While we were confined to base eight of us climbed Mount Lambert. The walk to the top was supposed to take an hour but took closer to three because we were collecting the whole way up. One or other of us was always chasing something with a butterfly net, or turning over a rock or peering through binoculars at something in a tree.
Today it was my turn to hang around the camp monitoring the phones and radios. Christine, a scientist with Queensland Musuem, stayed behind to process specimens, and over lunch I asked her what the most interesting collection from the Mount Lambert walk had been. The story she told me was astonishing.
While I was madly scampering around taking photos of the magnificent views, Christine, Susan, Dom and Jamie were busy with their butterfly nets. Among the takings were two acroserid flies, captured by Susan – it was these Christine nominated as the catch of the day.
Acroserid flies have a weird and horrific life history. Their birth is a little uncertain – beginning as eggs laid on either the egg-sacs, or possibly the bodies, of spiders. After hatching, the larvae find their way into a spider’s body cavity, where they may live for several years, feeding on the internal organs of the still-living (but probably not thriving) spider. Finally they transform into winged adults, punching out through the spider’s skin and flying off in search of a mate.
I asked Christine whether there was any chance that theacroserids Susan captured might turn out to be new.
‘There’s no way of saying,’ said Christine. ‘The world expert on acroserids has got Alzheimer’s and will probably never work again. They’re what’s known as an orphan taxon: there’s nobody currently working on them and, unless someone new comes along, these specimens may never be identified to species level.’
For the most part the Bush Blitz scientists are only collecting species from groups that have an expert actively working on them. Such is the global shortage of taxonomists that hundreds of specimens belonging to orphan taxa have been released after being caught, because there is nobody in the world capable of identifying them. The Bush Blitz expedition will result in the collection of an impressive number of species (probably 500-1,000), but in all likelihood the true richness of Carnarvon Station will never be known.
Brian, Bush Blitz
Bush Blitz is a partnership between the Australian Government, BHP Billiton Sustainable Communities and Earthwatch Australia. The innovative program sends scientists out into the field to record the fascinating plants and animals in conservation areas across Australia.