Ends and Beginnings

Dear Readers,

I promise that Agent Red Squirrel isn’t gone. The past week or so has been super hectic, with packing and last days on the water, saying goodbye to friends and to Ningaloo reef… but there are still a thousand things left to blog about! I may have left Exmouth but as I am able, I will continue writing away. Upcoming highlights include a Meet the Locals feature, a post on mixed-species dolphin groups, and possibly a little bit of my own personal speculation about the research we’ve done this season.

THAT BEING SAID, I am currently located in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and am therefore super excited to bring back travel-bloggy Agent Red Squirrel! As usual, expect biology and curiosity and adventure, but with more history and cultural stuff. And with that, here’s an update on what I’ve been up to the past few days:

First, we left Exmouth. Packed up the whole house, books and papers and computers and food, football and port-a-crib, binoculars, posters, clothes, beach towels, scuba gear… the lot. It all (mysteriously and magically) fit back into the big truck, and we took off at 6 am for Geraldton, our Exmouth-to-Perth roadtrip stop. (In case anyone is unclear here, I’ve been in Australia for three months, so this is the tale of how I left my field research position at the end of a wildly fun and scientifically successful season.)

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I snapped a last emu photo for the road. Of course.

After a quick stop in Coral Bay to drop off our beloved boat:

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We booked it down to Geraldton and in the morning, we took off for Perth. But you know Team Sousa- first we had to make a pilgrimage to one of the most biologically exciting and real-people boring tourist sites in the world!

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Stromatolites are the oldest extant living things in the world. The earliest known fossils (3.5 billion years ago???) are layers and layers of these same kinds of cyanobacteria, the primary engineers of our current oxygen atmosphere. They converted the carbon dioxide that used to dominate into oxygen, which poisoned most everything else living at the time but allowed for some bigger stuff to develop, like… us. As these particular cyanobacteria grew, they accumulated dust and grime and calcium carbonate in layers corresponding to periods of activity in their clustered flagella (wiggly external bacteria bits that move stuff around, or in this case attach things together), probably as protection from strong ultraviolet light. All told, they are big piles of ex-bacterial film growing in shallow sunny water, and they look a little like ossified elephant poops, but symbolically represent the very beginnings of the field of biology and so there we were. We saw them. We nodded in respect/camaraderie. We got back in the car and continued south.

We finished our last few hours together in typical Team Sousa style: Tim and me singing the Pitch Perfect soundtrack and Kaja and Nat gritting their teeth and bearing it. With some lovely hospitality by Luke, Nat’s brother who very conveniently lives in Perth with some awesome housemates and, you know, a house, we got some last-minute Australia points out of the way:

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Yes, Kaja finally did eat the Vegemite under Australian supervision. But we still just called it all a tie. Highlights from the Australia Points list may make up a future post- I feel like we did pretty well in terms of covering the main stuff! (Sports, naming the states, eating native flora and fauna, not getting eaten by the native flora and fauna…)

And then, at three in the morning, I bade goodbye to my most excellent and cherished science companions (L) and headed to the airport. A few hours of flapping my wings REALLY HARD, and I was in Cambodia, wherein I took a nap and met up with the coolest person in the world (you think this is hyperbole but it isn’t). More on Cambodia and its many delights tomorrow, dear readers. For now, I bid thee to have a good night and to dream of guppies and lotus flowers until the morn.

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Clams

Hello beloved readers!

I apologize most heartily for my relative absence- we’re wrapping up the field season here in Exmouth, with all that entails: extra snuck-in snorkel trips, boat cleaning, taking posters and papers off of the walls, last-minute photo-ops on the water, cooking strange combinations of things from the remnants of our kitchen cabinets… It’s been a bit of a whirlwind. But still fun, of course.

As a metaphor for my lack of posting, here are a series of photos of giant clams.

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The color in the mantle (the soft part, showing from inside the two shells) comes from algae that the mollusk can cultivate within its own tissue. The algae and the clam’s own filter feeding both provide it with food/energy.

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Giant clams like these can live up to 100 years in the wild, building up layers of thickening shells as they go.

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Just so that nobody emails me with warnings that these animals should be added to my list of Things-In-Australia-That-Want-To-Kill-Me (Wikipedia: “It was known in times past as the killer clam or man-eating clam, and reputable scientific and technical manuals once claimed that the great mollusc had caused deaths; versions of the U.S. Navy Diving Manual even gave detailed instructions for releasing oneself from its grasp by severing the adductor muscles used to close its shell.”) I’m pretty sure that I’d have to be trying to climb inside of one of them for it to even give me a good pinch. Most can’t even close their shells the whole way, nor would they have any desire to hang on to a snorkeler/diver. They’re about as dangerous as rotting logs. But much prettier.

Contact from the Outer World

Watching a big male emu and his chicks walk straight toward you as you crouch on the sidewalk at the edge of suburbia is like being visited by aliens.

“What do they want?” you wonder. “Where did they come from? And where will they go when they leave here?”

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Well, it turns out that emus do actually wander off into the bush at night to sleep, though the thought is still funny to me. They find a place that they assume is more sheltered than anywhere else and slowly doze off after a period of sleepy vigil, folding their long legs under their bodies and curving their necks back. I imagine they’re fairly well camouflaged at that point. The chicks, according to Wikipedia and this fascinating article on “The Sleep of the Emu” (so many questions answered!) stretch out a little less gracefully, necks flat along the ground like sleeping ostriches. The emus wake up periodically throughout the night, grazing and defecating for a while before settling back down up to eight times.

