Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Australian History: A Long Story

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Australian History: A Long Story

Article excerpt

Australia's history is paradoxical. It has some of the oldest rocks on earth, yet its recorded history is relatively brief, usually measured from the first British colony established at what is now the city of Sydney in 1788. Yes, the Dutch and French had landed at a number of sites on the continent before this, but their visits didn't result in any long-term settlements. Also, as I noted in an earlier column (Flannery, 2011), the British pirate William Dampier landed on the west coast of Australia in 1699. When I was there last summer, I visited one of those landing sites, Shark Bay, which according to Alex George (1999) is almost as wild now as it was 400 years ago. One of the thrills of my trip to Western Australia was seeing Dampiera alata in bloom with its beautiful blue flowers (Scott & Negus, 2005). This is one of several plants named for this naturalist who brought plant, insect, and bird specimens back to England.

As far as the natural history and, especially, the botany of Australia are concerned, the French actually did more of the early work than the British. And the Dutch were a formidable enough presence that the continent was referred to as "New Holland," even after British colonization began. The name "Australia" wasn't widely used until the British naval officer Matthew Flinders argued for its adoption after he had mapped the coastline while circumnavigating the continent. As I mentioned last month (Flannery, 2012), the botanist Robert Brown was a member of Flinders's party; a number of other British biologists also arrived in Australia on navy ships. The most notable is Charles Darwin on the Beagle, which sailed into Sydney Harbor in January 1836, more than 4 years after leaving England.

* Darwin in Australia

In anticipation of the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth in 2009, the National Museum of Australia published a volume that includes extracts from his diary related to this leg of his trip, together with several commentaries (Morton, 2008). The journal entries are rather disappointing considering that Darwin is in a place filled with biological oddities, where almost every animal and plant is different from what he has seen elsewhere--except, of course, for the sheep, roses, and other organisms that the settlers had brought with them. He mentions seeing a platypus but doesn't appear to have been floored by it, nor was he struck by the dramatic geology of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Many of his entries refer to people rather than to animals and plants. It seems almost as if, at this point in his voyage, he has had it with travel. Enough! He is beginning to look forward to getting home, rummaging through all the treasures he has collected, and organizing the notes and letters he has written.

However, Darwin's words belie his actions. He amassed a large number of specimens from in and around the three areas he visited: Sydney, Hobart on the island of Tasmania, and King George's Sound in Western Australia. He also made some astute comments about Australian terrain. He noted that the extreme uniformity of the vegetation was the most obvious feature of most of New South Wales, where Sydney is situated. This was my experience as well, more than 150 years later. The sameness is attributable, in part, to the fact that most of the area is pastureland and has been since the early days of the colony. Grassland was everywhere, even as early as Darwin's visit. This helps to explain another of Darwin's comments: that a few years earlier the land was said to be rich in animals, but the emu was now rare and the kangaroo scarce. Darwin blamed English greyhounds for destroying them both, but habitat decimation was obviously involved as well.

Darwin also mentioned that he hardly saw a place that hadn't been marked by fire. This is still true today, both because fires are so frequent and because their effects are so long lasting. I was most aware of this when traveling up the coast of Western Australia. …

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