Conservation Biology

Monday, July 31, 2006

BBC MONSTERS WE MET: AUSTRALIA


It is 65 000 BC

A journey back in time, no human eye has ever seen this land or the extraordinary creatures that roam here. When the first people reach this continent in prehistory they found an immense wilderness ravaged by drought and scorched by fire. This is a land where human survival will be tested to the very limits.

Imagine what life will be like for these first Australians. In this harsh strange world, human ingenuity will be pitched against predators which are a throwback to the age of the dinosaurs.

Aboriginal origins deep in the mists of time

Aboriginal myths speak of a time thousands years ago when the first ancestors came from the sea. These beliefs are echoed by scientific theory claiming that humans came across the sea from Timor, as much as six-five thousand years ago, arriving on the northern coast of Australia – a new world.

What ever their origins the coast is where it all started long ago.

This family are people like you and me they have the same feelings and intelligence. Highly skilled they have a complex language. They make fire and craft fine tools.

A nasty find on the beach

Jabarola is a great hunter. It must feel good the only people in a pristine world, an ancient Eden but beach combing in prehistory can throw up nasty surprises.


Now Japangadi realizes they are not the first people here after all. Not only that but this was the victim of a violent death but by whom or what. It makes them realize how small and vulnerable they are in this unknown world.

For humans night is always a fearful time. Fresh from their discovery of the skull they will not dare sleep without a fire and a night watchman.

Gathering food along the shore of a new land

The north of ancient Australia is cover in dense dry jungle but around the coastal fringe it harbours a rich supply of food if you know where to find it. As these are a coastal people they certainly experience to find all their needs from the animals and plants of shore and coastal forest.


The women and child gather most of the family food supplies men hunt for bigger game but over all they are rather less effective.

Although this is a new land many of the plants are similar to those of the islands from which they came. This one is medicinal. There are many things that they do not know. Australia is home to more species of venomous snake that anywhere else in the world. As yet they do not realize the full dangers. A bite from a brown snake means a horrible death. They learn by trial and error. Who first discovered that green ants taste of lemon?

One thing these coastal people know all about is the threat from giant salt water crocodile. Despite their immense size seven meters long and a ton in weight these predators stalk the water ways unseen. Their splashing might attract a crocodile’s attention by waterlilies are excellent food well worth the risk. Jabarola the most sharp eyed hunter takes guard.

The men go hunting

When cockatoos spot a threat they let each other know but are they startled by their first sight of humans or by something else.

Although the hunting party don’t yet know this bird well they pick up on the alarm calls and look out for possible dangers.

Ancient Australia harbours some of the strangest animals ever to walk this planet and none stranger than Geniornus, the demon duck of doom. A over two hundred and fifty kilograms with massively powerful legs, this is a threat but is it meat-eater or plant-eater. Guess wrong and you are dead.

Whatever the dangers there is a pressing need to find food so they cautiously continue to hunt. If they can make even one substantial kill it will provide the family group with protein for days to come.

But others have already claimed this area. Over the years many waves of hunter gatherers have made the same journey from the nearby coastal islands seeking new hunting territory. Hunting rights are fiercely defended.

Out gunned Japangadi’s face a decision stay and fight and risk more losses or move.

A land scorched by fire

For at least two million years Australia has been a dry land where electric storms set tinderbox vegetation ablaze. These fires rage across hundred of kilometers for weeks on end and travel at the speed of the wind, faster than a man can run.

Forced from the coast Japangadi’s family move inland searching for their own hunting territory. It is a journey into the unknown. They have never met anything on the scale of Australian bush fire. Smoke the first sign of what is to come. Get caught down wind and you are in big trouble. Their only chance is to find an area where there is less dry vegetation. That is where the fire burns weakest and the only safe place to break through the wall of flame.

Natural fires on this scale happen once only every thirty to forty years. The trees and forest will grow back it will just be a matter of time.

Search for water in a parched land

Forced further into the unknown these early explorers have no idea of the immense scale of the land they walk. Although they don’t know it yet fire will become a critical part of there lives but for now they simply need to find water.

In this parched continent finding water has been a problem for all life for millions of years. Flocking birds can easily cover huge distance from waterhole to waterhole and are a clue of standing water nearby. Japarola and Japangadi know that the birds almost certainly mean water amongst the trees but there is a problem. Here there is every chance it will attract deadly creatures too.

