Saturday, 5 April 2008

Mammals

Mammals
There are a variety of mammals in the Kuranda area many of which are on our property. I am fortunate in having Gary Wilson as a neighbour and who is also an outstanding photographer. Similarly Mike Cermak, well known nature photographer and author, has provided some of his excellent photos that are included here. Thanks so much. Introduced pests such as pigs and cats have thankfully not been seen here. So we do not have to include them. Below are some highlights of the mammals seen around our place.

Monotremes-Egg-laying mammals
The Echidna is one of two kinds of egg-laying mammals. The other is the Platypus. There are several reptilian features of these animals that tend to belie their primitive status in the animal world.

There are two echidna genera. One is found all over Australia and the lowlands of New Guinea containing one species. The other genus is found in New Guinea and has three species (Zaglossus). They are called Long-beaked Echidnas and one extinct species was thought to be about 1 metre in length. The Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) can be seen just about anywhere from the deserts to the rainforests. Unfortunately, most people see them dead on the road. We have seen them a number of times bumbling down the middle of our street. They seem to be active anytime, day or night. They have a tubular mouth with a sticky tongue and they feed mostly on termites and ants. Termite mounds often have gouges made by the echidna when it uses its legs to breach the mound and then it sits there licking up the termites when they appear to fix the damage. Males have a spur on the ankle of the hind leg (see photo) but it does not contain the toxin that is present in the hind leg of the Platypus. Mating occurs in July and August and we have observed courting Short-beaked Echidnas courting on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. They are very intent on their mission and males will run right across you path when pursuing a mate. About 2 weeks after mating a single egg is laid in the pouch of the female and hatches after about 10 days. Pores on the mammary glands provide milk. After about a year the young separates from its mother, at about 1-2 kg weight. An adult Short-beaked Echidna measures about 30-45 cm and weighs 2-7 kg. The spines provide an almost impenetrable defence. When threatened the echidna either rolls into a ball displaying the shield of spines, or using its legs, it just digs into the ground and seems to disappear. As you can imagine, they really have no enemies.

Short-beaked Echidna male in defensive display.

Mound of the rainforest termite, Termes sp. The gouges at the base of the mound were probably made by a passing echidna.

Marsupials
Carnivorous Marsupials

The Yellow-footed Antechinus, a very active carnivorous marsupial. (Mike Cermak photo)

The Yellow-footed Antechinus (Antechinus flavipes) is common in gardens around Kuranda. It is a member of a species that has races along the east coast of Australia and one in the southwest corner of the continent. It is a frequent visitor to the light-sheet and is like lightning, darting here and there as it searches for food. It is more often heard before it is seen. Males are about 121 mm, females 105 mm in length and weigh about 56 g and 34 g respectively. It is nervous and ravenously hungry, reminding one of a shrew in many respects. In addition to insects, this species eats flowers, nectar, small rodents, small birds and table scraps. It has the odd habit of turning its vertebrate prey inside-out prior to eating. It breeds once a year either in winter or spring. Copulation lasts for 12 hours and after mating the male dies! After a month’s gestation the female gives birth to about 12 young which are carried in the pouch for around 5 weeks and weaned after 3 months.


Other Marsupials

A pair of Red-Legged Pademelons on the lawn after dark.


Red-legged Pademelon adult. This is a timid species that never takes food from the hand. (Gary Wilson photo)

The Red-legged Pademelon (Thylogale stigmatica) is a rainforest wallaby. The peculiar name, according to the Wikipedia, is a corruption of badimaliyan, from the Dharuk Aboriginal language of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour region). It is active in early morning, evenings or late at night. They often come out on dull days. Any gardener in the rainforests knows the pademelon. What you like, they like---to eat. Their natural foods include leaves, grasses and berries but they seem to delight in chewing the leaves of anything new or unusual in their environment. They vocalize but I have not heard them making any sounds. They are generally solitary but often groups of 3-4 descend on gardens. To their misfortune, they are a choice food item of the Amethystine Python, the largest of Australian pythons.


The Musky-Rat Kangaroo, a common early morning and late afternoon visitor.

The Musky Rat-kangaroo (Hypsiprymnodon moschatus) is considered to be the most primitive of the “macropods”. It likes damp rainforests and is active late afternoon, evenings and early morning. It is not uncommon but rather shy. It is dark brown in colour and with a bright orange spot on the back near the tail. It snuffles around looking for fallen fruits, palm seeds and small invertebrates. It caches seeds and is an important dispersal agent of rainforest plants. Musky Rat-kangaroos frequently vie with the bandicoots for a bit of dry dog food. They don’t look much like “kangaroo” relatives, more like a rat, until they sit back on their hind legs and hold a bit of food to the mouth. During the day they sleep in leaf nests on the forest floor. Their tails are often shortened or stump-like because they bite them during fights. This creature bumbles around the ground and will come within a metre or so if you are quiet and don’t move. A visitor was shocked when he was observing one and it walked right into a large Goanna which grabbed it and promptly ate it, all with in a few seconds. This is one of the rainforest’s real treasures and habitat clearing is responsible for the demise of this animal in many areas. It is a Wet Tropics endemic.


