Shake paws with the devil

One of the nice things about working in evolutionary biology (or any of the related, indistinguishable-for-all-practical-purposes Wild Thing Sciences) is that I was connected to a great number of cool people working on a great number of very cool creatures, in a great number of very cool places. Furthermore, the bureaucrats controlling modern-day Wild Thing Science are safety-paranoid enough that everyone doing "fieldwork" (working in the wild) must bring at least one buddy. That's one of the reasons I always brought volunteers on my trips, and why Wild Thing Scientists are constantly advertising for volunteers. If you're willing to work without getting paid there are many cool opportunities to work with a variety of wild animals worldwide. I know one evolutionary biologist who works solely on theory - all she needs to do her job is a working computer, essentially - but she travels the world going to exotic places and seeing incredible animals simply by tagging along with other biologists. It's actually an enviable system, as the "work" parts of fieldwork, like conducting experiments, collecting and preserving samples, and even just finding whatever animal you've decided you'd like to study, can be incredibly challenging, time-consuming, stressful and expensive. But tagging along on someone else's fieldwork? All the cool parts, none of the stresses!

This brings me to Dave. Dave is a friend of mine, and Scottish, which is why, when he got married, I got to wear a kilt. It was among the more exciting experiences of my life:

Dave (L) and me (R) wearing kilts at Dave's wedding. This was my first (and only) kilt-wearing experience.

Dave (L) and me (R) wearing kilts at Dave's wedding. This was my first (and only) kilt-wearing experience.

Dave is doing his PhD on Tasmanian Devils, one of the coolest mammals around. I took the opportunity to be a volunteer during his fieldwork, and for a week I got to go out every day and see Tasmanian devils in the wild!

Dave is working in the far north-west corner of Tasmania, where the facial tumour disease is still spreading into healthy devil populations. If you haven't heard of the devil facial-tumour disease, and the destruction it has wrought on the world's last Tasmanian devils, check this out.

Dave catches devils by setting traps for them. Each trap is a big PVC pipe blocked at one end, with a door at the entrance and a piece of meat dangling at the back of it. Here's what a trap looks like set, ready and waiting for a hungry devil to come along:

Inside the trap, the meat is dangling by a string at the very back. The string is tied to a pin which is holding the door open. The devil enters the trap, grabs and pulls on the meat, the meat pulls the string, the string pulls the pin, the pin lets go of the door and the door falls, trapping the devil inside.

A view inside a set devil trap, with the meat dangling from a string and ready for a big yank by a devil.

To ensure that the devils spend as little time in the traps as possible, Dave and his volunteers get up before the crack of dawn and drive out to his field site to check the traps. This is what they hope to find:

There's a devil in there! There's a devil in there!

Sometimes the initial excitement about a devil in a tube is unfounded: devils aren't the only predators prowling Tasmanian forests at night, and Dave sometimes has to deal with bycatch. If the bycatch is a tiger quoll, that's just icing on the devil's cake. Tiger quolls are another spectacular Australian marsupial currently going extinct, and getting to see one in the wild is just as much a privilege as seeing a wild devil. However, sometimes Dave catches feral cats, which are harbingers of death to native Australian animals and destruction to the Australian wilderness. Dave takes cats to be euthanized by a local veterinarian.

Dave sometimes catches spectacular tiger quolls, like this one, in traps set for devils.

Sometimes traps are closed with nothing inside. I like to think this is the result of Tasmanian tigers, because they'd be so big that they wouldn't fit completely in the trap, which would prevent the trap door from closing on them. More likely than not, though, it's due to trap malfunction or some other mundane explanation.

If the closed trap proves to contain a devil, now, for better or for worse, you have a devil in a tube. This may seem like a challenge, and devils do have a reputation for being scrappy little balls of teeth and claws, but I learned by watching Dave that as long as you handle them with care and precision they're actually really calm. I watched Dave take measurements from a lot of devils and never once did one try to bite him or scratch him. This is as much to Dave's credit as a professional wildlife biologist as it is to the devil's relative docility: handling wild animals, especially ones with sharp teeth and massive jaw muscles, is not for the uninitiated.

