Time shift: the wonder of Kosciuszko’s caves. By Kate Burke

Jersey Cave, Yarrangobilly, Kosciuszko National Park. Image: Kate Burke
Jersey Cave, Yarrangobilly, Kosciuszko National Park. Image: Kate Burke

In an already diverse landscape, Yarrangobilly Caves adds an x-factor to South East NSW that is rare and special.

Despite being brought up Catholic, I haven’t had religion for a long while. Still, I remember fondly the time spent in old, cool churches – the smell of stone, the peace, the sense of endless time.

The late folk singer Michael Kennedy described how nature’s beauty can evoke a spiritual response – “Ceiling clouds swirl, aisles of bloom curl round the wild cathedral.”

Natural spaces, like places of worship, can provide sanctuary and help us connect with who we really are.

During the recent school holidays, my family and I visited Yarrangobilly Caves in Kosciuszko National Park.

On the way from Cooma we drove through the epic and faltering landscape of Adaminaby and Kiandra, old goldfields with diggings and ditches full of snow.

Brumbies wander this country with majesty and bouncy playfulness. Their colours blend with the patchy wild scrub; despite being equine intruders, left over from last century and stranded in the wrong land, they’re elegant.

We paid our cave entry fees, and did a tour of Yarrangobilly’s Jersey Cave, which takes about an hour and half.

Beautiful, still rock pools are edged by limstone dams. Image: Kare Burke
Beautiful, still rock pools are edged by rimstone dams. Image: Kare Burke

I hadn’t been underground for years.

I used to do it a lot, at Wee Jasper and Wyanbene and Cooleman, as a teenage scamp who liked to wriggle through crawl spaces. This was much tamer, but an incredible experience nonetheless.

Caves are like slow, slow gardens.

It’s springtime, and I’ve been watching my sunflowers shoot up over the last few days. They manage a centimetre overnight, no worries.

The “cave straws” that reach down from the cave ceilings of Yarrangobilly – which look as you’d imagine – like straws, take 100 years to grow a single centimetre.

Many of the cave straws at Yarrangobilly are much longer – 20 or 30 centimetres; 2000 or 3000 years old.

My kids are 6 and 4, and they are surprisingly quiet and attentive (when they’re not wrestling each other for the torch).

They seem to understand the fragility of the formations. They know that the oil from their fingertips could stop them forming, and don’t reach for them. It’s surprising.

The names of cave formations are evocative – flowstones, shawls, pillars.

They’re all incomprehensibly ancient, but look like they could have grown through winter, like icicles or frozen waterfalls.

I’ve often felt as though caves are alive. Image: Kate Burke
I’ve often felt as though caves are alive. Image: Kate Burke

Beautiful, still rock pools are edged by rimstone dams and grow dogtooth spars – angular, squat crystals that cluster. These pools are otherworldly.

Some flowstones look like intricately woven fettuccine, cascading over metres.

All have formed as the fossil-rich limestone of the valley is dissolved by acidic rainwater, and redeposited as calcite.

According to National Parks, local Wolgalu people didn’t enter the caves much at all – formations survived thousands of years of indigenous custodianship.

But like so many caves, Jersey Cave was raided for souvenirs over the last 150 years. The cave is still stunning, but some caverns are stained darkly by the smoke from bygone kerosene lamps.

I’ve often felt as though caves are alive. Or that, at least, they can tell us something important about ourselves.

They tell us that we are small, transient, destructive, and peace-loving.

Some flowstones look like intricately woven fettucine, cascading over metres. Image: Kate Burke
Some flowstones look like intricately woven fettuccine, cascading over metres. Image: Kate Burke

We’re a confused bunch, and caves can provide a beautiful space to meditate and contemplate.

Perhaps we’ll always feel like impostors in such spaces. But thankfully these caves are now protected, and we can continue to visit and appreciate their lasting beauty.

Yarrangobilly Caves are open daily for you to explore and ‘feel’ for yourself.

Ranger talks really add to the experience as does a swim in the thermal pool!

Click here for more details

Kate Burke is a sought-after vocalist and musician based in Candelo and is completing her Masters in Science Communication at the Australian National University. This article originally appeared on ‘Raisin – Regional Science and Innovation’

Fear and fluoride, bedfellows amidst conflicting “evidence”

The Tantawangalo water supply source at Six Mile Creek. Image Kate Burke
The Tantawangalo water supply source at Six Mile Creek. Image Kate Burke/Raisin

The potential fluoridation of the Tantawanglo-Kiah Water System (Candelo, Wolumla, Merimbula, Tura, Pambula, Eden, Kiah) and the Brogo – Bermagui Water System (Quaama, Cobargo, Brogo, Wallaga Lake, Bermagui) has divided the Bega Valley community.

With Bega Valley Shire Council’s decision on whether to fluoridate or not still pending, the way forward seems far from clear.

By the way, the Bega – Tathra Water System has been fluoridated since 1963.

The international anti-fluoride Fluoride Action Network (FAN) challenges the safety of fluoridation despite reassurances from peak health bodies such as the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Dental Association.

FAN cites a series of scientific studies that point to negative health effects related to fluoride. Yet the World Health Organisation cites fluoridation of water as, “the most effective public health measure for the prevention of dental decay.”

The ingredients of this debate are a potent mix of conflicting evidence, with added fear, and a rather large ethical grey area.

It’s murky and hard to navigate.

Yet if you can familiarise yourself with this tricky landscape, you can start to make sense of the different perspectives people have on this issue, and perhaps take some of the fear out of the equation.

It turns out that scientific studies, the foundation stones of public health debate, are not always as rock solid as they seem.

While the fluoride debate touches on personal choice, welfare, and economics; scientific studies are a central part of pro and anti-fluoride argument.

