About Me

My Photo

I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. I am now 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. 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. As part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past few years.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Orchids by the Ice; Patagonia

It probably seems surprising to my Northern Hemisphere readers, but outside of Antarctica only the southern tip of South America lies below 50 degrees south; Australia and Africa come nowhere near it. 50 degrees north however is well inside northern Europe, Asia and North America, but my Australian readers will probably share my wonderment at the concept of a healthy forested ecosystem - and orchids - 1000km south of Hobart.

This is Patagonia, and today I want to offer another snippet on South American orchids, a very different one from previous postings on orchids of tropical Peru and Ecuador. Orchids are so widespread and successful that it shouldn't be surprising to find them absolutely anywhere, but when I first came across them in these distant cold wind-blasted lands I was amazed as well as delighted. 
Two Chilean Patagonian habitats where orchids may be found.
Above, open pampa - high dry grassland - east of Coyaique.
Below, Nothofagus (beech) forest, Torres del Paine NP.

The first one I found was the lovely and robust yellow Gavilea lutea - not surprising as it is not only big and conspicuous, but as I now know it tends to favour disturbed sites, including clearings in the beech forest, roadsides and disturbed grassy areas which are often found around lodges in parks such as Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile.
Gavilea lutea, Torres del Paine NP.
The thick stem can be 60cm high and bear over 20 flowers.
The Spanish name for it translates simply as Yellow Orchid; I don't know of an English one.
 There are 14 Gavilea species, all in the south. A much less common one, in my experience at least, though no less lovely, is G. araucana, Araucana Orchid. I found this one on a very wet bank (on a very wet day!) along a section of the Sendero de Chile (the Chile Track) just south of Torres del Paine.
Gavilea araucana.
The species name comes from the Spanish name for the indigenous Mapuche people.
This one is found as far north as 35 degrees south.
A larger genus is Chloraea, with some 50 species, mostly from the southern Andes. As expected, they are tough, able to withstand not only the deep snows of winter, but drought and even fires, by means of underground tubers - this of course is a characteristic of many terrestrial orchids.
Chloraea magellanica, Porcelain Orchid, is a most striking orchid, up to 40cm high and robust like Gavilea
(well you have to be tough to survive in Patagonia!) and also found in relatively open sites.
Chloraea for the greenish flowers, magellanica for the far southern distribution, as far south as the
Strait of Magellan.
The last one I know from down there is a delicate little delight which can form carpets in the beech forests. One of the best places I know for it - though it's widespread - is the walk to Lago Grey in Torres del Paine, where the icebergs come to die on the black sand beach. The orchids grow in sight of the ice.
Iceberg approaching the beach, Lago Grey.
(The glacier in the background, where the berg was born, is 18km away -
it is big!)
Codonorchis lessonii, Lago Grey.
Dog Orchid in English (purportedly for the scent!) and in Spanish,
somewhat more poetically, Palomita - 'little dove'.
(Though there are other meanings, ranging from popcorn to a dive in football!)
There are only two members of the genus - this one is found also across the Strait of Magellan
on Tierra del Fuego, and even on the Falklands.

So, not the overwhelming diversity of orchids that are found far to the north, but I find these little survivors fascinating and very beautiful. You'll probably not go to Patagonia specifically for the orchids - but when you do go, don't miss them!


Saturday, 19 April 2014

More Classical Animal Names

This is the last - for which you may be grateful! - in this little series on plant and animal names derived from classical mythology. Having talked at some length on birds last time, we'll conclude with a bit of a round-up of 'other animals' - though I confess that another bird has also slipped in here, which I trust you can forgive.

