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Cascade Trail in Kosciuszko National Park

Time flies and all of that! I know it’s been two weeks since my last update, but I do have good reason why I haven’t filled in on the Australian adventure since. Things are finally starting to get into motion and I’m having less and less time to sit at a computer to write down a blog post. As is, I’m currently sitting at the airport in Sydney waiting for a flight to Launceston, Tasmania. But I’ll get to that in due time.

In the meantime, let me fill in all of my avid readers on the events of the last two weeks, or really, the last week, which is the interesting week (the week prior was, admittedly pretty boring and uneventful). On the 7th, I headed down to Kosciuszko National Park in the southern part of New South Wales to participate in a project for Corroboree Frogs. Simply, we were placing clay models all over the park to allow predator to attack them. We had three different types of models: solid yellow, solid black, and corroboree. The idea behind this research is to elucidate the function of the yellow-and-black striping of the Corroboree Frog because we actually don’t know its function. Surely, you must think, that that bright striping has to be warning coloration just like we see in poison dart frogs, but rarely are things so clear. Speaking from experience in placing these models, the striped pattern is incredibly cryptic when placed into the snow grass where these frogs were once found. So this color pattern could be disruptive. We don’t really know. We don’t actually know what eats or potentially eats these frogs. This study should give us a lot of insight into the biology of the frogs.

I analyzed the data that the lab collected in December and found some interesting results. The lead PI on this project wanted three different sampling periods to cover the entirety of the breeding season, which is probably prudent. In the interest of waiting until the study is done, I won’t discuss the results here, yet. But suffice to say I think that there are some neat things going on with Corroboree Frogs.

I spent this last week with two undergrads who were effectively heading the project. They spent countless hours making these frogs only to have them possibly destroyed by predators. They have a great deal of dedication for the project, and because of that, since I was brought in later, I really want them to be the main benefactors of the results. I’ve been encouraging them to start thinking of analysis and writing, and I envision the main PI and myself to act as editors and perfect the paper before we submit it for publication. I think that’ll probably be submitted before I leave for the US, which is really awesome. They seem pretty keen to do the paper. We will have one more sampling period in March that may address a couple other questions, but after that, we should be set with getting ready to publish. And it should be pretty awesome. By the end of it, we will have placed over 6,900 models, which is several times more than any clay model experiment I’ve seen and it’ll have been done over the course of the breeding season, which most model experiments do not do. With that, I think it could have pretty high impact.

I did have to emphasize to these two that I currently live in Mississippi and am from Michigan. In both of those areas, a 20m hill is considered a mountain. So I initially had some issues with doing the transect. After a couple of days, I got used to the 1500-1900m elevation, but it was still quite exhausting. The hardest part for me actually was going off-track. The subalpine and alpine areas are essentially all covered in “snow grass” with some sparse shrubs here and there as well as the occasional sphagnum bog that the Corroborees would have liked. This snow grass grows in tufts which made the ground very uneven. Effectively, it was like walking on a lumpy mattress for half a day. As a result, my ankles were seriously hurting by the end of the day. And further complicating matters was that I was pretty insistent on bringing some (but not all) of my camera gear to take photos of the area as well as film the experiment in progress. I want to great a short video of the research as it happens, so keep an eye out for that in the next couple weeks.

Start of the hike to Blue Lake

While the whole area was beautiful, I do want to make note of one particular trek. Blue Lake. This was the highest elevation we got to (between 1800m and 1900m) and it was also the longest hike. We had to walk 5km which was mostly uphill to get to the lake (which was formed many years ago by glaciers). In the panorama, you can see what we had to deal with. The trail goes downhill for about ½ km before starting uphill. You can see where Blue Lake is to the back right (that big exposed rocky bit). Rather than doing a fairly direct route, the route took us around one mountain before we ascended the mountain where Blue Lake was. Then we set 3km of transects down through that area. And we ended up bushwhacking for most of it until we ended and then made a loop of the hike to pick up the trail rather than go back the way we came. I can’t decide if this was ultimately better for me because probably cut 5km off of our return trip, but it meant going through a lumpy mattress for another kilometer or so.

Alpine Water Skink (Eulamprus kosciuskoi)

Helping raise my spirits were the herps of the area. I thought that surely being so high, we wouldn’t see any herps, but we did end up seeing a number of cool ones. On the Blue Lake hike, we saw Alpine Water Skinks (endemic to the area) and on the way back, I almost stepped on a small (which I guess was an adult) White-Lipped Snake which is a venomous snake, but not particularly dangerous. That invigorated me because I wanted to get a decent photo for identification purposes. What worked best was taking my hat and throwing it over the snake. It would calm down and coil up. Until when I did that once, a rather large spider bolted out of the grass under the hat. When we lifted the hat, the snake was gone. These hills are dotted with spider burrows (some of which are pretty big – probably 1.5” in diameter). I suspect that the snake found this burrow while I was trying to take photos and decided to evict the arachnid, giving the appearance that the snake magically turned into a spider. Beyond that, we also saw a number of Alpine Copperheads (another venomous snake). One I managed to get some photos of, but it wasn’t exactly happy that I was taking its photo. It never struck at me, but it flattened its neck in a threatening behavior. It was definitely a cool experience.

