I wonder if… you will see a koala bear

Dear J-E Missy/Kalli,

My last blog post mentioned two of my favorite new animals that I’ve seen in Tasmania: the duck-billed platypus, and MacLeay’s Swallowtail. Both of those animals are native to both Tasmania and mainland Australia, meaning they evolved here over millions of years.

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Nick was wondering “if you will see a koala bear.” Koalas do live in Australia, but only on the mainland. Since Tasmania is a smaller island to the south, and you have to either fly or take a boat and cross 150 miles of choppy water from mainland Australia, koalas would have to be champion swimmers to get here by themselves. People often “introduce” animals and plants to places far away where they can’t bring themselves. Sometimes those introduced species can become a problem, because they don’t stay in balance with the rest of the living things in the place that they are introduced to. Because of the problems it has had with introduced species, Australia is now very careful about what it lets people bring into the country, and to islands like Tasmania. When you fly here, there are specially trained sniffer dogs in the airport that check you and your luggage out to make sure you haven’t brought in any kind of fruits, vegetables, animals, or any products made from them that could be carrying pest species.

I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to introduce the koala bear to the wild in Tasmania, but there is another introduced animal whose name sounds kind of similar: the kookaburra. It is a big bird that is known for its incredibly loud “laugh.” Actually, to me it sounds more like a combination of all of the loud jungle noises you could possibly imagine. Kookaburras live in family groups, so there are often several of them whooping it up at once.

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Laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguinea)

Laughing kookaburras are native to eastern mainland Australia, but people brought them to other parts of the country, where they are now considered a pest. They nest in holes where parrots and owls usually would, and will eat baby birds and other little animals that can’t hide well or escape from them. Watching them in the old gum trees is entertaining, but when they show up, other birds leave. Last week I was hiking through a rainforest where there should have been great habitat for birds, but the only bird I saw or heard for hours was a kookaburra.

So, to answer your question, I won’t see a koala in Tasmania unless I go to a zoo. But I have seen its cousin, the native wombat, which looks like a small bear and has a face similar to a koala’s. It moves faster than a koala, though, so I sneak and spy on it when it is looking for food at dusk.

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What native and introduced animals do you think live 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.

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pademelon

 

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red-necked wallaby

 

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wombat

 

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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.

 

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juvenile Tasmanian devils

 

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adult Tasmanian devil

 

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Australian fur seals

 

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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.

 

 

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short-beaked echidna

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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.

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Thylacine

Learning the language

One of my favorite authors, Barry Lopez, once gave advice to an aspiring writer, concluding with “Get out of town.” Only when you get far away from home do you face the necessity of learning new languages, meeting new people, understanding new cultures. It stretches you in unexpected ways.

I’m out of town now – way out. So far out that moss grows on the south side of trees – trees that never lose their leaves, that cast a lovely pungent scent, and that bear odd names: she-oak, black peppermint, coastal wattle, banksia, prickly box.Banksia serrata I am so far out of town that Orion has tipped upside down in the night sky, wallaby and pademelon are the local, equally common and voracious version of deer, and the constant roar of surf plays background for utterly unfamiliar birdsong and the chatter of cicadas. When I catch sight of something that I think I know – say, a weeping willow – it is usually, just like me, introduced. Likewise, in the midst of all this strangeness, it astonishes me to come across a butterfly that I instantly recognize – a painted lady. But an Australian Painted Lady: Vanessa kershawi. How did that happen?Vanessa kershawi

I knew that being in Tasmania and New Zealand would provide a different view of biodiversity, but what I didn’t anticipate was becoming a three year old again. I am continually asking Peter, our patient host at Windgrove (www.windgrove.com), “What’s that? What’s that?” And, because virtually everything is new to me, I have no filters for the uncommon, the extraordinary. When your senses are trained and attuned to a particular context, the slightest sound or movement doesn’t put you on alert. Here, not yet knowing the significance of anything, everything becomes significant.

toolsWith Peter’s help and some Tasmanian field guides in hand (building the toolkit), I’ve begun the first steps of learning what’s here. I am, in effect, undergoing the very education in biodiversity that I want to explore during my Fulbright project. This is an unexpected benefit, and one that is beginning to yield insights into what it takes to become familiar with an unfamiliar ecosystem. kookaburra2One of the most important is understanding the dynamics of the landscape and the environmental effects of variables like climate (this area is experiencing drought right now) or invasive species (that kookaburra sitting in the old gum tree just off the deck in the welcome rain, laughing).Even though English is spoken here, I feel like I’m learning a new language: individual species are the vocabulary, while how they fit together within their ecosystem is the grammar.

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And, speaking of language, I am doing that other three-year old thing: inventing names. Bottle bird, toilet seat skink, flame butt, sugarberries. Eventually maybe I’ll figure out their real names.

