A Southern Angle-headed Dragon (Hipsilures spinipes), photographed at the Goomburra section of Main Range National Park.
It’s taken a while, but a tiny endangered Darling Downs reptile has finally been given a scientific name.
A paper published recently by the Museum of Victoria has assigned scientific names to three species to the genus Tympanocryptis, commonly known as ‘earless dragons’.
The paper The Role of Integrative Taxonomy in the Conservation of Cryptic Species: The Taxonomic Status of Endangered Earless Dragons in the Grasslands of Queensland presents the results of taxonomic research from a team headed by Dr Jane Melville from Museum Victoria, and which included Katie Smith and Sumitha Hunjan (Museum Victoria), Luke Shoo (The University of Queensland) and Rod Hobson (Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service).
The paper provides clarification of the taxonomy of what has been a confusing genus of reptiles. Some of the earless dragon species still await description, while others may be part of a species group. Naming species is usually never straight-forward.
The taxonomic status of the earless dragon known from the Darling Downs area has long been uncertain, so the description of this species as Tympanocyptis condaminensis (with the common name Condamine Earless Dragon) has been welcomed by herpetologists, naturalists, and the Darling Downs community that has taken this little reptile to heart.
There has been a bit of history leading to this point, as described in the paper:
The grassland earless dragons of south-eastern Queensland have long been of conservation concern. Originally the earless dragons from the Condamine catchment, in the eastern Darling Downs, were identified as Tympanocryptis pinguicolla, after being first discovered in the region over 30 years ago.
However, subsequent surveys failed to detect these dragons and they were believed to be locally extinct until their rediscovery in 2001 when a specimen was found in a grass verge along the margin of a fallow paddock. It was found that these earless dragons were restricted to mixed cropping land (maize, cotton, sorghum, sunflower etc.), remnant native grasslands and grassy verges along roads. Based on these data, the T. pinguicolla populations from the Darling Downs were listed as an endangered species of high priority in Queensland. Since then the taxonomic designation of these populations has been changed to T. cf tetraporophora, based on phylogenetic and morphological data.
The paper describes three new species of earless dragon, all found in grassland areas of Queensland, now highly impacted by human activity such as agricultural and pastoral industries, and mining and gas extraction.
The Five-lined Earless Dragon (Tympanocrytptis pentalineata). Currently only known from the one location, 50 km south-west of Normanton in the gulf region of far northern Queensland. Named for the dorsal colour pattern of the new species, characterised by five longitudinal white stripes extending along the body.
The Roma Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis wilsoni). Currently known to occur in grasslands, dominated by Mitchell grasses, on sloping terrains in near the town of Roma. Named in recognition of the contributions of Steve Wilson to Australian herpetology, in particular his direct contribution to the understanding of Tympanocryptis diversity in Queensland. Steve Wilson discovered this new species during a survey, provided photographs in-life and collected the only voucher specimens.
The Condamine Earless Dragon (Tympanocyptis condaminensis). Occurs in the remnant native grasslands, croplands and roadside verges of the eastern Darling Downs, on black cracking clays of the Condamine River floodplain. Found as far north as the Pirrinuan/Jimbour area, west as far as the town of Dalby and south to the township of Clifton. To the east it has been recorded to the eastern extremity of the Darling Downs in the Aubigny/Purrawunda area on the western outskirts of Toowoomba. Specific locations include: Oakey, Mt Tyson, Brookstead, Bongeen, and Bowenville. Named for the Condamine River and its floodplain on which this species occurs.
Two characters I’m happy to call mates have been heavily involved in this dragon discovery work. Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service colleague Rod Hobson was one of the authors of the paper, while one of the newly-described dragons, the Roma Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis wilsoni), was named after photographer Steve Wilson. I have accompanied both Steve and Rod on some memorable expeditions looking for, and photographing, the Condamine Earless Dragon in cropland and roadside grasslands to the west of Toowoomba.
The Darling Downs community has long campaigned for the conservation of the tiny dragon found in their area. The Pittsworth District Landcare Association and the Mt Tyson District Landcare Group were both instrumental in initiating and resourcing the research which has resulted in this taxonomic work. Local landowners the Wooldridges (Bongeen) and the Halfords (Mt. Tyson) took a keen interest in the future of the dragons found on their properties and in their local area.
So where to now for these newly-named reptiles? The authors believe that the conservation status and management of this group of dragons in Queensland needs to be investigated further.
From the paper:
Earless dragons are currently known from only a few sites within the Darling Downs region and are restricted to what were previously native grasslands. The Darling Downs is an important agricultural area on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range in southern Queensland.
Prior to European settlement, it was an area characterized by open prairie-like grasslands grading into Brigalow (Acacia harpophylla) and Belah (Casuarina cristata) on cracking clay soils. These fertile soils have been heavily modified since European settlement and very little native grassland remains, making this one of the most threatened ecosystems in Queensland.
“The grasslands around the Darling Downs are subject to both mining (coal seam gas exploration) and land clearing encroachments. That loss of habitat is pushing the dragons into smaller and smaller areas — we found some along roadside verges, trapped on that very narrow strip of land,” says Jane Melville, Senior Curator of Terrestrial Vertebrates at Museum Victoria, and lead author of the paper.
Melville believes the discovery of an additional species on the Darling Downs highlights how little is known about fauna in these grasslands and the fundamental need for further ecological and genetic research on both species.
“We need to establish broad baseline data, which can be used to develop conservation management strategies,” she said. “There is a real risk of these species becoming extinct before we know anything about them.”
The Grassland Earless Dragon
An article written by Rod Hobson for the Winter 2006 edition of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service publication The Bush Telegraph gives an overview of the history of the Condamine Earless Dragon.
In the early 1970s amateur herpetologist Terry Adams found two little lizards in the black soil country at Mount Tyson on the eastern Darling Downs. These lizards caused a few raised eyebrows when they eventually came to the notice of staff from the Queensland Museum. Here was a new species for Queensland — a lizard that until then was only known from small and isolated populations confined to native grasslands west of Melbourne, the ACT and adjoining areas of New South Wales.
It was the grassland earless dragon Tympanocryptis pinguicolla, regarded as one of Australia’s most rare and threatened of species. Repeated searches after Terry’s initial discovery however failed to reveal any more individuals of this little dragon lizard. It was feared to be extinct in Queensland.
