Humpback whales have been spotted in a Kakadu river. So in a fight with a crocodile, who would win?



Northern Territory Government

Vanessa Pirotta, Macquarie University

In recent months, three humpback whales were spotted in the East Alligator River in the Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park. Contrary to its name, the river is full of not alligators but crocodiles. And its shallow waters are no place for a whale the size of a bus.

It was the first time humpback whales had been recorded in the river, and the story made international headlines. In recent days, one whale was spotted near the mouth of the river and scientists are watching it closely.

The whales’ strange detour threw up many questions. How did they end up in the river? What would they eat? Would they get stuck on the muddy river bank?

And of course, there was one big question I was repeatedly asked: in an encounter between a crocodile and a humpback whale, which animal would win?

A crocodile partially submerged in a river
The whales swam into a crocodile-infested river.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Scientists double-take

The humpback whales were first spotted in September this year by marine ecologist Jason Fowler and fellow scientists, during a fishing trip. Fowler told the ABC:

I noticed a big spout, a big blow on the horizon and I thought that’s a big dolphin … We were madly arguing with each other about what we were actually seeing. After four hours of raging debate we agreed we were looking at humpback whales in a river.

The whales had swum about 20 kilometres upstream. Fowler photographed the humpback whales’ dorsal fins as evidence, and reported the unusual sighting to authorities and scientists.

Thankfully, two whales returned to sea on their own, leaving just one in need of help. There was concern it might become stranded in the shallow, murky tidal waters. If this happened, it might be attacked by crocodiles – more on this in a minute.




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Experts considered a variety of tactics to encourage the whale back out to sea. These included physical barriers such as nets or boats, and playing the sounds of killer whales – known predators of humpback whales.

But none of these these options was needed. After 17 days, the last whale swam back to sea on its own.

The whale that spent two weeks in the river has recently returned and been spotted swimming around the mouth of the river. It appears to have lost weight – most likely the result of migration. It is now being monitored nearby in Van Diemen Gulf.

Questions are now being raised about the health of the animal, and why it has not headed south for Antarctic feedings waters.

A humpback whale that spent two weeks in the East Alligator River has recently been spotted nearby.
Dr Carol Palmer

So why were whales in the river?

The whales are part of Australia’s west coast humpback whale population, which each year travels from cold feeding waters off Antarctica to warm waters in the Kimberley to breed.

There are various theories as to why they swam into the East Alligator River. Humpback whales are extremely curious, and may have entered the river to explore the area.

Alternatively, they may have made a navigation error – also the possible reason behind September’s mass stranding of pilot whales in Tasmania.

And the big question – what about the crocs?

Long-term, a humpback whale’s chances of surviving in the East Alligator River are slim. The lower salinity level may cause them skin problems, and they may become stranded in the shallow waters – unable to move off the muddy bank. Here the animal might die from overheating, or its organs may be crushed by the weight of its body. Or, of course, the whale may be attacked by crocodiles.

In this case, my bet would be on the whale – if it was in relatively good condition and could swim well. Humpback whales are incredible powerful creatures. One flick of their large tail would often be enough to send a crocodile away.




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If a croc bit a whale, their teeth would likely penetrate the whale’s skin and thick blubber. But it would take a lot more to do serious harm. Whale skin has been shown to heal after traumatic events, including the case of a humpback whale cut by a boat propeller in Sydney 20 years ago. Dubbed Bladerunner, it survived but still bears deep scars.

Humpback whales are very large and powerful. One flick of their tail could send a crocodile away.
Dr Vanessa Pirotta

What next?

The whale sighting continues to fascinate experts. Scientists are hoping to take poo samples from the whale in Van Diemen Gulf, and could also collect whale snot to learn more about its health. However, the best case scenario would be to see the whale swim willingly to offshore waters.

This unusual tale will no doubt go down in Australian whale history. If nothing else, it reminds us of the vulnerability – and resilience – of these marine giants.


The author would like to thank Northern Territory Government whale expert Dr Carol Palmer for her assistance with this article.The Conversation

Vanessa Pirotta, Wildlife scientist, Macquarie University

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

Introducing the Maliwawa Figures: a previously undescribed rock art style found in Western Arnhem Land



A Maliwawa macropod found in the Namunidjbuk clan estate of the Wellington Range.
P. Taçon

Paul S.C.Taçon, Griffith University and Sally K. May, Griffith University

Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, has a remarkable range and number of rock art sites, rivalling that of Europe, southern Africa and various parts of Asia. Several thousand sites have been documented and each year new discoveries are made by various research teams working closely with local Aboriginal communities.

