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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. 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.

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.
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.

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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.

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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.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Kibale Forest National Park; a primative haven

No, not a typo or colonial ignorance - Kibale really is a fabulous place for primates, including human visitors! Kibale Forest National Park covers some 80,000 hectares of primarily rainforest in the moist south-west of Uganda, not far from the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 
The location of Kibale National Park is indicated by the end of the red arrow.
Confusingly it is not near the town of Kibale!
Past logging has degraded it, and current pressures on its edges are concerning, but it is still a superb and invaluable reserve. Its value is enhanced by the fact that its habitats continue to the south in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, providing a forested corridor some 180km long.

My very memorable day there, travelling with the estimable Rockjumper birding tours, began in the dark, because it is at dawn that the Green-breasted Pittas call. Our guides - both Gerard - were superb, finding their way through a maze of faint elephant tracks in the dark as we might make our way from bedroom to bathroom at night. 
The Gerards, top and bottom, left and right....
The rifles, which I understand to be old AK47s, were in case of unhappy elephants.
In urban Australia we are lucky enough not to need to know much about guns, but I was not reassured by these,
and I'm glad for all concerned that no annoyed elephants appeared.
The lack of a stock on one weapon alone would, I assume, make it a bit trickier to use.
 

Pre-dawn pitta hunt, Kibale.
It was delightful to be in the forest in the dark, then watching it slowly emerge around us. We arrived in a pitta territory in the dark, and waited until Gerard heard the faint distant call, like a wooden mallet melodiously resonating on a hollow wooden pipe. Closer up it resolved into a double note, like the very lowest end of a xylophone, with two bars being hit almost simultaneously. We dived after it and located the birds on the ground – a pair and a juvenile. Absolutely stunning birds, as pittas are, especially the three vividest blue wing stripes. 

 It was far too dark for my camera to provide you with a photograph of the bird; here is a lovely painting by early 20th century British artist Herbert Goodchild.

Green-breasted Pitta Pitta reichenowi, courtesy Wikicommons.
But the best was still to come. We walked for perhaps an hour, up and down hills, zig-zagging through the forest, then heard distant yelps and roars, and edged around bushes glistening with reeking chimp urine. Then, there she was, a female undeniably in oestrus, feeding high above us.
 
Chimpanzee female in oestrus, Kibale.
I find rainforest canopy photography difficult, but I hope the subject compensates.
She is part a large loose group of 130 chimps, habituated to visitors,
both researchers and fee-paying tourists.
These were the first wild apes I'd seen, and it was a remarkable experience. We watched as the big boss male threw a shrieking tantrum, rushing upright along a log, scattering all the others. He did it again later, more distantly, and the one I was watching at the time hid behind a tree trunk, peering round it until the trouble had passed. We followed them until they all climbed high into the trees, their huge strength evident in the way they swung easily up vines and trunks, often with one arm.

We assumed that that was the end of it, but not so! As we were preparing to leave, completely overwhelmed with our privilege and the experience, half a dozen males descended rapidly and proceeded to put in some serious snoozing on the forest floor. 
Reclining male chimp, Kibale.
It wouldn't matter if we'd had to sleep on the ground ourselves for such a treat, but in fact the accommodation at Primate Lodge was superb. 
Primate Lodge, Kibale National Park.
Open-air restaurant above, and my room below;
my little verandah looked across a little clearing into the rainforest.
 

As well as the chimps, there are another 12 primate species known from Kibale, including some uncommon ones.
L'Hoest's Monkey Cercopithecus lhoesti is restricted to the eastern Congo basin.
It is primarily terrestrial but takes to the trees when disturbed - see comment above on
my canopy photos! I've nowhere near done justice to this beautiful monkey.

Grey-cheeked Mangabey Lophocebus albigena.This somewhat scruffy delight is found west from Uganda to Guinea, travelling in troupes to gather forest fruits.
Of course there are always smaller animals to fascinate too.
Unidentified skink, Kibale.
Orbweb spider with katydid lunch, Kibale.
Platanna, or African Clawed Frog Xenopus sp., Magombe Swamp, Kibale Forest.
Widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, toothless and tongueless, it nonetheless eats
a wide variety of food courtesy of its claws with which it tears goodies apart
and pushes them down its throat.
There is of course a huge range of plants in any rainforest too, but this one especially intrigued me.
Thonningia sp., family Balanophoraceae, Kibale.
This remarkable plant is a root parasite on surrounding plants, by use of its tuber; its scaley leaves have no chlorophyll. Moreover the flowers emerge from under the ground! I'd never encountered anything like it.
Kibale forest is a delight at all levels and is an essential part of any visit to Uganda.Ultimately though, it's above all about the chimps.


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