Australian fires are being set by legendary pyromaniacal raptors
Flame-bearing birds streak out of mythology and straight into science.
The aboriginal people of northern Australia have spoken of them for at least a century: “Firehawks” who carry fire through the sky, dropping it to the ground to spark flames that drive prey out of hiding. These creatures are even characters in certain Dreaming ceremonies. Indigenous author Phillip Waipuldanya Roberts wrote in his 1964 biography, “I have seen a hawk pick up a smouldering stick in its claws and drop it in a fresh patch of dry grass half a mile away, then wait with its mates for the mad exodus of scorched and frightened rodents and reptiles.” Inspired by Roberts’ account, researchers decided to look into these stories, talking to both indigenous and non-indigenous people, and a new study concludes they’re no myths. Firehawks are real.
The new insight is likely to help authorities deal with a major outbreak of brushfires, occurring during Australia’s current overwhelming heatwave. The depth of indigenous ecological knowledge has long been recognized, including what the study terms “fine-grained understandings of fire.” Even so, “Though Aboriginal rangers and others who deal with bushfires take into account the risks posed by raptors that cause controlled burns to jump across firebreaks, official skepticism about the reality of avian fire-spreading hampers effective planning for landscape management and restoration.” While humans engage in careful, science-based fire management for community safety, food production, and ecological purposes, the birds have had their own plans.
It appears at least three avian species qualify as the firehawks of legend:
Black Kite, Whistling Kite, and Brown Falcon (THE INTERNET BIRD)
The study finds there have been numerous reports of birds gathering along the fronts of raging fires, essentially foraging for burning sticks to grab in their talons and beaks. In general, people studying the behavior from afar tend consider it to be accidental, while up-close witnesses disagree: They’re pretty convinced the firehawks know exactly what they’re doing. The study offers this summary of the “fire-spreading” behavior as described by witnesses:
Raptors fly into active fires to pick up smoldering sticks in talons or beaks, transporting them up to a kilometer away and dropping them either in brush or in grass. Sticks may be from human cooking fires or from burning or smoldering vegetation. The imputed intent of raptors is to spread fire to unburned locations—for example, the far side of a watercourse, road, or artificial break created by firefighters—to flush out prey via flames or smoke. The behavior may occur once or repeatedly during the fire, by a single bird or by a small percentage of the overall raptors present. Attempts may be unsuccessful, with burning sticks dropped short of unburned areas or dropped but not igniting vegetation.
The study also includes accounts that explain why firehawks so excel at thwarting firefighters' attempt to establish fire breaks: “When a fire burns into a creek line and burns out, brown falcons have also been observed collecting fire brands and dropping them on the other unburnt side of the creek in order to continue the fire.”
Accounts of fire-spreading come from a 2400 km E-W and 1000 km N-S area of northern Australia.
The authors of the study suggest controlled experiments with deliberately started fires and ornithologists on hand to more closely observe firehawks’ behavior in the hopes of better understanding these naturally occurring, flying arsonists who make the job of down-under firefighters’ so much more tricky. Dreamtime, indeed. More like nightmare-time.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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