Field of Science

Barrallier's Monkey

"Gogy told me that they had brought portions of a monkey (in the native language "colo"), but they had cut it in pieces, and the head, which I should have liked to secure, had disappeared. I could only get two feet through an exchange which Gogy made for two spears and one tomahawk. I sent these two feet to the Governor in a bottle of spirits."

In November 1802, Governor Philip King sent an exploratory expedition west of Sydney under the command of Ensign Francis Barrallier, a French ex-pat who had taken service with the British after fleeing France with his parents following the French revolution. As well as finding a passage across the mountains that barred Sydney from the interior, Barrallier was trying to find the seat of a figure that Governor King later referred to in letters as the 'King of the Mountains'. Who exactly this King of the Mountains was supposed to be is unclear. Many have thought he was supposed to be some sort of overlord of the local Aboriginals. David Levell, in his 2008 book Tour to Hell, argues the King of the Mountains to have been the head of a secret inland settlement that many of the convicts imprisoned in Sydney believed would offer sanctuary to any who escaped there. Barrallier returned to Sydney in late December, having failed to locate either passage or king (the one would be discovered later, the other would prove to be mythical under any interpretation). Barralier's journal of his expedition languished in relative obscurity until an English translation was published in 1897.

The main interest for later readers of Barrallier's account has been in his dealings with the indigenous people he encountered and worked with. Barrallier had an interest in developing a rapport with the local people he met that was not shared by most of his British associates and his notes, sparse as they may be, provide one of the few direct records available of pre-colonial life in the Sydney region. I've brought Barrallier into this post, however, because of an incident he describes briefly in his journal where the game procured by some of Barrallier's aboriginal associates included an animal that Barrallier refers to as a 'monkey'. Barrallier did not see the animal's remains before it had already been butchered, but he is still the first European known to have acquired a specimen of one of Australia's most iconic animals: the koala.

Koalas Phascolarctos cinereus, photographed by Dinkum.

Koalas are widespread in the east of Australia, though loss of habitat has rendered their distribution localised in some areas. To most people outside Australia, the koala seems like a plush toy come to life, the essence of cuteness manifest in a single animal. The Australians themselves often have a more ambivalent attitude: while the koala is certainly a high-ranking member of the pantheon of the Australian fauna, together with such luminaries as the kangaroo, the platypus, the kookaburra and the gumnut baby, Australians also tend to look upon it as indolent, bad-tempered, and steeped in the kind of aroma that only an exclusive diet of eucalyptus leaves can give an animal (many Australians look more affectionately on the koala's closest living cousin, the wombat). To zoologists, Phascolarctos cinereus is the only surviving species of a lineage that goes back at least to the late Oligocene. Three subspecies of koala have been recognised, but these probably represent clinal variations rather than geographically discrete units (Houlden et al. 1999).

At just what point koalas became eucalyptus specialists is something we don't know for sure. The late Oligocene Perikoala palankarinnica possesses an ankylosed lower jaw (i.e. one that has the two sides fused together at the front) that may indicate a diet of tough leaves (Long et al 2002). Eucalyptus would be at least one candidate for such a diet. However, Perikoala's rough contemporary, Madakoala, lacked such a fused jaw and may have taken softer browse. Nor is a fused lower jaw present in the Miocene genera Litokoala or Nimiokoala (Louys et al. 2009). It seems likely that specialisation on Euclayptus may only have developed with the modern genus Phascolarctos, corresponding with the rise of eucalypt dominance in the Australian flora in the late Miocene. As well as being potentially less specialised, the fossil genera of koalas were also distinctly smaller than the living species. Koala evolution reached an apogee of sorts in the Pliocene and Pleistocene with the fossil species Phascolarctos yorkensis, which tipped the scales at nearly twice the size of P. cinereus (Long et al. 2002) (somewhat disappointingly, no-one seems to seen fit to present a fossil koala with the name of Katastaxarctos).

Koalas can be very vocal animals, using bellows and grunts as their main method of communicating. This video of a vocalising bull comes from here.