Today, in the journal Australian Archaeology, we and colleagues introduce an important previously undescribed rock art style. Consisting of large human figures and animals, the style is primarily found in northwest Arnhem Land, and has been named Maliwawa Figures by senior Traditional Owner Ronald Lamilami.

Infographic summarising some of the main features of Maliwawa rock art .
Infographic: P. Taçon; digital tracing: Fiona Brady

We recorded 572 Maliwawa paintings at 87 rock shelters over a 130-kilometre east-west distance, from Awunbarna (Mount Borradaile) to the Namunidjbuk clan estate of the Wellington Range, a region home to unique and internationally significant rock art of various types.

Maliwawa Figures consist of red to mulberry naturalistic human and animal forms shaded with stroked lines. Occasionally they are in outline with just a few strokes within. Almost all were painted but there is one drawing.

The figures are often large (over 50 cm high), sometimes life-size, although there are also some small ones (20–50 cm in height). Various lines of evidence suggest the figures most likely date to between 6,000 to 9,400 years of age.

Map of Kakadu/Arnhem Land showing the general location of the Awunbarna and Namunidjbuk areas.
Produced by A. Jalandoni; base map by Stamen Design [OpenStreetMap].

Animal-human relationships

In the Maliwawa paintings, human figures are frequently depicted with animals, especially macropods (kangaroos and wallabies), and these animal-human relationships appear to be central to the artists’ message. In some instances, animals almost appear to be participating in or watching some human activity.

Another key theme is a male or indeterminate human figure holding an animal, often a snake, or another human figure or an object.

Such scenes are rare in early rock art, not just in Australia but worldwide. They provide a remarkable glimpse into past Aboriginal life and cultural beliefs.

Scene of two male Maliwawas with ball headdresses reaching down to a shorter indeterminate human figure with a snake behind the male on the right and behind the left male a female and a macropod, Namunidjbuk. An indeterminate human figure with a cone and feather headdress is above.
P Tacon

Maliwawa animals are usually in profile. Some macropods are shown in a human-like sitting pose with paws in front, resembling a person playing a piano. Depictions of animal tracks (footprints) and geometric designs are rare.

Macropods, birds, snakes and longtom fish are the most frequent animal subjects, comprising three quarters of total fauna. But, more generally, mammals are most common.

There are seven depictions of animals long extinct in the Arnhem Land region, consisting of four thylacines and three bilby-like creatures. At one Namunidjbuk site there is a rare depiction of a dugong.

Digital tracing of panel of three bilby-like animals, Awunbarna.
Digital tracing: Fiona Brady

A third of human depictions were classified as male because they have male genitalia depicted. Females, identified because breasts were shown, are rare, comprising only 5% of human depictions. Almost 59% of human figures could not be determined to be either male or female because they lack sex-specific characteristics.

Human figures generally have round-shaped or oval-shaped heads; some have lines on the head suggestive of hair. 30% of human figures are shown with headdresses, of which there are ten different forms. The most common is a ball headdress, followed by oval, cone and feather.

Large male Maliwawa human figures from an Awunbarna site. The largest male is 1.15 metres wide by 1.95 metres high.
P Tacon.

Maliwawa males are usually in profile and often have a bulging stomach above a penis. A few Maliwawa females are also shown with an extended abdomen.

National significance

Most Maliwawa Figures are in accessible or visible places at low landscape elevations rather than hidden away, or at shelters high in the landscape. This suggests they were meant to be seen, possibly from some distance. Often, Maliwawa Figures dominate shelter walls with rows of figures in various arrangements.

We first found some of these figures during a survey in 2008-2009 but they became the focus of further field research from 2016 to 2018.

Back-to-back Maliwawa macropods in the ‘piano player’ pose, Namuidjbuk.
P. Tacon

In Australia, we are spoiled with rock art — paintings, drawings, stencils, prints, petroglyphs (engravings) and even designs made from native beeswax in rock shelters and small caves, on boulders and rock platforms. Often in spectacular and spiritually significant landscapes, rock art remains very important to First Nation communities as a part of living culture.

