Whyte, R., and Anderson, G. (2017). A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Clayton South.

[This article was first published in the July 2022 edition (775) of The Darling Downs Naturalist, newsletter of the Toowoomba Field Naturalists Club.]

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Sitting on the fence — survival in the suburbs

Cities and towns are tough places for wild animals to survive in. Yet some do very well, carrying on their lives all around us, often unnoticed and unappreciated.

Watching you go by. An Elegant, or Pretty, Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharus pulcher) warily warms up in the morning on a busy suburban fence.

I grew up in the suburbs of Brisbane in the 60s and 70s. It was a large sprawling town really, on the edge of becoming a city. There were chaotic urban blocks, old wooden houses with overgrown yards, huge mango trees, untidy footpaths, space, and lots of interesting wildlife.

At dusk a huge stream of flying foxes would darken the sky above our house at Manly in the Brisbane Bayside area, moving into the suburbs from the mangroves near the mouth of the Brisbane River, looking for food in backyards and the nectar of flowering eucalypts. Their colony is long gone, along with much of the mangrove forest they lived in — cleared for a huge port extension.

Grey-headed Flying Foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus). A much-loved feature of my urban childhood. Who could not be charmed by bats?

I would take a torch at night and stand under Queen Palms and peer up at these squabbling, fascinating mammals, Black and Grey-headed Flying Foxes. Their mysterious leathery wings and dog-like faces had me enthralled. I completed a poster on bats for a primary science competition, scouring libraries for anything I could find about these creatures, which was not a lot.

Old houses had dodgy tin roofs, where sparrows and possums could move in and cause havoc. And there were always reptiles. Carpet Snakes and large, fierce, fence-claiming Bearded Dragons. 

Carpet Python (Morelia spilota) – still a common reptile in many Brisbane suburbs.

Every backyard in Brisbane in the 60s and 70s had reptiles. And for a young fan of wildlife, Bearded Dragons were endlessly fascinating.

There were always skinks, those miniature marvels. Large, slow-moving Blue-tongued Skinks (Tiliqua fasciata) and the small brown, ground-dwelling Garden Skinks (Lampropholis delicata), which scurried about sunny patches on the edge of garden beds.

Blue-tongued Skink (Tiliqua fasciata).

Delicate Sun Skink (Lampropholis delicata).

Then there were the darker, striped, wide-eyed and wary Fence Skinks (Cryptoblepharus pulcher), which raced along fences, defying all efforts to be caught.

The Elegant Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharis pulcher).

I still look forward to seeing Fence Skinks (now usually referred to as Snake-eyed Skinks) while walking the dog in Toowoomba on sunny mornings. They warily watch the dog and I as we stroll past their early-morning fence gatherings, and I marvel at how they carry on their lives amidst our urban chaos. They seem to be a living link to my suburban childhood, clinging on as they do in the edge zones of our dwellings and structures and in the distant memories of sunny childhood yards long gone.

Old power poles, with cracked, flaking surfaces, provide fabulous habitat for the reptilian lovers of all things vertical.

One can only wonder what social dynamics are happening here. Many of this group have either missing tails or have regrown new ones — evidence of a perilous life near the bottom of the food chain. These dark bricks on an eastern-facing fence on a busy road warm quickly in the morning sun and are a much-loved hang-out for my local skinks.

Spot the skink. Footpath trees provide another form of prime urban real estate.

As Steve Wilson says in Australian Lizards, a Natural History, “Lizards are extraordinarily successful at what they do best — being lizards.”

Skinks, the largest group of lizards in terms of number of species, have a wide range of adaptations and survival strategies that have seen them flourish in virtually all Australian habitats, including cities and towns. Snake-eyed Skinks must surely be at the top of the list for being able to survive around people. 

There are currently 23 species of snake-eyed skinks (Cryptoblepharus) described in Australia. They are long-limbed, flat-bodied lizards — swiftly defying gravity as they race over rocks, fences, tree trunks and buildings. They are found across most of Australia, other than the south-eastern mainland and Tasmania. Their long-limbed, flattened characteristics are taken to the most extreme proportions in the Fuhn’s Snake-eyed Skinks (Cryptoblepharus fuhni), found only on the surfaces of granite boulders at Cape Melville in north-eastern Queensland.

My local fence-loving species, the Elegant (or Pretty) Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharus pulcher pulcher), is the ‘nominate’ subspecies, found across eastern Australia from Ingham in Queensland to Jervis Bay in New South Wales (including in inner suburban Sydney and Brisbane), while the subspecies Cryptoblepharus pulcher clarus is found in locations in southern Australia between South Australia and Western Australia. In my local bush areas I have seen Elegant Snake-eyed Skinks on trees and rocks, while in the suburbs they hang out on the human-engineered vertical surfaces of fences and walls.

Perhaps the most successful skinks across the urban spectrum are the snake-eyed skinks (Cryptoblepharus spp.), also appropriately called fence or wall lizards. They do not reach as far south as Melbourne, but they thrive in most other cities between Perth and Cairns. In a natural environment they live on vertical rock and tree surfaces, and the shift to human structures has been an easy one. Snake-eyed skinks even occupy the walls of buildings well within the central business districts.                                                           —  Steve K Wilson Australian Lizards, A Natural History

An Elegant Snake-eyed Skink in the wild, seen here on sandstone in bushland at White Rocks reserve near Ipswich.

Clinging effortlessly to the sheer trunk of a dead ironbark tree (where there are plenty of gaps to hide in). Highwoods, near Jimbour, Darling Downs.

Other species of snake-eyed skinks include the Coastal Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharus litoralis), which stays close to the rocky coasts of north-eastern Queensland and the Northern Territory, where it avoids waves to feed on wave-drenched rocks. The Agile Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharis zoticus) is a rock specialist, living on the sandstone escarpments of north-western Queensland and the Northern Territory.

The Agile Snake-eyed Skink (Crptoblepharus zoticus). Lawn Hill. Image courtesy Steve K Wilson.

The Coastal Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharus litoralis). Prince of Wales Island, Queensland. Image courtesy Steve K Wilson.

Metallic Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharus metallicus). Old Laura Homestead site, Rinyirru National Park.

Snake-eyed Skinks have adapted well to life in the suburbs and in harsh bush environments. While they are found in deserts right through into areas with high rainfall, they usually always dwell on exposed vertical surfaces, places usually free of moisture. Small skinks such as the Snake-eyes therefore face a real risk of dehydration due to water loss. The smaller a skink, the greater the ratio of surface area to volume, and therefore the more vulnerable it is to dehydration.

The surface of a skink’s eye can potentially lose a great amount of water through evaporation. A strategy that some skinks have evolved (separately in different parts of the world) to avoid this is the presence of a clear, waterproof cap that covers the eye — a transparent, fixed eye cover known as a brille. This is the skink’s lower eyelid, which is permanently closed in an upright state, a condition known as ‘ablepharine’. The most widespread ablepharine skins are the snake-eyed (named after their lidless, ‘staring’ eyes).

The transparent, fixed eye cover (known as a ‘brille’), that earns this skink the common name ‘snake-eyed’.

Covering the eye with an immovable transparent window has evolved independently among small skinks worldwide. More than eight Australian species exhibit the condition. At one time, all skinks that adopted this water-saving strategy were lumped together in one genus, Ablepharus. The name appears in old Australian reference books and was applied to unrelated species ranging from central Victoria to central Europe.                                  — Steve Wilson and Gerry Swan. What Lizard is That?

As they are able to withstand desiccating conditions, snake-eyed skinks have been able to travel across oceans. The genus extends from southern Africa and out across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, where they are found living on isolated small islands. Their moisture-resistant eye-caps have assisted them in surviving such long-distance travels.

The Christmas Island Blue-tailed Skink (Cryptoblepharus egeriae) is a species of snake-eyed skink that originally travelled to Christmas Island from Australia, or islands ecologically connected to it. Once common and widespread in the 1980s, this species was driven to extinction by 2010 by an introduced predator, the Yellow Crazy Ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes). However, rangers on the island saved 66 skinks and a captive breeding program in Australia began.

Christmas Island Blue-tailed Skink (Cryptoblepharus egeriae). Photograph courtesy Jon-Paul Emery.

Jon-Paul Emery researched the Christmas Island Blue-tailed Skink on Christmas Island as part of his PhD thesis. He says, “Captive breeding of the aptly-named blue-tailed skink was incredibly successful; so much so that Parks Australia in 2017 began trials re-introducing the skink back onto the island to try and establish populations in predator exclusion sites. My research investigated the ecology of the species as well as ways to monitor the skinks and how they responded post-release. I also looked at the threats that affected how well the skinks did within the translocation sites.”

Researcher Jon-Paul Emery with a Shingleback (Tiliqua rugosa), one of Australia’s largest skinks. Photograph courtesy Jon-Paul Emery.

Christmas Island Blue-tailed Skink (Cryptoblepharus egeriae). Photograph courtesy Jon-Paul Emery.

Jon-Paul’s research has helped inform ongoing management of the species, with translocations been undertaken to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (an archipelago 1,000km away) and additional sites on Christmas Island. 

In the safer suburbs of Queensland, Snake-eyed Skinks race out to catch passing insects such as flies, cockroaches, bugs, wasps and grubs. They tend to capture more flying insects than other ground-dwelling lizards. They have been observed carrying out ‘kleptophagy’ — a form of piracy whereby they rob ants of the food they are carrying. They have also been seen looting mudwasp nests to take the arthropod prey intended for the wasps’ larvae. When eating ants, they take the tasty ant alates while avoiding worker ants. In my area, naturalist Rod Hobson has watched them eating Black House Ants (Ochetellus glaber). In the Great Victoria Desert, Buchanan’s Snake-eyed Skinks (Cryptoblepharus buchananii) mainly eat termites, small spiders, bugs and beetles.

