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.

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

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.

Take It Lying Down

My uncle Tom told me a story in the comments of one of my latest blog posts about his friend, who had told him that if trapped in an enclosure with a large flightless and angry bird (either an emu OR an ostrich), the best strategy was to lie flat on the ground. The birds (either an emu OR an ostrich) are dangerous to vertical people, with their strong legs and sharp toes that are capable of severely injuring a predator or, presumably, a zookeeper. However, their legs (those of either an emu OR an ostrich) aren’t built for kicking things low to the ground, since they wouldn’t usually pose a threat to large, flightless, angry birds. We all wondered in a sort of musing and joking way which of the big birds it was.

That was then. Today I wondered with much more urgency.

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This photo was taken with my sister’s prized 50mm lens, lovely for portraits and landscapes alike and remarkably convenient and light to carry. It doesn’t have zoom, so if you wanted to you could probably calculate how close this emu was to the camera and, incidentally, to me. It kept advancing, head slowly moving from left to right as it eyed me and the camera pressed to my face. I kept shooting while walking backwards, but gave up after this shot because 1. I was about to trip over a curb (kerb, in this country) and 2. I was too busy wondering if I needed to lie down (was it an emu? Or was it an ostrich?) and wondering why it had never occurred to whomever came up with that particular strategy that emus have some very business-like beaks that clearly can reach the ground and presumably whatever the emu decided to stand on. Which would hopefully not be my body, my new camera, or my sister’s lens.

I decided not to test this strategy, in part because it seemed risky and in part because I was in the middle of suburban Exmouth, surrounded by trailered boats and little fenced gardens, and it would have been embarrassing. Fun fact: emus don’t really like it if you raise your arms and sort of yodel at them in a kind of panicked sort of way. (I do not know if this tactic works on ostriches.) This one shook its tiny wings and its fluffy rump, stopped advancing, cocked its head in confusion, and decided that I was uninteresting or not worth the intimidation. I felt a bit silly about this, and even sillier when a woman walked out her front door and started throwing breadcrumbs to the emus, greeting me with a cheery “G’day!” before asking, with some concern, if I was okay.

Australia, man.

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The Emu Update

The Emu Saga: Part Two

Emus are real. They really are. We had just finished lunch and were settling back in to match some more fins (thrilling as always…) when Tim’s wife Janine called to let us know that there was an emu strolling down our street. Cameras in hand, we tumbled out the door to see this lovely lady in all her feathered finery:

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Check out those feet though! She went right by our front door, and down the road to some scrubby brush that separates us from the supermarket area of town. I found her tracks later on when I went for my evening walk, but she may have traveled a fair distance at this point…

Regardless, emus. They could appear in YOUR LIFE TOO. Watch out. Any moment now, an emu might stroll past. You’ll think it’s a very tiny grass hut, or perhaps a really bad bowl cut on a really big head, and then its neck will stretch up and its broad-beaked face will look at you and you will remember what it felt like to be a tiny rat-mammal facing off with a dinosaur. And then you will remember that you don’t live in Australia and are at the zoo (go buy your kid an ice cream, and teach her or him about science, but don’t encourage that whole cage thing…) OR that you do live in Australia and this is just regular life OR that you are hallucinating, are you dehydrated?

In Search of Emu

The Emu Saga: Part 1

Still haven’t gotten any good face-to-face emu time, but the more time I spend wandering the bush the better my odds are, right? My recently-new Vans are getting less cherry-red and more Outback-dust red, but I find no little satisfaction in recognizing my footprints day to day out on the trails near town, especially when they’re overlaid or intermingled with ‘roo and emu tracks.

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Emus are tridactyl- they have three toes, wide and leathery, that press into the red dirt as they walk. I love thinking about emu feet- they have to be pretty intense to hold up that much bird, to handle the prickly grasses and sharp stones of the outback, and to be able, as claimed by the emu Wikipedia article, to tear down chain-link fences.

Those feet are so formidable, in fact, that they pose a significant threat to unwise humans who attempt to make a full-grown emu do… I guess anything that a full-grown emu doesn’t want to do (cue joke about the 500-pound gorilla, except imagine that gorilla with sharp toe claws and a very wide beak. And feathers? Okay, this is just getting confusing now). I don’t think that the emu’s feet were the deciding factor in the frankly embarrassing “Emu War,” waged between machine-gun armed Australian troops and thirsty birds in the 1930s, but hey- I’m sure with those feet, an emu could handily (haha) kick my butt.

Anyways, I’ve been trying to find myself an emu friend. Apparently they’re curious about people, and will sometimes follow a lone human on foot; thus far, no such emu magic has happened to me, but I’m working on it. I’ve encountered fresher and fresher emu poops (see http://animals.io9.com/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-emu-poo-1570013557 for… everything you ever wanted to know about emu poop) as I’ve wandered the hills near Exmouth:

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The stuff’s like tar filled with seeds, and over time (days?) the whole mixture dries into a black solid mess, seeds browning and eventually sprouting as the black stuff greys out and (weeks later?) blows away. There is a remarkable amount of this around all of the bushy areas near our house, considering the also remarkable lack of emus on my walks. But I live in hope!

Another thing I have lived in hope for, however, has finally come true.

“Emus on the beach!” I cried on one of my first days on the boat, out by the Bundegi boat ramp. “I want to see emus on the beach.”

So quintessentially Australian, I thought. How funny would it be, gangly-legged birds with stringy feathers draped across their humped backs, trotting across the soft sand? Combine the gentle waves and romantic dunes with nobbled knees and perpetually surprised faces: what could be better?

Beachmus. Dreams really do come true:DSC_0011

The Commute

We drive out anywhere between 6 am and 3 pm, depending on the winds and the tides- we load the boat and the ute (Aussie for truck or SUV, a “utility vehicle”), hitch up, and take off for one of our three boat ramps.

Exmouth marina is the closest, and the least exciting. We have seen young barracuda and minnows, and once a pair of foraging Tursiops, but for the most part it’s just calm and sheltered from winds (but not from Paul Simon blaring from yacht speakers). If we launch from Exmouth, we’re spending the day in Exmouth Gulf, deep and turbid waters and horizons littered with oil rigs and barges.IMG_1402

Bundegi boat ramp is nearest the tip of the North West Cape. Still in the Gulf, Bundegi has the advantage of a shallow reef and proximity to the Navy Pier, whence live the nurse sharks and the BFG. If we launch Bundegi, we’re likely going around the tip, with exciting swells and significant changes in scenery. Plus, the boat ramp harbors several juvenile batfish (sorry, hard to photograph while unhitching/hitching a boat) and lots of stingrays, among other little fishies.IMG_1113

Tantabiddi is the farthest ramp. It takes us near 45 minutes to drive there, through emu country (scrubby bushes and spinifex grasses) and kangaroo-spotted hills. Nearly all the way to the Cape Range National Park, a Tantabiddi launch means that we’re spending time in the lagoon (my favorite part of our transect lines- only a meter or three deep, turquoise water and white sand punctuated by coral bommies and easily-spotted dolphins) or on the outer reef, wherein lies our best chance of spotting a whale shark.IMG_2254

But regardless of where we launch, our daily commute can’t be considered boring, or at least not to excitable Americans. At the side of the road in town, I snapped this photo out the driver’s side window:IMG_2314

I went looking for her later that evening, and found lots of emu evidence (more on this later). But some of the best emu-time, best sunsets, best kangaroo encounters, most lovely hills and termite mounds have all been on our commute to “the office.” Just as full of interesting characters as the New York subway and just as scenic as I-280 along the Crystal Springs Reservoir in California, this commute sure doesn’t suck.