Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pre-Party Herping . . . Python!

Addictions. That is the theme of our floor party tonight. Most of the students on my dorm floor will probably just tape empty Goon bags all over themselves, because let's face it, many of my dorm neighbors find enjoyment in alcohol. I'm the odd ball, even though my costume is simply a mask with "Poker Face" written on it, and a playing card neck piece, my real addiction is wildlife.

I love spending my time in the bush. It doesn't matter what I'm doing before or after, or even more tired I am, I'm always keen for a walk through the bush. On this particular night, the night of my floor party, I fancied going for a walk on my way back to my dormitory. Yes, the floor party started an hour ago, but who even shows up on time to these things?

After a significant detour, only seeing a gecko Gehyra dubia, I decide to follow the creek back through campus to my Hall.

I notice a set of bright white eyes, reflecting my light beam back, and my heart starts to pick up the tempo. Upon closer inspection, I find it's a common bushtailed possum Trichosurus vulpecula. Gosh these guys are adorable! I  approach this one so closely I can even see his breathing increase with nervousness as I near. As a car passes on the road behind us, he decides this chance is a great excuse to bound away up a tree.

My creek walk turns to go under a building, and right before the building, I see a whopper of a python, thermo-regulating to digest a small meal on the bare bank of the creek. What a beautiful creature! She has no concern of my presence here, so I snap a few up close photos and take a few measurements before heading off to my dormitory.

Encounters with a these 2.3m long pythons, or sneaking in close to possums are what I particularly relish. Times like these give me a feeling of natural belonging and a connection to fundamental instincts that are so scarce in this day and age. And as I sit with my "poker face" on, sipping on my water, I watch the games of beer pong at the floor party; I am utterly confused about the whole ecology of the "college party ecosystem."

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Good Morning Monotreme

The faint sound of my iphone chiming some tune drifts in and out of my dreams and I dismiss the mumble as rubbish. Then, the next thing I know, my friend Vidhu is knocking on my door and I spring out of bed, in my boxers. I open the door and greet him with an "I'm up. See ya in the DTR"

Today is mountain day. Us 18 Uni Hall students have woken up at 4:00 am to climb Castle Hill in hopes of watching the sun rise over the majestic coast of Townsville.

So I put some clothes on, grabbed my bag, and shot a cup of tea in the microwave for a pre-hike pump. As I round the last stair case to the DTR (the hall lobby) I'm greeted by 8 of my good friends, Some running off 5-6 hours of sleep others running off 1 or 0 hours of sleep. Tiredness does weird things to people. Some of them were bouncing off the walls with energy, others couldn't keep their eye's open, and the people like me drowsily amble about but with the focus and reflex of a tiger.

Only a short drive stood between us and the base of the hill. But my group got side tracked. . .
"What's that?" Said someone.
 I said, "It's an Echidna! Right on!"
Vidhu said, "Quick, pull the car over! Dylan catch it."
As I bailed out of the car, I muster the very basic knowledge I knew of the Echidna from mammalogy class and random videos I'd watched. As I approached the Echidna realized the threat and started digging. Echidna's are very similar to the porcupines we have in the USA because they are covered with spikes. I'd like to think the Echidna's spikes are more numerous and uniform than our porcupine. So when the Echidna feels threaten, it started to dig and wedge it's vulnerable belly side to the ground, holding itself in place with it's massive digging claws, while its formidable spikes do the defense bidding against potential predators. Catching Echidna is simple if you have tough hands, just flip them over onto one hand, and they curl up into a ball of spikes.

I was pleased to successfully catch my first Echidna. These special mammals are monotremes. They are egg laying mammals, and they are the oldest surviving mammals on earth. I'm nerding out holding this spike ball in my hand because I realize the years of ecological significance this species has been through.

After a few pictures, I set my Echidna friend down and bid him farewell. As we drove on up the hill, he ambled off to eat some more ants.

