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The GROWING revival of urban food production

A guest blog by Georgia Pollard.

When you think of an Aussie backyard, chances are you’ll picture the iconic lawn and a BBQ, surrounded by some flower beds, a vegetable patch, a couple of fruit trees and maybe even a chook yard.

Growing food in urban environments used to be commonplace. In the past few years (after a bit of a lull), people are once again turning to their gardens to grow fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits. Some are even taking urban food production a step further, by keeping livestock such as chickens, fish or honeybees. Growing food like this in urban areas is known as urban agriculture.

Backyard vegetable gardens and their produce.

Backyard vegetable gardens and their produce

How did urban agriculture start?

People have always had personal food gardens close to their home, even when living on farms. But urban agriculture came about when people began moving away from their farms, to instead live in and around cities. These people had the skills and knowledge of how they could grow, harvest, store and preserve fresh produce for themselves and their families. This meant they could supplement their food supplies. They could also sell or barter any excess. People grew their food in backyards, in rented plots of allotment gardens, or on vacant land. This kind of urban agriculture is still common in developing countries, such as in parts of Africa, where many people are transitioning from rural to urban life.

Has urban agriculture changed over time?

Although the western world has recently seen a resurgence of interest in “growing your own”, for many it has become more of a hobby than a consistent and productive food source. People are reviving their food gardens for a number of reasons. Common reasons are that people want to spend more time outside, connect with their families or culture, and teach their kids where food comes from. Others choose to grow some of their own food for health and wellbeing reasons, preferring organic food. Some people prefer locally-produced food – you certainly know from where and how far food has travelled if you produce it yourself!

A recent report by Poppy Wise (2014) found that 59% of South Australians grow some of their own food (this was the highest state proportion in Australia, apart from Tasmania). Most of us are growing this food around our homes (99%), with the other 1% growing food at community style gardens. That 1% still translates into more than 50 community gardens around South Australia! Another interesting finding of this survey was that there is no such thing as a “typical” Australian food gardener. People of all ages, education levels, political persuasions and genders are growing food.

There are also many school kitchen gardens in South Australia. Food gardens at schools are places where students can get their hands dirty, learn about where food comes from and observe the changing seasons. The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program is all about pleasurable food education. It’s the largest food and garden education program in Australia with more than one thousand schools currently involved.

What makes urban agriculture different?

There are some key differences between traditional agriculture (or horticulture) and urban agriculture. First of all, there are the environmental differences. Generally there is less space and less full sun due to the buildings, fences and street trees. The soil in urban areas can also lack nutrients and organic matter, too. It may also be compacted, be mixed with building rubble or even be polluted. Happily, most urban agriculture growing methods make clever use of space, sun and positioning to get around many of these issues.

Growing Dwarf Fruit Trees

Growing Dwarf Fruit Trees

You still have traditional in-ground garden beds, raised garden beds and pots or planters; these are the basis of most gardens. But here are a few other ideas:

  • Putting wheels on the bottom of pots or planters. Wheels allow you to move them around during the day (or when the seasons change) to get the best sun.
  • Growing fruit trees espaliered along a wall or fence. Walls and fences can soak up warmth during the day and help create a warmer microclimate.
  • Grow dwarf fruit trees in large pots. In this photo, a dwarf Tahitian lime tree has been positioned against a wall to keep it warmer. Gladwrap has even been stretched over the top of the pot, to warm up the tree roots and encourage flower production.
  • Growing food in vertical gardens on fence lines or walls. There are many kinds of hanging mesh pockets, or plastic pot systems which you can install. Some come with built in drip-irrigation.
  • Planting (or building) a vegetable garden on your street verge. Check with your local council, but some councils are very supportive of this kind of garden.
  • Building a wicking bed. You can turn an existing raised garden bed into a wicking bed (if you don’t mind having to dig out the bed and then re-fill it!). Or you can also purchase a pre-made one. Wicking beds have a layer of gravel at the bottom. This layer acts as a water reservoir from which the plant roots can “wick” the moisture up into the soil. To learn more here is Sophie Thomson’s wicking bed episode and Costa’s wicking bed episode.

What don’t we know about our urban food gardens?

Many people produce some of their own food, but have you ever wondered how much food your garden actually produced each year? Or how much time, money or water went into growing that food?

The social and community benefits of urban agriculture have been quite well researched. However, there is almost no scientific data available on how much food urban gardens can produce, or on how much time, money or water it takes to grow that food. This lack of data means that we don’t yet have a good understanding of the best growing methods for different types of produce in a variety of possible situations. Which methods will best help you to grow the most food, or to use less water, or save money on your food bill? We want to find out.

Interested in learning more about your food garden?

If you’re interested in learning more about your food garden, we have recently launched a new Discovery Circle project – Edible Gardens.

We are measuring the inputs and output of urban gardens, and collecting information about all sorts of associated activities, like preserving food and sharing excess food. Data collection will run from Spring 2016 to Spring 2017, and some of the data from participants is available live, online! You can get involved or find out more on the project webpage (click here).