Fences old and new, all made the more interesting by the presence of tiny reptiles.

Skinks, however, are near the bottom of the food chain, and like all creatures down the list, they have many predators out to get them — including birds, snakes, cats, curious children and even spiders. They stay close to cover, are very wary, and dart off rapidly to nearby crevices at the slightest sign of approaching trouble. They can shimmy across vertical surfaces and their flattened bodies allow them to hide in narrow places.

A passing ant is seized. Snake-eyed skinks have been recorded staking out ant trails to rob the insects of the prey they are carrying.

Tables turned. A Red-back Spider makes a meal of an Elegant Snake-eyed Skink on a footpath in the main street of Toowoomba. Note how the skink has cast off its tail in an attempt to escape the spider’s clutches.

Despite being a common species, a recent study published in the Australian Journal of Zoology is one of the first to provide a detailed look at the life-history of the Elegant Snake-eyed Skink.

Living for about three years, these skinks breed in spring and summer in southern Queensland and all year round in hotter northern places. Females lay two eggs, and there have been documented cases of communal nesting where up to four females lay eggs at the same time in one place.

Snake-eyed skinks lay small eggs, probably similar in appearance to these of the Delicate Sun Skink. Although they are common in urban environments, very few egg clutches of snake-eyed skinks have ever been recorded. It is reported that some species lay eggs in communal sites, including the Striped Snake-eyed Skink (Cryptoblepharus virgatus), which uses ant plants (Rubiacceae) on Horn Island in the Torres Strait as communal nest sites. Up to 20 eggs and four hatchlings were recorded together at one site.

[Click on images in the gallery above for a closer view.]

I hope that that suburban fences may forever be adorned with the skittering shapes of miniature snake-eyed reptiles. The urban wilderness would be far more boring without them.

All uncredited images R. Ashdown
Thanks to Steve K Wilson, Rod Hobson and Jon-Paul Emery

The Chestnut Polypore — a fascinating fungus

It’s been raining now for days. Walks with my small black dog are sodden affairs, but the little hound always seems happy enough, as hounds are when out just sniffing about.

Extended rain means at least one interesting thing for those keen on natural history – fungi! And sure enough, there have been all sorts of weird and wonderful fungal fruiting bodies rising above the soil in Toowoomba’s Queens’ Park Botanic Gardens, a favourite spot for a walk for me and the dog. 

So, on the theme of fungi, and with a link to Queen’s Park, here is an article by Rod Hobson on a fascinating and uncommon local fungus, the Chestnut Polypore.


An Interesting Fungus from Duggan Bushland, Toowooomba.
Rod Hobson

Anyone with an interest in the Toowoomba’s past, especially its botanical and colonial history will be familiar with the name Carl Heinrich Hartmann (1833-1887).

Hartmann was born in Dahlen in Saxony, Germany. He emigrated to Australia in 1850 and eventually settled in Toowoomba with his wife Georgina Elizabeth Anna nee Pringle around 1865. He set up his home in what is now the Alderley Street depot of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) and Hartmann Bushland Reserve. Here, he established the Range Nursery and an arboretum. Several survivors from his arboretum persist there to this day. His nursery became a major supplier of ornamental and commercial plants within Toowoomba and beyond, including plantings for Toowoomba’s fledgling Queens Park Gardens. Aside to his horticultural ventures Hartmann was an accomplished botanist and a founding member of the Royal Society of Queensland. He sent zoological specimens to the Queensland Museum and plants to Ferdinand Mueller (1825-1896) who was, for a time, the Victorian Government Botanist. Carl Hartmann travelled widely collecting botanical specimens, including two trips to New Guinea in 1885 and 1887. He died soon after returning from his second trip, from a fever contracted in New Guinea. Several species of plants and insects have been named in Hartmann’s honour. He was also a devoted theosophist.

C. H. Hartmann’s advertisement for his Toowoomba nursery in the Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser, 16 September, 1865. (Source: Trove).

I grew up in Rowbotham Street in Toowoomba in the 1950-60s, just around the corner from “Hartmann’s” as the site of the old nursery and arboretum was known locally. It still is, though Hartman(n) is now variously spelt with one or two n’s. My family was friends of some of the Hartmann descendants who still lived in the area and I went to Rangeville State School with two of the Hartmann boys. We stole bamboo Bambusa sp. (balcooa?) from the old arboretum site when we were kids, but the species made poor fishing poles. The name Hartmann is firmly ensconced in local lore. So, anytime I hear or read the name Hartmann my interest is immediately piqued.

Rod with bamboo still growing in the Hartman’s Reserve, Toowoomba. This is quite probably Bambusa balcooa, a ‘descendant’ of the original bamboo planted by C. H. Hartmann in the 1800s. This would then be a remnant of one of the few clumping bamboos planted in Australia during the first half of the 20th century. Photo R. Ashdown

On the 28 October, 2020 I was walking the dog in Duggan Bushland in Leslie Street, which is only about five to 10 minutes’ walk from the site of Hartmann’s original residence and today’s QPWS depot. At one stage my interest was attracted to two large fungi growing at the foot of an old, fire-scarred eucalypt just off in the bush from one of the walking tracks. On a closer inspection I found them to be a species of polypore, large and irregularly shaped with a rich red-brown cap and yellowish underside. I didn’t know what to make of the fungus so took one, as a specimen. I remember that the stipe did not come free of the ground with its distal portion intact, as I expected it would. It broke with a jagged end, but I put this down to my inadvertent rough handling of the specimen. This fracture was later to provide supportive evidence in the identification of the specimen.

Chestnut Polypore Laccocephalum hartmannii, at the base of a burnt eucalypt, J. E. Duggan Park, Toowoomba, October 2020. Photo R. Ashdown

When I arrived home, I spent several hours in an attempt to identify the fungus but could not come up with a satisfactory identification so sent off some photographs to a few acquaintances whom I know to be adept at fungi identification. The answer to my conundrum arrived quickly, from Nigel Fechner through Vanessa Ryan. Nigel is the Queensland Herbarium’s mycologist, and he was very interested in my find that he identified as a species of Laccocephalum (lakkos = stone + kephalos = head; from the Ancient Greek). He also told me that specimens of this genus were poorly represented in the Queensland Herbarium’s collection and hoped that I’d retained it. As I read this email the fungus was on my desk in front of me awaiting its fate. Fortunately, Nigel’s interest prevented it from becoming compost and, as circumstance would have it, I was heading off to the Queensland Museum next day so was able to deliver him the specimen en route. Not long afterwards Nigel informed me that my find was the Chestnut Polypore Laccocephalum hartmannii.

Here, then, was that name Hartmann again. Searching the records, I could only find two previous specimen records of this species for Queensland. One was collected by L. Bolland at Salisbury, Brisbane on 17.02.1975 and is held, as a preserved specimen, in the National Herbarium of Victoria (catalogue number MEL 2301256A). The second, also a preserved specimen in the Queensland Herbarium (catalogue number BRI AQO645866), was collected by Francis Manson Bailey (1827-1915) but no data, other than it was collected in “Queensland”, are available. Bailey was appointed Colonial Botanist of Queensland in 1881, a position he held until his death. He was the author of the seminal work on Queensland botany The Queensland Flora published in six volumes between 1899 and 1902, followed by the index in 1905. He also published on Queensland’s grasses and Australian ferns.

The Chestnut Polypore was eaten by the Indigenous people of Australia — a common name for it was Native or Blackfellow’s Bread. It has been variously described as a ‘delicacy’ by some diners and ‘dull and uninteresting’ by others.

There are quite a few Chestnut Polypore records from the eastern coast south of the Queensland border including Tasmania, however, so it would appear that SEQ is likely the northern range limit for the species. There are five recognised species of Laccocephalum in Australia. They, along with Neolentinus and Pleurotus tuber-regium form a group generally referred to as stonemaker fungi. Laccocephalum is an interesting genus that grows from an underground storage-organ called a pseudosclerotium (sclerotium) although it has been recorded fruiting directly on tree trunks on rare occasions. The pseudosclerotium can weigh up to 20 kilograms in one species L. mylittae. This formation in mylittae was eaten by the Indigenous people of Australia and a common name for it is Native or Blackfellow’s Bread. It has been variously described as a “delicacy” by some diners and “dull and uninteresting” by others. The snapped off stipe of the Duggan Bushland specimen was due to my forcefully but unwittingly detaching the stipe from its pseudosclerotium, which helped Nigel with his initial identification. The fact that this genus is also fire-responsive, and my specimen was growing at the foot of a eucalypt recently charred by fire also supported the Laccocephalum case. The fungus is also said to respond to drought conditions and mechanical disturbance.

Chestnut Polypore Laccocephalum hartmannii, J. E. Duggan Park, Toowoomba, October 2020. Photo R. Ashdown

I was intrigued by the specific epithet of the Duggan Bushland specimen. I was unaware such a fungus existed until then. Was the holotype collected by Carl Hartmann and named in his honour? He lived only a stone’s throw from where I collected my specimen. Had the species persisted under our very noses undisturbed for nearly 150 years? For the next week I dredged the literature to see if my hunch was right. And it appears it was. The species was described by Mordecai Cubitt Cooke (1825-1914) as “Polyporus (Mesopus), Hartmannii Cke. – Type sp. No. 42968” and annotated “On ground, Toowoomba, Queensland (Hartmann, No. 10)”. This was published in Grevillea 12 (No. 61) :14 (September,1883) in Grevillea – a Quarterly Record of Cryptogamic Botany and its Literature. Cooke was an enthusiastic mycologist. He launched and edited Grevillea during the last 12 years of his working life in the botany department of London’s Kew Gardens museum. On his retirement in 1892, the publication of Grevillea fell into the hands of his successor George Edward Masse (1845-1917) and ceased publication soon after in 1893. In 1896 Cooke, Masse, Carlton Rea and Charles Bagge Plowright, along with other mycologists, co-founded the British Mycological Society. It was in a copy of Grevillea held in the Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University Herbaria and Libraries that I eventually tracked down Cooke’s description of what we now know as the Chestnut Polypore Laccocephalum hartmannii. To date (December 2020) the only Chestnut Polypore specimen held in the Queensland Herbarium, aside to Bailey’s old, preserved one, is the Duggan Bushland individual from October 2020.

