Carnivorous

Carnivorous plants are the psycho killers of the plant world… kaskasé. They consume at least part of their nutrients by trapping and digesting insects or small animals using elaborate traps, tricks and sticky business.

This year I spent precious time traipsing through lush forests that make Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo, so iconic. In Bako National Park–a rugged coastal rainforest accessible only by boat–the lowland, forested valley is fringed at beachfront by dense mangroves and pandanas trees, and rises steeply inland to a high plateau mounted by clinging kerangas.

Kerangas (“land that cannot grow rice”) is a kind of tropical heath. It typically grows on acidic, sandy soils that are very poor in essential plant nutrients. Since deporporate soils favour organisms that can supplement this poor supply, Kerangas is ripe habitat for carnivorous plants. 

Bako is famous for its’ teaming wildlife. Troops of Proboscis monkeys are easily spotted lounging in the treetops and charismatic Bearded Bornean Pigs range across the forest floor. But Bako is equally spectacular for the range of vegetation represented there, and the diversity of plants within each.

Of all the trails stretching out from Park Headquarters, the Lintang trail is an unparalleled botanists delight. Herein find the carnivorous beasts of Bako.

 

Pitcher plants

Pitchers are specially-adapted leaves that use tricks and traps to catch and digest insects or small animals. Feed the beast.

Nepenthes gracilis 

Smooth-walled, modest beasties, N. gracilis wraps its way around branches and climbs high, ladening trees and shrubs with immoderate aerial pitchers. Below these towering masses of wrapping vine, the ground-dwelling lower pitchers are found in camouflaged clusters, nestling amongst dry leaves that have been cast off by the host tree overhead.

 


Nepenthes rafflesiana

Deceptively handsome, both ground and aerial pitchers of N. rafflesiana are striking for their size, monstrous patterning and shiny, striped peristomes (the botanical term for the rim around the opening of the pitcher). Most seductive are the flesh-pink lower pitchers that sport hairy, widely-flanked wings. “Come in,” they taunt precociously.

 


Nepenthes ampullaria

Found nestled on well-shaded patches of the forest floor amongst dingy, soggy leaf debris, these pot-shaped shorties appear to cuddle in somewhat less-than-ominous clusters. Although their aerial pitchers are very few and far between, N. ampullaria are by no means downtrodden. With thin lids flung wide open and curt wings leading to a smooth, skirting peristome… tread carefully.

 


Nepenthes albomarginata

Whether aerial or on the ground, pitchers of N. albomarginata are unmistakable. Each one of these sleek killing machines is rimmed with a distinctive white band below the peristome–that mimics a halo. Images can be deceiving. 

 


Sundew

High on the Bako plateau along muddy, sunburnt creek banks, the stellate whorls of a sundew are easily stepped on or over. Measuring less than 3 cm in diameter, use the sunlight as your guide. Sundews sticky deathtrap droplets glisten in the light, giving rise to their common name and giving them away to the eager human eye.

Drosera spathulata

The spatula-shaped leaves of this sundew species (hence the name D. spathulata) are covered with tiny hairs, each dripping with sticky fluid that is secreted by the plant. Once a crawling victim becomes trapped in this gloopy goop, the tentacular hairs of a sundew bend over to enmesh it’s prey. Trapped in this hairy grave, the insect is dissolved for digestion by this beastly little plant.

 


Bladderwort

The leaves of this inconspicuous hunter live beneath the soil–out of sight–where they have adapted to support bladder-like insect traps that suck in prey at a tremendous speed. Microscopic animals that enter… cannot leave. 

Utricularia racemosa 

They appear as a delicate, slender stalk–no taller than a few centimetres–mounted by a single, modest flower. The flowers of U. racemosa are a soft blue-violet, aptly compensating for the terror waiting below ground. U. nummularia can also be found in Bako, sporting flowers in bright yellow (but they did not grace me with their presence on this visit). 

 

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Love letter to Earth

Dear Earth,

I grew up in a place we humans call Woy Woy Bay. It means ‘deep water’ in the language of the Darkinjung people, the traditional custodians of that land. Here, the scrubby Eucalyptus-Acacia woodlands of Brisbane Water National Park tumble across sandstone ridge and down; down to meet the serpentine backwaters of the Central Coast, New South Wales, Australia.

Growing up, that snake and lizard-ridden bushland was our backyard. The mangrove mudflats–with kookaburras and yellow-crested cockatoos careening overhead–our playground. On a sunny day, the water glittering like diamonds, this place is a kind of godly heaven incarnate (mind the sharp oysters hiding in the mud).

“When I needed love, I turned my tummy to the beach sand…”

On holidays, my father pioneered long drives in search of humble, grassy campgrounds, coral reef and surfing waves. These places–the collective product of more than a billion years of tectonics smashing volcanic island chains into the east coast of the Australian continent–came to feel as much like home as the towns I went to school in.

Through this our parents instilled in my sister and I a profound respect for you; our natural environment. We grew with you. We learned to tread lightly. We were taught to be inquisitive and learn the language of the land. In part out of respect, in part for survival.

