Thursday, 31 July 2008

Snakes Alive!!

Meet the Green Tree Snake

I’ve been waiting for that spectacular snake shot to introduce the snake fauna of our rainforest, but nothing very spectacular has happened around here. Large pythons make the news around Cairns with their forays into gardens where they consume the family cat or take the odd dog. There was one story a year or so ago where a Cairns resident noticed that his ceiling was starting to bow downwards. It was getting worse each day. He eventually called a roofer who had a look. A large Australian Scrub Python was discovered and removed but then they discovered the real culprit-an even larger python. The smaller one was a male, the larger a female. The fellow had no rat problems but was happy to have the snakes removed.

That same species occurs here and I have seen a couple of individuals that were in excess of 17 ft. A“28 footer” was seen many decades ago. The main food of these larger individuals, that can be many decades old, is wallabies. At the caravan park there are “wallaby runways” through the dense fern ground cover and I have seen python(s) (maybe the same individual) from time to time lurking around these wallaby highways. The young snakes will eat bandicoots and rats and even birds if they can catch them. I would expect the odd small cassowary to be grabbed if encountered. They are frequent visitors in chicken coops and if you keep chickens up here, you must secure them at night of they’ll disappear.

There are no real snake problems in Kuranda. The commonest poisonous snake is the Red-bellied Black Snake. It is usually found along streams and is not especially aggressive unless stepped on or startled. There are no Taipans or Death Adders in the rainforest but just a few kilometres beyond they can be found and are frequently seen. No one has been bitten in the Kuranda area in the 7 years we have been here. Road travel is much more dangerous than being bitten by a snake.

I am indebted to Michael Cermak for providing the snake photos as indicated. Others are mine. Michael has a relevant book awaiting publication by CSIRO


These are the most spectacular snakes in our area because of their size. Australian Scrub Pythons are the most common with Carpet Snakes and Water Pythons following in that order. They are mostly nocturnal but can be seen sunning at times.

The Australian Scrub Python, the largest of the snakes around Kuranda.

It is not unusual to find an Australian Scrub Python on your lawn after dark.

The Australian Scrub Python (Morelia kinghorni) is a wide-ranging species occurring from Indonesia and New Guinea to north-eastern Australia. 5m specimens are not uncommon and reports of 8m specimens are unconfirmed. It is a forest species and is especially common in rainforests where it feeds on mammals as large and wallabies and tree kangaroos. They are fond of crossing roads at night and most drivers avoid them (personal observations) and only a few are seen as road kills.

Carpet Pythons are very spectacular and often have beautiful colour patterns.

Even large Carpet Pythons are at home in trees.

The Carpet Python (Morelia spilota) is a smaller species (to 3.6 m) that has variable patterns, some based on geography. It is found around Australia except in Tasmania. They feed on small mammals, birds and lizards. They are said to be feisty. This individual was heading for our roof and would not be dissuaded from entering. I’ve seen it disappear under the shingles at least twice. We have no rodent problem in the roof! Hopefully it can find its way out. It is a common resident in Brisbane roofs.

Water Pythons are rather drab but tame nicely. M. Cermak photo

The Water Python (Liasis mackloti) occurs around water. A related species is known from Indonesia and New Guinea. I have seen them along our creek. This snake feeds on what it can catch. This includes small mammals, and water fowl. Crocodiles have been recorded as prey. Unfortunately, this snake is often confused with the deadly Taipan in other parts of Australia and is killed because of it. It is gentle and is often the snake the public is allowed to handle at reptile farms.


Colubrids are not well represented in Australia. The most famous (or infamous depending on how you look at it) is the Brown Tree Snake or Night Tiger (Boiga irregularis). This snake is a feisty character that roams woodlands at night in search of birds and small mammals. Cage birds are a specialty. If you leave your bird-cage hanging outside at night, the Brown Tree Snake will eventually eat the bird. If startled this snake will coil and strike. Large specimens are 2m in length. It is rear-fanged and not considered dangerous. On a night visit to my light sheet something got stuck in the front door as I was closing it. It was small Brown Tree Snake that had been travelling close to the house. It was not happy having its tail caught and let me know about it. I’ve never seen it again.

The Brown Tree Snake is formidable when cornered. M. Cermak photo

This fellow was lurking at the base of our house.

