A Wallaby Kind of Day

A couple of years ago, when I was just starting on my graduate career, I decided to investigate the possibility of studying a feral population of rock wallabies that lives in one of the valleys above Honolulu. I (finally) wound up deciding that these animals weren't the best group to use to study the questions I was interested in, but along the way I had a hell of a lot of fun hiking in this valley, picking up wallaby droppings for use in genetic work (John Wilkins took some fairly incriminating pictures of me as a result).

Like many things that are involved in actually doing science, the field work in the wallaby range didn't always go exactly as planned. Sometimes, when the unexpected happens, you learn things that are new and noteworthy - changes in the animals' habits and habitat, for example. Other times, when the unexpected happens, you learn things that you really should have known already - like the wisdom of bringing a good waterproof windbreaker along even on days when the forecast is for clear, blue skies all day long. The day that I'm going to tell you about falls more into the later category.

On this particular day, I had been doing quite well. I'd found lots of wallaby droppings, and most looked fresh enough to be good candidates for DNA extraction. (You know you're doing science when "getting excited about the quality of this crap" isn't a figure of speech.) Despite the good collecting, I wasn't really satisfied. Up to that point, I'd mostly just been looking at the base of rock outcrops. I wanted to see if there was more activity up the face of the outcrop than there was at the base, and climbing up to take a look seemed like a good idea at the time.

The outcrop wasn't quite vertical, but it was pretty steep - I'd guess it was probably about a 70 to 80 degree slope. I'd climbed up about 15 feet or so without much of a problem, then got a little overconfident. I grabbed a tree root that was sticking out of the rock, shifted my footing a little, then started to use the root to pull myself a little further up the outcrop. I'm sure that at this point you can guess what happened next.

The root snapped, leaving me looking about as surprised as the panda in that video I posted the other day.

Thinking fast, as I started skidding down the steep - and very rocky - slope, I grabbed a protrusion that was sticking out from the rock. That bit of rock popped free in my hand and started bumping on down the slope. Not good. I'm picking up speed rapidly, the slope is going to get steeper really quickly, and the bushes at the base of the outcrop are really thorny. With those thoughts running rapidly through my mind, I'm still surprised I had enough available capacity to notice the little opening in the rocks below and toward my left. I managed to twist just enough to slam my arm into the small cave.

And grabbed something soft and furry that went totally insane and started biting me.

I'm not falling anymore. I'm now hanging by one arm, with something's teeth locked into my hand. I really wasn't sure if this was an improvement or not, but about the only thing I could do was try and get my other hand and head into the cave for long enough to feel around and get my footing back. And, on the bright side, as soon as my head entered the cave, whatever was biting my hand stopped.

If you'll pardon a brief digression, I'd like to take a minute to talk about the taxonomic classification of wallabies. The species of wallaby found on Oahu is Petrogale penicillata (the brush-tailed rock wallaby). The wallabies and their close relatives the kangaroos are grouped together in the family Macropodidae. "Macropodidae" comes from the Greek, and can be roughly translated as "big feet."

And that is what I saw when I looked up. Two very big feet, right in front of my eyes. I didn't stop to look for the rest of the animal, which turns out to be about the only good choice I made in that ten minute period. I managed to get my head down just in time to take the kicks on the top of my head, which was protected by the climbing helmet I was wearing. Still, it sounded like I was in a drum for a few minutes there, and to this day I'm not entirely sure exactly how I managed to extract myself from the cave and get back down the rest of the slope.

Fieldwork. There's just nothing else like it in the world.

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By David Harmon (not verified) on 20 Feb 2007 #permalink