Pigface – native and non-native hybridisation

Yesterday on Sharpes Beach, Ballina, I had one of the more interesting conversations I’ve had with a random stranger. Peter Hardwick, according to his Linkedin page ‘wild food researcher, consultant, regenerative forager, native food research, feral food, zero input food, food ingredient invention, bushfood regeneration’, was photographing native pigface. I’d read about the hybridisation threat with introduced pigface and it was nice to meet the originator of that information. I’d never tasted the native pigface fruit before – sweet and salty at the same time.

Peter’s Facebook post (reproduced with permission)

The non-native Carpobrotus aequilaterus, angled pigface on the left with red stems and dark leaves, whereas the native pigface, Carpobrotus glaucescens, with the lighter coloured leaves is on the right.

Non-native pigface (left) compared with native (right) (photo by Peter Hardwick)

There’s a serious risk to the native pigface throughout Australia from hybridisation with the non-native pigface that have escaped from peoples gardens and from council plantings.

It so important to only plant the local native pigface from locally sourced stock.

Native pigface, Carpobrotus, are one of the best coastal bushfoods in Australia. But unfortunately, there’s an unseen threat to the survival of native pigface that comes from peoples’ gardens – introduced ornamental pigface are escaping and hybridising with the native pigface.

The problem of introduced non-native pigface going wild is widespread. In some places in South Australia researchers found that half of the Carpobrotus in the wild were hybrids with the non-native pigface. Hybrid pigface can also be vigorous and overwhelm the native pigface in their habitat.

Ultimately this could drive local native pigface into a kind of hybrid extinction. It also represents a loss of culture – pigface fruit is an important traditional food.

In Bundjalung country the pigface has a superb flavour – somewhat like salty kiwifruit. It would be a tragedy to lose that wonderful flavour profile and cultural feature from hybridisation with introduced pigface.

There needs to be an active campaign to save pigface and encourage people to only plant the local native variants. Some regeneration style native nurseries make a point of keeping the local pigface in stock. But also be careful of mislabelled plants.

One of the most popular cultivated pigface varieties which is labelled as native Carpobrotus glaucescens, but based on a number of features including the purple colour of the petaloid staminoides going right down to the base, it looks more like non-native C. aequilateris.

Non-native pigface are also easy to remove, but just make sure it’s identified correctly before removal, and replace with cuttings of the local native pigface. Pigface are very important sand dune stabilisers too.

It can get complex identifying what’s native and what’s non-native in some locations in Vic, SA, Tas, WA and NSW because there can be multiple native species of the pigface family in the same location. Good to get know the local native pigface species before removing anything.

Identifying and removing hybrids is going to be difficult because they have a mixture of native and non-native features. But there’s the hope that we will be able to tune in to the species so as we can work out what to remove and what to keep.

Peter’s later answers to questions in comments on his FB post

  • If you have white at the base of the petals it’s probably fine. Pale pink, but not white, at the base of the petals it’s most likely non-native. Red stems can occur on non-native and native, but some non-native Carpobrotus have very distinctive deep burgundy red stems.
  • You can eat the pulp of the fruit raw, but discard the astringent skin. The leaves can also be eaten, but my experience is that the leaves are usually too astringent to be eaten raw. I cook them in simmering water with a change of water.
  • Here’s a pic of Carpobrotus glaucescens, the main native east coast species. See the white base of the ‘petals’. Also, the native bee working the flower. Both native and introduced bees are major pollinators and will aid in pollen dispersal between plants.

Both native bees (like this one) and introduced bees are important pollinators. (Photo by Peter Hardwick)

  • This is non-native Carpobrotus aequilaterus, angled pigface. See how it’s consistently pink coloured all the way to the ‘petal’ base. This plant is growing very vigorously in a council park at Lennox Head.

Non-native Carpobrotus aequilaterus, angled pigface (photo by Peter Hardwick)

  • Sometimes I find the non-native pigface don’t develop fruit because they are hybrids. Also, I find that the non-natives are generally not as flavoursome.

Further reading

Carpobrotus in Australia:


Carpobrotus hybridisation in SA:


Carpobrotus hybridisation in WA:


Windswept and interesting

A fine spring day at the beach – although windy – can often bring pleasant surprises. If you don’t go, you don’t know.

This eastern osprey (Pandion haliaetus cristatus) swept in over Lighthouse Beach, Ballina, holding a large, wriggling, very much alive fish in its talons. It alighted on a dead tree and proceeded to peck at its lunch. The bird was struggling to stay balanced in the brisk breeze.

