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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Madagascar: 'the eighth continent'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ankarana NP, just south of Amber Mountain.

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

Rainforest, Ramanofana NP, above and below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, 10 August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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