What a Wonderful Wallaman

My father and step-mother came to visit me for a week in my tropical place of study. I was very happy to see them. And to celebrate the occasion, we decided to do a little sight seeing.
Wallaman Falls is the largest single drop water fall in Australia, and I had wanted to go see it even before I arrived here in Oz. So I figured this would be a perfect stop on our way up to Cairns from Townsville.
So after my Friday morning lecture we started up Bruce HWY and arrived at the Falls around noon. Breath taking views of the gorge were plentiful and so was the blistering sun. So we decided to head off down the trail to cool off at the pool of the falls.
 On this walk through the semi-wet tropics I became over frustrated because there were skinks everywhere, but abundant habitat everywhere as well. Thus, I was unable to catch any skinks :( but I did see two new species: the Flecked Monitor (Varanis tristis) and the Major Skink (Egernia Frerei) 
Once at the bottom of the gorge, we were greeted with a small sign that said something about danger and slipper rocks, or something, but I didn't really read it. I was focused on making my way to the water. After negociating many large and slipper boulders I was able to swim in the very cool water where I was met by a large eel. I know nothing about eels, but I'm pretty sure this guy wasn't afraid of me and thought I might be worth a sniff. The water clarity was not great. So after a short swim, I scrambled back over the rocks to head back. The walk down to the gorge where the pool is located isn't bad, but coming back up will whip your bums into shape.

A Case of Misidentificaiton

One fine night, I was wandering through the back woods of campus catching Cane Toads for a masters student's research project. Bats zoomed in and out of the road culverts, catching the mossies our DEET repellent feebly fended off. As we walked through the bush, we waved a stick aimlessly up and down in front of us to hopefully avoid a face full of spider web. I also enjoy bringing a choice stick, just in case I find a snake I'd like to catch or take pictures of.

 Our mission was to catch female toads for a dissection study; also in hopes of removing pregnant females from the wild. As I walk up the dry creek bed of smoothed over river stones, I spotted a pair of large bright eyes, and as I approached the toad I noticed it was even a female. Excellent! Success after small effort, and the search continues.

 As I stumble up the stony creek bed, toad in one hand and stick in the other, I notice a movement to my left. As my head swivels toward the movement, I noticed it was a snake! What luck! But I didn't have my tongs or tubes and this looked convincingly like a King Brown snake. After I cautiously rounded the snake to under a rock, I sprinted back to my dorm, grabbed my tongs and tubes, and returned to the rock. My Safe Handling of Venomous Snakes training served me well as I confidently tubed the snake for identification. And to my chagrin, it was only a harmless Keelback Snake. Though not the glamorous King Brown Snake I had originally thought, it was still a new species for me :)

Biggest Snake Yet!

As you know, I'm a reptiles guy. So I'm that odd ball you may have seen walking around campus at night catching geckos and frogs in the creek; This is called "herping". If you hear your mate is going out herping one night, it means he's going to go look for snakes and lizards, and any other reptiles or amphibians he can find.
 Back in the states, I have two good friends that like to go herping with me, but here in Oz everyone seems keen for herping. This is really great to see so much enthusiasm for wildlife, so my mate Harrison and I usually try to assemble a good consortium of hikers for the nights when we go herping.
 This particular night, we were headed out to the Ross River, which is a short 15 minute walk from campus. With our head lamps a lite we searched the grass and scrub-scape for eyeshine. Spider eyes were everywhere, so it takes a trained herper to differ between spiders, toads, frogs, and geckos. Snake eyes generally don't shine as much as other herps, but occasionally they may stick out amongst the habitat.
 It wasn't long until Harrison spotted our first snake. A Brown Tree Snake (Boiga irregularius). This is the species that is wrecking the bird populations on Gaum. They are a pretty hardy and quite common invasive species. I think they are very interesting and pretty. This Colubrid is mildly venomous, but basically harmless. To my surprise he bit me, whilst I was fiddling with my camera and not watching him. First snake bite here in the Southern Hemisphere! Not surprisingly, I had no reaction to the bite, and we carried on to explore the river.
 We noticed several Asian House geckos (H. frenatus), some White Lipped and Green Tree Frogs, Cane Toads everywhere (R. marina) and even a Tawny Frogmouth, which made my bird expert Paul super happy. Then as I swept my light across the trees for gecko eyes I noticed a dull mark, which looked like a Cane Toad in a tree. It was just interesting enough for me to take a closer look.
 "Snake guys! I've got a snake here!" I hollered to the group. "Looks like a carpet Python" I said as I looked at it's head and a foot of its body on the branch.

 "Holy crap, man, come look at the rest of this thing" I heard from the other side of the tree. And as I round the tree trunk I noticed a huge body and tail hanging just low enough to grab. Immediately after I grabbed the snake, it tried to pull away! Even so much that it was lifting me off the ground. As it did so, his head came lower on the other side of the branch. So I reached around and grabbed his head, and we were able to tickle him off his branch for a safe capture. After some measurements and pictures, we bid this 2.3m (7'6") female carpet python farewell, and went back to campus.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Summarizing Natural Science

It's exciting to discover knowledge about our beautiful world, but sometimes reading the latest in science can be very taxing on the mind. So I've summed two publications about invasive reptile species for your reading pleasure.