Let's start with a family who pretty much embody all that the Greek theistic panoply stood for - murder, outrageous punishment and revenge, and lots of sex, preferably incestuous. Uranus was god of the skies, married to Gaia, goddess of earth. (These are very much the abridged versions of the stories, of which in any case there are often differing and even conflicting versions.) They had six sons and, conveniently, six daughters, who pretty much inevitably formed six couples producing children. The youngest was Cronus, married to sister Rhea. For reasons typically obscure the French zoologist Mathurin Brisson applied Rhea as a genus name to the South American ratites (an ancient group of giant flightless Gondwanan birds) in 1760. (Though other sources credit German biologist Paul Mohring, a little earlier - I don't understand this.)
Darwin's Rhea Rhea (sometimes called Pterocnemia) pennata, with chicks, Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.
These twelve siblings were the Titans, generally described as 'godlike giants'; the word has of course become a synonym for anything large.

Acrophylla titan, Nowra, New South Wales.
This magnificent stick insect can be 30 cm long.
Another son - and another giant - was Anax, a word which in Ancient Greek also more generally meant a king.

Green Emperor Anax gibbosulus, Litchfield NP, Northern Territory.
Even emperors can come to grief it seems, this time in the form of a spider web.
Gaia really needed a break from all this fertility, especially with the production of giants being involved, and enlisted Cronus and his sickle to help. Where the drops of blood from Uranus' castration fell to earth, the Erinyes (equivalent to the Roman Furies) emerged. These beauties have been described as having coal-black bodies, dogs' head with the interesting embellishment of snakes wound round them, bats' wings and eyes that dripped blood. At least two of them live on in the names of two very different, but equally blameless, animals.

Tisiphone fell in love with the mortal Cithaeron - lucky him! When he politely demurred, she killed him with the assistance of one of her convenient head snakes. What this has to do with a butterfly is anyone's guess.
Swordgrass Brown Tisiphone abeona, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
One of her sisters was Alecto ("the implacable of unceasing anger" - a bit like some teenagers actually). Now while fruit bats can be pretty squabbly, this description seems a bit over the top, but I think the blackness implication is the relevant one. 
Black Fruit Bats Pteropus alecto, Charters Towers, Queensland.
Yet another product of Cronus' dreadful deed was, according to some stories at least and improbable as it sounds, Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, inter alia. Aphrodite (her Roman equivalent was Venus) went by numerous aliases, partly due to different groups of worshippers, and partly to her many roles. Adonis Morpho, 'fair shaped', was used in Sparta.
Morpho butterfly, Morpho sp., Sacha Lodge, Ecuador.
When opened the wings are a gloriously brilliant blue, but I was always too slow to snap them!
Aphrodite Urania was 'heavenly Aphrodite' (in apposition to the more earthy love of Aphrodite Pandemos). The Urania moths are limited to the tropical Americas; I refer here to the genus Urania, though the common term is also used for all members of the family Uranidae, which is much more widspread.

Green-banded Urania Moth Urania leilus, Yasuni NP, Ecuador.
Many butterflies and moths sip moisture from river bank silts with their proboscis.
And there I think it's time to leave that particular family of gods well and truly alone. An apparently more benign entity was Hamadryas, mother of the hamadryads, eight spirits associated with particular trees.
Cracker Butterfly Hamadryas sp., Cerro Blanco Reserve, Guayaquil, Ecuador.
These butterflies typically use their camouflage to hide on tree trunks. Their common name is based on their
habit of 'cracking' their wings, apparently by clapping the tips together, though the purpose is still debated.
The Hamadryas Baboon, Papio hamadryas, of north-eastern Africa and Arabia, is also named for her.
King Aegeus was key to the founding of Athens, according to the legends; the Aegean Sea, in which he drowned himself through a classic misunderstanding, was also named for him. So is this rather nice local butterfly.
Female Orchard Swallowtail Butterfly Papilio aegeus, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
Diana the Huntress has many names also; apparently Diaea is one variant, applied to a genus of spiders by Swedish aracnologist Tord Tamelan Teodor Thorell, working in Italy. He described over a thousand spider species in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Flower Spider Diaea sp., National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
I'm going to end though with a name from legends much closer to home. When Mike Archer, then curator of mammals at the Queensland Museum, named a new genus of tiny marsupial carnivores as recently as 1975, he turned to indigenous stories of minute nocturnal hunters with short feet - all very descriptive of the animals he called Ningaui.
Wongai Ningaui Ningaui ridei with delicious winged termite.
Photo courtesy of David Nelson.
Before closing I must tender apologies to Jeannie Gray, co-author of our Australian Bird Names; a complete guide, on whose work much of the material for my last posting on Australian bird names was based, for failing to give her appropriate acknowledgement. More such stories can be found in its pages!

