Monthly Archives: March 2015



There are things in Australia that you just won’t see anywhere else in the world. Think of the Sydney Opera House or the Gold Coast. Even better, how about a large and terrifying redback spider, catching and eating an equally large and equally terrifying eastern brown snake? Have you heard of such an occurrence anywhere else in the world?

I didn’t think so.

Yet this is exactly the scene that Australian farmer Neale Postlethwaite came across in his garage late last month. You can see in the video below that the snake has its tail stuck in the redback’s strong web. Postlethwaite managed to film a quick video of the deadly encounter before the spider scurried back into its nest underneath his car.

The snake was dead and being devoured by ants when Postlethwaite came back to his garage the next day. The spider was unfortunately nowhere to be found. If I were this farmer, I think it would be a good time to buy a new car.


Henry Sapiecha

Venom bank to milk the lethal toxins from some of Australia’s most dangerous reptiles

Deadly droplets: Nick Clemann milking a Highland Copperhead snake for its venom.

Deadly droplets: Nick Clemann milking a Highland Copperhead snake for its venom. Photo: Penny Stephens

Venom samples from some of Australia’s most dangerous wildlife will be collected and stored at the country’s first publicly available venom bank, to be housed at Melbourne Museum.

The venom bank, a joint project between the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Melbourne Museum and Melbourne University, will store samples from snakes, spiders, scorpions and even the blue-ringed octopus and male platypus.

However, it will be a venom bank with a difference. Not only will the potentially deadly droplets be available for researchers to study but each venom sample will be able to be matched with the specimen it came from and tissue containing the animal’s DNA and RNA.

Of the more than 100,000 venomous species on the planet, probably only 1000 have been studied and fewer than 100 would be considered familiar to scientists.

Snake venom is most commonly collected for antivenom production – but even on that front Arthur Rylah senior scientist Nick Clemann said there was much still to be learnt.

For example, researchers are starting to explore if venom from the same species can vary depending on age or geographic location. The venom produced by an alpine-dwelling copperhead snake may well differ from its lowland counterpart.

“This raises the question; could we make better antivenom if it was geographic-specific,” Mr Clemann said. “A Melbourne-specific tiger snake antivenom may be more effective and have fewer side-effects than the current antivenom which uses snakes collected from anywhere in Australia.”

The samples stored at the venom bank will be available to researchers across Australia, with research topics not limited to improving antivenom.

Analysing the differences between a species venom depending on location may also provide researchers with valuable taxonomic information.

Venom is also known to have other uses in the pharmaceutical sphere. An ingredient derived from cone snail venom, a type of marine mollusc, is already used in the painkiller Ziconotide. The naturally-occurring toxin has a potency 1000-times that of morphine.

Venoms also have shown potential for use in next-generation coronary, blood pressure and heart disease medication.

In 2013, University of Queensland researchers identified new types of anticoagulants and compounds that open arteries and increase blood flow in the venom of the common vampire bat from Central and South America.

“It’s pretty neat that nature can turn 180-degrees and something that was once feared and harmful becomes something that is beneficial,” Mr Clemann said.


Henry Sapiecha

The lyrebird has firefighter skills to be admired

Superb lyrebirds reduced forest litter by 1.66 tonnes per hectare over a nine-month period.

Some forests have an unlikely fire warden: the superb lyrebird.

Lyrebirds are reducing the chance of fires occurring in the areas where they forage … and unburnt patches within large wildfires are really important sites for animals to survive.

New research has revealed the iconic songbird reduces the risk of bushfire by spreading dry leaf litter and digging safe havens that help other species survive fires.

The lyrebird’s foraging reduces forest fuel loads, which in turn can reduce the risk of life-threatening fires, researchers from La Trobe University have found.

With feet like garden rakes, and an appetite for worms and bugs that live in the soil, lyrebirds sift the forest floor, burying the leaf and other forest ltter, speeding up leaf decomposition, and reducing the amount of fuel for bushfires.

Their foraging was also found to inhibit the growth of ferns, grasses and other plants which would otherwise contribute more potential bushfire fuels.

The research, an honours project for student Daniel Nugent, quantifies the lyrebird’s role in forest litter reduction.

Conducted in burnt and unburnt sites in the footprint of Black Saturday’s two most devastating blazes, it showed that lyrebirds reduced forest litter by a massive 1.66 tonnes per hectare over a nine-month period.