Despite their thirst the man are cautious and leave the family behind to follow in relative safety. They are moving into a dense jungle of palms and vines. These jungles are common and contain many fruit bearing plants but that is not all.

By stalking up wind the men reduce the chance of an animal smelling their approach. Neither creature had ever met, both need to assess the dangers of the other. It is a vast animal it could be dangerous but it doesn’t look like a predator – herbivore after all.

At two tons Diprotodon is the biggest marsupial ever to have live. These clumsy giants lurch about in vine jungles constantly eating fruits and leaves. What caused one of their number to charge so furiously. Is there something more sinister hidden in the vine jungle?

Confident the nearby herd of Diprotodon is not a threat after all Japangadi feels it is safe enough to approach the water’s edge. This far inland they feel they have little to fear from salt water crocs and throwing stones at the water will spook any other smaller predators in the area. The decision is that it is safe.

Tracks! Huge foot prints in the sand. This was no crocodile and the tracks are fresh. Somewhere nearby there is another giant creature but what?

Something in the darkness

Millions of bats take to the air. The creatures of the dark are on the move. If the day revealed strange giants what might be lurking out there in the gathering chill of darkness.

As the noised fades Japarola thinks the danger is gone. In a way he is right this furtive giant is not a creature of the night. Its body is too cold and sluggish to hunt – for now!

By day a gruesome find

With the new day in an Australian summer the oppressive heat quickly returns. Unsettled by the tracks at the water’s edge and the sinister noises in the night the family keep moving.

Out noses are insensitive but even so we are capable of smelling death in the warm air. A fresh kill an adult Diprotodon brutally mauled. What monster animal had the power to do this? With the stench of carrion their concern is that predators or scavengers will return to the kill.

The family has no option but to seek safer hunting grounds leaving behind the land of the giants, if they can. In fact Diprotodon is unlikely to stray far from the vine jungles and water.

Life in a sun-baked world

Ancient Australia is covered in a patch work of different vegetation types. Open grassy country like this is far less common than it will be n the present day. The further inland they go the hotter it becomes. The desert here is a furnace temperatures here can reach forty degrees centigrade. Without shade the heat saps energy and the dry air sucks water from your skin. A world of mirage.

In this open country there are tracks from creatures they haven’t seen before. They are the first humans to see a red kangaroo, a weird and seemingly misshapen beast. Yet this odd hopping gait is superbly efficient for good reason.

In this sun-baked world rainfall can never be relied on it could be a huge distance to the next water hole. The creatures here are adapted to conserve both energy and water.

Kangaroos and emus are grazers. They lead nomadic lives in open country, endlessly searching for grass and water. They are less widespread than they will in the present day.

Learning from these animals will help these people to survive here but for now all they have to work out is that this is game they can safely tackle. Following the trail of the kangaroos they are learning bush craft, picking up skills that will be honed over the centuries to make aboriginal tracker legendary.

Crouching one behind the other carefully coordinated as one, the hunters appear as a single smaller animal to the quarry. This kangaroo has never seen a human before. It has no idea that an animal can hurl a lethal projectile to strike from thin air.

A delicious meal
Here at last is a perfect source of fresh meat. After month living hand to mouth and on the run this is riches indeed!

Cooking kangaroo will become a strict ritual which celebrates their importance to aborigines. The animal is cooked whole in its skin to retain juices. It fur is beaten off and the meat is often eaten extremely rare. It will be a staple of aboriginal desert diet. So respected would the eating of kangaroo become that braking the proper etiquette of eating will be punishable by tribal law.

The kangaroos had encountered for the first time a formidable new predator. The humans had found a feast.

Bush fires are an ally

Living in this place you never know what will happen next. Even in the desert the sky can crackle to the beat of electric storms. Fire here burns at over a thousand degrees. There is only one simple lesson to learn stand up wind. Now the family is no longer so much at the mercy of Australia’s savage elements and they are to make another discovery. In the wake of a fire the scorched earth is easy to pick over a place where you can easily find burrows of tunneling creatures and already barbequed remains. Bushfire has become an ally. Fire rages here for good reason despite the lightening storm this is still a land of drought.

Back to the dangers of a better watered land

In the desert they found a safer place with plentiful food but there is another problem the seasons are changing and becoming increasingly dry. Rain may not fall again for year on end. The last drops of water are burning off under the blazing sun. They are simply running out of time.

