Travelling across Australia: Ten things to spot

On October 8, teams in the World Solar Challenge begin their race from Darwin to Adelaide. Here are 10 things for travellers across Australia to look out for.

1. The Magellanic Clouds

The Magellanic Clouds are two small galaxies – at 160,000 light-years and 200,000 light-years, the nearest visible galactic neighbours of our Milky Way. They can be seen in the Southern Hemisphere, away from towns. The Australian Outback is the perfect place to observe them.


The Magellanic Clouds (photo: ESO/S. Brunier)

2. The Southern Cross

The Southern Cross (Crux) is a constellation appearing on the flags of many countries in the Southern Hemisphere, including Australia. It consists of four bright stars, with a fifth being visible to the naked eye in good conditions. The constellation can be located with the aid of the pointer stars Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri. It can also be used to determine the South Celestial Pole. The star at the “top” of the Cross (Gamma Crucis) is a red giant. The fifth star (Epsilon Crucis) is an orange giant.


The Southern Cross, pointers, and Magellanic Clouds (image: Michael Millthorn)

3. The wedge-tailed eagle

The wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax)) is Australia’s largest bird of prey, and a national icon. It can be seen around Australia, either in the sky, or snacking on roadkill.


Wedge-tailed eagle (photo: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

4. The red kangaroo

The red kangaroo (Macropus rufus) is the largest living marsupial, and is found throughout central Australia, in areas with less than 500 mm rainfall. It is an Australian national icon, as well as being a major traffic hazard at dawn and dusk.


Red kangaroos (photo: Jenny Smits)

5. The sand goanna

The sand goanna (Varanus gouldii) is a large monitor lizard, growing to about 1.5 metres. It is found across much of Australia.


Sand goanna (photo: Alan Couch)

6. The thorny devil

The thorny devil (Moloch horridus) is found in arid, sandy areas of western and central Australia. It lives mostly on ants.


The thorny devil (photo: Bäras)

7. Magnetic termites

Magnetic termites (Amitermes meridionalis) are one of two Australian termite species building mounds that align north–south. They can be found in the vicinity of Darwin. The mound orientation appears to be a temperature-control mechanism.


A magnetic termite mound (photo: brewbooks)

8. Sturt’s desert pea

Sturt’s desert pea (Swainsona formosa) grows in arid regions of Australia. It is the floral emblem of the state of South Australia.


Sturt’s desert pea (photo: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos)

9. The desert grasstree

The desert grasstree (Xanthorrhoea thorntonii) is a grasstree found in arid regions of western and central Australia. Like the other 27 species of grasstree (Xanthorrhoea spp.), it is endemic to Australia, and a symbol of the Australian landscape.


The desert grasstree (photo: Mark Marathon)

10. Opal

Opal is a gemstone form of hydrated silicon dioxide. The town of Coober Pedy in South Australia is a major source.


Opal from Coober Pedy (photo: Dpulitzer)


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World Solar Challenge head to head: Australian Challengers

The World Solar Challenge is an exciting race to find the best solar car in the world. That makes for serious competition between countries. But there are also some interesting contests within countries. The most obvious is between Nuon (3) and Twente (21), who came first and second in the Challenger class last time.

Within Australia, Western Sydney (15, Unlimited 2.0, above) did very well in 2015, coming 10th in the Challenger class. Adelaide University (7, Lumen II, below) did not do quite so well back then (coming 21st), but have learned a lot about building solar cars from the experience. Potential competitors Clenergy Team Arrow (who came 8th in 2015) have switched to the Cruiser class, while newcomers ANU are still on their initial learning curve. Who will be Australia’s leading Challenger in 2017?


Australia Day

Today is Australia Day, marking the 1788 arrival of the First (British) Fleet in Australia. As well as establishing the island continent as a British colony, the First Fleet advanced the scientific study of the region. John White, Surgeon-General to the colony, was a keen amateur botanist and zoologist. His Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (with colour plates added later) included notes on Australian flora and fauna:

Arthur Bowes Smyth, a naval surgeon on the Lady Penrhyn, made similar observations. His journal included 25 drawings, like this one of an emu (the first known drawing of that bird):


The Blue Mountains Water Skink


The endangered Blue Mountains Water Skink, Eulamprus leuraensis (photo: “Sarshag7”)

I have previously mentioned my interest in ecological niche modelling and amphibians. The cute little skink above, native to the Blue Mountains near Sydney, is sadly endangered. The black circles in the map below show online occurrence records for the skink. These range in altitude from approximately 530 to 1,170 m.

The blue area shows a predicted potential range for the species, based on MaxEnt modelling using those occurrence records and BioClim climate data. The model does not take into account the skink’s need for sedge and shrub swamps with permanently wet boggy soils – there are readily available online land cover datasets, but these have insufficient spatial resolution to identify the 30 or so swamps in which the skink is found. The predicted potential range for the skink is consequently very much exaggerated, and covers 1,320 sq km, of which 63% falls within national parks or other protected areas. Hopefully that is enough to stop this beautiful amphibian from becoming extinct, although it continues to face threats from urban sprawl, feral cats, and vegetation changes.


Social media in Australia

I have just been reading the 2015 Sensis Social Media Report, which contains all kinds of interesting facts. For example, out of Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Tumblr, Facebook is the most heavily used. Also, the cliche “Men are from Mars, women are on Pinterest” turns out to actually be true:

Other data shows that Facebook usage is trending slightly downwards over time, while use of LinkedIn, Instagram, and Google+ is increasing. After rising up to 2014, Twitter usage is also down. Consistent with this, many Twitter users report deleting their profile. To a lesser extent, Facebook and Snapchat users also report this.

Data on age shows that under-30s are particularly active on Instagram and Snapchat:

Bar charts were produced using R. Read the report for more details.

Update: For comparison, here are corresponding charts for the USA:

Data for these second two charts is from a report by Pew Research.


National Science Week 2016

National Science Week is here again in Australia. See the website for events during the week. You can also read a science book or visit a museum. Even if you’re not in Australia, there’s the chance to get involved in a citizen science project to identify wildlife in photographs. So why not take part?