Chris Watson

CSIRO

The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia: An Early Account by A. E. Newsome

Review, EcologyChris Watson

by Thomas Newsome and Alan Newsome

CSIRO Publishing, July 2016

Paperback AU$39.95

“Desert lands have an appealing starkness and simplicity. The very grain of the countryside is exposed to all. Ancient mountain ranges plunge and rear from the plains. Rocks and boulders lie tumbled at their feet. Dry watercourses break through mountain gorges to meander and die in the desert. Stunted trees stand mutely enduring the heat.

Biological survival in such a land is not simple.” - p.15-16

 

It is just such a land, however, which is home to the Red Kangaroo Osphranter rufus; the largest extant marsupial on Earth and Australia’s largest terrestrial mammal. The Red Kangaroo is an Australian icon that ranks with Uluru and the Sydney Opera House for international recognition. The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia presents the gathered thoughts and findings on the species, from the early work of one of the great minds of Australian ecology.

Alan Newsome’s work was already familiar to me when I gained employment as an environmental consultant in Alice Springs in 2011. As it happens, Alan’s son, Thomas Newsome, was working at the firm which took me on, and I’d learn that he is a gifted ecologist in his own right. I’d been living in Central Australia for several years at that time and, being interested in the ecology of Central Australian fauna, Alan Newsome’s name was a regular feature on my reading list. Though I only worked with Thomas for a short time, my excitement at the publication of The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia comes, not only from my own affinity for the country and animals that it describes, but from an appreciation of his standing, and his father’s, in the Australian ecological community.

Alan began studying the Red Kangaroo in 1957 and it’s important to appreciate how rudimentary our understanding of the animal’s ecology was at that time. Alan was the first to discover many of the behavioural and physiological adaptations that have allowed the species to live so successfully in a landscape with such famously extreme and irregular conditions. Working on the beautiful plains to the north of the MacDonnell Range, Alan methodically uncovered the mysteries of the Red Kangaroo’s life. His book takes us through the challenges the kangaroo must overcome to survive in this country in chapters dealing with the landforms, climate and vegetation; distribution and abundance; reproduction (some of Alan’s most astonishing discoveries relate to the reproductive biology of the Red Kangaroo and these breakthroughs, and the methods by which they were revealed, are presented in considerable detail); food and water; sociology and a final chapter titled Ecomythology.

In addition to the main body of text there is an enlightening foreword by famed marsupial biologist Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe and a preface by Thomas Newsome in his role as co-author and editor. [Alan Newsome passed away in 2007. This book is the edited result of a mostly complete manuscript which Thomas discovered among Alan’s effects in 2010.]

In the intervening decades since Alan Newsome’s field work, another generation of ecologists has built on his findings and we understand the Red Kangaroo’s biology well. But perhaps the great story presented by The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia, and a thread running through the entire book, is Alan’s determination to also come to grips with the Aranda* understanding of kangaroo ecology.

Like few other outback zoologists since Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, Newsome allows room for Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) to be interpreted scientifically and considered alongside his own findings. The culmination of the book is in the final chapter titled Ecomythology in which Alan sets out the close alignment of his own hard-won knowledge with the traditional knowledge of his Aranda colleagues. The world has turned now and it is routine for IEK to be incorporated into scientific research and reporting, but we see the foundations of this practice in Alan’s work at a time when such considerations were by no means commonplace.

In addition to the book’s value as an important work of science and history, it is a beautiful piece of writing. As the brief excerpt I’ve used reveals, Alan's was an engaging writing style, as stripped-back and plain as the desert landscapes he describes. As an avowed desert-lover myself, Alan’s deep affection for the country in which he spent so much of his career, is instantly relatable from the way he writes about it. He also had that all-too-rare talent for rendering scientific writing enjoyable for the reader, without sacrificing any of its rigour. The ease of his style is such that The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia reads more like a story than a scientific treatise at times. This is testament to his ability to render deep scholarship comprehensible to the lay-reader rather than any “dumbing down” or skimping on detail.

Ultimately, The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia will appeal to an audience far beyond the ranks of biologists. It includes almost as much history and anthropology as it does ecology. It’s difficult to avoid drawing comparisons with the writings of other prominent Centralian researchers like T.G.H. Strehlow, with whom Alan discussed his work at some length, and the correspondence of the aforementioned Spencer and Gillen.

As well as being a peerless account of animal ecology and scientific investigation in the desert, it is a postcard from Central Australia and the ecological adventures of a young scientist on a personal journey of discovery. There is no doubt that The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia will continue to inspire and inform future generations of Australian ecologists for a very long time to come.

CBW

 

*Also spelled Arrernte and Arunta, these are the Aboriginal Australians who are the traditional custodians of the lands surrounding Alice Springs and much of the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia. 

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Review: The Complete Guide to Finding the Mammals of Australia by David Andrew

ReviewChris Watson

“Many of Australia’s unique and beautiful mammals are not easy to find in the wild. Most of them are nocturnal and extremely wary of humans.” – Barbara Triggs, in the introduction to her superb Tracks, Scats And Other Traces: A Field Guide to Australian Mammals.