Invasive species have a knack for dominating native species like a Hulk on steroids, and the first species I'd like to mention even reminds me of the Hulk. The Cane Toad (Rhinella marina) is 'smashing and bashing' its way right across Australia. Cane Toads eat many native animals but almost nothing eats the Cane Toad because it's toxic to eat. The Cane Toad produces a toxin, called bufadienolides, as a defense against predators.

 This research project
shows how we can dish the colossal Cane Toad a taste of it's own toxin. . . Literally.

Cane Toad tadpoles will eat other Cane Toad eggs. How crazy is that. When mother Cane Toads hop in the water and lays her eggs, the other baby Cane Toad tadpoles smell her bufadienolide toxins and swim over to gobble up all those eggs. So the researchers tried trapping Cane Toad tadpoles with bufadienolide as lure, and it worked! It may be possible to trap all Cane Toad tadpoles from a body of water in a few days' time.

The next invasive reptile is Boiga irregularis aka the Brown Tree Snake. The researchers
wanted to determine if the snake used venom or constriction to kill its prey.

To find the answer, the researchers looked at two groups of Brown Tree Snakes while they were feeding. One group had their venom glands seal, and the other group was left untouched. Since both groups killed their prey in the same amount of time, the researchers concluded that the venom does not play a role in killing the prey.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Rippa' Snorkel on the Reef

What is the largest living structure on the planet? Well, it's the Great Barrier Reef of course. This massive 344,400 square km nation of soft and hard corals is home to a vast array of marine life and can even be seen from outer space. I hope that sounded impressive, because words can't begin describe the scope of beauty and life in this thing!

Though I was only swimming over maybe 10-20 square km of the reef today, I had a grouse (terrific) time exploring it.

Looks like a maze
Here's a Titan Triggerfish

I believe this is some sort of angel fish?

The seas were decently rough on the 2 hour boat ride out to the reef. Our advisers recommend we take sea sickness tablets before the trip. Naturally half of us didn't. I've spent a good chunk of my life rockin' on boats so I felt fine. But I know a few others who got sick and went to chunder over the side of the boat.
Five foota! This whitetip reef shark swam right under me, and
then I swam next to him for a while.

Out on the reef, they set us loose for a few hours to explore the wonders under water. Even from a group of 60, there was plenty of reef to escape into. I was able to float above 2-3m deep areas, as well as free dive down to 15-20m drop offs.

Giant Clam
The coral was beautiful. Several mollusks and other echinoderms decorated the sea scape. Sharks, rays, and turtles were some of the larger fish present, not to mention the plethora of beautiful reef fish. Jelly fish were a fascination for me. We were highly recommended to were stringer suits (thankfully I did) Jelly fish were everywhere in the water, which is great for the turtles as this is a main food for them.

Blue starfish
Jelly, Jelly, Jelly :)

On the 2 hour ride back to shore, my friends and I decided to enjoy the thrill of getting pelted in the face by wind and rain whilst hanging our legs off the front deck to catch a splash if the boat hit a nice wave. It's crazy moments like this that seem to bring the most joy, and what a fine way to end a day out on the reef too.
Blue spotted reef ray just swimming along.

Magnificent Maggie

As part of the study abroad program I am in, we have a few excursions planned into our semester. I'm sure the intent of these trips is to integrate us into the Australian culture, but I view them as a fun get-away that's "free" even though I technically paid for it already.

Today's territory of interest is Magnetic Island, also known to the locals as Maggie Island. This beautiful island reminds me of Hawaii's big island, because it sports a variety of unique habitats from grassy flats to shear rock fields to billabongs, bays, and beautiful beaches. Just a warning to my sheltered friends from the U.S. there are nude beaches, so don't freak out and don't use your phones or cameras if you end up on one when you visit here.

Maggie is close enough to the main land to be home to many of same biota. I was thrilled to find a few Eastern Stripped Skinks and a beautiful Orange-flanked Rainbow-Skink. Sadly no snakes, but we did find a plethora of insects and fantastic plants.

The Island is webbed with foot trails and roads, but if you do plan to hike a fair distance, I would recommend some decent hiking boots. My blistered, shredded feet and flip-flops can attest to that.
Hydration is key. Even though everything becomes sweat in your clothes in short time any ways. The two men we met on the trail came prepared with a cooler of amber fluid (that's beer). Like I said, hydration is key.

After a short 5 hours we jumped back on the ferry and motored back to the main land. Soaked in sun, salt, and sweat; smiling like we knew a cold shower would greet us at our dorms :)