The first step of processing a devil is, of course, to get it out of the tube. To do this, the tube is lifted and tilted, the door opened, and the devil slid gently into a burlap sack:

Due to the weight of the devil and the size of the trap, this requires two people: one of the many tasks for volunteers!

Once the devil is in the burlap sack, it generally stays pretty calm. Dave manipulates the devil-within-the-sack into different positions so that he can inspect it, determine how healthy it is, determine if there's any evidence of the facial tumour disease, and take various measurements:

Here's Dave measuring a devil. It'd be extremely cumbersome to both take and record the measurements while controlling and manipulating a devil-in-a-sack, so data-recording is another important task for volunteers.

Among the parts of the devil Dave inspects are its paws:

Cute little devil paw!

Dave also inspects the female's pouch to see if they're currently nursing:

Tasmanian devil pouches: the pouch on the left belongs to a female without pups, the pouch on the right to a female with pups.


Finally, Dave takes a look at the devil's business end: its jaws. Tooth wear is a good way to estimate the age of a devil, as it is to estimate the age of a lot of mammal species. And around the jaws are where any signs of facial tumours will turn up, though the population Dave was working on when I visited had never had any evidence of devils with the facial tumour disease. Here's an inspection of the jaws of a healthy devil:

Dave, and all Tasmanian devil researchers and conservationists, are very concerned about the potential for humans to spread the facial tumour disease between devils. Notice that Dave is wearing disposable latex gloves: those go into the garbage and are replaced in-between each devil. Dave and all the volunteers also use alcohol disinfectant gel in-between each devil just to be safe. A brand new burlap sack is used for each devil. And after the devil is removed from a trap, the trap is thoroughly washed and disinfected before being reset: another job for volunteers!

Finally, it's time for the fun part! After being processed, the devils are released into the woods. The process of getting them free of the sack can be cumbersome, and is an opportunity for pictures to be taken with a devil! Usually, however, the devil takes off like a bat out of hell:

But, there's that rare occasion where the devil pauses for the briefest of moments to say goodbye, and, if you're lucky enough to have a photographer (another volunteer job!) quick on the shutter, it can be captured for all eternity:

Photos by Connie Leon.

Helping Dave work with Tasmanian devils in the wild was an experience of a lifetime. And he's looking for more volunteers!

Calendars by Tobias

Tobias Hayashi, phenomenal photographer and lizard-catcher, has made 2015 calendars using his pictures! He's made two, one featuring pictures of Australian orchids (which I purchase for myself, just to be unpredictable) and one featuring Australian wildlife. The Australian wildlife calendar features, on its cover, this picture of a Mallee military dragon (Ctenophorus fordi) from while Tobias was working with me in the field in South Australia.

So, if you're expecting a gift from me this Christmas, now you know what to expect! If you're not expecting a gift from me, you can always buy a calendar from Tobias.

Tobias on TV

One of my very first volunteers, Tobias Hayashi, was recently featured on TV for his amazing photography. Here's the segment. Tobias's photography was also recently on display at the ACT Legislative Assembly for the Canberra Ornithologists Group's 50th anniversary celebration.

Tobias is an amazing photographer, and I thought I'd put up some of his pictures from the fieldwork we did together in honour of his recent recognition.

Just for contrast's sake, here a photo I took of the same little dragon on the same branch:

Central Bearded Dragon. Gluepot Reserve, South Australia. Photo NOT by Tobias Hayashi.

This is why I leave the photography to the volunteers. 

The artist at work:

Tobias Hayashi photographing a tawny dragon. Burra, South Australia, 2011.

Volunteers, when left to their own devices

Addendum: Since the photo captions (where the photo credits usually go) aren't showing up unless you click on the picture, I thought I would add here that all these pictures were taken by Angus Kennedy. Most were also edited by Angus, but the three without Angus's ASK watermark were kindly guest-edited by Rebecca Sullivan.

One of my fieldsites was pretty close to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which is a spectacular and very famous Australian tourist destination. My two volunteers, Mitch and Angus, had never seen Uluru before so we decided to take a day off and go check it out.