 

We could add to Barbara Triggs’ introduction, that many of our mammals are also rare and range across massive areas of remote and challenging country. Throw in our disastrous record on mammal extinction and you might be forgiven for not ever starting a mammal list and sticking to watching the birds.

But then again, would anyone really bother looking for Grey Honeyeaters if they weren’t so bloody hard to find? The thrill of the treasure hunt and the pursuit of rarities is a big part of the allure of birding so there’s no reason to think that the difficulty of finding mammals would have any less appeal. Mammal watching has always lagged somewhere behind birding, at least in popularity but certainly not the ardour of its devotees. But lately it seems to have been gaining ground and this book comes along at an interesting time.

Literally just weeks before the release of Finding the Mammals of Australia we saw the creation of the first dedicated Facebook group for serious Australian mammal watchers. This group rapidly grew to over 200 members and we’ve had hints that the first semi-official Australian mammal big year attempts are already underway. Then, following on the heels of Finding the Mammals of Australia, we’ve had news of another forthcoming release from CSIRO publishing, Australian Wildlife After Dark, also with plenty of relevance to mammal watchers, due in April.

Common Ringtail Possum Pseudocheirus peregrinus, often the first tick on many suburbanites' mammal list.

To give you the executive summary: Finding the Mammals of Australia is an astonishing achievement. It’s thoroughly worth owning if you have any interest in our mammal fauna and if you don’t already have it, eventually, you almost certainly should. David Andrew has done a colossal amount of work here and deserves endless kudos for delivering a long-overdue book.

Moreover, it’s astonishing and reassuring that publishers like CSIRO are continuing to support such releases. Hats off all round. The easy assumption to make is that the technologically adept can these days access all the relevant knowledge they need with a visit to one or more online fora and the magical letters R-F-I. Request For Information.

These three dread initials, I was sure, would snuff the interest in, and relevance of, guide books like this in a matter of a few years. They have already ensured that professional wildlife guiding will never be much more than a boutique industry, in this country at least. Go to any birdwatching forum or Facebook group and it’s quickly apparent that a good portion of posts are preceded by the scurrilous three letter initialism. I’m off to FNQ – where to see this mammal or that bird? It’s my first time in Perth – where do all the critters hide out?

Prefix your subject line with RFI and there is no end to the lengths that any number of friendly and generous souls will be prepared to go to, in order to make available the collected knowledge that they have spent years accumulating through long hours scouring the bush (not to mention the literature) and hundreds of thousands of kilometres behind the wheel. If I come across as at all bitter on this matter, it's only because I know precisely how hard many professional guides work for their site knowledge only to have it broadcast on such public channels, or to have their professionalism usurped entirely and rendered cruelly redundant by well-meaning local amateurs or enterprises like Birding Pal.

But I needn’t be so pessimistic. The same generosity of spirit and genuine love for our fauna has ensured that there is an enduring market for books like this and that seems set to remain the case. My revised appraisal of species-seekers in Australia is that despite having access to endless free information online, most still see the value in having an expert like David Andrew assemble the sum of that web-based colloquy, adding a comprehensive survey of the scientific literature, analysing it all through their own research and expertise and binding it all in a single volume. That, in a convenient nutshell I guess, is the appeal of reference books for most of us.

And of course international visitors without time for thorough research, not to mention Australian mammal listers with particularly recalcitrant bogey-beasts, are still just as likely to desire the services of a wildlife professional. So I should dismount my high horse (still a tickable plastic if you know where to look) and return to Andrews’ achievement.

Finding the Mammals of Australia is set out in a very similar format to CSIRO’s 2011 updated edition of Richard and Sarah Thomas’ Finding the Birds of Australia with Alan McBride and David Andrew as co-authors. This book looks pretty similar to that book, is similarly comprehensive in its geographic treatment and at 419 pages is just a few pages smaller than its birdy sister publication. Navigating it will feel familiar to users of Finding the Birds of Australia; after the introductory sections it goes through sites state by state then follows this with a complete annotated list of the mammals, a glossary and an index. The introductory passages deal in some detail with the notorious difficulties of observing mammals in the wild and the differences in observation techniques between bird-watching and mammal-watching.

Fat-tailed Dunnart Sminthopsis crassicaudata - a tiny marsupial carnivore. A lot harder to get to than a back yard ringtail possum but, happily, still pretty common if you look in the right places.

 The coverage of species is complete enough, although it follows the older mammal taxonomy set out by John Woinarski et al in the 2012 Action Plan for Australian Mammals, rather than the more up to date 2015 taxonomy by Jackson and Groves. The latter splits a few more species here and there (the feathertail gliders and greater gliders come to mind) and is being used by most mammal listers, but this won’t be any sort of impediment to accuracy for the most part.

So if it was the advent of good, cheap binoculars and the fledgling conservation movement that finally transformed the old pursuit of bird shooting into the worldwide phenomenon of modern birding, then perhaps digital photography, LED torches and social media may be doing the same for mammal listing.

If that’s the case, a book like this for the Australian mammal fauna might very well herald the opening of the floodgates.


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