The genus Laccocephalum (Polyporaceae) was erected in 1895 by Daniel McAlpine and Otto Tepper. McAlpine (1849-1932) was appointed Government Vegetable Pathologist in May 1890 in the Victorian Department of Agriculture. Johann Gottlieb Tepper (1841-1923) was a Prussian-born botanist, plant collector and entomologist who spent most of his career with the South Australian Museum. According to Pat Leonard (2012) writing of the genus in the Queensland Mycological Society’s Queensland Fungal Record, “No true Laccocephalum species have yet been sequenced.” Nigel Fechner was happy to get this fresh material, which certainly appears to have been collected from the immediate area of Carl Hartmann’s original specimen, in order to carry out this genetic work. It appears that Carl Hartmann also collected Native Bread described by Cooke and Masse in 1893 as Polyporous mylittae. Hartmann collected a specimen near Toowoomba in 1884 that is held in the National Herbarium of Victoria (catalogue number MEL 1054943A). I kept an eye on the remaining Duggan Bushland fungus until the 9 November when the survivor was a desiccated and amorphous mass on the woodland floor and, tempted as I was on several occasions to exhume the pseudo-sclerotium resisted the urge. Hopefully, this Chestnut Polypore will regenerate post the next fire, a fascinating fungus.

Everyone needs a truffle-hound when out looking for fascinating fungi. Rod with Gordy, inspecting the elusive Chestnut Polypore. Photo R. Ashdown

Finally, an interesting aside to my find was the emergence from the specimen of several small, brown beetles that spent the evening disporting themselves over my desk. These proved to be a species of Pleasing Fungus Beetle of the Family Erotylidae (ref: Chris Burwell in The Queensland Mycologist, Vol. 2, Issue 3 – Spring 2007). As the family name suggests, some species can be brightly coloured and patterned but mine were mere small brown jobbies. The fungus’ cap and underside were riddled with the pinhole-sized entrances of these beetles.

And now there’s also the Ravine Orchid Sarcochilus hartmannii from the, “timbered mountain ranges behind Toowoomba …”. The thread that runs through these stories is a never-ending one. Still unravelling. Still fascinating. Carl Heinrich Hartmann – what a legacy you’ve left Toowoomba in particular and botany in general, and me.

The Ravine Orchid Sarcochilus hartmannii, near Toowoomba. Photo R. Ashdown

Footnote: Any reader wishing to know more about Carl Hartmann should talk with Toowoomba Field Naturalists’ Dr. John Swarbrick who is an authority on Hartmann’s life and times. 

— Rod Hobson

[This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of the The Darling Downs Naturalist, newsletter of the Toowoomba Field Naturalists Club.]

Rod Hobson is a naturalist and retired Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger who lives in Toowoomba, Queensland. Rod was awarded the 2021 Queensland Natural History Award by the Queensland Naturalists’ Club, an award that is presented annually to recognise people who have made outstanding contributions to natural history in Queensland.

Black and red

A Red-bellied Black Snake enjoys the morning sun following a stormy night at Girraween National Park.

Red and black, always a great colour scheme — and certainly an arresting one when you are out walking and the colours belong to a Red-bellied Black Snake.

Bushwalkers who know their stuff are always scanning around them as they walk, keeping one eye open lest a boot should land unwittingly on one of the scaly creatures who share the bush with us. Encountering one of these spectacular red and black snakes while walking will always pull you up a bit short — seeing one in the wild is always memorable. Like all snakes, ‘Red-bellies’ are mysterious and fascinating things. My heart may skip a beat if I stumble upon one unexpectedly, but that is soon replaced by the excitement of having the chance to observe one of these beautiful reptiles doing its thing.

Red-bellied Black Snakes (Pseudechis porphyriacus) are found along the east coast of Australia, where they live in woodlands, plains and urban bush, even being found in Brisbane, Adelaide, Cairns, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

Like all snakes, the Red-Bellied Black has a forked tongue, which it uses to ‘smell’. By flicking its tongue in the air, a snake can collect odour-causing particles that it then delivers to a sensory organ in its mouth.

This species has other common names — redbelly, RBBS, common black snake. It is known as djirrabidi to the Eora and Darug First Nations people of the Sydney basin.

Red-bellied Black Snakes can grow to about two metres in length. They like to live near water and can usually be found around river and creek banks, swamps and wet forests. They seem to prefer areas that have shallow water with logs, water plants and other debris. While they like water, they can travel about 100m from their favourite retreat, and turn up in nearby backyards.

The English naturalist George Shaw described The Red-bellied Black Snake in Zoology of New Holland in 1794, giving it the scientific name Coluber porphyriacus. It was the first Australian elapid snake to be scientifically described. Shaw thought the species was not venomous, writing, “This beautiful snake, which appears to be unprovided with tubular teeth or fangs, and consequently not of a venomous nature, is three, sometimes four, feet in nature.” 

The species name (Pseudechis porphyriachus) is derived from the Greek word ‘porphyrous’, which can mean ‘dark purple’, ‘red-purple’ or ‘beauteous’

While actually highly venomous, Red-bellied Black Snakes are quite shy animals, and will flee from humans whenever possible. This has certainly been my experience. Want a long and animated chat, though? Ask a group of people about snakes chasing humans — there wll be no end to the stories of scary pursuit by determined snakes!

Despite its reputation for being aggressive and highly dangerous, this elegant snake is inoffensive and reluctant to bite. Though it is rightly considered to be potentially dangerous, there are no proven human fatalities despite its occurrence along the populated eastern seaboard. — ‘What Snake is That?’ Gerry Swan and Steve Wilson

Yes, people do get bitten by them. Early settlers feared the species, though it turned out to be much less dangerous than many other snakes. The snake’s venom contains neurotoxins, myotoxins, and coagulants and also has haemolytic properties. Bites from Red-bellied Black Snakes can be extremely painful and result in prolonged bleeding, swelling and even local necrosis.

This species accounted for 16% of identified snakebite victims in Australia between 2005 and 2015. However, over that time no deaths were recorded.

Juvenile Red-bellied Black Snakes are similar to the Eastern Small-eyed Snake (Cryptophis nigrescens). The latter species (photographed here at Isla Gorge National Park) lacks the Red-bellied Black Snake’s red flanks.

Red-bellies are active by day (unlike other black snakes). They eat frogs, fish, reptiles (including other snakes) and small mammals. While numbers have declined in areas where cane toads are present, the species seems to have developed increased resistance to toad toxin and decreased preference for toads as snacks. They search widely for prey, sometimes hunting in water. When fleeing a predator, these snakes may stay submerged with just their head showing, or dive under completely for nearly 30 minutes.

Snakes’ eyes are closed all the time. Rather than having moveable eyelids, snakes have a single, fused, clear layer of skin over their eye, called a spectacle or brille (German for “glasses”), which protects the eye. A snake’s skin is covered in scales, and the outer part of the spectacle is indeed a scale. The deeper layers of the spectacle are formed, during development, from the same embryonic tissue that in other animals forms the eyelid. The spectacle is not attached to the snake’s eye in any way, so the eye can move freely behind it, although its movement is limited. —  Life is Short, but Snakes are Long.

It’s been said that this species eats the more dangerous Eastern Brown Snakes, and thus if Red-Bellied Black Snakes are present, brown snakes will not be. This is a myth, as while Red-bellies may eat the occasional brown snake, they usually prefer very different habitats. Black snakes are apparently immune to the venom of brown and other venomous snakes, as they have been observed receiving multiple bites from their venomous prey without apparent ill effect.

During the spring breeding season males actively search for females and may engage in ritualised combat. They wrestle vigorously, but rarely bite, engaging in head-pushing contests, where each snake tries to drive his opponent’s head downward with his chin. Mating activity occurs during spring and mid-summer, and five to nineteen live young are born between October and March.

While the Red-belly is not considered to be endangered, its preferred habitat has been reduced and fragmented by urban development. I knew they lived quietly in a small patch of creek-side vegetation where I lived in Brisbane for years, causing no offense, living on the equally beautiful Graceful Tree Frogs, until one day the area was flattened for housing, and neighbours began to complain of the plague of evil black snakes. They were of course forced to seek other habitat, one even turning up in my backyard, where it sought shelter near an old bath-tub we’d turned into a frog pond. I dearly wished I could flatten some of the new houses and return the place to swamp.

There has also been a decline in frogs, this reptile’s favourite prey, across eastern Australia. Red-bellies are in turn eaten by kookaburras, brown falcons and other raptors, as well as cats. They don’t cope well with roads and cars.

Red-bellied Black Snake, found sheltering after a wildfire in a bush reserve at Lota, Brisbane.

