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?

 

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.

 

 

 

Dispersal

Gliders, dogs, tennis balls, crossbows, inviting packages, blowguns: just a few of the mechanisms devised by the M Groupers to meet the annual Seed Dispersal Challenge.  After the class studies different means of dispersing seeds through wind, water, animals, and propulsion, students create their own way of getting a bean seed to travel at least 3 meters away from themselves.  Use of their own muscles is restricted to one small movement of the fingers – as in, drop a seed or glider, or release a trigger. The seed has to land on a surface where it could potentially grow, and a logical argument must be made for how the next and future generations could use the same technique to disperse their seeds as well.  Attaching a seed to a ball and letting gravity roll it down a hill, for example, only works for one generation, as the next will not have the same gravitational benefit. maggieOver the years, I have witnessed countless ingenious solutions, including loosely taping the seed to the top of a 3-meter long pole, then letting it topple over to release the seed.  This seed would then ostensibly grow into another tall pole-plant, which would disperse its seed in the same way. Or there was the seed attached to a soccer ball, which was left on the grass and eventually kicked away by a passing child who was unaware of the challenge, but who couldn’t pass up the obvious invitation.

During aftercare today, I noticed a dozen or so familiar-looking saplings growing under the canopy of the pines: golden rain tree.  A large, non-native ornamental now considered invasive, a single tree had been planted about fifteen years ago, succumbing to an unknown disease just last summer.  In those fifteen years, it had produced prolific pods bearing wind-borne seeds, but until now I had never seen its offspring.  So many inadvertent plantings, and these were only the visible ones. The saplings were just beginning to reach above a thick growth of other introduced, invasive plants: garlic mustard, wine berry, and burdock. Osage orange and yellow buckeyes, prized in the Jemicy fort culture, are not native to this region either. They join the golden rain tree and other introduced plants in that enormous pantheon of species that humans decided, for one reasonparkerseeds or other, to bring here.  And once established, facing no native controls, most take over dispersal responsibilities with the utmost success.

“Are all introduced species bad?” “Are all native species good?” “But don’t we want more species for biodiversity?” These are questions from students that I can’t definitively answer. What I can say is, “Look around you. Which kinds of plants are there the most of? Which kinds are there very few of? Does it seem like some are growing “out of control”? And then we look for the stories of how certain species got here – why humans decided they wanted them, and the effect that they have on others. I hope from this they will take away at least one message: dispersal doesn’t end with the single seed that we successfully launch; it is just the beginning.