That last post must have jinxed me or something. We headed out into the field the next morning, to the same forest fragment as before with the wait-a-whiles and stinging trees, to cut some more transects. Halfway into the second transect, it happened. I touched the stinging tree. I actually touched it! All of my wonderful dreams finally came true! I started drifting into a beautiful meadow, skylarks singing their songs on the wing as a rainbow soared over the sky, my dreams, they’d come true! Or maybe the pain was just making me go crazy, haha.
No but seriously, it’s not bad at all. The first few minutes, okay, pretty intense. It was a lot like my experience with Stinging Nettle last year, except this time I’d somehow gotten stung through my pants, and I started to come to grips with the fact that I’d have to deal with this for months. The stinging tree has clinched the award for greatest tree of all time at this point.
But then, turns out that the pain isn’t continuous; it’s not like my knee will throb with pain every moment that I’m awake for the next few months. It comes and goes, I’ll completely forget about it for hours on end, then for two minutes my knee will just spontaneously burst into really sharp pains, only to disappear just as suddenly, and I forget about it again.
And then, it even turns out that the pulses of pain only happened on the first few days. Right now, I am just about 100% okay, and I think it has to do with how I was stung. One of my professors posted a long article written by a scientist who had done her PhD thesis on these stinging trees, and it gave a pretty comprehensive history of the plant. How it works: Tiny silica hairs are found on the leaves and stem, and when someone brushes against them, they break off the plant and embed themselves into the skin. Whenever these hairs are exposed to moisture or to sudden temperature changes, they burst and release a neuro-toxin which causes all the pain, though scientists are still unsure as to how this neurotoxin exactly functions and triggers the actual pain. Anyways, the reason you stay in pain for so long is that the body cannot break down silica, so hairs can stay embedded for months before bursting. So I think I got lucky: most of the silica hairs probably got stuck on my pants, not my knee, so I should make a full recovery very very soon, if not already. I’ve done my laundry too, which is good, hopefully all the silica hairs will wash off, because apparently they also stay active for a really long time. A dried specimen kept at a herbarium in Brisbane was collected in 1910, and it still causes pain to those who touch it. Amazing. Also of note, when one of my other professors first moved to the area, he accidentally walked into a field of stinging trees while wearing shorts, and required extensive hospital treatment for shock and for lymph node swelling, and got injected with Morphine as part of the recovery process. Incredible. Best plant ever.
So yeah, I touched the tree, but I’m fine! I had a lot of fun while the pain lasted, and now I’m starting to wonder if I might be able to get stung more so that I can build up a resistance to it. Haha, no I probably won’t be trying that. But this was a nice little intro, I’ll be much more prepared the next time around. Though it’s sort of demoralizing to know that you can still get stung through your clothes. One of my friends got stung through a rain jacket and t-shirt, and it caused welts. Intense.
Just for some more quick science, we also got to read a quick article on leeches. Most land leeches have three jaws, causing a y-shaped incision, but the Australian land leeches only have two jaws, causing a v-shaped incision. I thought that was really, really cool. Also, leeches have suckers on both ends of their body, but the front sucker is the weakest, so usually leeches attach with their posterior sucker. If a leech successfully feeds on your blood, you bleed for a long time, as I mentioned before, but the actual amount of blood lost is quite minimal, and doesn’t really cause any adverse health effects. You’re just being nice to the leech, in a way. And after a blood meal, the leech usually, “…retires to a dark spot, to digest its meal…” in the exact words of this formal scientific paper. Incredible.
In other wacky and dangerous organismal news, the Centre director’s husband Alastair caught another Scrub Python on the property’s access road. As a note, this is actually part of his job, he works for the government’s wildlife service. I honestly think that he’s one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, he’s seriously like Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter, except a few years older and much more humble and kind. He just runs around Queensland capturing snakes for a living. He’s sort of my hero. But anyways, he’s doing a research project tracking Scrub Pythons around the area, so after he caught this newest Python, we helped him measure it this afternoon. Turned out to be 10 feet long, weighed about 8 pounds, thicker than my fist. Huge snake. Holding the snake straight out for the length measurement, the snake was squirming in my grasp, and woah, I did not realize that they were so strong. Turns out they’re actually the world’s strongest vertebrate, in terms of muscle mass or something. Even the very tip of its tail could probably crush most people in arm wrestling, the muscles were that strong. So it was really cool to spend some time examining this massive snake up close and personal, and we released it later at the same spot it was captured at. We also saw a Small-eyed Snake this afternoon, one of the most dangerous snakes in this area. One of them bit a cabinmate of mine two weeks ago, but luckily he got bitten right on the sandal strap, and missed the foot. You could not get more lucky.
And that’s basically it, for these past few whirlwind days. Tomorrow the whole group is going to Cairns for a weekend break, with everyone heading to an Australian Football game tomorrow night, which I’m incredibly pumped about. Sunday, we have no idea what we’re doing. We were planning on kayaking on the Great Barrier Reef, but it looks like weather conditions will be too harsh, and that’ll get canceled. The girls wanted to go horseback riding, I think they wanted revenge for getting dragged to the football game, but that turned out to be too expensive. Four people just decided an hour ago that they want to go skydiving, which is sorely tempting, but it’s a bit too short notice. I want to pump myself up for a few weeks before I go skydiving, and believe me, I want to go skydiving at some point. But not two days from now. I’d rather find something much more peaceful and relaxing to do.
And also, after my program’s over, I’d been planning on spending ten days in Sydney, but after having a long conversation with Alastair the Crocodile Hunter, I’ve decided that I’m probably going to fly to Alice Springs to spend a few days. Alice Springs is in the center of the continent, right in the middle of the Outback, and that’s an environment that I desparately want to see before I leave here. Plus, the birding will hopefully be incredible. And I trust Alastair’s advice, actually I would trust him with my life. If we really had gone sea kayaking, and our kayaks had flipped, and sharks (or octopuses) were circling, I could totally see Alastair skydiving to our rescue, wrestling with the sharks (and octopuses), and saving everyone without breaking a sweat, and flying off to return to his job and find some more huge snakes. What a ridiculous country that I’m living in.
Leeches attached: ~70
Leeches that have feasted upon my blood: 3