Osprey with freshly caught fish meal

We often see them scouring the waters for food at Ballina and raising chicks in nests they’ve built on tall poles specially made for them by the local council. We are lucky to have them – they are getting rarer in other areas. Their conservation status in NSW is ‘vulnerable’.

Happy snappering

Beachcombing is satisfying when you come across something unusual, isn’t it?

And you get a second dose of endorphins when you find out what it is. At least, I do.

So when Andrew found this strange thing on the sand at Ballina, I sent off photos to the Queensland Museum, who kindly identified it for me.

It was hard, but not as hard or cold as a stone, and smelt faintly of fresh fish.

It turns out to be the protuberance on top and towards the rear of the head of a large  Australian snapper (Chrysophrys auratus, previously known as Pagrus auratus). This one has separated from the rest of the skeleton.

Chrysophrys auratus (photo by Pengo, Wikimedia Commons). Note the distinctive “head hump”.

It is partially eroded on one side but you can see where it was attached to the skull on the basal stem, as illustrated in the two skeletons below.

Part of the skeleton of a large snapper, Chrysophrys auratus, showing the protuberance at the top and rear of the head. (Photo by Museum Victoria, Creative Commons licence)

Skeleton of snapper, Chrysophrys auratus (photo by Pengo, Wikimedia Commons). The protuberance at the top of this one is rather large.

The function of such a hump seems to still be a mystery. According to  Dr Ben Diggles:

The enlargement of particular areas of fish bones is known as hyperostosis, a fancy word that simply means “above normal bone growth”. The condition is not new; it has been observed in fossilised fish and was first described in modern times as far back as 1655. Today, hyperostosis occurs in at least 96 species of mainly marine fishes worldwide in 22 families, but for Australian recreational fishers it’s most commonly seen in snapper, trevallies, and threadfin salmons. …

       The location of the bones that are affected and how they grow appear to be fairly consistent and predictable within a species. …

      The cause of hyperostosis is unknown, mainly because it occurs mainly in older wild fish and has never been reproduced under controlled laboratory conditions. However, science has been able to rule out some of the possibilities, putting the most common of the urban myths to rest in the process. The condition occurs in both male and female fish, and is certainly not due to injury or repeated bumping of affected areas during feeding. I have examined several affected fish (snapper and king threadfin) and can confirm the opinions of other scientists that the hyperplastic bony tissue growth is not cancerous, nor does it seem to contain any pathogens which might indicate it is caused by a contagious disease-like condition.

Current thinking suggests that because hyperosteosis only occurs in certain fish species which display consistent and characteristic patterns of bone overgrowth, the condition probably has a genetic basis. Certainly it has been found that some sub-populations of Australian snapper are more likely to exhibit hyperostostis than others, which would be consistent with a genetic cause.

Hence, for those species of fish affected by hyperostosis, a genetically encoded hormonal or biochemical anomaly affecting calcium storage or bone remodeling, [which] may be triggered by certain environmental or nutritional conditions, cannot be ruled out. Alternatively, other scientists favour a purely genetic cause, pointing out that fish with prominent hyperostosis tend to be bottom feeders, and that increases in bone mass would be beneficial for these species by providing negative buoyancy, which would assist them during bottom foraging activity.

Which is a detailed way of saying “nobody knows”, but it’s fun to speculate.

Ballina is a fishing centre so my “hump” may have come from one of the boats, commercial or otherwise.

I must go down to the sea again, to look for more mysteries.

The other victims of the flood

The magnitude of the Lismore floods is truly hard to comprehend until you drive through town and see the mud stains high on houses, and remember that many were flooded well over their roofs. The huge stinking piles of wrecked goods – furniture, clothing, possessions – made me cry as I drove through town on the way to the ocean. There is going to be a lot of PTSD. The videos on social media were bad enough, but seeing it in real life brought it home. I am thankful that damage to my own place was minimal.

Lismore has always been a flood area, a fact well-known to the First Nations people who lived here (and still live here) before the white settlers. The CBD is in the bottom of a geographical bowl and you can see from the 1889 map below the many creeks that drain into it, forming the Wilsons and Richmond rivers. The Great Scrub (aka the Big Scrub) no longer exists except in small remnants – it was cut down for timber and to create space for first sheep and then dairying. After the forests were cleared, roads were built, eventually lessening the need for river transport. Many of the outlying towns and villages that appear on a modern map didn’t exist at that time.

The Richmond River was then the only practical transport. If a ship was too big to make it all the way to Lismore  from ports on the coast, people and goods from Brisbane and Sydney were offloaded onto smaller boats at, say, Ballina, and these would make their way up the Richmond River, stopping at smaller settlements on the way. Lismore was built where the boats finally docked and was a very busy town in the early days of white settlement.

