Friday 25 March 2016

The Great Australian Critter Quest

In February 2015, I visited Australia in order to give a talk on my book, Osman Hasan and the Tombstone Photographs of the Dönmes, at the annual conference of the Australian Association of Jewish Studies. Hosted by generous family friends, I ended up staying for nearly a month in a beautiful and cathartic experience.

For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of Australia was the fauna. Not just the fancy kangaroos, koalas and the like, but also little things; the random bugs, birds, lizards, spiders, etc. that ordinary Australians would possibly find boring. While staying in Sydney, and later, on a mini-excursion to Queensland, I took pictures of every such "critter" I could find.

Almost immediately after arriving, I went to a park near my host family's home in Alexandria, to walk around and shed the after-effects of the long flight from Istanbul. Named Sydney Park, this reclaimed industrial zone and landfill area was now home to a profusion of local birds and other critters.

Invasive feral pigeons, Columba livia, on playground turf. Pigeons were arguably the most boring and urban of all animals. But it was interesting how they had subtle "races" among themselves. Pigeons from Sydney had a different complexion from those in Istanbul and other cities.

A flock of galahs, Eolophus roseicapilla, was grazing like tiny pink sheep on a slope.

A gang of common mynasAcridotheres tristis, were on the prowl nearby, looking for little insects and other food items. Although beautiful and exotic to my eyes, these smart and adaptable birds were actually invasive pests in Australia. 

Young white-faced heronsEgretta novaehollandiae, were looking for things to eat in one of the artificial pools in the park.

An even younger white-faced heron was looking quite kooky with some of its baby feathers still on.

With their loud screams and mischievous attitudes, sulphur-crested cockatoos, Cacatua galerita, were one of the most noticeable birds in the city.

More parrots: I saw this band of little corellasCacatua sanguinea, feasting on a fruit tree on a street corner a few hundred meters from the park.

Another little corella, Cacatua sanguinea.

The cute birds were later joined by a group white ibisesThreskiornis moluccus. It was a fascinating gathering, I had never seen such birds outside documentaries. To Australians, however, both animals were as perfectly ordinary (and possibly boring), as cats were in Istanbul.

A close-up of an ibis, Threskiornis moluccus. It looked like a little dinosaur. I loved the jewel-like scales on its legs and neck. These birds could be seen everywhere in the city, probing bushes, trash-cans, etc. with their beaks for things to eat.

Another bird that was strange to my eyes, but completely ordinary in Sydney: the masked lapwing, Vanellus miles. Their complete silence, big eyes and slow, purposeful gait gave them an extremely distinctive and slightly eerie character. Lapwings had knife-like spurs on their wings, which were not visible here.

I saw this group of Pacific black ducks, Anas superciliosa, by an artificial pond. Natives of the region, these ducks were threatened by mass-rape-induced-crossbreeding by introduced mallards, Anas platyrhynchos, which were known to be notorious rapists.

The ducks were later joined by this dusky moorhen, Gallinula tenebrosa.

I also saw this crested pigeonOcyphaps (Geophaps) lophotes, standing perfectly still among the pebbles near the pond. Check out that little spiky crest; what a bizarre, cute bird.

I then moved into the "undergrowth," looking for more obscure critters. By then I was having something like an amateur zoologist's epiphany; I was just out of a very long, jet-lag-inducing flight, the weather, the atmosphere, light, and even the texture of the soil were all completely different, and I had seen more interesting animals in this one urban park than I had in Turkey in decades.

I sat under some trees, and soon, something like a tiny black dinosaur ran past me... was a pied currawong, Strepera graculina. These birds were extremely smart analogues of crows, magpies of relatives, native to the Australasian region. They looked like crows, but in fact belonged to a completely different family; perfect examples of convergent evolution.

I can't tell you how interesting this creature was. It looked like a crow from back home, but the subtle differences in its anatomy, the graceful angles of its neck and beak, plus the strange way it seemed to be animated by an intelligence of a higher order than most birds... all added up to a world of difference.

A short distance away, I encountered this magnificent relative of the currawong, an Australian magpie, Cracticus tibicen. It looked straight into my eyes and sang a bizarre song. It was a mesmerizing moment. The magpie reminded me of the intelligent dinosaurs me and my friend Simon Roy dreamt up a few years ago.

I followed the magpie-mimic into the undergrowth, where it dug around for small insects.