Then, in January 2001, students from the University of Queensland’s Gatton campus caught a small lizard whilst working on a project on the property of Dennis and Rose Wooldridge, at Bongeen on the eastern Darling Downs. The students’ supervisor Dr. Luke Leung forwarded the lizard to the Queensland Museum for identification. Its arrival there caused a furore — here was the lizard thought to have become extinct in Queensland since its initial discovery in the early 1970s. It was at this early stage that Queensland Parks and Wildlife’s Toowoomba office became heavily engaged in the Grassland Earless Dragon Project, a commitment that continues to this day.
Since those heady days quite a few organisations, both government and non-government, have become involved with this great little lizard. Steve Wilson, Patrick Couper and Andrew Amey from the Queensland Museum have been ready and willing to provide technical and scientific information as needs arose. Students and staff from the University of Queensland’s Gatton campus have been busy on research projects, especially on the genetics of the species.
Students Leigh Jewell, Violeta Toneva, Carly Starr and Stephanie Goebel under the tutelage of Drs. Greg Baxter and Luke Leung have contributed significantly to our understanding of the species through their tireless fieldwork.
Alison Goodland, initially through her work for World Wildlife Fund, and lately with the Queensland Murray-Darling Committee/Condamine Alliance, has been in ‘boots and all’ since the early days of the project. The Mount Tyson Landcare Group has contributed generously towards the project with their time and enthusiasm, especially through local landowners Paula and Peter Halford.
Heather Hanlon of White Mischief chocolate shop and restaurant at Mount Tyson has been industriously turning out chocolate earless dragons — with all funds going towards earless dragon research and conservation initiatives.Shona Clark-Dickson and her pupils from Inglewood State School raised just under $200 for the dragon through sales of chocolates and greeting cards at their school fete — well done to Shona and the kids.
Throughout the entirety of the project Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) staff from the Toowoomba office have been involved in giving school talks, media interviews and writing articles on this great little Aussie battler of a lizard, which chooses to make its home amongst the sorghum, cotton and sunflower crops of the eastern Darling Downs.
To date we have records from as far north as Jimbour, west to Cecil Plains, south to Nobby/Clifton and east to Mount Tyson and all thanks to the local landowners who have generously allowed us access to their lands.
We couldn’t have had the successes that we’ve had to date without your unstinting enthusiasm and kindness. This happy marriage of such a diversity of groups couldn’t have succeeded to the extent that it has without you. So thanks to everyone involved and may the marriage be a long and happy one.
Girraween National Park, about 260km south-west of Brisbane, is a majestic place of granite wildness.
Girraween has grown on me steadily over the decades I’ve been visiting. I have many memories of time spent in this place, with friends, family, work colleagues or alone. Something new is revealed each time I visit. For a photographer artist, naturalist or walker it’s an ongoing revelation — a place where you can lose yourself in nature at it’s most dramatic. It’s always an inspiration for me.
I only made it there twice in 2014, but both trips were enjoyable.
This blog post is dedicated to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service rangers at Girraween, both past and present, who have worked so hard to preserve this place for future generations.
Some images from a recent work trip to one of my favourite places.
Click on a thumbnail for larger image.
We tend to think of our national parks as large, wild places. And so they should remain. However, there are smaller parks, full of charm, that hold some great stories. The Palms National Park is one such place.
The Palms, near Cooyar to the north of Toowoomba, is small in size but big in character. Situated at the headwaters of the Brisbane River, The Palms conserves a small remnant of palm-filled subtropical rainforest and vine forest in a spring-fed gully. At just 73 hectares, this is one of the smallest national parks in Australia. However, it’s also home to one of the most diverse ranges of flora and fauna.
This is an area that has seen many changes. Indigenous Australian people camped and hunted in this area for thousands of years, and many may have also passed through on their way to the bunya nut festivals at the Bunya Mountains. Timber-getters arrived in the district to utilise the rich forests, and eventually much of the surrounding countryside was cleared. The forests were replaced with crops and grazing. So why does this patch of original scrub remain?
Enter Charles Henry Boldery. Born in Maryborough in 1890, Charles’ father and brothers owned properties and businesses in the Blackbutt, Yarraman and Cooyar districts. In 1921 Charles purchased a block of land consisting of 318.5 acres, about ten kilometres north-east of Cooyar. Charles lived on this land with his wife Emily (nee Christiansen) and their young children, and made a living by harvesting and selling the land’s timber.
In 1927 Charles donated just over five acres of his property to the former Rosalie Shire Council. Charles wanted the site to be protected so that people would always be able to visit it and appreciate its natural beauty. This day-use area became known as Boldery Park, and the location became a popular spot for visitors. Charles lived in Brisbane from the 1960s onwards, where he eventually passed away in 1975.
In 2014, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service responded to a request by Charles Boldery’s grandson David Matthews to somehow formally recognise and remember the generosity and forward-thinking action of his grandfather. David assisted QPWS ranger Bryan Phillips-Petersen in creating some new interpretive signs for the park by providing historic photographs and information. The signs were launched this year by Member for Nanango Deb Frecklington. A bunch of Charles’ descendants were there to celebrate the park and to remember Charles.
Every time I visit this small park I discover something new. After everyone had left the celebratory barbeque, I walked the track with some rangers. We froze to watch a Noisy Pitta, one of the most beautiful and elusive of rainforest birds, running down the middle of the walking track. I was reminded that even the smallest patch of Australian scrub can be a valuable refuge to our native plants and animals, as well as a place that rejuvenates and enthralls the visitor. I tip my hat to Charles while I’m there and nod a thankyou for his thoughtful act.
A gallery of images from The Palms (Click on a thumbnail for larger view).
All photos by Robert Ashdown.
Thanks to Bryan Phillips-Petersen, David Matthews and Lise Pedersen.
Link: The Palms National Park.
The Mount Moffatt section of Carnarvon National Park is a wild and remote place. I recently visited the park in the middle of summer heat and storms. Here are a few images from that trip.