A Northern Brown Bandicoot eats a bit of dry dogfood.


Northern Brown Bandicoot.

The Northern Brown Bandicoot (Isodon macrourus) is the common bandicoot we see around here. There is another species in the region, the Long-nosed Bandicoot, but we have not seen it. Like the pademelon, the bandicoot is known to every gardener. These marsupials feed on insects and worms. If you plant a plant, they inevitably dig it up, placing it neatly alongside the hole they excavate to see what insects they have uncovered. Of course, they never replant to plant. They are nocturnal, venturing out from their shelters of leaves and grasses to forage all night. In addition to insects and other invertebrates, these creatures eat a variety of grasses and berries. The fellow in the photo is attracted to dry dog food. You can hear him crunching the biscuits from a great distance. They make a squeaking sound when disturbed or when the females is trying to wean her babies, the young run around squeaking like tin horns. Their breeding is worth noting. They usually have from 2-4 young with the gestation period being only 12 ½ days. This is the one of the shortest gestation periods for any known mammal. After 2 months, the young are weaned. Several litters are produced during the breeding season. As one might deduce, they are favourite food items for snakes, lizards and predatory birds. Unfortunately, they are frequently seen killed on the highway.


The Green Ringtail Possum. (Gary Wilson photo)


Green Ringtail Possum (Gary Wilson photo)

The Green Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus archeri) is primarily arboreal and often difficult to see if it’s high up in the canopy. It lives in dense forests, both wet rainforests and ecotonal areas around 250 m altitude. It feeds exclusively on leaves, especially those of native fig trees. It is normally nocturnal but can be seen on dark days if disturbed. It sleeps upright curled into a tight ball gripping a branch with the hind feet sitting on the base of its coiled tail with the fore legs, head and tip of the tail tucked tightly into it belly. It is a solitary and silent species, making no sound at all. Quolls and Owls are predators. Wedge-tailed Eagles have been observed preying on unsuspecting possums that roost at the end of long branches overhanging the highway. In the past, this possum was eaten by aborigines. As is usual its greatest threat is from the removal of its habitat. It food source, fig trees, are not considered as commercial timber and as a result, they are not felled. This works to the possums’ advantage in addition to the species capability to living in small remnant patches. This possum is a Wet Tropics endemic.


A Striped Possum. Note the slender, elongate 4th finger used to extract insects from bark and difficult places (Mike Cermak photo)

The Striped Possum (Dactylopsila trivirgata) is a squirrel-sized spectacular resident. It is often very noisy and is said to have a distinctive odour. It's published distribution is from a narrow portion of rainforest from around Cairns to the tip of Cape York. But friend Graeme Cocks has a Striped Possum at Herveys Range, near Townsville. I have seen a few at my place but not for long. They seem to be rather nervous and are always on the move. They to have a peculiar gait when travelling through the canopy and seem fearless of fragile branches often shooting themselves through the air to a, hopefully, perceived perch. The food is primarily insects and this possum has a wonderful adaptation for such a purpose. The possum uses enlarged lower incisors to open a hole in a log or piece of bark. Then it extracts the prize larva with a sharp claw on the elongated 4th finger which it uses as a skewer or a probe. Although noisy and rather common, the behaviour of this animal contributes to its being the least known of Australian possums. It is an exmaple of parallel evolution when compared to the Aye-Aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) of Madagascar. Both have the log digit finger that is used as tool for extracting insects but they are completely unrelated.

Rodents


Personality-plus, the Prehensile-tailed Rat. (Gary Wilson photo)


The Prehensile-tailed Rat seeking a pandanus fruit to eat. Note the use of the tail. (Gary Wilson photo)

The Prehensile-tailed Rat (Pogonomys mollipilosus) was described from New Guinea but was first found in Australia in 1974 at Lake Barrine on the Atherton Tableland, not far from here. It is a small animal averaging 138 mm in length at about 62 g. It was first thought to be an illegally introduced pet but it has been subsequently found from several disjunct localities and is now considered an Australian native. Kuranda was thought to be at the lower end of its altitudinal preferences at 300 m but it has been found at sea level in the Daintree region. The biology is little-known in Australia. In New Guinea it spends the daytime in burrows with up to 15 animals in a single burrow. At night it feeds on leaves, flowers and fruits. The tial is used for balance and holding. It has a smooth upper surface at the tip curls upwards when gripping a twig or it can hang by its tail. It is a very rare find in Kuranda.


