Not as we know it: A precolonial Port Phillip Bay

This is a guest article by Mary Shuttleworth. 

The city of Port Phillip is an area that feels as though it’s made for warm and lazy summer nights, the perfect place to meander through tree-lined streets and markets to watch the sun set over the bay. Places like South Melbourne Market, St Kilda Esplanade, and Albert Park Lake are iconic pieces of Melbourne’s history. It is difficult to imagine these places as they originally were – a mix of rare and wild landscapes, thriving with life and biodiversity.  

Let’s start in Port Melbourne - a hub of cruise ships and coffee shops. Walking down Bay Street now, the path is lined with trendy cafés and apartments. Two hundred years ago, most of this area was overgrown with dense shrubbery, with species such as common heath and broom spurge dominating the area with gnarled branches and bright flowers. The taller trees were few and far between, a mix of species such as rough-barked manna gum and saw banksia sprawled across the landscape. Closer to the coast, the nutrient-poor soil won out, and the trees are replaced with thick shrublands full of coast wattle, seaberry saltbrush, and spear grasses. These reached down as far as they could into the sand dunes. Beaconsfield Parade and the Bay Trail, areas now busy with cars, skaters and sun-bathers, were once a mess of sharp, prickly shrub and heath.

Ever wonder what Port Melbourne might once have looked like?  Images: Wikipedia & Parks Victoria

Ever wonder what Port Melbourne might once have looked like? Images: Wikipedia & Parks Victoria

Albert and Middle Parks are similarly transformed, streets now lined with old Victorian architecture and large, non-native trees. When you come across Albert Park Lake, lush grass sweeps the ground, perfect to picnic on. Pre-colonisation, the coastal regions of these areas were similar to the environment seen in Port Melbourne, but at Richardson Street, the dense shrubbery lessened. Small plant species such as small poranthera, ivy-leaf violet, and weeping grass were scattered across the exposed ground. In spring and summer, the flowers and grasses popped in bright reds, pinks, whites and yellows. In the centre of Middle Park, extending from Boyd Street to West Beach Road, was a band of brackish wetland, which also surrounded what we now know as the Albert Park Lake.  These areas were poorly drained, full of salty soils that prevented taller plants from growing. Low-lying herbs and grasses such as the common reed, streaked arrowgrass and creeping monkey flower poked through the parts of the ground that were slightly more habitable than the rest.

In South Melbourne, starting along what we now call Nelson Road, the soil became more fertile, and grassy woodland took hold. Here, trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses and ferns were found in almost equal prevalence, each of the forest layers clearly represented by species such as common Heath, honey-pots, kidney-weed, and common apple-berry. Drooping sheoaks and species of eucalyptus emerged sporadically from the landscape. This place was bustling with a diversity of plant life in intense competition for resources. It was a different sort of intensity when compared to the bustling South Melbourne Market of today, but for the plants that lived here, it would have been a constant struggle for access to nutrients and sun.

The Port Melbourne landscape would once have featured the beautiful rough-barked manna gum.   Image:

The Port Melbourne landscape would once have featured the beautiful rough-barked manna gum.  Image:

St Kilda, a favourite evening haunt of Melbourne, has become a hub of trams, restaurants and bars. Two hundred years ago, we would see grassy woodlands stretching out across the majority of the area. Acland Street, full of quirky stores and cafés, would have been an undulating plain of trees and grasses. Gippsland red gum and river red gum were common, with the dense shrubbery surrounding the coastline thinning out into tufted grasses such as kangaroo grass and common bog-sedge. Between St Kilda and Elwood, there was a band of sedgy, swampy woodland, dominated by herbs and grasses that could withstand occasional waterlogging. What we now call Marine Parade was surrounded by a thick scrub of low trees, such as woolly tea-tree and swamp paperbark, the shrubs so thick the ground rarely saw light.

A view of Acland Street, St Kilda - before and after.  Images:  Rachel Carbonell & Corporate Real Estate

A view of Acland Street, St Kilda - before and after. Images: Rachel Carbonell & Corporate Real Estate

Walking along the Bay Trail now, it is hard to imagine that once upon a time, sightings of wallabies, wombats, and native mice and possums wouldn’t have been uncommon. Birds of all shapes and sizes, from rosellas to fairy-wrens to New Holland honeyeaters, would have been seen flitting around the area. Now, the most common animals that dominate the City of Port Phillip are cats and dogs.

It seems, at a glance that our human-made environment has pushed out all that once lived here – but walking along the trail and looking up into the palm trees, it’s possible to make out nesting rosellas and roosting parrots. If you look out into the water surrounding Princes Pier, native water rats can be found swimming through the shallows. Native bushland is being restored along the coast, to protect our beaches from erosion.

It is not as it once was, but parts of once-wild Melbourne can still be found, if you know where to look.

Behaving in an Urban World

This is a guest post by Monash University PhD student Will Sowersby. 

You may have noticed that the world around you is changing. In fact, it is doing so at an unprecedented pace. Today, half of the world’s population live in cities and by 2050, that figure will be over 70%. In evolutionary terms, this rate of urban development represents a radical ecological upheaval. It is the sort of change that, in the past, generally occurred over geological time, not within generations. The process of urbanization often results in a loss of biodiversity due to the destruction and fragmentation of habitat, as well as the exposure of animals to artificial stimulations and pollutants. In many ways, we might expect such radical changes to leave our cities totally devoid of life, or only inhabited by the few hardiest species. Instead, more and more animals appear to be adjusting to and exploiting life on the streets. Peregrine falcons are nesting in skyscrapers instead of towering trees and crows are using passing cars as nut-crackers.