When I was lonely, I would wander into your arms, stepping barefoot into the bush and climbing onto sun-soaked boulders that could comfort me. When I felt unsure, I sat with you and listened to your council, by way of intonations in the wind amongst the eucalyptus leaves. When I wanted strength, I sat in dusk-light and let fat raindrops crash on me as coastal thunder rolled into the scrubby hills, rocking all of us. When I needed love, I turned my tummy to the beach sand and felt the humming heart of your Pacific Ocean sooth and settle me. A constant, earthly drone in backdrop to the scratchings of some tiny creatures burrowed in the sand.

Home planet, for all that you have given me and those I love, I fear that I will never truly understand you. Never know you in your complex, beautiful entirety, as a good lover should. Never be certain of our future together. Love note in transit, I am your Juliet, gulping poison and not knowing if my words will reach your heart in time.

Across your surface there are countless ‘other worlds’ that I have never even seen, and so many that I sadly never will. Some need help and many are sick and troubled. One human life is such a short amount of time.

For all my efforts, I simply cannot get enough of you. Dear Earth, I am infatuated, through and through.

Yours until the end of time,

Hannah

Written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the ‘Earthrise‘ photograph, taken by astronauts aboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft on a flyby of the Moon. Submit your own Love letter to Earth via the Museums Victoria website.

Apollo 8 Earthrise
On looking back to Earth from the Apollo 8 spacecraft. Image credit: NASA

 

Deeper water

Knee deep

I have snorkelled since I could swim, and have wanted for as long as I can think to grow up and be a mermaid. I think my tail would be blue…

In waters off Koh Kradan, Trang, Thailand

After years of (literally) dreaming about having the ability to breath underwater, I went and done did my PADI Open Water Certification.

It was a snap decision. Travelling in the western state of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, I wandered into the Scuba Junkie office amidst the humdrum of Semporna to book snorkelling in the famous Coral Triangle; home to the Sipadan Marine Reserve, which is widely regarded as one of the world’s best dive sites.

“If you’re not getting your hands dirty on this issue, you should be.”

“If you have that many days in town, why don’t you just do your scuba diving certification?” It was an irresistibly sensible question. And so, with ten minutes to spare before the three day course began in the windowless, cramped back room of the dive shop, I signed on.

Five days later, after a full day of theory, two days training in the water, and another two of immaculate fun dives off the islands of Mabul and Kapalia, I had joined the ranks of one very special community.

 

 

“Up to here” with it

Back home in Melbourne, Australia my new addiction steered me to significantly colder waters and my dear friends at Dive2U. A family owned and operated business, these guys are un-believable in their engagement with community and conservation.

Just one of their many conservation-geared projects/events, Dive2U owner AJ Morton decided it was high time to take to the marina waters around Blairgowrie Pier and CLEAN UP; a way of giving back to the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron for their support of the dive community over the years.

(Also see Operation Sponge – the cutest and my favourite – which got a great write up from the ABC).

As the team of 15 divers splintered off into groups, we started at the far (western) end of the marina fingers; working our way east towards the main wall, slowly weaving around the concrete support pillars, passing under the shadows of the yachts above. And boy did we find a lot of rubbish.

Plastic, rope, bits of metal, tyres, pots and pans, hats, clothes… even a mobile phone! As Dive2U reports, however, “it was great to see most of the debris found seems to be accidental… from broken ropes to dropped items. There was no sign of deliberate dumping.”

 

 

The next clean up dive with Dive2U will run in conjunction with the Sea Sheppard Marine Debris Campaign Australia team, and is scheduled for Sunday, 29th April at Mornington Pier. You can also sign up with Dive2U to participate in Slug Safari and contribute to the first nudibranch census run in the area by the Victorian National Parks Association, the 2018 Sea Slug Census.

 

Let’s stop drowning in it

When you hear the ocean is choking with plastic, that’s one thing. Seeing it is another, and both Mabul and Blairgowrie Pier are relatively pristine! When you dig a little deeper on this issue, or look to the leadership of old hat players in this game like Sea Shepherd, the message is clear; we are morally obligated to contribute to removing plastic from marine environments.

Yes, prevention is key. But we continue to accumulate rubbish in our oceans regardless of the present efforts to reduce and refuse plastics.

A recent estimate published in Science predicts that between 4 and 12 million metric tonnes of plastic entered our oceans in 2010 alone, reportedly enough to cover every metre of coastline on the planet. Taking direct action to address the tail end of this enormous influx of crap, groups like Sea Shepherd Australia and the Marine Debris Campaign run volunteer-powered clean ups to remove it from our shores. In 2016 alone, the Marine Debris Campaign removed some 430,000 pieces of junk, more than 75% of which was plastic, much of it represented by single-use items.

Here are the stats from a single 90 minute clean up run in Freemantle.

 

 

I am not going to mince my words here. If you’re not getting your hands dirty on this issue, you should be. Seventy percent of our planet is covered by oceans and seas. These vast spaces are predicted to host millions of marine species, as many as 91% of which remain unknown to science. There’s a parallel universe down there folks. And we’re choking it with plastic.