Posted in Discovery Blog

Understanding the Feline Five: pet cat personality explained

Mickey was tracked as part of the Cat Tracker project (click here to see cat tracks)

Mickey was tracked as part of the Cat Tracker project (click here to see cat tracks)

Background

As part of the Cat Tracker project we have been studying the personalities of pet cats. Animal personality has been studied for a long time, particularly in relation to captive animals, like zoo animals. It is important to understand the personality of captive animals in order to create an appropriate environment for them. For example, shy animals will benefit from places to hide! Also, an understanding of an animal’s personality might help zoo keepers monitor the animal to ensure that it is happy in its environment. If a keeper notices changes in an animal’s personality, it could be as a result of something in the animal’s environment, like a fellow animal with a non-compatible personality. These things can be managed in zoos where environments can be controlled, and cat owners can also manage their pet’s environment to ensure their pet is happy and healthy.

Researchers in the UK and USA (Marieke Gartner, David Powell and Alexander Weiss) have developed a personality questionnaire for cats and used it with captive wildcats and with domestic cats in shelters. The questionnaire includes 52 personality characteristics and was based on personality research on numerous other animals. As part of the Cat Tracker project, we have utilised the questionnaire on a large number of pet cats in South Australia and New Zealand. The large number of cats has allowed us to analyse pet cat personality like never before!

The Feline Five

Our analyses of 2,802 cat personality tests indicate a set of five personality factors that capture the majority of these cats’ personality characteristics. Each factor reflects numerous related personality characteristics. We have called these factors the Feline Five, listed here with some examples of the characteristics they reflect:

Bagheera was tracked as part of the Cat Tracker project (click here to see cat tracks)

Bagheera was tracked as part of the Cat Tracker project (click here to see cat tracks)

  1. Skittishness
    HIGH SCORES = anxious, fearful of people and cats
    LOW SCORES = calm, trusting
  2. Outgoingness
    HIGH SCORES = curious, active
    LOW SCORES = aimless, quitting
  3. Dominance
    HIGH SCORES = bullying, aggressive to other cats
    LOW SCORES = submissive, friendly to other cats
  4. Spontaneity
    HIGH SCORES = impulsive, erratic
    LOW SCORES = predictable, constrained
  5. Friendliness
    HIGH SCORES = affectionate, friendly to people
    LOW SCORES = solitary, irritable

Understanding the personalities of individual cats

Based on cat owner’s responses to the Cat Personality Test, each cat can be been scored on each Feline Five factor. For each factor, most cats score somewhere in the middle (called ‘typical’), and some cats score higher or lower. You would expect a cat that scores highly on a particular factor to demonstrate related characteristics very frequently. For example, a cat that scores highly on ‘friendliness’ would likely be affectionate to its owners and others.

Below is an example of one cat’s Feline Five results. On the graph, the area shaded in grey is the ‘typical’ zone. Points above the typical zone are high, and points below the typical zone are low. Bagheera is clearly a friendly cat, which is important because he regularly attends an Adelaide school with his owner, a teacher, and is popular with the students (you can read more about Bagheera in this Adelaide Now article).

Cat Personality Test results for Bagheera, including skittishness (low), outgoingness (high), dominance (typical), spontaneity (typical) and friendliness (high).

Similarities to human personality?

One interesting finding in our research is how similar cat personalities are to human personalities. In human personality research, the Big Five personality factors are: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. In the table below we have listed the Big Five alongside the Feline Five, so you can see which factors are similar, and which factors are not.

Feline Five
(pet cat personality factors)
Big Five
(human personality factors)
Similarity
Skittishness Neuroticism Some similarity
Outgoingness Extraversion Some similarity
Dominance No “Big Five” equivalent No similarity
Spontaneity No “Big Five” equivalent No similarity
Friendliness Agreeableness Some similarity
No “Feline Five” equivalent Openness No similarity
No “Feline Five” equivalent Conscientiousness No similarity

 Changing personalities?

dh

Mickey was tracked as part of the Cat Tracker project (click here to see cat tracks)

While animal personalities are typically considered to be stable and not easily changed, there is evidence that personalities may change over a lifetime, depending on experiences and situations (e.g. stressful events). In our analyses of pet cats we found correlations between the age of the cats we studied and the personality scores of cats on the Feline Five factors. These correlations suggest that as cats get older they tend to become slightly more skittish and dominant than younger cats. They also tend to become slightly less outgoing, spontaneous and friendly than younger cats. It is also important to recognise that personalities can change when animals are young. Therefore, we did not include cats under one-year old in our analysis and urge caution in how cat owners view the results of young cats. In our cat personality reports we have noted that the personality of a cat under one-year of age may still be developing.

