I wonder if…you will see a new animal

Dear J-E Missy/Kalli,

Happy New Year!

sticks

I followed your directions and opened your gift when I reached Tasmania.  Hurray! Thank you for the “I wonder…” sticks!  You must know that wondering is one of my favorite things to do.  It’s hard to believe that I’ve been away from Jemicy for three weeks, but it does feel like I’ve come to a very different world here in Tasmania.  One of the biggest differences is that it is the middle of summer here right now, while you are having winter.  So, flowers are blooming, insects are pollinating the flowers, fruit is growing, birds are hunting the insects and eating berries, and so am I.  More on that later. These next few blog posts will give you some of my thoughts about your questions for now, but I will take your wonder-sticks with me when I go to New Zealand to see what kind of answers I find there. And if you have any new questions, let me know!

Parker asked, “I wonder if you will see a new animal.” Well, almost ALL of the animals I have seen here are new to me!  I don’t think I have discovered any new species for science, but I’ve been taking lots of photos of insects that I haven’t found the names for yet, so you never know… What would you call this one?

beetle

My two favorite most recent new animals I’ve seen were from a four-day trip to the central highlands of Tasmania, where there were mountains and rainforest. I knew that duck-billed platypus lived in the lakes and rivers there, but as we hiked through the bush (that’s what they call the woods here), I saw none.  Later, though, when we went back to our cabin for the night, we walked around a pond and saw something making a bubble trail through the water.  It would swim around under the water feeling for small invertebrates with its bill, then come up for air, open its eyes, and dive again.

platypus5

Another day, we took a walk up a track (that’s what they call trails here) to a mountain lookout, with huge trees and other fascinating plants along the way. You could see very far away from the top, in every direction. No, I could not see all the way to Jemicy (how many miles would that be?).  But while everyone else was looking at mountains, I was looking at something else.  All these bright green and black swallowtail butterflies were swooping and fluttering around in the wind, and I wanted to know what they were, but they never landed. The next day, we took another hike along a lake, and on the trail were some of the same butterflies, looking a little tired.  This one let me take its picture.

MacLeay's Swallowtail Graphium macleaya
MacLeay’s Swallowtail (Graphium macleaya)

So, what new animals have you been seeing this winter in Maryland?

Mammalia

Here at Windgrove, Peter has created the Gaia Walk – a 1.2 km trail that winds through land and time, each meter representing 500,000 years of evolutionary history. There are markers showing significant events, along with plaques depicting life in that era. His objective is to help walkers of the trail feel time unfolding, to embody the distance that has brought life to the present. If you walk the trail backwards from the present, humans show up almost immediately, after only 3-4 meters.  The first mammals are a good distance beyond that, in the Triassic period. Peter’s Forest Bench is a good place to contemplate where we mammals sit in this span of time.moosebench

Tasmania offers a unique window into evolutionary time, and what it has meant for mammals and their divergence. When this mammal takes a morning walk down the Gaia trail to the beach, I invariably startle large creatures who thump loudly and then vanish with a quick rustle into the brush.Usually this happens before they are even visible, but face-to-face encounters with wallabies and pademelons (a smaller version of a wallaby) have the same result. The thump is akin to a deer’s warning stomp or snort. With the exception of their hindquarters and tail, wallabies look, act, and eat very much like deer, pruning shrubs into topiary shapes and grazing grasses down to a few millimeters, leaving scat everywhere. Wombats show up at times too, looking like a cross between an overgrown groundhog and a bear cub with a cute koala nose. They dig huge burrows and tunnels that would be the envy of any groundhog, and when they spot you, they scoot away with a funny hopping gait. “A wombat eats, roots, and leaves” is true with or without punctuation. Brush-tailed possums are an abundant nocturnal marsupial, with thick fur and a winsome expression. They are also the scourge of Peter’s gardens, being acrobatic and incredibly persistent, necessitating multiple layers of fencing and baffles to keep them at bay.

pademelon 2
pademelon

 

wallaby
red-necked wallaby

 

wombat4
wombat

 

possum
brush-tailed possum

I finally managed to see Tasmanian devils, also marsupials, by visiting a sanctuary down the road (the “Unzoo”). It acts as a rehabilitation center for animals afflicted with or at risk of contracting the viral cancer that has caused recent decline in their population. Since they are mostly nocturnal, I have yet to see most of the other marsupials that live here, like bandicoot, betong, potoroo, or quoll. The names alone are intriguing, but I am also fascinated by the evolutionary divergence of marsupials from placental mammals. Here, the only native placental mammals are rodents, bats, and sea mammals.  How did North America end up with so many placental mammals but just one marsupial – the opossum? What made it so successful to give birth to tiny, undeveloped young and then nurture them in a pouch, as opposed to keeping them inside and attached to the mother’s body until they have more equipment, yet are still fully dependent on milk and protection? It’s easy for those of us more familiar with the latter mode of child-rearing to consider marsupials a strange and less significant sidetrack of evolution, but it’s hard to argue with their obvious success here.

 

devils1
juvenile Tasmanian devils

 

devils2
adult Tasmanian devil

 

seals1
Australian fur seals

 

dolphin1
common dolphin

 

And then of course there are what seem the ultimate bizarre mammals: the monotremes, the duck-billed platypus and the echidna, which split off the mammal trunk well before marsupials and placental mammals diverged. They produce young in soft-shelled eggs and feed them milk when they hatch by way of specialized mammary tissue. I’m still hoping to see a platypus when we travel north next week, but echidnas live at Windgrove. We’ve come upon these spiny anteaters a few times now, lumbering along poking their long, snorkel-like noses into loose dirt, under sticks, anywhere that their tongues can snag a few insects with sticky saliva. They have poor eyesight but keen hearing, so the click of my camera shutter usually makes them freeze and tuck themselves into a ball of quills. One alarmed echidna scooted over to a patch of tall grass and immediately began digging itself in at the base of the plant. With backwards facing hind feet and strong front claws, it was able to excavate a deep pit in no time, and soon only its prickly back was exposed. I was not tempted to dislodge it. If the quills weren’t deterrent enough, the males also have a venomous claw on each hind leg.

 

 

echidna4a
short-beaked echidna

echidna6

There is another group of mammals – the ones like rabbits and feral cats introduced by humans – that has had a profound and often devastating effect on Australian ecosystems, but I will save discussing them for another time. Meanwhile, even though I know it’s futile, I can’t help hoping that I will round a corner on the trail one day to discover a dog-like marsupial with a striped back and wide jaws devouring a rabbit. It’s been officially extinct for almost a century now, but there are those who believe that the Thylacine, the Tasmanian tiger, still roams in wild places here. Windgrove seems like a perfect spot for it.

thylacine_gape
Thylacine