Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

Facts and Musings

[The accompanying article, written for the North Queensland Newspaper Company by the late E. J. Banfield, was found on his office table at Dunk Island, awaiting despatch. It is a characteristic sketch, embodying the charm of style, the sweet charity, the playful humour, and the merriment of the man, his innate diffidence and rare modesty. It is just one of the Beachcomber’s delightful “Homilies,” the last from his clever pen, and in all appreciation and sadness we, with his many readers, must accept it as his valedictory. — Editor, Townsville DAILY BULLETIN, 25th June, 1923.]

Students of natural history will have read with varying sentiments two contributions published in the NORTH QUEENSLAND REGISTER of 9th April —“Marsupial Tiger” and “Nature Studies”— each of which contains statements in need of explanation. The self-imposed duty of correcting misconceptions therein is undertaken not in a carping or superior spirit, nor with the idea of showing off a trifle of acquired knowledge; but in order to put certain matters of general interest on a sound footing.

As preliminary, a recent incident illustrative of the desirableness of exact knowledge on the part of those who describe the wonders of Nature may be told. One of the writer’s correspondents is an expert on the staff of an Australian museum. A specimen was submitted to him with a somewhat vaunting suggestion as to its due place in the list of beach curiosities, and with an invitation to laugh at the pretensions of an amateur in thus encroaching on the realms of the specialist. He put the lovely relic in an order quite apart, saying:—“I don’t dare to laugh at anybody’s misidentifications; I make so many myself.”

There speaks the knowledgeable man — the one who knows so much that he realizes how little he knows. It is not the part of a mere dabbler to endeavour to take other observers to task; but it does seem a duty to indicate good-naturedly, and as promptly as possible, obvious blunders. One likes to repeat a dictum of one of Old England’s greatest statesmen:—“Don’t be too damned surly about your facts.” That may be sound advice in the game of politics, and surely it is too often put into practice; but natural history demands of its followers a higher standard, for Mother Nature is inexorable in demonstrating her truths, to the confusion of those who take half-views of her everyday mysteries.

About the “marsupial tiger,”— that blood-thirsty beast which is said to patrol “the mysterious fastnesses of the Palmerville Ranges.” In the face of evidence of those who have declared its existence on the strength of actual observation, it would be silly to assert dogmatically that there is no such animal in any part of North Queensland. Many a time stories have been told of the existence of a so-called tiger-cat in the wilds of North Queensland. In this neighbourhood some “alarming incidents” have occurred in the vicinity of fowl roosts; and invariably the blood-thirsty animal has proved to be an overgrown native cat, which men of science term the North Australian native cat. Not so very long ago the bones of a cassowary were found on the slope of a range quite close to the sea, which were declared by the blacks to be those of a victim of a cat which was wont to pounce on the shoulders of the great bird as it passed beneath the low-growing branches of a tree.

It is quite possible that a subtle beast like the native cat could master a cassowary from such a point of vantage; but the blacks seem to have had no knowledge of any carnivorous animal of larger size. They, however, made pets of domesticated cats, the progeny of which occasionally ran wild, and there are two incidents on record of the terrifying effects that the animal “that walks by itself” may assume.

On one occasion a lonesome settler, in broad daylight, came across the lair of one such “stray,” and approaching in a friendly way, was greeted with such hostility — blazing eyes, backward-laid ears and hissing — that he retired, without risk of a scratch, feeling sure that, unarmed, he was no match for a furious beast.

Again, an overgrown “Tom” strolled into a camp with such show of humility and friendliness that it was welcomed as a possible pet for a little girl. In a few days it attached itself to the child with every token of affection, and soon became familiar with all the members of the temporary home, and an overpowering bully to two or three masterful dogs. One evening the father of the child saw her walking away from the cat, which followed in her footsteps. Suddenly the cat crouched, and springing on to the child’s shoulders, dashed her to the ground, clawing and biting at her throat. The man ran to the rescue, felled the cat as it fled, and found the girl so badly mauled and bitten that he believes she would have been killed but for his intervention. Possibly the “marsupial tiger” may prove to be a tame cat, improved in ferocity and size by the climate and fare of North Queensland.

The writer of “Nature Studies” goes slightly astray with reference to the walking and jumping fish of the mangroves, which, of course, is quite different from the Queensland lung-fish, termed by men of science, NEOCERATODUS FORSTERI. The latter belongs to a singularly interesting group, forming a connecting link between fishes and frogs, and has been referred to as a living fossil. Two species of the walking fish are known in Queensland waters, that which is referred to being, probably, PERIOPTHALMUS KOLREUTERI. Experts tell us that it has gills at the base of the tail as well as in the ordinary region, which enable it to breathe moist air when the head is above water — a common attitude. Is it true that these creatures feed on crustaceans, sea-slugs and the like? Perhaps so, in the very early stages of development.

During recent years a newcomer in the way of ants has been observed on this Isle, and according to rather indefinite observations, seems to represent a radical cure for the so-called “white ants” The majority of the “new” insect in each community are very small and frail, the colour being a pale watery brown. When the foragers have found something good to eat — flesh food preferred — within a few minutes a crowd gathers, and if the object is bulky a few compatriots, more than double in size and weight of the scouts, and fitted with massive head and jaws to match, come to the help of the feeble folk.

Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and sweets of all kinds attract the busy insects, whose sense of discrimination between animal and vegetable food is so keen that there is reason to believe they are able to detect animal matter in the smear of a not unclean finger. When other diets fail they fall back on decayed wood, or rather, perhaps, the minute forms of life therein, and it has been noticed that phenomenal activity is aroused when the galleries of white ants are disturbed, raids of extermination taking place. Several situations which white ants have been known to retain for years, the raider now occupies; but it is not an unmixed blessing in a house, for its bite is hot and continuous. It does not know when to let go once the tiny mandibles have a good grip.

Bold beyond all reason, the tiny insect does not hesitate to join issue with interfering man, and occasionally it is prudent for the flower of creation to retreat.

The other day a bulky rhinoceros beetle, slightly injured by a bump against a wall, fell on the verandah and lay stunned. The following morning, near the spot where it lodged stood a mound of fluff and grains of sand and rubbish, beneath which a horde of ants worked. In two days all that remained was the shell of the beetle, which collapsed at the touch! A disabled centipede has no chance against the hosts of the rovers, and a dog-discarded bone is whitened in a very brief period.

Such an industrious and thorough scavenger is entitled to some consideration, though it must be confessed that one would be better pleased if the little allies in the defence of sweetness kept to the defence of their wellnigh impregnable native quarters — the bush.

Is not life, however, a patchwork of compromises?

And is not the insect that is typical of organized industry entitled to sufferance, even when it unconsciously mingles pain with its benefits?

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32