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Dust is Amazing Stuff

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[This is the beginning of an article published under another title in the Australian Magazine of the Weekend Australian on 7 February. The article discusses dust mites in detail.]

Big things are made up of many small things. That was especially obvious in September 2009 when extreme winds roared across outback Australia, agitating soil laid bare by drought to produce the giant dust storm known as Red Dawn that engulfed eastern Australia, reddening skies from southern NSW to north Queensland, fanning bushfires, damaging crops, delaying planes, halting construction work, triggering smoke alarms, driving up hospital admissions, smearing windows and walls and seeping inside homes to coat floors and ­furniture in fine powder.

This herculean event, which elicited comparisons with nuclear winter, Armageddon and the planet Mars, swept on to New Zealand, where it sent asthmatics to hos­pital and dusted alpine snow. In NSW alone the event cost an estimated $330 million in lost topsoil, crop damage, car smashes, worker absenteeism, cleaning and the closure of Sydney Airport.

The particles behind the strife were so small that 100,000 weighed a mere gram, but they rose up in such numbers that Australia managed to lose more than a million tonnes of soil, broadcast into the Tasman Sea and sprinkled over New Zealand. The drama surprised the nation, but Red Dawn was by no means the first onslaught of dust to hit the east coast and it won’t be the last. In the inland, they’re more common: the most recent in Bedourie, western Queensland, when day turned to night last December and dust enveloped the town for more than 90 minutes. Australia is one of the great dust-producing lands, the main source in the southern hemisphere. If Australia faces a drier future, it will be a dustier one as well.

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Bird Research of the Century

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A paper that came out in Science a fortnight before Christmas counts as the most important work on birds this century, by offering something that has eluded science for well over a century – a reliable tree of life for the world’s bird orders.

Biology was shaken some years ago by evidence implying that parrots and perching birds are closely related.

Links between the bird orders have proved extremely difficult to determine, and except for intelligence and a facility for learning songs, there is nothing about perching birds, which include honeyeaters, crows and sparrows, to suggest they are related to parrots. Their beaks and feet are very different.

The evidence that emerged was genetic, but some genetic studies did not find this relationship, so in my book Where Song Began I equivocated, describing the relationship as probable but not proven.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Jillian Berding says #
    Brilliant account about birds on the ABC Catalyst . My daughter and I we pushing strollers on our property and a Major Mitchell Co
  • Michael Cunningham says #
    Hi Tim, well said! It may possibly be THE bird research of the century but it won't hold that title long. Where Jarvis and colleag
  • Aidan Kelly says #
    great summary - thank you - the DNA jigsaw is fascinating, the unlocking of the stories of evolution is the reward.

Lyrebirds Save Human Lives

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Lyrebirds are the ultimate high achievers: the world’s best songsters, the world’s oldest songbird line (along with scrub-birds), beloved cultural icons that grace our coins, and spectacular ecosystem engineers. They may be something else as well – birds that save human lives.

The ‘ecosystem engineer’ tag refers to the changes they make when they scratch the ground to unearth insects. One lyrebird in a year can shift 200 tonnes of soil and litter per hectare, causing soil erosion and uprooting ground-hugging plants, including, in Tasmania, an endangered orchid.

A new paper by Daniel T. Nugent and two colleagues takes the engineering concept further by concluding that lyrebirds reduce bushfire risk by burying leaf litter and uprooting the grasses and bracken that carry fire.

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Alive only on Film

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[This is a book review that appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Wildlife Australia magazine.]
With animals continuing to go extinct any book that eyes extinction in a fresh way deserve our attention. Lost Animals is significant because it features all the world’s extinct mammals and birds that are survived by photos. As Erroll Fuller says in his introduction, about the difference between paintings and photos:

"It seems that a photograph of something lost or gone has a power all its own, even though it may be tantalisingly inadequate".

That is what I felt after paging through this book and staring at the 28 species that look out from the plates. The lowest resolution images, those of an imperial woodpecker in Mexico (taken from film footage), struck me as especially powerful, perhaps because they resemble scenes out of a dream, one of those happy dreams we wish we could return to. This footage only surfaced in 1997, 41 years after it was taken, and the quality is poor because the film is old but because the biologist who shot it was sitting on a mule. Also very potent are some of the photographs in colour, because the animals look too vivid to be defunct, and because the colour tells us the extinctions happened recently.

Fuller provides dates of extinction or last sightings, including 2004 for the Hawaiian po’ouli (a bird), 2002 for the Yangtze River dolphin, 1988 for the Hawaiian ‘o‘u (another bird), 1985 for the Alaotra grebe of Madagascar and Kauai ‘o’o of Hawaii, 1984 for the Guam flycatcher, 1983 for the Aldabra brush warbler, and so on and so on.

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The View from Java

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In September I visited Java for ten days to see rainforest birds and other wildlife. Java holds special interest for anyone wanting to understand the arcane topic of how Asia and Australia exchanged birds in the past. Its conservation problems are dramatic. The first time I went there I found a dead rhinoceros.

As recently as 10,000 years ago Java, Sumatra and Borneo were part of the Asian mainland because a cooler climate lowered the sea, exposing the Sunda Shelf. Australia is much closer to mainland Asia when seas are lower, at which times the climate is drier as well as cooler, and savannah rather than rainforest may have dominated the Sunda shelf. The eastern half of Java (and its satellite island Bali) are a drier today than Borneo, Sumatra and Malaya, and it is in Java and Bali that we have the best chance of locating the birds that characterised the more open habitats of the Sunda shelf in glacial times.

The golden-headed cisticola, a cute bird with a commanding voice, is an obvious candidate. It is a recent coloniser of Australia that is common in Java and Indochina but absent from Malaysia and Borneo (except as an apparent vagrant). On Sumatra it is believed to be a recent coloniser (MacKinnon & Phillipps 1993) exploiting grassy clearings created by people. While it is possible that this small bird reached Java directly from Thailand, it is more likely that during a glacial period there were mosaics of rainforest and savannah linking Thailand to Java, providing almost continuous habitat for this small grassland bird, which was then able to reach southern Indonesia and Australia. 

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