There are as many as 100,000 sites here, representing tens of thousands of years of artistic activity. But even in 2020, new styles are being identified for the first time.

What if the Maliwawa Figures were in France? Surely, they would be the subject of national pride with different levels of government working together to ensure their protection and researchers endeavouring to better understand and protect them.

We must not allow Australia’s abundance of rock art to lead to a national ambivalence towards its appreciation and protection.

The Maliwawa Figures demonstrate how much more we have to learn from Australia’s early artists. And who knows what else is out there waiting to be found.
The Conversation

Paul S.C.Taçon, Chair in Rock Art Research and Director of the Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit (PERAHU), Griffith University and Sally K. May, Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University

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

The mystery of the Top End’s vanishing wildlife, and the unexpected culprits



A brush-tailed rabbit-rat, one of the small mammals disappearing in northern Australia.
Cara Penton, Author provided

Alyson Stobo-Wilson, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Graeme Gillespie, University of Melbourne; Jaana Dielenberg, The University of Queensland, and John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University

Only a few decades ago, encountering a bandicoot or quoll around your campsite in the evening was a common and delightful experience across the Top End. Sadly, our campsites are now far less lively.

Northern Australia’s vast uncleared savannas were once considered a crucial safe haven for many species that have suffered severe declines elsewhere. But over the last 30 years, small native mammals (weighing up to five kilograms) have been mysteriously vanishing across the region.




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The reason why the Top End’s mammals have declined so severely has long been unknown, leaving scientists and conservation managers at a loss as to how to stop and reverse this tragic trend.

The author smiles at an adorable glider in a little blanket she's holding.
Alyson Stobo-Wilson with a savanna glider. Gliders are among the mammals rapidly declining in northern Australia.
Alyson Stobo-Wilson, Author provided

Our major new study helps unravel this longstanding mystery. We found that the collective influence of feral livestock — such as buffaloes, horses, cattle and donkeys — has been largely underestimated. Even at quite low numbers, feral livestock can have a big impact on our high-value conservation areas and the wildlife they support.

The race for solutions

In 2010, Kakadu National Park conducted a pivotal study on Top End mammals. It found that between 1996 and 2009, the number of native mammal species at survey sites had halved, and the number of individual animals dropped by more than two-thirds. Similar trends have since been observed elsewhere across the Top End.

Given the scale and speed of the mammal declines, the need to find effective solutions is increasingly urgent. It has become a key focus of conservation managers and scientists alike.

The list of potential causes includes inappropriate fire regimes, feral cats, cane toads, feral livestock, and invasive weeds.

Many small and medium-sized mammals are in rapid decline in northern Australia.

With limited resources, it’s essential to know which threats to focus on. This is where our study has delivered a major breakthrough.

We looked for patterns of where species have been lost and where they are hanging on. With the help of helicopters to reach many remote areas, we used more than 1,500 “camera traps” (motion-sensor cameras to record mammals) and almost 7,500 animal traps (such as caged traps) to survey 300 sites across the national parks, private conservation reserves and Indigenous lands of the Top End.

A new spotlight on feral livestock

We found most parts of the Top End have very few native mammals left. The isolated areas where mammals are persisting have retained good-quality habitat, with a greater variety of plant species and dense shrubs and grasses.

This habitat provides more shelter and food for native mammals, and has fewer cats and dingoes, which hunt more efficiently in open areas. In contrast, sites with degraded habitat have much less food and shelter available, and native mammals are more exposed to predators.

Six dark coloured horses roam among sparse trees in the Top End.
Feral horses can overgraze and trample over habitat, making it far less suitable for small native mammals.
Jaana Dielenberg, Author provided

Across northern Australia, habitat quality is primarily driven by two factors: bushfires and introduced livestock, either farmed or feral.

Our surveys revealed that areas with more feral livestock have fewer native mammals. This highlights that the role of feral livestock in the Top End’s mammal declines has previously been underestimated.

Even at relatively low densities, feral livestock are detrimental to small mammals. Through overgrazing and trampling, they degrade habitat and reduce the availability of food and shelter for native mammals.