The specialisation of the modern koala is truly a remarkable thing. True exclusivity of diet seems to be a rarity among large terrestrial vertebrates (and as it can reach sizes of 20 kg, there is no denying that the koala is a large vertebrate). Many have their preferred delicacies but remain far from averse to the occasional variation (something that I really wish the ABC had been more aware of with that lorikeet article). Thus we have cattle gnawing on bones, cats eating grass, or deer killing and eating birds. Even the giant panda, perhaps the other specialist mammal most familiar to the general public, has been known to supplement its bamboo diet with roots and small animals. But the koala turns up its nose at almost anything other than Eucalyptus leaves—and usually only a small number of Eucalyptus species at that. The toughness of Eucalyptus leaves mean they require a great deal of digestive processing, and the small nutritive return is responsible for the extended periods of inactivity that koalas are known for. Early British naturalists often compared the koala to the South American sloth, which functions under similar constraints. The low nutrition of their diet is also reflected in the notoriously small brains of koalas, which have one of the smallest brains relative to body size of any mammal. So noxious is the eucalypt diet that koala joeys have to be weaned onto it through stages. When a joey is about six months old, its mother starts producing a faecal pap of half-digested leaves that the joey eats direct from her cloaca before moving to a more direct leaf diet about a month later.

Nevertheless, by specialising on Eucalyptus leaves, koalas have access to an abundant food source that few other mammals can handle. Even after the arrival of Europeans, koalas have handled the incursion of foreign predators better than many other Australian natives. The main threat to their continued existence is clearing of the forests on which they depend for food. The koala deserves its position as an icon, and an icon is worthy of respect.

ARKive video - Koala joey eating pap
Video of a koala joey feeding on pap, from Arkive.


Houlden, B. A., B. H. Costello, D. Sharkey, E. V. Fowler, A. Melzer, W. Ellis, F. Carrick, P. R. Baverstock & M. S. Elphinstone. 1999. Phylogeographic differentiation in the mitochondrial control region in the koala, Phascolarctos cinereus (Goldfuss 1817). Molecular Ecology 8 (6): 999–1011.

Long, J., M. Archer, T. Flannery & S. Hand. 2002. Prehistoric Mammals of Australia and New Guinea: One Hundred Million Years of Evolution. University of New South Wales Press: Sydney.

Louys, J., K. Aplin, R. M. D. Beck & M. Archer. 2009. Cranial anatomy of Oligo-Miocene koalas (Diprotodontia: Phascolarctidae): stages in the evolution of an extreme leaf-eating specialization. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29 (4): 981–992.

Dot Snails

A dot snail Punctum pygmaeum crawls over a mountain bulin Ena montana (itself not a very large snail). Copyright Stefan Haller.

The dot snails of the family Punctidae are one group of animals that certainly lives up to their name. For the most part, these are absolutely tiny terrestrial snails, sometimes barely passing the millimetre mark. They are united as a family by anatomical features of their radulae and reproductive systems (Solem 1983), but they show a variety of external morphologies, from higher-spired trochoid forms to flatter discoid forms. They also vary in ornament, with some being fairly smooth but others marked with distinct ridges, in some cases with spiny extensions of the periostracum. Most punctids are found in leaf litter, in which they graze on microalgae and detritus. The diverse fauna of punctids on Lord Howe Island, however, includes at least two species, Dignamoconcha dulcissima and Allenella formalis, that are arboreal, found living on palm tree leaves (Stanisic et al. 2010). Molecular analysis supports the inclusion of punctids in a group of small pulmonate gastropods known as the 'endodontoid clade' (Wade et al. 2001).

Live individual of Paralaoma servilis, from Christensen et al. (2012). Scale bar = 1 mm.

One would expect that such tiny snails would be easily overlooked, and it would not be surprising to find them amongst the tally of species that have been transported outside their native ranges by humans. One species, Lucilla singleyana, is associated with greenhouses in Europe; though known there from the fossil record, it is believed to have become extinct at the end of one of the interglacial periods and been subsequently reintroduced from North America (Alexandrowicz 2010). Another species, Paralaoma servilis, is believed to have originally been native to New Zealand but has been transported around the world, with expanding populations in Australia, Europe, North and South America (Christensen et al. 2012). Seeing as the fauna of my native New Zealand has suffered a lot at the hands of exotic introductions, I have to confess to a certain satisfaction at the idea that we're giving our own back.


Alexandrowicz, W. P. 2010. Lucilla singleyana (Pilsbry, 1890) (Gastropoda: Pulmonata: Punctidae) in recent flood debris in the Beskidy Mts (southern Poland). Folia Malacologica 18 (2): 83–92.

Christensen, C. C., N. W. Yeung & K. A. Hayes. 2012. First records of Paralaoma servilis (Shuttleworth, 1852) (Gastropoda: Pulmonata: Punctidae) in the Hawaiian Islands. Bishop Museum Occasional Papers 112: 3–7.

Solem, A. 1983. Endodontoid land snails from Pacific islands (Mollusca: Pulmonata: Sigmurethra). Part II. Families Punctidae and Charopidae, zoogeography. Field Museum of Natural History: Chicago.

