The sexy gum: a love story



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Dr Michael Whitehead is campaigning to rename the Gimlet Gum to the Sexy Gum.
Author provided (No reuse)

Michael Whitehead, University of Melbourne

It is perhaps poetic that a region most famous for its lack of trees lies so close to one of Australia’s greatest tree-based spectacles. The Nullarbor Plain, our famous, flat, featureless expanse is literally named for its absence of trees (“arbor” being Latin for tree).

And if you ever get to drive west along the longest stretch of dead-straight road across this iconic landscape, you will come to know the highlights that characterise the experience: the cliff-top views of the Great Australian Bight and the idiosyncratic roadhouses.




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Then finally, a landscape of low shrubs gives way to mallee trees and woodland vegetation. Somewhere between Caiguna and Fraser Range you’ll see your first Eucalyptus salubris, also known as a gimlet gum, or joorderee by the Ngadju people.

It was on a recent botanical research trip chasing scraggly emu bushes that I stumbled upon, and fell in love with, Eucalytpus salubris. The trunks were what instantly caught my eye, slender with graceful twists, all the more observable for the brilliantly shining coppery bark.



The Conversation

The sexy gum

The tree first appears in European record during early explorations crossing east of the Darling Range. Then, it was called “cable gum” after the gently twisting grooves in the trunks.

Later the tree was given the common name of “gimlet” after a form of hand drill. Unfortunately this name stuck and today the species remains “gimlet” – a wholly unattractive moniker for such a splendid tree.

But our imaginations need not be held hostage by the stubborn colonialists who named our flora after such dreary things.




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That’s why I’m campaigning to update the common name to something more universal, more marketable, something truer to its sensual twists and smooth, glowing bronze surface.

Eucalytpus salubris is the Sexy Gum.

Love goes where my eucalypt grows

E. salubris is a dominant species forming woodlands on deep soils east of the Darling Range. And while much of its former range in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia has been cleared, extensive populations of E. salubris remain in the astonishing stronghold of the Great Western Woodlands.

Those who have walked in a mature woodland understand the pleasure of wandering unimpeded in the shade of widely spaced trees.

Widely spaced trees of the Great Western Woodlands.
Keren Gila/Wikimedia, CC BY

The Great Western Woodlands offers this experience on a grand scale. At around 16 million hectares they are the largest tracts of intact temperate woodlands on Earth, occupying an area larger than England and Wales combined.

And it is not just size that is impressive about these woodlands.

The Great Western Woodlands are a renowned hotspot for eucalypt diversity, home to around 30% of Australia’s eucalypt species in just 2% of its land area.

As one of the more common species throughout the area, E. salubris plays a critical ecological role, providing habitat for several threatened bird species including the rotund and charismatic Mallee fowl.




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Due to its remoteness and unreliable rainfall, the Great Western Woodlands has avoided the widescale grazing and clearing that has degraded neighbouring areas to the south and west.

But despite the value of this untouched landscape, most of the area is “orphan country” with no formal management policies in place. Some 60% of the Great Western Woodlands is unallocated crown land, unmanaged and open access.

This is a plus for visitors wanting to experience it now, but raises important concerns about the long-term security of the area.

While remote, threats to the Great Western Woodlands do exist. Chief among them is the increasing frequency and intensity of bush fires.

Most eucalypts are resprouters with the ability to regenerate burned canopies from buds under the bark. There are, however a number of species, such as Mountain Ash, that will die following canopy fires and can only regenerate from the soil seedbank (called “reseeders”).




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E. salubris, the sexy gum, is one such reseeder. While the traditional occupants of the land used fire as a land management tool, they also knew E. salubris woodland took hundreds of years to regenerate and were careful to never burn the canopy of old growth forests.

The eye-pleasing spectacle of mature open Eucalytpus salubris woodland above red soil and blue-bush therefore exists today thanks to careful management from this era, and deserves careful handling to ensure its ongoing future.

An ambassador for the Great Western Woodlands

Late in the day, when the Sun’s glancing rays light up the bark of E. salubris, punctuating a pastel blue-green woodland with glowing streaks like molten metal, it’s hard to not stop for at least a moment and be impressed.

And while E. salubris’ role as keystone species might be important ecologically, I think the Sexy Gum can be similarly important as ambassador and draw-card for the Great Western Woodlands.

Its golden tones and metallic lustre conjures just the appropriate impression for the WA Goldfields. It is totally Instagram-able, and I don’t think it’s a hard sell to convince people E. salubris is a spectacle worth getting off the beaten track for.The Conversation

Michael Whitehead, Research Fellow in Evolutionary Ecology, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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We wrote the report for the minister on fish deaths in the lower Darling – here’s why it could happen again


Robert Vertessy, University of Melbourne; Fran Sheldon, Griffith University; Lee Baumgartner, Charles Sturt University; Nick Bond, La Trobe University, and Simon Mitrovic, University of Technology Sydney

Over the recent summer, three significant fish death events occurred in the lower Darling River near Menindee, New South Wales. Species involved included Murray Cod, Silver Perch, Golden Perch and Bony Herring, with deaths estimated to be in the range of hundreds of thousands to over a million fish. These events were a serious ecological shock to the lower Darling region.