The Brown Tree Snake was introduced into Guam after WW II in shipping containers where it has virtually eliminated all the small birds and many other vertebrates. It has been involved with many power outages. Here in Kuranda it is often referred to as the “Oh, shit snake”. The reason is simple enough. When folks open their power boxes for a check, they frequently find a cranky BTS residing there. Thus the exclamation! The snake is much more common on Guam and children are often bitten. With the hissing and the violent displays in the snake’s behaviour, it is most traumatic for young children. As with many invasive species, without proper enemies and under favourable conditions, their size is larger than in their natural haunts in Guam and the Pacific Islands. The BTS in Guam has spelled disaster for the local biota.

A Green Tree Snake in the driveway during the day.

The Green Tree Snake or Common Tree Snake (Dendralaphis punctulata) is a diurnal snake with a nervous disposition. These snakes are also curious. This one followed me around and tried to get in through the glass door. A friend had a similar experience in her garden in Cairns with the snake actually causing her to go indoors. These snakes feed on skinks and frogs and are equally at home on the ground or in trees. Larger snakes are about 1.2 m in length. They are usually beautiful with yellow throats. There are different colour morphs depending on geography. When first captured, they emit a foul odour.

Slaty-grey Snake. M. Cermak photo

The Slaty-Grey Snake (Stegonotus cucullatus) occurs from SE Asia to New Guinea and northern Australia. It is a fairly large snake with some specimens 1.3 m in length. It is nocturnal and feeds on mammals, reptiles and their eggs. It is considered harmless, though puts on a show when cornered. The real problem is mistaking a more venomous snake for this one. A small Small-eyed Snake on a rainy night could easily be mistaken for this species by a casual observer. Best to leave alone.

Australia’s (and some of the world’s) most deadly snakes belong to this family. Many are similar in appearance and all should be avoided. Most of the country’s snakebites come from people either handling them or attempting to kill or remove the snakes. Best to call and expert if one gets into the house.

A Small-Eyed Snake. M. Cermak photo

The Small-Eyed Snake (Cryptophis nigrescens) is a small snake rarely over 1m in length. They superficially resemble the Red-bellied Black Snake and small Slaty-grey Snakes and feed on small lizards and frogs. These snakes have been found hibernating in numbers in the southern part of the country. The bite is painful and requires medical attention, especially if bitten by a large specimen. One fatality was recorded in 1965. It is a nocturnal species but can be encountered if rock-turning or bark peeling. I have seen one here on a rainy night.

A Red-Bellied Black Snake. M. Cermak photo

Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus) grow to 2m in length and is not uncommon. It occurs along waterways where it feeds on a wide variety of vertebrates. When cornered, the snake puts on quite a display. If bitten, medical treatment must be sought. Grassy areas along streams are ideal sites for this species.

There are doubtlessly other snakes around the place but the above are the ones we have seen. If anything else turns up, you'll hear about it. Thanks to Michael Cermak for comments and corrections.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

The World’s Largest Flower (Borneo #2)

Rafflesia flowers are among the great natural history treasures of Borneo. There are some 16 species with one species, R. arnoldii, spanning 97 cm in diameter. They and one other genus are in their own family, the Rafflesiaceae. You can imagine the sensation the flower caused when it first appeared in Europe in 1820.

The genus is named in honour of Sir Stamford Raffles by Joseph Arnold who was working for Raffles company when he made the discovery in Sumatra. Tragically Arnold died of Malaria on the homeward trip and did not live to receive the accolades of his discovery. Rafflesia also occurs in Java, Thailand, Philippines and Peninsular Malaysia.

DR near Poring Hot spings on the slopes of Mt Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo. R. keithii A. Lamat photo.

