The LA Times had a great article last weekend about
the mysterious facial cancer which is threatening to wipe them out,
and the Bonorong wildlife preserve
in Hobart which is involved in trying to rescue them.
The disease, called
facial tumour disease, is terrible.
It causes tumours on the devils' face and mouth, which eventually grow
so large and painful that the animal starves to death.
It's a cancer, but a very unusual one: it's transmissible and can pass
from one devil to another, one of only three such cancers known.
That means that unlike most cancers, tumour cells aren't from the
infected animal itself; they're usually contracted from a bite from
Almost no Tasmanian devils are immune to DFTD. Being isolated for so
long on such a small island, devils have little genetic diversity,
so a disease that affects one devil is likely to affect all of them.
It can wipe out a regional population within a year.
A few individuals seem to have partial immunity, and scientists
are desperately hunting for the secret before the disease wipes out
the rest of the devil population. Organizations like Bonorong are
breeding Tasmanian devils in captivity in case the answer comes too
late to save the wild population.
When I was in Hobart in 2009 for Linux.conf.au (which, aside from being
a great Linux conference, also raised over $35,000 to help
save the devils),
I had the chance to visit Bonorong. I was glad I did: it's fabulous.
You can wander around and feed kangaroos, wallabees and the ever-greedy
emus, see all sorts of rarer Australian wildlife like echidnas, quolls
and sugar gliders, and pet a koala (not as soft as they look).
But surprisingly, the best part was the tour. I'm usually not much for
guided tours, and Dave normally hates 'em. But this one was given by
Greg Irons, the director of the park who's featured in the Times
article, and he's fantastic. He obviously loves the animals and he knows
everything about them -- Dave called him an "animal nerd" (that's a
compliment, really!) And he's a great showman, with a lively and
fact-filled presentation that shows each animal at its best while
keping all ages entertained. If you didn't love marsupials, and
particularly devils and wombats, before you come to Bonorong,
I guarantee you will by the time you leave.
A lot of the accounts of devil facial tumour disease talk about devils
fighting with each other and spreading the disease, but watching them
feed at Bonorong showed that fighting isn't necessary. Tasmanian devils
feed in groups, helping each other tear apart the carcass by all
latching onto it at once and pulling. With this style of feeding,
it's easy to get bitten in the mouth accidentally.
Of course, I have a lot more photos from Bonorong:
Wildlife Park photos.
[ 10:48 Apr 01, 2011
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After a week in Tasmania, supposedly the most wildlife-packed state
in Australia, without seeing anything besides ducks (mostly mallards)
and songbirds (mostly sparrows and starlings), I was getting desperate.
I had one last hope: Bruny Island, touted as the wild and
unspoiled place to see wildlife ... though the wildlife touted in the
tourist brochures mostly seems to involve paying for a boat ride to
see sea birds and fur seals. Nobody ever talks about marsupials wandering
around -- are there any? Since it's an island, how would they get
there? Nobody ever mentions the intriguing spot marked "penguin
rookery" on "The Neck" between North and South Bruny.
After last year's
at the Philip Island Penguin Parade,
I thought it might be worth booking a room on Bruny
in the hope of seeing (a) penguins and (b) other nocturnal wildlife.
We booked into the "Bruny Island Hotel", a tiny pub with two lodging
units billing itself as "Australia's Southernmost Hotel" (a claim
dubious claim -- we saw plenty of lodging farther south, though their
actual names didn't include the word "hotel").
We were a little taken aback when we saw the place
but it turned out to be clean and comfortable, and right on the bay.
And the pub had some wonderful aromas from the daily curry special
(which, we found that night, tasted as good as it smelled).
Since we'd caught an early ferry, we spent the day exploring Bruny,
including a bushwalk up to Mt. Mangana. The narrow and overgrown trail
climbs steadily through thick forest, but the adventurous part of the
hike came in one of the few sunny, rocky clearings, where a quite
large black snake (something between a meter and a meter and a half long
and as thick around as Dave's wrist) slithered off the trail right in
front of me. Then right after that, Dave spotted a much smaller snake,
the size of a large garter snake, a bit off the trail.
Should I mention that all Tasmanian snakes are venomous?
(Checking the books later, the large one was a black tiger snake --
quite dangerous -- while the smaller one was probably a white-lipped
snake, considered only moderately dangerous.)
