Giant panda snail

It isn’t black and white, doesn’t eat bamboo, and certainly isn’t cuddly – no one seems to know why this largest of Australian land snails is called ‘panda’. Think of an ordinary garden snail but blown up to a size where the shell is 10 cm across and you’ll get the general idea. The giant panda snail lives in Big Scrub Rainforest remnants and you may be lucky enough to see one if you look in the right place.

Giant panda snails (Hedleyella falconeri) live in east-coast rainforests from south-east Queensland south to Barrington Tops in NSW. The Big Scrub falls within their range and you can find them, for instance, in the Nightcap National Park.

During the day, you’re likely to find their empty shells on the ground as the living ones are hiding out in the leaf litter, under fallen logs, and at the base of strangler figs.


They are avoiding both drying out and their predators – the noisy pitta, lyrebird and brush turkey scratch through the leaf litter in search of snacks and such a large snail would provide a tasty treat for those birds. A pitta will smash a snail on a rock to get at the soft body. At night the snails can be found at the base of fig trees or moving through the leaf litter, especially after wet weather meandering randomly across the forest floor, feeding on some of the mushrooms that develop after rain.

Not much is known about their ecology because very few studies have been done, but a 2002 study by Michael Murphy of NSW National Parks, published in Molluscan Research 2002, 22, 149–164, tracked the movement of six of these snails over a couple of weeks. The study snails moved in a wiggly fashion an average of 8.7 metres a night, with the maximum being 21 metres, so they can cover quite an area. Snail eggs were discovered with one of these snails in a depression covered with leaves; each egg was creamy-white with a rubbery texture, weighing about 2 grams and about 1.5 centimetres in diameter – a big egg for a big snail.

So if you go out in the woods on a rainy night, you’re in for a big surprise – you just might find a giant … panda snail!

Update: for size comparison, here is the African giant tiger land snail (Achatina achatina).


Achatina achatina in Ghana; photo by Charlesjsharp, Wikimedia Commons



This morning I heard a chirp I hadn’t been aware of for some time, not since the bottlebrush in the backyard died. That tree had been the host of one of Australia’s 90 species of mistletoe (70 are native).

Jeremy Coleby-Williams says:

Mistletoes are semi-parasitic. They have chlorophyll in their leaves and can therefore manufacture their own food. The only reason they need a host is to provide it with water and support – they use the host as a root system.

The fruit are generally brightly coloured and the flesh is sweet and tasty. Each fruit has one large seed and is covered with a sticky coat. Birds enjoy the fruit but have to wipe the seed, either off their beaks or bottoms, onto a branch after feeding. The seed then rapidly germinates, sending a root into the host plant plumbing itself into the sap flow for life.

Mistletoe flower (Muellerina eucalyptoides); photo by John Tann, Wikimedia Commons

Before I could take a photo, the bird flitted away, joining another one, but in the binoculars it was undoubtedly a male mistletoe bird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum), one of the flowerpeckers.

Mistletoebird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum); photo by Lip Kee, Wikimedia Commons

The mistletoebird eats mostly mistletoe flowers, but also nectar, spiders, insects, mites, millipedes and centipedes. After the mistletoe seed passes through the bird’s digestive system quickly (4 to 25 minutes), it is deposited on a branch in a sticky substance so that it clings on and is able to sprout into another mistletoe.

Wikipedia says:

The mistletoebird is a mistletoe feeding specialist … As the mistletoe has been in Australia for a long time and mistletoebirds for a relatively short time, the mistletoe seed was distributed originally by non-specialized frugivore birds like the honeyeater. Even though the mistletoebird has evolved into a very efficient local distributor of mistletoe seeds, the mistletoebird needs the mistletoe but the mistletoe does not need the mistletoebird.

A couple of eastern whipbirds (Psophodes olivaceus) faced off in the backyard this morning, too – judging by the flashing of the crests, it could have been males establishing territory. Certainly, males and females have been calling and responding for the last couple of weeks. The three-note call seems to come from one bird, but the two-note call at the end is actually the female’s response.