 

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I’ll be putting lots of new photos up on Flickr (sidebar), identifying and commenting on them as I am able. Feel free to visit Dan’s site as well, www.panopicnic.com. It’s not every traveler who gets to have a professional photographer-spouse tagging along, but I got lucky.

 

 

 

Mystery

Entering a first grade classroom to pick up my students yesterday, I was greeted with a chorus of “Look what fairies and elves did to our desks while we were gone!” Sure enough, all of the desks were strewn with gold glitter, and the kids were beside themselves with excitement and consternation. “We need to catch them! But how?” The teacher turned to me and said, “I bet Emily has some ideas.”

What is a science teacher to do? As we walked to my classroom, I asked questions. “How big are elves, do you think?” “Can fairies fly?” “What do they like to eat?” “Do they collect things?” By the time we were in the classroom, I had learned that elves prefer green, unless they are rainbow elves, in which case they like all colors. Fairies come in different sizes; the tooth fairy (who is definitely not implicated in the glitter case) has to be very tiny to fit under a pillow, but some fairies are bigger so they won’t blow around in the wind. Both elves and fairies carry magic wands – thus the glitter. They like candy and shiny things, so these should be used as bait in the traps.
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This was not the lesson that I had intended for this day, nor ever really. My plan that day, which we moved into eventually, was one of my early fall standards for the younger grades. Kids use wooden blocks and a large assortment of plastic animals to create imaginary zoos. Sorting animals into groups of their own choosing reveals a great deal about their knowledge, experience, and perceptions. Some approach the task by applying predator/prey filters, while others sort by color, size, species, or habitat. The cage constructions are also telling: some are elaborate buildings, and some are expansive fenced fields. I visit each zoo and ask questions, trying to figure out sorting strategies: “I see this area has horses and zebras. Could you add a cow to it?” “Why does a bat belong with stingrays and chickens?” (wings, of course).

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Young children figuring out science often appear to recapitulate the long – and ongoing – story of humankind figuring out science. It begins with phenomena that demand explanation, creates a narrative of logical explication, and arrives (usually) at a solution that makes sense. We constantly talk about testing ideas, obtaining measurable and meaningful results, and yet the whole process of figuring out the answer to a scientific mystery can still feel beautifully magical at times.

At the end of class, I announced that it was time to take down the zoos and return animals and blocks. In five minutes, all traces of zoos were gone except for one small, square block structure on the floor that two boys had vigorously protected as the others were cleaning. “What’s that for?” I asked, seeing no animals inside.

“Fairy trap,” they answered. “Do you have any candy?”

Edibles

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Finding and sampling wild edibles at school is something I’m willing to bet very few schools would allow, let alone encourage.  I can’t recall exactly how I got started teaching kids about sour grass (oxalis), making acorn pancakes and dandelion fritters, and collecting wineberries; it seems like it was always a part of being and learning outdoors.  Actually, they introduced me to wild onions, coming back from recess happily reeking. I didn’t grow up doing this, I am fairly certain.  Though I spent a great deal of time playing in woods and fields, my palate was not adventurous.  But when I started teaching science, I came across  several foraging books that intrigued me, and I began to experiment myself with safe, easily recognized plants. Kids quickly became curious, and when I was confident of my ID’s, I let them try sour grass (“no more than three hearts”), shell and nibble on an acorn, and eat garlic mustard and plantain leaves. Sometimes, the taste would make them spit with disgust (an acorn’s tannic acid, or a spicebush berry’s powerful flavor).  Along the way, I provided cautions regarding hazards: location (“Stay away from mowed areas, roads and paths) and plants to avoid (poison ivy, pokeweed, most berries). I was amazed at their accuracy in quickly distinguishing edible and poisonous species.

That spring day when, much to my astonishment, I found a morel mushroom growing in the Jemicy woods, I knew that10258374_661305690613599_6396863428621363374_o I would have to draw a line between the kingdoms of plants and fungi in terms of eating wild foods with kids. Mushrooms demand a different order of attention and respect. The kids could see my excitement, and my concern, and seemed unfazed when I explained that they would be unable to eat these – unless their parents requested that they bring some home for them to prepare – but that they held great value for me. For the kids, the pleasure was in the hunt, and the delight of discovering another “brain on a stick” hiding on the hillside.  They guarded the site and warned away anyone who seemed likely to trample chickensthe mushrooms.
This same protective attitude emerged the next fall when we found a dead log near the stream sprouting a wealth of bright orange sulphur shelf mushrooms: chicken-of-the-woods.  Again, I exclaimed over this bounty, and the kids seemed both curious and glad that I would be able to enjoy them. I hope that they will bring this enthusiastic attention to fungi along into their own adulthoods.

When we take hikes specifically to search for plants, “Is it edible?” is almost always the first question asked.  Curiosity about which wild plants can be safely eaten would seem to be an inherent trait, essential to survival. It also powerfully supports the notion that every plant can be regarded as affording some sort of human action, further stimulating the desire to know, to learn, to recognize what that affordance might be.