These two birds left such an impression on me that I later used them for the basis of these two paintings. You can see more of my artwork here.

Another smart-looking black-and-white bird was this magpie-lark, Grallina cyanoleuca. It, too, looked like something from the crow-magpie or the currawong lineage, but instead belonged to yet another group of perching birds. These birds were said to be aggressively territorial, but this one must have been a mild-mannered specimen.

Like the birds, I also rooted around in the undergrowth and among the bushes for glimpses of smaller animals. I started turning over rocks, logs and digging through the leaf-litter. One of my first spots was this reddish, tropical ichneumon wasp, Ichneumonidae sp.

Among the many invertebrates I found was this creamy white millipede. Determining the exact species of such animals is very difficult, so I could not give a species or even a genus name for this guy.

I walked over to a gully at the side of the park, where someone had left mattresses and discarded bags in the undergrowth. Beneath an old backpack, I found this mother brown huntsman spider, Heteropoda cervina, guarding her batch of eggs. 

She looked terrifying, and seemed to have fended off more than one attack to her brood - two legs on her right-hand side were missing. I carefully replaced the backpack and left the mother spider alone.

Beneath another piece of garbage I saw a most interesting, worm-like creature whose skin had the consistency of a plastic sex toy. It was no ordinary worm, but a terrestrial planarian, (Geoplanidae). This one is a blue garden flatworm, Caenoplana coerulea. 

These creatures came from a distinct lineage, different from all other worms and other invertebrates. They were successful predators and fed on snails, slugs and other invertebrates using a bizarre gut-mouth system that opened from the sides of their bodies.

More strangeness from the undergrowth: the unashamedly-named stinkhorn fungusPhallus rubicundus.

These red, anemone fungi, Aseroe rubra, were blossoming a short distance away. My naughty mind immediately saw them as vaginal counterparts to the phallic fungi I saw earlier. The chipped wood mulch of the parkland was a fertile breeding growth for these fungi, they were considered to be pests in local gardens.

In a nearby open area among the trees, I came across these giant spiders, suspended in mid-air on invisible threads. Up to a dozen of them were standing motionlessly in a tangle of communal webs. I knew these to be giant orb-weaving spiders, Nephila plumipes. I had read about them, seen their photos online, etc. for many years. Seeing these spiders in real life was another moment of amateur-zoology-enthusiast's catharsis.

Here is how big they could get. Nephila spiders looked like an arachnophobe's nightmare, and there are pictures of them feeding on snakes, bats and small birds. Despite this, they were harmless to people. In some parts of the world, these animals were plucked from their webs, roasted and eaten as a delicacy.

I found these blind subterranean termites, Coptotermes acinaciformis, under a log. These insects were serious pests in Australia.

Another millipede, from a species I couldn't decipher.

Trees all around the park were littered with the phantom-like husks of a recent cicada brood, Cicadoidea sp. Australia had over 200 species of cicadas and dozens lived in the Sydney region.

Australians really liked cicadas, and many varieties had colourful local names such as the Green Grocer, Yellow Monday, Blue Moon and the Masked Devil - all of them Cyclochila australasiae, the Whiskey Drinker - Macrotristria angularis, the Brown Bunyip - Tamasa tristigma, the legendary Black Prince - Psaltoda plaga, the Typewriter - Pauropsalta extrema and so on.

The names sounded more like cocktail drinks than things people would normally ascribe to insects, a nice reflection of the affection people had for animals in this strange continent.

The undergrowth in the park was rustling with these rainbow skinks, Lampropholis delicata.

I caught one, and my mind went back to Turkey, when I used to catch similar-looking Ablepharus skinks in my school backyard as a child.

Another denizen of the undergrowth, an embarrassed-looking striped marsh frog, Limnodynastes peronii. I found it under a piece of wood, close to one of the artificial lakes in the park.

Outside Sydney park, I came across this neatly-coloured snake-eyed-skinkCryptoblepharus virgatus by a garden wall. Like the Anatolian Ablepharus skinks I mentioned earlier, these lizards had no eyelids, possibly as an adaptation for living in the undergrowth. These animals were very common in suburban Sydney - one of my friends later showed me pictures of a cheeky specimen entering her house.

I kept an open eye for all sorts of critters during my time in Sydney. Needless to say, in such a city of parks, suburban expanse and tropical climate, one was never far away from new discoveries.