[Click on any image for a larger view]
While most of Mount Moffatt is at least 700 metres above sea level, the north-eastern section of the park rises to even loftier heights. Here, the Consuelo Tableland reaches more than 1000 metres above sea level. Forming part of the Great Dividing Range, this area is known as the ‘Roof of Queensland’. Also called the ‘Home of the Rivers’, the Consuelo Tableland is the source of several major river systems. On the south-western side of the tableland, water flows along the twin branches of the Maranoa River and into the Murray-Darling catchment. To the east, water travels down steep-sided valleys, including Carnarvon Gorge, into the Comet and Dawson rivers. These join the Fitzroy River, which meets the coast near Rockhampton.
I’ve had the good fortune to have been able to have visited Mount Moffatt as part of my work developing interpretive material with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. Here are some of my favourite images, taken over the last twelve years.
[Click on a thumbnail for larger image.]
I am crouching on the edge of a freshwater swamp somewhere in the middle of Moreton Island.
It’s a hot summer evening without a cloud in the sky, but I’m wearing a raincoat and sweating. Peering into a wall of grey sedges, camera in hand, I try to spot a tiny frog. The Wallum Sedge Frogs I seek are not helping me. One calls every now and then, with a sound like a distant accelerating motorcycle, but when I turn in that direction another starts up from somewhere else, confusing me completely. These tiny frogs are perfectly camouflaged and cling to sedges. They’re not the only thing hanging out on the sedges, hence the skin-covering raincoat. Nests of paper wasps abound and I’ve been stung several times on previous attempts to see a frog.
Fellow naturalist and photographer Eric Vanderduys and I had been on a long bushwalk through the centre of the island, exploring this colourful coastal habitat. It was 1998 — in the pre-digital era — where every roll of exposed film held miserable failures and exciting successes, all to be revealed only after an interminable wait for slides to be developed and returned. Like many other naturalists I struggled with primitive flash systems and expensive slide film, all the while becoming ever-more addicted to capturing images of the ‘small world’.
A photographic subject we sought on our Moreton Island walk was the ‘acid’ or ‘wallum’ frogs. The term ‘acid’ was applied to a small group of frogs in 1975 by Glen Ingram and Chris Corben (researchers, taxonomists and serious frog legends) in a paper discussing the frogs of North Stradbroke Island.
These frogs, and their tadpoles, thrive in the acidic waters of eastern Australia’s coastal wallum swamps and wet heathlands. The undisturbed swamps and lakes of Moreton and Stradbroke islands are perfect places for ‘acid’ frogs. This is a singular group of amphibians, in a land where our 230 or so species of frogs — such seemingly fragile creatures — reveal all manner of surprising adaptations to the various habitats of our dry continent.
There are four frogs in the ‘acid’ group — the Wallum Sedge Frog (Litoria olongburensis), the Cooloola Sedge Frog (Litoria cooloolensis), the Wallum Froglet (Crinea tinnula) and the Wallum Rocket Frog (Litoria freycineti).
These little survivors have a lot on their plates. Their preferred habitats are threatened, being cleared or fragmented for residential development. Changes to the hydrology of the ephemeral wetlands found in these coastal ecosystems are caused by groundwater extraction and canal development. Introduced fish, such as Mosquito Fish (Gambusia sp.) feed on frog eggs and tadpoles. As if all this was not enough, the spectre of climate change and its yet-to-be-known effects looms large — a threat I’d not imagined all those years ago while stalking the Wallum Sedge Frog on Moreton Island.
Luckily, some insight is being gained into the lives of acid frogs by researchers from Griffith University, including Dr Katrin Lowe. Dr Lowe has been studying the complex relationships between climate, hydrology and water chemistry and their effects on the Wallum Sedge Frog. Studies on how these frogs respond to environmental conditions, and how they are able to time reproduction in terms of temperature and rainfall, may shed some light on how acid frogs will respond to long term changes in wetlands.
Research by Dr Lowe and her colleagues has also helped inform management of our protected estate, principally national parks, so important for the future of threatened species such as acid frogs. Fires are common in national parks, and the way fire is managed affects the fauna and flora protected within these areas.
The Griffith University researchers believe that acid frogs are resilient and highly adaptable. They can survive fires by sheltering quickly within the wetter, cooler parts of their habitat, and can breed in fire-altered environments. However, the researchers caution that the long-term resilience of these frogs depends on how wet things are. If it’s drier and hotter they have less chance of surviving fires. Hazard reduction burns are therefore best conducted in these habitats during cooler, wetter periods, when the frogs have a better chance of survival and population recovery.
How will these frogs cope, however, with a drier and hotter climate, when more fires could put entire populations at risk? Long-term monitoring by researchers is important in understanding what is happening with such little-understood species.
Frogs continue to capture my imagination. Armed with more sophisticated (but still temperamental) digital camera gear, I still enjoy messing about in the dark with dodgy flashes and a macro lens. Sometimes I’m talked into photographing far trickier subjects, such as people. While photographing the wedding of two ranger friends recently, the groom’s father remarked that I must enjoy photographing people. “No”, I replied, “frogs, snakes and lizards are my preferred subjects.” I think he feared for the outcome of the wedding album.
And as for my companion on that bushwalk long ago? Eric now works for CSIRO, and in 2012 published his Field Guide to the Frogs of Queensland. I think one of his photographs from our Moreton Island walk, that of a Wallum Rocket Frog, ended up within. Each of Eric’s beautiful images of Queensland’s diverse frogs has a story behind it. I understand a little of the theme that runs throughout the book’s images — that of countless hours spent struggling with head-torches, cameras and flash units in dark, difficult conditions in pursuit of a couple of photographs of ridiculously elusive subjects, complete experts at not being seen, let alone photographed. However, the memories of the search and times spent in such beautiful locations mean that any minor hardships, and wasp stings, are soon forgotten. And, what could be more rewarding than eventually sharing the results of such endeavours with others in a book, or a blog post?
Originally written for the Summer 2014 edition of Wildlife Queensland News.
The Queensland Bottletree, also known as the Narrow-leaf Bottletree or Kurrajong, is a fascinating plant. I’ve admired them deep within the shaded interior of remnant dry vine scrub, standing alone in cleared farmland like ancient sentinels, and lining the streets of Brisbane and Roma.
They are an intriguing tree to a photographer, as their furrowed bark seems to soak up the light and their bright foliage stands out among the drab greens of central Queensland. These images were taken at a friend’s property, Highwoods, on the Darling Downs.
Thanks to Martin for the chance to spend some time at Highwoods.
