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.

 

 

 

Habit

Back when the dog was young, we would take early morning walks on a path that led under some red mulberry trees.  One summer morning as we approached the trees, we surprised a large groundhog foraging for dropped berries.  The dog instantly lunged – this was her first sighting of a groundhog – and the groundhog bolted under a nearby shed.  It never reappeared, but her expectations never changed. For the next 12 years, every time we walked past this spot, her ears would prick forward, she would sniff intently at the pavement, and look toward the shed. It was a lifelong predatory habit born of one exciting moment.

A year or so ago, Dan and I took a walk down the Red Run trail, a path I take regularly.  As we approached the bridge, Dan pointed to the bank.  “What is that?” I grabbed my camera and took a few quick shots.  The blurry photos revealed a mink – a thrilling first sighting of an animal that, while common, is very elusive.

Like the dog with her first groundhog, I have since approached the Red Run bridge anticipating a mink.  40 times or more over the past year I have crossed that bridge, each time scanning up and downstream with my camera ready, in the grip of the predatory habit.

Crossing the bridge today, the habit paid off.

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Strike

It happens all too often this time of year. A student runs in, breathless: “Emily, there’s a hurt/dead bird!”  A crowd has likely already gathered around a tiny still figure.  Or maybe it’s still fluttering a bit, but its head is cocked awkwardly to one side, one eye barely open. Usually it lies beneath a window.  Today, there were two casualties, a junco and a cardinal. Sometimes I bag and label birds that die and put them in the freezer with the frozen mice.  I pull them out when we are learning about bird adaptations, and we compare feet or bills or plumage.  Or we may bury it, its grave marked with an elaborately decorated stone.

Other times, it is just a scattering of feathers that we find, the plucked remains from a hawk’s meal.  These feathers usually make their way into someone’s fort collection, become decorations, or are attached to a whittled arrow.fort4

A pileated woodpecker with a neck injury appeared mysteriously on the soccer field after a game recently.  No one saw it land there; it was seen struggling to get upright, and was brought to the science room. It was eventually taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center.  No word has yet come as to its condition; we expect it did not survive.

There is something especially poignant about bird strikes, especially when they are committed by an invisible, deadly barrier.  Adaptations to aerial predators are no match for glass.

Watching TV

On sunny late fall days at school, as the aftercare kids busy themselves with fort business, or whittling, or a tag game on the playground, someone invariably pauses, points up, and cries, “TV!” And sure enough, there they are, circling in the late afternoon thermals on the pale blue screen of the sky above us.  We watch, we count, we speculate as to why they are there and how long they might stay, or what they might be sensing.  The TV’s command attention, and then they sail away.

408547_226774150733424_1858972515_nIt is one of the first acronyms that kids learn in science, when we are taking a walk outside and I suddenly say, “Let’s watch TV!” They pause, puzzled.  Some cheer, thinking that we will be going inside to see SpongeBob or whatever it is that kids like to watch these days. “Look up!” I tell them, and then they spot the enormous wings sailing overhead, the heads bent low, the effortless gliding grace.  “It’s just a vulture,” one student will usually inform me, and I will add, emphasizing the sounds,”But it’s a Turkey Vulture.  Here we are, outside, watching TV!” Then we will sit or lie down and spend the next few minutes watching TV, noting how they will tip to one side, then right themselves, how they seem to have fingers that help steer, speculating what dead thing they might be looking for, are are they just having fun up there, looking down at us?

I have seen kids get into their car at carpool and announce to their baffled parents that they watched TV during aftercare.  I smile, nod, close the car door.  Let them wonder.

The ecosystem of an experiment

Do birds prefer popcorn or sunflower seeds?

M Group is in the middle of conducting their annual seed preference experiment. They each make a simple bird feeder from a plastic container, count out equal numbers of popcorn kernels and sunflower seeds, and hang it with a suction cup from a window at school. Every day for ten days, they check their feeder to count the remaining seeds, record and replace the seeds taken.
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This experiment on preferences had its genesis in a grad school ecology class.  We were required to devise some kind of quantitative study where we could practice field work and data collection.  While my classmates studied coyote foraging, tree cover, and dragonfly mortality, I decided to embed the study in my class focus on oaks – specifically, whether certain weights of acorns are preferred by gray squirrels.  We designed and built squirrel feeders and filled them with a 50/50 mix of red oak acorns that had been cadata1refully weighed and sorted into “heavy” and “light” categories. As with the bird feeders, they did daily counts of remaining acorns and replaced those that had been taken.  The statistical analysis of our data showed a small but significant preference for heavier acorns.