From Frederick Chudleigh Clifford (1889) “Richmond River District of New South Wales. New Italy. A brief sketch of a new and thriving colony, etc. [With a map.]” Publisher: C. Potter; Wikimedia Commons

The enormity of the flood caused dire problems not just for human inhabitants. Wildlife and hundreds of livestock were drowned – we’ll never know the full extent. One cow became famous for travelling 150 km south from her original herd along the riverside.

Great quantities of fresh water stormed down the catchments and into the Richmond River, pushing over trees and dragging them, fishes and vegetation out of the mouth at Ballina. The massive gush of fresh water would have killed many saltwater fish, too, as we witnessed on Lighthouse Beach. I was going to ask the Queensland Museum for IDs, especially of the very large fish washed up, but they are busy with their own clean up at the moment, so IDs will have to wait.

The council had pushed the debris up the beach and the smell wasn’t too bad at first. As the day heated up, the fishes began to swell and smell. We spent an hour or so there, but retreated before being too overwhelmed. Here are a few shots of what we found.

The 5c piece under the jaw of the fish gives scale.

I’m not sure what the structures within the mouth (below) are – gills? I imagine the spiky bits could be for holding prey so it won’t get away while being swallowed. If anyone knows, please tell me.

  People should keep their dogs from eating porcupine fish like the one below. They are toxic and will kill dogs that eat them.

Porcupine tish – toxic even when dead

I managed to retrieve the porcupine fish’s jaws.

Jaws of porcupine fish
Inside view of porcupine fish jaws

People should keep their dogs from eating porcupine fish like the one two photos above. They are toxic and will kill dogs that eat them. The Smithsonian website says:

Startled porcupine fish suck in air or water to inflate their bodies, becoming a prickly balloon-like shape to defend themselves from predators and some contain a neurotoxin a thousand times more potent than cyanide in their ovaries and livers. They are also good at offense, crushing the shells of clams and other marine mollusks with beak-like jaws so tough that they are preserved as fossils to be discovered millions of years later.


There were no sharks, rays or eels. Perhaps they escaped to the depths.

Half a dozen silver gulls were poking about – I was surprised there weren’t more as it would be a veritable feast for them. Normally we’d see sea eagles and brahminy kites cruising above the waters for live fish, but perhaps they don’t scavenge. The turbulent water was an impenetrable brown so they couldn’t have seen anything worth eating.

Overnight, the crabs will come out and help themselves. In the meantime, maggots were already doing their best to clean up the corpses.

I’m sorry this is not a more cheerful post. But eventually the beach and ocean will return to their calmer and more pristine selves. Normally it’s a soothing and uplifting place to be.

Not right now.

On the rocks

Rock walls are harsh environments. The sun beats down, the rain pelts down, the wind blasts through and over the rocks and, at the North Wall at Ballina, the river and ocean waters take turns, depending on the tide, to deliver spray. It’s hot, cold, wet, dry, salty and fresh, sometimes in short order and over and over again. You have to be a tough, resilient animal or plant to live there.

The North Wall is an artificial wall, built from 1889-1912 along with the South Wall. It was planned to stabilise the mouth of the Richmond River and help provide safe passage for ships from Sydney (and other east coast ports) that were transporting people and goods to Ballina. From there, smaller boats shunted back and forth to Lismore and small towns in between. Rileys Hill quarry down south provided the rocks, which were brought up the coast by barge. Prior to the walls being built, the mouth of the river moved over time and so did the sandbars, which were dangerous to shipping. It’s still a dangerous bar with fast-flowing water.

In 2016, structural repairs were carried out in the form of hanbars. Like many, I thought these blocks were very ugly, until Cape Town friend Jane pointed out that the structures are somewhat similar to the dolosse concrete blocks invented in South Africa, based on a kind of traditional knucklebone game. After that, I felt they looked more interesting.

View of the cyclone-tossed sea from North Wall, Ballina – hanbars and Rileys Hill quarry rocks in the foreground

The path on the wall is popular for walking, jogging, cycling and pooch walking. It also gives great views of the beaches to the north and south, of breaching whales while they are migrating up and down the east coast, and of pods of dolphins exploring the waters for a feed. In a decent storm, there’s almost nobody there and the waves are spectacular.

One of the tough animals commonly spotted is the eastern water dragon (Intellagama lesueurii). You might see a dozen of these, of all sizes, on a 10-minute amble along the wall, sunning themselves. They can grow up to 90 cm long (nose tip to very-long-tail tip). They eat small reptiles, worms, frogs, insects, vegetation, fruit, small mammals and molluscs, all of which would be available in rock crevices or on the nearby sand dunes.