A body of studies has been cited by the Fluoride Action Network pointing to potential effects of fluoride such as reduced IQ in children, obesity, and even cancer.

The Australian Medical Association claims that there is no appreciable link between fluoridation and these side effects.

But with so much at stake, how do you navigate the conflicting “evidence” that we’re finding?

Where better to begin than Google Scholar?! Google’s search engine for published academic studies. What happens when you search for “fluoride and IQ”?

Looking through the studies that have linked fluoride to lower IQ in children, one thing stands out – most studies that popped up didn’t test for other factors that could affect IQ.

Many studies were from China, India, or Mongolia, and compared towns that fluoridated water supplies with those that didn’t.

However, they didn’t check for other differences between the towns – levels of poverty, nutrition, potential lead and arsenic poisoning, all of which can affect the IQ of children.

This is like blaming weight gain on exercise, without considering diet.

These studies simply don’t meet the criteria needed to inform sound decision-making, yet they are published online alongside studies of higher quality.

Twenty low-quality studies that link lower IQ and fluoride, alongside only one quality study that finds no link, can look like strength in numbers and cast the wrong impression.

Assessing evidence doesn’t work like that. It’s not like voting. One study is not necessarily worth the same as another.

The problem is that scientific investigations can be carried out and published (particularly online) by any scientist, from any organisation. Most are carried out with noble intentions, but even noble intentions can be fed by bias – if you’re passionate about a cause, or feel that you’ve found an important link, established scientific practices might fall by the wayside.

Glass of water. Source pixabay.com 1160264
A glass of water. Source pixabay.com 1160264

Dr Andrew Wakefield’s study linking autism with vaccination is a famous example.

Dr Wakefield and his colleagues felt that they’d found an important link after reviewing the cases of eight people who’d been diagnosed with autism within a month of receiving the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The investigation was found to be riddled with problems; their medical assessments and analysis of results were described as incomplete and biased.

Much of the criticism of Dr Wakefield’s study suggested it ignored statistical significance.

Given that 50,000 children per month were vaccinated with MMR in England at the time, eight presentations of autism were not enough to establish a link.

Statistical significance is needed for a scientific result to have meaning. Where health is concerned, this usually means two things –  that a lot of people were tested and the results were strong enough to discount coincidence and other confounding factors, such as nutrition and lead in the IQ example.

Dr Wakefield’s study was discredited, and wide scale, high-quality studies were carried out that found no link between autism and vaccination.  But his study was already fuelling the fears of parents across the globe.

When something appears to threaten the health of children, it can achieve notoriety.

It’s important to carefully examine the information you are given or find yourself, but how do you sift through the jargon, the publications, the conflicting evidence?

Putting your fear aside, how do you know what and who to trust?

Dr Will Grant of the Australian National University’s Centre for the Public Awareness of Science says that it’s almost impossible for one person to do this alone.

“While I’d love to say that I have the capacity to truthfully assess the veracity and rigour of all research that’s available online, I simply don’t have that capacity.  In fact, no one does,” he says.

“Instead we’re all forced to use the decision-making heuristics we’ve always used, typically though not exclusively, trusting a variety of voices in our networks that know better.”

Dr Grant says that we rely on institutions to process this information for us.

“But if I’m a person who doesn’t trust these institutions – and the number of people who don’t trust the central institutions of society is growing globally – then I’m going to trust other things,” he says.

Kate Burke
Kate Burke

Other things might include organisations like FAN, who question the reliability of institutionalised knowledge.

The FAN website claims it, “develops and maintains the world’s most comprehensive online database on fluoride compounds.”

Despite making this claim, they don’t give you a comprehensive review of the quality of materials in their database.

The Australian Government’s National Medical Health Research Council (NHMRC), is a not-for-profit research organisation that draws on the expertise of people tied to the University of Melbourne, Royal North Shore Hospital, The Cancer Council, Alfred Hospital, and Monash University, among other organisations.

The NHMRC has released a Health Effects of Fluoridation Evidence Evaluation Report through its Clinical Trials Centre at the University of Sydney which provides an analysis of fluoride research from the last decade.

It’s worth a read for two reasons.

Firstly, it assesses the quality of studies looking into the effects of fluoridation on dental caries (decay) and other symptoms from 2006-2015, and walks through them bit by bit, weighing up their value without apparent bias.

Secondly, its conclusions reflect the “greyness” of this debate. The NHMRC says the evidence appears to indicate that Australian water fluoridation standards are safe, while also suggesting there are gaps in the research.

The recommended level of fluoridation is shown to give a 35% reduction in dental caries. This is a significant number, as it means that more than a third of dental decay can be prevented by adding fluoride to a water supply.

This has knock-on effects for the rest of a person’s health and reduces financial pressure on individuals and the economy by cutting down on visits to the dentist.

The report also shows that recommended fluoride levels can increase the incidence of tooth discolouration due to fluorosis (a chronic condition caused by excessive intake of fluoride compounds, seen as mottling of the teeth) by around 12%.

Healthy teeth, Source Pixabay
Healthy teeth, Source Pixabay

The NHRMC document also gives many of the scientific reports presented in this debate a confidence grading.

The low overall confidence grading of the reports that raise concerns about cancer and IQ perhaps take some fear out of the equation, as the ratings are low enough to discount many of the studies altogether.

The presence of studies of higher quality (ie more thorough and more reliable) have tipped the balance of evidence away from such matters of concern.

However, if the NHRMC also suggests there are gaps in the research, why can’t we just test for the negative health effects that fuel much of the fear in a robust credible way?

In Australia, people are exposed to fluoride in a number of ways, including in toothpaste and tea, and it naturally occurs in the environment around us. This means that a person’s previous exposure to fluoride is very difficult to determine. To find a bunch of people who have never been exposed to fluoride as a control group, and then to test the effects of drinking fluoridated water on them, is extremely challenging.

