Wild

Review: Finding the Mammals of Australia

The Book: The Complete Guide to Finding the Mammals of Australia
The Author: David Andrew


Aside from your friendly neighbourhood possums and the ever-present ensemble of feral animals, many of Australia’s mammal species are quite hard to come across. Indeed, some species are only encountered by chance or through technology like camera traps. This is clearly a difficult scenario for those enamoured with Australia’s amazing mammals.

Bird-watching guides are a dime a dozen these days, helping twitchers seek out particular species right across Australia. However, there has been a lack of similar guides for those hoping to seek out some of Australia’s elusive mammal species. The Complete Guide to Finding the Mammals of Australia, compiled by David Andrew, goes a long way to filling that gap.

For a start, this book is brilliantly put together. In its first section, Andrew has split Australia into different locations. For each location, Andrew lists the mammal species likely to be seen, including specific sites where encounters are possible. Not every location in every state is covered, though. Instead, Andrew selects a handful of locations likely to yield the most diverse set of mammal species. Some Victorian examples include Wilsons Promontory and the Little Desert region, both of which are home to unique mammal communities.

Dispersed throughout, Andrew details particular methods and techniques for spotting particular taxa, such as those that are particularly difficult to track, like cetaceans or bats. These groupings work quite well, given the propensity for these species to travel large distances. Similar breakout boxes see Andrew offer short summaries and comments on particular conservation issues in some areas, such as the plight of the Tasmanian devil. These sections offer valuable context for the reader who may otherwise be unfamiliar with location-specific issues.

The second major section is organized by species, detailing exactly where in Australia to find each of our fantastic mammals. As an example, Andrew suggests heading to Cranbourne Botanic Gardens south-east of Melbourne to ‘easily see’ the elusive southern brown bandicoot. Elsewhere, Andrew muses that one’s only hope of seeing a long-nosed potoroo would be through joining a scientific survey team.

Quips such as these are perhaps the most welcome aspect of Mammals of Australia. Andrew’s conversational style presents equally well when only a quick check of the guide is needed, or indeed when an entire expedition is being planned. Some sections feel as though one is reading a field notebook, rather than the polished product that CSIRO Publishing and Andrew have produced.

It would be foolish to brush off Mammals of Australia as simply a mere field guide, because it is so much more. Naturalists and biologists devoted to mammal-watching have been desperate for a resource such as this, given the sheer amount of similar literature available to bird watchers. Mammals of Australia should now be a vital part of any nature-based expedition.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you’re still trying to tick an elusive mammal off your list, or you generally love seeking out Australia’s diverse mammal fauna. 

Review: The Dingo Debate

The Book: The Dingo Debate
Edited by: Bradley Smith

There are very few animals in the world, let alone Australia, which are as divisive as the dingo. The fact that a book describing the native carnivore’s biology and ecology refers to the ‘debate’ is evidence of as much. However, despite its title, editor Dr Bradley Smith has clearly attempted to, as much as possible, settle some of the debate around dingoes (ranging from its taxonomic description to its role in the Australian environment) and ultimately contend that the dingo is worthy of increased conservation effort.

The theme of ‘interactions’ is predominant throughout the text, be it the troubled relationships between dingoes, humans and livestock, or the potential ecosystem-scale effects of the canid’s presence in the landscape. This is, of course, the hotly contested ability of the dingo to suppress feral predators, thus reducing predation pressure on small prey species.  However, despite the complexity of the various relationships, Smith and his co-authors distill the concepts in a thorough and engaging way. For example, Chris Johnson’s description of the controversies surrounding the ecological role of dingoes is perhaps the clearest and most rational account of the debate available.

However, perhaps the most striking and informative chapters are those written by Smith himself. The dingo is often demonized in Australia as a cold-blooded killer, but Smith instead describes a species that has incredible intelligence and cunning. Complete with images, Smith details some of his groundbreaking work, demonstrating how dingoes exhibit grief at the death of a sibling, as well as their superior problem-solving ability. These experiments provide a compelling argument as to why dingoes were able to take advantage of the Australian environment and establish themselves as apex predators.

For the lay-person, The Dingo Debate also offers a fantastic insight into the intricacies of studying the animal. Damian Morrant provides an intriguing and entertaining history of dingo research, weaving in some of his own experiences and insights. All manner of methods for measuring dingo behavior and activity are discussed, from camera traps and scats to hair traps and GPS tracking, providing a great look at the considerable amount of work that goes into collecting useful data on dingoes.

Given the tensions around the conservation and management of dingoes in Australia, it’s often hard to find a balanced discussion on the carnivore. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what’s on offer here. The Dingo Debate is a fantastic summary of all the available science on dingoes, spanning evolutionary biology through to ecology. As the reader moves through the text, Smith slowly builds up the evidence for his overarching contention: that the dingo is deserving of continental scale conservation, such is its evolutionary uniqueness and ecological importance. Significantly, it is so well written that non-academics are sure to gain plenty from reading.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if…. you’re interested in the evolutionary origins of Australia’s native canid, their importance to some ecosystems, and the opportunities to conserve and coexist with them. 

Wild Australia: Five Amazing Australian Nature Documentaries

There are so many great nature documentaries out there that it’s hard to choose just one to immerse yourself in on a lazy weekend afternoon. Below are some great picks from the team at Wild Melbourne for those stormy spring days. All are based in Australia and, in one way or another, celebrate the nature around our nation.

