Alarums and excursions

The mornings were dedicated to ‘processing’ animals and collecting data, and the afternoons often to ‘sightseeing’ around Arthur River. Betty and I helped with data entry on a couple of afternoons when we were too bushed to go out again; a quiet afternoon quaffing coffee and working on spreadsheets was just the ticket then.

Betty hard at data entry

Betty hard at data entry

The dashing devil alarum

Spotlighting was done after dinner most nights. Darkness comes relatively late in Tassie at this time of year, before daylight saving ends.

So it was that Seb took a 4WD-full (including me) to see what we could see. He drove slowly while one person on each side of the 4WD shone a powerful spotlight to the side of the road and into the trees beyond, and a third person entered on a data sheet the numbers of whichever critter was spotted. We saw several wombats and many Bennett’s wallabies, and one group a ring-tailed possum up a tree (eyeshine is the thing to notice in trees; then you stop the car and have a closer look). But, possibly because of local farmers on a wallaby- and rabbit-shooting expedition (hence increasing the population of the pest, European wasps), we saw very little on our walk along a track with forest on either side. The sound of guns would have scared anything off. The spookiest thing was the eyeshine of a large group of curious black cattle in a nearby paddock.

The road to and from Arthur River has a stretch with a ‘virtual fence’. It is something like 12 km of poles on both sides of the road. Each one has affixed a sensor which detects car headlights and gives off an alarm and blue flashing lights in front of and as a car shoots past. This system has proven effective with deer in some parts of North America and apparently the number of roadkills has dropped on the approach to Arthur River because of this system. You can see a video of the alarms here.

'Virtual fence' pole

‘Virtual fence’ poles emit sound and light at night in response to car headlights

Those of you who live in the countryside have probably had the night-time experience of something small and furry and very fast dashing from concealment past the front of your car. It’s a heart-stopping moment. So far (touch wood), I’ve not hit anyone.

So it was a very near thing – and our reaction times are just not fast enough when an animal decides to make a run for it – when a devil ran out in front of our ute on the way back to Arthur River! It was not in the ‘virtual fence’ zone. Seb slammed on the brakes and missed it. Oh the irony if he had hit it! Well done, Seb, for missing.

The inchman alarum

After checking traps one morning, Gini, Betty, David and I were about to get into the ute to go to another site when Gini got a call on her mobile that the team doing habitat surveys further along our track couldn’t find the remote camera. She and David went off to walk the 4 km round trip to help them find it. Betty and I stayed back; Betty pottered around looking for interesting orchids and I had a short nap in the ute. After I woke up, I got out and sat on a large log, and Betty chose one close to it. But shortly she was leaping to her feet, being bitten by the fierce native Tasmanian inchman ant. She had inadvertently sat on their nest hole, and they were not happy!

Inchman

Inchman

 

 

She was being bitten inside her trousers as well as on the neck and she had about 10 on the back of her shirt, so I tried to pull one off. OUCH! They are more painful than jumping-ant bites and last longer. So I yelled, ‘Take your clothes off, take your clothes off!’ and grabbed a fallen tree branch, with which I proceeded to hit the ants on her shed clothes. They wouldn’t come off any other way.

Now this would have been hilarious seen by anyone else, Betty dancing around half-clothed and me whacking away furiously, but luckily we were not visible from the road. I myself have been embarrassed shedding clothes after jumping ants climbed up me near the road on my property the moment a neighbour drove past. We saw the funny side afterwards, but the bites caused Betty a lot of irritation over the next few days.

Inchman model in Launceston museum

Inchman model in Launceston museum

Tassie 2016_Betty 16Tassie 2016_Betty 17

Inchman nest model

Inchman nest model

On the plus side, I now know what the top of an ant nest in a fallen log looks like.

Top of inchman nest in decaying log

Do not sit on one of these – top of inchman nest in decaying log; the ants have burrowed in and scooped out the wood, which piles on top.