Rafflesia keithii has 5 petal-like lobes surrounding the central opening. Male and female flowers look similar but have the appropriate sexual organs within. The central "nectarium" can contain " 15 pints of liquid and the flower may weigh 15 pounds". A. Lamat photo

The brown, soft-ball sized bud of R. keithii emerges and takes several months to open. But once opened, the flower lasts only a few days. A. Lamat photo

More advanced bud of R. keithii. A. Lamat photo

Rafflesias are not really flowers in the traditional sense. I was fortunate enough to be able to see living plants on the lower slopes of Mt Kinabalu in a small portion of forest. The plants are parasites of the Tetrastigma vine (a member of the grape family with species in Australia) and cannot grow on their own. They have no leaves and the tiny roots emerge from the host plant without causing any substantial destruction. The flower itself is a complex structure unlike any other in the plant kingdom. There are male and female flowers but you have to look closely to spot the differences. The spike-like “processes” of the centre of the plant seem to distribute heat and help intensify the odour of rotting meat that the flowers produce. This attracts calliphorid flies of the genera Chrysomyia and Lucilia that serve as pollinators. The white spots seem to guide the flies back outside once they have received the pollen. Not all Rafflesia species have these spots. The biology of Rafflesia requires that male and female plants flower at the same time in proximity. The developing seeds are thought to be distributed by squirrels, pigs and tree shrews. Insects such as termites and ants may also play a role.

Well if Rafflesia is not a true flower, what is the world’s largest flower? This accolade probably goes to members of the Araceae, the “Man and ladies” family which includes Philodendron and Anthurium as popular examples. The Titan Arum, Amorphophallus titanum, is probably the world’s largest flower with one specimen recorded as reaching 5 feet 8 ½ inches in height. It is from Sumatra.

A beautifully written and illustrated book has been written on the Rafflesias of Sabah. It is published by the Borneo Publishing Company.

A postcard with 4 species of Borneo Rafflesia. Left to right R. tengku adlinii; R. pricei; R. keithii; R. tuanmudae.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

The Good Old Food Web In Action

Fruits of the Kuranda Satinash, Syzygium kuranda.

These hard, golf ball-sized fruits of the Kuranda Satinash or Cherry Satinash (Syzygium kuranda) have been dropping from a height of some 40 ft on to our corrugated iron roof at night. Sounds like gunshots and it’s very hard to get used to. The reasons are Spectacled Flying-fox (Pteropus conspiculatus) (See April blog “Mammals”) chomping on the fruits and then dropping them and moving to another.

The ground is littered with these balls and has been for the past 6 weeks or so. Our sleep patterns have been disrupted. Fortunately this does not happen every year, in our experience, only every three years.

But there is a reason for all this. The bats drop the fruits and a host of other animals feed on them. Rats carry them away, Musky Rat Kangaroos gnaw on them scraping at bit off and Cassowaries eat them and thereby move the seeds, and the plant species to different sites. We observed the female eat 19 in a row. Sulphur-crested Cockatoos feed on the fruits and sometimes fly off with one. They don’t seem interested in the seed itself, only the external coating. They eventually drop the seed some distance away from the parent plant, thereby spreading the species.

Fruit of the Kuranda Satinash after feeding by the Spectacled Flying-fox bat—and dropped from about 40 ft on to our roof!

Food seems scarce for ground dwellers during the dry season. There is not much around. We see seeds of the Lawyer Palms (Calamus spp.) But the hard fruits of the Kuranda Satinash are consumed by our largest visitor, the Cassowary. Only the adult Cassowary seems to eat these fruits. The juveniles pick them up but drop them. Perhaps, their digestive system is such that either the fruit its too large or too hard for it to be digested. I noticed that the Cassowary was very choosey. It dropped fruits that had been gnawed by the bats and only ate ones that were mainly intact.

Mr Cassowary feeding on Kuranda Satinash fruit.

Kuranda Satinash fruits in Cassowary dung. They are probably ready for germination.

Time for a lie-down. Must not be getting enough sleep. It’s probably the noise!

Monday, 7 July 2008



Why Borneo of all places. Well it a place that I have visited about a half dozen times in the last 15 years and it is an interesting place that most folk know little about. It is easy to get to and not very costly once you are there. I would like to relate some of my experiences and this might stimulate some of the readers to visit the place. You can reach Borneo by air from Kuala Lumpur, one of the most modern and magnificent airports in the world. Air Asia and Malaysian Airlines service Kota Kinabalu several times a day.

My introduction to with Borneo started after I met my friend Abas Lamat in Honolulu in the 90’s. Abas was earning a higher degree in management and we met and became good friends. After returning to his home in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo he invited me to visit and thus started a series of exchanges between the two countries- Malaysia and Australia.

