Field of Science

The Most Australian of Plants

Imagine yourself standing in a remote corner of northern Australia. Before you stretches an expanse of rolling hills, extending as far as the eye can see. The hills are covered with a carpet of green. You step forward, eager to explore these open fields. But as you approach them, everything changes. What appeared to be a uniform carpet is actually dense tussocks, each separated by an underlay of bare gravel. And instead of soft, yielding blades, the tussocks offer you nothing but resin and hate. Welcome to spinifex country.

Grassland dominated by Triodia pungens (bright green) and T. basedowii (grey-green), copyright Hesperian.


The spinifexes of the genus Triodia are a uniquely Australian group of plants. Some North American grasses have been assigned to this genus in the past but have since been moved elsewhere. There is also a widespread genus of coastal grasses that formally goes by the name of Spinifex but that is something different again. In many parts of arid Australia (and arid Australia equals most of Australia), spinifexes are the dominant form of plant life. As noted above, they grow in tight tussocks that may reach remarkable sizes and densities: clumps of the largest species may reach 2.5 metres in height and six metres in diameter (Lazarides 1997). Not uncommonly, these largest patches will be ring-shaped due to the centre dying off while growth continues around the edges. The leaf blades are long, needle-shaped, woody and rigid. Speaking from experience, the sharp tips of these blades will break off all too easily, embedding themselves in the flesh of any passers by. And some idea of their rigidity will also be conveyed by the fact that, in the growth season, it was not uncommon to discover macabre shish kebabs made from jumping grasshoppers that had had the misfortune to land on the end of one.

Mature stand of Triodia irritans, showing the tendency of hummocks to grow into circles as the centre dies off. Copyright ANBG photo M. Fagg.


Nearly 70 species are currently recognised within the genus, often differing in their preferred microhabitat. One of the most common species, Triodia basedowii, extends its range across almost the entirety of the continent between 18 and 30 degrees South and west of the Great Dividing Range. This species has a preference for sandplains and dunefields. Other species are far more localised. Barrett & Barrett (2011) described two new species found in association with sandstone cliff faces in the Ragged Range in Western Australia. Triodia barbata was found only in a thin band along the top of the cliff faces and may have had a population of only about 300 individuals. The more abundant (but still not widespread) T. cremnophila was found only on the vertical faces of the cliffs themselves. However, it must be noted that large gaps may exist in our knowledge of the ranges of Triodia species because of the remoteness and difficulty of getting to many of the regions in which they are found (seriously, if you've never been to central Australia yourself, it is difficult to appreciate just how much Absolutely Nothing there is there). Triodia mollis is known from two widely separated regions in northern Western Australia and Queensland with no confirmed records as yet from the entire expanse of the Northern Territory in between.

Preferred habitat of Triodia cremnophila, from Barrett & Barrett (2011). Yes, it only grows on the cliff face. Yes, someone presumably went down the cliff face to get specimens.


Being as woody and harsh as it is, it should come as no surprise that relatively few animals are capable of eating spinifex. Many Australian termites, such as the endemic genus Drepanotermes, are spinifex specialists; workers of Drepanotermes may be seen leaving their nest at night to collect pieces of spinifex blades and carry them back. Pastoralists may refer to 'hard' and 'soft' spinifex varieties but the difference is one of degree only; even the 'soft' spinifexes (usually the resin-producing species) are pretty damn hard by the standards of any other grass. Livestock are sometimes grazed on spinifex when bettter options are unavailable, in which case patches of spinifex may be burnt off to encourage the production of younger, more palatable growth (spinifex burns exceedingly well but also grows back readily from the remnant rootstock). The resin from spinifex also has a history of being used by indigenous Australians as an adhesive when making tools. For the most part, though, the main value of spinifex remains in its role as the dominant vegetation and habitat for the areas where it is found.

REFERENCES

Barrett, R. L., & M. D. Barrett. 2011. Two new species of Triodia (Poaceae: Triodieae) from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Telopea 13 (1–2): 57–67.

Lazarides, M. 1997. A revision of Triodia including Plectrachne (Poaceae, Eragrostideae, Triodiinae). Australian Systematic Botany 10: 381–489.

The Australian Panda

The world is home to an incredible diversity of snails: there are literally thousands of species, some widespread, some restricted to very small areas. Most, as is the usual way of things, are tiny, barely discernible without very close examination. But then there are some that are very much not—such as the giant panda snail Hedleyella falconeri.

Giant panda snail Hedleyella falconeri, from the Queensland Museum.


Giant pandas are found on rainforest floors in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, in a range spanning from the Barrington Tops to the D'Aguilar Range. They are Australia's largest land snail, reaching nine centimetres in diameter, about the size of a tennis ball. They have globose, reddish brown shells with a spiral pattern of darker broken bands. Their name bears no relation to any Asian mammals; instead, they were gifted the genus name Panda as a derivation from the Latin word pandere, meaning to stretch out or extend, presumably in reference to their size. The genus name later had to be changed but it survives in the vernacular (as well as in the name of a closely related genus of slightly smaller snails, Pygmipanda).

Panda snails are nocturnal, spending the days in moist spots such as buried in leaf litter or hidden under logs. At night, they roam in search of fallen leaves and fungal fruiting bodies. A study of giant pandas that tracked individual snails found that they wandered more or less randomly, up to about 20 metres over the course of a night, without returning to any particular 'home' site.

A demonstration of the size of H. falconeri, from Pollinator Link.


Like many other land snails, giant pandas are hermaphrodites, able to both fertilise and be fertilised during mating. They may have the largest sperm cells of any mollusc, each over a millimetre in length. Mating usually happens on a February night though observations in captivity suggest it may happen whenever consitions are suitable. The snail lays its hard-shelled eggs in batches of fifteen to twenty in a burrow in the leaf litter*. To continue with the theme, these are also realtively gigantic: close to two centimetres in diameter, comparable in size to those of a small bird. The young snails hatch at about 15 mm in size (I haven't found any reference to the eggs being tended by the parent in any way) and grow slowly. By the time they reach a year in age, they may not have even doubled in size, and it presumably takes several years for them to reach their full extent.

*So it turns out Paazan was right after all: pandas do hatch from eggs.

Pandas are not uncommon within their range and are not generally regarded as a conservation concern. Indeed, their nomadic habits have led to the suggestion that they may be well disposed to re-colonising regenerating forest (Parkyn & Newell 2013). Nevertheless, recent years have seen increasing fragmentation of suitable habitat within their range and this, together with their slow growth rate, means that I can easily imagine them becoming vulnerable if conditions deteriorate. I would hope that appropriate action is taken to ensure that there should always be giant pandas in eastern Australia.

REFERENCE

Parkyn, J., & D. A. Newell. 2013. Australian land snails: a review of ecological research and conservation approaches. Molluscan Research 33 (2): 116–129.