The Dingo: Wild Dog At War

One topic that seems common amongst many Australian nature documentaries is both the threat and the plight of the dingo. Narrated by sheep farmer and dog trainer David Graham, The Dingo: Wild Dog At War explores the idea that there may be a way to control dingoes to protect Australian farmland, although without wiping the species out. This is a great introduction to the origins of the dingo species – how did they get here and why are they so demonised? As Graham explains: ‘Dingoes can ruin your day. They can run you right out of business.’ However, they are also surviving as any predator would: killing livestock that are easy pickings for this wild and unique predator. A fascinating documentary about how Australian culture treats the dingo and how we might begin to live alongside this species rather than against them.

5 Seasons

View the trailer here. 

Focusing on the experiences of the Numurindi people of South East Arnhemland, this film depicts the vital and intricate relationship between the Numurindi culture and ‘all things past and present’. The title alludes to the five seasons of their calendar, in comparison to the two very distinct seasons of Western society: ‘the wet and the dry.’ The spiritual connection between nature, the seasons and the Numurindi people is portrayed powerfully throughout, representing the moving idea that ‘everything has a cycle, and we are guided by this cycle’. Taking the viewer through a year of the five seasons, senior custodian Moses Numamurdirdi provides a rare insight into both the beautiful and frightening aspects of the Australian wild.

Battle in the Bush

For a short documentary, this film packs a lot of punch with its ideas about species reintroduction and the negative perceptions surrounding the ‘wild dog’. A very recent release, this film explores the idea of utilising Tasmanian devils as a possible solution to the impacts that invasive species such as foxes and cats are having on our native wildlife. Created by award-winning filmmaker and ecologist Daniel Hunter, the film also explores Australia’s complex relationship with the often-misunderstood dingo and is being premiered now around the country, including at our Wild Melbourne seminar night this Friday

Cane Toads: The Conquest

This weirdly captivating documentary depicts the Australian cane toad crisis in all its infamy and quirkiness. Whilst portraying the scary reality of the ways in which this resilient creature has taken over nearly a third of the country, it also explores the unusual human behaviours that have evolved as a result. Although some encourage an inhumane treatment of this non-native pest, the film includes discussions of how to humanely eradicate them. It also features footage of those unusual few that keep the toad as a pet, as well as a man whose trade involves some very strange taxidermy. An intriguing introduction to the current plight of Australia at the hands of this amphibian, this doco is easily accessible for those of us with Netflix.

Oddball

Although not strictly a documentary, this family-oriented film is based on the true story of a maremma sheepdog called Oddball. Originally trained to guard the chickens of owner Allan “Swampy” Marsh, Oddball went on to protect the little penguins of Middle Island. Following what journalists described as a fox massacre of the local penguin population, Swampy was able to convince authorities to allow Oddball onto the previously dog-free island in order to protect native wildlife. This one is a fun and light-hearted film, but doesn’t fail to depict the interesting relationship between a charismatic sheepdog and his feathered friends.

An Ode to Wetlands

Water gives life, and where we find water we are often presented with a bouquet of life’s finest. You can find it blossoming from wetlands, both permanent and ephemeral, that are scattered from east to west. Splattered rather, as if a godly artist flicked her freshly-dipped paint brush across the canvas that is our state. In winter, rains fall and snows melt. The water of lakes and marshes rises and with it comes the growth of aquatic vegetation and an abundance of those tiny creatures that nibble at their fronds and stems. The tiny plant nibblers are nibbled themselves by other invertebrates that dart through the water column or haunt the sediments. Dragonfly larvae capture and devour infant mosquitoes in jaws reminiscent of a Ridley Scott movie, and caddisflies spin silky driftnets to snare floating morsels.

Such things are occurring all the time, out of view, out of mind, acted out in a realm almost removed from our own. We are the giants, and these tiny creatures are indifferent to our immense existence: an existence that shapes their own with every day that passes. We destroy their worlds; we fashion them to our liking, “stream-lining” streams and changing natural flows. The flows of ecosystems. The flow of life. It is easy to change things that you are indifferent to when you are human; when you are big and brainy. Yet, one might argue that we have not the excuses of these tiny creatures in our shared indifference. They lack the wherewithal to know us, but we possess the means of knowing them. And if ever we feel disconnected we need only observe our realm – our bigger realm – to know our world is one.

The salty marshes of Westernport lack snaky silhouettes. The Black Swans have gone to the newly birthed wetlands to feed and to breed. So too do many duck species, now flocking to freshwater for mating; dabblers and divers bringing splashes of colour to shimmering lakes of blue and grey. Wading birds sift through silt and sand, while Herons and Egrets eye the shallows for invertebrate-fat fish. Life gravitates to these places. It abounds at every level. For a time - brief to some, eternal to others - wetlands shine like stars against a backdrop of farmland and suburbia. Then, when the waters run dry, life disperses outwards across our land like a star turned supernova, scattering its atoms across the universe.

Few people possess the capacity to understand the eloquence of the physical and chemical processes that make up a star. Those that do are forced to observe from a distance, through machine and glass. We can all sit quietly, intimately, surrounded by the happenings of a wetland, seeing things with our own two eyes. Hearing the quarrels of ducks, smelling rich odours of endless origin, and feeling the one world of which we are apart all around and within us. Do not take such places for granted. They underpin all that we rely on, and will continue to do so as our city expands and our climate shifts. Find them and know them. See their changes and their constants. And know that when you are there, you are seated at both the origin and destination of life.