 

The Edge of the World excursion

I did not take a photo of the plaque at Gardiner Point, aka The Edge of the World (there are plenty on the interwebs), but it certainly is a wild and woolly place. Winds scream in from Antarctica and Argentina and the surf crashes and smashes. In a winter storm it would be extraordinary.

Surf_2Surf_1

Dead trees from previous floods have washed down the Arthur River to the ocean

Dead trees from floods have washed down the Arthur River to the ocean.

A woman was swimming in the cold water, albeit wearing a wetsuit. Other occupiers of the beach were detected by their signs: a Tasmanian devil and a Bennett’s wallaby. The devil has a peculiar lope on the balls of its feet, as evidenced by the three footprints together and lack of heel print. The larger pair is from the Bennett’s wallaby. Wombats also cruise the beaches for plant snacks.

Tassie devil (left) and wallaby (right) footprints on the beach

Tassie devil (left) and wallaby (right) footprints on the beach

 

 

Wombat burrow

Wombat burrow

The beaches were exceptionally clean, with the odd bit of kelp and old shell.

The riverboat excursion

I like me a nice boat trip (especially one where I can’t get seasick) and the one down the Arthur River on the MV George Robinson was relaxing and informative.

MV George Robinson

MV George Robinson; note the backburn and original vegetation in the background

According to the captain, Greg, the Arthur River is the only completely wild Tasmanian river. It has never been logged or dammed. There hasn’t been a hot fire through this part of the Tarkine Wilderness for almost 650 years, so the river remains much as it has been for thousands of years.

Greg and Lesley know their river and the Tarkine wilderness so we got a lot of information. A pair of sea eagles knew they would get a feed, so were readily attracted for a photo.

Sea eagle on Arthur River; photo bt Dianne Bennett

Sea eagle on Arthur River; photo by Dianne Bennett

Their huge nest, used for generations, was lodged in a giant tree fork.

Sea eagle nest

Sea eagle nest

The boys compare their (very expensive) toys; Lesley takes coffee orders; David immerses himself in the Disc World

The boys compare their (very expensive) toys while Lesley takes coffee orders and David immerses himself in the Disc World.

Tarkine_1We got off at a landing and walked along a track into the cool temperate forest (the greatest of cool temperate rainforest in Australia and the second largest expanse of cool temperate rainforest in the world) and Greg continued his interesting botanical information. Manferns (Dicksonia antarctica) were all over the place.

Tarkine_6  Tarkine_2 Tarkine_3 Tarkine_4 Tarkine_5

It was a very worthwhile five hours.

The petroglyph excursion

Seb kindly offered to take a 4WD-full of volunteers to Sunset Point to see the petroglyphs.

Afternoon excursion time

Afternoon excursion time

As usual with petroglyphs, no one really knows how old these are. The local indigenous people are happy for tourists to see them, but there are others along the coast in more secret locations that no one is allowed to see (not even them). And fair enough, too.

Sunset point petroglyph_1 Sunset Point petroglyph_2 Sunset Point petroglyph_3

 

There are many middens and signs of old habitation along the beaches and in the hinterland. These sites are protected by law, but that doesn’t stop wilful destruction by certain members of the beach-driving community, unfortunately.

We also saw ancient stone tools, but respectfully left them there (it is illegal to take them).

Stone tools

The Preminghana excursion

We had the privilege of spending an afternoon at the Preminghana Indigenous Protected Area. Our task for the afternoon was helping get rid of the infesting weed, gorse.

Clearing gorse

Betty shows great glee ripping out that horrible gorse.

In return, Jarrod and Vic guided us up the mountain to spectacular views. I’m not allowed to publish those, but let me tell you it was worth the twisted ankle I gained on the way down. Absolutely spectacular!

We were the first white people up there for 15 years. ‘I don’t know how I feel about that,’ said Jarrod. We were welcomed to country and smoked, which I found very moving. These men have such a positive vision for their country and long may they prosper.