How have these species adapted? Well, the first way an animal responds to changes in its environment is by altering its behaviour. In this regard, the ability to adjust behaviour to changes in the environment can mean the difference between a population surviving and going extinct. Recently, the importance of studying animal behaviour in urban settings has become a hot topic in behavioural ecology: the area of science that explores how behaviour shapes – and is shaped by – the environment. By studying the behaviour of animals in urban areas, we can further our understanding of why some species have flourished, why others have not, and what measures we can take to help wildlife live in our cities and decrease biodiversity loss in urban areas.

So what allows some species to flourish in urban environments, while others fail? Some may simply have an inherent set of behaviours and life history traits that make them ‘pre-adapted’ to city life. Often, such animals have also benefited because urban settings have eliminated competitors and provided additional food sources. In Melbourne, for example, aggressive social birds such as noisy miners have flourished, often to the detriment of smaller, native bird species. Similarly, most Melbournians will be familiar with the grunts and hisses of the brushtail possum, an opportunistic marsupial that has benefited from feeding on our gardens, inhabiting our rooves and even taking a free feed from well-meaning residents.

The noisy miner is one of many bird species flourishing in urban environments.  Photo: Emma Walsh

The noisy miner is one of many bird species flourishing in urban environments. Photo: Emma Walsh

Many of the animals we now see reappearing in our cities and suburbs differ greatly from their bush and rural counterparts. For example, many urban populations – including birds, lizards and mammals – are significantly bolder than non-urban animals. Bolder animals may be better able to cope with human activity, less likely to retreat from threats, and quicker to exploit new food sources. Furthermore, urban animals also get less stressed. That is, they release less stress hormones than non-urban animals, which would be beneficial for living in a highly stimulating and chaotic environment. Remarkably, some animals have even begun to learn the rhythms of our cities, such as watching for traffic and crossing roads when traffic lights are red.

We have only recently become aware that many animals exhibit consistent “personalities”, or more accurately, behavioural types. Certain behavioural types correlate within an individual (e.g. aggressiveness and boldness) to form what is called a ‘behavioural syndrome’. Behavioural syndromes are considered to be largely inflexible across contexts and are likely to be heritable. Therefore, individuals inhabiting urban environments may have a set of inherent behaviours that have allowed them to more readily adjust. This means that other individuals in a population may not be able to demonstrate appropriate behaviours in urban environments. Consequently, urban animal populations may have a lower diversity of behavioural types compared to non-urban populations, and a lack of diversity is rarely (if ever!) a good thing.

The common brushtail possum is a familiar sight for many in suburban Melbourne.  Photo: Dr Carlo Kopp

The common brushtail possum is a familiar sight for many in suburban Melbourne. Photo: Dr Carlo Kopp

Artificial light has well known effects on animal behaviour (refer to a recent Wild Melbourne post by Anne Aulsebrook) and so does anthropogenic noise. Many frog species around Melbourne are being drowned out by traffic noise, impacting the chances of males attracting mates. One species, the southern brown tree frog, is offsetting this by raising the pitch of its calls in noisy environments, so that males can be heard from further away. Noise pollution is also forcing urban birds to adjust their vocal communications or risk going unheard. Urban silvereyes are much louder than their rural counterparts, while urban noisy miners can even adjust the volume of their calls depending on whether they are near busy or quiet roads. 

Chemical pollutants that are getting into the environment are also having a dramatic effect on the behaviour of wildlife. For example, hormones used in agriculture in Australia, which leach into our waterways, can alter the mating behaviour and morphology of freshwater fish. Furthermore, chemicals used in the human female contraceptive pill are the likely cause of feminization in fish, which has a significant impact on their ability to breed.

Growling grass frogs are one species that may be suffering due to traffic noise.  Photo: Peter Robertson

Growling grass frogs are one species that may be suffering due to traffic noise. Photo: Peter Robertson

How can we use our knowledge of animal behaviour to minimise the impacts of urbanisation and to encourage animals to return to our urban spaces? We should firstly feel encouraged by the fact that we can coexist with wildlife. By offering native animals a wide choice of native vegetation and large, undeveloped areas in our cities, we can increase both the diversity of species and the diversity of individuals within species in our urban spaces. By knowing how and when animals move through the landscape, we can create safer passageways for them. Already, road-crossing structures are allowing some of Victoria’s rare arboreal marsupials to safely cross highways, while crossing structures are helping red crabs on Christmas Island to make their annual migration. Elsewhere, cities are turning the lights off in large buildings at night, so that migratory birds are not distracted as they fly past. We could do the same here in Melbourne (at key times during the year), along with implementing stricter pollution controls (particularly in sewage and wastewater treatment plants), lowering noise pollution, decreasing vegetation clearance, not feeding wild animals and keeping cats inside (particularly at night). Ultimately, a city shared with wildlife is not only healthier for us, but also far more interesting. By beginning to understand the creatures around us, we can make sure our cities are not only home for us, but for them too.

Banner photo courtesy of Anne Aulsebrook.