Someone (Immelmann, the author of that article) stayed up all night ten days in a row in some zoological garden in Germany to collect this information. I think someone needs to do the same for emus in the wild, though getting them to sleep normally in the presence of humans would be a challenge. This is what I love about science- we figure one thing out, and have to resort to ever-more absurd tactics to get closer and closer to real answers about the basic workings of the world around us. We’ll never really know what emus do in the Outback at night until we can follow them around, and we’ll never really know what it’s like to walk on a planet not our own until we load up a rocket with literal tons of explosives, sit a person on top of that, and light it on fire. There’s so much left to explore, and so many crazy scientists ready to commit their sleepless nights and endless calculations, frustrations in coding and camouflage and mosquito bites and sterilized lab equipment, to the pursuit of knowledge.

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In a sort of thematic segue (I try, okay?), I’ve received some other contact from the outside world! Because internet is so expensive here, I feel like I’ve been a bit (or a lot) absent from the planet as a whole, wrapped entirely up in my two housemates, our boss and his family, and the approximate 3 other people we know in town, along with 112 humpback and 250-ish bottlenose dolphins. Keeping up with my friends and family has been difficult, so you can imagine my delight at seeing one Sheila Brady, who turned up in Exmouth a few days ago!P1080767

I can’t say how much it means that she came all that extra distance to hang out and bring some much-missed news of home and general cheerfulness!

-Agent Red Squirrel

Roo Confusion

The trouble with identifying kangaroos around here is mostly that whenever I see one, I’m so surprised that I forget to figure out what species it is. You’d think it would be obvious, like one is big and red (right, the big red kind, Macropus rufus) and one is little and gray (Macropus robustus), but some of the big red ones are just small because they’re young, and some of the wallaroos, also known as Euros, are actually sort of reddish and can get to a decent size.

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(This is a big red)

As far as I can tell, in photos where I don’t get a lot of scale and can’t necessarily recall the roo’s relative size to my own (reds get 6 feet tall and up to 200 lbs, while common wallaroos only get 5 feet tall and 150 lbs maximum), I can separate the two by bulk (reds seem to have larger, more muscular arms relative to their bodies, but also generally heftier bodies compared to their heads) and comparative ear size (though that’s just conjecture, since ear size might have more to do with age or individual variation*).

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(This is a Euro. I think.)

Kangaroos tend to live in larger “mobs,” somewhere around ten usually but in poor conditions can gang up into the hundreds. Wallaroos are mostly solitary, according to the internets. This information is not really supported by my own observations, but let’s be real- I mostly see these guys while either I’m running or they’re running, so I can’t say that any of my surveying has been at all scientific.

Mostly I’d say the main difference between a kangaroo and a wallaroo is that turning a corner and finding myself too close to a wallaroo is adorable, and doing the same with a kangaroo is just a little bit terrifying. Imagine a rabbit the size of your dad, and then give it muscley arms (the rabbit, not your dad).

…Have fun with that one. Here’s a reminder that macropods can also be really cute:

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Sleep with dreams of fuzzy baby ‘roos and try to get that image of your rabbit-dad out of your head. Oh, too late. Sorry.

*Did you know that human ears and noses keep growing forever? Like through your whole life (I’m assuming if you’re reading this you’re human, but to any intelligent dolphins or aliens reading this: um hi please email me) your ears will get bigger and bigger. If you could live forever maybe you could learn to fly Dumbo-style. Or at least swim like a manta ray. It’s all cartilage, right?

Did You Know

that if you don’t know how to use shutterspeed priority mode on your still-new-ish camera that you’ve had on manual mode the whole time, and then you put it on Tv (Canon’s code for shutterspeed priority) and get really close to kangaroos in twilight, and your ISO is set to 100, your photos come out pretty wonky?

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I’m pretty sure this is a big red kangaroo, as opposed to the smaller Euros, or wallaroos that we more often see around here. It (he) was drinking off of a leaky pipe on top of a nearby hill- now that I’ve figured out my camera just a little bit more, I’ll check back in there and see if I can replicate this shot… but with an actual decent exposure this time.

Painterly

I went for a run today, so I couldn’t bring my SLR. Well, I guess I could have, but it would have been a literal pain in the neck, so I didn’t. It’s the eternal conflict I face in my evenings here- run, get muscles working and music pumping, cover ground and get back in time for dinner, (make my daddy proud of me,) or take my time, collect leaves and feathers, try to sneak up on wildlife, and carry a big lens. So far, I will admit, the walks have taken precedence. Golden hour calls to me, and I take photo after photo of ethereal flowers all backlit and glowing in the settling dust. But running has its benefits too: some of the higher hills nearby are reachable before twilight only at a faster pace, and the views from the top are so much sweeter with the clarity that comes from blood pumping and eyes re-focused from computer screens to the distant sunset.

I took photos today on my phone, and the painterly quality that comes from the low light and crappy digital zoom well-represents the haze of a mid-uphill-sprint emu encounter.

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It’s less detail and more scope, like my runs versus my walks. It’s the sweeping views of the rolling hills and gravel roads, spinifex and shrubs blending into gold and green until the ocean takes over, deep blue to the dusty denim sky. It’s kangaroos that crouch by the side of the road till I’ve jogged by, and only then reveal their presence with a noise or a movement, disappearing back into the bush as I catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye.

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I’ve always been fond of impressionism.

Here Are Some Birds

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Cindy said these are Honeyeaters, though my rapid googling did not find any that looked exactly like them. But they’re pretty funny, perching on lines and flapping up and down just outside of windows. I think they’re also the ones we’ve seen attacking corellas and some birds of prey up above the bush.

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This one might be a butcherbird, though the beak seems too small, or a magpie, though the pattern seems odd.

Birds are neat.