Australia’s natural history and native species should be on the citizenship test

Thomas M Wilson, Author provided

Thomas M Wilson, University of Western Australia

Australia’s proposed changes to the citizenship test has raised questions about whether you can really evaluate someone’s “Australian values” via a set of exam questions.

But here’s another question not even considered by the test: should Australian citizenship entail a knowledge and appreciation of Australia’s unique wildlife and natural history?

At its heart, this is a question about what it truly means to be an Australian. Some would argue I’m not qualified even to ask it. My ancestors arrived in Perth in 1830 from England and unloaded plenty of inappropriate cultural baggage, including cats, onto the shores of Australia.

Modern Australia is both an ancient land of hundreds of different languages and cultures, and a creation of transplanted Europeans who have sought to establish Western democratic ideals such as freedom of speech. There have also been many waves of economic migrants or those fleeing persecution and violence in their homelands.

With democratic ideals attacked or disregarded in many parts of the world, Australia’s citizenship test aims to ensure new citizens have a shared knowledge of these values and responsibilities. The current test puts a lot of emphasis on knowing about free speech, the constitution, and how parliaments are organised.

But being Australian shouldn’t just mean agreeing with the principles of free speech and deliberative democracy. In 2006, the Australian author William J. Lines published Patriots: Defending Australia’s Natural Heritage. The title presupposes that being Australian is bound up with knowing and appreciating at least a little of Australia’s heritage of unique lifeforms and ecosystems.

My own book, Stepping Off: Rewilding and Belonging in the South West, published in 2017, also champions the idea of embracing the natural environment as part of one’s identity, with a particular focus on Perth and Australia’s southwest corner, an internationally recognised hotspot for unique plants and animals.

An appreciation of Australia

In my book I lament some aspects of the “Britanisation” of this country by my forebears. I also decry the smooth surface that corporate globalisation has more recently smeared over our modern cities.

As a counterbalance to these forces, I suggest other ways of “becoming Australian” that might help us live more gracefully and sustainably on this landscape.

Read more:
Why so many Australian species are yet to be named

What if we asked prospective Australian citizens to know and value the land on which we live, and the living things with which we share it? This might involve knowing facts such as:

  • much of southern Australia is geologically ancient, and broke from Antarctica around 40 million years ago before drifting north alone, evolving thousands of unique species

  • a eucalyptus leaf contains oils that can cause massive explosions in the forest canopy when fires tear through the environment, but which can also be used in kitchen detergents

  • Australia has about 70 species of macropod, of which kangaroos and wallabies are just two examples, and kangaroo meat is more sustainable than beef or lamb because of its low carbon footprint and its softer impact on the landscape compared with hoofed animals

  • a chuditch (or a quoll on the eastern side of the country), is a small carnivorous marsupial that is very friendly, although it’s (sadly) illegal to keep one as a pet.

Do you know a chuditch when you see one?
SJ Bennett/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

I’m not suggesting throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I appreciate many of the legacies of Western civilisation, including freedom of speech, deliberative democracy, and the rule of law by an independent judiciary. Of course being Australian should mean accepting these central tenets.

Read more:
The new Australian citizenship test: can you really test ‘values’ via multiple choice?

But we should expect new arrivals to our shores — including those whose ancestors have been here for a couple of centuries — to supplement this culture with an understanding and appreciation of land and ecosystem we live in. These values are also more aligned with those of Indigenous Australian cultures.

Being Australian shouldn’t just mean knowing about federation and the ANZACs, mateship and Vegemite. It should also mean knowing at least a little of the plants and animals, stones and clouds, smells and sights, of our wide shared land.The Conversation

Thomas M Wilson, Honorary Research Fellow in Literature and Environment, University of Western Australia

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


New research could lead to a pregnancy test for endangered marsupials

Knew you were coming: a koala cub on the back of the mother.

Oliver Griffith, University of Melbourne

Many women realise they are pregnant before they’ve even done the test – perhaps feeling a touch of nausea, or tender, larger-than-usual breasts.