This time however I must take full responsibility for anything you wish to dispute. I'm not sure what we'll be discussing next, but it won't be names, and murderous or licentious Greek deities will not rate a mention!


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Classic Birds

Last posting was about some plant names derived from classical mythology; I promised that this time I'd do the same with some animal names. Well, yes and no... In practice I discovered that there were far too many good classically-based stories to be found in the world of animal names, so this mini-series has evolved into a three-parter - birds today, other animals next time. 

The kingfisher families are especially rich in such allusion, because the Greeks were quite excited about kingfishers - even though they only knew one species initially (at least until they got into Africa). Ceyx was the son of Hesperos, the Morning Star, married to Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, the wind guardian. Blissfully happy, they made the mistake of comparing themselves to Zeus and Hera - big mistake actually, as Z and H turned out to be not at all happy, and punished their presumption by drowning them both with a storm. The other gods felt that this was a bit over the top and turned them into halcyons, birds generally agreed to be kingfishers. (I can't help but think they might have preferred to have been themselves again, but what would I know?) Not being very experienced in such things, Alcyone opted to nest on the beach near the waterline - her dad arranged for windless days to allow her to get away with it. These were of course the original Halcyon Days. So, let's meet some of their etymological descendants, starting with the obvious.
Azure Kingfisher Ceyx azureus, Barmah Forest, Murray River, Victoria.
Blue-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon malimbica, Budonga Forest, Uganda.

Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
Ceryle was an alternative name for the Halcyon.
Other kingfisher genus names, including the American ones, build on this name.
Ringed Kingfisher Megaceryle torquata, Isla de Chiloe, Chile.
A handsome big kingfisher, found from southern USA to the Strait of Magellan;
there is no evidence that it has ever heard of ancient Greece or Alcyone though.

Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo cristata, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
Alcedo seems to have been the Latin equivalent of Alcyone.
 Many other bird groups bear similar burdens, though apparently blithely.

The tropicbirds comprise three species of glorious white seabirds, with no close relatives, found throughout tropical waters. For no evident reason (Linnaeus rarely deigned to explain his names, though he probably didn't have time to do so) their genus is Phaethon, 'shiner', named for the son of Helios the Sun God, who gave in to nagging and lent the boy the family vehicle for the day. Oops, he lost control, set the world alight and died in the crash. Not the birds' fault!

Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda, Lord Howe Island.
Some other birds are also named for Phaethon, though whether directly or via the 'shining' implication is unclear.
Crimson Finch Neochmia phaeton, Darwin.
White-whiskered Hermit Phaethornis yaruqui, Alanbi, Ecuador.
Phaethornis is 'shining bird' - or 'cocky teenager bird', as my friend and co-author Jeannie Gray would have it.
 Back at sea, there are several other classically-named birds. The great Wandering and Royal Albatrosses are Diomedea, for Odysseus's companion in his Boys' Own adventures, Diomedes. Other albatrosses have been monickered similarly. Phoebastria was a Greek prophetess (though not necessarily a specific one).
Waved Albatross pair Phoebastria irrorata, Espanola, Galapagos.
Pandion was a king (or perhaps two kings) of Athens; he (or they collectively) had three children, all of whom were turned into birds - there was a lot of it about. He didn't share their fate then, but now has been, in name at least.
Eastern Ospreys Pandion cristatus at nest, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.
Terns are regular classicists too, though the exact identity of the mythical Greek nocturnal bird Gygis remains a mystery, as does the thinking of the genus' German author Johann Wagler (actually he was primarily a herpetologist, which might help explain it). Certainly the exquisitely delicate White Tern doesn't eat other birds at night, as its namesake was alleged to do.
White Terns Gygis alba, Lord Howe Island.
Procne was the very ill-fated daughter of Pandion - see above - and you really don't want to know what happened to her! However in the end she was turned to a swallow, which helps explain the use of her name in a couple of tern genera.
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia, Moulting Lagoon, Tasmania.
Hydroprogne is of course 'water swallow'.
The Nereides, daughters of Nereus, were Mediterranean sea-nymphs, and surprisingly nothing especially bad seems to have happened to them - being transformed into a delightful Fairy Tern certainly isn't bad!