After that our appreciation of the scenery declined a bit as we kept
our eyes glued to the trail ahead of us, but we saw no more snakes
and eventually emerged into a clearing that gave us great views of a
radio tower but no views of much of anything else.
On Mt Mangana, the journey is the point, not the destination.
On the way back down, when we got to the rocky clearing, both of our
colubrid friends were there to meet us. Dave, in the lead, stamped a
bit and the larger snake slithered off ahead of us on the trail -- not
quite the reaction we'd been hoping for -- while the smaller snake
coiled into a ball but remained off the trail. Eventually the large
snake left the trail and Dave quickly passed it while I snapped a shot
of its disappearing tail. Now it was my turn to pass -- but the snake
was no longer visible. Where was it now? I was searching the trailside
where it had disappeared when I heard a rustling in the bush beside and
behind me and saw the snake's head appearing -- it had circled around
behind me! (I'm sure this wasn't a strategic move, merely some sort of
coincidence: I used to keep snakes and though they're fascinating
and beautiful, intelligence isn't really their strong point.)
I high-tailed it down the trail and we finished the walk safely.
That evening, we headed over to the penguin rookery, where it turned
out that we had happened to choose the one night when there was a
ranger talk and program there.
I wasn't sure whether that was a good or a bad thing,
since it meant a crowd, but it turned out
all to the good, partly because it meant a lot more high-powered
red-masked flashlights to point out the penguins,
but mostly because the real show there isn't penguins at all.
The Bruny Island penguin rookery is also a rookery for short-tailed
shearwaters -- known as "muttonbirds" because they're "harvested"
for their meat, said to taste like mutton. Their life cycle
is fascinating. They spend the nothern hemisphere summer up in the
Bering Sea near Alaska, but around September they migrate down to southern
Australia, a trip that takes about a week and a half including
stopping to feed. They breed and lay a single egg,
which both parents incubate until it hatches in mid-January.
Then the parents feed the chick until it grows to twice
the size of its parents (some 10 kg! while still unable to fly).
Then the parents leave the chicks and fly back north. This is the
stage at which the overgrown chicks are "harvested" for meat.
The chicks who don't get picked off (they're protected in Tasmania)
live off their fat deposits until their flight feathers come in, at
which point they fly north to join the adults.
We were there about a week after hatching, while the parents
were feeding the chicks. The adult shearwaters spend all day fishing
while the chick sleeps in a burrow in the sand. At sunset, the adults
come flying back, where they use both voice and vision to locate the
right burrow. The catch: a bird that migrates from Alaska to Tasmania,
and takes casual flights to Antarctica for food, is designed to fly fast.
Shearwaters aren't especially good at landing in confined spaces,
especially when loaded with fish.
The other catch is that there are many thousands of them
(the ranger said there were 14,000 nesting at that rookery alone).
So, come dusk, the air is filled with thousands of fast-flying
shearwaters circling and looking for their burrows and
working up the nerve to land, which they eventually do with a
resounding thump. They crash into bushes, the
boardwalk, or, uncommonly, people who are there to watch the show.
It's kind of like watching the bats fly out of Carlsbad caverns ...
if the bats weighed five kilos each and flew at 20-30mph.
The night fills with the eerie cries of shearwaters calling to each other,
the growling of shearwaters fighting over burrows, and the thumps of
shearwaters making bad landings.
Penguins? We saw a few, mostly chicks coming out of their burrows to
await a food-carrying parent, and late in the evening a handful came
out of the water and climbed the beach.
Penguins normally find each other by sound, and
at Philip Island they were quite noisy, but at Bruny most of the
penguins we saw were silent (we did hear a few penguin calls mixed
in with the cacophony of shearwaters). But we didn't really miss
the penguins with the amazing shearwater show.
When we finally drove back to the hotel, we drove slowly, hoping to
see nocturnal wildlife.
We knew by then that Bruny does have mammals (however they
might have gotten there) because of the universal sign: roadkill.
And we did see wildlife: three penguins, two small red wallabies,
three smaller red animals with fuzzy tails
(ringtailed and brushtailed possums?)
and one barely-glimpsed small sand-colored
animal the size and shape of a weasel (I wonder if it could have been
a brown bandicoot? It didn't look mouselike and didn't have spots like
Success! A spectacular evening.
[ 12:24 Feb 11, 2009
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