Cooper’s Creek

Prue Hewett’s Cooper Creek Nature Reserve is a World Heritage Area with one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet. More than 3,000 plant species have been identified here, and more are being discovered each year.

Cairns Birdwing Butterfly

Cairns Birdwing Butterfly

It’s also home to some very rare plants, more than 40 of which occur here alone ­ nowhere else in the world! Prue herself took us on a two-hour walk deep into the rainforest, and showed us many rare and wonderful things. For instance, the Cairns Birdwing Butterfly (left).

The green ant. Prue pulled several large ones off a tree, and invited us to “lick the butt” of the ant. She said it had a unique taste, and I wanted to try it, but was a little afraid, so I made her go first. (Well, we had just met her. The three of us were alone in the rainforest. For all I knew she could be crazy, and trying to poison us. I had heard about how poisonous frogs can be in the rainforest.) It was unique. The closest I can come to describing it is to say that it was a little like mixing alka seltzer (the fizz, not the salt) with lime sherbet, and then multiplying by one thousand. Ziiingo!! Prue explained that the ants nested in trees, and were great to have around as they kept other bugs away.

The “Gimpy Gimpy” plant (Dendrocnide moroides). Similar to stinging nettle: the leaves and stem are covered with hairs the plant manufactures out of silica. When brushed against, the tiny, glass-like tips break off, penetrate skin, and an extremely painful irritant poison is released. There is no known antidote, and the pain can last for weeks or months . . . and can be reactivated for up to several years by exposure to water or cold weather. Apparently horses have been known to commit suicide (well, it said “die,” but I DID read this in a book) by running into trees after exposure to this plant.

To make matters worse, the leaf is large and fuzzy, and looks like it would be an ideal, soft, rainforest substitute for toilet paper. Do NOT make this mistake! How to recognize: by large, heart-shaped leaf, with serrated edges. Stem enters from beneath (not edge of) leaf.

Giant Strangler Fig Tree (with arial roots)

Giant Strangler Fig Tree (with arial roots)

Giant Strangler Figs, which begin their lives when a seed is deposited (shat) high in a tree . . . the roots grow downward towards the earth, grasping and growing onto the host tree (and any other structural support they come across) until they finally reach land, sometimes hundreds of feet below.

We got to see the “Wait-Awhile” plant, also called Lawyer Cane … because once hooked by the thorns on this plant, one is as irretrievably entangled as if involved in the legal process. (I didn’t make this up.) It starts out looking like a small palm tree, then grows long, wiry “tendrils”which are decidedly not tender; they’re lined with rows of viciously sharp barbed hooks.

Lawyers' Cane, also called the "Wait-Awhile" plant

Lawyers' Cane, also called the "Wait-Awhile" plant

If you brush past one, it grabs your clothing and holds on tightly until you back up and remove it. The plant has even been known to pull people off horses and motorcycles as they ride by. Eventually, the long, barbed vine-like part grows to an inch or more in diameter, the thorns drop off, and the result is the rattan from which chairs were made in the 1970s. (I have no idea what they’ve done with rattan since the 70s.)

The rare Buff Breasted Paradise Kingfisher (Tanysiptera sylvia). “Undoubtedly our most spectacular kingfisher,” which migrates from New Guinea to breed in this small area in North Queensland, and nests by burrowing into termite mounds. (The termites simply wall off the invaded area and go on about their business.)

Boyd's Rainforest Dragon

Boyd's Rainforest Dragon

Boyd’s Rainforest Dragon (Gonocephalus boydii). A beautiful, “rarely-seen” slow-moving lizard found only in tropical North Queensland forests. We saw one! He was really pretty, with camouflage coloring and prehistoric-looking lumps and bumps. (Photo at left does not do him justice.)

The musky rat kangaroo, which is the world’s most primitive marsupial (looks like a rat) … Ryparosa javanica, the botanical evolutionary evidence that Australia was once joined with the Java land mass (about 15 million years ago, scientists think) … The primitive cycad (Lepidozamia hopeii), which grows about 1 meter every 100 years … Native bamboo, which grows the same amount overnight … tree ferns … orchids … countless wonderful species.

What we didn’t see but wish we had: The cassowary, a large, flightless bird that’s a member of the most primitive group of still-living birds including the ostrich, rhea, and kiwi. The male of this species incubates eggs and cares for the young. Adults have very powerful legs, and if they kick in self-defense can easily kill humans (and have). Cassowaries are in danger of becoming extinct because of habitat loss. Local experts say recent reports of increased cassowary population are significantly overstated.

Prue explained it can take 800 years for a regenerating rainforest to renew itself to a “mature” state after having been disturbed. So here’s my eco-schpiel: we’re losing an estimated 115,000 acres of tropical forest every day (according to the Rainforest Alliance), and with them, about one hundred species. That’s 36,500 species lost each year! In addition to extinction, of course, deforestation results in soil erosion, air and water pollution, accelerated greenhouse effect, water shortages, and flooding.

So please don’t buy tropical hardwoods, use less paper, eat less red meat, plant a tree, call or write your legislators, practice responsible ecotourism, and remember rainforests in your will. Your kids will be glad you did



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