In the future their descendants will learn of hidden water supplies the secret of desert survival. But now without that knowledge they face no choice they must face the long trek towards river country where they can find standing water. It is a walk that will lead them back into the heart of danger. After week spent kicking dust, weary feet long for the cooling rush of running water.

Grabbed without warning by a giant salt water crocodile a human has no chance. In prehistoric Australia all the great waterways support a great number of crocodiles. It is a continent where reptilian predators are ever present, a country where you drop your guard at great peril.

Since the weather is seasonal the cold deepens as winter draws on and the wildlife becomes less active. For the people it is proving hard to find so despite the threat of deadly predators the cautious search for food goes on.


A mighty lizard

They never know what snack they might stumble across in the grass but these are unwelcome signs. Large dropping scattered on a patch that has been used regularly.

Some of the group has spread out unaware of any threat. What creature uses this place and how recently. Regurgitated bones suggest a predator, danger for the unwary. This looks like a basking site. The droppings are fresh. A large carnivorous animal cannot be far away.

A giant bird defending its nest is a formidable foe but something else has distracted it from the chase. It is time to leave!

Megalania six metres long the largest lizard ever to have lived. Its saliva is riddled with toxic bacteria, a bite from this creature spell certain death. It is short sighted but it has another method for detecting prey. Like the Komodo dragon it tastes the air with its forked tongue using an acute sense of smell to track down food from as far as fifteen kilometers away.

The scent of man is new to the reptile it is on the scent of more familiar fare. The instinct to protect eggs is strong but not that strong.

Humans are unique animals because of our ability to communicate ideas and complex information but you need more than speech to survive it take knowledge and experience to tackle deadly threats. This is a wilderness where terrors lurk and tensions run high but the aggressive display of a frilled lizard is nothing to be afraid of.

By now even the simple act of drink water has become a deadly task. For the early settlers the need to find a source of water that isn’t patrolled by monsters has become critical for survival.

Perhaps shallow water sources in dense woodland might be safer. Even so it is perilous for a child to wander off alone unnoticed. Nangala knows she has little to fear from a lumbering Diprtodon but they are not alone. Megalania is an ambush specialist with a brutal bite one that causes blood loss and poisoning so severe that even two tons creatures are at risk. Never stray close to an attacking predator you become competition.

Jabarola is killed.

Humans have always believed in the spirits of the dead. The keening ritual or sorry camp may last several weeks. It is a time to mourn the departed and speed their spirit’s return to the ancestors. In grief people need time on their own.

The hunter becomes the hunted

The parenti, it will become Australia’s largest lizard. Now in prehistory it is a minnow. During the day this is a fast moving aggressive creature but in the cold hours of dawn the reptile’s blood is too cold for it to move and if a small reptile is too cold to move could Japangadi have found a chink in the armour of its bigger relative the Megalania. Is the cool of dawn to become a time of strength for humans, a time when the vast predatory Megalamia will immobile?

It is these people ability to learn and plan that will transform them into a super predator. Armed with new knowledge Japangadi will fight back.

In the morning cold the hunters work as a team lighting the scrub upwind. The fire gathers pace with the morning breeze. By setting large scale bush fires man has discovered a way to defend himself against the most powerful of predators.

Fires changes the Australian landscape

Evidence suggests that Australian fires became more frequent some sixty thousand years ago. Before man’s arrival all fires had natural causes. Was the most likely change people burning the hostile bush for their own security?

There are many plants that can’t survive regular burning in particular the more delicate types of tree but some plants always grow back the fastest to return are the grasses. New tender grass shoots attract grazing herbivores. Kangaroos travel hundred of kilometers looking for such fresh growth. Burning not only clares the ground and defends humans against predators it also changes the vegetation to attract game for hunting. At some point humans must have realized that fire was more than just a weapon is was a tool that could alter the land to their needs.

Over the millennia regular burning has dramatically changed the vegetation. Most of the vine jungles where Diprotodon browsed have disappeared. Without suitable food these browsers were doomed along with their huge predators. At some point in the last forty thousand years they simply vanished.

Many will argue that humans had no part in these extinctions. Today grazing kangaroo are widespread. They are the symbol of Australia, winners in a world where fire resistant plants have replaced ancient forests. Was it fire in the hands of man that created the land we see today and burnt the monster of Australia to extinction?

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