Stanisic, J., M. Shea, D. Potter & O. Griffiths. 2010. Australian Land Snails vol. 1. A field guide to eastern Australian species. Bioculture Press: Mauritius.

Wade, C. M., P. B. Mordan & B. Clarke. 2001. A phylogeny of the land snails (Gastropoda: Pulmonata). Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B 268: 413–422.

Australian Government Unveils Plan to Fix Australia's Conservation Crisis

The federal government revealed its proposal today to solve the conservation crisis in Australia, by ensuring populations of species are kept to an acceptable minimum, and preventing the description of new ones.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has slammed the continued description of new species in the Australian flora and fauna, calling it "irresponsible" and "wasteful". "Australia already has more than enough species," he explained in a speech to the National Resource Optimisation Board. "All that these so-called new species do is take resources that could be more profitably used by the species that are already here". Responding to reports that over 500 new species had been described during the term of the last Labor government, Treasurer Joe Hockey commented that, "This is simply indicative of Labor's profligate attitude. Scientists should not simply assume that they are entitled to add new species to Australia's burden."

Abbott in particular accused the publishers of a monograph describing 45 new species of millipede in western Tasmania of being "blatantly political", explaining that "Australians will decide what species get to live in Australia". When the lead author of the monograph was asked whether he had had any political intent in his publication, he replied, "I didn't then. I do now."

When asked about rumours that the Liberal government planned to slash funding for endangered species, Abbott replied that, "It is not the responsibility of the government to fund the lifestyle choices of species that allow themselves to become endangered. Fortunately, we have devised a plan that will allow us to build up the population numbers of so-called endangered species for considerably less expense than any of Labor's hare-brained schemes. Any species complaining of a shortage of individuals will simply have individuals reassigned to it from another, more abundant species." As an example of his plan, Abbott exhibited a brushtail possum that had recently been rebranded as a western quoll. When asked whether he thought his plan would be passed by the senate, Abbott replied, "Unfortunately, the senate continues to refuse to accept the results of the last election and the mandate given to us by the Australian public. Nevertheless, we are confident in our abilities to get this legislation through. Ricky Muir has been presented with a Mustang GT, and Jacqui Lambie has been promised that we will fix the loose tile in the Senate ceiling."

The Minister for Science was not available for comment.

The Rhipidothyrididae: Brachiopods of the Devonian

Specimen of Rhenorensselaeria, copyright Miguasha National Park.

In the modern world, the brachiopods are an unfamiliar group to most people. To most, they would probably not be readily distinguished from the much more abundant bivalves that they superficially resemble (a resemblance that is literally only skin deep: brachiopods and bivalves are in no way close relatives, and their internal anatomy is fundamentally different). However, this was not always the case. If one was to travel back to some point in the Palaeozoic era, one would find the situation reversed. At this time, it was the brachiopods that dominated the world's seas, while the bivalves were relegated to a minor supporting role. Their respective fortunes changed around the beginning of the Mesozoic, though whether that was because changing conditions favoured the bivalves, or whether the bivalves simply got a head start in recovering from the Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies clusterf*** that was the end-Permian extinction event, I couldn't tell you.

The fossil shown at the top of this post is one of these Palaeozoic brachiopods, a member of the family Rhipidothyrididae. Rhipidothyridids were among the earliest families of the order Terebratulida, which includes the majority of surviving brachiopods but in the Palaeozoic was just one group among many. Half a dozen genera from the Devonian period have been assigned the Rhipidothyrididae (Lee 2006). They often occur in mass assemblages, with a low diversity of other fossils (Boucot & Wilson 2004). That these assemblages represent their habits in life is indicated by the fact that the individual brachiopods in them are usually articulated; because the shells lacked a toothed hinge, the valves would soon become disassociated if transported after death.

The relationships of the rhipidothyridids are somewhat uncertain. A significant feature used in terebratulid classification is the morphology of the loop, a calcified ring at the base of the shell that provides part of the support for the lophophore in life. In some terebratulids, the loop is long and provides most of the lophophore support; in others, the loop is much shorter and lophophore support is partially taken over by free spicules embedded in the lophophore itself. However, because the loop is a quite delicate structure, its study in fossil taxa requires careful sectioning of specimens, with due consideration of the possibility of post-mortem damage. To date, this has not yet been done for the rhipidothyridids, so their loop morphology remains unknown.


Boucot, A. J. & R. A. Wilson. 1994. Origin and early radiation of terebratuloid brachiopods: thoughts provoked by Prorensselaeria and Nanothyris. Journal of Paleontology 68 (5): 1002–1025.

