On the trail of scientific oddballs
By Linda Vergnani
9 October 2001, The Chronicle of Higher Education
Kangaroo Island, Australia
While a clutch of lesser long-eared bats fidgets up in the corner of the workroom here at the Pelican Lagoon Research and Wildlife Centre, a mob of chocolaty kangaroos weaves through the putty-colored trunks of the mallee gum trees outside. A few of the gentle-faced creatures approach strangers and sniff their hands; a hand-raised orphan, female named Rooby, has brought successive offspring to visit the center. At the edge of the woodland, Tammar wallabies, some with joeys peeping from bulging pouches, forage for food.
To Peggy Rismiller, a zoologist and visiting research fellow at the University of Adelaide Medical School, these are all "neighbors" -- animals resident on this southern Australian island long before humans arrived. In this remnant ecosystem, a "natural laboratory" she calls it, the marsupials show the same trusting curiosity that once led to their mass slaughter by settlers.
It is among those neighbors that Ms. Rismiller has gathered three volunteers one day in September to help her track down her favorite -- and Pelican Lagoon's most famous -- resident, short-beaked echidnas. "They are fiercely independent," says Ms. Rismiller, who lives here with her husband, Mike McKelvey, a wildlife photographer and the center's founder. "That's what makes them buggers to study and why so many scientists gave up on them. You can't trap them, bait them, or lure them with sound or smell."
Survivors from the Cretaceous Period, echidnas were a mystery until Ms. Rismiller's painstaking research into their ecology. She was the first scientist to witness echidnas mating in the wild, and she discovered that one can walk around with a single egg snuggled in its pouch. She was also the first to follow an echidna's development from "puggle," the quaint term for the pouch young, to sexually mature adult. Echidnas are monotremes, egg-laying mammals, like the platypus, that literally have "one hole," a multipurpose cloaca that is used for urination, defecation, and reproduction. Her research has brought fame -- and camera crews -- to the center and her "beaked gnomes."
The exuberant Ms. Rismiller, 49, still finds her spiny subjects surprising. "If monotremes have been on the planet for 120 million years, longer than any other mammal, how and why have they survived?" she asks. She believes the answer lies partly in their adaptability and unpredictability. Through their diggings they act like giant earthworms, cultivating areas where the ants and other insects they feed on live. They live in habitats ranging from desert to alpine, and can go into a state of torpor, which enables them to conserve energy, seemingly at will.
Still, though widely distributed across Australia, echidnas are dwindling. Once considered common, they are now listed as "near threatened."
Volunteers here get to name any new echidnas they find, so the center lists some 50 animals sporting names like Pasta, Reebok, and Luna. About 30 of the football-size beasts have had radio transmitters glued to their pointy spines. Each echidna roams a territory of up to 375 acres, so without the transmitters it would be impossible to track them. But without the help of the volunteers, who put in some 13,000 hours of fieldwork annually, very little would be known about the enigmatic echidnas.
Today Ms. Rismiller sets out with Sandra Breil, a retired biology professor from Longwood College, in Virginia, who is on her third visit to the center, and two Britons, Pamela Hill and Tony Sergeant. On a previous trip, Ms. Breil enjoyed dissecting echidna road kills. Ms. Hill first came to the center as a volunteer in 1995 and was so inspired that she dropped her career in theater management and earned a degree in ecology at Lancaster University.
Armed with maps and radio receivers, they track the signals of individual echidnas. The first signs of echidnas are areas of scuffed sand, punctuated with cylindrical holes from probing beaks. "They eat all types of invertebrates," explains Ms. Rismiller. "They especially like soft-bodied larvae that are high in protein and fat."
After more than an hour of tracking, Ms. Rismiller hushes everyone. "We're right on her," she whispers, pointing to what looks like a living hairbrush burrowing under a mossy log. All that can be seen of the animal, named Muffin, are rosettes of pulsating prickles and a matchbox-size metal transmitter trailing a tail-like antenna.