The fossil excursion

Greg Jordan and Mike McPhail, the palaeobotanists, were after fossils. They knew of a road cutting on the Corinna Road, but weren’t sure where it was exactly, as there was no GPS last time fossils had been found there. So the hunt was on, travelling through the burnt lands.

Fossil Fossil_2

These were not great as fossils go – the soil around them was very crumbly and yet they were estimated to be 33 million years old (!) – and the palaeobotanists were actually after microscopic spores and seeds. So they took a few samples to be analysed in the lab later.

The devils’ dinner excursion

We were hoping to see Tasmanian devils feeding in the wild. This had happened in the past courtesy of Geoff King, a farmer and environmental advocate who regularly arranged a devilish feast on his property. But with Geoff’s death in 2013, another venue was needed.

Our fearless leaders had negotiated with another local farmer who was willing to give it a go. He’d staked out roadkill in a particular spot on his property over each of a few days prior, and it had disappeared by morning so we were optimistic about our chances. But, of course, there are no guarantees with wild animals.

Seb doing his Van Helsing imoression, staking out roadkill wallabies

Seb doing his Van Helsing impression, staking out roadkilled wallabies

So we waited, very very quietly, in the wind and dark for the devils to show up. I have to say it was very pleasant just standing silently, listening to the rain and wind and night noises in the Tasmanian bush. It’s amazing how quiet 15 people can be when they want to. Two hours later Menna called it a night. Ah well. Maybe next year.

The burnt lands

I can hardly bring myself to write this post. Contemplating all those lives – plants, animals and others – perishing in the intense fires is painful. But Nature did this and Nature will float, crawl, bounce and grow back in some form over time, even if the present ecosystem (especially that of pencil pines in the Central Plateau) does not come back.

Past the Balfour turnoff on the way to Corinna

Past the Balfour turnoff on the way to Corinna

Tasmania had an exceptionally dry and warm few months over spring and summer 2015/2016. Dry lightning strikes (where there is little accompanying rain) ignited more than 70 fires in the World Heritage Area and other wilderness areas.

We were privileged to be allowed into the ‘no go zone’, the road to Corinna, by prior arrangement via our palaeobotanists, Associate Professor Greg Jordan and Associate Professor Mike Macphail (who was a colleague of mine at the South Australian Museum).

On the Corinna road

Greg (left) and Mike (right) hasn't seen the burn at close range before. The road provided a fire break in this area.

Greg (left) and Mike (right) hadn’t seen the burn at close range before. The road provided a fire break in this area, preventing it from catching on the right.

 

Greg tells us a bit about how plants respond to fire

Greg tells us a bit about how plants respond to fire.

Some grass species, whose growing points were below ground level and so survived the fire, were regrowing after the recent rains.

Grass regrowth

The metal edge markers along this section had all melted.

Melted edge markers

Even worse further along, in the very intense fire …

Melted metal

 

Burn_1

The haze is smoke from the peat still burning. It’s not expected to go out until winter.

Burn_7

Ferns start to regrow quickly as their growing points lie below ground level and tend to survive fire.

Burn_6

Greg talks about adaptations of trees to fire.

Greg talks about adaptations of trees to fire.

Greg explained that trees respond to fires in several ways (knowledgeable botanists, please correct me if I’ve misunderstood him):

  • they survive; or
  • roasted (in very hot fires), they die, dropping their seeds, which germinate with exposure to smoke; or
  • toasted (in cooler fires), they survive and re-shoot from the growing points under the surface of their trunks. These trees tend to have deep roots, too.

Interestingly, “fire surviving” trees tend to have “fire promoting” characteristics.

The level of ground (really ash) in the forest had dropped a metre or more. Greg said this was because the intensity of the fire had destroyed all the organic matter in the soil down to a certain level, and subsequent rain had caused the ash to compress and the “ground” level to drop.

Burn_2

Burn_5The slime mould pictured below is doing well. It may be Fuligo septica, which I just have to mention because I love its common names; according to Sarah Lloyd’s Where the Slime Mould Creeps, they are dog’s vomit slime mould, kwei hi (Chinese, “demon droppings”) and caca de luna (Mexican, “moon shit”).

