Legends from our own lunchtimes

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Living Fossil

At the edge of the town in Bundaberg there’s a relatively recent development on the river, with a pleasant cafe providing exraordinarily equally unpleasant fare. How anyone can get a toasted ham and cheese sandwich wrong is beyond my comprehension, but in retrospect the experience was worth it just to make me grateful for all the people in the world who can toast a ham and cheese sandwich with reasonable proficiency.

Surrounding the cafe is what the urban planners among us would call public open space, which actually comprises a carpark, a steep riverbank and a public loo, all pleasantly disguised behind landscaping and timber ramps, which are so prolific that one can no longer see through them to the boats moored on the river, which was the reason for putting the park and the cafe there in the first place.

Right at the entrance to the cafe though, there’s a bit of sculpture, “public art” the urban planners would call it, in the shape of good old Neoceratodus forsteri, the Queensland Lung Fish. It’s a monster lump of steel with a few bits of old outboard motor attached and at first glance I thought it was another of those witty pieces constructed entirely of pieces of old machinery popularised if not made famous by Mark Trotter, and I’d almost begun a yawn, when I realised it wasn’t. I’m not sure whether it’s a clever piece or not, or whether the exposed ribs and parts of the carcass were meant to be evocative of the danger in which the species now finds itself, but it started me thinking, which probably means as a piece of art it succeeded in any case.

I don’t even know if there was a plaque there to explain it either, I didn’t look, because by the time I would have in normal circumstances gone looking for it I was too immersed in my own thoughts of things near extinction and my fondness of the lung fish exhibit at the Queensland Museum when I was fifty years younger than I am at present. The museum was in that Baroque brick building near the exhibition grounds in those days, and to a small boy it always seemed as though it was a thousand years old even then. The interior was verging on shoddy really, and the displays in my mind at least were something reminiscent of museums from a far earlier time.

We’d arrive and crawl over the WW1 German tank “Mephisto” on the way in, then run straight past the rusty steel water tank that Eliza Fraser paddled in to safety across Tin Can Bay, to the impossibly small glass fishtanks so encrusted with algae that we could barely see through the murky water, and watch what we could see of the poor old “living fossil” meander up and down or mostly not meander at all. I have no idea what it was that fascinated us so, but I think it was that it was a genuinely rare and endangered species, and this specimen was even more endangered than his siblings, given that there was going to be at best limited opportunity for him to return to the place of his birth, let alone find a girlfriend in that small single fish sized tank.

Perhaps it was the thought that at every visit I could have been the last person on earth to see it alive. In the fities, extinction was what had happened to dinosaurs and this was a "living fossil" after all.

Everything else seemed to be in boundless supply.

The poor old lung fish in its own habitat, returns to the same spot each year to breed, and if the spot’s disappeared as a result of drought, or because a dam has suddenly appeared, or if the food supply isn’t up to scratch it simply won’t do the necessary business. Given that it only appears in the Burnett and Mary river systems, which are under reasonably intense water harvesting development, apparently there’s very little business being done at all these days, although some of their number have been relocated into other systems in an attempt to conserve one or two for future museum tanks.

The human population doesn’t seem to suffer from the same geographic fussiness for reproduction of the species as the lung fish, but if it did, I suspect that Bundaberg may well be a very tiny hamlet after just one generation. The town is nice enough of course, but the ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches would be enough to stop anything breeding.


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