White Lipped Snake
Rather large spider scared away by White-Lipped Snake

In the interest of time, that is where I’m going to leave you. I apologize for the lateness of the post and the lack of photos. I’ll probably post a big photo post when I get back from Tasmania, so keep an eye out for that! I’ll finally have a little bit of time to breathe. This last week and this coming week have shifted by bedtime forward a couple of hours because I end up so exhausted at the end of the day. I can’t wait until I don’t feel so exhausted. But if that’s the price for experiencing Australia, so be it!

Australia Day celebration in Darling Harbour

I don’t know how another week has already passed. These next few months are going to fly by, I’m afraid. But I’ll make the best use of them as I can. So onto the goings on for this week!

The beginning of the week was basically, and

Planes fly over Sydney for Australia Day

most notably, Australia Day. Being from America, the best I can describe the atmosphere is like that of the Fourth of July. Australian flags everywhere. But one difference I got from our two cultures is the perception of the country itself. I don’t think that there are many Americans who can disagree with the Fourth of July being a moment of hyper-patriotism sprinkled in with a healthy dose of “America is the greatest country in the world.” This is not how Australians celebrate Australia Day. Rather, it’s certainly quite a bit of patriotism and celebrating all things Australian, but the general mentality as I perceived it was “Isn’t it awesome that we’re all Australian.” It’s a subtle difference, but it’s one I appreciated. But Australia Day isn’t Australian independence day, but essentially like Australian Columbus Day. It makes the day when the Australian continent was discovered by the English. And just like Columbus Day, it is heavily criticized because, like the Native Americans, the Aboriginals were treated horribly by colonists. And today, while things are much better for Australian Aboriginals, they are nowhere near perfect or equal for them. So there has been mounting criticism about the holiday. There, too, has been an increased push by Australian republicans (not to be confused with the American GOP) to have Australia be a republic. Currently, Australia is a constitutional monarchy, which essentially means it still holds ties to the UK because the Head of State for Australia is Queen Elizabeth II. Australian republicans want the Australian Head of State to be an Australian. There seems to be an increased movement for Australia to sever these ties with the UK and become independent. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the next decade or two, it came to fruition.

18th century ships meet modern day Sydney

I spent the day in Sydney as there was much to do and see around the Harbour. Perhaps it’s the case in the US with analogous cities on the water, but one of the coolest things I saw was that they had multiple concerts going on around the Harbour. But the bands were on barges and would drift along the coastline as the bands played. It was quite a cool experience to see that as I made my way around the Harbour. But in addition to that, they had planes flying overhead (including a massive Qantas jet!), and even had a parade of ships go through the Harbour including some replicas of the 18th century twin-masted ships (i.e., pirate ships). Much of the day was spent in Darling Harbour at Cockle Bay because that, ultimately, was where the fireworks would happen. Come evening, Cockle Bay became a large, outdoor arena where there were dragon boat races, citizenship ceremonies (celebrating new Australians), and a concert (on a boat that went all around the bay) with Sneaky Sound System. I’m not really one for music, so I don’t know much in the way of bands or people in those bands, let alone Australian pop idols, but given the reaction of the crowd, I’m guessing I should feel privileged that the woman known as Sneaky Sound System passed within 20 feet of where I was. And then came the fireworks, which was pretty impressive. I have not really seen fireworks shows in cities before, so I can’t really say with any sort of confidence if this was better or worse than other shows, but compared to the smaller town shows I’ve seen on the Fourth of July, it was quite impressive. You know how on those shows, there’s always a finale which seeks to overwhelm you with the amount of explosions happening in the air? Yea, Australia Day in Cockle Bay was like that for 20 minutes straight. And with the backdrop of Sydney, it was a pretty cool experience. Definitely something I’d recommend for the wandering traveler.

Baby Mountain Heath Dragon (Rankinia diemensis) from Royal National Park

The weekend was quieter than I would have liked, but that was largely because of track work on the trains that go out to the Blue Mountains, which would have put on hours of travel time for me. So instead, I went to Royal National Park to hike some of the interior of the park. This park is about 45 minutes south of Sydney and it actually quite a large park. It is most well-known for its Wedding Cake Rock, but I did not see this famous site. Instead, I went in from Waterfall (yes, there’s a town called Waterfall) and took a 6km hike to Uloola Falls. There is something about the Australian landscape that is so difficult to describe because it is so different from any other ecosystem that I’ve seen. This particular part of the park was dominated by shrubs and grasses, but on occasion, there would be clumps of Eucalypus trees. I think the best way I can describe this ecosystem and many of the Australian ecosystems is open. The forests are open. There is a great deal of light penetration that I’m not really used to in forest habitats. So when it gets particularly hot out, shade is not necessarily the easiest thing to find.

Adult Mountain Heath Dragon (Rankinia diemensis) from Royal National Park

Australia, though, is truly the land of Dragons.