And as the studies linking fluoride and IQ in China, India, and  Mongolia show us, these studies are problematic because there are so many other factors that can contribute to influence a person’s health.

Finding the fluoride link is not easy.

The NHMRC review gives us an indication of which way the evidence is swinging – and it’s telling us that fluoridation of our water supply will give us healthier teeth and that the only side effect of significant concern is discolouration caused by fluorosis.

It also tells us that other side effects are most likely not going to happen at Australian levels of fluoridation.

Our personal views on fluoridation are important and varied and can’t be discounted.

But it is important that we are able to critically assess the information that is given to us.  If we can’t do this on our own, we can at least have a look at how others have reviewed it and make sure that we’re satisfied with how they’ve done it, which perhaps takes some of the fear out of the equation.


*Kate Burke is completing her Masters in Science Communication through the Australian National University

*Above is an edited article that originally appeared on Raisin – stories of regional science and innovation

*Ian Campbell founder of About Regional is part-time media officer for Bega Valley Shire Council

Making sense of Candelo’s flying foxes – perhaps we can decide to cope with them?

Flying Fox, by Craig Greer
Flying Fox, by Craig Greer

There’s a colony of grey-headed flying foxes in Candelo, in the massive old plane tree by the bridge.  On the latest count, there are around 1400 bats roosting in its branches.

There aren’t many native species that arrive on our doorsteps in such sudden, large numbers, and with such noise, visibility, and aroma.

We’ll never see 1400 wombats hanging out on Candelo Oval at the same time!

Flying foxes challenge our sense of control over our urban spaces, failing to seek our permission to take over parklands, failing to give us notice for when they will check in or check out, and failing to place an order for what they might eat from our gardens along the way.

So are they simply unwelcome guests in our town landscapes?  Why might we want to attempt to understand their movements, their presence, and our relationship to their habitat?

In the Southeast region of NSW, grey-headed flying foxes are a well-known part of the landscape:  at Bega’s Glebe Lagoon a population has existed there for years, flying at night to feed on coastal forest flowers or south-west to the escarpment to flowering eucalypts.  They pollinate native forests and are an integral part of forest ecosystems.

However, native flora and fauna have become wrapped around the human footprint, existing in the margins, in strongholds that are weakened daily by pollution, deforestation and development.

Flying foxes are one of the few species that can actually transplant themselves back onto the human landscape – but it’s not always a comfortable fit for them or us.

This summer, they have been starving. Eucalypts that provide their usual spring and summer food sources have, for the first time in years, failed to flower at the right time.

Here in Candelo, I arrived back from a trip to Melbourne in November to find seventeen dead baby flying foxes under the poplar trees by the creek.  They were tiny.  The next day, checking under the trees, I found one alive.

The baby flying fox’s wings were spread out, her 7cm-long body tucked into itself, eyes closed.  She was cold.  I did something that you’re not supposed to do: I gathered her up in my jumper and tried to warm her up, taking care not to touch her directly, and I called Wildlife Rescue.

Some people find bats strange and scary, or smelly and annoying, and most will not get the chance to see one up close.

Annie from Wildlife Rescue named the baby flying fox Katie
Annie from Wildlife Rescue named the baby flying fox Katie

This baby was only just breathing, otherwise motionless, and at the mercy of my decisions. I held her and looked up into the tree.  Somewhere up there was her mother.  She would have nursed this baby to the best of her ability for weeks, as she slowly grew weak from lack of food. Eventually, her hunger would have caused her to stop producing milk, and her baby began to starve, eventually dropping from the top of the tree to the ground.

The other babies had not survived the fall or had died on the ground from the cold. There would have been more caught in the branches that I could not see. We were witnessing a starvation event, the evidence of which was brought directly to our town.

Candelo residents have reported losing fruit crops from their trees. The bats are tending to fly out along the creek line, so people in town aren’t suffering too much bat poo on their roofs or cars. But there is a low grumble of discontent in town: why are they here?  Will they keep eating my fruit crops? Should we move them on?

Flying foxes usually eat from just over 100 native plant species.  Around half of these are targeted for fruit, but the other half are flowering plants that can be visited over and over again as they continue to produce nectar.

Local fruit trees are usually visited by the weaker bats who aren’t able to fly to flowering plants in nearby native forests. The recent food shortage has made this behaviour more common.

Hugh Pitty runs monthly flying fox surveys at the Bega’s Glebe Lagoon colony for the CSIRO National Flying Fox Monitoring Program. He says historically there has been a camp at the Candelo Showground, which indicates they will continue to visit Candelo but probably won’t stay for good.

“It’s likely that you’ll see the camp last this year, and possibly next year, but it’s likely that it won’t be here long term,” he says.

“You’ve got water here in the creek, but it doesn’t have all the attributes that the main camp in Bega does”.

There are hundreds of previous camps around NSW that aren’t used anymore. The best long-term camps have permanent water, good shade, and no risk of disturbance from below.

When in 2001 the trees across the road from Hugh’s home in Bega became the site of the largest permanent bat colony in the area, he was fascinated rather than upset. He made them the subject of an animal habitat study for his Biology degree.

Hugh Pitty and Lea Pinker of the Bega flying fox survey team standing in front of Candelo's plane tree bat colony
Hugh Pitty and Lea Pinker of the Bega flying fox survey team standing in front of Candelo’s plane tree bat colony

“I sometimes say that my bedroom window is closer than you can legally put a bird hide vantage point for a flying fox colony,” he says.

Many locals are used to the bats, and the Glebe Lagoon colony is relatively uncontroversial.

In Candelo, the flying foxes make a bit of noise and don’t smell too bad most of the time – in fact, most days I find their smell takes me back to swimming at Mataranka in the Northern Territory as a 16-year-old on a school trip (how romantic!).