Fairy Tern juvenile Sternula nereis (right; the big blokes are actually relatively diminutive
Silver Gulls Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae), Goolwa, South Australia.
Back to Pandion again - his son was Nisus, turned (of course) into a bird, apparently a sea-eagle; later his name was associated with the European Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus. And here's a really weird story; the Australasian hawk owl or boobook genus is Ninox, a blend of Nisus and Noctua, an owl! Who knows??
Southern Boobook Ninox novaeseelandiae, Nowra, New South Wales.
A more familiar type of mystery is the 'what does this bird have to do with her?' type. Amytornis, the grasswrens, are 'Amytis birds', Amytis being either the daughter of Medean king Astyages, or the later daughter of Persian King Xerxes, renowned as 'the most beautiful and licentious woman of Asia' according to one source. The French ornithologist Rene Lesson saw no reason to explain his thinking in naming the not-very-evidently licentious birds for her.
Dusky Grasswren Amytornis purnelli, Desert Park, Alice Springs.
To end, something of an anticlimax - a god, Myiagra, whose sole role was apparently chasing flies away from sacrifices to more significant Roman deities. How humiliating must that have been?! Needless to say, the Australian flycatchers named for him do chase flies, but not 'away' if they can help it.
Leaden Flycatcher Myiagra rubecula, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
My thanks again to Jeannie Gray, co-author of our Australian Bird Names; a complete guide, on whose work much of the above material on Australian bird names in based.

Back next time with more weird and wonderful stories from times fortunately long gone, as they have insinuated themselves into the names of other animals - especially insects, with some spiders and mammals thrown in.


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Some Classic Names; plants

In the heyday of taxonomy - from the late 18th to well into the 19th centuries, when there were scarcely enough working taxonomists to cope with the flood tide of plant and animal specimens pouring in to Europe from all over the world - classical allusions were rife. Perhaps the fact that the descriptions had to be in Latin (as indeed they still did for plants until very recently) helped inspired this, but most such authors would have had a classical education anyway. 

There were of course many gods to choose from, and an obvious one was Venus, the very popular Roman goddess whose portfolios included love, sex, fertility and beauty. Oddly, I can't readily find any plant named directly for her - though there is a northern hemisphere moth genus named Venusia - but I'd be surprised if it didn't exist somewhere. However, like any respectable Roman god (or is that an oxymoron?) she had aliases. One of these was Acmena (though I have also read that Acmena was a sort of house-nymph to Venus).
Acmena smithii Family Myrtaceae, 'Lilly Pilly', Nowra, New South Wales.
An attractive rainforest tree, with edible fruits (I make jam from them).
(Some taxonomists would now incorporate Acmena into Syzygium.)
Another manifestation of Venus was as Verticordia, 'the heart turner'; a magnificent genus of Western Australian Myrtaceous shrubs has been accorded this name - and quite rightly too, in my opinion!
Verticordia grandis, Gathercole Nature Reserve in the Wheatbelt east of Perth.
Diana, Roman Goddess of hunting, the moon and forests was another available option, including in the diminutive form, Dianella.
Dianella caerulea, Family Phormiaceae, Canberra.
Diana's Greek counterpart Artemis appears in the familiar daisy genus Artemisia, which included wormwood and tarragon.