This beautiful serpent shares our love of sunshine and water and is a familiar sight to many outdoor adventurers in eastern Australia. Attitudes towards these largely inoffensive snakes are slowly changing, however they are still often seen as a dangerous menace and unjustly persecuted. — The Australian Museum

[All photos by Robert Ashdown. However, the first photo in this post taken on the camera of friend, and fellow walker, Raelene Neilson. I was walking without one of my own cameras (go figure). Thanks heaps, Raels, for the camera and for the many memorable shared walks in the bush.]

Riders on the storm

Happier of happy though I be, like them I cannot take possession of the sky, mount with a thoughtless impulse, and wheel there, one of a mighty multitude whose way and motion is a harmony and dance magnificent. — William Wordsworth

The light waits for no-one. I had the spot, balanced precariously with tripod and camera on a boulder on Mount Kiangarow, the highest point of Bunya Mountains National Park.

Storms moved across the Darling Downs below. The setting sun lit clouds, rain and the grass trees in front of me with dramatic hues of red and purple. I was glued to the viewfinder, locking the tripod, checking settings, aware that the scene was vanishing by the second. There was a half-decent photograph here if I could get my act together.

Distractions were not needed at this point. I was in the zone, one of those rare moments for a photographer when things were working. Suddenly, a loud rippling, tearing, whooshing sound hit me. I looked up, startled. Nothing, I’d missed it — peregrine falcon, some other kind of bird, a UFO? I had no idea.

Then it happened again and this time I caught the source — a squadron of White-throated Needletails. With long wings curved back and tiny black eyes glinting, the birds tore through the air in front of me at terrific speed. I cranked my head back as far as I could without falling off the boulder, tracking them as they banked steeply like fighter planes and shot skywards in one long sun-lit arc of rippling feathers, disappearing east over the mountain in seconds.

White-throated Needletails have been observed from aircraft at up to 2,000 metres above sea-level, with a speed in flight measured at 120kph. While they mate in Asia, aerial courtship, consisting of chases and vertical swooping dives is seen while they are in Australia. Photo courtesy Tom Tarrant.

White-throated Needletails have been observed from aircraft at up to 2,000 metres above sea-level, with a speed in flight measured at 120 kilometres per hour. While they mate in Asia, aerial courtship, consisting of chases and vertical swooping dives, is seen while they are in southern skies. Photo courtesy Tom Tarrant.

White-throated Needletails (once known as Spine-tailed Swifts) must surely be one of the most unusual and mysterious of the more than 200 species of birds that regularly migrate to and from Australia.  Australia’s largest member of the Swift family (Apodidae), with sleek bodies up to 21 centimetres in length and long, curved wings, these are birds superbly adapted to a life spent mostly in the air.

After breeding in the rocky hills of central Asia, southern Siberia and north-eastern China, White-throated Needletails head south as the cold sets in, over-wintering largely in India, south-east Asia and Australia. It is thought that the entire population of the caudacutus subspecies of this bird visits Australia during our summer. While their exact route south is still a bit of a mystery, we know that they head south through eastern China and Japan, down the Korean peninsula, mostly moving east of Borneo, through Papua New Guinea and on to Australia — arriving here about October. Once in Australia, they slowly disperse along the continent’s eastern edge, mostly on or east of the Great Dividing Range, eventually reaching Tasmania and even New Zealand, before heading back north the following May.

The view east over the Darling Downs from Mt Kiangarow, at 1135 metres above sea level the highest point on the Bunya Mountains. Photos R. Ashdown.

White-throated Needletails spend almost all of their migratory time in the air. Highly maneuverable masters of flight, they move from a few centimeters above to ground to over a kilometre in the air, reaching speeds of up to 120 kilometres per hour. They feed on the wing — diving repeatedly through swarms of insects, scooping them up with their wide beaks. As I’d just seen, the birds streak past in long, curving rushes, with bursts of quick wing-beats or fast raking glides. Their eyes are protected from insects and debris by a special clear membrane and fine protective hairs.

White-throated Needletails are aerial birds and for a time it was commonly believed that they did not land while in Australia. It has now been observed that birds will roost in trees, and radio-tracking has since confirmed that this is a regular activity. With difficult conditions, such as with bushfires and extreme hot or cold weather, they may take refuge on tree. There is one record of the species resting under a sprinkler on a lawn during a heatwave. Photo courtesy Mile Peisley.

White-throated Needletails are aerial birds and for a time it was commonly believed that they did not land while in Australia. It has now been observed that birds will roost in trees, and radio-tracking has since confirmed that this is a regular activity. With difficult conditions, such as during bushfires and extreme hot or cold weather, they may take refuge on trees. There is one record of the birds resting under a sprinkler on a lawn during a heatwave. Photo courtesy Mike Peisley.

Needletails usually forage in areas of rising air, such as ridgelines, cliffs, sand-dunes, whirlwinds and bushfires. As with my Bunya Mountains experience, they are spotted moving ahead of low pressure fronts and associated storms, which lift both the insects and the birds, and it is said that they follow these systems across Australia.

And what’s with the ‘needletails’? These unusual birds have needle-like spines that project up to 6mm beyond their normal tail feathers. These are thought to provide increased stability in flight and to assist with clinging to vertical surfaces on the rare times they touch down on cliffs or trees.

Like all migratory birds, Needletails face many challenges. They fly for thousands of kilometers over some of the most densely populated areas of the world, where the huge human population places enormous pressure on natural resources. It’s difficult to monitor numbers of such a bird — they’re usually not even seen unless you spend most of your time looking skyward or are messing about on top of hills. In Australia they are usually seen in flocks of around 100, but sometimes up to about 2000, birds. In Victoria in 1958 a flock of between 50,000 to 100,000 birds was seen.

While they are not thought to be globally threatened, there is some evidence that the population of the subspecies that visits Australia has declined by at least 30%, probably due to habitat loss in their northern breeding grounds.

The sun had gone and the needletails had vanished with the light. As I walked back down the track in the dark, lit by lightning and shaken by distant thunder, I thought of the Needletails. Where were those tiny bundles of frantic feathers now? They were somewhere out there in the night beyond my knowing, riding the storm-winds, hanging together in the dark — travelers on an epic eight-month cross-planet journey.

A lightning-lit storm heads across the Bunya Mountains, driving insects and migratory needletails high into the air ahead of it. Photo Robert Ashdown.

A lightning-lit storm heads across the Bunya Mountains, driving insects and migratory needletails high into the air ahead of it. Photo Robert Ashdown.

Dragonflies in the mail

A beautiful set of Australian postage stamps, featuring dragonflies and damselflies, was released in August 2017. One of my images, of a damselfly known as a Whitewater Rockmaster, was included on the first day cover and the stamp set packaging.

Whitewater Rockmaster (Diphlebia lestroides), Goomburra National Park. This striking insect is one of Australia’s largest damselflies. Photograph by Robert Ashdown.

First day cover, 1 August 2017.

From the Stamp Bulletin, Issue 347, July-August 2017:

This year’s theme for Stamp Collecting Month is dragonflies, one of the most striking groups of the insect world. Of the 6,000 or so known species worldwide, there are about 325 species in Australia.

The order, Odonata, is basically made of two suborders, Anisoptera (dragonflies) and Zygoptera (damselflies). To the untrained eye, they look very similar. The true dragonflies, however, are larger than damselflies, have broader hindwings than forewings (especially at the base), and they rest with their wings outstretched. They are also more powerful fliers. The smaller, lighter damselflies generally fold their evenly-sized wings close along their abdomens when at rest, for unlike dragonflies, they have a hinge on their wings.

Although titled Dragonflies, this stamp issue represents the two suborders. The Arrowhead Rockmaster is the sole damselfly featured. The issue also includes the Beautiful Petaltail, which is one of five giant dragonfly species endemic to Australia. The selection of species is based on visual and taxonomic diversity — each species belonging to a different genus, spanning four families. The stamp designs show male dragonflies, which are often more spectacular in colouration than females.

The Whitewater Rockmaster image was taken at Goomburra National Park. For more posts on this magic little patch of sub-tropical rainforest, see here and here. I’d better get back soon to let that rockmaster know that he’s famous.

Shrieks in the night

The Australian night is rarely quiet. Many and varied are the weird and wonderful sounds of nocturnal animals, whether deep within the remote bush or floating above the urban jungle. Some of them are iconic, well-known calls; others are cryptic and mysterious — not really heard clearly or belonging to some strange, unknown beast in the shadows.

The Milky Way, Carnarvon Gorge. Photo Robert Ashdown.

Twilight is a noisy time on a warm night in my home town of Toowoomba, as the roar of Bladder Cicadas (Cystosoma saundersii) drowns out traffic and conversation. Soon, there’s there’s the flap of leathery wings and the chattering, guttural shrieks of Black Flying Foxes (Pteropus alecto) as they argue over mulberries in the back yard. Walking the dog, the faint but far-carrying ‘ooom-ooom-ooom’ of a Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) drifts over the street. Finding these avian ventriloquists is always trickier than expected. Then, as midnight approaches and the air cools a little, the highly evocative ‘mopoke’ call of a Southern Boobook Owl (Ninox novaeseelandiae) seems to resonate through the air and time itself.

While working at the Queensland Museum, I got to read the draft text for the first edition of that institution’s guide to everything, the Wildlife of Greater Brisbane. I was amused and intrigued by curator Steve van Dyck’s description of the call of the most vocal of all marsupials — the Yellow-bellied Glider (Petaurus australis). I laughed when I first tried to read it out loud —‘Ooo-cree-cha-cree-cha-chigga-woo-ja!’ Try saying that ten times fast, or well once, really. It was like something from Star Wars. I’d never heard this in the bush at the time and hoped I would one day soon.

Carnarvon Gorge lies within the spectacular and rugged ranges of Queensland's central highlands. Lined with vegetation and fed by the waters of numerous side gorges, Carnarvon Creek winds between towering sandstone cliffs. The gorge is a cool and moist oasis within the dry environment of central Queensland.

