Wednesday, September 11, 2002

The glow-worm lady and the dinosaur man

Mozzie bites herald the arrival of spring in Queensland, and summer thunderstorms are just over the horizon.

Meanwhile, I’m spending my mornings in classes and my afternoons in the library, slowly hammering out four different papers, to wit: the hermit crab project, a research paper on invasive species in Moreton Bay, an essay on fire in the Australian environment, and a report on the vegetation of Lamington and Stradbroke Island.

Our lectures are sometimes exciting and sometimes not--we have a feeling that we got the same coral reef lecture four or five times now, with slight variations and different professors. Almost all of our lectures are by different lecturers, which is nifty insofar as we often get a specialist on each subject, and not-so-nifty insofar as they don’t know what we’ve learned already, and tend to either repeat each other or completely bewilder us.

Occasionally we get gems such as the glow-worm lady or the dinosaur man. The glow-worm lady is doing her PhD on glow-worms and just thinks they’re the coolest things in the world. She likes bugs in general, so I e-mailed her about my fire paper, as the topic I’ve chosen is the adaptations (or non-adaptations) of Australian insects to the flammability of their environment. She gave me the name of a woman who apparently did her entire thesis on this subject, which is a bit overwhelming but certainly helpful.

The dinosaur man was introduced to us as such, and I had to stifle a giggle, as he looked the part. He was quite small and thin, but his hair was long and unkempt and so was his beard, and he looked ancient. He had us in hysterics for his entire lecture. He’s one of the few paleontologists who still believes dinosaurs had a polyphyletic origin.

However, apart from these rare delights, I’m generally not too impressed with the lecturers, and Mike and Ian, who run the whole program, are still my favorites. Today we had both, and neither had slept last night, between preparing lectures and wrestling with program glitches. Consequently they were very amusing today. Ian has characteristically dry Pom humor, and he always makes us laugh. Mike is just interesting.

Today his lecture was on a biogeographical theory proposed by a man named Tim Flannery in a book called The Future Eaters, which is our token textbook for the terrestrial ecology course, and which I’d really like to get now. It’s very controversial, but he argued that wherever early humans spread, they caused mass megafaunal (large animals, a rather vague category) extinctions, and this happened when the aboriginals moved in Australia some 60,000 years ago. The megafaunal extinctions are actually fairly well documented; the same thing happened in North America, around when early Native Americans were driving entire herds of bison off cliffs. The idea is, in their naïveté, big animals don’t expect skinny little humans to be a threat when they first encounter them, so they are immediately killed off.

Anyway, Flannery went on to say that in Australia, once most of the megafauna was gone, nothing was left to graze the Australian flora, which happens to be extremely flammable. So when it doesn’t get eaten for a while and builds up, big uncontrollable fires are the result. To prevent this from happening and to maintain a greater diversity of plants, Aborigines began a regime of controlled burning, also known as “fire-stick farming,” to take the place of the megafaunal grazers that they had killed off.

When Europeans arrived, they brought with them the European mentality that fire is bad, and stopped the burning. As a result fuel started building up again, and without the control burns that the aboriginals had used to keep fuel levels low, they reached a point where once a fire started (which it inevitably would) it burned out of control. This has been the story since European arrival, though there are a number of people pushing for management policies that include control burns.

The huge, infrequent fires have triggered another wave of extinctions, this time of smaller animals in what is called the “critical size range,” too small to escape the fires, but too big to hide under logs until the fire passes over. Most of the species in this size range that are still around are either endangered or likely to become so.

Anyway, that’s the theory. Right or not, it’s pretty interesting, and I’d like to read the book.

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