"Pretty close" is, of course, a relative term. My fieldsite closest to Uluru was probably about 80 km away as the crow flies, but there aren't many roads around there so the driving distance ended up being over 250 km. That's pretty close if you consider that the closest pub was 100 km away and the closest grocery store over 400 km away.

It was worth the trek, not only to see a world-famous landmark, but also because our trailer needed repairs. And just to drive home the point, once at Uluru we got a flat tyre that then also needed to be repaired. So I spent the day being a Responsible Adult, hanging out at the mechanic's shop waiting. But first I dropped Angus and Mitch at the base of Uluru so they could spend the day checking it out. They spent the day doing cool, interesting stuff. This is what I found later, when I was looking through Angus's pictures:

*Click the images to enlarge them in a lightbox and see the captions.* 

Stuck in the world's oldest river

According to the world's most reliable source of scientific information, tourism promoters, the Finke River is the oldest river in the world. This is not backed up by the world's second most reliable source of scientific information, Wikipedia, which seems to be of the opinion that multiple Central Australian rivers have equal claim to the title. My question is can you really call a dry, flat expanse of sand a river?

Rebecca Sullivan, one of my volunteers, fixing dragon nooses in the middle of the Finke "River". 

Downstream, and I use the word loosely, of Finke Gorge National Park, the Finke River runs (again, figuratively speaking) for about 100km through a private pastoral lease called Henbury Station. Henbury was our first stop to look for dragons during my 2012 field season. The oldest man-made structure on Henbury is a log cabin that's served as the Henbury homestead for over 100 years. It's a beautifully preserved single room log cabin and a phenomenal piece of Australian outback history. For most of the past 100 years Henbury has been a working cattle station and the homestead compound has been built up accordingly around the log cabin. The homestead also sits right on the bank of the Finke. This is the Henbury homestead at sunrise, the Finke riverbed is barely visible in the far left (look for the dry sand peeking through the trees):

Henbury Station homestead with the Finke River at left. Photo by Rebecca Sullivan.

When we arrived at Henbury, after some quick introductions, the station manager offered to show us to our campsite so we could start looking for dragons right away. The first step was to get across the Finke. The station manager took off in her Hilux, and I followed in the ANU Landcruiser. Ten minutes into the first step of the first thing we had to do on our first day of fieldwork and I watched as her wheels started to spin in the sand of the Finke. She was bogged! Since I was still free, our first idea was to recover her Hilux by attaching it to our Landcruiser with a snatch strap and having me accelerate in reverse:

Our first vehicle recovery idea.

We quickly abandoned this recovery method as the strap was looped around the Hilux's trailer ball and that is most definitely not a good idea. Instead, the station manager sent for two station hands and a bunch of wooden planks to put under the tires and give them some traction. We decided to try and get around her so we could start setting up our campsite.  Despite having reduced our tyre pressure to as low as I was advised was safe with tube tyres, without the benefit of the well-worn tyre tracks we quickly got bogged as well:

The ANU Landcruiser, bogged in the Finke River within an hour of getting to the field. 

One thing I have learned about Australian culture: if you ask an incredulous question, such as "will we be able to get through that soft sand?" and the response is "Ah, you'll be 'right, mate!" your chances of being "'right" are, at best, 50/50. Anyway, to make a long story slightly shorter, the third vehicle that came to help us also got stuck, making that a total of three vehicles stuck in the Finke River.

The third vehicle, bogged behind ours. This picture makes it look like it wasn't even in 4 wheel drive mode! 

It took eight people, a lot of digging, several malt beverage bribes, lots of splintered boards, and finally a couple of sand ladders, which are basically giant-sized cheese graters, to get us out of there.

The station manager's Hilux was the first to be freed and get across the Finke. 

Freeing our Landcruiser took a little more liquid motivation.

By the time we got to our campsite it was almost sunset, and the day's "dragon hours" were over. The "dragon hours" are those hours when the sun is hot enough for the dragons to be out basking. They're about 10am - 4pm at the start of September. So instead we opened the last of our beer (our entire case of Coopers - 24 bottles - was consumed that day) and went for a swim. The Finke River, though mostly dry, is famous for its permanent waterholes.

The boys...

...and the girls enjoying a Finke River waterhole after a long, hot day's digging.