Mobbed, and very nearly eaten, by the Sunshine Coast’s Eco Goats.

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Yesterday, I hung out with the fine caprines of Eco Goats Queensland, up in the weed-infested hills of the Sunshine Coast hinterlands.  As well as being completely adorable, these goats are working to help clear environmental weeds like the feral Mexican sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia), which, with a horde of other invasive plants, are growing into tall, dense weedy tracts throughout the region.  Although they are rightly known as pests elsewhere, when managed correctly, goats can provide a herbicide-free, cost-effective weed control service in some environments.

As well as being very hard working, the Eco Goats are also very friendly, and desperate for hugs and pats.  They mobbed me like I was a rockstar – I smelt pretty goaty by yesterday afternoon!

Goats are great – check them out!

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Goats are often considered to have broad tastes.   A few of them had a bit of a nibble on my arms and legs to see if I was worth a chew, and one of them managed to get hold of my fancy diary, which I’d foolishly left poking out of one pocket.  It’s dry now, but it was a little gross there for a bit.

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T is for tiger snakes! Heaps of them, everywhere. #MelaleucaMiscellany

Snakes in trees! Photo courtesy of Mark Holdsworth

Snake inna tree! Photo courtesy of Mark Holdsworth

Melaleuca is rich in snakes.  Many of these snakes are tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus), and they’re often closer than you think.

February in Melaleuca was hot, and as such, the local snakes were on show, lazing about on jetties, around the huts, and occasionally, directly underfoot on the paths. Tasmania has only three native snakes – tiger snakes, copperheads and the much smaller white-lipped snake, which is an attractive olive green, and occasionally scares you by hanging around at head height in dense scrub.  Though they are all poisonous, and could potentially kill you if a bite went untreated, no-one has died from snake bite in Tasmania for decades.  According to the Parks and Wildlife Service, “far more people die from ant bites, peanuts or spouses than snakes” take from that what you will. 

Tiger snakes can be found just about anywhere, but in Melaleuca, there are at least two snakes who’ve worked out that nest boxes can be an excellent source of slow food.  On two separate occasions, both on very hot days, we watched two different snakes attempting to make their way into the nest boxes outside the rangers’ hut. The first snake was too heavy to get into the little branches that would have brought it close to the baby birds, but the second snake, pictured above, was much smaller and nimbler.

Four of us watched it for about two hours trying varying access points to get into the nest boxes, and Mark got a few photos, one of which is featured above.  The snake was very persistent, and appeared quite certain that a decent meal was nearby, making us wonder if it had frequented the nest boxes before.  The tree martins, who were occupying the nest, would occasionally flitter by anxiously, without making much impression on the patient reptile.

However, once the superb fairy wrens arrived, it was on.  A very fetching blue wren boy swooped the snake, saying something quite severe to it.  This was quickly followed by a yellow-throated honey eater, a scrub wren, and a New Holland honeyeater.  Rudest of all was a teensy grey fantail, apparently yelling something truly obscene in tiny-bird-speak as it danced back and forth within centimetres of the snake’s face.  After two hours of fruitless tree-climbing, this avian rudeness seemed to finally break the tiger snake’s spirit.  It backtracked back up the branch, chased by tiny birds all the while, then attempted a graceful descent down the main trunk.

It did this by wrapping its tail like a slipknot around the trunk, before allowing gravity to take it, a foot at a time, down the tree.  This worked fine for the first couple of metres, but then the snake appeared to lose its grip, and fell a couple of metres into the cutting grass below.  The birds were placated, and went back to their regular business.

S is for superb fairy wrens – true-blue root-rats of the bird world #MelaleucaMiscellany

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“Helloooo laydeez!” Good looking wren supplied by Mick Brown.

Fairy wrens, eh?  Are they naughty or what?

Famously described by Sir David Attenborough as “the most promiscuous bird known”, much research has been done into the convoluted and apparently quite permissive sex-lives of these rather adorable tiny blue birds and their little brown lady friends.  Both sexes of superb fairy wrens (Malurus cyaneus) are socially monogamous (staying in the same partnerships), but sexually promiscuous (self-explanatory).

Whilst I could tell many entertaining anecdotes about the louche behaviour of fairy wrens, my favourite one, which I learnt about in a short piece by Mary Kille in edition 55 of Yellowthroat (newsletter of Birds Tasmania), regards the peculiar practice of furgling.