The White-tailed Rat, a well known resident capable of causing big problems to the human component of the Kuranda population. (Gary Wilson photo)


The tough plastic of a garbage bin offers little resistance to a determined White-tailed rat.

White-tailed Rat (Uromys candimaculatus) is one of Australia’s largest rodents and is big for a rat in any sense. Males weigh about 622 g and females 470 g. This is a rainforest and closed sclerophyll forest species in northern Australia and Papua New Guinea. Like other rainforest rats, it is a good climber and is often found on our bird feeder cleaning up the scraps. The normal foods are fruits and seeds but it has been recorded eating small amphibians, birds eggs and bark. It is known for its large head concealing huge, sharp teeth. They are frequently seen, and heard!, rasping into coconuts where their distinctive rounds holes are evidence of their success. This rat causes problems in homes where they cause much damage to electrical cords, PVC tubing. A new car can be devastated in a short time by these rats and their fondness for plastics. A neighbour had $4000 damage in a night from the rats chewing on the plastic computer components in his new car. They can even open tins of food (some say they can read the labels!). Every new garden hose in the tropics has been chewed by these rodents.

The White-tailed Rat is a fearless creature. When encountered, the rat only runs at the last moment. When cornered it can utter a loud and distinctive cry that almost sounds human. Probably the scars that one sees on old pythons are from these rats when they are in their last throes of a struggle that they ultimately lose.

This Fawn-footed Melomys is happily feeding on the soft portion of a Coffee berry.

This little cutey is probably the Fawn-footed Melomys (Melomys cervinipes). It is a small rat found in the closed forest along the tropical coast of eastern Australia. It is a good climber and is here seen rasping the husks of Coffee. This species has distinct territories and moving it to another location can cause it problems with the locals. It can be a pest when it chews into electric cables and gets into garden sheds.


This Bush Rat is on its way to another locality!

Meet Rattus fuscipes, the Bush Rat. This is a common native rat that is frequently encountered. It seems pleasant enough not being too intimidated when in a cage. But I understand if it bites it goes right to the bone and holds on. So one must be careful. It has a few habits that do not endear ti to residents of the bush. It likes to get into the workings of auto engines where it builds its nests. The air conditioning fan seems to be a preferred site for nests. It has cost me over $500 to have leaves removed after a night of homebuilding. See the bag removed from my air-con fan by the Toyota mechanics.


This bag of leaves was removed from the air conditioning fan of our Toyota Vienta.

Bats


A colony of Spectacled Flying-foxes. The noise, smell and disruption is often a cause of human malcontent. (Mike Cermak photo)


A sleeping Spectacled Flying-fox. Active day and night, this sleep won't last for long. (Mike Cermak photo)

There are several species of bats in the rainforest. The most commonly seen and heard is the Spectacled Flying-fox (Pteropus conspiculatus). These big bats (wingspan about 35 cm) feed on fruit and flowers and “camp” by the thousands in preferred trees. There are several such roost in the city of Cairns and a small one in the town of Kuranda. Although nocturnal, one wonders when they sleep. During the day their raucous calls and squabbling sounds like a din. They often fly during the day within the camp to get a more favourable position in the colony. Ten of thousands of these bats may occupy a single colony. The smell is overwhelming. And if you park you car under one of the trees……. Once situated in the preferred perch, an individual hangs upside down often using the wings to fan or shade its body from the sun. With huge numbers of bats in one roost, the trees are often stripped of leaves that might protect the bats from the sun. They frequently fly over water, including bays and the ocean. They can drink seawater and this habit is often used to the advantage of lurking crocodiles. Flying Foxes cause damage to orchards and are especially hard on mangoes. Nets are often sued to keep them off the trees. Another way of controlling the bats’ exploits is to give the fruit tees a haircut at about the 3 m level. The bats need to drop a distance before taking off. They just don’t land in trees that are not of a height that they can use to become airborne. If they somehow manage to be on the ground, they must crawl up a tree to take off. They have many enemies besides angry fruit growers. Pythons, White-breasted Sea Eagles and other predatory birds eat them. They were considered as excellent tucker by the aborigines. This bat is a Wet Tropics endemic.

Further reading
There are many books on Australian mammals but I prefer the Australian Museum’s Complete Book of Australian Mammals edited by Ronald Strahan with photos from the National Photographic Index. It was published by Angus and Robertson in 1983 but reprinted in 1988, 2007.

Also see:
Menkorst, P., Knight, F. 2001. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. Oxford University Press. (South Melbourne).

(The photos are the copyright of the photographers. Permission to use should be sought through this blog. Unlabeled photos are those of the author.)

Thanks to Gary and Robyn Wilson for comments to the text of this post.

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Camera Trap Codger said...

Great introduction to your mammals. I envy your fauna.