Previous posts on Bottletrees:
Lake Broadwater is the only large, naturally-occurring freshwater lake on the Darling Downs.
Situated within one of the most intensively cultivated agricultural districts in Queensland, the lake is only about three to four metres deep when full. The lake is a focal point of the 1,212 ha Lake Broadwater Regional Park, an important refuge for wildlife and a much-loved recreational area for locals.
I visited the lake in March this year to see if I could capture some images of the full moon rise. Arriving with time to spare, I wandered the edge of the lake, where ancient Blue Gums (Eucalyptus tereticornis) stand, and absorbed the slow, quiet change of the light as the day drew to a close. As the sun’s light faded, the full moon’s eerie glow soon flooded the scene.
This post is dedicated to the Lake Broadwater Natural History Association.
More information on Lake Broadwater Regional Park
A Brown Honeyeater seeks water on a scorching day at Purnululu National Park, Western Australia. Image by guest blog photographer Steve K Wilson.
This post features some terrific images of Mulga Snakes from western Queensland, all taken by Lindsay Muller.
The Mulga Snake (Pseudechis australis) is one of seven species of snake in the genus Pseudechis, widely known as the ‘black snakes’. This is an odd name for the group, as just one species is always black.
“The Mulga Snake (Pseudechis australis), also known as the King Brown Snake, is poorly named, as the Mulga (Acacia aneura) forms only part of its vast distribution and individuals are not always brown. This extremely variable snake, ranging from yellowish brown or reddish brown to dark olive, has a reticulated pattern formed by dark-edged scales. It is the largest and most widespread species within the group, occurring across most of mainland Australia except the more humid eastern and southern regions.
A large Mulga Snake putting on a defensive display is an impressive sight. While it is fairly placid and disinclined to bite, if it does so it chews while biting, injecting the greatest venom yield for any Australian snake.”
— Gerry Swan and Steve Wilson, What Snake Is That?
I have unfortunately never seen a live Mulga Snake, just haven’t been out west enough I guess. Here’s the closest I’ve come to one — a shed skin on a rock outcrop on the Hood Range in western Queensland. A magic place, made all the more so by the presence of such marvellous reptiles.
Another member of the Black Snake family, the more appropriately-named Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus), is surely one of Australia’s most beautifully-coloured animals. It’s my favourite Australian critter (well, after my dog, but she’s not native and she’s not wildlife by any stretch).
Mention mistletoe to Australians and the Christmas tradition of kissing under one would probably come to mind. That is, getting friendly under a northern-hemisphere plant — which they have probably never seen.
However, we have our own mistletoe, with at least 90 native species found in Australia (and probably none of them have ever overshadowed kissing couples in our December heat).
I’ve always found Australian mistletoes colourful and interesting plants, despite the reputation they seem to have as a pest and parasite. Is this reputation deserved? This blog post presents a perspective on these plants by natural historian Rod Hobson, with some notes on recent research by Dr David Watson and images by guest photographers Mike Peisley and Craig Eddie.
Under the Mistletoe — Rod Hobson
This may come as a surprise to many but contrary to popular belief mistletoes are not parasites. Botanists regard mistletoes as ‘hemi-parasites’, that is ‘half-way parasites’. Biologically, a parasite is an organism living in or on another organism (its host) from which the parasite obtains its food. Mistletoes don’t take anything from their host other than sap water and any minerals therein. They have green leaves therefore they have chlorophyll, which means that they are fully photosynthetic and process all their own food. During long droughts mistletoes suffer severely, as they don’t have any of the various means to conserve water that their hosts might possess. This is especially so if the survival strategy of the host includes restricting water flow to its outer branches. This process thus ‘starves’ the mistletoe of this essential commodity and the mistletoe may eventually succumb to this tactic.
Another popular belief is that mistletoes kill trees. This is not so, as it would take a great many mistletoes to kill a tree and many large trees can be seen doing quite well despite their heavy load of mistletoes. A large number of mistletoes on a tree could well contribute to its decline if the tree was under stress from other factors such as adverse climatic conditions, disease or heavy insect attack. The outer parts of a mistletoe-infected branch will often die though, as upon germination the mistletoe’s anchor (haustorium) enters the water-carrying section (xylem) of its host. Eventually the haustorium may totally block the xylem thereby ‘starving’ the branch’s extremities of water and causing their deaths.
The small and brightly-coloured Mistletoebird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum) is often blamed for spreading mistletoes. It is not the sole culprit however, as over 40 species of Australian birds (especially honeyeaters) are known to eat the mistletoe fruit. Other animals, including the dainty little Feathertail Glider are also very fond of mistletoe.
Australian mistletoes have an ancient Gondwanaland lineage with closely related species found throughout the southern continents, as mistletoe expert Dr Gillian Scott points out in her excellent A Guide to the Mistletoes of Southeastern Australia. Dr Scott, quoting the Australian ornithologist Ken Simpson, also defends the Mistletoebird. According to Ken this bird is a relatively recent arrival in Australia, coming long after the split up of Gondwanaland and the evolution of our mistletoes. Australia has 90 species of mistletoes with about 35 of them found in south-east Queensland. Our mistletoes are contained in two families, the Loranthaceae (74 species) and the Viscaceae (14 species). The Loranthaceae has large colourful flowers and fruits whereas the Viscaceae has tiny flowers and small translucent fruits.
There is still much to be found out about these fascinating plants and new species are still being discovered. As late as 2004 a new mistletoe was described from south-east Queensland. It was named Gillian’s mistletoe (Muellerina flexialabastra) in honour of its discoverer Dr Gillian Scott. It is only known from the Darling Downs and Moreton Districts where it is found on the Hoop Pine (Araucaria cunninghami).
Mistletoes are not the demons that popular myth paints them. Rather, they are interesting and colourful members of Australia’s prolific floral wealth. So, please stop worrying about the roses and take time out ‘to smell the mistletoes’.
[This article was originally published in the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service newsletter Bush Telegraph, Summer 2008.]
Research does seem to indicate that mistletoe has become more abundant in woodland areas. Why is this so and is it really a problem? Dr David Watson, a plant biologist from Charles Sturt University in Albury, New South Wales, has undertaken an ambitious 25-year project to learn more about the place of mistletoe in Australia’s environment.