Slime mould (yellow, centre)

Slime mould (yellow, centre)

Burn on Corinna road_2

On the Corinna road

Burnt heath near Sundown Point, south of Arthur River

Burnt heath near Sundown Point, south of Arthur River

 

Burnt coastal forest near Sunset Point

Burnt coastal forest on sand dunes near Sunset Point

Even more endangeredFire breakThere was no loss of human life, and I suppose that’s something positive. Scientists and interested others will be watching faunal and floral developments in these areas with great attention.

Oh Zebedee!

Camera traps

Gini had put out motion-sensing cameras a while before, so the first job before doing the vegetation surveys was to retrieve the cameras. The camera points downwards to capture images of anything walking along the ground.

Camera trap (on ploe, left) and bait (right) in heath

Camera trap (on pole, left) and bait (on pole, right) in heath

Fish oil is used in the bait container.

"Remember whale oil? This is better!"

“Remember whale oil? Try this, it’s better”

Once the cameras were retrieved, we helped set up a way of measuring vegetation that could be reproduced over several years.

Vegetation studies

A initial vegetation survey provides a baseline against which to compare future changes.

It’s also apparently been found that revegetation of a degraded area does not necessarily result in birds and other animals returning, even if there is a wildlife corridor from a more pristine area (although that helps). One idea is that when there is, say, mass tree planting, the understorey (where fauna hide or sneak up on prey) is missing or less than useful to the fauna in some way. So measuring present vegetation cover and setting up a way to measure it systematically over time as it inevitably changes, and comparing that to counts of animal populations, would be valuable.

To measure current vegetation type and density, a transect was set up near each camera trap site. First the camera traps had to be located, using GPS measurements Gini took when first placing the cameras. This was sometimes easier said than done, especially in thick heath or forest.

Carrying vegetation survey gear to a camera site

Carrying vegetation survey gear to a camera site

Once the camera was found, north was located and a star picket (aligned north) was driven into ground, and marked off in heights to represent the eyelines of (highest) Bennett’s wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus fruticus, the Tasmanian subspecies of the mainland’s red-necked wallaby); the Tasmanian pademelon (the endemic Thylogale billardierii); the devil and (lowest) the quoll.

Banging in the star picket - Paul (left), Chris (right)

Driving in the star picket – Paul (left), Chris (right)

A 20-metre rope was let out towards the north, and a smaller star picket driven into the ground at the end to steady it. A green pole with the same eyeline marks was placed  at specified lengths along the rope and Chris counted the number of leaves touching the pole at the different eyeline heights. This gave an idea of the density of cover perceived by each type of animal.

Pole of doom

 

 

Chris counting leaves touching the pole

Chris counting leaves touching the pole at different eye levels of critters

 

Looking along the eyelines of each animal gave an idea of how much cover was provided. This was estimated as a percentage using a sheet divided into squares.

Estimating percentage of cover

Estimating percentage of vegetation cover – this is about 50%

The most common types of vegetation was also noted down – we non-botanists used Betty’s cheat-sheets for ID.Vegetation sheet

Chris also looked on the ground for animal holes, such as those of black, burrowing freshwater crayfish, and noted them down.

Lastly, a handheld 3D laser scan of the area was done, using CSIRO’s Zebedee. Readers of a certain age will remember the ‘Magic Roundabout’, a children’s program with said character …

Zebedee of the "Magic Roundabout"

Zebedee of the ‘Magic Roundabout’

Well, it’s no wonder CSIRO called its machine the same name.

Menna using Zebedee on easy terrain

Menna using Zebedee on easy terrain

CSIRO's Zebedee

CSIRO’s Zebedee 3D laser scanning system

We all had a go with Zebedee. However, it’s not so easy when the heath is thick …

Thick heath

or the forest is dense … Dense forest

 

Dense forest habitatThat cutting grass (the long green stuff in the photos above) is vicious, delivering deep paper-cut-like slashes to the fingers as one falls over and tries to grab something to steady oneself. And another joy of the wet sclerophyll forest is …

Helen has this little number attached to her scalp above the ear. It was well full of blood. Menna took it carefully back to the forest.