Carnarvon Gorge lies within the spectacular and rugged ranges of Queensland’s central highlands. Lined with vegetation and fed by the waters of numerous side gorges, Carnarvon Creek winds between towering sandstone cliffs. The gorge is a cool and moist oasis within the dry environment of central Queensland. Photo Robert Ashdown.

Wandering in Carnarvon Gorge National Park at night years later, I finally got to catch this vocal weirdness. As a family group of Yellow-bellied Gliders awaken and move from their day-time den, the racket begins. These nocturnal bush hooligans can be heard for about 500 metres.

Checking out the night and heading off to forage for breakfast, these beautiful and charismatic mammals will each call up to 15 times per hour. While their vocal repertoire includes moans, gurgles, panting, clicking, chirruping and purring, they tend to use two calls in particular (a moan and a gurgle) when gliding. They can glide up to 100 metres between trees, as they move quickly about their territory, which can be between 30 and 60 hectares. Researchers believe that their calls have a territorial function, as they vocalise more often near the boundaries of their territory than in its centre.

Five of Australia’s six glider species are found at Carnarvon Gorge, including the enormous Greater Glider (Petaurus volans) and the tiny Feathertail Glider (Acrobates pygmaeus). Greater Gliders are huge, reaching almost a metre between nose to tip of tail. They are solitary and quiet as they munch on eucalypt leaves. With a varied diet of insects, pollen, nectar and sap, the yellow-bellies on the other hand are active, social and rowdy — sugar and carbohydrate-fuelled hyperactives.

Carnarvon Gorge lies within the spectacular and rugged ranges of Queensland's central highlands. Lined with vegetation and fed by the waters of numerous side gorges, Carnarvon Creek winds between towering sandstone cliffs. The gorge is a cool and moist oasis within the dry environment of central Queensland. Carnarvon Gorge is home to a diverse range of unique and significant plants and animals—including five species of gliding marsupial.

 Carnarvon Gorge is home to a diverse range of unique and significant plants and animals—including five species of gliding marsupial. Photo Robert Ashdown.

As evening falls at Carnarvon Gorge, the night air is alive with the sounds of the night shift. Yellow-bellied Gliders, sleeping in dens with family members, begin to awaken. Active and rowdy, their strange calls resonate up to half a kilometer through the woodland surrounding Carnarvon Creek.

As evening falls at Carnarvon Gorge, the night air is alive with the sounds of the night shift. Yellow-bellied Gliders, sleeping in dens with family members, begin to awaken. Active and rowdy, their strange calls resonate up to half a kilometre through the woodland surrounding Carnarvon Creek. Photo Robert Ashdown.

Photographing these animals is challenging, and I really have not tried that hard — I always enjoy just hearing them and sometimes spotting one. With the increase in the low-light quality of digital camera sensors, it’s easier to grab a decent shot of nocturnal mammals using a torch or flash these days, although using blinding flashes isn’t always a great idea with nocturnal mammals and they should probably be used sparingly. Ecologists and wildlife tour guides use a red filter over spotlights when tracking mammals, as this disturbs their vision far less.

Yellow-bellied Gliders are found down the east coast of mainland Australia from the Mount Windsor Tableland, west of Mossman in Far North Queensland, to the Victorian-South Australian border.  In south-eastern Queensland, the glider is widely dispersed, but with a highly localised distribution and with possible disjunct (widely separated) populations in the Mackay and the Carnarvon areas.

Yellow-bellied Gliders live in family groups comprising up to six individuals. With aerial glides of up to 100 metres, they cover great distances quickly; moving up to a kilometre from their regular den to feed.

Yellow-bellied Gliders live in family groups comprising up to six individuals. With aerial glides of up to 100 metres, they cover great distances quickly; moving up to a kilometre from their regular den to feed. Photo Robert Ashdown.

Yellow-bellied Gliders feed on insects, nectar and pollen. However, as these foods are seasonal and scarce, they rely on the year-round source of clear, sweet-tasting sap of eucalypts, which they obtain by making V-shaped incisions with their lower incisors into the trunk bark of a number of different species of tree.

Yellow-bellied Gliders feed on insects, nectar and pollen. However, as these foods are seasonal and scarce, they rely on the year-round source of clear, sweet-tasting sap of eucalypts, which they obtain by making V-shaped incisions with their lower incisors into the trunk bark of a number of different species of tree. Photos courtesy Bernice Sigley.

Australia’s largest gliding marsupial, the Greater Glider (Petaurus volans) is a silent and solitary mammal, feeding on gum leaves. These gliders can have a combined body and tail length of almost a metre, and weigh up to 1.5 kilograms. Photo courtesy Bernice Sigley.

Squirrel Gliders (Petaurus breviceps) are one of three smaller species of gliders found at Carnarvon. Sleeping in family groups in tree hollows, they emerge quietly at night to feed on gum sap, nectar and insects.

Squirrel Gliders (Petaurus breviceps) are one of three smaller species of gliders found at Carnarvon. Sleeping in family groups in tree hollows, they emerge quietly at night to feed on gum sap, nectar and insects. Photo courtesy Bernice Sigley.

As with so many of the species we enjoy seeing, Yellow-bellied Gliders (and other glider species) face a range of threats.

Loss, and fragmentation, of habitat is the main challenge for these mammals, as it is with other wildlife. Gliders are also endangered by barbed-wire fences and introduced predators such as cats and foxes. As they are found in disjunct populations, they are also susceptible to local extinctions due to habitat degradation and climate-change.

  • Click here for more information on the Yellow-bellied Glider.

With thanks to Bernice Sigley (naturalist, photographer and ex Ranger-in-Charge, Carnarvon Gorge), for the photos and the memories of some brilliant late-nights wandering the tracks at Carnarvon Gorge. 

A nature guide to Minjerribah

The island paradise of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) has been the ancestral home of the Quandamooka People for many thousands of years.

Minjerribah — Quandamooka country

Minjerribah — Quandamooka country

Lying just across Moreton Bay from Brisbane, Minjerribah is well-known for its magnificent beaches and spectacular Humpback Whales, which often swim close to shore.

However, there is much more to this ancient sand island’s unique wildlife and ecology, as a newly published field guide illustrates beautifully.

A Nature Guide to North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah) has been produced by the Friends of Stradbroke Island (FOSI), an environment group founded in 1988 to protect this unique place. A true labour of love, this new book explores in wonderful detail the beauty and complexity of Minjerribah’s natural environment.

The Friends of Stradbroke Island aims to protect and help restore the natural environment of Minjerribah and its surrounding waters. Preserving the full range of habitats of the island’s native species, including rare and  endangered plants and animals, is a major goal. FOSI recognises the custodianship of the island’s Quandamooka People and aims to work positively and cooperatively with Minjerribah’s Traditional Owners in pursuit of its environmental goals.

I’ve visited North Stradbroke Island many times, and have always returned to the mainland full of wonder for this stunning place, so close to one of Australia’s largest cities.

In 1979 I walked with two friends from Dunwich south through the middle of the island — passing by large areas torn asunder by sand-mining, hiding from mining vehicles on sandy tracks, walking through spectacular swamps and sleeping under huge scribbly gums. Great memories.

Me, lost somewhere in a swamp and loving every minute, North Stradbroke Island, 1979.

Me, lost somewhere in a swamp and loving every minute, North Stradbroke Island, 1979.

Looking south-east from North Stradbroke back to Lamb and Russell islands, and the distant Border Ranges, 1979.

Looking south-east from North Stradbroke back to Lamb and Russell islands, and the distant Border Ranges, 1979.

Walking companion Russell Kelley, 1979.

Walking companion Russell Kelley, 1979. 

I’m happy to have been able to assist the Friends of Stradbroke Island in a small way through contributing some of my photos for this field guide. I applaud this group’s important work, which you can find out about here

A few of my fave Minjerribah images (click on any pic for a closer look). 

 

The diverting history of an earless dragon

An article published in the Summer 2015 edition of Wildlife Australia features words by Rod Hobson and images by Rob Ashdown.

  • The article can be downloaded here (PDF, 1.2MB).
  • An earlier blog post on the taxonomy of Grassland Earless Dragons can be read here.

Verandah renovations — Fire-tailed Resin Bees (Part 2)

Four years ago I wrote about Fire-tailed Resin Bees (Megachile mystacaena) making sticky resin nest chambers in gaps between the weatherboards on our old verandah (see here).

Over the last two months I’ve been sanding and painting this part of the house. Simple job? No, typically for me this has been an epic struggle that, due to all sorts of problems, has expanded to fill endless weekends. Having sanded and painted over a red base coat that seemed solid, I discovered that as the new dark top coats of paint heated up in the afternoon summer sun, the old base coat (possibly enamel or lead-based paint dating back many decades) would apparently release a vapour that caused the newly dried top coat to blister.

Weekends of re-sanding and re-painting, on mild mornings and sun-blasted afternoons, followed. The entire time, the constant buzzing of native Fire-tailed Resin Bees, arriving and departing around me, formed a sonic backdrop to my endeavours. We became well acquainted, and my fascination with these tiny lodgers grew in parallel with my frustration over my painting abilities.

Verandah before

Dodgy photo of dodgy verandah renovations by dodgy renovator, plus small dog. All photos, except where otherwise credited, by Robert Ashdown.

A buzzing announces the arrival of another flight from the world beyond.

Out of my way human, I’m on a mission.

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Heading for an appealing gap in the timber.

Hover for a bit, then lurch forward into a space. Note the delicate hairs that cover these charming insects.