(Extract from “Misunderstood Mistletoe’ by Abbie Thomas, ABC Science online):
Studying 42 woodland remnants near Albury in New South Wales, Dr David Watson removed mistletoe from half of these areas, while the mistletoe of the other areas was left intact. David’s plan was to find out if the presence of mistletoe can influence how many other species live in an area, in particular, bird species. David believes that mistletoe is now ten times more abundant in south-east Australia than it was before white settlement. Mistletoes particularly target trees isolated in paddocks or by the sides of roads, making them all the more obvious to us. However, David has argued that mistletoe ‘infestations’ are a symptom, not a cause of a much bigger problem. Changes in fire frequency and intensity, clearing trees and a reduction in native animals have all contributed. Mistletoe is killed by fire, and many areas are burnt far less often than before. Native animals such as possums, gliders and even koalas eat mistletoe, as do certain butterfly larvae. Once these species disappear from an area, there is nothing to keep the mistletoe in check. “But in the undisturbed bush, it’s an entirely different story,” David says. “The more mistletoes present, the greater the resources available for native animals, making the plants an important indicator of the area’s health.”
Preliminary results of his long term experiment suggest that more birds do, in fact, prefer to live where mistletoe is common. Woodland where mistletoe had been left intact had 17 per cent more total bird species, and of 44 woodland birds recorded, almost 70 per cent were more frequently seen in the intact sites than the sites without mistletoe. David says many birds prefer to nest in mistletoe because it provides shade and cover. Mistletoe nesters include the Grey Goshawk, several species of pigeon and dove, honeyeaters, wattlebirds, friarbirds and many others. Quite a number of butterfly larvae also feed on mistletoe, and some caterpillars can completely strip a mistletoe of its leaves in a matter of months, providing another natural check on mistletoe.
As the biology of mistletoe becomes better understood, biologists are urging that they be managed with an eye on the underlying causes of the problem. One place that did this recently was in the Clare Valley in South Australia where local residents were concerned about mistletoe infestations in local blue gums. They made it their business to learn more about the biology of mistletoes. Although some of the bigger infestations were manually removed, natural animal predators were also encouraged back to the area by fencing off areas and planting trees.
David says the best way to control mistletoe infestation is by addressing the underlying cause: such as putting up nesting boxes to encourage possums and gliders, control burning of the understorey to kill excess mistletoe, and encouraging regeneration of native plants. But he takes his argument further. Mistletoe, he says, could be a powerful tool in the management of forest plantations of species such as blue gum. At the moment, such plantations are plagued by chewing insects such as beetles, and require huge expenditure on pest control. But if every, say, 100th tree were to be seeded with a mistletoe, these would eventually grow, flower and attract insect-eating birds and possums which would also eat the problem insects, effectively turning a plant pest into a natural pest controller.
- Mistletoes in Australia — Australian National Herbarium. This is a fabulous on-line resource on Australian mistletoes.
- Dr David Watson’s personal blog on ecosystems. A fascinating blog on ecosystem research.
- David explains the role of Mistletoe in Australian ecosystems.
- Mistletoes of Southern Australia, by David Watson.
- The Botanical Art of Gillian Scott. Gillian Scott was the first Australian botanical artist to win the coveted Gold Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society (U.K.) in open international competition with her display of 22 species of Australian mistletoes.
- See David Watson’s link for a selection of peer-reviewed papers on Mistletoe.
- Managing Mistletoe on your property.
- Mistletoe: The Kiss of Life for Healthy Forests (The Conversation)
The Toowoomba Regional Council gardeners took what seemed like a radical step earlier this year when they planted a stack of sunflowers in the city’s Botanic Gardens.
Being used to seeing neat and ordered rows of flowers, we became entranced by the unruly mob of stunning, large yellow flowers that grew quickly around the central statue. They were a delight to stroll past in all types of weather and fun to photograph.
Things became even more fun though when the sunflowers developed full heads of seeds. Native parrots descended in flocks to ravage the nodding flowers, creating even more mess and delightful garden chaos. Tough, boisterous Rainbow Lorikeets and Galahs were joined by quiet and wary King Parrots and the occasional diminutive Scaly-breasted Lorikeet. All were all keen to plunder this unexpected suburban food source.
I only managed a few late afternoon photo sessions, standing quietly against the flowers, before they expired and the birds moved on. Some other walkers would stop to watch the birds, but most were oblivious to the feeding frenzy going on close by. The usually wary King Parrots would freeze when people got close, their green plumage blending into the green of the sunflowers.
I sent a few words of encouragement to the radical gardeners, in case they were getting worried by the chaos:
A big thanks to your Botanic Gardens gardeners for brightening the place even further. Just when I think they are a bit too obsessed with neatness they plant sunflowers around the statue in the centre of the Gardens.
Utterly and completely brilliant. First, people marvel over the bright, unruly flowers, then to our astonishment, the seeds of the flowers provide food for at least four species of local native birds— scaly-breasted and rainbow lorikeets, galahs and the beautiful king parrots — for weeks.
Last weekend people from all backgrounds were enjoying the flowers and also watching the birds. To see the huge, magnificently camouflaged (and usually very wary) king parrots quietly sitting on the sunflowers while kids on bikes raced past and walkers strolled within metres of one of our most spectacular species of parrots was most enjoyable.
Bloody marvellous stuff, please pass on my sincerest thanks to the gardeners for providing this epic splash of colour and life for both people and native birds, much appreciated.
Leonie from the Council replied:
Thank you so much for the wonderful photos, we were delighted to receive them and have printed copies to show all the staff. It is good to see a different theme in an area that is normally very formal and I am sure the gardeners will consider this again as it has proved to be very popular.
December 2013 had some of the hottest days on record for this part of the world. Not an ideal time to visit a rainforest, but I head south anyway, driving through sun-blasted, open farmlands until I meet the western foothills of the Great Dividing Range.
Goomburra, within Main Range National Park, is my destination.
The circuit track along Dalrymple Creek heads through wet sclerophyll forest, where giant eucalypts tower above rainforest scrub. At times, the scream of cicadas, known appropriately as Razor Grinders, is almost unbearable — a frenzy of tree-top insect metalworkers. Some recent rain and the hot weather has brought thousands of their nymphs up from their long, dark underground life. Their cast-off ‘skins’ are plastered over tree trunks, while the adult insects are high up in the glorious summer light, males calling females in a non-stop, deafening cacophony. What a dazzling stage of life it must be for an animal that has spent years underground in the cool, dark earth.