As you can see from the map, Borneo is situated in the South China Sea not far from the Philippines. Three countries occupy the island. Indonesia claims the largest amount of territory with its state Kalimantan occupying the east and southern portion. Malaysia holds claim to the west and north with two states, Sabah and Sarawak. The Kingdom of Brunei is situated in the northeast and is surrounded by Sabah and Sarawak. My friend Abas lives in the city of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. This is a modern city of over a million people including the urban areas. There are multi-level shopping complexes and the standard of living is much like it is in Australia. People have over-power 4-wheel drive vehicles and spend too much on housing and buy too many things they don’t need. There are basically three ethnic groups in Malaysians. The Malays are the most populous followed by Chinese and the Indians. In Sabah, there are large numbers of Filipinos, legal and illegal, and the Philippines have claimed Sabah as theirs from times to time. I should say that I know nothing about the Indonesian part of Borneo and have visited Brunei only for a short period. My comments will pertain only to the Malaysian part of the island, mostly the state of Sabah.

Sunday mornings in Kota Kinabalu means street markets. An abundance of fruit and local crafts can be purchased at very good prices.

One of the many wonderful features of Borneo is the food. The three ethnic cultures utilise the products of the sea and an extraordinary range of fruits and vegetables in their cooking. I’ve never been anywhere else where there is so much consistently good food. Since all is prepared fresh, you have no problems with spoilage. I have never gotten sick from eating the food or drinking the water there. And because Malaysia is a Muslim society, alcohol and its associated violence is not a problem. What a relief that is! You can always buy a beer, but the general population does not require alcohol to have a good time. The only important health problem that one need be concerned with is Malaria in the outlying districts. Tablets can control this. Since Sabah is within 5 degrees of the Equator, it is a tropical place with warm, wet and humid conditions throughout the year. There is much rain and no cyclones or severe winds.

Abas Lamat and DR have a cuppa at a sidewalk cafe in Kuala Lumpur, Capitol of Malaysia.

A typical tropical breakfast in Borneo. From left to right. At the top Langsats; below them are Jambu, a Syzygium species; then one of many kinds of banana; at the top Papaya; then in the container Tarap, a form of Jakfruit; more Papaya and the purple globular fruit Mangosteen, the Queen of Tropical Fruit. All very fine eating.

DR at the parking lot in front of Mt Kinabalu. This is the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea. At an elevation 4101 m the mountain contains much biota. Over 1000 species of orchids have been recorded from there. There are alpine plants at the higher elevations and lowland dipterocarp forests at the base. Hornbills and monkeys can be seen and heard.

All that being said, I’ll try to be brief and let the photos do the talking. Borneo has had a colonial history. In fact, Kota Kinabalu was formerly known as Jesselton when it was run by the British. Many important early biologists visited the country and made important collections that now reside in European museums. Populations growth and over development have taken its toll on the environment and the continued planting of Oil Palms (Elaeis guineensis) is turning more and more of the rainforests into monocultures. This is the most pressing problem in southeast Asia, from and environmental standpoint. Each time I visit the country, I am surprised at how much more of it is being changed for palm oil production. What a pity.

When my British friend Paul Brock discovered that I was visiting Sabah, he suggested that I look up Datuk Chew Lun Chan, a book publisher who had an interest in Stick Insects. What a fortuitous meeting. We have become good friends. In fact, he runs a 5-star nature book publishing business called Natural History Books (Borneo). Anything you want to know about Borneo’s natural history you can find among his titles. In addition he has reprinted many old books dealing with the early exploits of naturalists and the colonial history of Borneo. I was most fortunate to find him enthusiastic about publishing my Guidebook to Australian Grasshopper and Locusts since no Australian publisher was interested.

Datuk CL Chan and botanist Tony Lamb at lunch.

A great book to get you to start thinking about a visit to Sabah is Discovering Sabah. This is available from Natural History Books website noted above.

From time to time I will add blogs on some of my experiences in Borneo. I hope this will engender a curiosity and cause you to venture a bit farther afield than you might have in mid right now.