Touch-down!

Time to get to work on messing up my fresh paint. Good spot this, thanks.

There are about 2,000 species of native bees in Australia. They are extremely diverse in terms of size, shape and colour. Our bees are classified into five families, three of which are known as ‘short-tongued’ and two as ‘long-tongued’. The ‘tongue’ is actually a flexible hairy extension of the proboscis used for lapping up nectar and for applying secretions during nest-building.

Some other native bees I’ve encountered (above). Click on a thumbnail for a larger image.

Most of our native bees, including the Fire-tailed Resin Bees, are also lumped into a group known as the ‘solitary bees’. Solitary bees do not have queens, workers and drones, and so do not share a nest like European Honey Bees. However, I’ve discovered that they aren’t entirely ‘solitary’, as they do like to build nests for their young in the same great spots as others of their species. My verandah is apparently one of these prime bits of real estate.

Female bees mate and then seek tunnels or cracks in just about anything for their nests. The tunnel is lined with resin and is filled with some pollen, nectar and a single egg.

In solitary native bee species, the adult bees generally only fly during the warm months and die before the winter. Immature bees remain sealed in their cells inside the nests during the winter. They develop into adults and emerge when the warm weather returns.

On the verandah, bees (all females as I now knew) arrived constantly, carrying plant material in their mouths or with abdomens covered in pollen. Some air-traffic control was sorely needed. I witnessed mid-air crashes and bees wrestling with each other over the best spaces. I’d have them crash into me or over-fly and end up lost inside the house. They drove the dog nuts. Carrying heavy loads of plant material, some would skitter about on the new wall paint trying to get a grip before slipping and falling toward the floor, coming around for another go at speed.

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On several occasions I’d put a paintbrush down and place a finger carefully under a slipping bee so it could get a foothold. My wife suggested sanding the new paint near the nest hollows, and this seemed to help them land. Clearly, these bees were becoming a serious distraction.

Trying hard to get a grip on slippery new dried paint.

Plenty of hollows for everyone …

… unless two bees like the look of one space.  I reckon one bee here is clearing out, or cutting through, the work of another.

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Grrr… trouble, trouble. The girls are grumpy. Or maybe not … possibly sharing a space? Sounds ‘social’ to me.

Crash-landing, luckily (this time at least) onto unpainted part of the verandah floor.

Oblivious to my expensive wet paint, the bees would throw out black crumbly resin, which of course got stuck in the new paint. Ants would be attracted to it, and then they’d get stuck. There are no workshops on coping with this at Bunnings, Mitre 10 or Masters.

Busy, busy bee.

A day’s building waste litters my newly painted floor.

I’d have to apply new paint to the edges of the bees’ nest sites in the cooler mornings, before the bees got active. Otherwise they’d get paint all over themselves, which then stressed them (and me) out.

While painting the floor one morning, a bee, with its ‘weight-to-lift ratio’ ruined by paint on delicate wings and backside, crash-landed on its back and became stuck to the floor. Carrying the bee carefully in a small decorative Christmas bowl with some water, I sat on the back steps and washed paint off the bee with a tiny paint brush as the dog looked on jealously. She hates bees, which are irritating and need to be dominated, since they are in her domain and should be under her control (like us). Helpfully, my long-suffering wife remarked that “My Christmas bowl is not meant for washing paint off bee bottoms!” Possibly accurate.

Eventually, the bee dried off and took off skywards. Returning to the front verandah with paint brush, I spied another resin-laden bee just barely clearing the wet-paint floor. The dog immediately took umbrage, zooming past me and chasing the bee all over the verandah, before running back through the house with paint-covered feet! My shouts further convinced my already suspicious family that my fragile sanity was crumbling. This was becoming a debacle, a combination of my renovational incompetence and the demands of my insect tenants. There was only one solution — give up painting, pick up a camera and attempt some more bee photos.

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Luckily, resin sticks to Dulux Weathershield paint. Maybe I should let the company know that their products are native-bee certified.

I think this particular bee is dusted with pollen. Spectacular.

Watching these insects, I ended up with some OK photos and a lot of questions, some of which I’ve listed here, with tentative answers.

Are these all male or female bees? How long do they live? Some bees spend the night in their nest chambers — where do the others go after dark?

Male bees play no part in nest construction or brood care, they just spend their time looking for females to fertilise. They usually do this by patrolling the flowers or the nesting areas. Competition for females can be intense and males may fight each other to gain access to females. Territorial behaviour is quite common where males defend a patch of habitat, often containing forage flowers, and drive off rival males and any other flying insects.

Males of many species apparently gather at night in one place. I’d seen this once with another species of native bees — Nomia Bees.

Male Nomia Bees cluster together for the night. Toombul, Brisbane.

Middle of the night. All is quiet on the verandah, some bees asleep in their nest spots.

What exactly are they doing out of sight in the wall cavity?

It seems that the plan is something like this:

  1. Gather pollen and/or nectar from the garden.
  2. Bring back resin from a  source somewhere out there.
  3. Avoid the wet paint, dog and amateur renovator.
  4. Line the walls of the chamber with resin.
  5. Deposit some food material for their larvae in the chamber.
  6. Lay an egg in the chamber with the food.
  7. Seal off the chamber completely.

The Western Australian Museum reports that while both sexes of resin bees feed on nectar, females usually thicken it into honey before taking it back to their nests. They do this by regurgitating the nectar onto their mouthparts, exposing it to the air to evaporate excess water. They alternately regurgitate and re-swallow droplets of nectar until it reaches the required consistency.

Females of most kinds of bees carry their pollen loads on specialized sets of hairs (termed ‘scopae’) on either the hind legs or the underside of the abdomen. Such pollen loads immediately distinguish the insects as bees. Bees in the family Megachilidae carry pollen on the underside of their abdomen. Unlike honeybees, they do not have pollen baskets on their hind legs.

Out in the world away from the verandah, a fire-tail obtains nectar from a flower. This beautiful photo courtesy of Erica Siegel.

These bees have strong mouth-parts for chewing up plant material and fashioning stylish resin nests.

A bee approaches — abdomen conspicuously coated with bright yellow pollen.

Pollen and honey are usually combined in the nest to form the larval food, either as a solid, rounded mass or as a fluid or semi-fluid paste. Either way, the egg is deposited on top of the completed provision. Each brood cell is a cavity providing a protective environment for the development of a single individual; it is stocked with sufficient food to enable development from egg to adult and is sealed once it receives an egg.

I noticed that several bees sometimes seem to use the same chamber — is more than one egg laid in a chamber by different bees?

Where does the resin come from?

The resin they are using at my place is a deep red/purple colour. They are reported to use resin from eucalypt species, but there are not too many gum trees in our suburban block now. The nearest resin or sap I’ve seen is leaking out of local camphor laurel trees, and some pine trees, in a local park about 500 metres away — I wonder if they use resin from these exotic species?

The purple colour of the resin can be seen on this completed cell.

Some bee-keepers have reported resin bees hanging around stingless bee hives, trying to ‘borrow’ a little resin for their nests. They have been seen ‘balling up’ the resin with their front  legs, although the bees bringing resin back to our place seem to be carrying it in chunks. They appear to work it into place with their jaws, and I’ve also watched them rubbing their abdomens on the resin. Are they secreting something to help work it into shape? Some species have also been recorded chewing leaves to add to the mix.

A bee approaches the wall with a prize chunk of resin firmly gripped in the mouth.

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Working the resin into place.

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In the USA, researchers have investigated native resin bees, from the same genus as our fire-tailed species, incorporating pieces of plastic shopping bags into their nests in addition to the usual leaves, as well as sealing the nest cavity with plastic-based sealants, including caulk.

The study offers another example of how animals adapt to human-dominated environments. “There will always be those that have adaptive traits or enough flexibility in their behavior to persist in a disturbed landscape,” they report (see link below).

What happens to the larvae?

Once hatched, the eggs progress through larval stages and subsequently will overwinter as pupae. Young bees must bore their way out of their cells and find their way to freedom. Bees that nest in hollow stems and borer holes construct a series of cells, end to end along the galleries.

I’d sometimes discover tiny bee larvae on the verandah floor in the morning. One was still alive so I attempted to get it back in a nest chamber. I can only assume that some bees remove the larvae of other bees at night as they compete for the best nesting hollows.

They face some dangers. The Western Australian Museum reports that bees’ worst enemies are mould, mites and parasitic insects — certain wasps, flies and beetles.

I sometimes observed other flying insects hovering around near the bees and finally managed a (bad) photo of one on my phone. I think this is a parasitic wasp of the Chalcididae family. These attempt to break into the bees’ freshly completed brood cells to deposit their eggs. The wasp or parasitic bee larvae, upon hatching, destroy the host egg or young larva and take over the food store.

Look out bees! A predatory wasp looks to lay an egg on bee larvae. Danger! Danger!

Bad news for a bee. Parasitic wasp on the prowl.

Are native bees important pollinators, and how are they going in general?

Native bees are important and efficient pollinators of a wide range of plant species — including crops and native species. They are also in trouble. Wild and native bees the world over are declining in numbers or disappearing completely.

While it is true that native bees are not experiencing ‘colony collapse disorder’, they suffer from many of the same problems that the more ‘glamorous’ animals are experiencing. Chief among these are loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation. And when the habitat is lost, native food sources and nesting environments vanish as well.

Native bees are also subject to the pesticides. All types of pesticides have been found to harm bees, including fungicides, herbicides, acaricides, rodenticides, and of course the ubiquitous insecticides. Since native bees are closely tied to their food source, anything that destroys the food source—whether it’s a herbicide, a freeway, or a housing development—destroys the native insects that were dependent upon it.