The smooth bark of the eucalypts bears evidence of other life, as skinks move across strange circular patterns — the feeding marks of Red Triangle Slugs. While scanning tree trunks I’m soon rewarded with a sighting of a Southern Angle-headed Dragon, clinging to a tree and furiously pretending to be a branch.
< click on any image in this post for a larger view, and use arrow keys to move forward through images or hit ‘escape’ to exit>
A bright, sunny day in rainforest is usually the worst time for a photographer to capture interesting images, as the contrast range between dark shadow and blazing patches of light is beyond the scope of camera sensors, and the resulting photographs never really look like what the eyes saw. However, I’m here to enjoy the walk and in that frame of mind I soon get consumed by the search for intriguing patterns and photographic subjects.
As the Cascades Track winds on and upward, there are window-like glimpses of rainforest slopes above and the multi-hued foliage of emergent trees striving to reach the light. At ground level the sunlit canopy is reflected in pools of water, where another elegant reptile — an Eastern Water Dragon — regards me warily as I traverse its own small patch of paradise. Christmas Orchids flower close to the track, blazes of white among the shadows.
The walk presents an endless kaleidoscope of colours and textures. What more could a photographer hope for?
No place is boring, if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film. — Robert Adams.
I stop at one pool for a break and in the quiet notice all sorts of life. The large tadpoles of Great Barred Frogs move endlessly in the water and a Marsh Snake hunts restlessly for a meal.
I end up spending over an hour stalking Whitewater Rockmasters, one of Queensland’s five species of huge damselflies in the family Diphlebidae. These dazzling insects patrol their small bits of territory, and rather than run all over the place chasing them I set up at one spot to which a large male keeps returning. I could sit and watch these characters all day.
The Cascades Circuit leads up and out of the cool rainforest, taking me back to my vehicle via open, recently burnt, woodland. Grass Trees have seen it before, masters of surviving fire, and their green and brown skirts add colour to a blackened landscape.
All too soon I’m heading home, windows down and hot air whipping through the car. I’ve visited another world, a place of green shadows and complex life. I will return again, soon, I hope.
When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence. — Ansel Adams.
Main Range National Park is located on the western part of the Scenic Rim — a spectacular arc of mountains stretching from Mt Mistake to Springbook in south-east Queensland.
Much of the rainforest areas within the park fall within a World Heritage area, known as the Gondwana Rainforest of Australia World Heritage Area. This area conserves more than 1700 species of flowering plants and 500 species of vertebrate animals.
I recently caught up with photographer Mike Swan, who was on his way home from a trip west gathering images for a forthcoming field guide to the frogs of Australia. Here are a few images from his far-ranging frog-chasing expeditions.
Mike’s a busy bloke — when not out in the bush with a camera he can be found working at Healesville Sanctuary in Melbourne, running an online herpetological bookshop and playing in alt-country band Low Rent.
The flower is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful of all our native plant species. Keith Williams, 1979.
With memories still fresh of my water-level encounter with these Giant Water Lilies at Lake Nuga Nuga in 2013, I recently came across some information on these spectacular plants in Native Plants of Queensland, Volume 1 (1979) by Keith Williams.
The four volumes of this title produced by this eminent Queensland naturalist from 1979 to 1999 contain a wealth of information on the State’s plants and their habitats. I’d encountered very little information on this species of plant when writing my earlier blog post on Lake Nuga Nuga.
From Native Plants of Queensland by Keith Williams:
Giant Waterlily Nymphaea gigantea
This species is found in coastal and sub-coastal areas from north Queensland to the southern border. In many places the pest Water Hyacinth has almost, if not completely, eradicated the water lily.
The Giant Water Lily grows in water of various depths and this varies from the shallow edges of the the quiet waters of the habitat, to water that may be greater than three metres in depth. It has been observed that plants growing in deep water have a tendency to produce larger leaves and flowers than those in shallow water. Many leaves form a single plant and when they reach the surface they may cover an area with a diameter of about four metres.
The flower is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful of all our native plant species. The flowers may be more than 30 cm in diameter. I have observed them to be larger than a dinner plate. The flowers have a delicate fragrance and have a life of little more than one day.
As soon as they open in mid-morning the various insects visit them in numbers and pollination is effected very quickly. The stem then bends several times and this pulls the flower under the water, The seed receptacle forms very quickly, and the small black seeds are released finally when the fruit disintegrates. The plants are rooted in soft alluvial muds and the spongy white roots spread outwards from the tuber for long distances in all directions.
The plant was an important food source for Aborigines, who ate the fresh flowers as well as the seeds. The importance of the plant is evident as the Aboriginal names Arnurna, Yakp-Kalo, Kaooroo, Moi-U, Thindah, Thoolambool, Mille, Thoongoon, Urgullathy and Irrpo all demonstrate. Many of these names referred specifically to parts of the plant.
Giant Water Lilies only thrive in clear water. Where there is constant heavy turbidity the plants die. Many areas where they were once plentiful have been lost because colloidal clays have entered the ponds and as they remain in constant suspension, they inhibit growth by preventing light reaching submerged parts of the plant.
Colour forms are found and they may be pure white, white with blue petals, or some have tips of colour on the outside petals, A very beautiful pink form, the Undulla Lily, occurs in a small creek in southern Queensland.
Keith Albert Walter Williams (1916–2003)
With a wide range of natural history interests — fish, both marine and freshwater; birds; insects, particularly butterflies; and native plants, Keith Williams, as well as being a practical, expert naturalist and photographer, was a dedicated member of The Queensland Naturalists’ Club. An astute observer of wildlife, Keith started writing Nature Notes for the Club Newsletter in May 1963 with his note on the Golden Bower Bird, following this with notes on subjects as diverse as koalas, snakes, geckos, and birds such as white faced herons, red-backed wrens and all kinds in between.
His writing was not restricted to informal Nature Notes, for Keith’s magnum opus was Native Plants — Queensland, the first volume of which was published in 1979 and the fourth and final volume in 1999. These four volumes, of over 1,400 pages, have been, and will continue to be, used by many naturalists and aspiring botanists. If he had no other achievements, this work alone would assure Keith Williams of a place in the ‘Naturalists’ Hall of Fame’.
