Thomas Newsome

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Fourth Book Review

RedKangBook

Rob Wallis from the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & Innovation), the Federation University Australia, recently reviewed our book “The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia; an early account by A.E. Newsome”.

The review was published in the February 2017 issue of The Victorian Naturalist.

A copy of the review is provided below:

“Alan Newsome was one of Australia’s great naturalists and also a leading scientist whose early work focused on the biology of the Red Kangaroo Osphranter rufus. His work on the species began in 1957 and, unbeknown to his family, he had been preparing a book on his research which the publisher (Collins) was expecting to be completed in 1975. However, like so many things in people’s busy lives, it got put aside; why it was never completed remains a mystery. In 2010 his son Thomas discovered the manuscript in a box of materials his father had left behind in his son’s Canberra garage and, after a thorough read of it, Thomas decided to edit it for publication. I suspect Alan intended this book to be primarily an account of the biology of the Red Kangaroo, elucidated by his field work. If readers treat it as such, they will be somewhat disappointed as there have been many more accounts of kangaroo biology published recently that are much more up-to-date and complete. Indeed, this journal has published reviews of such books.

What makes this book a fascinating read, however, is the description of how this pioneer of ecological research went about his work. As the preface notes:

It is rare for an ecologist to write reflectively and personally about the experience of discovery, especially during the early stages of a career … I suspect it is also because few early career scientists have a journey that results in the kind of pioneering discoveries that Alan’s did (p. xx).

Alan Newsome’s research dispelled many myths and incorrect claims about Red Kangaroos. His blend of acute observational skills of a naturalist combined with rigorous scientific examination helped answer these questions:

…why were red kangaroos so abundant on open plains and creeks during droughts, and more so on some than others? Where did they disappear to after rain? Why did they sometimes congregate to form large mobs? What did they eat and did they compete severely or at all with cattle and sheep? How did kangaroos foul pastures as claimed? How could 5 to 10 shooters work one 500 km2 plain 50 km north of Alice Springs night after night in the 1950s without making an impression on numbers? Their breeding would seem to be prodigious for such to happen. So what were the reproductive processes, and what ensured reproductive success?…..Why did kangaroos appear to be more numerous on cattle country than land never stocked? Was it due to stock waters man has made? If so, why were kangaroos so rarely seen at water? Had kangaroos always been so numerous? (pp. 9–10).

For so many questions to be answered in such a slim book is remarkable, especially when they are explained so clearly and logically!

Explorers’ accounts of Central Australia suggest the Red Kangaroo was quite rare before European exploitation of the environment. Yet Newsome observed huge mobs—one of about 1500 animals south of Alice Springs. These massive changes in numbers reflect significant environmental change—change that Newsome also noted had deleterious effects on small to medium sized fauna, which was facing extirpation. His observations and suggested explanations make interesting reading.

Thomas Newsome notes his father rated his paper ‘The Eco-Mythology of the Red Kangaroo in Central Australia’ published in 1980 as his favourite, yet the manuscript proved very difficult to get accepted and remains infrequently cited. Fortunately it is reproduced in full in the book. I found it fascinating in demonstrating Indigenous myths that turned out to be based on sound ecological knowledge. Newsome’s work was prescient—today we should recognise the value of Indigenous knowledge as a sound basis for ecological research and that proper management of our natural assets are best achieved by a blend of Indigenous wisdom with scientific work.

During Newsome’s 16 field trips to the centre between 1959 and 1962 he shot 2000 Red Kangaroos! That was the way in those days—even small mammals were usually caught using break-back traps! I wonder how such research propositions would have fared in today’s environment where work must be approved by independent animal ethic committees?

This is an important book which needs to be read in the context of when it was written and when the research was carried out. In his foreword, Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe believes this book rates with other natural history classics such as Ratcliffe’s Flying Fox and Drifting Sand, Frith’s The Mallee Fowl: the bird that makes an incubator and Rolls’ They All Ran Wild. This may be an exaggeration (it is a slim volume) but certainly field naturalists will enjoy reading about the early journey Newsome took in his field work career.

References
Frith HJ (1962) The Mallee Fowl: the bird that makes an incubator. (Angus and Robertson: Sydney)
Ratcliffe F (1938) Flying Fox and drifting sand. (Chatto and Windus: London)
Rolls EC (1969) They all ran wild: the story of pests on the land in Australia. (Angus and Robertson: Sydney)”

Thanks Rob for the review.


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