Furgling (anecdotally, a word which is a portmanteau of burgling and something else risqué that starts with ‘F’), is a practice known from several species of wrens, which involves the exchange of floral tributes for sexual favours.  Whilst in humans, these exchanges are traditionally male-to-female in nature, in fairy wrens, it’s strictly men’s business.

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Hot-to-trot male superb fairy wren, courtesy of Charlie Price.

Fairy wrens live in family groups where there is usually one dominant male, identified by his brilliant blue breeding plumage, who is accompanied by a number of females and immature birds of both sexes.

Say you are a young, good-looking, virile blue wren fellow, who is yet to acquire a harem of his own.  Say you chance upon a harem that belongs to someone else, and you have taken a fancy to one of the lady wrens within it.  You cannot just go up to her and ask her for her phone number.  She has a boyfriend, and there are protocols which must be followed.

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You pluck a petal from a lovely flower.  Let’s say it was a forget-me-not.  You take this petal to her boyfriend, and offer it to him, in exchange for some sexy-time with his lady-friend.  He scoffs at your offering, questions your ancestry, and chases you out of his territory.

But you are not dissuaded.  You pluck another petal, this time, a pretty yellow one, and bravely return to offer it to the dominant male.  This time, he accepts your efforts, and you are allowed a quick furgle with one of his ladies.  The petal indicates that you want no trouble – you’re not here for his territory or his harem, and will move along after the, ah, transaction, has taken place.

DNA tests have shown that within fairy wren clutches, often very few of the offspring are actually directly sired by the dominant male.

"Why, these babies are adorable!  Are they mine?"

“Why, these babies are adorable! Are they mine?”

Other great things about superb fairy wrens:

  • they are, like, super-popular!  They were voted Australia’s favourite bird in 2013.
  • lady wrens are not only sexual objects, available for procurement with mere petals.  They are known to get up early, before the sun has arisen, to flit off for illicit trysts with other males, one to five territories distant. Take that, patriarchy!
  • blue wren boys are not always blue.  In non-breeding season, they adopt what’s known as their eclipse plumage, becoming a muted brown very similar in appearance to the females.
  • during breeding season, a male wren’s testes can weigh up to 25% of his body mass!  That’s like a not especially large human fella having an entire huge bag of dog biscuits strapped to his crotch! (but infinitely more alluring)
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Breeding season plumage – note the stealth with which the male blue wren conceals his mammoth testicles! Picture courtesy Charlie Price.

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The male superb fairy wren in non-breeding chillax plumage – the avian equivalent of tracky-dacks. Photo courtesy Charlie Price.

Once again, all of the photos featured in this blog post were gifted by some of the talented bird-people of the Facebook group Tasmanian Bird Sightings and Photography – thanks Mick and Charlie!  Thanks also to Eric Woehler, from Birdlife Tasmania, for helping me find that elusive article.

Q is for Quoll – good looking ginger about town! #MelaleucaMiscellany

“What was that?”

DC and I were wandering around the darkened Melaleuca campsite, looking for a good spot to set up the camera for some star-trails when we heard a loud rustling.  It was close, and whatever was making it didn’t mind if we heard it.

We flicked on our head torches and there he was.  A rather fine looking, gingery-brown spotted-tail quoll, covered with his species characteristic white spots from head to tail.  He was so big, he had to be a boy.  He seemed completely unconcerned by the attention, and I got the distinct feeling that we may have not been the first humans he’d snuck up on at night.

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We never got any decent photos of this particular quoll, so I’ve stolen this photo from the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service – see below for details.

Spotted-tail quolls (Dasyurus maculatus maculatus) are a medium-sized, forest-dependent, marsupial carnivore, considered rare within Tasmania.  They come in a range of colours, from ginger through to a dark chocolate brown, accented with a smattering of white spots.  The boys are much bigger than the girls – females usually top out around 2.2kg, with the males getting up to around 4.6kg (although one particular thumper weighed in at 7kg).  Within Tasmania, the quolls of South West Cape in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area are considered a stronghold population for conservation.

