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Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Goanna Friends

16 February 1788 An alligator, ab’t 8 feet long, was seen close by where I go to birdlime just behind the camp, and has been seen among the tents at night more than once.— Arthur Bowes Smyth, Journal, HRNSW (2), 394.
A lace monitor (goanna) from Phillip's The Voyage to Botany Bay, 1790.
Gum trees in Australia are often identified by their bark type.  Stringybarks and ironbarks are fairly straightforward, and bloodwoods have a bark filled with gum pockets that spray out at you when you hit them with an axe.  Other gum trees have smooth barks which are kept that way because the outside layer of bark dies and peels off regularly.

In some cases, the bark lies thick on the ground, keeping down other plants that might compete for precious water, but the smooth-bark habit has another advantage.  It keeps a nice clean surface on which animals may leave their tracks, on which animals must leave their tracks, if they are to climb the tree.

One of my favourite picnic haunts is a clearing, close to a stream, surrounded by smooth-barked apples.  At least half of that name is self-explanatory, although the tree is a relative of the gum, and certainly bears no apples.  The smooth pale bark of these trees is a perfect place to go detecting, looking for signs of previous climbers.  No possum can climb up to its nesting hollow without leaving scratches, no bird can perch on a low branch without leaving claw marks, and no goanna can climb, looking for eggs, without leaving signs of its passing.
Perentie, a different sort of varanid, seen near Uluru.

Goannas are varanid lizards, members of a group that is mainly in Australia, but found also across Asia and Africa.  Their most famous member is undoubtedly the Komodo dragon of Indonesia, which is about 3 metres long, and able to attack children or sleeping adults.  We used to have an even bigger giant varanid in Australia, up until 30 000 years ago, about 7 metres long, but the biggest Australian varanid today is only about 2 metres in length, and much less fearsome.

Mind you, that was enough to convince the early white settlers that there were ‘alligators’ around Sydney, and just recently, an alarmed tourist claimed to have seen a ‘crocodile’, probably at my favourite picnic site, but it was only a goanna, an old friend that we greet each time we stop by there.  Goannas are carrion eaters, and I suspect that it makes quite a good living from discarded scraps and from people like us, who feed it deliberately.

The goannas are supposed to get their name from a fancied resemblance to iguanas, a completely unrelated bunch of reptiles, but they are themselves, all 25 species in Australia, along with the other fifteen or so, scattered around the world.  You can find them scattered right across Australia.

A goanna on the prowl has a slightly evil look to it.  They walk with their upper leg joints held out horizontally, and there is an almost calculated threat in the way each foot is lifted, rolled around, and placed on the ground, like a sailor swaggering down the street.  The goanna holds its head high, then lowers it to the ground, moving it from side to side, and it flicks its tongue in and out, tasting the air to see what may be on offer.
Lace monitor, Port Stephens.

For a slow-moving menace, the goanna has an amazing turn of speed when it is threatened.  It rushes at the nearest tree, and hurls itself up the trunk, moving quickly to the far side of the tree.  Walk around to the other side of the tree, and the goanna will move with you, keeping a handy barrier of timber between you and it.  Goannas do not trust humans more than they have to.  Except in open country that is.  Frighten a goanna on a treeless piece of ground, and you may find yourself playing the part of a tree.  Avoid this if you can, for all tree climbing animals have sharp claws.

A treed goanna may be persuaded to leave its shelter, provided a reasonable offer is made to it.  Anybody who has ever kept poultry in Australia will know that there is one thing a goanna cannot resist: the chance to get its muzzle dripping in egg.  Put a hen's egg at the bottom of the tree, stand back about six to eight metres, and hunger will soon overcome its sense of distrust.

Turning around on a narrow tree trunk ought to be something of a challenge for something as long as a human, but not for the goanna.  Deftly, it turns from head-up to head-down, and stealthily approaches the egg, watching its watchers as it comes.

Goannas use their tongues only to sense things, and never to eat, so the feeding goanna needs to slip the egg into its mouth before crushing it.  If ever a reptile could be said to exhibit sheer sensual pleasure, it would have to be a goanna, sitting at the base of a tree, with traces of egg white and yolk dribbling down from its mouth.
You can find them close to homes, but they usually move away.

Many Australians accept without question that the goanna is an evil animal.  They will assure you that goanna bites ‘come back’ each year for seven years after you have been bitten, that they are venomous or worse.  Some Australians will make every effort to run over a goanna, believing that they are protecting the cuddly birds by doing so.  They have been conditioned to this by children's stories, and by a judgement based on appearances rather than knowledge.

In truth, a goanna bite might go septic on you, for they are great eaters of carrion.  Certainly they take a few eggs, but they also take lizards, snakes, and other invertebrates.  However you look at it, their reputation for evil is greatly exaggerated.

Many years ago, I worked as a ranger in a local National Park.  There was a large goanna in the park which was in the habit of basking on a rock, just below a lookout.  We park workers would often time our labours so that we were near the lookout at lunchtime, so we could take our break there, looking out over the sea and admiring ‘our’ goanna.  Looking back, it was unwise, but we got into the habit of sharing small bits of our sandwiches with our friend the goanna.  We would show our goanna to people, and encourage them to share suitable food with it as well.  After all, it was a carrion eater, so a dead sandwich would be no worse than any other dead thing, we thought.

Lace monitor, Port Stephens.
That argument was even more misguided.  One Sunday, I arrived to find some distressed people at the lookout.  A lout had proven his heroism by dropping down onto the warm rock, and smashing the goanna's skull with a stone before driving off.  Sadly, I picked up the body and I carried it around with me for the next hour or so, while I was on duty in the area.

Our goanna did not die entirely in vain, for I managed to explain in gentle factual terms to any questioners that this was an old friend, done to death most foully, and to no purpose.  I would add that we would at least be able to investigate its stomach contents to see what it had been eating, and I probably won a few hearts and minds that day.  I did not mention that we would probably find sandwiches as a major item.

I like winning hearts and minds to good causes.  It is something I do well, and I have no qualms about using whatever subterfuges and histrionics are needed to achieve my ends.  And while I feel that the ends properly justify the means, looking back, I cannot help wishing that I had not had the necessary means that day.

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