But these results were insignificant in and of themselves.  They were simply one by-product of a vast array of interwoven learning experiences engendered by the experiment.  Just by following required procedures, the fourth graders learned how to set up a scientifically sound experiment, the importance of controlling variables, how to measure, to record data, and how to make sense of a set of numbers.  But beyond this, the experiment expanded in ways I could not have foretold.  The kids began to ask questions like, “Well, if squirrels take and bury more of the heavier acorns, won’t more of those grow into trees?  So won’t oak trees make heavier acorns over time?” This intuitive grasp of natural selection stunned me.  I also saw kids starting to spend their recess time “staking out” their feeders, in an effort to determine whether other animals such as blue jays and chipmunks were visiting them.  More than once, a child reported that, not only had no acorns been taken, but there were MORE acorns in the feeder than had originally been put there!  What was up with that?  The interest in animal behavior sparked by this experiment continued well beyond the fall and into the winter, when the kids saw that I had hung bird feeders and wanted to know – of course – what kind of seeds the birds preferred.  And could they design their own bird feeders…?

The acorn experiment has since been shelved, but the experimental bird feeders remain a popular, easily maintained, and adaptable project.  Invariably, when the students are presented with the question of seed preference and are asked to make a hypothesis, most predict that more popcorn seeds will be taken. After all, the kids rationalize, each seed is slightly heavier than a sunflower seed, it takes more work to shell a sunflower seed that to swallow a popcorn kernel, you often see flocks of birds like crows and geese in corn fields, and more people eat popcorn as a snack (albeit not in kernel form).

It is precisely these kinds of inferences that science loves to challenge, test, and revise.  The more qualitative test that I relish is whether I will observe another transformation accompanying the empirical challenge.

birdbookOne fourth grader has been bringing a field guide to the woods during recess.  He sits by the stream near his fort and studies it, then accompanies me up the hill when the lunch bell rings, asking me questions like, “Is a purple finch the same as a house finch? Do we have them here? Why don’t they show a house finch if they live here?”  He asked his parents for a bird guide of his own. Because, he explained, “I’m fixing up an old feeder that a teacher gave me, and I want to see what kinds of birds come.  Maybe they will be different than the ones we get at school.”

Last call

It had been dry and cloudless for many weeks in Maryland when the earth finally spun into equinox. A tiny spring peeper was discovered clinging to a wall, and a large toad took up residence in the hollow climbing log on the playgfroground.  Both had swollen bellies, as if they were maintaining their body moisture from within. The kids found an imperial moth caterpillar moving sluggishly under pine trees and brought it to be photographed.  In the garden, a black swallowtail caterpillar munched its way along carrot leaves, along with the tiniest isabella moth caterpillar I’ve ever seen.

When I teach a lesson on winter adaptations, it’s hard to impart to kids the simultaneous urgency and inevitable slowing-down that these creatures must experience at this time of year.  This week, early fall storm systems have brought drenching rains and cooler temperatures, reinforcing the cues of diminishing day length and angle of sunlight.  Torpor, the entry into  suspended animation of body systems that cold-blooded animals rely on to survive freezing temperatures, will begin to occur – ready or not.  Many of the young mammals who are my students continue to race around outdoors in apparent disregard of metabolic challenges. Some decline to wear extra layers for insulation, claiming – and who could refute it but the animal herself? – that they don’t feel cold. They will happily go about their normal, carefree play activities while others (including their teachers) huddle nearby in heavy coats or abandon these flimsy insulation efforts to seek heat indoors. It is a season of differentiation, a time when human perception of affordances includes a new array of sensory information and leads to a self-sorting at different levels of resilience and opportunity.

mouseOn one of those last warm days of September, a cry went up from the pine woods: “A mouse!” By the time I arrived, a protective barrier of rocks had been placed around the pile of stones and leaves where a young deer (or white-footed?) mouse sat hunched and quivering.  “It’s cold! We should take it inside!” one child offered. Another replied that she thought it was just scared, and a third commented that it couldn’t be cold with a fur coat.  We watched it for a minute, talking about how well it could manage on its own out here.  They concluded that if it had to remain outside, they could at least provide it with some better shelter, and set to work constructing a mouse house from sticks nearby.  20 minutes later, when I dropped by to see their progress, I was informed that the mouse had disappeared, but that they intended to complete the house anyway, and to keep it stocked with seeds from the sunflowers in the garden –“So it can choose what it wants to do.”