The skin texture is marvellous – Andrew took some close-ups of some medium-sized ones yesterday.

We were able to see another tough reptile living on the wall – a carpet python (Morelia spilota). We’d only seen this one once before, last week. I guess it was warming up. They usually feed at night, on rats, possums and birds – and maybe small lizards?

The python would have been as long as I am tall – and very healthy looking.

Meanwhile north of the wall on the windy Lighthouse Beach, a willy wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) was following us, possibly watching out for any insects we might dislodge as we picked up plastic from the tide wrack – not much, thankfully.

The cyclonic seas had washed up the usual suspects that often come in from far offshore together – glaucus, porpita and bluebottles. The only thing missing was velella.

You really want to avoid the ‘pearls of pain’ – nematocysts – of the bluebottle, even on the sand. They can still be triggered by contact with your skin.

You never know what you’ll find on a walk on the wild side.

UFOs identified

Unidentified Floating Objects can be a bit of a challenge to identify. By the time they reach shore and are washed up, features have often been pecked off or removed by wave action, or the creature has just rotted away and what’s left is a bit of a mystery. In the case of the latter, a rotting whale carcass washed up on a beach may sometimes be mis-identified as some sort of fabulous sea monster.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of clear, stiff, gelatinous ‘medallions’ have been washing up at Ballina – and, it turns out, in many places along the east coast.

In my quest to find out what these are, I emailed Ceridwen Fraser, associate professor in the Marine Science Department at the University of Otago and author of a new book called Beachcombing.

In her book, I had noticed a photo of a salp, which looked somewhat similar, but she thought my critters were jellies. She kindly put me onto the Facebook post of Coolum and North Shore Coast Care, which says:

These jellyfish are a relatively new species called Aldersladia magnificus, a genus and species within hydromedusa and within the Aequoreidae family found in tropical and subtropical waters (Gershwin, L. 2006).

What causes these blooms to happen? There are multiple causes, some contributing factors are ‘Eutrophication, climate change, overfishing, and habitat modification’ (Qu CF, Song JM, Li N. 2014).
When washed up they appear to have no tentacles, but when seen in the water they have long tentacles that can retract. These tentacles can sting so please be careful whilst swimming at the moment. Don’t be too scared though, Jellipedia rates them as a 1/5 on their sting-o-meter.
they are … bioluminescent. If you head down to the beach at night time at the moment to a spot where there are plenty of them you will see for yourself.

In 2006, Lisa-Ann Gershwin identified the new genus and published a paper, ‘Aldersladia magnificus: A new genus and species of hydromedusa (Cnidaria: Hydrozoa: Leptomedusae: Aequoreidae) from tropical and subtropical Australia’, and if you want all the gritty details you can download it for free from here.

Thank you to Ceridwen for pointing me in the right direction. It’s great fun finding and tracking down things I haven’t seen before. Now I can add one more thing to my bucket list: a salp!


Sacred kingfisher

The Ballina Bar can produce some mighty waves – that’s why there are so many signs for boaties on their way out and way back, and where Marine Rescue is situated. Sunday was no exception – blustery, rainy and the waves giving a real sense of their tonnes of weight and force as they heaved into the mouth of the Richmond River between the breakwaters.

The big pod of dolphins, however, were having a whale of a time (so to speak) – surfing under and over the waves, leaping and twisting. I’d never seen three together with the middle one upside-down as they surfed together. Then the middle one did an almighty leap and jumped right out of the water and over its buddy on the right. Amazing and exhilarating!

On Lighthouse Beach it was pretty blowy, too, but this little bird was making the best of it, flying from one washed-up tree trunk or branch to another.

Sacred kingfisher

It was a sacred kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus), looking for crustaceans, insects and other small prey like lizards. Despite its name, it seldom eats fish.

They are solitary birds except for the breeding season (September to December). The nest is in a hollow branch, termite mound or river bank. Both male and female incubate the eggs and feed the young, in two clutches a season.

The beach was pretty clean of weed and there didn’t seem to be many insects available, but maybe this little bird was lucky.

A tale of two herons

The Pacific reef heron (Egretta sacra) and the white-faced heron (Egretta novaehollandiae) are both commonly seen on Australia’s east coast.

This reef heron at Ballina was the dark morph – they also come in white. It was busy searching for crustaceans, fish, molluscs and worms in the rock pools …

… dodging the incoming rushes of water …

… poking here and poking there …

… even spreading its wings to shade the bottom in order to see prey better …

… and eventually giving up and flying away.

