We’ve had several friends email us about Australia’s reputation for deadly life forms. With the exception of certain television nature adventurers who have made a habit of pestering Australian critters into a frenzy to prove how aggressive they are, Australians don’t really make a big deal about the natural world that menaces them from all sides. In my last post I mentioned the box jellyfish, the danger of which Australians downplay by referring to them as ‘stingers.’ It is true that Queenslanders avoid swimming in the northern beaches during stinger season, but unlike me, they don’t seem to see it as cosmically unfair that they can’t swim in the world’s most beautiful waters because of a damn jellyfish.
Australia is well known for its array of weird and venomous reptiles. I’ll begin with a few that pose relatively little threat to humans. It’s not uncommon to see a five-foot-long monitor lizard slither across rainforest roads. Lois and I have seen two or three.
We recently traveled 1000 miles south of Cairns down the Australian coast to a beautiful home where we are now staying in Buderim (to pronounce this, think of what you’d do to a stack of pancakes). It’s about an hour north of Brisbane. In a note about various features of the property, the owner informed us casually that a dragon roamed the front garden area of the house. This is a two-foot long prehistoric looking creature that tends to lounge around on tree branches — a water dragon. Although I’m informed that neither the monitor lizard nor the water dragon is venomous, neither is likely to be a popular attraction at a petting zoo either.
Not our photo — we haven’t spotted him yet.
Another non-venomous reptile that inhabits the Australian rainforest is the tree python. It frequently snoozes in basket ferns, which often encircle the trunks high up in palm trees. Experts insist that, although it is a constrictor, it’s not large enough to pose a danger to humans. Of course that’s not considering the number of heart attack deaths suffered by coconut harvesters who ascend a tree and unexpectedly discover a tree python draped around their throats. By the way, the home where we are staying in Buderim comes with an adorable little Pomeranian, and when we asked the owners whether the dog should be allowed out to roam around the grounds at night, they advised us to look carefully in the branches of the trees on the property. We did; and we found two snakeskins draped over the branches of a tree near the pool, one of them over six-feet long. We’re thinking about using them in place of tinsel on our Christmas tree.
Of course, then there is the highly publicized matter of Australia’s venomous snakes. The majority of Australia’s snake species are poisonous. In fact, the six species of snake with the most deadly venom in the world are all found in Australia. We were at Daintree National Park in northern Queensland, the world’s oldest rainforest, when the person at the desk mentioned casually that a venomous snake had just honored them by coiling up just outside the entryway to the Visitor Center. She offered to show us. We took her up on her offer, and sure enough a deadly red-bellied black snake was coiled tranquilly in the flowerbed. Having worked for a few years as a park ranger, I found this astonishing. In the U.S., park administrators would find this absolutely unacceptable. Every day thousands of people walk within six feet of this poisonous reptile, which could easily spring from its lair among the peace lillies and fasten its fangs on the jugular of an innocent, paying park visitor. Not that park administrators would worry too much about the victim; it’s the lawsuits that would concern them. When I asked the Daintree park employee whether she was at all bothered by the proximity of the deadly snake to so many park visitors, she said, “Nobody would ever look to see that it’s there. Besides it’s only the 20th most venomous snake in the world……no worries.”
Again, not my photo
Speaking of poisonous venom, in Australia it’s not confined to the animal kingdom. In many Queensland rainforest parks there are signs posted warning about the “stinging tree” whose leaves look very much like our stinging nettle; it’s just that they deliver an excruciating venom which has caused fatalities for humans and even horses, and for which there is no known antidote. Like so many Australian species names, the name ‘stinging tree’ simply does not do this organism justice. Contact with this tree doesn’t simply ‘sting.’ It delivers a neuro-toxin that can convert the affected area into a red, swollen mass that remains intensely painful for months, if you’re fortunate enough to live that long. Some of Australia’s plants seem downright evil. Take, for example, the strangler fig. A fig seed is dropped by some creature onto a branch of, let’s say, a beautiful mahogany tree. The fig seed then sends long roots down to the ground to root itself. The roots eventually proliferate until the mahogany tree is completely covered with the fig roots, which show their gratitude to the gracious host mahogany tree by choking it out, depriving its leaves of sunlight. The host tree for the strangler fig in this photo is long dead and disintegrated. All that remains is the strangler fig.
Then of course there are the carnivorous plants; Australia has nearly 200 species of them. There’s the cheerily named ‘sundew’ whose tiny tentacles secrete a sticky goo that traps insects, which are then slowly digested. The elegant Australian pitcher plant features a slippery flower spout leading to a deep pocket with a pool of water that drowns the insect. Fun.
Australia has such unique life forms because it is an island that has been separated from the other continents for so long (geologically speaking) that in many ways it has taken its own evolutionary path. The platypus is a good example of this. A bizarre creature that looks like a combination of a beaver and a duck, it’s one of the few animals that lays eggs and suckles its young.
