Terra Australis Exotica

May 14, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

//thumb9.webshots.net/t/42/43/5/4/19/2436504190015838489uFCakv_th.jpgBeing Australian, it’s great to report on a couple of stories about my country :)- if you’ve been to Australia, you’ll know what an exotic land of contrasts it is – harsh, burnt-orange tinged deserts; snowcapped mountains; Uluru; hopping marsupials generally given the moniker Skippy; unusual flora and fauna; and the world’s only egg laying, duck-billed mammal (the platypus). Australia’s outback (or Never-Never in the Aboriginal language; or Back of Beyond or Back O’Bourke in colloquial language), is an ecosystem that has evolved in isolation over millennia.

Professor Ron Quinn of Eskitis Institute for Cell and Molecular Therapies at Australia’s Griffith University is investigating whether the unique properties of Australian plants and marine animals can deliver a cure for cancer and other diseases. In the course of his work, the good professor has discovered 40 plants and 1500 marine animals previously unknown to science, which he hopes may be the key to developing medicines from natural products, which will be able to win the war against the horror diseases of cancer; cardiovascular disease; respiratory disease; and illnesses of the central nervous system.

Seems hard to believe when we think about our Chemical Age, but there are a number of pharmaceutical drugs derived from natural products – the breast cancer drug paclitaxel (TaxolTM), is derived from the stripped bark of the Pacific Yew tree and the cholesterol-lowering drug Lovastatin (AltocorTM) is derived from a fungus. And of course, folk medicine and alternative therapies take advantage of plants and herbs, so it’s good to see that scientists are investigating whether Australia’s exotic flora and fauna might just contain untapped natural sources for future medicines.

And you probably know that Australia is in the grip of a long-standing drought. And you probably also know that Western culture has largely ignored or ridiculed indigenous folk wisdom – and Australia is no exception. Australia’s indigenous people watch the red-tailed black cockatoo and the yellow wattle bush very closely – if the cockies are squawking away and wattle is blossoming, this equals rain. All things are naturally connected and generations of indigenous Australians have monitored the behaviour of animals and plants to inform their meteorological observations. The Indigenous Weather Knowledge Project hopes to harness indigenous peoples’ ancient understanding of weather patterns.

Similar to previous posts where I’ve talked about community mapping projects, Australia’s weather and seasons will be mapped according to indigenous knowledge. By studying clues in the landscape and from flora and fauna, the Indigenous Weather Knowledge Project will closely observe changing weather patterns in the face of climate change. In the Northern Territory, for example, the appearance of the elegant brolga crane signals the start of the monsoon season; when white breasted wood swallows are found together with mudlarks, this signals the beginnings of the wet and dry seasons in the Northeast Arnhem Land area.

Australia has four British-imported seasons: autumn (or Fall); winter; spring; and summer. Indigenous Australians, however, recognise up to seven distinct seasons – you can see the Aboriginal seasons here. This project will be a great way for indigenous knowledge to be showcased and complement scientific approaches.

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Entry filed under: Australia, Cartography, Natural medicine, Nature, Science.

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