Cassowary and Goanna in tropical rainforest

Cassowary on gravel road

Southern Cassowary

While I was in the Mission Beach rainforest (see previous post) I saw lots of local wildlife. The big, special, local species is of course the Cassowary, one of Australia’s (and the world’s) largest and heaviest birds. Indeed, wikipedia says it is, “the third tallest and second heaviest living bird, smaller only than the ostrich and emu.” There is only one Australian species of cassowary, the Southern Cassowary, Casuarius casuarius. Its range extends to New Guinea and nearby islands where it co-exists with the other two (smaller) species. For more information about it, visit this Department of Environment and Heritage Protection page.

rear view of cassowary

Cassowary about to re-enter the rainforest

Here in Australia it is endangered, largely because of habitat loss and consequential fatal interactions with cars and dogs. They are big enough to be a threat, in return, to humans but the statistics are as lop-sided for cassowaries as they are for sharks: there is just one recorded human death due to cassowary attack in the last hundred years.

When the one in my top photo emerged from the rainforest just a couple of metres from me I stood very still, posing no threat to it; it ignored me and walked ahead of me down the track before stepping calmly into the wall of greenery on the other side.

The next-largest creature I saw was another dinosaur-descendant, a metre-long goanna. It was roaming around near the resort buildings, looking rather scruffy because it was midway through shedding its skin. This Australian Museum page presents on overview of the family’s history. Australia has 25 species, all in the same genus, Varanus, and all rather similar in appearance except for their size. I think mine is a Lace Monitor, Varanus varius.

Goanna in leaf litter

Goanna shedding its skin

Most of the other wildlife I saw was very much smaller – skinks down to insects and spiders – because the numerous birds were constantly audible but only fleetingly visible. Many of the species are not found in the drier climate of Townsville and I have put 30 photos in an album on flickr, here, for anyone interested.

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Wild bananas

banana plant in rainforest

Banana plant growing wild in the bush near Murray Falls

Anyone who has spent much time in our lowland tropical rainforest will have seen stray banana plants and clumps growing, apparently, wild. But our cultivated bananas don’t reproduce from seed do they? So what’s going on? These questions have nagged me for a few years, especially since I took an active interest in trying non-standard varieties.

It’s true that our all our cultivated bananas – including Ducasse, Lady Finger, Red, MonkeyBlue Java and the all-too-common Cavendish – are grown from root stock, and it seems that getting a viable seed from any of them is almost impossible even with human assistance:

… although banana plants are clones, very occasionally they can be persuaded to produce seeds through a painstaking process of hand pollination. Only one fruit in three hundred will produce a seed, and of these seeds only one in three will have the correct chromosomal configuration to allow germination. The seeds are laboriously extracted by straining tons of mashed fruit through fine meshes …

That comes from this article, The Unfortunate Sex Life of the Banana (highly recommended – it’s both entertaining and informative) and after reading it I abandoned  any thought that cultivated bananas grow from seed in the rainforest. It’s still possible that they occasionally grow wild when a plantation has been washed out by floods and a ball of roots lodges somewhere downstream and starts growing, but that must be rare and can’t account at all for plants growing high in the hills. So our wild bananas genuinely are wild, and can’t even have crossed with the cultivated ones.

top of banana plant

Wild banana plant near Bingil Bay, with a small bunch of unripe fruit (click for larger image, as usual)

I had been told of wild bananas – “so full of seeds you wouldn’t eat them” – years ago but didn’t really follow them up. Then, last weekend, I saw and photographed them in the rainforest near Sanctuary Resort above Bingil Bay (just north of Mission Beach), and was introduced by a fellow guest to a magnificent book, Cooper’s Fruits of the Australian Tropical Rainforest which depicts and describes our native species.

There are two, Musa banksii and Musa jackeyi, and clicking on those links will take you to CSIRO fact sheets about them. In short, Musa jackeyi is rare, even in coastal north Queensland; its stumpy reddish fruit are borne on a vertical stem. Musa banksii has a bigger range, from Cape York to just south of Townsville, and is more common across that range. The plant and its fruit are more like our cultivated bananas, but the fruit turn upwards from their stem, not down. Both species tend to grow in disturbed areas of rainforest, e.g. where a big tree has fallen and exposed earth to the sky, and both are eaten by feral pigs.

bunch of upturned green bananas

Musa banksii near Murray Falls with a large bunch of fruit, June 2012

Sometime I will find a bunch of wild bananas ripe enough to try eating one, but my expectations are not high: Cooper’s picture of the fruit (on the CSIRO page) doesn’t look promising.

The last piece of the puzzle is the relationship between wild bananas and the fruit on our table. Its outline is simple enough: our wild bananas are just two of some 70 species worldwide, and all our cultivated varieties are sterile hybrids of other “wild” species, mostly from SE Asia and some with human histories going  back thousands of years. The details are very complicated indeed and I will merely recommend wikipedia’s article on the genus Musa as a starting point before beating a strategic retreat.