Researchers produced these measurements by comparing the amount of litter in unfenced plots of the forest, with neighbouring plots that had been fenced off.

“Lyrebird foraging areas may therefore suppress the horizontal and vertical spread of fire, limiting the extent and severity of fire events. Our modelling suggests that the reduction in litter fuel loads brought about by lyrebird foraging has the potential to result in markedly subdued fire behaviour relative to that predicted in the absence of lyrebirds,” the report said.

“The loss of lyrebirds from forests adjacent and within urban areas could result in higher fuel loads and an increased likelihood of wildfires threatening human life,” said the report, published in the CSIRO’s journal Wildlife Research.

Steve Leonard, research fellow in the Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution at La Trobe University, said lyrebirds performed their protective role as they searched for food.

“They forage like chickens, they’ve got big feet with really long toes so they’ve basically got rakes for feet. They rake through the litter looking for worms and little bugs, stuff to eat. They’re digging through that humus and litter layer looking for little invertebrates and whatever they can find,” he said.

“Through that process they reduce the litter fuel load by, on average, 25 per cent, or about 1.6 tonnes per hectare. And we put those figures into a fire behaviour model and found that that level of fuel reduction is enough [that] in low fire-danger weather conditions it excludes fire, fire’s not possible under low to moderate conditions. But even in more extreme conditions the fire behaviour will be more moderate, [with] lower rates of spread, lower flame height, so a less intense fire,” he said.

“Our conclusion is that lyrebirds are reducing the chance of fires occurring in the areas where they forage and the ecological significance of that is that unburnt patches within large wildfires are really important sites for animals to survive post-fire,” Dr Leonard said.

Alex Maisey, convener of the Sherbrooke Lyrebird Survey Group, welcomed the research.

“It really shows that it’s an important species to maintain through predator control of the fox, even deer control, for maintaining the habitat in those key areas where the lyrebirds breed,” he said.


Henry Sapiecha


It is less than 10mm long, but the aptly named enigma moth was recently discovered on Kangaroo Island.

It is less than 10mm long, but the aptly named enigma moth was recently discovered on Kangaroo Island.Australia.. Photo: Leigh Henningham

A newly discovered species of moth that is so primitive it is being described as a living dinosaur has prompted scientists to redraw the insect’s family tree.

Only found on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, the tiny ‘enigma’ moth represents an entire new family of primitive moths, which has helped entomologists better understand the world of moth and butterfly evolution.

Published in the journal Systematic Entomology, results of DNA analysis of the enigma moth conducted in Europe suggests that moth and butterfly evolution is far more complex than previously thought.

For a start CSIRO honorary fellow and moth specialist Ted Edwards said the results showed that tongues evolved in moths and butterflies more than once. Although this primitive moth doesn’t have a tongue, its earlier ancestors did.

“This moth demonstrated that the development of the musculature in the tongue of moths didn’t just happen once, it happened independently twice,” Dr Edwards said.

He said the enigma moth retained many other structural features associated with primitive moth species which lived 40 to 50 million years ago, including the wing mechanism.

“It’s really quite remarkable because it means that that ancestral line has continued right through without changing a lot of its basic structures,” he said.

It’s the first time since the 1970s that a new family of primitive moths has been identified.

The moth was first found on Kangaroo Island in 2009 by local scientist Richard Glatz but it was a few years before he contacted Dr Edwards for advice.

Dr Edwards said he knew straight away that he was looking at something “totally exceptional”.

Dr Glanz said he found the moths on cypress pine trees in a remote river valley near sand dunes. More specimens were collected in 2012 and 2013 before the moth could be confirmed as a new species.

With a wingspan no larger than a five cent piece the enigma moth is small – with a lifespan to match. Its wings shine gold and purple and have delicate fringed edges.

The adult moths are short-lived. In just one day they emerge from their cocoons, mate, females lay their eggs, and then die.

The moth has been named Aenigmatinea glatzella – in honour of Dr Glatz.

The name appeals to Dr Edwards, who pointed out that in German ‘Glatze’ means bald. One of the features of the moth is that its head is sparsely covered by scales.

Conservative estimates suggest Australia is home to about 22,000 species of moths and butterflies, only half of which have been named.

Henry Sapiecha