Friday, August 29, 2014

Why did it have to be leeches?

Our westward journey began with water.  We’d experienced little rain for weeks.  This was, after all, the dry season in the semi-arid Cape York.  But rain—a cold, gray constant rain—set in as Buck and I began our final trip.

We headed south from Cairns to the rainforests of Wooroonooran National Park.  Here Mount Bartle Frere, the tallest peak in Queensland, rises from lowlands cleared for sugarcane plantations.  But we saw none of that—rainclouds and mist obscured the mountain.  We planned to explore the forests of Bartle Frere’s slopes, and maybe even climb to the top.  The weather had other ideas.

It rained, and rained, and rained.  Sometimes the skies cleared, but never for very long.  We camped in the rain.  We ate in the rain.  We bathed in the cold creek in the rain.  The trails were muddy.  But while we were cold and uncomfortable, the leeches loved it.

Land leeches swarmed along the forest floor.  They rushed up our boots and pants and climbed our arms and necks and faces.  When they found skin they’d latch on and feed, pumping anticoagulants in and blood out.  We took regular breaks to pry them from our ankles.  They were not the worst leeches I’d experienced, but they were the worst I’d seen in Australia.

Land leeches swarmed through the forest and climbed our bodies, and a few lucky ones drank our blood

Though the bites are harmless, the anticoagulants cause heavy bleeding long after the leech is gone

On our second day in the forest, after returning from a trip up the mountain we stopped in a picnic area to take off our socks and shoes and pick off leeches.  I pried off a couple fat ones, swollen with my blood, that must’ve been on me for a long time.  A nearby family, concerned at the blood running down our legs, gave us baby wipes and bandages and asked if we were ok.  They thought we were injured.  When we told them about the leeches they were horrified and surprised.

Surprised!  They honestly didn’t know there were leeches in the forest.  The forest edge was a stone’s throw away, and the leeches would find them if they just walked in a few meters.  There was no way to miss them.  The only explanation I can think of is that they just never went into the forest, at least not in the rain.  It’s a familiar—but always disturbing—phenomenon.  No matter where I am, I find people who are unaware of and uninterested in their surroundings.

Buck and I spent two days in the forest wondering at everything around us.  And yet here were people who had never bothered to look.

Leeches aside, we enjoyed exploring the rainforests of Wooroonooran

Wooroonooran was wet, dark, cold, muddy and crawling with leeches…and I loved it.  Misery often makes the adventure.  The forest gave me the small shot of hardship I needed to stay motivated.

But…you know…it’s nice to be dry and in the sun and not bleeding on everything.  I’d had enough rainforest for this trip.  It was time to leave the coast and head back into the dry interior.  We did, after all, still have the entire peninsula to cross.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Where rainforest meets reef

The Queensland Wet Tropics is a narrow belt of rainforest, in some places less than a few miles wide, running along the state’s northeast coast.  Pockets of eucalyptus savanna intermingle with the rainforest and the transition from dry to wet, sunny to dark, can be sudden.  A single hike on a mountain trail may weave in and out of savanna and rainforest in the space of a few kilometers as you traverse more and less exposed slopes.

Driving through the eucalyptus-clad interior of the Cape York we often saw plumes of smoke from fires racing across the savanna.  Heading east we crossed a ridge and the landscape instantly changed to rainforest.  The figs and ferns we had left behind days ago were back and the Coral Sea spread out before us.  We had returned to the coast.

Temporarily leaving the arid interior, we returned to the Cape York’s coastal rainforests

We made our way to Cape Tribulation, a small community nestled within Daintree National Park.  I had visited the area three years before during the miserable wet season.  It was hot, humid and rainy, the skies were gray and the mountains obscured by perpetual clouds.  I had, in short, paid my misery tax.  Judging by names on the landscape—Cape Tribulation, Mount Sorrow, Mount Misery, Weary Bay, Darkies Downfall—generations before us had as well.

But despite a bit of occasional dreariness the region is biologically fascinating.  Here the world’s oldest rainforest—and only tropical rainforest in Australia—meets the sea.  At the same time the Great Barrier Reef approaches the coast from the east.  This meeting of rainforest and reef is another of the Cape York’s charms.

Though sometimes gloomy, Cape Tribulation is a fascinating place where rainforest and coral reef collide.

As in much of the world, many of Queensland’s lowland rainforests have been cleared—converted to massive sugarcane plantations—and most of the remaining rainforest is limited to mountain slopes.  Daintree National Park, however, protects a patch of swampy lowland rainforest extending right up to the mangroves and beaches.

Clint, Christina, Buck and I wandered around a remnant patch of lowland rainforest

The forest ranged from seasonally flooded areas with tall trees…

…to waterlogged Pandanus swamps…

…to mangrove forests

A Cordyceps zombie fungus sprouts from the ankles of a dead Polyrhachis tree ant

I got reacquainted with the Orange-footed Scrubfowl (Megapodius reinwardt), which constructs giant mounds to incubate its eggs.  I last saw the species in Komodo National Park in Indonesia, where its nests are used by Komodo dragons.