Not all the divinities were so marketable however - though that didn't stop classically-educated taxonomists from having a go. In a farming society like the Roman it was quite reasonable to have a god of organic fertiliser - which sounds better than a god of manure... His name was Sterculius (or Sterquilinus) and a genus of tree was deemed appropriate to the implications of his trade.
Sterculia foetida, Family Sterculiaceae (which some would include in Malvaceae), planted in Port Douglas, Queensland.
(Some references extend its wide natural range, from east Africa through southern Asia, into northern Australia,
but this doesn't seem to be the case.)
This tree has seriously - well, foetid-smellling - flowers or the leaf stems.
Nymphs were a whole series of minor goddesses who seemed to enjoy themselves more than their seniors mostly did (other than when the grown-up gods were tormenting humans of course). Many nymphs were associated with water.
Nymphaea violacea Family Nymphaeceae, Fogg Dam near Darwin.
Then there were plenty of non-god classical denizens to call upon too. Pandora (from Greek 'all gifts') was the first mortal woman, showered with gifts by the gods as they created her. Being gods though, there was nothing nice about all this - in fact, bizarrely, it was an act of punishment on humankind for Prometheus' theft of fire. (And yes, this implies that humanity hitherto comprised only males - don't ask me, I'm just passing it on!) Being human she was curious about the contents of a jar (not a box as we'd now say in the familiar phrase) and peeped in, releasing all the ills of humankind. And what could have inspired someone to name a plant for her, you may well ask?
Pandorea doratoxylon, Spearwood, Family Bignoniaceae, Kata Tjuta, Northern Territory.
It is claimed that the time of collection of the type specimen on Norfolk Island
corresponded with a plague of unspecified insects...
One of the silliest names is Corybas, and one steeped in scientific villainy. Corybas was founder of the cheerfully orgiastic dancing priests of Phrygia; what he could possibly have had in common with the demure little helmet orchid genus of Australia is beyond imagination (mine anyway). The application of the name was apparently a piece of blatant robbery too. The great Robert Brown had already proposed the appropriate name Corysanthes, meaning ‘helmet flower’, but it was waiting in a long queue while he worked through publishing the huge Australian collections. Meantime Robert Salisbury saw an illustration from Ferdinand Bauer, published an inaccurate description from memory and gazumped Brown!
Corybas hispida, Canberra.
There has been a move recently to break up Corybas and return some species (including this one)
to Brown's genus Corysanthes, but as usual that has been staunchly resisted
by the Australian botanical establishment.
Caius Mucius Scaevola was a hero of ancient Rome. When the city of Rome was besieged by Lars Porsena and the Etruscans, and after Horatius had held the bridge*, Mucius sought to break the siege by sneaking out to kill Lars Porsena. Caius accidentally stabbed Lars Porsena’s secretary instead, was caught and threatened with torture. He responded by putting his own right hand into the altar fire; impressed (clearly none of them were too worried about mere secretaries'!) they let him go, and the Romans called him Scaevola, ie 'Left-handed'  or 'Lefty'!. Oh yes, the flower of the genus named for it is hand-shaped.

*If that allusion passed you by, then you probably went to school long after I did, so here's the poem if you're interested. If you don't have an afternoon to spare you might like to skip to verse XXVII, and skim thereafter...
Scaevola parvibarbata Family Goodeniaceae, Nyngan, New South Wales.
And more general classical allusions also abound. Nepenthes was a plant described in the ancient Greek literature which was said to assuage grief and even induce euphoria. Linnaeus himself seems to have missed the point of the wonderful pitcher plants when he assigned them this name based on their supposed medicinal qualities.
Nepenthes sp., National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
The story of these wonderful carnivorous plants will doubtless appear in this blog at some point.
St John's Wort, Hypericum perforatum Family Clusiaceae, is a common and serious southern Australian weed, though we have some native species too. Hypericum means 'above the image (or icon)'; in ancient Europe flowers were placed above the doorway on mid-Summer's eve to ward off evil. This festival was later usurped by the newer religion was St John's Feast, hence the common name
Hypericum gramineum, Morton National Park, New South Wales.
I could doubtless find more such classics, but that's enough to go on with now. Next week I'll conclude this mini-series with some classically-derived animal names.