A park here, a field there, and a garden down the road are not enough to maintain populations in the long term. Habitat fragmentation destroys the ability of populations to freely intermingle, and soon the genetic pool becomes small and lacks diversity. This is a major step on the road to local extinction. Add enough local extinctions together and a global extinction will follow.

— Native Bee Conservancy

Russell Zabel outlines the known reasons for declines in populations of Australian native stingless bees, and these reasons would surely apply to many species of Australian native bee:

Native Bees are found in the hollows of dead or damaged trees. There are a number of reasons for their reducing population:

a. Land owners generally do not leave trees to grow old and die, therefore hollow trees are scarce.
b. Dead trees are considered a danger to livestock breeders and are therefore removed.
c. There is a possibility that poisons used for rural applications are killing out these delicate little insects.
d. Land developers are using the technique called ‘Selective Clearing’ to improve the sale potential of their allotments. Consequently, we see the trees containing native bees dozed into a heap and just burnt.

At the same time it’s clear that, as with so many components of our biodiversity, we don’t even have the full picture about what’s out there. New species of insects, including bees, are being discovered all the time. For example, in September 2015, four new native bee species were found in the Pilbara region of northern Australia. Three of these new species have special narrow heads and unusually long mouth-parts that allow them to feed on the slender flowers found on emu bush, a hardy native of the Australian desert.

Talking about resin bees to a bunch of fellow naturalists at the November meeting of the Toowoomba Branch of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland.

By late January, there are nine separate nest chambers either finished or under way on our verandah. Some of the bees have tattered wings, a sure sign of a long, hot nesting season. Perhaps their short life spans are running down. I have huge admiration for these fearless builders.

It’s now mid February and the mornings and evenings are slowly getting cooler. The verandah is finished, and so are the bee’s resin nest chambers. There is no sign of any visiting bees — perhaps their short adult lives have come to an end. While we sit and enjoy the revamped verandah, the next generation of resin bees are slowly growing inside the walls. I hope we’ll see them around again next Summer.

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A verandah just isn’t complete without ornamental orange bees.

LINKS

Thanks to Erica Siegel and Russell Zabel.

Chasing dragonflies

Dragonflies are a lot of fun to watch, but tricky to photograph. Lots of patience is needed. Here are some images from an afternoon trip to Murphy Bridge, at Iredale in the Lockyer Valley.

I was messing about with an old Nikon MF zoom lens on my Olympus OMD EM1. The results aren’t perfect, but you get the idea. Such wonderful insects!

Stormy skies

Summer storms, dramatic skies. Photos by Mike Peisley and Rob Ashdown.

Storm heading east over Boonah, from Toowoomba escarpment. Photo R. Ashdown.

Moreton Bay storms brew, from Shorncliffe. Photo M. Peisley.

A storm sweeps north-east near Injune, central Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

Moreton Bay, from Shorncliffe. Photo M. Peisley.

Storm over Moreton Bay, from Shorncliffe. Photo M. Peisley.

Stormy sunset skies, Toowoomba. Photo R. Ashdown.

Queens Park, Toowoomba. Photo R. Ashdown.

Lightning strikes the ocean, Moreton Bay. Photo M. Peisley.

Storm north of Injune. Photo R. Ashdown.

Storm heading east over Boonah, from Toowoomba escarpment. Photo R. Ashdown.

Jacarandas and stormwater., Toowoomba. Photo R. Ashdown.

Storm over Moreton Bay, from Shorncliffe. Photo M. Peisley.

After the storm, Toowoomba. Photo R. Ashdown.

The edge of the storm, north of Injune. Photo R. Ashdown

Wet powerlines reflect the setting sun, Toowoomba. Photo R. Ashdown.

Full moon and the sun’s last rays, looking east from Toowoomba, January 2016. Photo R. Ashdown.

Platypus of Carnarvon Gorge

I’ve been visiting Carnarvon Gorge (part of Carnarvon National Park), on work trips as part of my role with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, for about 15 years. In all that time I’ve never just sat by Carnarvon Creek and taken a determined look for one of the park’s most iconic creatures — platypus.

I’ve seen them briefly while walking creek-side at Carnarvon, but it’s never been much more than a glimpse. My childhood memories of platypus are mixed. As a young lad, standing fairly close to David Fleay during one of his platypus shows at his West Burleigh reserve, I marvelled at the mysterious creature that moved into view in the concrete display tank. Unfortunately, the memory is scarred by the recollection of either my brother or I accidentally kicking an empty coke bottle across the floor, not long after Mr Fleay reminded all of the utmost need for quiet and even no finger pointing. The scornful glance of the legendary naturalist was memorable.

So, on another recent quick work trip to Carnarvon, I headed down to the creek about 4.30am to see if these things really existed. If lucky, I’d get to see one, and maybe I could capture a photograph or two of the mysterious beasties. I had no hope for anything too successful photo-wise, as I’d no intention of using a flash on such shy creatures and platypus are well known for not being photogenic in the wild (like any sensible animal).

First crossing at Carnarvon Creek. A calm place at 4.30am. Click on images for a closer look. All photos R. Ashdown unless otherwise credited.

I took up a spot above the bank and sat quietly in the grass, scanning the slowly brightening waters of this marvellous creek.

Carnarvon Creek is a magical place. The water always flows, part of a process that has endlessly and relentlessly carved through basalt and sandstone to create one of Australia’s most wondrous gorges.

Multi-hued and sun-dappled creekside vegetation, as well as towering sandstone cliffs and woodland perched high above the gorge floor, are reflected in the creek’s waters. The icing on the cake is the array of animals, of which surely the platypus is the most elusive and mysterious, that call this creek home.

A quiet stretch of water. The perfect place to seek a platypus.

After a short time just sitting, a movement caught my eye. A wake was spreading out behind a moving brown lump. It was a platypus, motoring across the surface of the creek. I held my breath and tried not to kick any coke bottles.

Over the next hour, and again the next morning with a colleague (Raelene Neilson, some of whose photos are included below), I followed the progress of two platypus as they worked their way around a large, still part of the creek, not far from the visitor area.

A platypus morning seems to be spent drifting and motoring about like a tiny barge, interspersed with frequent diving and searching in the sediment for yabbies and other food. A trail of bubbles tells of a platypus searching for food on the bottom of the creek.

A swirl of bubbles indicates a platypus is grubbing about in the sediment below seeking breakfast.

Platypus are found along the east coast of Australia as far north as Cairns, down to the bottom of Tasmania and as far west as Adelaide. They are one of two monotremes (egg-laying mammals) found in Australia, the other being the Short-beaked Echidna.

Platypus live for up to 12 years in the wild and approximately 20 years in captivity because there are no predators or seasonal changes. Their tunnels, in the bank of the creek, can be from 15 to 30 metres long, and there is usually more than one entrance just above the water line. The burrows are a tight fit so that water is squeezed off their fur when a platypus enters the tunnel. Platypus have a high amount of haemoglobin in their blood, which allows them to make better use of available oxygen, so they can survive high levels of CO2 in their tunnels.

Platypus are venomous. The males have a poisonous spur on each hind ankle, which is capable of causing severe pain in humans. The female’s spurs fall off at the juvenile stage. Platypus at Carnarvon Gorge apparently only grow to around 30 cm long, possibly due to the small size of the creek, and the number of platypus living in it.

A platypus diet consists of shrimps, larvae and some insects. They find food by rummaging through the creek bed with their bill. Platypus usually feed for 10 to l7 hours a day, depending on how much food is about.

During winter and early spring females start consuming larger quantities of food and use the tail as a fat storage area to be used in the breeding season, as the female fasts for about a week after the eggs are laid.

Platypus usually mate from July to September. After conception there is a gestation period of four weeks and then three eggs are laid. The eggs are oval, light brown in colour and smaller than a twenty-cent piece. They are soft and laid in a sticky substance which allows the eggs to stick to the mother's underside for incubation. The mother stays in the burrow, which is lined with leaves and grass, for approximately seven days and after this period only goes out to defecate. During the whole process the female has the tunnel blocked off, keeping predators out and humidity high. Each time the platypus exits the nesting burrow she takes down the wall and rebuilds it. The young are incubated for 10 days and once the eggs hatch they are drawn to a milk secretion area between the mothers front and hind leg enabling the young to ingest milk. The young are fed for three to four months at which time they begin to emerge from the burrow. Photograph by Raelene Neilson.

Platypus usually mate from July to September. After conception there is a gestation period of four weeks and then three eggs are laid. The eggs are oval, light brown in colour and smaller than a twenty-cent piece. They are soft and laid in a sticky substance which allows the eggs to stick to the mother’s underside for incubation. The mother stays in the burrow, which is lined with leaves and grass, for approximately seven days and after this period only goes out to defecate. During the whole process the female has the tunnel blocked off, keeping predators out and humidity high. Each time the platypus exits the nesting burrow she takes down the wall and rebuilds it. Photo by Raelene Neilson.

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The young are incubated for 10 days and once the eggs hatch they are drawn to a milk secretion area between the mothers front and hind leg enabling the young to ingest milk. The young are fed for three to four months at which time they begin to emerge from the burrow. Photograph by Raelene Neilson.

 Messing about in the water ... or something. Photo by Raelene Neilson.

Messing about in the water … or something. Photo by Raelene Neilson.

Checking out the humans — total weirdos. Photo by Raelene Neilson.

Checking out the humans — total weirdos. Photo by Raelene Neilson.

Platypus tend to share areas and tunnels. The adult males are fairly territorial and only meet to fight over females during mating season, but females and juveniles will feed through a range of territories and generally rest in the burrow that’s closest. Colonies of platypuses keep at a fairly set level, and if conditions are not able to support the juveniles, they are forced to move on.