Ms. Rismiller eases her hands under the shoulders of the disappearing beast. "I don't wear gloves because I don't want to hurt her. She has a puggle in her pouch, so I have to be especially careful not to manhandle her." She lifts up the cactus-like creature, which clutches a tuft of moss like a powder puff. She asks Ms. Hill to help gently uncoil Muffin, who has curled up into a protective ball. Ms. Hill beams as the adult's wrinkly face and beady eyes emerge from the spines. Ms. Rismiller parts the animal's belly hairs, and there, amid two opposing folds of muscle that join to form a primitive pouch, is a glimpse of puggle. "It is so large that if I tried to take it out now, we would have great difficulty getting it back in again," she says.
The echidna and its infant, which exudes a distinctive skunk-like odor, are bundled into a sack and weighed. Once released, Muffin takes off with a peculiar rolling gait.
Echidnas are the star attractions here, but rare glossy black cockatoos, venomous tiger snakes, fairy penguins, and Rosenberg's goannas -- yardlong monitor lizards that sometimes eat puggles -- are also being studied.
The center was started in 1980 by Mr. McKelvey, a California-born biologist, on 250 acres of unspoiled bushland alongside the turquoise Pelican Lagoon and adjoining a nature reserve. Mr. McKelvey, who had studied photographic printing with Ansel Adams, arrived here in 1970. "There were unusual biological things going on here which interested me," he says. The springy earth, with its rich growth of mosses, lichens, and plants, was unspoiled by the rabbits and foxes that had devastated the mainland, and was untrampled by the imported livestock that Mr. McKelvey dubs "hoofed locusts." It was bustling with Tammar wallabies and Rosenberg's goannas, which had virtually disappeared elsewhere in Australia.
When scientist friends of his began seeking a base for long-term field studies, in the 1980s, Mr. McKelvey volunteered his land, which is now run by an educational trust. He has persuaded a dozen other landowners on the island to give researchers access to their farms, and he now manages the center.
Another American, Ms. Rismiller came here in 1989, after completing a Ph.D. in zoology at Philipps University, in Marburg, Germany, and starting a postdoctoral position at the University of Adelaide. Her specialty was circadian rhythms, and she won grants to work on tiger snakes and echidnas. "It's interesting because the tiger snake is a live-bearing reptile and the echidna an egg-laying mammal," she says.
She ended up at the center, where Mr. McKelvey helped her catch tiger snakes on three islands in Pelican Lagoon. "I think snakes are wonderfully sensuous and have just got bad press. We would take a canoe out and catch bags of tiger snakes. We had to take blood samples from the heart of the snakes every four hours," explains Ms. Rismiller, a harmless procedure that allowed the animals to be returned to the wild.
After bonding over the snakes, the two scientists married. Ms. Rismiller concentrates on fieldwork, writing, and an international lecture schedule. Mr. McKelvey, 55, specializes in photographing the extraordinary intimacies of echidnas, like a puggle suckling on its mother's milk patch. "It took me 14 years to get some of those pictures," he says wryly. His pictures illustrate Ms. Rismiller's 1999 book, The Echidna, Australia's Enigma.
With only a few permanent structures, hand-built by Mr. McKelvey and Ms. Rismiller, the center is run on environmentally sustainable principles. Researchers stay in carpeted tents and use a composting toilet. Solar panels generate electricity for laptops and other equipment. "We call this 'land for learning.' We teach by example," she explains.
Ms. Rismiller personally responds to all e-mail messages, including some from schoolchildren. "If you really want to get a point across," she says, "you have to go totally public with your science."
Sometime after the echidna hunt, Ms. Rismiller takes Hollie Schramm out goanna tracking. Ms. Schramm, a senior at Central Michigan University majoring in biology, is at the center on a short-term internship.
Walking through the bush, Ms. Rismiller shows Ms. Schramm a termite mound where a Rosenberg's goanna laid its eggs eight months earlier. Goannas dig into the center of active termite nests and leave their eggs to incubate at temperatures from 85 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, courtesy of the insects. "There may be a natural termite repellent in the fertile eggs," says Ms. Rismiller, noting that the hosts do not disturb the eggs. When the goannas hatch, they tunnel out to the surface.
Ms. Schramm's job will include monitoring the hatchlings as they emerge. On a nearby hill, they find an adult goanna with a temperature transmitter implanted in her belly. "Oh wow," says Ms. Schramm, peering at the lean face of the lizard as it creeps from its burrow. "This is the hands-on experience I wanted."
Section: Research & Publishing
Copyright Linda Vergnani