An interesting finding…

Considering that cat personalities may change, we thought it would be interesting to have a look at the personalities of indoor cats and compare them to outdoor cats. We were wondering if keeping a cat indoors might change its personality. We found that the personalities of indoor and outdoor cats are very similar. In fact, the only statistically significant difference we found was that the indoor cats we assessed tended to be slightly more friendly than cats that spent time outside. We think this is good news for people who keep their cats indoors, as the results suggest that there is no negative impact on the personality of a cat when it is kept indoors! However, more research is required in this area to ensure that any other possible explanations of our findings are discounted. For example, it is possible that friendly cats are more likely to be kept indoors. However, if keeping cats indoors did have a negative impact on their personality, then we would expect to see different results (e.g. perhaps skittishness or spontaneity would be higher in indoor cats, or outgoingness would be lower).

Further information for cat owners

As part of the Cat Tracker project, during 2016 we are sending out Cat Personality Test reports to participants in South Australia who have completed the survey part of the project (click here for more information about the project). The report includes some suggestions about how cat management might be guided by an understanding of a cat’s personality. We will start to send out reports on April 11, 2016. Click here to see and example report: Bagheera’s Cat Personality Test.

If you do not live in South Australia, but you would like a cat personality report, please wait, as we are hoping to make the Cat Tracker project a national project soon (during 2016-2017). To stay informed about our program, so you don’t miss opportunities to participate, please register for our eNewsletter.

Our research team on this project:

Further Reading:

    • If you would like to read more about the previous cat personality research, please see:
      Gartner MC, Powell DM & Weiss A (2014) Personality Structure in the Domestic Cat (Felis silvestris catus), Scottish Wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia), Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia), and African Lion (Panthera leo): A Comparative Study. Journal of Comparative Psychology, volume 128, no. 4, pp. 414-426. This article is available online (click here).
    • If you would like to read more about the Big Five human personality factors, please see: https://www.123test.com/big-five-personality-theory/
Posted in Discovery Blog Tagged with: , , ,

Ever seen a MICROBAT?

A guest blog by Annette Scanlon.

You might have seen a fruit bat or a flying fox, but have you ever seen a microbat?

As their name suggests, microbats can be very small, and although some are abundant, it can be difficult to detect these nocturnal creatures. Many microbat species persist, and some even flourish, in human-altered environments. Being the only mammals capable of true flight, microbats can more readily access fragmented habitats than can ground-dwelling mammals. Their ability to fly enables microbats to negotiate barriers, such as roads. Therefore, high-density urban areas can support a rich microbat fauna. For example, nine microbat species have been recorded in parks of the City of Adelaide. In South Australia we have at least 20 microbat species, including:

A lesser long-eared bat. Photo courtesy of Terry Reardon.

A lesser long-eared bat (Nyctophilus geoffroyi). Photo courtesy of Terry Reardon (SA Museum)

Why do microbats matter?

Microbats matter for many reasons. Chief among those reasons relates to their incredible diversity. Globally, bats comprise a huge proportion mammal species (about 20% of all mammals­­­), including over 800 microbat species. The world’s smallest mammal is a microbat; Thailand’s bumblebee or hog-nosed bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai) weighs less than 2 grams!

Globally, microbats play many important roles in wide range of ecosystems, like consuming insects and pollinating plants. Most microbats are insectivorous, with insects providing the energy-rich food they need to fly. Just regarding their insectivorous diet, microbats matter because:

  • Microbats consume huge numbers of nocturnal insects; some consume half their own body mass in insects each night!
  • Microbats are natural biological controllers, and they consume mosquitoes and some agricultural pests, such as moths.
  • Their nitrogen-rich guano (faeces) is a valued fertiliser in many areas, and will enrich your garden soil.

Ever heard a microbat?

Sonograms of two microbat species detected at our BioBlitz at Oaklands Wetland (courtesy of Graham Medlin and Terry Reardon)

Sonograms of two microbat species detected at our BioBlitz at Oaklands Wetland (courtesy of Graham Medlin and Terry Reardon)

One way to notice microbats is to listen for them. Microbats navigate and find insects using echolocation. The bats send out high frequency sound waves (in a similar way to how we speak) through their mouth and nostrils and then listen and interpret the returning sound waves (echoes) as they bounce off surrounding objects. Most of this “noise” sounds to us like silence, because bats use sound frequencies normally inaudible to human ears. Therefore, microbat researchers often use specialised equipment designed to record echolocation calls that we can’t hear. The microbat species that are present can then be determined by analysing the ‘sonograms’ produced by the detection equipment.

There is one species of microbat that you might hear. Found all over South Australia and much of Australia, the white-striped freetailed bat (Austronomus australis) has an echolocation call that is audible to humans. There is an audio recording of this bat available online (click here and look for the ‘sounds’ section). Described to me once as like the sound of tapping two 20-cent coins together… Next time you’re outside on a warm evening why not listen for the white-striped freetailed bat as it flies overhead in the darkness seeking insects, notice its distinct pulsing sounds …. ting…. ting…. ting…. ting….

Ever seen a microbat?