Helen had this little number attached to her scalp above the ear. It was well full of blood. Menna took it carefully back to the forest. Goodonya, Menna.

 

Now a combination of cutting grass and leech gets you this …

Wounds

At least the gaiters stopped me getting leeched on my feet or ankles. I could now proudly paraphrase Shakespeare: ‘These wounds I had on [Zebedee] day’!

More soon.

Sympathy for the devil

This was sunset on the wild shore of Arthur River, north-west Tasmania, a couple of weeks ago.

Wwinds come from Antarctica and South Africa to create a wild seascape on the western side of Tasmania

Winds come blasting in from Antarctica and South Africa to create a wild seascape on the western side of Tasmania

Fortunately, it looks as though there will not be a spectacular sunset, or a sunset of any kind, for the Tasmanian devil species. Hope is on the horizon.

Many people are working very hard to solve the mystery of Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). Why is this so?

There are several reasons:

  • The devils are intrinsically interesting, even cute, and worthwhile saving for themselves alone. They are not the savage creatures often portrayed – they scream to establish a pecking order, and only bite if this doesn’t work (biting is how the cancer gets transmitted); they are generally timid. Can DTFD be stopped?
  • They play an important part in the food web, being the largest predator in Tasmania now that the thylacine has gone (the spotted-tail quoll is slightly smaller). As their populations crash (80% in some areas, 95% in others) due to starvation as the tumours grow to a large size and stop them feeding, and breakdown of body functions, the balance adjusts. They are mostly scavengers and occasional predators on things like possums, so fewer devils mean more carcasses (often road kill) for the spotted-tailed quolls, more food for the meat-eating European wasps (an introduced pest), more for the wedge-tailed eagles, and more for the remaining devils, enabling them to be healthier and breed earlier (this is actually happening). More possums mean less grass, affecting other grass eaters. Owls and bird of prey eat baby devils (called ‘imps’), so fewer of them means changes in population for these others. How will the food web change when DTFD reaches Arthur River? (DTFD has moved steadily west from the east coast beginning in 1995 and has now reached Smithton, 50 km east of Arthur River on the west coast.)
  • The facial cancer is interesting to cancer scientists. It is one of only four known transmissible cancers, the others being in dogs, North American soft-shelled clams and Syrian hamsters (and extremely rarely in humans). They are transmissible only within their ‘host’ species, so you won’t catch them. The immune system doesn’t recognise the cells as foreign, so is not activated to fight it. Two types have now been found. DFTD1 cells are all genetically identical. They originated from a single nerve cell pre-1995; DFTD2 was detected in 2014, and eight animals have been found to have it. The cancer is evolving genetically and, interestingly, at least 12 devils have had their tumour regress and they have survived. Biopsies have shown that the cancer is still present. Why does the immune system not recognise this cancer, and what do the cancer’s evolution and some survival imply?

The Save the Tasmanian Devil website has lots of up-to-date information on the lifestyle of the devil, the history of the disease and current progress in saving the devils. Rather than regurgitating all this, I will concentrate on telling about the studies of the University of Tasmania (UTAS) I and eight other volunteers helped with in March 2016, organised by the Curious Traveller.

Four scientists oversaw the project: Associate Professor Menna Jones (who has been working with devils for over two decades), Professor Chris Johnson (who is interested in the mechanisms of wildlife extinction), and PhD students Gini Andersen and Sebastian Comte. Gini’s been working on the Arthur River devils, who are presently disease-free, and Seb on the Freycinet Peninsula (east coast) ones, where the disease has been for some time.