But the occasional wafts and the screeching aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and the picnic area underneath the plane trees is a bit of a mess.

With winter approaching, local flying fox colonies will move on and it’s difficult to predict where the bats will turn up in a few months’ time, or what they’ll do next summer.

The question remains the same, though, how do we balance our needs and theirs?

When spotted gums flowered near Batemans Bay a hundred thousand bats arrived on the town’s council land, creating what was referred to as a community crisis.

In Candelo the colony is just over 1% of the size of the former Batemans Bay bat population, and the inconvenience is easier to put into perspective.

Perhaps we can decide to cope with them – because right now it’s the flying foxes, and not our homes and livelihoods, that are in crisis.

Words and pictures supplied by Kate Burke from Raisin – stories of regional science and innovation

ABC Radio National cuts Candelo’s musicians

David Ross MacDonald from The Waifs
David Ross MacDonald from The Waifs

Over recent years, the town of Candelo has caught the attention of ABC Radio National presenters.

Many of Candelo’s resident musicians, such as Heath Cullen, Melanie Horsnell, David Ross MacDonald (The Waifs), Robyn Martin, Pete Wild, Michael Menager, Sam Martin & Phil Moriarty (of Mikelangelo & the Black Sea Gents), and myself have all been featured on programs like ­The Inside Sleeve, RN Afternoons and The Daily Planet.

Presenters like The Inside Sleeve’s Paul Gough have cottoned onto the fact that there’s something special happening in Candelo town, and they regularly shine a spotlight on the region when a new album is released.

However, ABC Radio National is set to cut all but one of its music programs in 2017 – including every single one of the programs mentioned above, in a move toward a spoken-word, digital model for the national station.

How will this affect Candelo musicians and their livelihood?  And what does it mean for regional RN audiences?

Candelo resident David Ross MacDonald has played drums with Australian folk-pop legends The Waifs for almost two decades.

ABC Radio National‘s music programs have been key to the exposure and successes of The Waifs over the past 18 years while I have been drumming for them,” David says.

“On the times I have got to play live and record in the ABC it has always felt like I was participating in a bigger Australian story that encompasses national identity and also felt a sense of pride and professional opportunity during such experiences.

“The cancellation or scaling back of music programming at the ABC will be to the greater detriment of the Australian music industry and also diminish the valuable role music plays in the creation and bolstering of national identity,” he says.

Radio National plays a special role in the life of many regional musicians and audience members.

Michael Menager
Michael Menager

Candelo’s Michael Menager notes:

“Programs like The Daily Planet and The Inside Sleeve provide a listening space for all Australian musicians and songwriters, independent or otherwise,” he says.

“It’s how many of us keep up with new developments, new ideas, new sounds from all over Australia (and the world) right from our regional homes.

“And – as has happened for me and for other regional artists – Radio National (in my particular case, via The Inside Sleeve) has given us the opportunity to play our songs and to talk about our music in front of a nationwide audience.

“To share the art that we create, and the process by which we create it, with listeners that we wouldn’t be in touch with otherwise,” Michael says.

Renowned Candelo singer – songwriter Heath Cullen describes how growing up listening to Lucky Oceans’ The Daily Planet informed his musical career.

“In Lucky’s show, I found a daily dose of new inspiration and discovered much of the music that would become a tangible part of who I am as an artist, as a human,” Heath says.

“There was nothing in the world like the Daily Planet, and I believe that is still true today.  The recent news that the ABC will be cutting the show altogether is heartbreaking to me.”

Heath Cullen
Heath Cullen

Radio National’s music shows play an important role in maintaining and developing Heath Cullen’s audience base.

“My work takes me all over the country, and wherever I go, RN has played a major part in connecting me with my audience – there are always people have heard my work on an ABC RN program, and so they come along to a show,” he says.

Candelo’s Robyn Martin, who has come back from a national tour with her sister Jodi Martin, says:

“Airplay and interviews on Radio National have been some of the most consistent forms of support I have received for the tours and albums I have been involved with.

“It is not easy to sustain a music career and it is even harder to imagine how to go forward with this professional life with diminishing opportunities on Radio National,” Robyn says.

Good national music programming can have unexpected benefits for regional audiences. As my bandmate, Ruth Hazleton states in her current petition to the ABC.

“Many regional listeners also comment that RN music shows provide a lifeline; particularly in difficult times, diffusing the effects of isolation and in combating mental health issues, which we know plague our regional communities,” Ruth says.

Kate Burke and Ruth Hazelton
Kate Burke and Ruth Hazelton

“Although Triple J and its digital cousin Double J will remain unaffected by the cuts, they do not cater for older and more diverse audiences.

“RN’s music shows deliver content rarely featured or supported by Double J and Triple J,” she says.

“While these are fabulous Australian institutions, we do not believe that we will be represented to the same degree by these services.”

Candelo musician Pete Wild describes the wider cultural impact of the cuts:

“The loss of RN music programming will limit Australians’ exposure to diverse cultural ideas and forms, and will make this country less harmonious and more boring.”

Change can be refreshing, but the cuts to RN seem more like a cultural slap on the wrist than a healthy makeover.

Can the ABC guarantee that future programming will be supportive of Australian arts?

“Our national broadcaster’s charter requires it ‘to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia’ and Radio National have, up until now, always done it well,” says Heath Cullen.

The decision to cut nearly all of this treasured music programming from RN‘s schedule is the wrong decision. It must be reversed immediately.”

Sign the petition to save music on ABC Radio National – HERE

Glowing oceans and starry skies: Bioluminescence at Mallacoota

Sailing at Mallacoota. By Kate Burke
Sailing at Mallacoota. By Kate Burke

Warm summer nights, beach dreaming, magical skinny-dips in sparkling coastal lakes…and with every kick and splash, the dark water around us lights up like magic.