If you are patient, you can see microbats. It’s easy if you know where to look! In southern Australia microbats tend to be most active during the warm months, feeding on the abundant insects available at this time. The easiest time to see microbats is at dusk on a summer evening as they flit about catching insects. If you play sport at night in summer look up at the lights, you may notice Gould’s wattled bat (Chalinolobus gouldii) picking off moths that are attracted to the lights.

Where do microbats live?

Microbats usually roost in trees, in hollows or under the bark. A key threat to microbats is the limited number of natural tree roosts, and increasing competition for these roosts from other species like European honey bees. Tree hollows are an incredibly important resource for microbats, but it can take a hundred years for suitable hollows to form naturally in a tree. So some people are helping microbats by placing wooden bat boxes in trees. Some microbats will readily roost in properly-designed boxes. Maybe you could work with a school or community group to make or install bat boxes, or you could place a bat box in your garden.

Why help microbats?

While some microbat species are stable, others are not. Sadly, the tiny Christmas Island microbat (Pipistrellus murrayi) is one of the most recent Australian mammals to have become extinct. Closer to home, the southern bent-wing bat (Miniopterus orianae bassanii) that roosts in the Naracoorte Caves is listed as Critically Endangered, so extinction is an imminent risk.

Want to learn more about microbats?

Posted in Discovery Blog

What are Threatened Species

Nationally Endangered - a southern brown bandicoot (juvenile). Photo courtesy of Luke Price. Taken at Scott Creek Conservation Park, 2012

Nationally Endangered – a southern brown bandicoot (juvenile). Photo courtesy of Luke Price. Taken at Scott Creek Conservation Park, 2012

A guest blog by Luke Price, Threatened Fauna Ecologist, Natural Resources Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Region (Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources).

Each year National Threatened Species Day is held on the 7th of September. This day marks the death of the last remaining Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine) in 1936 at Hobart Zoo. The aim of the day is to reflect on extinct native species and how we can protect current threatened species into the future. Threatened Species Day is also for raising awareness, celebrating success stories and highlighting the importance of continued threatened species recovery work.

What are threatened species?

Most people will be familiar with words like ‘Threatened’ and ‘Endangered’. Yet despite their common usage, there is often confusion around their meaning, particularly in the context of threatened species conservation.

Simply, threatened species are those which are at risk of extinction in the near future. There can be many causes that lead a species being at risk of extinction, and not all species are threatened because of the same causes.

Categories and Criteria

Some species are at a higher risk of extinction than others, and threat categories are used to identify the level of extinction risk that each species is facing. A higher threat category indicates a greater risk of extinction.

There are various means of categorising extinction risk. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) categories and criteria are a widely accepted means of assessing a species’ risk of extinction. The IUCN categories, from highest risk to lowest, are:

  • Extinct (EX)
  • Extinct in the Wild (EW)
  • Critically Endangered (CE)
  • Endangered (E)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Near Threatened (NT)
  • Least Concern (LC)

In addition to these categories, species can also be recognised as Data Deficient (DD) when there is a lack of information to make an assessment of its risk of extinction. In this category a species may be at risk of extinction, however more information is needed before it can reasonably be classified. Species can also be classified as Not Evaluated (NE), which is fairly self-explanatory.

It is worth noting that the previous version of the IUCN categories included a sub-category not in the current version, Conservation Dependent. Not all species are yet classified under the new IUCN categories, so some of this former terminology remains in use.

Vulnerable in South Australia - a Yellow-footed antechinus. Photo courtesy of Luke Price. Taken in Scott Creek Conservation Park.

Vulnerable in South Australia – a Yellow-footed antechinus. Photo courtesy of Luke Price. Taken in Scott Creek Conservation Park.

In addition to the IUCN categories and criteria, Australia has national legislation under which threatened species can be assessed and listed, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The categories under the EPBC Act broadly align with the IUCN categories.

There are also various state and regional categories and criteria for threatened species. In South Australia, the relevant legislation is the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 (NPW Act). Additionally, species are assessed at a regional level to assist with prioritisation and guide conservation and recovery actions. Again, these categories are generally based on those from IUCN. One difference is a Rare category which is effectively the same as Near Threatened.

Each categorisation involves a rigorous assessment of a species’ risk against set criteria. Four main themes used in these assessments are:

  • Reduction in population size
  • Geographic range or area of occupancy
  • Estimates of population size (number of mature individuals)
  • Probability of extinction in the wild

Within these broader criteria, substantial detail is sought and taken into account when making an assessment, including the number of locations at which the species exists, and if populations are severely fragmented.

How you can help Threatened Species

Unfortunately, the funding and resources available for conservation and recovery of South Australia’s threatened fauna and flora species are limited. Consequently, prioritisation of the allocation of funding and resources is undertaken. The threat categories are a valuable tool in helping with prioritisation and identifying those species at greatest risk of extinction. For many species, obtaining much-needed data on where they still occur, identifying threats and ways to best conserve them is very difficult. The population numbers of some threatened species are so low that they are incredibly hard to find. This is one of the many areas where citizen science projects, like Goanna Watch, can play a major role in helping with conservation and recovery programs. For example, the sightings of heath goannas, submitted to the Goanna Watch project, will help to build a picture of where these reptiles still occur and allow us to begin to develop recovery initiatives centred on these areas.