Camo

camolooper-2Today was all about the little things, most of which seem determined not to be seen.  Squatting and peering under leaves, following a tiny moth as it fluttered through the grass, searching for the host of a web spun between pine needles, I paused to consider the brown, out-of-place petals protruding from a flower corolla.  Then I realized that they were moving of their own accord. This recalled another such instance on a hike, when a similar assortment of petals made its way across a daisy, and turned out to be the caterpillar of an emerald moth, or a camouflage looper. This current ragamuffin, which had attached bits of petal to itself until completely covered, was so minute that I couldn’t tell how best to photograph it, or where a head or legs might even be.  Its movements were erratic; it appeared to lift its head every so often and then lower it to resume feeding, blending in with the other petals.

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Rounding the corner into the garden, I looked hard at the zinnias and cosmos, expecting a spider at least, but found nothing.  The joe-pye weed had nearly all gone to seed, but the last bit of pink betrayed an ominous shape: a jagged ambush bug. It straddled a blossom like an apocalyptic insect horseman, its round eyes bulging and its fearsome hooked forelegs ready to pounce. Only a few millimeters long, it tackles prey many times its size.

I wonder if an ambush bug would be fooled by a camouflage looper, or if the looper would notice the ambush bug.

Emerging

“Where are the bees and butterflies?”

This is a question that has come up in August for at least the past couple of years. It comes from friends and colleagues who spend time outdoors, especially those who garden. It used to be that we would discuss the overabundance of pests – explosions of brown marmorated stinkbugs, flea beetles, and aphids. Those may still be problems, but now they seem overshadowed by the absence of pollinators, specifically honeybees and monarchs. The question catches me off guard every time, and I find myself quickly riffling through a mental catalog of recent images to see if bees and butterflies really have declined there. I realize as I do this that my catalog – my awareness of this particular sector of biodiversity – probably does not give an accurate reckoning. Just looking at the photographs I’ve taken confirms it. I love photographing pollinators, but honeybees account for a tiny proportion of my images. Instead, there are other types of bees, syrphid flies, ichneumon wasps, moths, ants, and myriad other bugs. Butterflies are certainly a favorite focus, but among these prevail the tiny hairstreaks and blues, the buckeyes and fritillaries. Honeybees and monarchs do get their share of attention, but only in certain quintessential moments: the first honeybee with loaded pollen sacs, delving into the first spring blossoms, the striped monarch caterpillar munching on milkweed, its black antennae waving wildly, or an adult’s orange wings a bold beacon flashing among meadow grasses.

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People who study pollinators will tell you that honeybees and monarch butterflies are not the most critical for sustaining the biodiversity of flowering plants. But as commonly cultivated species, they have become charismatic pollinator poster children. This fall, a family that raises butterflies at their home brought in several monarch caterpillars in a rearing chamber so that students could watch their metamorphosis. They performed beautifully, eating their milkweed and then climbing to the top of the chamber to affix themselves into dangling J-shapes before almost instantly transforming into lovely jade-green chrysalises. A week or so later, again in the blink of an eye, they popped out of those cases to pump and spread their wings. It is a privileged and wondrous moment to behold. Watching the faces of children who witness this transformation, who let the butterfly step onto their finger and feel that nearly weightless being lift into first flight, is to see an indelible impression being made.

Is the captive rearing of species such as honeybees and monarchs a best practice for sustaining biodiversity? Is it any different from celebrating the recent birth of a giant panda in the National Zoo? To me, the question is less about the well-being of these species, and more about whether the attention they receive detracts from others that are permonarch0730151haps less appealing, but are vital pieces of a larger puzzle whose full picture is still being described. What about the striking saddleback caterpillar with venomous spines that we watch out for in the woods? What about the plump orange milkweed bug nymphs huddling on the milkweed leaves?

When the last of the donated monarch butterflies had emerged and flown, the parent who had loaned us the rearing setup came to retrieve it. She saw that one chrysalis still hung there, mostly green, but with one dark blotch. “Oh, that one will produce a parasitic grub,” she said. “You should just destroy it.” I thanked her and asked to keep it a few days longer. That puzzle isn’t finished quite yet.