Many of us describe it as “phosphorescence”, but it is something more exciting than a mere glow – it is bioluminescence, evidence of tiny marine creatures and their remarkable way of shining a light on their predators.

Tonight, my man Pete and I are counting our lucky stars (figuratively – there are millions visible) as we leave the kids with Pete’s parents and head out in our little Investigator trailer sailer to spend the night by ourselves on Mallacoota Inlet.

Motoring through the narrow passage from Mallacoota Wharf to the main lake, red port markers blink to our left, green to our right, and up ahead the bright white beacon marking the channel entrance.

As we move away from the town, a waxing sliver moon sets behind the warm lights that glow from living-rooms and verandahs to the west.

The lake darkens, and as we set our sails and switch off the motor we are somehow sailing by the light of Venus and the Milky Way.

Even the tiniest light source suddenly seems alive, powerful, attractive.

The sky and the storms out on the far horizon are also alive. So alive that as we gaze at them as our keel runs aground on soft lake mud and we’re suddenly without steering. So alive that it happens again about ten minutes later. So alive that it takes us a good while to notice the bright green streams of water stretching out behind the rudder and fanning out like wings from the bow of the boat.

Bioluminescence at the Gippsland Lakes. By Phil Hart
Bioluminescence at the Gippsland Lakes. By Phil Hart

Pete and I tied our boat up to a jetty in ‘The Narrows’. I dropped a rock in the water. Light spattered like sparks – at first on the surface, but then settling into a gentle twinkling that revealed a sparkle all through the water.

Stars twinkled above, and the lake was its own galaxy of billions of lights, off and on, tiny.

Then we saw the hive of fish activity along the shoreline. Flickering of tails, each movement trailing a shower of light. Splats and runnels of luminescence. All movements, the paths of all living lake life, traced in shining light.

Tiny plankton known as dinoflagellates, the food of many whales, emit light – not phosphorescence but rather bioluminescence – in a clever play, a kind of lure.

But why draw attention to yourself, little plankton?  Why be a target?

It seems that it’s about a chain of events. Tiny plankton are hunted by predators such as crustaceans, and crustaceans are hunted by larger creatures such as big fish.

When crustaceans move to attack plankton, the plankton light up – “over here, over here!” – larger predators are attracted by the commotion and make a good feast of the crustaceans, effectively taking care of the plankton’s predators.

Dinoflagellates feed on algae and other plankton, and their populations can grow when there are high nutrient levels in coastal waters.

Bioluminescence is not limited to tiny organisms;  in fact, there are bioluminescent species of sharksAnd bioluminescence can hide some species instead of attracting attention (as described in the wonderful kids’ science book The Squid, the Vibrio & The Moon).

According to Ferris Jabr of Hakai Magazine, bioluminescent crustaceans called ostracods were dried for storage by Japanese navy personnel during the Second World War, then made into a paste and used as a covert light source for reading maps.

But here at Mallacoota, it’s the tiny plankton who are shining a light on their predators.

Pretty darn cool, sadly too cool for a midnight swim. Maybe another time.

All the same, Mallacoota Inlet is a stunning place to wake up.

Spineless exhibition at Mister Jones Bermagui

Oysters by Alison Mackay
Oysters by Alison Mackay

The slow, gentle process of deep observation is intrinsic to many forms of art.

It can have much in common with scientific observation; there’s attention to detail, appreciation for form, system and structure and an experience of wonder.

When we mix the two, what can we create?

A group of artists has created a showcase of squidgy, surprising subjects – invertebrates.

Invertebrates are animals without backbones, as the exhibition title suggests.

The idea of getting around without a backbone might seem odd to us, but really we’re the odd ones out because invertebrates make up 97% of animal species.

“Spineless: an invertebrate exhibition” opens this Saturday (September 17) at Mister Jones in Bermagui on the Far South Coast of New South Walse.

Spineless poster
Spineless poster

Curator Matt Chun says group exhibitions have become a regular part of the Mister Jones calendar, something he really looks forward to.

“These shows are a lot of fun and also present an opportunity for me to work as curator, with some excellent creative friends from within and outside the region.

“Launching an exhibition is also a good opportunity for a street party and these exhibitions are well-attended community events,” Matt says.

The show includes the work of 9 emerging and established artists and illustrators, interpreting the invertebrate theme through a wide variety of subject and media, including soft sculpture, illustration, painting, assemblage.

Matt says the inspiration behind the exhibition is a love of the complete ‘other-ness’ of invertebrates.

“They seem to exist at the outskirts of a person’s definition of an animal, often appearing to have more in common with plants, for example.

“And, often having no eyes or recognisable mouths, they naturally resist an artist’s impulse to anthopomorphise,” Matt explains.

Matt Chun's - Sea Things
Matt Chun’s – Sea Things

“I love bluebottles for example, as they disrupt all our expectations of what a ‘creature’ should be; each bubble is in fact a co-operative colony of individuals, both startlingly simple and incredibly complex.

“The other dichotomy of course, is a marine invertebrate’s alien beauty; often with a lolly-shop palette of colours, jewel-like luminosity and elegant movements, yet still evoking in us a deep, primitive revulsion.

“I’m also interested in the common status of invertebrates as the lowest form of life, as though they are yet to evolve true animal qualities; when in fact they are perhaps the most perfectly efficient life-forms, and may have absolutely no interest in evolving our troublesome eyes, thumbs and social graces,” Matt says.

When he’s not on artists’ residencies in places like Taipei, Sydney and Canberra, Matt operates Mister Jones in Bermagui, where he creates coffee and art side by side.  In January, Matt was the subject of abuse and vandalism after he expressed his disdain for Australia Day nationalism on a cafe chalkboard.

The term ‘Spineless’ just occurred to Matt as a funny and catchy reference to the invertebrate theme.

“It is our first exhibition since the national media furore that engulfed my business around Australia Day,” Matt says.