Learn more about local Threatened Species at Cleland Wildlife Park

You can see some of South Australia’s Threatened Species at Cleland Wildlife Park. You can download a list of Threatened Species at Cleland, including mammals, birds, reptiles and fish. The list includes the locations of the species and their threat categories. Click here to download the list (a 139kb PDF file).

There is more information about local Threatened Species on the website of the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (click here).

Posted in Discovery Blog

Building a native bee hotel

Blue-banded bees (Amegilla murrayensis)

Blue-banded bees (Amegilla murrayensis), these native bees make a substantial contribution to the pollination of crops in Australia and can be seen in Adelaide gardens. Photo courtesy of Remko Leijs

A guest blog by Remko Leijs, an Honorary Research Associate at the South Australian Museum

Did you know that there are thousands native bee species? And many are yet to be discovered… some might visit your garden!

If you imagine what a bee looks like, you’re probably thinking about a European honey bee. As the “European” reference in the common name suggests, these bees did not occur in Australia until they were introduced for honey production almost 200 years ago. Having established themselves away from the beekeepers’ hives, European honey bees are now feral in Australia, often building hives in tree hollows. These feral bees are important crop pollinators. But, on the down-side, they out-compete native animals such as birds and mammals for nesting hollows, and occasionally also for pollen and nectar.

There are many other bee species in Australia, that are native to this continent, and many of them could visit your garden. In fact, there are about 1,650 species of native bees known for Australia and 20,000 bee species known worldwide. But we haven’t stopped counting yet, and scientists are regularly discovering new species of bees. Among native bee species there is large variation in shape, size, coloration, nesting habits, behaviour and flower preferences. For example, the largest species (a carpenter bee) is just less than 25 mm long, while the smallest species are more than ten times smaller, at about 2 mm long.

Native bees are quite different to honey bees. The European honey bee is highly social, with hives having a queen and several thousand workers. In contrast, most native bees are solitary and nest alone. A single female bee builds a small nest and then does all of the tasks that are necessary to support new offspring.
Native bees use a variety of nesting places. About half of the Australian bee species dig their nests in the ground. Sometimes hundreds of solitary females may communally share a single nest entrance (just like people do in a large apartment building), but build their own nesting tunnels inside. The other half of the species use natural hollows, such as rock crevices, old borer’s holes in wood, or even keyholes. They can also excavate their own tunnels in soft timber or pithy stems of plants.

An elaborate bee hotel

An elaborate bee hotel. Photo courtesy of Remko Leijs

Within a nesting tunnel, a female native bee will construct a “brood cell”. She then collects enough pollen to knead it into a pollen ball, deposits an egg on it, and closes the brood cell. She can make several brood cells sequentially in one nesting tunnel. After a few days a bee larva emerges from the egg in the brood cell and starts eating the pollen ball. When all the pollen is eaten the mature larva turns into a pupa. By that time the mother bee has usually died. The bee then hibernates in the brood cell until it is time to emerge in the warmer months. After emerging males and females mate and the whole cycle starts over again.

There is often a shortage of suitable nesting places and building materials, so native bees will readily take up “artificial” housing if you provide it. Such housing is commonly called a bee hotel. It is easy to make a bee hotel, by drilling holes in a piece of timber or by providing suitable tubes for native bees to nest in. For example, bamboo sticks can be used. Bamboo should be cut into short lengths, just behind the nodes, so that there is only a hole at one end. Or a bundle of paper straws in a tube can be used. The straws can be bundled in a piece of drainpipe or in an empty drinking bottle.

Why not build a bee hotel and learn more about the many visitors to your garden? Here are some resources that might be helpful, including an important safety note:

Some simple bee hotels

Some simple bee hotels. Photo courtesy of Remko Leijs

  • There is a useful information sheet on building bee hotels online: click here (1.8 MB PDF document)
  • You can report sightings of native bees and have them identified through Bowerbird: click here (learn more about Bowerbird by reading this blog: click here)
  • Watch a short video about native bee hotels in a garden in New South Wales: click here (ABC website)
  • Come to one of the Discovery Circle’s Native Bee Workshops, where we introduce you to the world of native bees and where you will get ideas of what you can do to bring them into your garden: click here
  • The scientific name for the European honey bee is Apis mellifera. There has been some media recently about the decline of these bees worldwide. This is a concern in Australia, which reinforces the importance of other pollinating species (like native bees). You can find out more: click here
  • Safety is important if you are observing native bees. Although native bee stings are uncommon, and I have not heard of anyone having an allergic reaction to a native bee sting, it is possible that they could cause an allergic reaction. Therefore, it is important that you are cautious in observing native bees and that you do not touch native bees. Most importantly, seek medical attention if you have a reaction to the sting of any bee. Native bees are not as likely to sting people as European honey bees, as they have very different social behaviours and physiologies. European honey bees are social animals and aggressively defend their colonies. In contrast, most native bees are solitary and are not aggressive. In terms of physiology, European honey bees sting with a barb that continues to inject venom once it has been delivered, whereas native bees do not. There are about ten species of native bees that are social, but they are stingless.
Posted in Discovery Blog

Discover Bowerbird to satisfy your natural curiosity

Have you ever found something unfamiliar, some strange or spectacular flora or fauna, and wanted to find out more about it? A good start would be finding out what it’s called, so you can look up more information about it. But how can you find out?