The nine volunteers were divided into teams and sent out daily with each scientist on a rotational basis to help with that scientist’s task: bird survey, European wasp count, checking traps and recording who’s been caught, recovering camera traps, doing vegetation surveys and spotlighting. Team members rotated so we got to work with all scientists and each other (except for me and Seb, due to my great trip – literally – down a mountain; more on that later). Some afternoons involved other activities (a boat trip down the Arthur River; to Preminghana Indigenous Protected Area; a fossil hunt through the devastatingly burnt-out World Heritage Area; ancient petroglyphs; trying to watch wild devils eat) – more about these later. Talks by each scientist and spotlighting after dinner made for very full days, tiring but satisfying.

Example of the daily schedule

Example of the daily schedule

The raven survey

Every morning, the first job of one of the teams was a raven count. The number of forest ravens (Corvus tasmanicus, the only corvid in Tasmania and the biggest one in Australia, feeding on carrion) is likely to change when the devil population drops. We just drove along the road to the sites and counted ravens for a particular time along a particular section of road.

We consistently found a couple of pairs and a flock of about 14 juvenile males (probably) about 7:30 a.m. On the day we left, at about 10:30 a.m. we counted 35 along the same stretch of road, so time of day is important, but it is also important to have a count at a consistent time of day.

The traps

The first job was baiting the large-mammal (devils and spotted-tailed quolls), Mascot (possums, cats) and Elliot (rodent) traps that Gini had placed earlier.

Mascot trap

Mascot trap

Elliot trap

Elliot trap

Gini setting devil trap

Gini shows us how to secure the meat bait inside a devil/quoll trap

Meat was put in each devil/quoll trap and a baitball (a honey/oats/peanut butter 3 cm diameter sphere) in each of the Mascot and Elliot traps. The animal enters the trap and either pulls at the meat (devil trap) or trips a plate (Mascot and Elliot) on its way to the food.The door then shuts, securing the animal inside. Crack-of-dawn departures ensured the animal was found and freed as soon as possible after its data were collected.

Meat in place in devil trap

Meat in place inside devil/quoll trap

Large mammal trap in place

Devil/quoll trap in place

And Gavroche was the first quoll we caught. All quolls and devils caught so far have been chipped and named, so a swipe of a detector tells us who. His weight and width of tail and neck were recorded.

Gavroche, the spotted-tailed quoll

Gavroche, the spotted-tailed quoll

Juveniles who have not been caught before are chipped, weighed, and blood, poo, whisker and hair samples are taken. I helped Gini get Gavroche out of the trap for his ‘processing’.

IMG_2918

Photo by Betty Jacobs

IMG_2920

Photo by Betty Jacobs

IMG_2921

Weighing Gavroche; photo by Betty Jacobs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preparing to measure the tail width

Preparing to measure tail width

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gavroche's hair and whisker samples and data sheet

Gavroche’s hair and whisker samples and data sheet

 

 

Spotted-tailed quoll feet and tail

Spotted-tailed quoll feet and tail

Gavroche's release

Gavroche’s release: ‘I’m outa here!’

Spotted-tailed quolls are more nervous than devils when caught, and sprint off quickly. Devils seem calmer. The green bags are used for quolls as they are made up of more opaque and stronger material than hessian bags – quolls cannot see through them so are calmer and cannot get a fix on a person to bite them.

The devil in the next photo was a juvenile, never encountered before. We named him ‘Macbeth’, as one  of the researchers was calling their new devils after Shakespearean characters. We named another one ‘Juliet’. Another researcher was using Scottish island names, yet another Greek gods.

Juvenile devil, a new one to add to the database

Juvenile devil, a new one to add to the database – all hail Macbeth!

 

 

 

 

Tooth measurement for Macbeth

Tooth measurement for Macbeth

 

 

Taking a blood sample - note the large tick on the ear to the left of the plastic tube

Taking a blood sample – note the large tick on the ear to the left of the plastic tube

Quolls don’t get anywhere near as many ticks as devils do – from memory, Macbeth had eight on one ear and 12 on the other.