Keith wrote a number of more formal papers for The Queensland Naturalist among which was one on the fishes of North West Island (1969) which, together with the generous giving of his time, helped many members identify the small fishes of the coral reef pools on future trips.
Source: D. Reeves, The Queensland Naturalist, Vol.44, Nos.1–3, 2006
Keith was born in Ipswich, Queensland, in 1916. He was made an Honorary ranger for the protection of Fauna and Flora in Queensland in 1934. He was a foundation member of the Queensland Ornithological Society and was a life member of the Ipswich Photographic Society and the Queensland Naturalists’ Club. In 1993 he was the recipient if the Queensland Natural History Award and in 1998 was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to conservation and the environment, particularly for his contribution to botanical knowledge and the collection of plant specimens.
A post from the last day of 2013 — another year slips past too quickly.
Despite it being one of the most difficult I can remember in many ways, I was still fortunate to be able to visit a few places, both near and not-so-near, and to be able to photograph some beautiful landscapes and marvellous creatures.
May you have a rewarding, successful and safe 2014.
Here are some wonderful images taken this year by fellow photographers Mike Peisley, Raelene Neilson, Michael Hines and Ross Naumann. All images reproduced with permission and thanks.
Managing fire is a constant part of a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger’s job in Queensland.
While photography isn’t high on the agenda for those involved in the business of working closely with fire, rangers sometimes capture dramatic images of flames and burning landscapes.
The late Bill Morley was a ranger at Carnarvon Gorge National Park for over 15 years. He was also a keen photographer and naturalist, compiling a large slide collection and recording detailed notes on natural history at the gorge.
I recently undertook some archival scans of Bill’s collection of Kodachrome slides taken during his time at Carnarvon. Included in the collection is a record of a large wildfire event at the Gorge in 1988. The images are impressive — well composed and often taken in difficult conditions — even more so considering that they were taken while fighting the fire with other rangers. In the end, the fires ran for 53 days and burnt out over 80% of the park.
Here is a small selection of Bill’s images of this 1988 wildfire (which I have restored from slides affected by dust and fungus), accompanied by extracts from the notes he subsequently put together for a slideshow on the fire for future park visitors.
What can be done when a wildfire starts in rough country like this? It had been a good season up until the end of September 1988. But, with the coming of October temperatures soared to around 39°C in the shade. Hot winds blew, and humidity dropped, The green grass became brown and brittle, and the softer plants and shrubs wilted in the relentless heat.
Midday, Sunday 16 October. A lightning strike during a dry storm started a fire in dry grassland and leaf litter on a rocky ridge above Mickey’s Creek gorge, and, although it wasn’t known at the time, another lightning strike from the same dry storm started another fire near the extreme north-east of the park. There would soon be two wildfires in Carnarvon Gorge National park.
From vantage points both inside and outside the park, rangers took bearings of fire positions. Contact was made with neighbours and information exchanged on the positions and progress of the fires, Spreading rapidly, the fires in the south-east section dropped down into Mickey’s Creek Gorge, whilst up on the cliff edge, fierce winds caused it to ‘crown’ in the tree-tops in many places. That night, park rangers burnt back along the southern edge of Mickey’s Creek walking track, to contain the fire front the for the time being.
The next day the fire in Mickey’s Creek Gorge was heading eastwards toward the walking track and the fire at the top of the cliffs was spreading fast. Carnarvon Gorge Lodge and Bandana Station grasslands were under threat from advancing flames. Walking tracks in the gorge were now closed to park visitors.
The fire had dropped off the eastern edge of the Goombungie Cliffs, so a back burn from the western edge of the Baloon Cave track was undertaken to neutralise that firefront. Just on dusk, above the cliffs, flames raced up the steep slopes of the Great Divide and hit the top edge of the eastern side of ‘The Ranch’.
Visibility became severely restricted at times, as the Carnarvon ranges were absorbed within a huge blanket of smoke. At times, several palls of black smoke could be seen within the overall greyish-white, markings of the second fire now racing across the south-central section of the Consuelo Tablelands towards Carnarvon Gorge, pushed by strong north-eastern winds.
The next day, thick palls of black smoke signal that the fire is almost at the edge of Warrumbah Cliffs, immediately behind the national park’s workshop area. Cliff-top winds and updrafts contribute towards fire crowning in the trees along the cliff edge. Back-burns continue throughout the next two days to control the fire’s advance.
Eight days after the fires began, a few millimetres of rain is recorded, dampening the vegetation and quietening the fires temporarily, but three days after the rain any moisture has evaporated and the fires are whipped up again by steep winds.
Fire on no fire, it’s business as usual in the camping ground, the people still come. Four large coaches are parked in the coach zone which is filled to capacity. Not many family campers arrive, as campers are discouraged from coming until the fires are out.
Thirteen days since the fires began, and the floor of the inner gorge is aflame and once again a park ranger is stationed at the Art Gallery, and another at Cathedral Cave. A back burn commences to save the cypress pine board-walk from the approaching flames.
Sixteen days after its birth, fire moves in behind Boolimba Bluff and drops over the edge in many places.
The remnants of the fires are still going 53 days after their start, when the first good storm occurs, with 75mm of rain. All fire is extinguished in the gorge. Loose soil is washed into creeks and Carnarvon Creek runs a deep chocolate colour, with black ash and charcoal floating on top. A tiny glimpse of the ever-ongoing process of erosion that, over a long time period, changes landscapes.
The rains caused the grass roots to sprout juicy green shoots and the kangaroos and wallabies feasted, and nests are built by birds as new leaves sprout in fire-singed trees and the insect population increases. A dazzling green rebirth follows, until the next fire.
An article written for the Spring/Summer 2013 edition of Wildlife Queensland news.
A nature photographer could not ask for a more perfect spot — it was one of those rare occasions when everything is just right. I was sitting in a borrowed kayak somewhere in the middle of Lake Nuga Nuga, the largest natural body of water in Queensland’s central highlands.
I’d paddled out with camera in the early morning, moving through a surreal field of native Giant Water Lilies, their huge pink flowers still closed. I thought I’d just keep paddling about furiously until I found things to photograph, typically impatient to discover something of interest.