Artifact

TDSC_0036his week, my JE classes are looking for artifacts, to try and piece together the mystery of Jemicy’s history.  An artifact, I told them, is something made by hand.  Maybe a piece of pottery, a chunk of metal or glass, or a stone shaped for a purpose. Jemicy’s wooded hillside leading down to the smattfeatherstream is loaded with artifacts, having been backfilled with the construction refuse of prior tenants, including a dairy farm and another small school. We headed out with collecting bags to search the woods.  Immediately, old bricks and chunks of clay drainage pipe were discovered.  Pieces of thick, oddly shaped glass surfaced, and large slabs of concrete protruded from a half century’s collection of forest detritus.  It seemed impossible to account for all the pieces of human activity strewn around us. We spent an hour hunting, spreading out through the woods, and when we finally gathered to share our finds, “artifact” had expanded its meaning.  Here, among the scattered clay and glass shards, were spherical garnets and chunks of sparkling mica schist, jagged pieces of quartzite, a handful of scarlet spicebush berries, some wild apples, a black crow’s feather, and a red-tailed hawk’s red tail feather. In these woods so altered by humans, many of the most attractive artifacts are those that are not shaped by hands.  They are the collectible bits of evidence that other animals have been here, fruits announcing ripeness, and the gleaming, perfectly pocket-sized rocks that weather and time have revealed.

Rainbow

The old dog and I walked out to the meadow by the house, she to slowly wander about considering pooping, and I to scan the grasses for butterflies.The pile of deer dung lying under the white oak looked fresh.  There are many of these right now where the deer have stood chewing their acorn/yard shrub cud. I decided it was worth flicking this one into the woods with my trowel so that the dog wouldn’t eat or roll in one of her favorite fragrances. The pile was softer than I expected, and split apart when I nudged it, revealing the startling glimmer of a chunky, iridescent beetle lodged in the center.  My first thought was, “Now why was a deer eating June bugs?” Then I saw a large horn protruding from the pronotum, bright green elytra, and ruby red shining over its thorax.  Whatever it was, I needed my camera.  When I returned and photographed its awkward, disoriented journey down the length of the trowel, I was still astounded.  This creature had never crossed my path before.  I could guess at some of its taxonomy, but only up to dung beetle.  And who had ever heard of a beetle that spends its life working dung into balls for the benefit of its young having such incredibly vivid colors?  Why would it?

rainbow1This morning I shared the wonder of this discovery with my M Group students, first showing them a photo, and then asking them to try classifying it.  They all agreed on beetle, but beyond that was a mystery.  I clarified where and how I found it, and then showed them how to search with the terms that they knew or observed – beetle found in deer dung, shiny, rainbow colors, horn. And there it was, the rainbow scarab, Phanaeus vindex, pharaoh of the dung heap.

And why the bright colors? “Because if you lived in poop, you’d want to look all sparkly so no one would think you were poop.” 

Sustainability scramble

warning signThat momentary mental jumble when I am  asked what I will be doing in New Zealand.  Then the slow churning of multiple syllables in my mind as I prepare to deliver them in some coherent fashion: “Looking at how kids learn about sustainability through understanding local biodiversity.”  Sometimes this torrent of sounds registers, and I get an honest nod of understanding; more often, it’s a polite, bemused smile. Too many scrambled word bits.

Clearly, I need to find a better way to express these two primary themes of my Fulbright project, at least for the kids that I’ll be working with.  I have barely begun to broach the topic of biodiversity with M Group, but so far presenting it as “How many species?” is a start.  We began by trying to figure out the biodiversity of the classroom (about 20 species, not counting the wild things that inhabit dark corners), their houses (this was fun when they realized that their fish tanks and houseplants accounted for many different species), and a single milkweed plant outside (at least 10 species of aphids, milkweed bugs, wasps, flies, etc.).  I am hoping to be able to segue this fairly concrete definition into the part that is sustainability by asking, “How do our actions affect these numbers?”

neshamaBut even more simplicity is needed, I think, to make these terms manageable. Breaking biodiversity into morphemes yields something along the lines of differences in living things.  That’s not a bad start.  Sustainability is trickier, assimilated by so many different political, educational, and economic sectors. I like the idea of “to bear” better than “to endure,” since that implies an immediate and personal responsibility.  Endurance heads off into a realm that is too easy to ignore or postpone.  We’ve got a job to do now, vs. we’ll figure that out when it gets bad.  Even more appealing is the idea that to sustain is to care.  In my classroom, I have a dozen small habitats containing diverse living things.  I care about them, so it is my job to sustain their worlds, to care for them.

What kinds? How many? Caring about them.  Caring for them. Biodiversity and sustainability in a nutshell.