“So a lot of people are assuming that the exhibition title suggests something more provocative. In fact, I conceived of the show well before January, but this does add another accidental layer of humour to the proceedings.”


Pic 1: Oysters by Alison Mackay

Pic 2: Exhibition poster

Pic 3: Matt Chun’s Sea Things

Pic 4: The chalkboard at Mister Jones that caused a stir on Australia Day 2016



Rare Perisher possums finds strong advocate in Mark Feeney

Mark Feeney with a Mountain Pygmy Possum. Image by Mel Schroder
Mark Feeney with a Mountain Pygmy Possum. Image by Mel Schroder

Mark Feeney has a job that any self-respecting snowsportsy scientist would die for. He is the Environment Officer at the Perisher Ski Resort in South East NSW.

Mark helps connect the Resort with the National Parks and Wildlife, as well as overseeing kids’ environmental programs, and scouting for a wonderfully cute and highly endangered species.

I met Mark at the Sundeck Hotel in Perisher.

The Perisher community is small and supportive, all about good mates and lots of fun times.

Some odd traditions emerge, the Sundeck Hotel serves the best cheap lunch on the slopes with their daily kransky barbecue (including the infamous jalapeno-laden Snow Dog), but of an evening you’re able to buy an entire rack of test tubes, each holding a different kind of schnapps.

I’m always on the lookout for kitschy scienceness!

Either way, Mark’s got a good gig.  So how did he get to be there?

Mark’s interest in science was first sparked in geography class, learning about how humans and ecosystems interact.

After finishing high school he worked as an outdoor education instructor in Southeast Queensland, camping most nights of the week with co-workers whose high moral codes and environmental awareness inspired him to study environmental science at uni.

A life-changing moment came when he worked in the Pilbara, Western Australia, with indigenous rangers.

“It was a short stint but it gave me a glimpse of the traditional knowledge the Martu people have and utilise in terms of land and ecosystem management,” he says.

“Prior to then I had minimal exposure to traditional land management techniques, and it made me realise how lacking my own knowledge is…it is certainly something that has stuck with me.”

So with such a strong appreciation for environmental codes, what’s it like working at a resort like Perisher?

“I acknowledge that landscape, country and ecosystems have a right to exist purely for their own existence, there does not need to be a benefit or purpose to people,” Mark explains.

“Having said that, I will be the first to enjoy these natural areas where a balance can be made between visitation or recreation and conservation.

“In my experience, when people can relate positive experiences to something I think they are more likely to advocate for it,” he says.

Sunrise over Perisher Resort. Image by Kate Burke
Sunrise over Perisher Resort. Image by Kate Burke

A positive experience for Mark came in the form of the beautiful, tiny, endangered marsupial known as the Mountain Pygmy Possum.

Since 1986, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has conducted annual surveys of Mountain Pygmy Possum populations across Kosciuszko National Park, including at one location inside the resort boundary at Blue Cow.

A glance at the Perisher trail map shows a gully on Mt Blue Cow as “area CLOSED for Mountain Pygmy Possum protection.”

These possums are the only animals in Australia that hibernate every winter.

They need to keep their body temperature regulated during their long sleep, and they use the snow for insulation.

Possums tend to move between boulder habitats, so they are vulnerable to interactions with people and feral animals. Climate change presents the greatest threat, with the snowline already retreating due to rising temperatures.

Their situation is desperate.

Thought to be extinct until the 1960s, the NSW population was estimated to be between 500 and 700 in the year 2000.  By 2005 the population was thought to have fallen by a further 20% with a significant decline after the 2003 bushfires. By 2005 the population was thought to have fallen by a further 20%.

The Blue Cow subpopulation is particularly vulnerable, in 2008 only 6 possums were found at this location (although it’s thought twice that number may have been present). The situation has improved, with 45 possums trapped and tagged for identification in 2015, the highest number since 1997.

Having a dedicated advocate like Mark Feeney is helpful, he’s not just going through the motions.

“The Parks and Wildlife staff and volunteers involved in the surveys are passionate and have a wealth of knowledge,” he says.

“Being a part of the survey work is a real privilege, and doing this in a work capacity is something I day dreamed about as an undergraduate.”

Mountain Pygmy Possum. Image by Mel Schroder
Mountain Pygmy Possum. Image by Mel Schroder

I asked Mark how science has changed the way he relates to landscape and country.

“I (have) became far more aware on a personal level, of the impacts that my lifestyle choices are having on landscape and country.

“At the end of the day, until I am making good choices in all aspects of my life, it is unreasonable for me to have high expectations of others,” he believes.

“Often I find I have a greater sense of connection to natural landscapes and country then I do with built landscapes and large groups of people.

“I feel more content having a meal under the stars and going to sleep in a sleeping bag then I do having a meal at a pub or restaurant,” Mark says.

“If a few weeks goes by without having been camping I find I can get a bit stressed out.”

The balance between a big businesses like Perisher Resort and the delicate, local ecosystems that surround it is a precarious one.

Having an Environmental Officer who appreciates this country and its most vulnerable inhabitants can only be a step in the right direction.

Pic 1: Mark Feeney with a Mountain Pygmy Possum. Image by Mel Schroder

Pic 2: Sunrise over Perisher Resort. Image by Kate Burke

Pic 3: Mountain Pygmy Possum. Image by Mel Schroder

Accidental bonsai – Ben Boyd National Park in miniature

Epacris impressa (or common heath) by Kate Burke
Epacris impressa (or common heath) by Kate Burke

Over the weekend, in the name of taking the slow road  (and the wide view, in the style of John Blay), I walked from Pambula Beach to Pambula along the bike track.

This track runs alongside a strip of Ben Boyd National Park on the NSW Far South Coast, and the wildflowers are having a merry late-winter time of it.