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Frequent, intense fires also play a big role. Australia’s tropical savannas are among the most fire-prone on Earth, but fires that are too frequent, too hot and too extensive remove critical food and shelter.

Yet, even if land managers can manage fires to protect biodiversity, for example by reducing the occurrence of large, intense fires, the presence of feral livestock will continue to impede native mammal recovery.

A wild buffalo walks over grass, in front of trees.
Even small numbers of feral livestock can play a big role in native mammal declines.
Northern Territory Government, Author provided

A new way to manage cats

Cats have helped drive more than 20 Australian mammals to extinction. So it’s not surprising we found fewer native mammals at our sample sites where there were more cats.

However, our results suggest the best way to manage the impact of cats in this region may not be to simply kill cats, which is notoriously difficult across vast, remote landscapes. Instead, it may be more effective to manage habitat better, tipping the balance in favour of native mammals and away from their predators.

A striped, ginger cat with shining eyes looks at the camera at night.
A feral cat at one of the study sites. Cats have helped cause more than 20 native mammal extinctions.
Northern Territory Government, Author provided

The combination of prescribed burning to protect food and shelter resources, and culling feral livestock, might be all that’s needed to support native mammals and reduce the impact of feral cats.

What about dingoes?

Many scientists have suggested dingoes could also be part of the solution to reducing cat impacts — as cats are believed to avoid dingoes. With this in mind, we explored the relationship between the two predators in this study.

A brownish motion detection camera trap strapped to a tree.
One of more than 1,000 motion detection cameras used in this study.
Jaana Dielenberg, Author provided

We found no evidence dingoes influenced the distribution of feral cats. In fact, survey sites with more dingoes had fewer native small mammals, suggesting a negative impact by dingoes.

But, unlike cats, culling dingoes is not an option because they provide other important ecological roles, and are culturally significant for Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) Australians.

Controlling herbivores, not predators

Our study suggests an effective way to halt and reverse Top End mammal losses is to protect and restore habitat. For example, by improving fire management and controlling feral livestock through culling.




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It is also very important to conserve the environments that still have high-quality habitat and healthy mammal communities, such as the high-rainfall areas along the northern Australian coast. These areas provide refuge for many of our most vulnerable mammal species.

A photo from a camera trap showing a black-footed tree-rat on its hind legs.
The native black-footed tree-rat has had major declines across northern Australia. It’s vulnerable to cats and is now restricted to areas that still have good quality habitat, fewer herbivores and less frequent fire.
Hugh Davies, Author provided

The tropical savannas of northern Australia are the largest remaining tract of tropical savanna on Earth and new species are still being discovered.

While there’s more research to be done, it’s crucial we start managing habitat better, before we lose more of our precious mammal species.


The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the support from many Indigenous ranger groups, land managers and Traditional Owners. This includes the Warddeken, Bawinanga, Wardaman and Tiwi rangers, the Traditional Owners and land managers of Kakadu, Garig Gunak Barlu, Judbarra/Gregory, Litchfield and Nitmiluk National Parks, Djelk, Warddeken and Wardaman Indigenous Protected Areas, and Fish River Station and was facilitated by the Northern, Tiwi and Anindilyakwa Land Councils.The Conversation

Alyson Stobo-Wilson, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Associate Professor / ARC Future Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Graeme Gillespie, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; Jaana Dielenberg, Science Communication Manager, The University of Queensland, and John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University

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

Australia: Climate Targets Further Threatened by Northern Territory Gas Plans


After the climb: how new tourism opportunities can empower the traditional owners of Uluru



The Anangu community of Mutitjulu stands in stark contrast to the sleek tourism infrastructure in the neighbouring town of Yulara.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Barry Judd, Charles Darwin University; Amanda Kearney, Flinders University; Chris Hallinan; Christine Schlesinger, Charles Darwin University; Joseph M. Cheer, Wakayama University, and Keir James Reeves, Federation University Australia

Last weekend marked 34 years since the land title to Uluru was handed back to the local Yankunytjatjara-Pitjantjatjara peoples. It was also when joint management of the Uluru-Katja-Tjuta National Park began between the traditional owners (Anangu people) and Parks Australia.

The arrangement recognised Anangu title to the land and ensured the direct involvement of Anangu in the development of tourism in the area.

