Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Ed Kanze

Q: As a lifetime observer of wildlife in both the northern and southern hemispheres, what is the lesson you would most like Smithsonian travelers to take away from their great adventure in Australia? 

A: To be open to all experiences. When the birds or kangaroos aren't cooperating, enjoy the trees and the wildflowers. Biologically, the Australian region is like no other. 

Q: In your 25,000 mile odyssey, what landscape or ecosystem made the deepest impression on you? Did you encounter anything resembling the northern Adirondacks, perhaps in the fabled Fiordlands National Park in New Zealand? 

A: I loved it all. Tasmania (an island state of Australia) and parts of New Zealand's South Island remind me of the Adirondacks, although the winter weather is much less severe. The mountains and cool, dense forests and friendly small towns make me feel at home. But one would never mistake one for the other. In the wilds of "Tassie" and the South Island, tree ferns are rarely out of view. To our Northern Hemisphere eyes they're marvelously exotic. So are wild parrots. 

Q: Did you encounter the legendary cane toad during your travels in the region? Please share with us what makes them an exceptional and significant toad in Australia. 

A: The cane toad, introduced to Australia, is a menace to native wildlife. All the same, it's a beautiful animal, in an ugly sort of way, and many locals love it. See the film "Cane Toads: An Unnatural History." For laughs and information, it's a must! 

Q: The 1899 children's book, Dot and the Kangaroo, made into an animated movie in the late 1970s, the Crocodile Dundee films, and, of course, The Crocodile Hunter TV series, seem to capture in popular imagination the intersection of life and wildlife, and introduced species, in the outback. Can you comment? 

A: Australia is a country the size of the United States, minus Alaska, with a population similar to that of the New York City metropolitan area. The great majority of Australians live in or near a few major cities. That leaves the rest of the country with a marvelous mix of the civilized and the untamed. People are nearly everywhere, but thin on the ground. It's a heady mix. 

Q: In your native Adirondacks, there are numerous plants, berries, and animals, that might be considered an Adirondack version of Australian "bush tucker." Is this a fair comparison? 

A: Yes. When Australians talk about "the bush," they mean any wild place. We have plenty of wildness here. Tucker means food, and we've got that, too—blueberries, huckleberries, all sorts of wild game and freshwater fish. In fact, "Adirondack" is said to mean "bark eater." According to local lore, Indians that dared venture into these icebound mountains in winter were forced to live off the edible but not very appealing inner bark of trees. 

Q: Of all the unique animals you encountered in the Australian outback (wilderness) what is your favorite? Is it endangered? 

A: Tough question. I enjoyed so many. Favorites include duck-billed platypus, short-beaked echidna, common wombat, red kangaroo, honey-possum, and Tasmanian devil. That doesn't even count birds such as the superb fairy-wren and the rainbow lorikeet and reptiles such as the frilled lizard and the perentie. The list could go on and on. The most endangered of all these creatures is the Tasmanian devil, which is not devilish at all and something like a marsupial badger. In the last fifteen years, devils have been pushed to the brink of extinction by a recently discovered facial tumor disease.

Q: What Aussie or Kiwi (New Zealand) bird is at the top of the bird food chain, like eagles in the Adirondacks? 

A: During the Ice Age, New Zealand had a giant bird of prey, known as Haast's eagle, which preyed on flightless birds called moa. Some of the moa stood as tall as horses. Haast's eagle was the world's largest, and the birds it fed on may have been the world's largest, too. All are extinct. Today in New Zealand, swamp harriers and New Zealand falcons are the chief predators among day-active birds. Australia, a far bigger landmass with diversity to match, supports a wide array of birds of prey—24 diurnal raptors and 9 owls. The largest is the majestic wedge-tailed eagle. The most fierce is probably the peregrine falcon, which also hunts in the Adirondacks.