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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Another Shrimp in the Wall

The Pink Floyd pistol shrimp, Synalpheus pinkfloydi (above, photo by Arthur Anker) is a recently described alpheid shrimp. As with other shrimp in this family, the snapping sound produced by the large claw is loud enough to kill small fish. The shrimp is described in a Zootaxa paper, which contains this wonderful line:

Distribution. Presently known only from the type locality on the Pacific side of Panama; likely more widespread in the tropical eastern Pacific, but unlikely to occur on the Dark Side of the Moon due to lack of suitable habitat.”

And it keeps getting better. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History has also celebrated the discovery with the beautiful artwork below (Another Shrimp in the Wall, by artist and scientist Kate Pocklington).


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):


More African animals

Here are some more pictures of my recent trip to South Africa (click to zoom):


Giraffe (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Impala (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Pin-tailed whydah (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Wildebeest – also known as gnu (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Little egret (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Warthog with babies (photo: Anthony Dekker)


African animals

Here are some pictures of my recent trip to South Africa (click to zoom):


Burchell’s zebra (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Lion (photo: Anthony Dekker)


White rhinoceros (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Southern masked weaver (photo: Anthony Dekker)


African elephant (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Goliath heron – world’s largest heron (photo: Anthony Dekker)


Ecological literacy and Frank Herbert’s Dune, half a century on


Dune by Frank Herbert

The year 1965 saw the appearance of what has been called “the first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale.” Frank Herbert’s Dune explored a plethora of interesting themes, notably that of ecology. The novel speaks of “… teaching [the children] ecological literacy, creating a new language with symbols that arm the mind to manipulate an entire landscape, its climate, seasonal limits, and finally to break through all ideas of force into the dazzling awareness of order.

The use of food webs, like the one for waterbirds of Chesapeake Bay above, was fairly standard by 1965, and Herbert seems to be hinting at a graphical language for ecology going beyond that. Exactly what he was referring to is unclear.

But are we teaching the kind of ecological literacy Herbert refers to? A 2013 survey indicated that, out of 145 US tertiary institutions ranked for “Ecology and Evolutionary Biology” and “Integrative Biology,” only 47% taught a course in ecosystem ecology or biogeochemistry, and only 22% of the courses included field experiences. A 1993 survey of UK secondary teaching (A-levels and GCSE) showed that students only studied a median of 2 or 3 different habitats:

So how many children actually understand, say, trophic cascades in the wolf–elk ecosystem? How many adults, for that matter? The evidence suggests that it’s not very many, judging by the resistance to sensible management of National Parks. If we do not wish to recreate the desert planet Arrakis, we might like to work on that.


Ecological networks and the Australian dingo

I’m excited at the publication of a joint paper on network ecology, with a focus on the Australian dingo: “Trophic cascades in 3D: Network analysis reveals how apex predators structure ecosystems” (by Arian D. Wallach, Anthony H. Dekker, Miguel Lurgi, Jose M. Montoya, Damien A. Fordham & Euan G. Ritchie, and appearing in Methods in Ecology and Evolution).

Associated with this publication is an animation I put together for the paper showing how the ecological network changes if the role of the dingo as apex predator is weakened. I’m grateful to my ecologist co-authors at the opportunity to contribute my mathematical skills to such an interesting project.