The agreement also coincided with the relocation of tourism facilities from the southeast base of Uluru to the purpose-built resort town of Yulara. The old hotels and other tourist sites were discarded and became the base for the Anangu community of Mutitjulu.

However, if joint management aimed to deliver improved economic and social outcomes for Anangu residents, it has proven to be a spectacular failure.




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Today, Yulara and Mutitjulu stand in stark contrast. Yulara is filled with cashed-up, bucket-list travellers from all over the world, while Mutitjulu is an outpost of lingering disadvantage where overcrowding, underemployment, poverty, high rates of suicide and preventable diseases remain pervasive problems.

Mutitjulu was also the epicentre of the controversial Northern Territory National Emergency Response in 2007, commonly referred to as the intervention, when the federal government took control over more than 70 Indigenous communities in response to allegations of child sexual abuse.

Over a decade later, the intervention has done little to close the gap in these communities.

Mutitjulu is emblematic of what academic Jon Altman refers to as the persistent need to reestablish trust between Indigenous Australians and the institutions that for so long failed to ensure their basic human rights were protected.

An end to climbing brings new opportunities

The end of climbing at Uluru provides an opportunity to reset the relationship between the traditional owners and the tourism sector, and look for new ways for Anangu to be integrated into the industry.

Central to this is how the Anangu can meaningfully develop their cultural assets within the park to ensure the long-term benefit of their people, particularly through direct employment.




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There would appear to be ample opportunities for the people in Mutitjulu to take advantage of the 1,000-plus tourism jobs in Yulara, which are currently staffed largely by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from outside the community.

The closure of Uluru to climbing also necessitates the development of alternate visitor experiences, particularly more educational and immersive experiences that would entail learning from and interacting respectfully with traditional owners.

The decision to end climbing at Uluru has been a cause for celebration by Indigenous communities.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Obstacles to developing an Indigenous tourism economy

Yet, structural impediments prevent this from becoming a reality at Uluru, as well as other remote parts of Australia.

These obstacles include a lack of education and training options specific to Indigenous needs to help them set up and run their own businesses. Another issue is that land rights and native title claims have tended to benefit a few legally recognised landowners and haven’t been conducive to whole-of-community development.

Both the Anangu and key tourism stakeholders in central Australia, including Voyages Indigenous Tourism and Tourism NT, are keenly aware of the need to reform the local tourism industry.




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Enabling greater access to commercial bank loans is critical to Indigenous business development, as is collaborative planning between Indigenous groups and the government. Likewise, scientific and traditional Indigenous knowledge could be combined in new ways to drive tourism growth in areas like land and wildlife management.

The Anangu must also be empowered to start micro-enterprises grounded in Knowledge of Country that would strengthen their community, culture and language. One example of this is the Indigenous Ranger and Protected Area program, which involves Indigenous rangers managing their own lands based on traditional cultural practice.




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Another approach that has shown promise is embracing Indigenous knowledge systems as part of the tourist educational experience. This is gaining currency in the NT as remote community arts centres seek to become visitor destinations in their own right.

These approaches to bottom-up initiatives have the greatest potential for growth and long-term empowerment in Uluru.

A model for other Indigenous communities

A major tourism rethink also requires addressing the structural impediments that prevent Indigenous peoples from starting businesses.

For example, new incentives could be built into the Australian tax code for those who invest in businesses on Aboriginal-owned land. However, such measures will only succeed if they are supported by bespoke educational and training programs for Anangu wanting to work in tourism.

The closure of Uluru to climbing should not simply focus on the limits the Anangu have imposed on visitors, but rather on the new possibilities this presents to leverage tourism for a more sustainable and resilient future.

This could also provide a model for traditional owners elsewhere who want to reclaim decision-making authority over tourism and other cultural activities on their lands.

And it signals to the broader Australian public that a greater respect for the rights of Indigenous people might just be the catalyst that helps drive a brighter Indigenous future.The Conversation

Barry Judd, Professor, Indigenous Social Research, Charles Darwin University; Amanda Kearney, Matthew Flinders Fellow, Professor of Australian and Indigenous Studies, Flinders University; Chris Hallinan, Research Associate; Christine Schlesinger, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science and Ecology, Charles Darwin University; Joseph M. Cheer, Professor in Sustainable Tourism, Wakayama University, and Keir James Reeves, Professor of History, Federation University Australia

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