In the past, natural history museums would provide valuable identifications of flora and fauna, and you can often still take specimens to a museum for identification (ring them first to check this service is available). But catching living things can sometimes be difficult or dangerous. Moreover, there is an unnecessary risk of damaging something if you try to catch it, and you should usually leave things where they are anyway (especially if they are in a National Park). Now, with the magic of the internet and ‘crowdsourcing’ you don’t need to catch things, just photograph them, and you might be able to help scientists at the same time… it’s a win-win!

There are a number of internet applications (apps) that can help you record and identify your sightings of flora and fauna; one of my favorites is Bowerbird: www.bowerbird.org.au. This app was made and is managed in Australia, under the guidance of Dr Ken Walker at Museum Victoria. The basic operation of Bowerbird is straightforward. You can upload a photograph of any flora or fauna you see, along with some details of where you saw it (you can mark the location on a map). It’s okay if you don’t know what your sighting was – once it’s online, other Bowerbird users can help you to identify it. Ken has encouraged the development of a knowledgeable and enthusiastic Bowerbird community, including many professional and amateur naturalists.

The frog we saw at Deep Creek Conservation Park

The frog we saw at Deep Creek Conservation Park. See this frog on BowerBird

I’ll give you an example of how it works. I recently went camping with family and friends at Deep Creek, about an hour-and-a-half south of Adelaide (I highly recommend you visit this Conservation Park). While we were there, we were fascinated by the fungi. I’m no fungi expert (a mycologist), but I was keen to know more about them. The children had fun spotting fungus for me (under strict instructions not to touch it), and I spent quite some time on the ground focused on fungi photography. You can see some of the photos from our trip, including the fascinating fungi, on facebook.

I also posted some of the photos on Bowerbird. I posted photos of a couple of fungi and a frog we saw nearby. Bowerbird is like facebook for flora and fauna. Once the photos are posted online, the Bowerbird community can comment on them. Most importantly for me, the Bowerbird community love to identify other people’s photos. Within a few hours the frog and the fungi were identified. You can see them all here (click on the individual sighting to see the identification). The process, leveraging the services or ideas from a large group of people, is called ‘crowdsourcing’. Within Bowerbird, the crowdsourcing is set up so that people can check and discuss identifications, to make sure the identifications are accurate.

There’s more to Bowerbird than the identification of the strange or spectacular species you spot. Once you’re onboard, you can join or create your own ‘projects’. There are two main approaches for using Bowerbird projects. The first approach is for people interested in particular groups of flora or fauna, such as frogs or fungi (taxonomic groups). The group of people can create a project to share their sightings. I added my posts to the appropriate projects (e.g., I added my frog post to the Frog Watch project). Adding your posts to an appropriate existing project will help bring it to the attention of the project members – in my example that was people interested in frogs.

One of the fungi we found at Deep Creek Conservation Park. See this fungus on Bowerbird

One of the fungi we found at Deep Creek Conservation Park. See this fungus on Bowerbird

I think the second approach to using projects is really exciting. You can start a project for a particular location, any location. For example, you could start a project for your backyard or for a place you walk or work. It’s a great opportunity to keep a record of the flora and fauna you see. Once you are going, it’s easy to get hooked looking for new things to photograph and post to your Bowerbird project, as many amateur naturalists will understand. And along the way you are learning what your sightings are, which allows you to find further information about them, online or in books.

There is one more important feature of Bowerbird that I think is important to mention. All of the posts on Bowerbird that are identified, like my fungi and my frog, are uploaded into the Atlas of Living Australia (the ALA). The ALA is important as it’s Australia’s repository for information about biodiversity. Scientists in universities, museums, government departments and industry all use the ALA to store and access information about plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms. The Bowerbird community has made some valuable contributions to the ALA, including the only sightings of some species, the only photographs of some species, and sightings of some species well outside their known range.  You don’t need to do anything more than post your sightings on Bowerbird – all the systems are in place to have your post identified and shared with the world!

Join the Bowerbird community today to post your own sightings, join projects that interest you, or create your own backyard project: www.bowerbird.org.au

Posted in Discovery Blog

Discover the night sky

Have you looked at the stars at night and wondered about them? Or lamented because you can’t see the stars from home? Find out more about astronomy and the night sky with this guest blog from Martin Lewicki, Astronomy Educator at the Adelaide Planetarium…

At this wintry time of the year the Milky Way spans across the heavens with the centre of our galaxy above our heads swarming with billions of stars. In the early evening, Saturn is in the east with its elegant rings, and Jupiter in the west with its atmospheric belts. Jupiter’s four brightest moons are visible with binoculars.

