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Saturday, 28 April 2012

The mysterious cloven-hoofed animals of Australia

No hoof here: this is a 2-metre
portion of a snake's track, left
on a fire trail near Sydney.
I was going to write about tracks in the next few entries, and indeed I will, but first, a bit of history that stems from a current early-stages writing project which has me back looking at the records of exploration in Australia, and early impressions of Australia.

The other day, I came across a reference from the 1880s to two early explorers who reported that they had seen the tracks of an animal with a cloven hoof, like a buffalo. (I don't have a picture of this to share, but if you search in Google Images on buffalo spoor, you will soon get the idea.

One of the two who claimed to have fond these tracks was George Grey, who was commonly regarded (with some justification) as an idiot because of his dangerous and stupid decisions, so I didn't take much notice of that.

(That's aside from the fact that I don't have time for explorers who get other people killed, or explorers who, having been abject failures, abuse their power to belittle successful explorers like Edward John Eyre and Charles Sturt. Just take it from me, Grey was both a fool and a swine, though he lacked a cloven hoof.)

Anyhow, today, having had the brainwave that I will come to in a moment, I checked Grey's journal and found this quote from 1838:
… I have still to record the remarkable fact of the existence in these parts of a large quadruped with a divided hoof: this animal I have never seen, but twice came upon its traces.
George Grey, Journals Of Two Expeditions Of Discovery In North-West And Western Australia, Volume 1, chapter 11.
The other report came from Lieutenant William Dawes, a rational and sensible man, but as a First Fleeter who spent something like three years here, he had less chance to realise that what he claimed was an impossibility. Sadly, Dawes left no journal, but prosaic David Collins recorded Dawes' reported find in December 1789.
During his toilsome march he met with nothing very remarkable, except the impressions of the cloven feet of an animal differing from other cloven feet by the great width of the division in each. He was not fortunate enough to see the animal that had made them.
David Collins: An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, (end of Chapter VIII).
Exhibit 1: Wallabia bicolor track, West Head, Ku-ring-gai
Chase National Park, near Sydney.
Over the years, I imagine a lot of people have puzzled briefly over these reports, muttered something like "well, they got that wrong, then" and moved on. It was just luck that led me to be sifting through my track shots, looking for some to use, soon after reading G. B. Barton's report of the two findings.

Exhibit 1 is the track of a swamp wallaby, Wallabia bicolor, taken close to Sydney on a sandy track.  This is a characteristic macropod track from a hopping beast: two hind feet, each with two toes, side by side.

Exhibit 2, unidentified wallaby track, Wilpena Pound. Can you
see the vague similarity to a cattle hoof?
Exhibit 2 is another wallaby of similar size, but I took this near Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges, north of Adelaide.  This was the shot that made me realise what Grey and Dawes may have seen.

I have enhanced the second picture a bit to make the small toe show up better, but this was the best track I could find one early September morning, a couple of years ago.  Most of the tracks failed to show the small toe, and because I didn't know about the "cloven hoof" theory, I ignored them.

It was just that I had seen Barton's comment two days before I pulled up these shots and now, as I looked at my Wilpena Pound shot, I could see what they must have seen.

Of course there was a great division in the "hoof"—it was really two feet, side by side on ground that was reasonably hard!

A few things that I will come back to: why you should always try capturing animal track shots early or late in the day, how to get them and how to identify the animal that made them.

1 comment:

  1. That was really interesting! Thanks for the blog about it. I love this sort of writing and info.