They are renowned for being ferocious and bitey – quolls will eat anything from insects to wallabies, and will attack creatures larger than themselves.  An ecologist friend of mine once saw a spotted-tail quoll chase a juvenile Tasmanian devil up a tree, where they engaged in rather bloody, bitey, paw-to-paw combat – as I remember it, the devil ended up falling out of the tree, and racing off into the darkness.

Spotted-tail quolls really do get around – they maintain extensive home ranges of several hundred to several thousand hectares.  Males tend to have especially large territories, which contain within them the more modest territories of a number of lady quolls.  Quolls are drifters, not staying anywhere for long.  They move house every one to four days as they traverse their expansive territories, making their dens in everything from piles of rocks, to trees, to under-utilized rabbit and wombat burrows (woe betide the quoll that accidentally occupies a wombat burrow whilst its actual owner is in residence!).

The Melaleuca campsite quoll seemed an exception to this rule, and was observed lurking about the place over a period of a couple of weeks.  I encountered him a couple of times on my way to the toilets at night.

He was also rather cheeky.  One bushwalker reported that he had stood very still whilst watching the quoll, and that the impudent marsupial had wandered up to him and given his boot an exploratory chew.  You don’t read about that in the authorised biography!

The picture  in this article was pinched from the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service – read more about spotted-tail quoll biology there.

Two-faced, cross-dressing liars get the girls – tactical deception pays off for courting cuttlefish

Taking multi-tasking to a whole new level – male mourning cuttlefish make calculated decisions to simultaneously lie to other males as they sweet talk the ladies.

 

Male mourning cuttlefish (M) displaying a male-specific pattern towards a female (F) while simultaneously displaying deceptive female coloration towards a rival male (A).

Playing fast and loose with gender preconceptions: Male mourning cuttlefish (M) displaying a male-specific pattern towards a female (F) while simultaneously displaying deceptive female coloration towards a rival male (A).

Macquarie University scientists have discovered that when it comes to calculated duplicity, it’s hard to beat a mourning cuttlefish (Sepia plangon). The male squids have been found not only to simultaneously “lie” to competitors whilst courting female squid, but to also make value judgments as to when it is safest to do so.

Like aquatic paparazzi, scientists Culum Brown, Martin Garwood and Jane Williamson stalked hundreds of courting squid over six years in Sydney Harbour, snapping photos all the while. They also photographed other squid they kept in a large, semi-natural, tank environment.

In naturally occurring populations of mourning squid, males outnumber females, prompting males to compete for access to receptive females. Male and female mourning cuttlefish can be distinguished from one another by their arms. Males have significantly longer arms than females do, which are modified to enable the transfer of the spermatophore, a sort of sperm parcel the males pass to the females during mating.

Like other cephalopods, mourning cuttlefish are able to rapidly change their skin’s colour and texture. They use this talent both to signal to other squid, and to conceal themselves from potential predators and prey. Male cuttlefish tend to adopt flashy patterns of pulsating stripes around other species (interspecifically), whilst females are more likely to adopt a more mottled, camouflaged patterning during such interactions, to blend into the landscape. Although squids may “lie” to other species, impersonating rocks to avoid detection, they don’t usually lie when signalling to other squids (intraspecifically) – this behaviour is socially punished, and therefore, not often practiced.

Animal communications theory suggests that honesty is the most evolutionarily stable strategy within a population. If most of the animals within your group signalled dishonestly, these “lies” would lead to general mistrust. All statements would be open to challenge, perhaps in the form of physical combat, which would not benefit persistent liars, or the population, in the longer term. This makes honesty the best policy at a group level. However, if the potential benefits of false signalling for an individual are high enough, and the potential costs are sufficiently low, cheating can be a risk worth taking.

Mixed messages
The scientists found that male squids with an interest in a female squid would covertly signal his masculine interest with one half of his body, while showing a softer, faux-feminine side to competing males in 39% of such interactions. While previous studies have observed male squids masquerading as females for mating advantage, and others have observed bilateral asymmetry in patterning as a predator evasion device, this is the first study which has observed these behaviours co-occurring.