The Southern Cross and Pointers are prominent features of Adelaide’s night sky. The Southern Cross is the bright and compact group of five stars that features on the Australian flag. They are high in the sky in the early evening at this time of year. The Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains saw the stars of the Southern Cross as the footprint of the Wedgetail Eagle.

Finding 'Celestial South', image courtesy of Michael Millthorn, available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pole01-eng.jpg

Finding ‘Celestial South’
Image courtesy of Michael Millthorn
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pole01-eng.jpg

The Southern Cross and Pointers can be used to find “Celestial South”, which is close to Magnetic South and can be used for navigation. You can try it any night when the sky is clear. Once you’ve found the Southern Cross, locate the two bright Pointers nearby. Then imagine a line that extends the longest axis of the Southern Cross and another line that bisects the pointers (see image). Where the two lines meet, drop your gaze directly to the horizon and you are looking south!

There is a great history to the practice and science of Astronomy. In 1603 and 1627 the German astronomer Johann Bayer published catalogues of the heavens. In his catalogue he retained the old names of constellations given by the early Greeks, but he listed stars in each constellation according to brightness with a letter of the Greek alphabet. So, the brightest star in a constellation is alpha, next beta, gamma, delta, and so on.

The Southern Cross is known to astronomers as ‘Crux’ and it provides a good example of star names. This constellation is also useful for demonstrating that constellations are only patterns made up by observers on Earth, and that the individual stars within the same constellation are not necessarily close together, and frequently are not. While the stars of the Southern Cross look close together from Earth, they are actually light-years apart. The five stars’ distances from our sun are:

  • Alpha Crusis – approximately 321 light years
  • Beta Crusis – approximately 352 light years
  • Gamma Crusis – approximately 88 light years
  • Delta Crusis – approximately 364 light years
  • Epsilon Crusis – approximately 228 light years

While we can usually see the Southern Cross from urban areas in Adelaide, you will need to get away from the light pollution of urban night lights to see many of the splendours in the heavens. Light pollution is the excess light from thousands of outdoor lights. It casts a foggy glow over the urban night sky, diminishing our view of the stars and obliterating the Milky Way. Indeed, much of the light we produce wastefully escapes upward from poorly designed and aimed outdoor lights. This can be easily prevented by simply choosing light designs that aim their beam downwards or simply attaching a shield to the lamp to prevent light escaping in unwanted directions.

You can learn about the night sky at the Adelaide Planetarium or during our community presentations at other venues. The Planetarium has a domed ceiling where the projectors create a realistic simulation of the night sky. You can almost feel the earth turn as the projector rotates to simulate the motion of the earth’s rotation during the course of the night. By the time the star projector has rotated the sky into the pre-dawn hours you will see a twilight glow appear in the east heralding the dawn. The stars above us now are different and almost completely replace the ones seen in the evening which are now below us on the other side of the earth.

Further information:

Posted in Discovery Blog

Questagame: a fun game to engage kids to engage with nature

Just a few of the available quests on Questagame

Just a few of the available quests on Questagame

Questagame is fun, easy-to-use, and promotes activity in nature and learning about local wildlife. It’s a free game to load onto your smartphone or tablet, and then take outside on searches for wildlife. It’s designed to engage the younger market, but I think it’s great for kids aged 6 to 60+.

There are lots of ways to play, depending on what you find fun; you can earn rewards for simply spotting and recording wildlife, take on quests to find particular species, or compete against other Questagame players in head-to-head challenges. Over time, the game keeps a record of all the species you’ve recorded, and where you recorded them.

I recently loaded the app onto my phone (I suggest phones are better than tablets as they are easier to take photos with). Then I headed to a local urban park with my six-year-old daughter. We spent an hour or so spotting common birds, reading about them, and recording them. Everything we needed was included in the app, like photos and descriptions to help identify the birds we saw. There were lots of high-fives when we submitted records, and even more when we earned game ‘gold’ for our efforts. We tried a Quest, too, and had to find an Australian magpie and a rainbow lorikeet to earn some bonus points. Needless to say, there were more high-fives when we succeeded!

As a dad it was great, sharing time outdoors with my daughter, and the scientist in me also found it rewarding. You see, sightings that are recorded through Questagame, once verified, are uploaded into the Atlas of Living Australia (the ALA). The photographs you submit with sightings are important because they allow scientists to verify what you saw, an important quality control if they want to use your record as part of their research. The ALA is important as it’s Australia’s repository for information about biodiversity. Scientists in universities, museums, government departments and industry all use the ALA to store and access information about plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms. At the Discovery Circle, we use the ALA to store records from our BioBlitzes.