For a long time, biologists had thought most marsupials lacked a way to recognise a pregnancy.

But new research published today shows a marsupial mum knows – in a biological sense – when she’s carrying a young one before they make their journey to the pouch.

Read more:
All female mammals have a clitoris – we’re starting to work out what that means for their sex lives

This knowledge changes how we think pregnancy evolved in mammals. It may also help in breeding programs for threatened or endangered marsupials by contributing to new technologies such as a marsupial pregnancy test.

Marsupials do things differently

When people think of marsupials – animals that mostly rear their young in a pouch (although not all marsupials have a pouch) – kangaroos and koalas tend to spring to mind. But marsupials come in a range of shapes and sizes.

A red-necked wallaby with a joey.

Australia has about 250 species of marsupials, including wombats, possums, sugar gliders, the extinct Tasmanian tiger, and several endangered species such as the Tasmanian devil.

In addition to Australia’s marsupial diversity, there are also 120 marsupial species in South America – most of which are opossums – and just one species in North America, the Virginia opossum.

One thing all marsupials have in common is they give birth to very small, almost embryonic, young.

An opossum with two day old young.
Oliver Griffith, Author provided

Because marsupial pregnancy passes so quickly (12-40 days, depending on the species), and marsupial young are so small and underdeveloped at birth, biologists had thought the biological changes required to support the fetus through a pregnancy happened as a follow on from releasing an egg (ovulation), rather than a response to the presence of a fetus.

Marsupial pregnancy is quick

One way to explore the question of whether it is an egg or a fetus that tells the marsupial female to be ready for pregnancy is to look at the uterus and the placenta.

In marsupials, just like in humans, embryos develop inside the uterus where they are nourished by a placenta.

Previously, biologists thought all of the physiological changes required for pregnancy in marsupials were regulated by hormones produced in the ovary after ovulation.

If this hypothesis is right, then the uterus of pregnant opossums should look the same as the uterus of opossums that ovulate but don’t have the opportunity to mate with a male.

To test this hypothesis, my colleagues at Yale’s Systems Biology Institute and I examined reproduction in the grey short-tailed opossum.

Grey short tailed opossum with young.
Oliver Griffith

Signs of pregnancy

We looked at two groups of opossums: females that were exposed to male pheromones to induce ovulation, and females that were put with males so they could mate and become pregnant.

We then used microscopy and molecular techniques to compare females from the two groups. Contrary to the current dogma, we found that the uterus in pregnancy looked very different to those females that did not mate.

In particular, we found the blood vessels that bring blood from the mother to the placenta interface were only present in pregnancy. We also noticed that the machinery responsible for nutrient transport (nutrient transporting molecules) from the mother to the fetus was only produced in pregnancy.

While hormones may be regulating some aspects of maternal physiology, the mother is certainly detecting the presence of embryos and responding in a way that shows she is recognising pregnancy.

How this knowledge can help others

Given that recognition of pregnancy has now been found in both eutherian (formerly known as placental) mammals like ourselves and marsupials with the more ancestral reproductive characters, it appears likely that recognition of pregnancy is a common feature of all live bearing mammals.

Read more:
Sexual aggression key to spread of deadly tumours in Tasmanian devils

But this knowledge does more than satisfy our curiosity. It could lead to new technologies to better manage marsupial conservation. Several marsupials face threats in the wild, and captive breeding programs are an important way to secure the future of several species.

Two Tasmanian devils.

One such species is the Tasmanian devil, which faces extinction from a dangerous contagious cancer. Captive breeding programs may be one of the only mechanisms to ensure the species survives.

But management can be made more difficult when we don’t know which animals are pregnant. Our research shows that maternal signals are produced in response to the presence of developing embryos. With a bit more research, it may be possible to test for these signals directly.

New reproductive technologies are likely crucial for improving outcomes of conservation programs, and this work shows, that to do this we first need a better understanding of the biology of the animals we are trying to save.The Conversation

Oliver Griffith, ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Melbourne

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