Devils walk on the balls of their feet.

Foot and tail of devil

Whisker sampling …

Whisker sampling

The teeth look pretty healthy on this young one. The very strong jaws allow devils to demolish a carcass in short order, bones and all.

Teeth

 

 

He’s outa there! More in the next post.

Release

 

Tasmania ate my hiking boots

Well, they had to go sometime, and the dense forest and heath just north of Arthur River in north-west Tasmania had their way with them.

At least it happened after the research part of the trip was complete. The right sole had started to fall off two days before and Gail (trip organiser, people-wrangler and cook extraordinaire) had produced some gaffer tape to bind the sole temporarily.

While walking along the Tamar River footpath in Launceston (pronounced by the locals ‘Lonceston’, unlike the Cornish city which is pronounced ‘Lawnston’), the right sole finally dropped off completely. I limped into the nearby Queen Victoria Museum and asked the desk attendant if he had any tape. He produced the very strong, black cloth tape, perfect for the job, and that allowed me to finish the walk around Lonnie in relative comfort.

It was a marvellous trip, and the leeches and cutting grass were more vicious than the devils. (Which scream at each other for communication and are actually quite timid.) Plus I tripped coming down off a sacred Aboriginal mountain and practically broke my leg – durr!

It was great to take part in field research again, despite the daily crack-of-dawn departures and struggling with the dense Tasmanian bush.

And great to find out the latest on the devil facial tumour disease – there is hope on the horizon.

I’ll be posting a bunch of stuff once I get my head around my field notes. In the meantime, look at this and smile …

Devil at Trowunna

Devil at Trowunna Wildlife Park, Mole Creek

… and look at this and weep …

Burn on Corinna road

Burn on Corinna road. This was pristine Tarkine rainforest wilderness a few weeks ago.

And (oh joy!) I met someone on the trip who shares my secret vice. Rakkatakka!

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid

Summertime is insect and spider time. Most insects zoom or scuttle past fast with little chance of me getting a photo. Wasps are busy couriering paralysed and legless spiders (sometimes larger than they are) to their burrows, so their babies can feed on fresh flesh when they hatch (ain’t Nature great? so pragmatic!). But I found this cutie the other day. It was about 6 cm long. The Australian Museum says it is the burying mantis, Sphodropoda tristis. It’s called a burying mantis because the female digs holes to lay her eggs in and covers the holes over afterwards.

[Update] The Entomolgy Department of the Queensland Museum says:

Remarkably, one of Joy’s photographs shows the diagnostic feature needed to separate the four similar species of the genus Sphodropoda to which the mantid belongs. The row of white spots on the inside of the bases of the forelegs are characteristic of Sprodropoda tristis. This species is often called the Burying Mantid, because it has been suggested to bury its egg cases in the ground, but this may not always be the case. Below is some information on the species taken from a reasonably recent paper (2005) on this group of mantids. “Milledge, G.A. (2005) Revision of the genera Sphodropoda, Trachymantis and Zopheromantis (Mantodea: Mantidae: Mantinae). Records of the Australian Museum 57(2): 191–210.”

The species is found through most of mainland Australia and  also southeast Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. This species is a shrub and tree dweller, usually found on stems or trunks. A female of this species from Brisbane has been recorded as laying its oothecae (eggcase) in the ground. This behaviour may not be obligatory however, as oothecae have been collected from the “paper” bark of melaleuca trees in the Cairns region. Females in captivity have also laid oothecae on the roof and sides of the container, although oviposition (egg-laying) was not observed.

Praying mantis

Burying mantis, Sphodropoda tristis

Praying mantis_2

Burying mantis, Sphodropoda tristis (the first photo is a close-up of this one). The broom bristles give a sense of scale.

 

 

Here’s a miscellany of other small critters. Some IDs are out with the Queensland Museum, and I’ll update those when I get a reply.