Our report for the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources examines the causes of these events and recommend actions to mitigate the potential for repeat events in the future.

The final report has just been released, summarising what we found and what we recommend.

Causes of the fish deaths

High-flow events in the Darling River in 2012 and 2016 filled the Menindee Lakes and offered opportunities for substantial fish breeding, further aided by the targeted use of environmental water.

The result was very large numbers of fish in the lakes, river channels and weir pools around Menindee. After the lake-filling rains of late 2016, two very dry years ensued, resulting in very low inflows into the Barwon-Darling river.

As the supply of water dried up, the river became a series of disconnected and shrinking pools. As the extremely hot and dry conditions in late 2018 took hold, the large population of fish around Menindee became concentrated within weir pools.

Hot weather, low rainfall and low flows provided ideal conditions for algal blooms and thermal stratification in the weir pools, resulting in very low oxygen concentrations within the bottom waters.

With the large fish population now isolated to the oxygenated surface waters of the pools, all that was needed for the fatal blow was a trigger for the water profile to mix. Such a trigger arrived on three separate occasions, with changes in the weather that brought sudden drops in temperature and increased wind that caused sudden turnover of the low-oxygen bottom waters.

Summary of the multiple causes of the 2018-19 fish death events in the lower Darling river.

With the fish already stressed by high temperatures, they were now unable to gain enough oxygen from the water to breathe, and a very large number of them died. As we write, the situation in the lower Darling remains dire, and there is a risk of further fish deaths if there are no significant inflows to the river.

Fish deaths caused by these sorts of turnover events are not uncommon, but the conditions outlined above made these events unusually dramatic.

So, how did such adverse conditions arise in the lower Darling river and how might we avoid their reoccurrence? We’ve examined four influencing factors: climate, water management, lake operations, and fish mobility.

Key influencing factors

We found that the fish death events in the lower Darling were preceded and affected by exceptional climatic conditions.

Inflows to the water storages in the northern Basin over 2017-18 were the second lowest for any two-year period on record. Most of the Murray-Darling Basin experienced its hottest summer on record, exemplified by the town of Bourke breaking a new heatwave record for NSW, with 21 consecutive days with a maximum temperature above 40℃.

We concluded that climate change amplified these conditions and will likely result in more severe droughts in the future.

Changes in the water access arrangements in the Barwon–Darling River, made just prior to the commencement of the Basin Plan in 2012, exacerbated the effects of the drought. These changes enhanced the ability of irrigators to access water during low flow periods, meaning fewer flow pulses make it down the river to periodically reconnect and replenish isolated waterholes that provide permanent refuge habitats for fish during drought.

We conclude that the Lake Menindee scheme had been operated according to established protocols, and was appropriately conservative given the emerging drought conditions. But low connectivity in the lower Darling resulted in poor water quality and restricted mobility for fish.

Recommended policy and management actions

Given the right mix of policy and management actions, Basin governments can significantly reduce the risks of further fish death events and promote the recovery of affected fish populations.

The Basin Plan is delivering positive environmental outcomes and more benefits will accrue once the plan is fully implemented. But more needs to be done to enhance river connectivity and protect low flows, first flushes and environmental flow releases in the Barwon-Darling river.

Drought resilience in the lower Darling can be enhanced by reconfiguring the Lake Menindee Water Savings Project, modifying the current Menindee Lakes operating rules and purchasing high security water entitlements from horticultural enterprises in the region.

In Australia, water entitlements are the rights to a share of the available water resource in any season. Irrigators get less (or no) water in dry (or extremely dry) years.

A high-security water entitlement is one with a high chance of receiving the full water allocation. In some systems, although not all, this is expected to happen 95 per cent of the time. And these high-security entitlements are the most valuable and sought after.

Fish mobility can be enhanced by removing barriers to movement and adding fish passageways.

It would be beneficial for environmental water holders to place more of their focus on sustaining fish populations through drought sequences.

The river models that governments use to plan water sharing need to be updated more regularly to accurately represent the state of Basin development, configured to run on a whole-of-basin basis, and improved to more faithfully represent low flow conditions.

There are large gaps in water quality monitoring, metering of water extractions and basic hydro-ecologic knowledge that should be filled.

Risk assessments need to be undertaken to identify likely fish death event hot spots and inform future emergency response plans.

All of these initiatives need to be complemented by more sophisticated and reliable assessments of the impacts of climate change on water security across the Basin.

Governments must accelerate action

Responding to the lower Darling fish deaths in a prompt and substantial manner provides governments an opportunity to redress some of the broader concerns around the management of the Basin.

To do so, Basin governments must increase their political, bureaucratic and budgetary support for high value reforms and programs, particularly in the northern Basin.

All of our recommendations can be implemented within the current macro-settings of the Basin Plan and do not require a revisiting of the challenging socio-political process required to define Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs).

