The new year in a large portion of the United States may have gotten off to a cold start, but down under, quite the opposite has been true. Temperatures have been soaring in Australia—so much so that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has had to add new colors to its temperature forecast map, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. Its previous temperature range had been capped at 50 degrees—or 122 degrees F.
Scientists in West Australia struck gold when they found high concentrations of the precious metal in termite hills. These gold-laden sediments are a good indication of deposits underground.
Enlisting the earth-moving skills of the termite takes some of the guesswork out of modern gold prospecting. Gold has been mined in this area of Australia for a century and a half, but as eroded sediments collect on the surface, the gold deposits get buried and become harder to find. When termites deliver the soil samples, researchers don’t have to drill in hopes of finding them, which makes the scouting process cheaper and less invasive.
Dingoes are in the news lately: the infamous “a dingo ate my baby” case may be nearing its conclusion, 32 years after an Australian baby disappeared on a family camping trip; her mother, who long claimed the baby was stolen by a dingo, has been vindicated by an inquest this week noting that dingo attacks on humans have been well-documented in the intervening decades. But dingoes can use their cleverness for less gruesome purposes, as well. What is apparently the first tool use in a canid was observed recently, in a dingo named Sterling who really, really wanted to chew on something out of his reach.
As you can see in the video above, Sterling is trying to get a hold of a piece of food placed on his enclosure at the Dingo Discovery Research Center in Australia, after researchers caught him on tape yanking down a name tag from the same location. He has never been trained in any similar tasks, as far as the researchers know, but after jumping fails to get him close enough, he heads off to the back of the enclosure and hooks his teeth around the leg of a white table. Then the table begins to move, as Sterling pulls it towards the front of the enclosure. Once he gets it near the front, one of his compatriots jumps on, but then stands around doing nothing. Sterling hops on, pushes the offender out of the way, and, after several false starts, manages to walk his forelegs across the wire mesh to bring the food within his reach. He promptly tears his prize to the ground.
In Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a professional diver has photographed a blackspot turkfish smashing a clam against a rock to get the tasty treat on the inside—this appears to be the first documented case of a fish using a tool. But some people argue that this behavior, which is similar to a seagull cracking open a shell by dropping it onto a hard surface, does not constitute tool use because the “tool” is fixed and the animal never actually holds it.
See a nice round-up video of the news and the tool-use debate at HuffPost.
Image: Scott Gardner/Coral Reefs, DOI:10.1007/s00338-011-0790-y
The flooding created by enormous downpours near Brisbane in eastern Australia shows no signs of abating, and that region is now bracing for things to go from bad to worse.
Heavy rains pounded Brisbane’s region, called Queensland, in December. And things really started to get bad yesterday, when flooding caused by the constant rain sent a wall of water—evocatively being called an “inland tsunami”—crashing through the nearby town of Toowoomba. Brisbane, which is Australia’s third-largest city at about two million people, in next in the crosshairs.
Normally it is protected from periodic flooding of the Brisbane river by the Wivenhoe dam, 80 kilometres [50 miles] away. But Wivenhoe is already 81 per cent over capacity after last month’s heavy rains saturated Queensland. To save Brisbane from flooding, officials began releasing water from Wivenhoe last month. But because of the inland tsunami now hurtling towards the city, officials have increased the amount of water released from 140 million tonnes yesterday to 344 million tonnes today. [New Scientist]
But there’s only so much they can do. As of this morning, the Christian Science Monitor reports at least 30 deaths and 78 missing, with the number expected to grow as flooding threatens Brisbane.
[Brisbane] Mayor Campbell Newman warned 6,500 homes, businesses and other properties were likely to be flooded by Thursday. “Today is very significant, tomorrow is bad, and Thursday is going to be devastating for the residents and businesses affected,” he said. [BBC News]
A particular set of rock paintings dating from more than 40,000 years ago don’t seem to be made of paint anymore. According to a new study published in the journal Antiquity, the vibrant artworks were long ago colonized by colorful microbes, which serve as “living pigments” in the paintings. Lead researcher Jack Pettigrew, of the University of Queensland in Australia, explains:
“‘Living pigments’ is a metaphorical device to refer to the fact that the pigments of the original paint have been replaced by pigmented micro-organisms…. These organisms are alive and could have replenished themselves over endless millennia to explain the freshness of the paintings’ appearance.” [BBC News]
When the researchers analyzed the so-called Bradshaw rock artworks found in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, they didn’t find paint. Instead they found a black fungus, probably belonging to a fungi group known as Chaetothyriales, as well as a reddish organism that is suspected to be a species of cyanobacteria.
What 15 million years ago was very bad for Australian marsupials is now very good for paleontologists: Researchers have uncovered a death trap, an underground limestone cave where hundreds of animals stumbled to their demise.
A paper published today in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology details the resulting fossil menagerie, which includes an extinct wombat-like marsupial known as Nimbadon lavarackorum.
Karen Black of the University of New South Wales led the excavation and says in a press release that her team has already uncovered 26 Nimbadon skulls. The varying ages of the skulls detail the Nimbadon‘s whole life cycle from “suckling pouch” to “elderly adults.”
“This is a fantastic and incredibly rare site,” says Dr. Black [regarding the cave]. “The exceptional preservation of the fossils has allowed us to piece together the growth and development of Nimbadon from baby to adult.” [Society of Vertebrate Paleontology]
See a photo gallery of the excavation and fossil processing below the jump.
In 1935, Australia introduced the cane toad to its sugar cane fields to battle beetle infestations–and the ecosystem has never been the same. The toxic toads took a liking to Australia and began spreading through the northeast, killing the native predators like crocodiles, snakes, and lizards that dined on them. A small cat-like marsupial, the quoll, was no exception. In the decades after the toads’ introduction, quoll populations in northern Australia have dipped precipitously. This year, ahead of the toads’ march into the quolls’ last stronghold, the Kimberly region, scientists have found a clever way to save the endangered marsupial: training it to detest the taste of toad so it won’t get poisoned [Los Angeles Times]. And the success of the experiment has suggested a bizarre conservation campaign.
In their research, scientists from the University of Sydney found that other predators like crocodiles and snakes can learn to avoid trouble, because one experience of snacking on a sickening poison toad is usually enough to teach them a lesson. But because the smaller quoll will die from eating a single large toad, it never learns to make that association. So the researchers decided to train the marsupials to avoid the toads using a method known as conditioned taste aversion.
Over the weekend a huge Chinese freighter loaded down with coal and fuel oil crashed into part of the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast. Today, salvage teams are still struggling with how to extricate the Shen Neng 1 without dumping any more of its dirty cargo into the delicate marine ecosystem.
The ship had left the port of Gladstone just a few hours before striking the reef in Douglas Shoal. It ran aground in a restricted zone of the marine park, almost 30km [18.6 miles] from the authorised shipping channels it should have been using [Sydney Morning Herald]. Both the main engine and the rudders sustained serious damage. While rescuers debate how to orchestrate a salvage operation, the Shen Neng 1 has slid another 20 or 30 yards along the reef, destroying more coral in its path.