Friday, 4 April 2014

Snow Gums Sublime

Periodically I've dedicated a post here to my favourite trees - the latest was here, and you can track back from there if you so desire. The last three, including this one, have been dedicated to eucalypts and maybe it's time to diversify, but not today. 

As winds and cold rain batter the mountains above Canberra, most animal species are either moving to lower elevations (or lower latitudes), or going into one form or other of torpor. Many plants are also closing down, surviving winter as underground roots or tubers, or as seeds. Not the trees however - and at the highest altitudes this means just one species, the wonderful Snow Gum Eucalyptus pauciflora. (In Tasmania Snow Gum refers to other species, but today I'm just talking about the mainland.)
Snow Gums, Kosciuszko National Park.
Growing seasons up here are short and harsh, and the brutal conditions of their youth
inevitably show in their gnarled later years.
Up at the tree line in Kosciuszko (here at 1800-1900 metres) the Snow Gums are
more stunted and permanently wind-bent.
There are many wonderful things to say about Snow Gums, but one of the greatest mysteries is down to us - why the name? Pauciflora means 'sparsely flowering', and while I unfortunately can't show you here, the flowering can be quite profuse and regular. It was bestowed by the early 19th Century German botanist Kurt Sprengel, from material supplied by Czech-born collector Franz Sieber (his tragic life is worth exploring further another day). Presumably it was either atypically sparse in buds or flowers, or was damaged in transit; the type specimen would tell us, but I don't have access to that...

Snow Gums, as we'd expect, have some pretty nifty adaptations to short growing conditions, with snow on the ground for weeks or months of the year and frosts all year round.
Winter Snow Gum, Namadgi National Park.
One neat trick is to change its optimal temperature for photosynthesis as the season progresses, so that whatever temperature it is, is the best temperature for growing! (ie it photosynthesises better at lower temperatures earlier and later in summer, and higher in mid-summer.)
These old-timers at Charlotte Pass, high in Kosciuszko National Park, grow among
and sprawl over the granites. They probably have only a few weeks a year in which to grow.
These high altitude Snow Gums are sometimes given their own species, E. niphophila ('snow-loving'),
though most botanists recognise them only as a sub-species.
Further, at lower altitudes the optimal photosynthetic temperature is also higher. For Snow Gums at the tree line the preferred temperature is 18 degrees; at the same time the most efficient temperature for their colleagues at 900 metres is 28 degrees.

These lower altitude trees are associated with frost hollows; less cold-tolerant trees grow above them,  logically but counter-intuitively. The Canberra airport was built in a Snow Gum-encircled frost hollow, hence it is often closed in winter by heavy fogs, as any ecologist could have told them!
Low altitude Snow Gums north of Canberra (800-900 metres); at these altitudes
they form a distinct sub-category of the grassy woodlands, one of our most threatened habitats.
Where E. niphophila is recognised, these low-down Snow Gums remain E. pauciflora.

In the devastating fires of 2003, vast areas of mountain Snow Gum woodlands burnt. Numerous ancient trees were burnt to the ground, though there is vigorous resprouting from subterranean shoots.
Ten years later. Views through the regenerating Snow Gums, from the ridge line
of Namadgi National Park, above Canberra.

One characteristic of Snow Gums is the 'scribbled' bark, legacy of the larvae of a tiny moth, which chew along within the nutritious cambial layer; when it's time to pupate they drop into the litter at the base of the tree. Until recently they were know as Ogmograptis scribula (the 'wavy-writing scribe') from the highest Snow Gums to the sea, and west into the slopes country. Then a wonderful collaboration between a Canberra school girl and some retired scientists - botanists and entomologists - revealed the existence of at least a dozen related scribbly moth species. The story, told in detail here, is well worth your while reading.
One of the many fascinating things about this little caterpillar is the
fact that it nearly always turns around and tunnels back parallel to its existing track.
Perhaps it is taking advantage of the tree's response, growing new tissue to
replace the damaged material - like a burglar returning after the insurance company has replaced his loot!
As we start to put our warming strategies into action down here in wet cold Canberra, high above us the Snow Gums endure, as they always have and always will long after I'm forgotten.