Animalia Melburnia

Published the Age, Metro, November 2006

The suburbs of Melbourne are visited by an amazing array of wild animals with stories to tell but most of us don’t know the wild things in our own back yards.


We know the celebrity animals, the lyrebirds, koalas, platypuses and penguins. We may know the common animals, the blue tongues, possums, parrots and skinks.   But most of us would have trouble telling a Crusader Beetle from a Botany Bay Weevil, an Assassin bug from an Imperial Jezebel and a dunnart from a rat.


Smaller animals and underwater creatures live particularly incognito lives. Some of them don’t even have names. 


Curator of science communication at Museum Victoria, Kate Phillips, says there are thousands of unidentified wild animals living in greater Melbourne including at least 100 unidentified flying moths and many insects and marine creatures with no names. 


Formal surveys of wildlife only began around Melbourne in the 1960s and are conducted less frequently in recent years. Phillips says there are not enough paid zoologists to classify all the new animals that have been collected. Moreover, specialisation in zoology has meant no overall catalogue or field guide has been published for the greater Melbourne area, until now.


“Melbourne’s wildlife - a field guide to the fauna of greater Melbourne”, published by Museum Victoria and CSIRO, features over 700 photographs of 700 species from every class in the animal kingdom of greater Melbourne. The 348-page, field guide was five years in pupa and took two years work to emerge from its chrysalis. It is a colourful introduction to zoology and the animal family of Homo sapiens Melburnian.


When you know an animal by name, especially its Latin name, you can google it as well as ogle it.  A little knowledge will help humans observe animals more intelligently and the animals can begin to tell their own stories.


Coordinating writer, Kate Phillips, says, “Getting to know animals is the first step towards caring about them.  We get a bit cut off from our wild neighbours and from nature and from the interconnected web of living things…and any encounter we have with animals can help reconnect us.”




The Southern Boobook or Mopoke has one of the cutest animal names, despite local competition from the Snook, the Shrike-tit, the Sausage Blubber, the Nudibranch and the unfortunate, Smallmouth Hardyhead. The owl’s name is also onomatopoeic with its hoot.


Like the powerful owl, but much more common, the Boobook is a night stalker that has adapted to metropolitan Melbourne parks because it likes marsupial flesh. It also has the best night vision on earth. Rory O’Brien, collection manager of birds and mammals at Museum Victoria, says the Boobook has pupils that dilate to the rims of its wide eyes to let in more light. Its feathers are designed to let it fly in silence.




Greengrocer cicadas are about to emerge from pupa among the roots of trees, after seven years underground. Most are green but some, nicknamed Yellow Mondays, are orange-yellow. Adult cicadas live for four to six weeks in summer and the men spend most of their days singing at 120 decibels that is loud enough to repel birds, hurt human ears and attract females.


Males make four songs but only while it is hotter than 18.5 degrees. They sing a beckoning song, high pitched and constant; a seduction song for visiting ladies; a distress call when attacked by predators; and a slower, clicking song, while they are dying.




The female St Andrews Cross Spider spins orb webs decorated with a reflective, insect-attracting, diagonal cross. She sits in her throne at the centre of the cross. Suitor males, five times smaller, approach on tiptoe across the opposite face of her web. They make a little hole, scurry through and run around tickling her legs, before scurrying back to safety. Later, they hang upside down and strum her web like a guitar that she hears with her feet. After they make love at the edge of her web, she sometimes eats his legs, and if he manages to make love more times, and he will try, she may eat him.




The most brilliantly coloured butterflies in Melbourne breed on mistletoes that commonly grow on eucalypts and acacias, according to Ross Field, a national expert on butterflies and one of the book's founding authors. Soon after female Imperial Jezebels are reborn they make love with waiting males. 


They live for four weeks in spring and late summer, and feed on ornamental flowers and flowering weeds like Budleias. Like many butterflies, they love hilltops where the males fly high for territory and females come up to mate.




More than ten thousand native water rats were killed annually for their pelts during some decades of last century in Victoria, according to Joan Dixon, curator emeritus of mammals at Museum Victoria. Nicknamed the “native otter”, and diplomatically renamed Rakali, after the Western Australian Aboriginal name, native water rats are now protected. Populations have re-established along bayside beaches and canals and, according to Melbourne Water, throughout Melbourne’s freshwater creeks and rivers.


Rakali are remarkable for living in fresh water, brackish water and salt water.  They have thick, waterproof fur, webbed feet and long white tipped tails. At sunset and dawn you may see them swim and dive for small fish, shellfish, crabs, yabbies, and even young birds.


Much smaller, native bush rats can visit back yards in outer northeastern Melbourne and are unfairly mistaken for introduced black house rats.




Tim O’Hara’s favourite animal at the moment is the wonderfully patterned, red, white and grey, Biscuit Star. Dr O’Hara, senior curator of marine invertebrates and a working field scientist, discovered earlier this month that tosia australis sits on its eggs before and after they have been fertilised (instead of shooting them up into the infinite sea with a prayer). Only one other sea star in the world does this.  “You would not expect something like a sea star to be maternal,” says O’Hara, referring obliquely to an evolutionary leap towards the child rearing skills of human mothers.  




Pretty birds often have ugly voices and plain looking birds often have beautiful songs.Melbourne’s White-plumed honeyeater is no exception. Its cheerful, mellifluous chirp and staccato trill is often the first and last birdsong of the day.  (Its song is recorded at Museum Australia’s www.birdsinbackyards.net)


It likes the upper parts of native trees and like most honeyeaters, eats sweet insects, drinks nectar and often gets a red face from pollen. It also feeds on some exotic plants and has a spectacular courtship "song flight" during spring that combines song and acrobatic dives above treetops.




In most backyards, something hides in the bushes, ready to ambush its victims, stab them in the chest and suck out their insides.  There are an estimated 300 species of Assassin bug in Australia, and according to Catriona McPhee, collection manager of terrestrial invertebrates, there is likely to be one in most Melbourne backyards. Distinguished from other bugs by a hooked proboscis, their weapon, these small bugs can also give humans a nasty bite. Assassin bugs feed on most plant pests so they are benevolent killers.



In addition to the Giant Cuttlefish, Port Phillip Bay is home to the psychedelic and very clever, Southern Dumpling Squid.  Underwater photographer and molluscs curator, Dr Mark Norman, says the little squid has a glowing organ it adjusts to mimic the luminance of the moon so its silhouette disappears on moonlit nights. This makes it invisible to predators, like flathead, below. Euprymna tasmanica also makes its own “camo-jacket” by gluing together a coat of sand it leaves behind as a decoy when predators attack.




Female Garden Skinks are lazy mothers. Up to 50 mother skinks drop one to four eggs in a communal nest, and then return to days of basking in the sun. Around March and in parks by rivers and streams, hundreds and hundreds of midget skinks hatch and then must fend for themselves.


Skinks are heliotherms, which means they must warm their cold blood in the sun, and shuttle between shade and sun to optimise their body temperature. Their tails drop off when attacked and slowly grow back but according to reptile expert and emeritus curator, John Coventry, a dropped tail decreases skinks’ chances of mating that year.   There are 16 skink species in greater Melbourne.

© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.