Eastern whipbird; photo by Greg Miles, Wikimedia Commons

Down at Ballina, we saw a pair of pied oystercatchers (Haematopus longirostris) see off a pair of sooty oystercatchers (Haematopus fuliginosus) on the rocks.

Pied oystercatcher; photo by Glen Fergus, Wikimedia Commons

Sooty oystercatcher; photo by Glen Fergus, Wikimedia Commons

Along with the 2-metre python and a maned wood duck mother and chicks on the road yesterday (all successfully avoided), these signs surely show that spring has arrived with great enthusiasm.

The squirrel glider, the sally wattle and the tawny frogmouth

There are three protagonists in this story. Andrew (not one of them) has seen a squirrel glider (Petaurus norfolcensis) a few times over several nights in the trees (one big eucalypt, one wattle) near the house. It has a particular yapping call, not unlike a frog. I’ve not had the privilege of seeing this cutie yet.

Squirrel glider; photo by Brisbane City Council, Wikimedia Commons

Squirrel gliders are endemic to the east coast of Australia. The body can be up to 23 cm (9″) long and its tail up to 33 cm (13″) long.

I’d been wondering about the weeping resin on the sally wattle (Acacia melanoxylon, the second protagonist) near the house. It looks like it has been chewed and is bubbling at the top. Brown resin slides down from the ‘wound’.


Wikipedia says:

The squirrel glider eats mostly fruit and insects. It also feeds on tree sap, mainly eucalyptus or red bloodwood trees. In order to get the sap the squirrel glider will pierce the trunk of the tree causing sap to flow out of it. It also eats pollen, nectar, leaves, and bark. …

There is the clue – ‘sap’. The tree is a wattle, not a eucalypt – but note the ‘mainly’, so wattles are not excluded.

The third protagonist is the tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides), seen a couple of times in the sally wattle at the same time as the glider. Coincidence or waiting a chance to pounce?

Tawny frogmouth

Natural predators of the squirrel glider include dogs, cats, foxes and owls. The tawny is not an owl; however, the Australian Museum says:

The bulk of the tawny frogmouth’s diet is made up of nocturnal insects, worms, slugs and snails. Small mammals, reptiles, frogs and birds are also eaten. Most food is obtained by pouncing to the ground from a tree or other elevated perch.

So it’s possible that the sally wattle is a feeding tree for the glider, and that the frogmouth lurks nearby, hoping to make a meal of the glider.

The glider will make a den in the hollow tree and line it with leaves. Here it will sleep and usually lives in groups of one male, 2 females, and offspring.

So we’ve put up an artificial tree hollow in the big eucalypt in the hope that the glider can use it as a shelter.

Another mystery possibly solved!

White-throated nightjar

I’ve often heard this bird at home at night and wondered what it could be. A combination of “The National Photographic Index of Australian Wildlife: Cuckoos, Kingfishers, Nightbirds of Australia” (edited by Strahan) and Michael Morecombe’s “Birds of Australia” ap (which has bird sounds) helped me track it down. It has a distinctive rising, accelerating series of notes – the white-throated nightjar (Eurostopodus mystacalis).

White-throated nightjar; photo by Aviceda, Wikimedia Commons

According to the book, it is about the size of a pigeon (although it doesn’t say which pigeon and they do vary in size – rainforest pigeons are much bigger than rock pigeons) and is rarely seen by day. It squats motionless on the ground and its colouration helps it blend in with the leaf litter:

Birds from southern Australia are migratory, wintering in New Guinea and northern Australia and returning to their original roosting and breeding territories in the spring (when moths and flying beetles [their prey] are abundant. Birds in northern Australia are sedentary [do not migrate] … Calling birds are often heard on spring nights [i.e. now] … in the drier eucalypt forests of the coast and ranges.

I’ll have to listen and observe whether the noise goes away in winter, but my initial impression is that it is present all year, so maybe my area classifies as ‘northern Australia’.

Nice to finally have solved the mystery.