Lee, D. E. 2006. Stringocephaloidea. In: Kaesler, R. L. (ed.) Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology pt H. Brachiopoda (Revised) vol. 5. Rhynchonelliformea (part) pp. 1994–2018.

To Make a Willow Weep

Pair of spotted willow leaf beetles Chrysomela vigintipunctata, copyright P. V. Romantsov.

As noted in an earlier post, the leaf beetles of the Chrysomelidae include some very attractive representatives. The two individuals in the photo above belong to the widespread genus Chrysomela, many species of which feed on leaves of members of the tree genera Salix, the willows, and Populus, the poplars. Some species can become numerous enough on their hosts to cause extensive defoliation, and the cottonwood leaf beetle Chrysomela scripta is regarded as a serious pest of trees such as the cottonwood Populus deltoides.

Mating pair of Chrysomela populi, copyright Beentree.

Chrysomela beetles that feed on willows are able to sequester salicin from the willow's leave and use it to secrete a defensive compound of their own, salicylaldehyde. In one European species, Chrysomela lapponica, distinct populations have been identified that feed respectively on willow or birch leaves. Experimental studies have shown that the birch- and willow-feeding populations are largely reproductively isolated from each other: either their inter-fertility is reduced, or hybrid larvae that differ in feeding preference from their mother will be laid on the wrong host tree and be unable to survive. As such, the populations can be recognised as either in the process of diverging into separate species, or as already distinct cryptic species. As birch does not contain salicin, birch-feeding C. lapponica do not produce the salicylaldehyde found in willow-feeding populations, and birch-feeders fed on willow leaves are unable to utilise salicin (Kirsch et al. 2011).

Female Chrysomela lapponica ovipositing on birch leaf, copyright Juergen Gross. As well as the variation in host plant described above, members of this species also vary widely in coloration, from red and black as in the photo to entirely black in some individuals.

As willow is most likely the ancestral food type for C. lapponica, how did some populations make the change to feeding on birch despite losing a significant factor in their own defenses by doing so? One possibility that has been suggested is that the change happened not despite the loss of salicylaldehyde, but because of it (Gross et al. 2004). While the salicylaldehyde acts as an effective defense against generalist predators, some specialist predators and parasitoids of the beetles seem to be directly attracted to it, using it as a marker to track down their target. Pressure from this angle might favour the spread of a population that does not produce the alluring salicylaldehyde.


Gross, J., N. E. Fatouros, S. Neuvonen & M. Hilker. 2004. The importance of specialist natural enemies for Chrysomela lapponica in pioneering a new host plant. Ecological Entomology 29: 584-593.

Kirsch, R., H. Vogel, A. Muck, K. Reichwald, J. M. Pasteels & W. Boland. 2011. Host plant shifts affect a major defense enzyme in Chrysomela lapponica. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 108 (12): 4897-4901.

Ant-like Ichneumons

Female Gelis, copyright Krister Hall.

The ichneumons are one of the best-known groups of parasitoid wasps. The most familiar ichneumons are relatively large for parasitoid wasps, and sometimes even for wasps in general. This can make them somewhat intimidating in appearance, especially considering the likelihood of the long ovipositor of a female being mistaken for a sting by those not in the know. However, not all ichneumons are giants. The photo above shows a tiny ichneumon of the genus Gelis, females of which are wingless and bear a distinct superficial resemblance to ants. This resemblance is likely to afford them some protection from potential predators, and at least one Gelis species, G. agilis, has been shown to release a chemical when threatened very similar to the alarm pheromones of the black garden ant Lasius niger (Malcicka et al. 2015). On the other hand, one might be tempted to wonder if this mimicry may sometimes serve a more nefarious purpose: another species, G. apterus, has been recorded as a parasitoid of the ant-eating spider Zodarion styliferum (Korenko et al. 2013). However, G. apterus has not been recorded to use its ant appearance to lure its host; instead, the female ichneumon uses its ovipositor to pierce the igloo-like silken retreat that the spider occupies during the day. Other species of Gelis are known to be parasitoids of moth cocoons rather than spiders (Gauld 1984), so Gelis' status as an ant-mimic and its choice of host may be simple coincidence.

Phygadeuon exiguus, copyright James K. Lindsey.

