Animals: Dragons, spiders, birds and riptides (which aren’t actually animals)

There are some pretty amazing animals here. First of all there is, of course, our good friend Draco. He is usually lounging outside on his rock right next to the bridge we cross daily. He carries himself with a dignified air, managing to look down on us even though he is only ten centimetres in height. A few of his colleagues sometimes scurry around in the bushes, but none of them has quite the spot like he has. No one dares kick Draco off his throne.

At sunset, the campus is invaded by an overwhelming amount of bats. The first time we saw them we thought they were circling our heads in Riefenstahl-fashion: entering our field of vision from over the trees in front of us, to exiting again over the trees behind us in an endless circle. We were assured though that there actually are that many bats and they migrate at sunset. They form a majestic sight. Ben, a biologist whom we hang out with sometimes, assured us that we don’t have to be afraid: “they don’t defecate when they forage.”

Then there are, of course, the spiders. For the first couple of days after our arrival I have to admit we barely dared to cross our room to the toilet at night, for fear of massive octolegs lurking around. In practice, we’ve mostly only seen one kind of spider, and it keeps properly lurking in its web. One of my fellow PhD Students “shook hands” with a redback spider a couple of weeks ago, but fortunately was not bitten. The redbacks aren’t deadly per se, but they can inflict a nasty amount of pain and you definitely want to get treatment just to make sure. For some reason we had imagined the very poisonous spiders to also be a lot larger than their Dutch counterparts, but the redbacks and the funnel web, the deadliest spider around and lucky for us, living in the wider Sydney area, measure a mere 1 to 5 centimetres in body length.

A male redback in the window of a toilet during a conference at Pearl Beach. I’m not afraid to admit I only did number ones in that room.

If spiders have nightmares, then one of their own would figure prominently in them: the huntsman. Considering that the funnel web can kill a human within 15 minutes, then how scary must the huntsman be? The good news is, it’s not able to kill humans: its venom barely has any effect on us. The bad news is that its legs can grow to about 10 centimetres in length (so that’s about 20 cm in diameter) and it doesn’t mind walking into people’s houses. Furthermore, the huntsman is freakishly fast. It can skittle away with a speed of at least 16 body lengths per second. And those are the slowpokes. That being said, it keeps the other spiders under control. Which is a nice thing. Or so a professor at our department said after he hung up the phone to run home and relieve his wife from the huntsman that was sitting on the stove.

This list would not be complete without describing the birds that fly around here. The first type of bird we encountered we didn’t see, but it made sure we heard it. Take a moment to imagine a cat somewhere high up in a tree. Now imagine that cat being strangled. Loudly. That is the sound these birds make. Not surprisingly, we christened them ‘cat-strangles’; although a few weeks later I heard they’re actually cockatoos. In any case, they’re the loudest of the bunch, making more noise than a bunch of teenage girls just having spotted Hugh Jackman. On that note: Jackman was lauded as a real-life hero recently, when he saved his 15-year old son from a riptide and then returned to help several other unfortunate swimmers. Which leads me into a short tangent.

By JJ Harrison ( - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
A cockatoo as we see them here. By JJ Harrison – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Now a riptide is somewhat like a wind tunnel in water. It’s usually perpendicular to the beach and drags those unlucky souls who are caught in it away to the open sea in a strong current. They’re hard to spot and unprepared swimmers tend to panic when they get swooped up. Because they have a relatively small width, the best thing to do is swim parallel to the beach and exit the riptide, accepting that the riptide might drag you out to sea a little bit. Their danger mostly lies in the fact that people tend to either be arrogant enough to think they can swim against the current, or they lose their cool and do the same. In both cases exhaustion will catch up and by the time the swimmer exits the riptide, he’s too far out in open sea to return on his own. Unless Wolverine happens to be near of course.

Back to the animals. I mentioned the catstranglers, but there are other birds worthy of presentation. Across from campus, where we live, is a botanical garden which we visited a couple of weeks ago. It has several different areas, one of which is the Japanese garden, including pink blossom, an Eastern dome and ditto bridges. A really nice place. Parrots populate the garden, bright in yellow, green, red, and blue. They have two redeeming features. They look colourful and definitely help with the feeling I’m living on some kind of tropical island now. But what I like best about them is that they don’t make such a bloody noise.

We also found some ducks in the garden. A sign nearby warned us not to feed them, with the most important reason being that the food might attract seagulls which are very hard to get out of the garden again. Furthermore, they would sometimes catch and eat the little ducklings. Even though I haven’t seen it myself, they do come across a bit aggressive and are certainly not afraid of anything when they are with numbers. And they always are.

But even a dozen of seagulls would be powerless against the giant, giant duck that lives on campus. If it indeed is a duck and not the escaped result of some genetic experiment gone awry. In our third week here we decided to eat our lunch on the grass near my office. We had barely sat down before the ground began to shake in a Jurassic Park-esque rumble and The Duck came near. My wife quickly stood up, but I kept sitting as I expected the monstrosity to watch us from a distance. Nothing was further from the truth as it fearlessly approached me and ogled my frozen yoghurt. It stood so tall that we faced each other eye to eye as I was sitting. We held each other’s gaze like that, before I decided I was at a fighting disadvantage from my current position, stood up and walked off.

The Wife was not so easily impressed by the Duck’s antics

A friendlier bird altogether, at first sight that is, is the kookaboraah, standing about 15 centimetres tall. It’s a plumb bird with a slick hairdo, combed from the front of its head to the back. The beak is large and its black marble eyes carefully study you, or rather, the food you’re having. And it laughs. You read it right, the kookaboraah laughs, and does so loudly. Very. Loudly. Walking through a treeline with a bunch of laughing kookaboraahs feels kind of like walking through a school yard with your pants down. Not that I have ever done so mind you, but I imagine the crowd to react much the same way. The birds definitely succeed in making you feel like you’re doing something very stupid.

A Kookaboorah, ready to make fun of you

By far the cutest animal we saw, was a baby kangaroo. Young ‘Joeys’ need the comfort and safety of their mother’s pouch for at months before they can hop about on their own. When it’s born, a little, hairless Joey climbs through its mother’s fur to the pouch and doesn’t leave it for the next nine months. It grows about 40 centimetres in that time and can stick it tiny head out of the pouch soon, carefully taking in the world around him. Its mummy can bear another Joey while the first one is still in the pouch. And like I said, a Joey doesn’t leave the pouch until after those nine months are over. You’re welcome for that image I just put into your head.

In our case, the little Joey had lost its mother, and had to be constantly carried around in a sack by its surrogate mother. We’re not allowed to share pictures of the Joey with its human caretaker. It was definitely worth running into the little ‘roo, and was one of the first moments where I thought: “Yup, we’re in Australia now.”

The beautiful picture of Draco is made by Lies Bruines.