Species of the Month: November

Garden Skink (Lampropholis guichenoti)

Amongst the leaf litter lies an impressive creature; sleek and scaled, agile and alert, a formidable predator — although the latter is only of concern to small invertebrates! Measuring a mere nine centimetres, in length the Garden Skink (Lampropholis guichenoti) is possibly one of the most common skink species found within Victoria and most certainly within suburbia.

They are an attractive slender skink often with a copper to brown-grey upper body, a dark brown and a pale stripe running from head to tail along the sides of their body, and a cream coloured underbelly. The species may be found throughout most of the state, with the exception of the semi-arid regions to the north and west. The species occupies a range of tree-filled habitats; however, they have also become accustomed to modified human environments and may be found happily living within backyards amongst the suburbs of Melbourne.

Given its diminutive size and secretive behaviour, it is perhaps not surprising that this species is often overlooked. It is quite conceivable that many Melburnians may be cohabitating with Garden Skinks without realising. Nevertheless, the little guys play an important role in maintaining the ecological balance of natural systems, ensuring that populations of small invertebrates — which make up the bulk of their diet — are kept in check. This is particularly helpful if you happen to grow your own veggies, as the small skinks can aid in mitigating the negative effects of many terrestrial insect pests.

It doesn’t take much effort to employ the services of the Garden Skink either; simply by providing mulch for them to forage in or some rocks or logs for basking, you might be able to encourage this humble garden inhabitant to visit your backyard (although it is also important to ensure that cats and dogs that may harm Garden Skinks are kept at bay, as well as refraining from pesticide use). They are also a very interesting species to observe, particularly at this time of year. If one sits still and quiet in Garden Skink habitat, they are likely to be rewarded with an insight into the small reptile’s world. Up to a dozen or more may emerge from the leaf litter within a few metres of the observer where at first there appeared to be none. This is because Garden Skinks tend not to be territorial, instead favouring to spend energy foraging rather than expending energy on patrolling and chasing away intruders. Having said this, it is not uncommon to see fights erupt during breeding season — which is occurring at present — in which one individual will latch onto another’s torso and tumble about until its grip loosens. The reasoning for these disputes is not particularly well understood, but it is thought that it probably relates to hierarchical dominance and associated mating rights. If you sit still enough they may even come right up to you, but just remember to refrain from handling them, as they have a tendency to ‘drop’ their tail in high stress situations, which is not ideal as it requires a lot of energy for another to grow back.

So on warm days, keep an eye out for this remarkable little Aussie who may be calling your backyard home. Alternatively, if they do not appear to be present, perhaps consider making some of the small changes discussed to entice them into your garden.

                                                                                                                         Author: Nathan Gregory

 

Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans)

 

The tallest flowering plant on the planet, Mountain Ash is a species that towers over its neighbours. With the botanical name of Eucalyptus regnans, this species is a member of the genus that dominates the tree flora of Australia. There are over 700 Eucalyptus species, with less than ten species occurring exclusively outside Australia.

Trees of this species can reach up to 100m tall, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that some trees can grow even taller. Mature trees can measure as much as 15m around the base. Mountain Ash grow tall and straight, often with branches present only beyond 30m above the ground. They have fibrous, brown-grey bark for the first 15m above the ground, beyond which the bark peels away in ribbons to reveal the pale, smooth bark underneath. If undisturbed, Mountain Ash can live for up to 500 years.

Mountain Ash usually grow in deep soils and are found in mountainous areas with high levels of precipitation. This means that Mountain Ash are usually found in cool temperate rainforests and wet sclerophyll forests. Mountain Ash forests can be found in the Dandenong Ranges, Strzelecki State Forest, Walhalla, and in the Otways.

Mountain Ash is unusual compared to many other eucalypts because it has evolved to survive in wetter environments. They produce up to three times the amount of leaf litter than other species. In addition, Mountain Ash possess no insulating bark and no lignotuber, which are both adaptations to minimise damage caused by fire. The excess leaf litter, the stringy nature of the bark and the oily leaves, in addition to the lack of insulating bark and lignotuber make Mountain Ash fire sensitive. Mountain Ash don’t shoot from epicormic buds after a fire, instead the release huge quantities of seeds, which fall to the ground and germinate in the ash-ridden soil below. This species flowers profusely between December and May.

Mountain Ash forests are environmentally significant for a number of reasons. They provide habitat for many species of our native fauna, most notably the Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax) and the Leadbeater’s Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri). Old-growth mountain ash forests are most significant in this respect because mature trees develop tree hollows, which are essential to many species of mammals and birds that require hollows for nesting.

Mountain Ash is also economically important. It is a hardwood timber and is used extensively as a source of timber for flooring, furniture, and other construction purposes. In the twentieth century it was used in the production of newsprint. Mountain Ash is favoured in the logging industry in part due to its fast growth rate: individuals of this species can grow up to one meter a year.

As you would expect, the main threat to Mountain Ash forests is logging. Although Mountain Ash are not threatened as a species, old growth Mountain Ash forests only exist in small pockets due to extensive logging. As mentioned earlier, the complete loss of these old growth forests would have significant implications for many of our native faunal species. These ancient forest giants are an iconic and essential component of our cool temperate rainforests and wet sclerophyll forests. And given their lengthy lifespan, the history that our remaining giants have experienced is awe-inspiring!

Author: Emma Walsh