Given that it’s an Australian life form, it goes without saying that it has venomous stingers on its hind feet that can cause humans extreme pain. In fact, it’s one of the few venomous mammals in the world. It is such an odd creature that in the late 18th Century, even after an Australian governor sent a platypus carcass to England, British zoologists still considered it a hoax. Of course, fun-loving Australians have been known to capitalize on the reputation of their country for weird and dangerous critters by perpetrating hoaxes. Currently a myth is circulating about bloodthirsty koalas (called ‘drop bears’) that leap out of eucalyptus trees devouring unsuspecting American tourists. Even the Australian Museum seems to be complicit in perpetuating this hoax, proving that scientists can actually have a sense of humor.
For these reasons, I had doubts when I started seeing signs in the Daintree rainforest warning of the presence of a creature I’d never heard of — the cassowary, allegedly a flightless, human-sized bird that regularly crossed rainforest roads. As a young boy scout I’d been duped into participating in snipe hunts, and besides, the road signs made the cassowary look suspiciously like Big Bird.
So I wasn’t having any of it – until Lois and I hiked a very overgrown trail to see some particularly large rainforest trees, and returned to the car with a kilo or so of cassowary dung dripping from the soles of our shoes. We still haven’t seen one of these giant birds, despite looking carefully along rainforest creek beds, but now I realize that the spiritualists are right. Sometimes you just have to have faith in that which you can’t see – especially if you’ve had an excremental experience.
By the way, we learned that female cassowaries are quite a bit larger than the males, and after laying the eggs they abandon the nest, leaving the males to nurture the chicks while the females go off to seek new sexual adventures. Lois delights in this example of gender role reversal just enough to make me a tad uncomfortable. So from now on she gets to kill the giant tropical cockroaches in the bathroom at night.
As the sun sets on the Cairns Harbor each evening, a cacaphony of piercing shrieks erupts from several of the larger trees flanking the harbor promenade. The sound is made by a swarm of black flying foxes. Although when they take to the air, they are thought by most people strolling along the boardwalk to be a flock of large ravens, they are actually a form of “megabat” whose closest relative is a species scientists call pteropus vampyrus. (See below for a photo of this bat that appeared in my post on Bali.) I’m convinced that if word got out that these winged creatures swooping overhead were actually bats with a wingspan of over four feet, the Cairns Harbor promenade would be pretty much tourist free by 5 p.m.
The animal we most associate with Australia is, of course, the kangaroo. There are actually many types of kangaroo in Australia, even one type that, believe it or not, inhabits trees in the rainforests we visited. Still, Lois and I have seen only one species of kangaroo – wallabies. They congregate by the hundreds in a field near Cairns. Technically I should say we’ve seen a mob of wallabies. The official term for any group of kangaroos is “mob,” although you won’t find gangs of kangaroos bounding through the Australian hood roughing up humans. Like koalas, kangaroos seems to be among the few Australian creatures that lack venomous defense powers. They do, however seem to have a good deal of animosity for Australian SUV’s, into which they hop headlong so frequently that most Australians outfit their SUVs with ‘roo bars.’
To return to water creatures for a moment, there’s something I didn’t mention about why Australians are reluctant to go into the water at the beach. It turns out that it’s not just the stingers. There is also the matter of the saltwater crocodiles that prowl around the mouths of rivers and in nearby ocean waters. (By the way, Aussies fondly refer to the twenty-foot long beasts as “salties.”) This means that even if you don a “stinger suit” and are successful warding off the box jellyfish, you could still be snatched off of your surfboard whilst hanging ten and be torn limb from limb by a prehistoric-sized amphibian. Something about this just seems excessive to me.
For a moment I was tempted into thinking that maybe it’s safer just to swim in rivers where you have only one deadly creature to menace you. This thought was put right out of my mind, however, when we went on a guided boat tour of the Daintree River, where we spotted two small adult crocodiles (10-12 feet long) as well as a number of their offspring. (Sorry but the adults didn’t want to be photographed.)
I was stunned when our guide told us, “Yeeah, but if ya fell into these watahs, the crocs aren’t even the worst of yuh problems, mite.”
I took the bait. “OK, what is the worst of your problems, then?”
“It’s the bull shahhks. They attack in packs…..teah ya to shreds.”
“Bull sharks!! You’re kidding! In rivers? But sharks are ocean dwellers.”
“Naa, not bull shahhks. They do foine in fresh watah. They’ll come quoite a waiys up this rivah.”
“How big are they?”
“Aah, in these pahhts, they get to around three, neahly faw meetahs .”
“Four meters….that’s 12 feet long!”
“Yeeah, the bull shahhk is the most aggrissive of all the shahhks. They saiy it was the inspiraytion for movie Jawrs.”
Something seems deeply wrong about all of this, in a biblical sense. Monstrous, scaly, freshwater creatures invading saltwater habitats; terrifying, toothy saltwater creatures wreaking havoc in freshwater rivers; beavers growing duckbills and laying eggs; gigantic jellyfish herding swimmers on beaches into netted enclosures; megabats the size of eagles taking over the harbors; docile, vegetarian koalas turning into carnivorous man-eaters; plants strangling each other; mobs of kangaroos hurling themselves into oncoming traffic. I even noticed the other day that the water is going down the drain backwards. Figuring it was time to schedule a flight out of this place, I checked the cool calendar on the personal digital organizer I found a few years back in our travels through the ancient city of Tulum in southern Mexico, but the calendar seems to end two weeks from Friday.