Carnarvon Creek reflections (click on image for closer look)

It’s a serene body of water — usually. However, as the rangers working here know, this quietly flowing creek has a wild side. Every now and then, floodwaters rage down the gorge system in an immense, turbulent  show of power, tearing out creek-side trees and rolling huge boulders.

A flooded Carnarvon Creek, January 1976. Photo by Bill Morley, QPWS.

A worn and battered creek boulder bears evidence of the power of a 2012 flood.

Ranger Erin Witten is dwarfed by piled up debris from another flood, 2007. Photo QPWS.

How do platypus survive such times?

Surely some of them are killed. Perhaps they are able to wait things out in their burrows, but it’s hard to imagine how they’d do this when the floodwaters can last for days. Or perhaps they sense the approaching floodwaters and quietly head away from the creek, returning when water levels  subside.

We have very few photographs of Carnarvon platypus on our QPWS files. One of them bears the caption “After the floods, the platypus come out”. I’d assume that this platypus has been photographed in the calmer creek waters not long after a flood.

Tom Grant, in The Platypus, a Unique Mammal recounts  that in the first five years of a 20-year study of platypus in the upper Shoalhaven River in New South Wales, seven floods occurred, all of which changed the river from its normal series of deep pools with connecting rapids into a raging mass of brown water with no distinction between pool and rapid. Their study found that while some platypus are killed, most were not even displaced from their home ranges by the floods.

As platypus have occupied the rivers of Australia for at least 50,000 years, they have presumably evolved strategies to cope with flooding, However, it is still unknown how they ride out floods. Early naturalists suggested that they occupy rabbit burrows and hollow logs away from the river, returning later. Some recent radio-tracking work has shown that platypus of the Goulburn River avoid high flows associated with the release of water from the Eildon Weir for irrigation used a backwater area to avoid the faster-flowing water. They even found that the animals would still enter the river to feed, paddling against the current. However, it would be hard to imagine them being able to feed easily during the raging Carnarvon Creek floods, at least during the wilder periods of flooding.

The Australian Platypus Conservancy reports how damage to creek banks and burrows happens with floods:

In theory, depending on their magnitude and duration, floods could have either a positive or negative impact on platypus populations. The effect of minor flooding is likely to be relatively benign and could even improve the quality of platypus habitat, for example by flushing accumulated silt from pools.

By comparison, severe flooding is much more likely to affect platypus populations adversely. The animals may drown, contract pneumonia after inhaling water, or be swept downstream and have to find their way back through unfamiliar terrain. Their burrows may also be inundated for a substantial period of time and food supplies badly depleted due to invertebrates being washed away.

Flooding can also degrade the quality of platypus habitat if it causes banks to erode, pools to become filled with sediment, or in-stream woody habitat (logs and branches) to be deposited on land as flood waters recede.

A study conducted by the Australian Platypus Conservancy in mid-2008 examined how platypus populations in four Gippsland rivers were faring approximately 9–11 months after substantial floods occurred. In each case, flooding peaked at an estimated flow rate of more than 10,000 megalitres/day. In brief, the severity of flood-related habitat damage was inversely related to platypus population density and reproductive success: the river suffering the greatest damage had the lowest numbers of platypus and the smallest proportion of juveniles (none), whereas the least damaged area had the highest density of platypus and the largest proportion of juveniles. It was concluded that flood-related impacts can have a measurable adverse effect on platypus populations, particularly when (as was true in this study) the vegetation on adjoining slopes has recently been damaged by wildfire.

The fact that juvenile platypus are weaker and less accomplished swimmers than older animals suggests that they may be more likely to be killed by floods, particularly if these occur around the time that juveniles first emerge from the nesting burrow in summer. This is supported by the results of live-trapping surveys carried out in the Melbourne area after more than 120 millimetres of rain fell on the city in less than 24 hours in early February 2005 (the highest one-day total since weather records were first kept in 1855). The mean juvenile capture rate from February to June 2005 was less than 10% of the corresponding mean capture rate from 2001-2004. In contrast, the capture rate for adults and subadults occupying the same five water bodies from February to June 2005 was actually slightly higher than the corresponding mean capture rate from 2001–2004.

In his book Paradoxical Platypus — Hobnobbing with Duckbills, David Fleay describes the effects of floods on young platypus in south-eastern Queensland:

As a spin-off from my appointment as weekly Nature Columnist (1952-80) to the Brisbane Courier Mail, I was in touch with most platypus happenings in south-eastern Queensland. This proved not only invaluable but very instructive.

So in way or another, numerous duckbills passed through our hands, particularly those babes rescued from peril at the generally early south-eastern Queensland nest-leaving period (late December to early February).

At least four such inexperienced juveniles were actually flotsam in the mile–distant Pacific Ocean at the tail-end of cyclones. Naturally, sudden savage flooding takes victims by surprise and bears the unwary, willy-nilly into the sea.

Times of flood must bring turmoil to the quiet morning ritual that I was fortunate to observe at Carnarvon Creek.

While there is some evidence that platypus may be adapted to survive a natural event like a flood, the effects of humans on our waterways is far more detrimental to these mammals. Having survived hunting for pelts in the 19th century, platypus now face a far greater human threat — our impact on waterways due to agriculture, forestry, dam construction, mining and industrial activities. Illegal and inappropriate fishing practices, particularly the use of nets in creeks, also kill platypus. The health of platypus populations is inextricably linked to the health of our waterways, and our activities around these river systems. How we treat our creeks and rivers will determine how well platypus survive into the future.


I greatly enjoyed my brief time watching these unusual mammals. They were full of energy and life as they worked the creek in search of food, sometimes stopping to drift and seemingly take in what was going on around them.

The sense of privilege and wonder I felt while sitting next to that serene creek lingered. Back at my work desk, I paused from the cubicle chaos to think of the morning calm of Carnarvon Creek and its marvellous residents. I really hope they’ll be messing about there forever.

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Carnarvon Creek. An ever-flowing wonder in the heart of arid central Queensland. A joy for human visitors, a home for one of Australia’s most mysterious creatures.

Platypus below. Carnarvon Creek twists its way beneath the towering sandstone cliffs of Carnarvon Gorge for many kilometres. An ancient landscape full of surprises. Photo QPWS.

 

Links:

Arrowhead Rockmaster

A scorching summer day at Girraween National Park, and the dragonflies are everywhere. Some are sitting in the shade for a while, making photography of them a little easier.

Here’s a few photos of one of my favourites (actually a damselfly), the Arrowhead Rockmaster (Diphlebia nymphoides).

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Same place, different species. Rangers Karl, Jo and Neal on their lunch break explore a granite sink-hole, get in some band practice and attempt to stay cool for a few minutes by the creek.

In search of live Powerfuls

Along the moonpaths and under the stars, in fact, there is a world of intense and abiding interest known to few but open to all. — David Fleay

Not far from Toowoomba is a valley where  Powerful Owls have been hanging out for years. I recently went on a search for them with naturalists Rod Hobson and Bruce Thomson.

Unfortunately, dead Powerful Owls seem to be more common than live ones around here. While it’s always depressing to see how many animals are killed on our roads, you do get to find out what lives where (assuming there are some other living specimens in the area), and you sometimes get a close look at some animals that are difficult to see up close in the wild.

 An electrocuted Powerful Owl hangs from wires, Prince Henry Drive, Toowoomba.

An electrocuted Powerful Owl hangs from wires, Prince Henry Drive, Toowoomba.

 Rod Hobson with a road-killed juvenile Powerful owl, Toowoomba.

Rod Hobson with a road-killed Powerful owl, Toowoomba.

An adult Powerful Owl can be up to 650 mm in length. These shy birds live in pairs and keep to large, permanent territories of up to 1000 hectares. They roost by day in tall forest trees.

Powerful talons on a powerful bird. These birds prey on birds and mammals, including Greater Gliders, possums and flying foxes. They also eat rats, birds and young rabbits. Powerful Owls need to eat the equivalent of a large possum every two to three days to survive.

Our walk up the valley was enjoyable, and we saw and heard many birds (and other wildlife), while peering about for the elusive giant owls.

A curious juvenile Eastern Water Dragon observes our slow progress.

Eastern Yellow Robin.

A native bee seeks minerals or moisture from a clay creek bank.

Ah, now we were getting somewhere. What was that lurking in the shadows ahead? It’s one of the elusive owls, watching us closely.

Photo courtesy Bruce Thomson.

Later on, we spot another owl, hiding deep in the shadows.

Rod and Bruce owl-spotting.

Again, Bruce captures a terrific image (I won’t show any of my dodgy efforts).

Each pair of Powerful Owls has a number of roosting trees, and they roost in different trees on different days, not always together, but within calling distance from each other. Their call is a loud, mournful, far-carrying “wooo-hooo”. Photo courtesy Bruce Thomson.

While watching these birds, and recently when listening to one calling at night in the Lockyer Valley, I thought of David Fleay and his wonderful 1968 book Nightwatchman of Bush and Plain, in which he tells of many nights spent in Victorian forests pursuing these owls.

Says G. M. Ward in his 1969 review of the book in The Victorian Naturalist:

Here, deep in the Korweingeboora forest, began the prelude to forty-two years of patient and painstaking study of the Powerful Owl.

The reader tramps with the author over miles of rugged country; and spends both pleasant nights and nights of being cold, wet, muddy and miserable. But always there is an expectancy that the roosting site of the Powerful Owl is near.

Right through … the reader is constantly aware of David Fleay’s unflagging patience and determination to eventually breed captively, this wonderful and lordly bird.

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