I took this rather bad photograph of an eastern water skink, Eulamprus quoyii, near a leaking water pipe by the walkway around Tamarama Beach. It was enjoying itself in the moist growth that had proliferated around the pipe.

Another big lizard, some sort of dragon, possibly Diporiphora australis, the eastern two-lined dragon, from the parklands near the La Perouse Cemetery. 

"Hey buddy... buddy... let me in buddy..." Invertebrates were common all over the city, at all times. This is another, smaller brown huntsman spiderHeteropoda cervina, from the doorstep of the home I stayed in. 

I saw these brown moths, Leptocneria reducta, with orange-black eyespots all over the town.

This moth was particularly touching, me and a friend saw it trying to tend to its eggs on a wall in the busiest part of the town.

This spider, the ogre-faced, web-throwing Deinopis subrufa, had long been one of my favourites. Thinking them denizens of inaccessible jungles and caves, I had never expected to encounter one. It  was a pleasant surprise then, to see one by the corner of a window in my friend Nuran Zorlu's studio in downtown Sydney.

Check out the stringy, white web mass the spider is preparing between its forelegs. Deinopis spiders throw these webs onto passing prey to capture them.

I spotted this incredibly beautiful spider (Tetragnathidae sp.) on a fence while biking around Centennial Park. Its long legs looked as if they were crafted out of red-and-white glass.

Identifying these animals down to the species level is notoriously difficult, but here is a wonderful resource for Australian spiders nevertheless.  

I had a policy of not including any pets in this post, but I had to make an exception for this tiny, scruffy-looking dog, straight out a John Kricfalusi cartoon.

I spent nearly three weeks in Sydney. Here is a glimpse of a street corner from a suburban area of the city. I saw many of the animals here on perfectly ordinary spots such as this.

The skull of an unfortunate bird, the victim of an unfortunate predator.

Another predator's victim, the skull of a rodent, possibly the universal pest, Mus musculus.

No visit to Sydney was complete without trips to the city's iconic beaches. I chanced upon this little pied cormorant, Microcarbo melanoleucos, sunning itself on concrete harbour blocks near Congwong Beach. Did you know that cormorants had no nostrils? Weird.

A gang of silver gullsChroicocephalus novaehollandiae, on the famous Bondi Beach. While beautiful, I found Bondi to be the most crowded and over-rated beach in Sydney.

The sands on Bondi were littered with "stingers" of all sorts. Jellyfish stings were a big deal in Australia, and people occasionally wore ungainly plastic wetsuits to avoid exposure to their tentacles.

This was a blue button jelly, Propita porpita. Although irritating, the sting of this coin-sized creature was not considered to be a major hazard. Another interesting thing about these jellies that each creature is a colony, made up of smaller animalcules that have come together in an organised entity.

Another colonial drifter, the dreaded Portugese man o' war, Physalia physalis. These things were dangerous - their tentacles caused severe rashes and an awful pain if touched. They were strewn all around the beach like used condoms.

A rose barnacle, Tesseropora rosea, and radiated limpets, Patella sp. on the beachside rocks.

Masses of sea-squirts, Pyura praeputialis, covered many seaside rocks. Although unsightly, these creatures were quite fun to play with. Each semi-polygonal "cell" here was a separate animal. Tickling them caused the animalcules to eject thin streams of water, like tiny mouths. The locals knew them as "cunjevoi".

My wife joined me for the final 1.5 weeks of our trip, and we went on a vacation-within-a-vacation to Queensland. Complete tourists, we rented a car and toured around the towns of Proserpine, Airlie and Cape Gloucester. 

This was one of the most touristically-saturated regions of Australia, but to us outsiders it seemed like some sort of wild, untamed paradise. It also helped that we had arrived during the onset of stinger season, the high-point of stinging jellyfish populations in the water. No one was around, and the spectacular beaches looked quite surreal without a single swimming person in sight.

I saw this pied oystercatcher, Haematopus longirostris, looking for prey on low tide on an empty beach near Dingo Bay.

The low tide uncovered other things as well. A particular beach was full of these foot-long giant black sea cucumbersHolothuria leucospilota.

I immediately grabbed and examined some of them.

The sea cucumbers' phallic appearance was further augmented by their ejection of sticky, white "strings", actually modified gut segments, for defence.

I ventured into some of the dense secondary forests near the sea in search of animals, but it was hard to see anything during the intense heat of the noon.