Below is the underside of a female St Andrew’s cross spider, Argiope keyserlingi (the male is much smaller). The ‘cross’ on the web is faint in this shot – you can just see a strand parallel to each top leg – but often is very clear and gives the spider its common name. Nearby is the greenish egg case with newly hatched spiderlings (the following photo), presumably belonging to this spider.

According to the Australian Museum:

The role of the cross-like web decoration, called the stabilimentum, has long been a puzzle. At first thought to strengthen or ‘stabilise’ the web, more recent ideas associate it with capturing prey or avoiding predators. The ribbon-like silk reflects ultra-violet light strongly. Such light is attractive to flying insects, which use it to locate food sources like flowers and to navigate through openings in the vegetation.

St Andrew's cross spider

Female St Andrew’s cross spider, Argiope, eating the lunch it has wrapped in a neat silk parcel

 

St Andrew's cross spiderlings and egg case

Just-hatched St Andrew’s cross spiderlings and egg case (top right) near the female adult

Stick insect, Woody Head

Male ringbarker stick insect, Podacanthus wilkinsoni, Woody Head

The ringbarker above is a bit worse for wear, possibly having been attacked by a bird. The Complete Field Guide to Stick and Leaf Insects of Australia (CSIRO) says this species is regarded as a pest when it congregates in the thousands, defoliating some species of Eucalyptus trees. Individuals live for roughly two years, with the female laying about 150 eggs. The one below (same species) is in better condition.

Ringbarker

The stick insect below (found at home) is a spur-legged stick insect (Didymuria violescens), also called the violet-winged stick insect. [Update] The Queensland Museum says:

It is a male stick insect belong to a species within the genus Didymura.  Given the locality where the photograph was taken,  Didymuria violescens, the Spur-legged Stick-insect, is a likely candidate.

If you would like more information on this species the following website may be of interest: http://www.brisbaneinsects.com/brisbane_hoppers/SpurLegged.htm

Stick insect, Larnook

Spur-legged stick insect (Didymuria violescens), Larnook

 

This female orchard swallowtail (Papilio aegeus) is a bit worse for wear, but the beauty of its wings still impresses.

Papilio aegeus_top view

Papilio aegeus, female, top view

Papilio aegus_underside

Papilio aegus, female, underside

Now we are feeling the blues, in a good way. The blue-banded bee, Amegilla (possibly) cingulata, is a native Australian. You can see how tiny it is compared to the peg it sits on. Its four stripes identify it as a female (males have five).

Blue banded bee

Blue banded bee

Update: Thanks to Roz for ID-ing this gorgeous wasp (see her comment below) as the large cuckoo wasp, Stilbum cyanurum. According to Museum Victoria, they are called cuckoo wasps because they lay eggs in the nests of mud wasps:

Cuckoo Wasps visit flowers to feed on nectar. Females lay eggs in Mud Wasp nests. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the food stored in the nest intended for the Mud Wasp larva, or on the Mud Wasp larva body. If attacked by the Mud Wasp host, the intruding Cuckoo Wasp protects itself by curling into a ball.

[Update] The Queensland Museum, in response to my query, says:

[This is] a species of cuckoo wasp (Family Chrysididae, subfamily Chyrsidinae). These wasps are generally kleptoparasites. They lay their eggs inside the nests of other wasps (often mud-dauber or potter wasps) and when they hatch they consume the host wasps larva and the food resources that were supplied for its development. Hence the name kleptoparasite – stealing their food supply. The particular species is Stilbum cyanurum.

Stilbum cyanurum

Large cuckoo wasp, Stilbum cyanurum

Unknown

Here’s a female fiery skimmer dragonfly, also known as the bog skimmer (Orthetrum villosovittatum). The male looks the same except for a bright pink body.

Dragonfly_2

 

[Update] The two mating on the door of my car (below) are a mating pair of a species of soldier beetle, Family Cantharidae. The Queendland Museum says : “The likely genus is Chauliognathus but a species level identification isn’t possible from a photograph.”

Fireflies

Fireflies_1

 

The little things do count, don’t they?