An old and depleted continent

October 12
Dawn was warm, funny thing. This week, every other morning seems warm and almost tropical, interspersed with cold days in which you swing on a sweater as soon as you get dressed. I guess it all depends on the swift winds that blow from left to right or right to left. I did a bit of laundry, hung it on the line and it was dry in like 15 minutes! Some people here hang their clothes up inside out so that the colors don’t get bleached by the harsh sunlight. I don’t really care about that!

So off to the bush we went, doing our naturalist things. Got another interesting mammal in one of my traps. It’s a different species of marsupial, a large mouse-sized thing called a dunnart which also carry its young in a shallow pouch. Why they don’t get scraped off the undercarriage when mom scampers about the rocks I just can’t fathom. Overall, the trapping has been slow but our friend whom we are working with says the capture rate is fairly typical for the arid Australian landscape. Had I set 50 live traps in California, every other one would probably have a chipmunk or ground squirrel in it, but here we would be lucky to get even one! Rational tells the educated and interested that the Australian landscape is incredibly nutrient poor and therefore can’t really support large populations of animals. It is a very old continent and many of the regular processes in the earth’s crust that enrich the landscape with minerals and vital nutrients, such as volcanoes and plate tectonics, have ceased millions of years ago. Little by little the goodies, such as phosphorus, have been washed off the land and into the sea, lost for practically ever.

Back during the evening shift our spotlighting for mammals and birds hanging out in trees didn’t turn up much. Makes sense since the area was severely burned and these animals probably weren’t adapted to hiding underground during the inferno. No telling how many koalas got scorched. We found a pile of kangaroo bones atop a flat rock. You might think that a kangaroo or bird could outhop or outfly a blaze, but with the strong winds, the fiery front probably moved at least 30 miles an hour. One blaze recently down south advanced 60 kilometers in an hour. We did hear a new species called a nightjar which has a beautiful, ascending screech owl like call.

On the drive back to town along the hard road vigilance was in full force to keep from running over a kangaroo or two. They unpredictably zig zag down the centerline, frightened by the headlights of the car. Sometimes they bounce out from the bush right onto the path of the speeding car. It’s tough to drive and I am glad I didn’t have to. We did hit one’s tail as it leapt in front of the vehicle. The other day we saw a freshly killed female roo and stopped. I was surprised when a colleague reached into the pouch to see if any pouched young had survived. Turned out it was a young female and had no joey in there otherwise someone might have felt obligated to rescue it and figure out where to send it. Not sure how I feel about spending vast resources driving to far away towns in cases such as these. It’s nice to try and help heal human mistakes but using a tank of gas to do it may do more harm than good.

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