One of the few things I could find was this big rhino beetle, Xylotrupes ulysses.

This insect was massive, by far the heaviest beetle I saw. I felt like a big-shot explorer to have found a gigantic, exotic insect, but in fact this was one of the most common beetles in Queensland.

I dug around on the forest floor, hoping to uncover more insects or reptiles. All I found were these grumpy-looking, invasive marine toads, Rhinella marina (Bufo marinus).

These frogs are serious pests in Australia, and they endanger countless local insects, reptiles and amphibians. One of my friends later argued that for the sake of local wildlife I should have killed these toads wherever I saw them, but I disagreed. The toad infestation was acutely beyond control at this point and people wouldn't make a dent on toad populations even if they spent every waking hour hunting them. The damage has been done already. Why kill more innocent animals just to settle the score of an unachievable balance?

Near Cape Gloucester, I encountered a zoological mystery in the sand. I noticed a tiny spiralling structure right beside some sand dunes. It seemed to be built by some small animal, possibly some sort of wasp, but... what? Certain sand wasps built pit-like structures in beach dunes, but I had never seen something like this. It reminded me of Junji Ito's famous manga, Uzumaki - Spiral Into Horror.

Can any of my readers help? As of now, I am e-mailing Australian entomologists to solve this mystery. I was certain it was not a sandal print.

UPDATE: I also posted this sand spiral on various entomology groups on Facebook [1] [2] and Reddit. [1] [2] Looks like this mystery has been solved. The most likely answers are:
▲ The bottom of a trekking cane: There are some models with rubber, circular bottoms.
▲ The initial stage of an antlion nest.
▲ A pattern etched onto the sand by the action of the wind as it blows debris and/or nearby branches in circles. Too bad, I'd have hoped it to be some sort of undiscovered sand critter.

Driving through forests and farmland in search of new, interesting locations was a joy. The Australian roadside was full of quirky little surprises, such as this "steampunk" mailbox by the entrance of a sugar-cane plantation.

Another interesting detail was this sloping road, aptly named "O My God Hill," on the seaside trail. Other tourists had noticed this local curiosity too.

Back to critters. I spotted this giant longhorn beetle, Cerambycidae sp. on the wall of our hotel in Airlie.

The nymph of a hedge grasshopperValanga irregularis, also from our hotel wall.

I saw this beautiful assassin bug, possibly the "bee killer" Pristhesancus plagipennis, on the branches of an araucaria tree. These bugs fed by impaling their prey on nasty, knife-like mouth-parts, which they could use to "sting" people too. If you see them, you shouldn't touch these guys.

While we were reclining under a tree, this sulphur-crested cockatooCacatua galerita went out of his way, and aligned himself carefully to poop on us. These animals were extremely smart, and like all the smartest animals, used their intelligence mostly for mischief.

Near Cape Gloucester I had a chance to see one of my all-time favourite spiders, the giant green jumper, Mopsus mormon. I was a fan of this species ever since seeing a feature about it in a 1993 issue of National Geographic. I spent nearly half an hour trying to get good pictures of this finicky critter, but it absolutely refused to face the camera. Perhaps it was afraid of its own reflection on the lens. Check out those two posterior eyes, scanning the animal's back like a second face.

At last, I managed to get a nice shot of its face. Look at the cute, gorilla-like mug... Its dark face told that this spider was a male; females had faintly-coloured faces with white stripes.

Co-incidentally, the genus name of this spider, Mopsus, was also the name of a mythical prophet and city-founder from Anatolia. It was a nice coincidence to come from the land where the historic Mopsus lived, and meet the bizarre spider named after him thousands of years later. The scientist who gave this name to this spider, Ferdinand Karsch, was an erudite scholar who also studied sexuality and ancient cultures, and was one of the first openly gay academicians in early 20th-century Berlin.

With omnivorous appetites, turn-of-the-century scientists like Karsch were a unique breed that could make new discoveries in wildly-disparate arenas of knowledge. I don't think many zoologists alive today are knowledgeable enough to include such historic references in the names of the species they describe.

Details like this are why I love comprehensive studies of nature, history, people and places. A simple arachnid, just by its name, can take one on massive journeys across time and space. Such cross-links of knowledge add meaning and an incomparable feeling of wholesomeness to my life.

The best time for critter-hunting in Queensland was the night. The tropical heat was relentless after sunset, and any light in the sweat-stained darkness attracted many large insects. 