I showed everyone where I found peppermint stick insects three years before.  This large blue species lives in the hollows of Pandanus leaves in the swampiest parts of the forest, and I was doubtful we’d find them.  But after a while Clint spotted some deep at the bases of the plants.  Now, during the dry season, all the individuals were immature, whereas before I found only adults.

We found more peppermint stick insects (Megacrania batesii) in the same place I’d found them before, but this time as immatures...

…whereas before I’d only seen the giant blue adults

The Daintree rainforest marked the end of our trip north.  We headed south to Cairns and the group began to disassemble.  We returned Jurassic Car to the rental company and Christina returned to work in Florida.  The rest of us made a short trip out to the reef before Clint returned to North Carolina.

We made a short snorkeling visit to the Great Barrier Reef east of Cairns

But Buck and I hadn’t seen the last of the far north.  We prepared another trip, this time to the west.

We would cross the Cape York Peninsula.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Humans of the Cape York

Leaving the flat lowlands of Rinyirru, with its termites and crocodiles, we loaded up Jurassic Car and headed south to explore some human elements of the Cape York.

A network of sandstone ridges and plateaus rises south of the town of Laura.  The wooded cliffs conceal a vast collection of Aboriginal paintings—the Quinkan rock art.  Humans have been living in this part of Australia for tens of thousands of years.  Mostly younger than a few centuries, the Laura Sandstone’s art represents the more recent products of this long cultural evolution.

The wooded sandstone plateaus of the Laura formation rise from the surrounding lowlands

Cliffs and boulders from the escarpment provide the templates for Aboriginal rock art

A man whose father had discovered many of the Quinkan sites, Steven Trezise, would guide us…if we could make it to his Jowalbinna Bush Camp.  The off road track to get there is no problem for a 4-wheel drive vehicle but as we learned in Rinyirru, Jurassic Car was deficient in that area.

Despite a few hairy river or creek crossings, and a couple steep ridges, we made it without issue.

Though it lacked functional 4WD, Jurassic Car performed admirably and delivered us to Steven’s bush camp

We spent a day with Steven visiting cliffs and learning about the rock art.  In the tradition of my favorite Australian guides, Steven was knowledgeable, a bit crude, and didn’t hesitate to answer stupid questions with a hearty “Fuck, no!”

Steven guided us as we explored the cliffs and their art (photo by Christina Kwapich)

The riflefish (Toxotes chatareus) was a local clan’s totemic symbol

During our hike we scared up a roosting Papuan Frogmouth (Podargus papuensis)

In the end, we experienced another human element of the landscape.  On our way out we found the bower of a Great Bowerbird, constructed by a male and decorated with white stones to attract a mate.  In his quest for white objects, he placed a few strips of used toilet paper into the bower.

A Great Bowerbird (Chlamydera nuchalis) decorated his bower with used toilet paper

Three years ago I saw a similar bower in the Top End decorated with broken bottles, but this seemed more offensive.

Even in the Cape York, the landscape’s human element can be shitty.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Cliff dwellers and Hero ants

I’m back from Australia and have spent the past few days in D.C. finishing up work on the Rupununi ants.   I’ve also done some housekeeping on M2M—I’ve added a Publications page and updated the Travel Map.  The new Australia series isn’t over, however, and I’ll continue it next week.  For now, I’ve got some exciting news.

I’ve had another paper come out, with Christian Peeters and Brian Fisher.  Unrelated to my flight work, this is a side project we did in Madagascar.

While exploring the forest fragment on Galoka Brian found an ant he’d collected a few times before.  Undescribed at the time of our visit, the species has since been given the name Malagidris sofina and belongs to a group of ants endemic to Madagascar.  This particular species of Malagidris has the unusual habits of nesting on cliff faces—the vertical sides of rock outcroppings, boulders and clay banks—and building funnel shaped nest entrances.

Christian and Brian and I wrote a paper about the ant Malagidris sofina (photo from AntWeb)

This cliff dwelling species nests on vertical rock faces…

…and is known from only five areas in a small part of northwest Madagascar (adapted from AntWeb)

Intrigued, we did some field experiments to uncover its natural history.  Check out the paper at Insectes Sociaux to see the results.  At the risk of spoiling it, one of the more exciting finds is that M. sofina workers sometimes defend their nest by grabbing invading ants and dropping off the cliff with them.  This doesn’t harm the workers, as they just walk back up the familiar cliff to their nest, but presumably leaves the invaders lost, disoriented and facing certain death at the cliff’s base.

As far as we know, this is the first time this type of defense has been found in nature, prompting one writer to name them ‘Hero ants.’  That seems a bit dramatic to me, but as far as common names go, it could be worse.