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Blue Tigers in the Mangroves

looking across mangroves to a bay

Mangroves at Cape Hillsborough National Park – looking south, with the boardwalk out of sight to the left

Back to Cape Hillsborough … the National Park is a peninsula and there’s a big area of mangroves on the broad, low-lying neck between the resort and the mainland. The “Diversity Boardwalk” loops through them and returns via higher ground to illustrate how land-forms shape plant communities.

boardwalk through mangrove forest

The beginning of the Diversity Boardwalk

All mangroves are salt-tolerant and don’t mind sand or wet feet but even within the family there is a variety of preferred habitats, and a small difference in height above sea level (even a metre or two) allows bigger mangrove species to thrive, so the boardwalk does earn its name. (Mangrove eco-systems are a huge topic in themselves – you could start with wikipedia if you want to explore them.)

But what about the Blue Tigers? Surely they should be even more famous than the Swamp Tigers of the Sundarbans? Sorry – they are butterflies.

Blue Tigers, Tirumala hamata, are Milkweed butterflies (Danaidae) like the Crows and they have the same habit of getting through the dry (winter) season by congregating in large groups in moist, shady places and doing as little as possible. I have seen groups of Crows on Townsville’s Town Common but was not at all prepared for the enormous flock of Tigers (flock?? cloud? school? flight? flutter? swarm? rabble? kaleidoscope??) I saw near the boardwalk car park.

blue butterflies on red flowers

Blue Tigers feeding on bottlebrush

I amused myself by seeing how many of them I could get into one photo, both in the shade and feeding in full sun on the flowering bottlebrush trees.

blue butterflies on trees

Blue Tigers resting in the shade

The beginning of October, when I saw them, was probably near the end of their resting season. There’s no sense in wasting energy making babies if they are going to starve as soon as they hatch, but as soon as the caterpillars’ food plants start growing again, normal life (i.e. breeding) resumes.

The Tigers weren’t the only butterflies enjoying the bottlebrush near the boardwalk that day; I also saw Wanderers, aka Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and a Ulysses (Papilio ulysses) there. In the shade of the mangrove trail proper I saw Australian Rustics, Bush-browns and some unidentified Skippers. And I saw another, smaller, aggregation of Tigers on the Beachcomber Cove track, a little way up the hill from its resort end.

A friend in Townsville had this to say about Blue Tigers closer to home:

Blue Tigers … used to overwinter in quite large numbers along the track from Horseshoe Bay to Balding Bay [on Magnetic Island], quite possibly still do though they weren’t there when I walked the track on Saturday [early October], I think too late in the season for them.
Interesting that you saw them in Cape Hillsborough though – a bit cooler there perhaps?
… They are a favourite of mine. I’ve seen them overwintering in lowland vine forest in the Mission Beach/Kennedy Bay and Airlie Beach areas too, as well as the banks of Alligator Creek downstream from the swimming and picnic area – often they are with Crows, but the ones I remember seeing on Magnetic were exclusively, or almost exclusively, tigers.

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Local wildlife

Possum

Brush-tail Possum

We’ve had possums in our garden – and often enough in our ceiling space – as long as I can remember, but we don’t see them very often. They are, of course, nocturnal and look for quiet, shadowy places to sleep through the day.

They are Brush-tail Possums, Trichosurus vulpecular, allegedly the most common marsupial in eastern Australia. We get along with them well enough, laughing at the thumps on our roof when they jump down from the trees around the house and grumbling fairly good-naturedly when their territorial battles get too rowdy, but I know some folk don’t. The RSPCA has a page, How can I live happily with the possums on my property?, which may improve homo-trichosurian relationships. (Yes, I made that one up, but I’m sure you can work it out.)

possum in pump box

A tree-hollow would have been better

This young one made a poor choice of sleeping quarters when he (that’s a guess) selected the box which protects our bore-pump from the weather: it would normally be a rather peaceful spot but he was there on the day we watered the garden and it must have been hot and intolerably noisy. I did try to encourage him to go somewhere else but he was too scared to move. He wasn’t there next day, though!

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Cromarty Wetlands

view across lake

Cromarty Wetlands, with black duck, pelicans and others

The last thing I did before heading for Cape Hillsborough at the end of September was to join Wildlife Queensland members on their guided tour of Wongaloo, a section of the world-famous (among bird-lovers and conservationists, at least) Cromarty Wetlands.

The wetlands lie between Mount Elliot, the Haughton River and the coast, and have an average elevation (according to Mark Stoneman, our guide) of about half a metre. They are a haven for birds and other wildlife, especially in the dry season … but there’s a good write-up of the excursion on the WQ blog (here, under the very appropriate heading “Wetland Wonders”) so there’s no need for me say more.

cattle and birds

Cattle Egrets flying over weed-control cattle

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