Through careful alignment and by changing the patterning on either side of their bodies with split-second precision, the male cuttlefish are effectively able to maintain two, more-or-less private conversations. While one half of their body is saying something like “oh, don’t mind me, I’m just a not-especially-interesting-camoflagued-girly-cuttlefish,” to a passing male on one side, their other flank, visible to the female squid, is like “Hey there, sexy laydee! I gotta whole lotta spermatophore love fo’ you!” If these signals of love are favourably received by the female in question, the smooth-talking male and his new love get down to swapping more than phone numbers, uninterrupted by the oblivious nearby male.

Discretion – the greater part of valour
Obviously, male cuttlefish can’t just go shouting their love from the reef-tops. Communications theory states that for each message, or signal, a sender produces, there is an intended receiver. In this case, the signaller is the randy male squid; the receiver, the favoured female. However, visual signals, like skin coloration and texture in squids, are often not especially discreet, and can be picked up on by “eavesdroppers” – unintended recipients of the signal. As such, as a male squid, it makes sense to be selective about when you signal an interest in a female, lest other males notice and interfere with your courtship efforts.

The scientists hypothesised that male squids would only “cheat” by sending out these deceptive signals to nearby males when they were unlikely to be discovered fibbing by their rivals. Their hypothesis was supported by the study results – squids don’t just cross-dress willy-nilly.

Male squids only try it on when conditions are highly favourable – that is, when a female is on one side, and only one other male is on the other. Should there be more than one male, it could be difficult to effectively maintain the faux-female facade, and the lying male would be liable to be exposed and punished. If there is more than one female present, the males also don’t bother with this pretence, perhaps because of the difficulty in signalling interest to two females whilst simultaneously signalling faux-femininity to a nearby male.

According to the study authors “these observation suggest that cuttlefish cognition is sophisticated……Tactical infraspecific deception in animals is commonly associated with higher vertebrates because of its link with sophisticated cognitive function.” A comparable example in the primate world is seen where female and subdominant male gorillas sneak off to mate surreptitiously while the dominant silverback’s not looking.

Due to their comparable brain size and complexity, cephalopods, while bright for molluscs, were not considered to harbour intellects comparable to those of advanced primates, however their tactical intraspecific fibbing may be “indicative of highly complex behaviour that includes mimicry, tool use and tactical deception.” As social animals, the cuttlefish appear to have picked up some of the smarts we’ve previously assigned only to primates.

Squid. They’re two-faced, multi-tasking, and smarter than we thought; don’t turn your back on the ocean.

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Source article for this story:

Culum Brown, Martin P. Garwood, and Jane E. Williamson It pays to cheat: tactical deception in a cephalopod social signalling system. Biol Lett 2012 8: 729-732.

There cannot be ravens here

Part 9 of the Spooky black birds of SoHo series, for my #AnimalMOOC Field Note – expedition to urban West Hobart

There cannot be ravens here.

I say this because of this tree:

IMG_5284It is a persimmon, larger than, but not dissimilar to the one growing next door in my neighbours yard, which the local corvids were observed to strip.  It is un-netted, and covered in a glorious array of sunburst coloured fruit.

I’ve never seen a raven in the centre of town, except perhaps flying overhead.  Town central is more the domain of weedy birds, like the introduced sparrows, starlings, and blackbirds.

Ravens like hanging around  human landscapes, eating the treats we have thoughtfully provided for them, but apparently, not in the middle of our small city.  Is this a function of the distance to the nearest forest perhaps?  Or do the potential costs of negative interactions with humans potentially outweigh the benefits of this extra food bounty.

Tiger Hut, Liawenee, Tasmania’s Central Highlands – snow! ravens! roadkill!

Part 8 of the Spooky black birds of SoHo series, for my #AnimalMOOC Field Notes.

I’m in the snow – wooooo!

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We’re up at Tiger Hut, and while everyone else busies themselves attempting to brain one another with balls of crunchy ice, I’ve been wandering around in the snow and stalking wildlife.

Even here, in the snow, the corvids are still active, but you see them mostly on the roads where the dead things are.  Every dead marsupial body on the road up was crowned by a ravenous raven, indelicately partaking of their juicy entrails.

You rarely see ravens hit on the roads here, unless they are babies.  People love to talk about their understanding of road rules – they do indeed appear to just cross over the white line in the middle of the road as you approach them, before moving back to the roadkill in your lane once the car has passed them safely by.

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If you look very carefully, you’ll see a raven hopping off the road to the right hand side – honest!