This giant privet hawk moth, Psilogramma nebulosa (menephron), was one of my first finds. Its ominous, triangular shape reminded me of one of the fabled British Avro Vulcan Bomber. I was very stupid to pose with this cute moth on my face, the dust-like scales in its wings caused a mild irritation in my left eye for a couple of days afterwards.

As the humid night wore on, I came across this rather dark-eyed beauty; an enormous mantis, Paramantis sp. 

Immediately after, I found another large insect, this leaf-like bush katydid, Caedicia sp, possibly Caedicia simplex. I resisted a dark urge to feed the katydid to the mantis.

Boom - this spectacular two-spot tiger moth, Asota plagiata, landed on our table just like that. We were finding all of these wonderful insects on the back porch of a seaside restaurant. Who knew what the depths of the jungle held?

I also saw this phantom beauty, Nagia linteola with twin hourglass-shaped spots, black, star-speckled wings and outsized eyes. Identifying moth species was very difficult - I am indebted to Eve Stafford and Buck Richardson's amazing LeapFrogOz / Moth Identification Homepage for identifying what lepidopterans I could for this article.

There were plenty of vertebrates around too. This chunky green tree frog, Litoria caerulea, a native of Australia, untangled itself from a nearby tree like a rubber monkey, and -splat!- fell on the ground as it leapt after a scuttling cockroach.

The marine toadsRhinella marina (Bufo marinus), were awake after a long day's sleep and they were hungrily running after all the insects that were flying and crawling around. This particularly big specimen was the size of a small kitten. Like cats, too, they were cosying up to local diners for scraps from their tables. I tossed this toad a bit of crayfish from my dinner plate. It hopped up to it, and after a bit of philosophical contemplation, gobbled it up.

Another, less harmful introduced species we saw in Queensland was the Pacific house gecko, Hemidactlyus frenatus. These things were everywhere, and I mean everywhere, around human habitations after dark. On buildings, an area the size of a garage door usually held about 3-4 of them.

I'd almost thought the geckos too boring to photograph, when, on the ceiling of the mens' room, I beheld an epic struggle of sex and violence.

Gecko A (the one on the left), was happily mating with the female when Gecko B (the one currently seen copulating with her), came along, and brutally ripped out a piece of skin from his lower belly and then, the four fingers of his right forelimb. (Ouch!) The final act caused Gecko A to relinquish the female, who went on to mate with Gecko B as if nothing had happened. Gecko A retaliated, futilely, by attacking Gecko B again and ripping chunks of skin from his tail and his back as B kept on mating with the female. The tragic finale came seconds after this photo was taken when Gecko A struck one final time, with such force that both Gecko B and the female fell to the ground and scuttled away. Gecko A alone was left on the ceiling light, bewildered, victorious but mateless.

My final herptile spot in Queensland was this aggressive, reddish-coloured snake. I couldn't determine its exact species, but it may have been a keelback snake, Tropidonophis mairii; a non-venomous snake that emulates other, dangerous snakes with an aggressive demeanour. With so many venomous snakes in Australia, however, I wasn't going to examine it closely to be certain.

Much has been made about Australia in popular culture as a "deadly place" with every snake, insect, spider, jellyfish, etc. loaded with poison to absolutely kill everybody and anybody. The truth is, it is not any more deadlier than many other corners of the globe - the continental US has dozens of rattlesnake species, for example. None of these animals want to be close to people, and one can go through an entire visit to Australia without seeing a single snake, etc. if they want to.

Funnily enough, the only animals that "attacked" me during this trip were these green weaver ants, Oecophylla smardina. I'd foolishly parked our car under the a tree, and by the time we'd arrived, they were crawling all over the hood. The ants stung me in my arms and legs as I tried to brush them off, leaving a very painful and itchy feeling.

I only saw a couple of "legacy" Australian animals in this trip. This scuttling echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus, was one. I also saw a couple of wallabies, but I couldn't photograph them.

I was really moved by this trip, and I really want to visit Australia again. In terms of critters, I'm sure what I saw was the briefest, most ordinary glimpse of tremendous variety of life this continent had to offer. Even then it was a fascinating odyssey: full of spiders named after prophets, mystic sand spirals, sentient birds, violent reptilian threesomes, phallic fungi and ejaculating echinoderms, cicadas with a thousand names and more... I feel that a part of my heart will always remain in this strange place.