Copper-Tailed Skink (Ctenotus taeniolatus) briefly sitting on a rock

Many of the lizards in the Agamidae family are referred to as dragons here (think Bearded Dragon or Water Dragon). I saw a number of new species for me, and many of them were dragons, including some absolutely adorable hatchlings (or at least I so assume). And by and large, they were pretty tolerant of a photo-happy yank taking their pictures. I cannot say the same of the skinks here. There were several species of skink that I saw as well, but I could not get real close to them to get more posed photos that I was hoping for. I ended up having to settle for using my telephoto and getting in situ shots. But seeing so many of these lizards really got me excited.

Uloola Falls in Royal National Park

The falls were, as best as I can tell, a stereotypical Australian water fall. They generally do not have a ton of water flowing over them. Like the forests, this, too, is difficult to describe, but in seeing several Australian waterfalls, there does seem to be a thread of commonality among them. They actually make for quite picturesque scenes. And despite being a hot day and a decent hike away, the falls were surprisingly popular. I can understand why, though, because it was pretty much a perfect waterfall to spend a lazy Sunday under. Cool water on a hot day was incredibly refreshing. But despite this, a little patience, and I could get the shot that I wanted. This is definitely a spot I wouldn’t mind hiking to again in the future. And that was pretty much the week. But I do have some news (finally) on research. The lab here has a project examining color evolution in the Corroboree Frog which is a critically endangered species (one of the rarest frogs on the planet), so when asked if I was interested in helping out, I had to say yes. I think every scientist wants their work to make an impact on the world. For some, they are quite content describing the function of a gene. For others, they want to describe a new species. For me, understanding diversity and conserving that diversity is very important to me. And this is the first real opportunity to get my foot in the door to have a tangible impact on the recovery of a critically endangered species. For this research, simply, we want to know the function of the conspicuous coloration of the Corroboree Frog. This will give us insight into its evolution, but from a conservation angle, it tells us what risk there is for reintroduction (and what sorts of predators pose that risk). It’s quite a basic question, but it allows us to start asking more questions. Like, can we train the predator community not to eat Corroboree Frogs? Or why yellow and black stripes, why not solid yellow? Or is yellow important, or is it the pattern? It’s the first step to really getting at understanding the risks of a reintroduction program for this species. This will potentially have long-lasting impacts here. We start on the 7th and will go for a week, then we’ll have a third trip (I missed the first) in mid-March to round out the breeding season for the Corroboree Frog. After that, I head to Tasmania to find a Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger for those who don’t know). Shouldn’t be that difficult, right? Okay, I’m really going to attend the Australian Society of Herpetologists’ annual conference, which sounds like it’ll be a good time. I’ve been warned about ASH meetings as they can be “interesting.” Not sure what to expect, but it should be fun regardless. After ASH, I’ll have a few days to explore around Tasmania and scout some sites for species collection. Ideally, I’d be collecting this trip, but I doubt I’ll have permits to do the collecting. Instead, I’ll scout and find the species I’m interested in so that I can come back later. That said, even if I did have permits, I may not be able to find frogs. It has been incredibly dry in Tassie for a while and they’re dealing with bush fires throughout the state. It might not be wet enough yet to count on finding frogs. We shall see, but regardless, I’m excited to be able to visit! Given how busy I will be the next couple weeks (and I may be with limited internet), I might not be able to keep to the weekly streak. I will certainly try, however. This week’s update may come a little early and next week’s a little late. We shall see. One way or another, I’ll definitely keep you updated on the Adventures in Oz!

Coastline off of North Head at the opening of Sydney Harbour

As with all of the photos in these blog posts, be sure to hover over them to read a little more about them (what the species is, where the location is, etc..). And hurrah for me for, so far, keeping to my promise about more regular blog posts!

Long-Billed Corella roosting right outside my door
White's Tree Frog (Litoria caerulea)

It has been raining a decent amount the last few days, which will be great for when I want to get out into the field to find frogs. If it keeps up like this, I should have good luck finding frogs. I will say one thing about the weather that I don’t understand. It comes from the west. For those with any semblance of knowledge of Australia know that west of Sydney is a pretty massive desert that is pretty dry. So I have no idea where all of the moisture is coming from to fuel these storm systems.

Eastern Water Dragon (Intellagama leseurii)
The one and only natural photo I have of a Cunningham's Skink (Egernia cunninghami)

This coming Monday, I meet with my host advisor to go over my plan here. I might start sampling rather soon, but I think my efforts may be better spent waiting a little bit before I start sampling. I’d like the rains to definitely come more in earnest so that I can be guaranteed to find frogs. I’m going to be going to Tasmania in February, and I think after the conference there, it’d probably be prime time to start sampling and getting what I need done. In the meantime, I’ll be able to prep and write permits for all of the sampling. I should, at that point, be able to get a more definitive schedule for my fieldwork.

It’s slowly coming along, but I’m almost there for diving into fieldwork here!

#skink #cockatoo #corella #Sydney #WesternSydneyUniversity #research

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