The lake, however, was about to remind me once more of the need to just sit, wait, shut-up and look. I eventually stopped paddling and sat quietly, taking it all in and reminding myself to breathe and enjoy the moment. The sounds of morning on the lake rolled over me as the day’s dramas unfolded with the opening of the giant lily flowers.
The water soon warmed, and small Bony Bream moved to surface, splashing onto the lily pads and catching the attention of Whistling Kites. The birds broke off from preening to make spectacular diving runs into the water, flying off with tiny wriggling silver meals clutched tightly in talons. I’d never been so close these birds and was dazzled by their rich and subtle hues of brown and tan, with eyes burning bright over the desire to catch breakfast.
Other waterbirds also fished around me, cormorants and egrets flying past and into the water next to my small boat. It was as if by sitting still I’d convinced all that I was just another dead tree, many of which are a feature of this lake. I soon discovered that the dead standing trees were not dead at all — flocks of Tree Martins whirled around them and darted inside the hollows of what were clearly multi-story tenements for countless small birds. Once in, they would peer out again, whipping their tiny heads in all directions to catch the action, screaming at each other in tiny voices.
What life goes on unnoticed in our wild places when there’s no human around to catch it! What a pleasure to think of the places we have managed to protect and the myriad natural dramas played out by the wildlife that call these places home. Yes, we need parks for people, but these wild places are essential to the lives of species other than human.
Lake Nuga Nuga is one of 13 nationally-significant wetlands that fall within the Southern Brigalow Belt bioregion. Unfortunately the lake itself is not national park, however the small but significant Nuga Nuga National Park sits adjacent to the lake and preserves remnant vegetation communities, including Ooline and Bonewood, largely cleared from central Queensland.
One of those who fought hard over decades for the protection of remnant patches of Central Queensland scrub in national parks, such as Nuga Nuga, was Jim Gasteen. A life member of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, Jim travelled extensively throughout four States, surveying areas for inclusion in proposed national parks. Said Jim in the June 1989 edition of Wildlife Australia, “I am convinced that the entire Queensland Central Highlands complex is one of the foremost biological areas in Australia and that the entire ranges should be designated national park and state forest.”
Jim also wrote, in the March 1984 edition of Wildlife Australia, of a “most remarkable experience at Lake Nuga Nuga.” Jim, his brother and a friend were setting up camp late one afternoon. They soon noticed a small and isolated fledgling cormorant being incessantly dive-bombed by a pair of kites. The tiny bird would submerge, only to be attacked again when surfacing. Things eventually looked final for the small bird. “So intense was this uneven battle that the three of us were on our feet with binoculars, absorbed in the drama and wishing there was something we could do to forestall the inevitable.” Suddenly a group of pelicans, until then fishing nearby, swam toward the cormorant and surrounded it, driving off with snapping beaks the attacks of the kites in the fading light, until the raptors gave up and flew away.
To the surprise of the observers the pelicans then remained in a tight circle around the small bird, without the slightest movement, looking “like sentinels from another era.” Says Jim, “A change had come over the lake — it was something felt rather than seen, for all that were left now were the stars and our own thoughts. We too remained anchored to the spot. Nobody spoke.”
Jim wrote again of this “most remarkable swamp drama” in his book Back to the Bush in 2011 — it was obviously an experience he had not forgotten.
Such are our most memorable nature experiences formed, through being present in a wild place — large or small — and just watching what happens around us.
I’d been sitting in my tiny kayak for almost three hours watching the kites battling over small silver fish morsels, and things were starting to quieten as the day warmed up. The lily flowers were open for business and the water was alive with dragonflies and bees.
As I prepared to head back to shore a strange rushing sound descended and I looked up to see a massive squadron of Pelicans flying low over the lake, accompanied by a motley collection of cormorants. It was the perfect end to a terrific morning. I thought of Jim and reflected on how important our national parks and wild areas are as the crucibles of experiences that we can carry with us for many years.
Like the Echidna (previous post), the Cunningham’s Skink is another somewhat shy and nervous animal, at least where stumbling photographers are concerned. I photographed this dark specimen in a pile of rocks just outside the ranger’s house at Sundown National Park.
I’ve always found Echidnas tricky things to get a decent photograph of. They always seem very wary, burrowing into the earth as soon as you get near one, leaving only a bunch of spines to be photographed.
So, it was a pleasant surprise to at last meet a curious and somewhat confiding Echidna. Lying on the ground in front of the busy mammal, I was soon rewarded with some close-up shots as it trundled up and inspected the camera, even attempting to climb over it.
Echidnas, like Platypus, are monotremes — egg-laying mammals. Female Echidnas carry a single egg, and later, the juvenile in a simple pouch on their belly.
Researchers are still discovering new things about these unusual mammals. One of the unique characteristics of monotremes is the spurs on the hind legs of males. In Platypuses the gland attached to the spur increases in size during the breeding season and produces a venom injected into competing males (the venom is highly toxic, causing excruciating pain that can take months to subside in humans). In male Echidnas, spurs are in the same position and the glands also get bigger during the breeding season. However, the spur cannot be erected and there have never been reports of anyone being envenomated by an Echidna.
The purpose of an Echidna’s spur has until now been a bit of a mystery. Researchers from the University of Sydney have recently found that male Echidnas use secretions from their spurs to mark territory during the breeding season. They are unsure whether the mammals are communicating their readiness to mate, or using this to ward off other males.
Genetic studies of the Echidna have revealed that the secretions were once toxic and may have been used for defence millions of years ago. The gradual disappearance of the venom in the spur secretion indicates a that the gland has evolved a new role.
This 2014 calendar was created for the Citizens of the Lockyer Inc., a group working to increase awareness of the rich biodiversity to be found within the Lockyer Valley, just south-east of Toowoomba.
Images, text and design work were donated to the group by Robert Ashdown, Bruce Thomson, Neil Armstrong, Mike Peisley, Catherine Burton, Rob Gratwick, Penny Davies and Jayne Darvell (images), Rod Hobson (text) and Rob and Terttu Mancini, Evergreen Design (design work).
Text Pages from Lockyer Wildlife calendar Rod Hobson. (PDF 344Kb)
Green Tree Frogs (Litoria caerulea) have not been seen too often in our Toowoomba backyard.
However, with the recent heat and storms, a deep resonating croak emanated from the old rainwater tank in our backyard. This is a sound from the summer storms of my childhood.