Cassowary Calendar #8

Female Cassowary and two of the three chicks of 2008

Cassowary Calendar #8
6 May 2008

The male seems to have abandoned the three chicks and if off “Nesting” most of the time. Either the chicks seem to be completely on their own or, rarely, the female accompanies them. One can only speculate that the male is off elsewhere. He may actually be lurking not far away and “teaching” the chicks to be on their own. One way to test this would be to do something that distresses the chicks, but who would want endure the wrath of their otherwise pleasant father! The chicks often utter their “whistle” distress call and always use their typically youthful “squeaks”.

One of the chicks seems to have adopted a dominant role and chases the others. It frequently extends the neck and arches the neck in a way similar to that of the female. It even uses this approach to me!

26 May 2008
The babies are without the male now. Today the male showed up with them and was not antagonistic until after feeding. Then he ran at the chicks and they laid down on the ground in submission. He stopped immediately. When they jumped up and came towards him, he threatened again. Then the bubs got up and walked away at which time the male ran off into the woods without the bubs following. He must be sitting on eggs.

6 July
Two of the chicks stay together but they “spar” a lot. The other shows up alone but not often. Theyare often accompanied by the female who never shows any aggression towards them. Sometimes she is with the loner, at other times she is with the pair. We have see the “pair” drive off the other chick and assume that is why is does not accompany them anymore. The male shows up irregularly and is usually alone.

8 July 2008
Female still comes with tow chicks in tow. They still squeak and the female shows no aggression towards them.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

So Long Ross

photo by B. Rentz

The world is a bit poorer with the recent passing of Ross Storey. Ross was an entomologist with the Department of Primary Industries, Mareeba, Queensland. Ross was one of those real “nice guys” that you come across every so often.

I first met Ross in the early 80’s on my first field trip to the Deep North. Mareeba is a port-of-call on the road to the Cape York Peninsula and folks heading north for the collecting routinely stopped to see Ross.

Ross was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1949 and came to Australia in 1971 where he worked as a technician at the University of Queensland. He later joined the DPI in Mareeba and built up a collection of local insects estimated at over 100,000 specimens. Ross’ specialty was dung beetles (Scarabaeidae) and he was very knowledgeable in this field and described many new Australian species. He authored about 25 papers and was co-author of the best selling A Field Guide to Australian Insects, a book that was being revised at his death. Some 60 species have been named in his honour.

Ross “suffered” (and I use that word carefully) from Inclusion Body Myositis (IBM) . It was probably genetic in nature as his father had an ailment that seemed similar. Ross was confined to a motorised wheelchair for more than 10 years. He had only the limited use of one hand. His voice and mental capacities were not affected and if you talked to him on the phone you would have no idea that he had any physical problems at all.

Shortly after moving to Kuranda in 2001 (about 40 minutes drive from Mareeba) I visited Ross and asked if there was any way that I could help him. After a while we decided that I could come up to Mareeba on Tuesdays and work with the collection. Ross’ condition was such that he could not move or open drawers, but he could move pinned specimens and use the microscope. Ross mentioned that the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) collection, especially the moths, needed input. Well I run a collecting light at home each night and know a little about moths so I suggested we start building that collection. Ross kept a tally and over the years he claimed I had added nearly 1000 moth species, in addition to the Orthoptera, mantids, stick insects and other insect that I found at my lights. I would send the id’s to Ross and he would have the labels made up and the specimens were curated into the collection each Tuesday.

Ross was a pleasure to deal with. He was flamboyant and animated. His favourite topics were politics and the Australian Cricket Team, in just about that order. Each Tuesday we would natter for 20 minutes or so before getting down to work.

I think I got much more out of my association with Ross than he did from me. I found Ross a great inspiration. He never complained about his physical condition. Indeed, we never talked about it. He just accepted it and got on with life. He attended all sorts of civic events and was well known to all and sundry about Mareeba. The mayor knew him on a first name basis. I’ll always remember how Ross answered his phone. “Hello, Ross here,……..I’m terrific, how are you?” He never conveyed the inconvenience that he must have suffered being in his condition. Afterall, just 25 years prior he was completely ambulatory and able to do anything any of us could. He answered all sorts of phone queries on insects and how to deal with them. He frequently entertained local school classes and locals who had questions about insects.

Ross is survived by his mother and brother who live in Vancouver, Canada. They both visited him in 2007 and his brother was at his bedside when the end came. He had many friends in very diverse areas and will be greatly missed by his colleagues and carers and was an inspiration to us all.