There’s loads of wattle blooming as well as other native shrubs with sprays of pink, purple and red.  I’m a bit rusty on local coastal species, so this walk felt like a step into new, pretty territory.

About halfway to Pambula, the roadside forest has been cleared and mown underneath power lines.

When I see these incursions into bush I tend to shut off a bit, seeing the slashing as something to tolerate rather than to investigate. However, after a quick second glance, I saw something remarkable. It wasn’t grass that had been mown, but native shrubs, and they were blooming beautifully – in miniature.

Lady-finger Orchid by Kate Burke
Lady-finger Orchid by Kate Burke

Not only that but the most remarkable white flowers were popping up everywhere. Always single, with one long leaf growing elegantly up towards the big blue sky, like Lady-finger Orchids.

Aside from these single beauties, there was an array of what should have been much taller species growing happily, blooming in a rather cute stunted form under the power lines.

Have the local council inadvertently created a bonsai Ben Boyd National Park?

Without having to compete with trees for sunlight, these mini-versions seem quite happy and healthy.

And there are kangaroo droppings everywhere, indicating that the area doubles as a grazing ground for local native animals.

Still, this isn’t the normal way of things.

Pimelea linifolia, known as queen-of-the-bush or riceflower by Kate Burke
Pimelea linifolia, known as queen-of-the-bush or riceflower by Kate Burke

Local birds and insects rely on these plants for food and habitat, and although the mowing makes access easy for them, there’s nowhere to hide or build a nest.The plants are flourishing out of necessity – they’re resilient because they have to be.  This is a lovely surprise, but I wouldn’t call it a supportive argument for clearing forest and slashing shrubbery.

And it won’t be attracting tourists in a hurry, I’m on my knees taking photos, getting odd looks from the drivers whizzing past.  They can’t see what I’m looking at. To them, it’s just another mown patch of scrubby grass.

I’m glad I stopped for a moment to appreciate the little things – they’re beautiful.

Pic 1: Usually 1 to 1.5m tall, this Epacris impressa (or common heath) plant is around than 15cm high. By Kate Burke

Pic 2: Lady-finger Orchids by Kate Burek

Pic 3: Pimelea linifolia, known as queen-of-the-bush or rice flower.  The bark of this shrub is also known as “bushman’s bootlace”, and has traditional indigenous use as a material for twine to make nets to catch Bogong Moths in alpine regions.  This specimen is around 20cm tall. By Kate Burke

Science Week feature – crocodiles just got scarier

Happy National Science Week!

To celebrate, I thought I’d share with you an experience I had with one of Australia’s most terrifying and magnificent creatures – the saltwater crocodile.

There’s something about them that you might not know.

Something that makes them even more mysterious, and admittedly; more bone-rattingly scary.

But let’s start with a suspense-laden introduction.

If you’re like me, Australia is divided into two distinct regions; where saltwater crocs are, and where they aren’t.

Saltwater crocodile at Yellow Water, Kakadu. Image: Pete Wild
Saltwater crocodile at Yellow Water, Kakadu. Image: Pete Wild

On a trip to “where they are”  – Mary River, near Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, I was walking solo along bush tracks that skirt the muddy waters of the River and its lagoons.

Other tourists kept scooting past in golf buggies and it wasn’t hard to figure out why.

Mary River is full of saltwater crocodiles.

Most of the time you can’t see them; they lie under the muddy water and wait for food, which is what they see me as.

That’s pretty much what they do.

The weather is a balmy 32 degrees, it’s humid and there is a wide, deep river running right by me.

A couple of thousand kilometres south this would be an oasis.

My brain is doing back-flips, a real collision of ideas.

What scares me most is that it would be ridiculously easy to do what an unfortunate young man did a couple of years earlier at this exact spot – a few drinks with a mate and a daring swim.

It’s a miracle that one of them made it back.

I feel genuinely spooked.

It gets worse, here’s what you might not have known about salties.

Crocodiles never age and their appetite only gets bigger.

Crocodiles do not lose muscle tone, sensory acuity, mobility – all the things that we associate with old age.

Yellow Water, Kakadu. Image: Kate Burke
Yellow Water, Kakadu. Image: Kate Burke

They are one of the small group of creatures (some tortoises, lobsters and clams are included) that display negligible senescence, in other words a lack of symptoms of aging.

They just get bigger and bigger.

There are studies being undertaken into the biochemical and cellular mechanisms behind it, and there’s still more research to do.  But it seems that the cellular processes that make us get older simply happen at a much slower rate for crocodiles.

So to take the spook factor up another notch, old crocodiles are NO SLOWER than young ones.  In fact, they’re bigger, and stronger, and hungrier.

Which means that they need to eat more, and more, and more.

But salties do die.

As hard as it is to believe, starvation is their likely cause of death. They simple can’t keep up with their growing nutritional needs.

The Bininj and Mungguy people of Kakadu and animal predators also play a role. They use crocodiles and croc eggs as a food source.  Disease and infection also take a toll on crocs, ending lives and influencing the size of the population.

On average, salties will live for 70 years, but some have been known to live for more than 100 years.  In other words, negligible senescence gives them a similar lifespan to ours.

Walking by Mary River, I’m fascinated by my uneasiness.

Being a step or two down from the top of the food chain isn’t something that I’m used to.

Simon Pooley, a research associate with the Interdisciplinary Centre in Conservation Science at the University of Oxford, believes crocodiles mirror our worst nightmares.

“Look into the eye of a big croc from close up, with no intervening fence,” he says.

“You really can’t fathom what it is thinking or feeling – you’re more  likely (to be) experiencing your own mortal fears.”

He says it’s all wrapped up in the old human fear of being eaten by wild animals, and missing out on the funeral rites that traditionally provide spiritual absolution, or simple closure.