Gelis belongs to a world-wide tribe of ichneumons known as the Phygadeuontini (sometimes referred to in older sources as the Gelini), a diverse group including well over 100 genera. Most, but not all, phygadeuontins are also among the smaller ichneumons. The range of hosts attacked by the group is equally diverse, including (among others) moths and lacewing pupae, and spider egg sacs, while some are hyperparasitoids on the pupae of other parasitoid wasps (Gauld 1984). Species of the genus Phygadeuon include parasitoids of wood-burrowing beetles that use the enlarged ends of their antennae to tap at wood in search of hollow burrows within. Some phygadeuontins are external parasitoids, while others are endoparasitoids. The larvae of Gelis apterus can even be regarded as true predators, as they attack not the eggs of their host but its newly-hatched spiderlings (Korenko et al. 2013). A common theme between these diverse hosts, though, is the production by most of them of silken cocoons or other protective structures that the female phygadeuontin is able to pierce with her ovipositor.


Gauld, I. D. 1984. An Introduction to the Ichneumonidae of Australia. British Museum (Natural History).

Korenko, S., S. Schmidt, M. Schwarz, G. A. P. Gibson, & S. Pekár. 2013. Hymenopteran parasitoids of the ant-eating spider Zodarion styliferum (Simon) (Araneae, Zodariidae). Zookeys 262: 1–15.

Malcicka, M., T. M. Bezemer, B. Visser, M. Bloemberg, C. J. P. Snart, I. C. W. Hardy & J. A. Harvey. 2015. Multi-trait mimicry of ants by a parasitoid wasp. Scientific Reports 5: 8043. doi:10.1038/srep08043.

The Running of the Spiders

Nursery-web spider Dolomedes minor, sitting atop its nursery web. Copyright Konstable.

Spiders are one of the most familiar groups of invertebrates out there. There's no denying this: everybody knows what a spider is. But for various reasons, the classification of spiders tended to lag a bit behind that of other terrestrial invertebrates. Being softer-bodied than insects, they tend not to exhibit the wealth of features that made many insect groups instantly discernible. To the modern arachnologist's eye, the earliest classifications of spiders can verge on the humorous. Latreille (1802), in his Histoire Naturelle des Crustacés et des Insectes, classified the entirety of what would now be called the araneomorph spiders into a single genus Aranea, divided into sections labelled not with formal names but with schematic diagrams of the arrangement of eyes found in that section.

A few decades later, in 1829 (translated into English in Cuvier, 1831), Latreille was to present a more detailed classification of the spiders, in which they were divided into groups largely on the basis of their life habits. The araneomorphs were hence divided between the Sedentariae, those spiders which captured their prey in webs or laid in ambush, and the Vagabundae, those spiders that actively hunted down their prey. The Vagabundae were in turn divided between two sections: the Citigradae or runners, and the Saltigradae or jumpers. Latreille's classification was subsequently more or less abandoned, as his behavioural groupings failed to line up directly with morphological clusters. Almost by accident, however, those taxa included by Latreille in his Citigradae have continued to be associated, and in modern classifications are classified within the Lycosoidea (Jocqué & Dippenaar-Schoeman 2007).

The lycosoids are, indeed, mostly active hunters. Their behaviour is reflected in the vernacular names of a number of the constituent families: the wolf spiders of the Lycosidae (previously featured here and here), the lynx spiders of the Oxyopidae, the prowling spiders of the Miturgidae. But the correspondence to Latreille's 'araignées loups' is not perfect: the Zoropsidae, for instance, are lycosoids that spin extensive webs. Nor are they mere rapacious hunters: many are devoted parents, carrying and/or guarding their egg-sacs to protect them from predators, and in the case of the Lycosidae even providing a certain degree of care for the newly hatched spiderlings.

One group of lycosoids has even gotten a name for parental care. The nursery-web spiders of the Pisauridae construct protective webs for their babies, containing them within a tent constructed by wrapping sheets of silk around suitable vegetation. When I was a child in New Zealand, I used to be fascinated by the nursery webs constructed by the species Dolomedes minor. Like many pisaurids, this species is associated with water, diving into it to hunt for fish and other small aquatic animals. The females would often build their nursery webs by tying together the ends of nearby rushes. Though it seems a little cruel to my adult self, the younger me loved to pull these webs apart to see the eruption of tiny spiders come scurrying out.


Cuvier, G. 1831. The Animal Kingdom arranged in conformity with its organization, vol. 3. The Crustacea, Arachnides and Insecta, by P. A. Latreille, translated from the French with notes and additions, by H. M'Murtrie. G. & C. & H. Carvill: New York.

Jocqué, R., & A. S. Dippenaar-Schoeman. 2007. Spider Families of the World. Royal Museum for Central Africa: Tervuren (Belgium).

Latreille, P. A. 1802. Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière des Crustacés et des Insectes, vol. 3. F. Dufart: Paris.