The white-faced heron is an inland bird as well as coastal. This one would have been looking for the same prey as the Pacific reef heron. We see them in our valley 30 km from the coast. On the farmlands they are looking for frogs, small reptiles and insects.

Better luck next time, birdies!

Spring low tide at Flat Rock

The rock pools at Flat Rock have been covered in sand for a few months, but gradually the sand is clearing and seaweeds and algae (with associated fauna) are coming back. The lowest tides of the spring give a good opportunity to go further out on the platform than usual.

Here’s a nudibranch I’d not seen before, although they are apparently common – Sebadoris fragilis. They grow up to 12 cm and this one was about 8 cm long. (IDs courtesy of Nudibranchs of the Sunshine Coast).

Discodoris fragilis

Discodoris fragilis

discodoris-fragilis_2 discodoris-fragilis_3

There was only one Discodoris fragilis, but over a dozen Plocamopherus imperialis – breeding time? They can grow up to 10 cm, but this one wouldn’t have reached 2 cm.

Plocamopherus imperialis

Plocamopherus imperialis


plocamopherus-imperialis_6red-and-orange-nudibranch-at-flat-rock-2Also common is Rostanga arbutus, max. size 1 cm. It’s tiny.

Rostanga arbutus

Rostanga arbutus

Below is possibly Kaloplocamus acutus – if it is, it’s way off the 6 cm length of adults. This one might have been 1 cm.

Kaloplocamus acutus

Kaloplocamus acutus?

It was definitely breeding season for the limpets …

Limpet egg masses

Limpet egg masses (white circles)

… and the cartrut shell (Dicathais orbita). The egg cases are yellow when ‘fresh’ and go purple after a while. (The purple cases below are in front of and separate from the yellow cases behind.)


Cartruts in the process of laying eggs

cartrut-eggs_1 cartrut-eggs_2This live shell (possibly Cabestana lampas) is common, but I saw only one …

Cabestana lampas

Cabestana lampas

Note the 'eye stalks' and syphon

Note the ‘eye stalks’ and siphon (left); photo by Andrew

Black feather duster worm …


We saw three small sharks resting in the crevices, but it was impossible to get decent shots because the water was rippling through fast. One was a clearly a wobbegong but the other two were different.

There were over a dozen sea hares, perhaps in preparation for mating, too. They form mating chains, one behind the other.

Aplysia dactylomela

Aplysia dactylomela

aplysia_2A lot of birds were resting on the platform. It annoys the heck out of me when people allow their dogs to run free there – no dogs are meant to be on the platform, and only dogs on leashes on the beach. The migrating seabirds need rest and refuelling.

A pair of beach stone-curlews (Esacus magnirostris, aka beach thick knees because that’s what they have) flew quickly past, crying their curious call. It was the first time I’d seen this species in the wild.

Beach stone curlews

Beach stone curlews

Beach stone curlews

This is either the grey-tailed (Heteroscelus incanus) or the wandering (Heteroscelus brevipes) tattler. The grey-tailed is more common.


Tattler; photo by Andrew

I think the birds below are sandpipers, but there are a lot that look alike and I haven’t worked out how to distinguish them yet. Any ideas appreciated.



How much wood would a wood duck … er … chuck?

Wood ducks (Chenonetta jubata, aka maned ducks) are common birds that hang around water, eating grasses, herbs and the occasional insect. They are so pretty and charming. Males (with the ‘mane’) and females have slightly different plumage (sexually dimorphic). You almost always see them in pairs or small flocks of pairs. They are found all over Australia except for the driest parts in the centre. The photos below are of a male.

Wood duck_Ballina_1

Male wood duck, Ballina; photo by Andrew Roberts

Wood duck_Ballina_2

Photo by Andrew Roberts

Wood duck_Ballina_3

Photo by Andrew Roberts

Wood duck_Ballina_4

Photo by Andrew Roberts

Wood duck_Ballina_5

Photo by Andrew Roberts

It was pretty blustery on the North Wall at Ballina (lots of surfers there that morning) and I saw a rock dove (Columba livia, feral in Australia) huddled against the big boulders. It’s unusual to see one on its own, and I assumed it was sheltering from the wind. When I walked back along the same route about 15 minutes later, the poor thing was dead – it had keeled over, revealing leg bands. So I phoned the number on the bands – it was a Port Macquarie number (about 4 and 3/4 hours’ drive south of Ballina) and the bird was a racing pigeon. The woman who answered was grateful I had called – I think it was one of her husband’s. The bird had blood on its wings and she thought it had been attacked by a hawk. Ballina has a lot of raptors – sea eagles, ospreys, brahminy kites, whistling kites and so forth.

I left it where it had fallen – perhaps the crabs will get a meal or two out of it.