The Bininj and Mungguy people of Kakadu know the salties as ginga. They are a living and respected part of culture and tradition.

Across northern Australia, crocodiles are connected with creation stories, and are part of Dreaming narratives associated with mens’ sacred ceremonial lives.

Individual “boss” crocodiles are known to inhabit certain locations for many years, becoming part of local knowledge.

Crocodiles are now a protected species, and non-indigenous hunting of them is illegal.

There  may be up to 200,000 of them living in Australian waters.

Being scared and uneasy in croc country is a strange but important feeling. It’s a welcome change from the excessive comfort that I that experience from day to day.

It’s a different way of experiencing respect for an amazing animal: a step away from intellectualisation, and toward a raw experience of fear and awe.  It’s like finding an old, rusty switch in my brain and flicking it on.

And now there’s the knowledge that these enormous reptiles become more awesome with every passing year, never suffering the indignities of old age?

Happy National Science Week, you nearly-immortal crocodiles.

Total respect.

Pic 1: Saltwater crocodile at Yellow Water, Kakadu.  By Pete Wild

Pic 2: Yellow Water, Kakadu.  By Kate Burke

Taking the wide view: John Blay and the art of scientific discovery

“I think this is still a road,” Pete ponders as our 4WD tips forward almost perpendicular to the drainage ditch below.

He was a child when the road was pushed through the Tantawangalo forest on the western side of the Bega Valley in NSW. He remembers it as a desecration. Yet here we are in our beast of a car, enjoying the mad comic thrill of driving a track that, at this point, looks more like a waterfall.

We’d spent hours on foot in the forest, sitting for a while on a granite outcrop a few metres from a sleepy red-bellied black snake. Birdsong was everywhere. Yet back in the car, detail and minutiae shrank and retreated beneath the sputtering diesel rumble of the engine as the forest became our 4WD fun park.

Over the space of a decade John Blay, poet, naturalist and author of On Track: Searching out the Bundian Way, walked through the escarpment country south of here, from the Snowy Mountains to the coast.

With the help of local Aboriginal friends and elders, he traced the ancient track from Targangal (Kosciuszko) to Bilgalera (Fisheries Beach, Eden), describing artifacts, bogong moth festival sites and yam gardens along the way.

His experience of walking was one of making time for detail: to walk, and not to hurry. Allowing detail to emerge; to allow country to present itself to him in a way that it had to so many others for millennia.

A naturalist can be one of two things: an expert in natural history, or a person who expresses naturalism through their art. We tend to think of these as separate, and that expertise in natural sciences cannot come about through artistic pursuits.

However, John Blay has done just that.

From his book, On Track: Searching out the Bundian Way:

“I’ve lost connection. I walk on automatically. My lips are cracking. This strange, difficult country must somehow fit into the jigsaw puzzle.

“In various places I can see the large ink-blots they call the Black Scrubs, which are in fact a dry rainforest comprised of a dense acacia canopy of up to 20 metres with an understorey of wax-flower, daisy-bush and hop-bush. They stand out like dark, sharply delineated birthmarks on precipitous slopes.” 

John Blay was once a lawyer, and then wrote drama series for ABC radio and TV. In the midst of this writing career, John received a Parks Writer’s Grant to spend a year walking through the bush and to write about his experiences.

He started off in the remote wilderness of Deua National Park in NSW, its forests pitted with limestone sinkholes, and finished two years later in Bemboka, having traveled through the deep Brogo River gorges and having – somehow – discovered a new species of acacia.

“How outrageous that a mug like me can go out and find a new species,” he says.

“There are gorges – you can be walking along the river and the nearest plants are 200m above you on top of cliffs, looking down at you, and it’s very severe type of country.

“I’d been seeing a couple of patches of silvery stuff up there, and I wasn’t sure what it was…but when I was walking down one of the little tributary creeks, there was one growing right in front of me, and I thought, wow – that’s a strange tree. It’s kind of bright blue or silver: bright silver,” he says.

Brogo Wattle in bloom, taken by John Blay
Brogo Wattle in bloom, taken by John Blay

Unable to find it in the plant books he had with him, John took samples to the Australian Botanical Gardens herbarium, and after a year it was identified as a new species: Acacia blayana, Brogo Wattle.

Was this just a stroke of luck? It seems not.

Time, space, curiosity and respect for local and historical wisdom set the scene, but it was John’s openness around using science as a descriptive tool that led him to the point of discovery.

“Taking the wide view is very slow and very difficult, because you’re not just talking about botany or biology, you’re talking about how all the things come together” Blay says.

“And part of it is that you’re talking about how they come together through European eyes.

“Also tied up with that is an Aboriginal view, or respect for the Aboriginal view, and it takes quite a lot of ingenuity or something to pull that all together.

“You can take the aesthetic view as well as the scientific view, and it’s beautiful to marry the two,” he says.

John enthusiastically shared his discovery with scientific friends, and soon they were finding more new species, such as the Deua Grevillea.

Now recognised as an authority on the natural and human history of the South East, John Blay works with the Eden Local Aboriginal Land Council in setting up the mountains-to-sea Bundian Way as a heritage trail.

Much of our lives are spent on the fast road, as though the places we move through exist only for our passage.

Landscapes are bursting with information; by taking the “wide view”, we can find links between history, culture and science, carving out a new way of relating to country.

And if we step out of our cars, and let ourselves be artists, scientists and explorers simultaneously, we might find something entirely new – shining bright silver, perched on a cliff in the wild country.

At the risk of getting fit, Pete and I might ditch the 4WD next time and simply go for a walk.

John Blay is also the author of Part of the Scenery (McGree Phibble/Penguin Books) and Trek Through the Back Country (Methuen).

On Track: Searching out the Bundian Way is published by New South Publishing.

Available through all good bookstores.

Dive into Kate Burke’s world of regional science and innovation at Raisin.