Successful implementation will require a commitment to authentic collaboration between governments, traditional owners, local communities, and sustained input from the science community.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Daren Barma, Director of Barma Water Consulting, to this article.

A version of this article has been published in Pursuit.The Conversation

Robert Vertessy, Enterprise Professor, University of Melbourne; Fran Sheldon, Professor, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Griffith University; Lee Baumgartner, Associate Research Professor (Fisheries and River Management), Institute for Land, Water, and Society, Charles Sturt University; Nick Bond, Professor of Freshwater Ecology and Director of the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems, La Trobe University, and Simon Mitrovic, Associate Professor, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bees seeking blood, sweat and tears is more common than you think



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Known sweat-collecting stingless bees, Tetragonula sp., from the bee family Apidae.
Tobias Smith, Author provided

Manu Saunders, University of New England and Tobias Smith, The University of Queensland

The recent story of four live bees pulled from inside a woman’s eye quickly grabbed people’s attention. News reports claimed the bees were “sweat bees”, the common name for species in the bee family Halictidae.

There are some contradictory and unlikely statements in the many news reports covering this story, so it’s hard to know what actually happened. The images accompanying many reports, which some reporters captioned as the live sweat bees in the Taiwanese woman’s eye, are actually uncredited images from a completely unrelated story – this report by Hans Bänzinger of a stingless bee species (Lisotrigona cacciae) collecting tears from his eye in Thailand.


The Guardian/ Bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) That Drink Human Tears, in Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society.

All in all, we would consider it extremely unlikely for multiple adult insects to survive inside a human eye for very long. Most halictid bees are too large to get trapped in your eye unnoticed. Female sweat bees also have stingers so you would definitely know straight away!

But whether this story is accurate or not, there are bees who would happily feast on human tears – and blood, sweat and even dead animals. Flower-loving insects like bees and butterflies often seek out other food sources that are at odds with their pretty public image.




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Un-bee-lievable

So why would bees hang around someone’s eye in the first place? It’s a bit of a myth that all bees only collect pollen and nectar for food. There are bee species all over the world that also feed on the bodily fluids of living and dead animals, including animal honeydew, blood, dead meat, dung, sweat, faeces, urine and tears. This is a source of important nutrients they can’t get from flowers, like sodium, or protein and sugar when floral resources are scarce.




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The term “sweat bee” is used colloquially for bees that ingest human sweat as a nutritional resource.

Many people think the term only refers to bees in the Halictidae family. But not all halictid bee species are known to collect sweat, while many species in the Apidae family, particularly stingless bees, are common sweat-collectors in tropical areas around the world. Swarms of sweat-seeking stingless bees can be a nuisance to sweaty humans in tropical places.

And it’s not just sweat; stingless bees have quite diverse tastes and collect many non-floral resources. There are also a few neotropical Trigona species that collect animal tissue as their main protein source, instead of pollen. These species collect floral nectar and make honey, like other stingless bees, but predominantly scavenge on carrion (they are technically know as obligate necrophages).

Vulture bees feed on rotting meat rather than pollen or nectar.
Wikipedia/José Reynaldo da Fonseca, CC BY-SA

Regardless of taxonomy, bees that are attracted to sweat often use other bodily fluids too, like tears. Tear-feeding is such a common behaviour among insects, it has an official name: lachryphagy. Some stingless bees from south Asia, such as the Lisotrigona species mentioned above, are well-known lachryphagous insects, often seen congregating in groups around animal eyes (including humans) to harvest fluids. They don’t harm the animal in the process, although their activity might be a nuisance to some.

In South America, Centris bees are large, solitary apid bees, in the same family as stingless bees and honey bees. These bees are often observed drinking tears from animal eyes; published observations include interactions with caimans and turtles.

Bees aren’t the only insects that regularly drink from animal eyes. Our world-famous hand gesture, the Aussie salute, is designed to deter the common bush flies (Musca species) that hang around our faces on hot days, looking for a quick drink of sweat, saliva or tears. These flies are also commonly seen clustered around livestock eyes on farms.

The feeding habits of butterflies would shock many people who think they are dainty, angelic flower-frequenting creatures. Butterflies are common feeders on dung, carrion, mud and various other secretions, including animal tears. Moths are also well-known nocturnal feeders on animal tears, even while they are sleeping.

Julia butterflies drinking the tears of Arrau turtles in Ecuador.
Wikimedia/amalavida.tv, CC BY-SA

Although most of us wouldn’t like the idea of an insect drinking out of our eyelid, this isn’t the stuff of nightmares. It’s just another fascinating, but little-known, story of how animals interact with each other. From a bee’s perspective, an animal’s eye is just another food source.




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It produces secretions that provide important nutrients, just like a flower produces nectar and pollen. Although entomologists know this behaviour occurs, we still don’t fully understand how common it is, or how reliant pollinating insects are on different animals in their local environment.

But, while tear-collecting behaviour is normal for many insects, the odds of live bees crawling inside your eye to live are extremely low.The Conversation

Manu Saunders, Research fellow, University of New England and Tobias Smith, Ecologist, bee researcher and stingless bee keeper, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.