If you have kids aged 6 to 15, I suggest you try Questagame one morning or afternoon when you have a couple of hours to play. Mornings or afternoons are good because it’s easier to spot birds early or late in the day, although we did it in the middle of the day and had no trouble. You can try it in your backyard, at an urban park, or travel further afield to some bushland. I suggest you pick somewhere with trees and shrubs, where you’re likely to find some birds quite easily (it’s good to start with some success).

I'm 98th on the Questagame leader board... can you catch me?

I’m 98th on the Questagame leader board… can you catch me?

If you don’t have much experience identifying birds, start in your local area with things you commonly see. We started with Australian magpies and rainbow lorikeets, and then moved along to kookaburras and magpie-larks. These birds are found in most built-up areas around Australia, and can therefore be described ‘urban adapters’ (animals that do well in cities). We often see and hear them around Adelaide. It was also exciting to find some musk lorikeets, which we don’t see so often.

Next time we go questing we think we’ll try a different type of park, somewhere with a wetland, like Oaklands Wetland or the Greenfields Wetlands. By trying different types of parks we’ll be able to discuss the links between animals and their habitats.

For now, get gaming, you can find Questagame at the App Store or on Google Play. The free version of Questagame includes: Birds; Moths and Butterflies; Ferns and Fungi; and Locations. My daughter and I have started with birds, which provide a great introduction to wildlife and are easy to find. I hope we’ll play with the other categories in the future. You can also purchase ‘upgrades’, including: Crawling Critters; Mammals, Reptiles and Amphibians; and Buzzing Bugs and Beetles. So if this game engages your kids, there are endless learning opportunities and hours of fun to be had!

One final note: Questagame is GREAT, and can definitely provide some fun and learning in natural environments… it’s great Nature Play. I suggest you should consider it as part of a broader strategy to engage kids with nature. Other important elements of such a strategy are unstructured play, hands-on experiences (like gardening), and experiencing places with no obvious human impacts. I’ll write about them, too… soon!

There’s more information about Questagame online at: www.questagame.com

Posted in Discovery Blog, Newsletter posts

Nature Play: Making nature part of kids’ lives

Nature Play Photo beach playing

A guest blog from Nature Play SA:

Most of us have fond memories of a childhood spent outside – climbing trees, splashing in creeks, playing cricket in the street, building cubby-houses.  We only came inside when it got dark or we got hungry.  But something has changed. In the space of a single generation, Australian children have lost the freedom of childhood, exchanged for a sedentary indoor existence dominated by electronic screens. Today’s kids spend less time outside in nature than ever before.  They no longer have the freedom or opportunity to roam outdoors.

It is difficult to let our children go, but the danger is that we are raising a generation who lack the confidence to face new challenges, are unable to assess risk, are prone to obesity and behavioural disorders, and who never develop a personal connection to the natural world. Unstructured play is just as important to children’s development as a healthy diet or enough sleep.

That’s why Nature Play SA has been established and why it is so important. A not-for-profit organization, Nature Play’s role is to encourage and provide opportunities for the children of South Australia to spend more time in unstructured play outdoors. Our vision is for outdoor play in nature to become an everyday part of childhood again.

It’s a big challenge. Australian children now spend less time outside than a maximum security prisoner – less than two hours a day.  We have more children overweight and presenting with behavioural disorders than every before.  South Australian children spend an average 4.5 hours per day in front of a screen, more than double that recommended by the Department of Health and 30 minutes more than the national average. There are many reasons for these changes. The rise of technology, parental anxiety about abduction and crime, shrinking backyards, increased structured activities, boring playgrounds – a perfect storm of pressures and problems is keeping our kids inside.

The good news is that Nature Play SA is working to encourage and enable parents, teachers and carers to get children back outside where they belong.

We have lots of initiatives to help.  Our Passport to an amazing childhood is aimed at 5-12 year olds and is packed full of secret missions for kids to complete outside.  There is also a passport for 0-5 year olds.  In addition, we have our lists of 51 things to do before you’re 12, and 49 things to do before you’re 5 which feature great ideas for outdoor activities.  We also have our seasonal lists, 25 Fun Things to do in Summer and will soon be releasing 25 Cool Things to do in Autumn.  We also regularly host or partner with others to provide events that families can attend together as an opportunity to get outside, explore, discover and enjoy our surroundings.  This year, we are running a Park of the month initiative, where we showcase some of SA’s beautiful conservation and national parks.  We are providing activities for visitors to do in each park and giving families an opportunity to experience and explore beautiful scenery and unique flora and fauna.

Nature Play photo bush walking

It’s critical that those of us with precious memories of happy times spent playing outdoors actively reconnect our children with the natural world. Encouraging our children to get outdoors and play is an investment in our children’s, and in our community’s, future health, happiness and prosperity. The best part is, it’s also a lot of fun.

If you’d like to know more, log on to our website www.natureplaysa.org.au or follow us on Facebook and be part of a movement to bring the outdoors into our children’s lives again.

Posted in Discovery Blog, Newsletter posts