March 31 - First Blood
In the Main Ranges this morning we found more Chtonobdella bilineata, which is all well and good but quite frankly we're already a bit bored of that one and have plenty of it. So up to the Border Ranges. What a phenomenal place. These mountains are a half ring of basalt with cliffs facing east to Mount Warning. All of this was created by volcanic activity some 20 million years ago. Mount Warning itself is the steep hardened cone at the center of a volcano and the Border Ranges are basaltic remnants of huge lava formations.
The rain forest was lush and green, glistening in the fresh rains. Huge flocks of blue and red parrots met us where we first collected as did a species of leech we had yet to see on the expedition. A tiny leech, this species reached no more than half an inch when extended and had a lovely pattern of creamy beige whorls running down each side of it's otherwise brown body. In amongst the Antarctic Beech trees that have been here since Gondwana broke up, these minuture bloodsuckers have probably been evolving lock-step with the miniature frogs that occupy the highlands - the only place it remains consistently wet and cool enough for them to exist. A drying period millions of years ago in the historical climate of this area created uncrossable gaps between the Border Ranges and other mountain tops like the Gibraltar Range to the South. Like continental drift, his kind of event is enough to isolate populations of plants and animals from each other for long enough that they become unique species in their own right.
We learned in the morning that Chtonobdella bilineata has a nasty stinging bite (anyone who tells you that leeches have an anaesthetic so that you don't feel the bite is spinning a yarn - it isn't true). Mark had two on the back of his leg at Main Ranges whereas Gene later discovered one on his left foot while in the vehicle on our way to Border Ranges. He darned-near kicked the dashboard off the passenger side! Both describe the bite as something like a fine sewing needle being driven into your skin. Quite unpleasant. The smaller species at Border Ranges didn't hurt so much, as Juli discovered. Not even knowing that she was the focus of a tiny leech's affection, save for a small itch, the giveaway was a sock soaked in blood and a fresh wound slowly oozing underneath. Liz too, later, discovered that one had crawled up her sleeve or down her neck and had set up shop on her left arm.
We are pretty exhausted from the 4 hikes and hard-driving. Getting a little snippy at times too. Mark's Mom once said that 5 days is about as long as anyone can go being nicer than they really are. It'll be good to get to Brisbane and take a bit of a break from the collecting. Gene's best friend from college lives there, and there's work to be done at the Museum. Another sopping wet day or two in the bush in front of us. We're all pretty excited about how successful we've been.