Best space day ever

As many of you know, I have the special privilege of working as a science educator at the Victorian Space Science Centre (VSSEC), Strathmore, Victoria. VSSEC’s flagship program for young teenagers, loosely based on the Space Camp program, Alabama (watch this for a run down), is the Mission to Mars; a simulation of humankind’s soon-to-be first landing on our neighbouring planet.

 

 

This stellar, fully-interactive Mission to Mars program sends half the student group to mission control, while the other half are landed on Mars as a team of scientist and engineer astronauts. The astronauts conduct experiments, monitor weather readings and collect samples on a simulated Martian surface, while their mission controllers direct them in their endeavours, problem solving and negotiating the astronauts through technical malfunctions and martian dangers to bring their people safely home.

 

 

Uniquely, we had the pleasure last week of running a Mission to Mars for The Australasian Society of Aerospace Medicine (ASAM). These visitors were somewhat different to the 13 through 15 year-old astronauts we usually unleash on Mars. These ASAM visitors were a collective of highly skilled pilots, engineers, psychologists, biomedical scientists and educators.

The whole day was a huge buzz; alive with exciting discussions about humans in space, the potential of life on Mars, and what our motivations for exploring that planet should be.

Among these discussions and meetings, however, there was a particular stand out for me. I got to chat with Mars One candidate Dianne McGrath.

Her eyes are firmly fixed on the skies, but not for the reasons one might expect. You see, Dianne McGrath is motivated by her insight into humanities urgent need to extend our sustainable practices. As she explained to me, Mars One provides an opportunity to model the behaviour she wants to see us humans take down here on solid ground; complete sustainability in water, energy, food and waste. There is simply no other choice in the Martian habitat.

For real time insights into student-led space and Mars programs, follow @VSSEC@SpaceCampUSA and @TheMarsGen on Twitter, or check out their websites (in-text) for program information.

 

Mission to Mars photos courtesy of Marc Jurblum @mars_psych, used with permission. 

A huge thanks to Rabbot Hutch, the inquisitive man behind the camera, genuinely amazing artist, dog owner and housemate extraordinaire. Follow him @rabbothutch on insta.

Follow pug Thor @Thormypug on insta.

Best space day ever goes out to Nicole Morton, the most aspiring and inspiring woman I am lucky enough to call my friend.

 

 

Part 3: First Humans

On a hilltop in the Sahara Desert (Morocco, far northern Africa), at a retired mining site called Jebel Irhoud, a group of paleoanthropologists recently changed the course of history.

The team was led by one Jean-Jacques Hublin, a paleoanthropologist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany. The story of Jebel Irhoud kicked off in the 1960’s, when baryte mining operations at the site uncovered some pretty amazing, then-dubbed pre-human artefacts.

Starting in 1961, myriad stone tools and hominid fossils were uncovered after an on-site miner discovered what would later be identified as a hominid skull; ‘hominid‘ being the group that comprises all modern and extinct Great Apes–feat. humans–as well as all their immediate ancestors. This miner, presumably somewhat but not entirely unaware of the value of this piece, gifted the skull to an engineer who then held on to the artefact as a souvenir. Eventually, the skull was relinquished to the University of Rabat, Morocco, leading to the first paleontological expedition to Jebel Irhoud in 1961.

On account of the work carried out during this expedition, the Jebel Irhoud site was first falsely dated to just 40,000 years ago. As such, and because of the stone tools present that were historically associated with ancient relatives of us modern humans, the Moroccan hominid fossils from Jebel Irhoud were originally attributed to Neanderthal; a ‘sister species’ of Homo sapiens thought to have evolved directly from Homo erectus alongside us modern humans.

Re-enter Jean-Jacques Hublin.

Following on some forty years later, starting in 2004, Hublin’s group revisited Jebel Irhoud. To say the least, he is a little modest about the work they carried out there…

“We were very lucky,” Hublin says. “We didn’t just get dates, we got more hominids.”

Hublin’s team got a lot more hominids, but the most exciting finding was the spectacularly older date they calculated for the Jebel Irhoud site: a brand-spanking 300,000 years.

They also reexamined the hominid remains, and attributed them to Homo sapiens, rather than Neanderthals, making these the oldest known record of the modern human race. In doing so, Hublin’s team pushed the world’s start date for our species back by almost 100,000 years.

Furthermore, “artifacts found with the fossils suggest that activities typical of modern humans also emerged by 300,000 years ago”, says paleoanthropologist Alison Brooks, George Washington University. It also evidences a “a lot of communication across the continent,” Brooks says, “a  pan-African phenomenon, with people expanding and contracting across the continent for a long time.”

Just listen to Hublin explain the significance of this pan-African phenomenon.

 

 

See Part 1: Jane Goodall and Part 2: The Leakey Legacy for a good ol’ fashioned, well-rounded look at the events and reading that brought me to this story in the first place.

The original article, Hublin et al. (2017) “New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and thpan-African origin of Homo sapiens”, published in Nature 546 can be found here.

All other references linked to in-text.

 

 

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