March 30 – April 1, 2014
By Gabby Ray
The first thing that struck me about Carnarvon Gorge was the sheer number of flies in the area. Coming from Lamington, where I developed an acute fear of leeches, I thought I would not mind having a couple of flies around. But it seemed to me that our campsite was infested with them. Once I realized that guarding my drinks and food was a futile effort, I was able to enjoy Carnarvon for everything else it offers.
The campground itself proved to be a gem. Never mind the flies, the area was filled with kangaroos and wallabies of all shapes and sizes. Especially around sunset, we were bound to see at least a couple of pretty faced wallabies (yes, that’s their real name) feeding close by. Conveniently for us, the natural defense mechanism of most of these marsupials is to freeze in place, so I got the opportunity to essentially have a photoshoot or two with these adorable little guys and their kangaroo cousins.
On Tuesday, we began our observations and experiments on the social behavior of animals. Waking up every morning to newly formed ant mounds directly outside our tents inspired my group to study communication in ant colonies. We decided to do a manipulative experiment. We would set up a piece of food one meter away from a designated ant colony. We would wait until a defined line of ants formed from the opening of the ant mound to the food, recording their times as they went along. We would then remove the food and record the time it would take the ants to stop going there, because we hypothesized the ants would use their pheromones to communicate that the food source was missing.
Unfortunately, our experiment was in an open, uncontrolled environment, which meant that we profoundly underestimated the quantity and diversity of ants in the area. We had three separate attempts to study three individual colonies, but each time another species of ant swooped in for the food before our designated study colony.
This small defeat led my group to a new direction of study: communication among termites. We initially observed that the termites in the eucalypt trees had built tunnels running up the length of the tree on the outside of the bark. Our tutor, Simon, told us that termites do not do well in UV light, so they grind up wood to create these small pathways from the top to the bottom of the tree.
We conducted an experiment on the termites with this in mind; we broke 2cm, 4cm, and 6cm sections open in their tunnels and recorded the termites’ response times. The first thing that happened when we opened the tunnel was a flood of soldier termites flew out of the broken section, surrounded the perimeter, and banged their heads on the wood, sending signals to the worker termites. Surprisingly, the workers, with large, black pincers, were much larger than the soldiers, who were smaller and red with flat heads. The workers did their job as fast as they could, in just under an hour for each section. It was interesting to observe the efficient division of labor among termites.
I think, having grown up in a very old, wood house, I always had somewhat of a bias against termites. I never exactly wanted to know how they worked, but after spending a few hours observing their complex systems and specialized workers, I realized I might have misjudged the intricate social behaviors of these little insects.
We’ve had a beautiful week at Carnarvon Gorge and have become immersed in learning about and observing Australian wildlife. In other words, all’s well on this side of the world!