Cristy Burne

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Celebrating sawfish on Shark Awareness Day

Did you know sawfish are related to sharks?

When I took on this story for CSIRO’s Double Helix magazine I didn’t know much about sawfish at all.

Now I know they’re a type of ray. I know they use their saws to detect the heartbeats of their prey, and also to stun fish and defend against predators. And I know they used to live around the world, but are now endangered. How cool is it to be a science writer and learn all these things as part of my job!!!

Double Helix Sawfish.JPGFishing up a huge surprise

It started out as just another fishing trip.

Lisa Smiler was using a handline in Wattie Creek, 900 kilometres south-west of Darwin, in the Northern Territory, when she felt that unmistakeable feeling: a bite on the end of her line!

“I thought it was a barramundi, or a catfish, or something,” Lisa says. Whatever it was, it was big.

“I was pulling the line, then my sister helped pull the line, and her partner pulled the line, all the way up to the edge of the river,” Lisa describes. “All of a sudden, my sister pulled up the nose part, and I said, ‘Oh no, I don’t want this fish, it’s freaky.’”

At 2.7 metres long, the fish weighed more than Lisa did. When she posted its picture on social media, Lisa set the scientific world alight.

Record-breaking fish?

According to Western science, Lisa’s sawfish is the first ever observed swimming so far inland—nearly 500 kilometres from the ocean!

But Indigenous knowledge says differently. Local rock art of a sawfish, or kunpulu, suggests Lisa’s ancestors had seen the fish already.

Ursula Chubb, a Gurindji ranger, monitors the rock art site. “When we go out on country trips with Elders, they talk about it, and I listen to them telling us stories,” she says. “It’s a very important fish from long ago, when our ancestors were living in this country.”

Lisa says she never dreamed she’d see a live kunpulu. “I’d just heard about the sawfish in the rock painting … I wasn’t thinking I would catch one.”

Tracking language

Kunpulu’ means ‘sawfish’ in Gurindji, and in other Indigenous languages too, even those spoken hundreds of kilometres from Gurindji country.

Dr Felicity Meakins has studied Indigenous languages for over 20 years. She says different words tell their own stories, and she uses these stories to learn about changes over time.

“You can use different languages to trace the path of the fish,” says Felicity.

“I would guess at some point this fish has appeared, and people have said, ‘This is a stranger in our country. What’s this?’ And they’ve asked more northern people…and that’s how that word kunpulu has been passed along.”

Solving the mystery

We don’t know when Gurindji people first saw sawfish, but with ochre samples from the rock art, we hope to be able to solve the mystery. Scientists have also taken DNA samples from Lisa’s sawfish, to help work out how many sawfish are in the river.

“We’re using Indigenous ecological knowledge and western knowledge to build up a picture of what’s happened with the sawfish,” Felicity says.

Endangered wonders

Sawfish once lived around the world but are now endangered. Baby sawfish are born in the ocean, at the mouth of rivers like the Northern Territory’s Victoria River or Western Australia’s Fitzroy River.

The pups swim upstream, spending years growing in the river before swimming out to the ocean. Adults can reach up to seven metres long.


My article was first published in CSIRO’s Double Helix magazine.

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How to tickle a rat: serious news on International Joke Day

giggling rats Helix.JPGIt’s International Joke Day, but let’s get serious. Evidence suggests a good laugh is great for our health. But what if you just don’t feel funny? Can tickling help?

That’s where research comes in. Dr Shimpei Ishiyama is studying tickling and laughter in rats. It turns out, anyone can learn to tickle a rat, he says.

“It is very easy…though there are some techniques, such as flipping them and tickling the belly, which you may need to practice a bit.”

Shimpei is studying the way rats’ brains react to a good tickling. He hopes to learn more about how our own brains work.

“Our results suggest that ticklishness has been conserved through evolution, and is related to playfulness. We speculate ticklishness is perhaps a brain’s trick to make us play with others, and have fun,” he says.

Ready, set, tickle

Shimpei and his team of ticklers have even noticed differences in rat personalities. Shy rats tend to laugh less, while playful rats laugh more.

Shimpei loved being tickled as a kid, but now he hates it. “It is also the same for rats. Young rats enjoy being tickled, while adult rats are annoyed,” he says.

meme-ratTop tickler’s tip:

Before you attempt to tickle your rat, take a deep breath. It’s important that you’re feeling relaxed and friendly.

“Rats…can sense the stress hormone in sweat on my palm, which could potentially make them nervous,” says Shimpei.

Is your rat missing its sense of humour?

Worried that your rats are too serious? Don’t worry. It’s normal to feel this way. And it could be your rats are having a super time, you just don’t realise.

Rats laugh at ultrasonic frequencies, so the human ear cannot hear their giggles.

I originally wrote this article for CSIRO’s Double Helix magazine 🙂 

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How to spot (and help) platypuses 

DSC_0020I’m lucky enough to be heading to the Whitsundays Voices Festival a couple of weeks early. Why? For some sun and beaches, but also some forests and hiking…

I’m also hoping to see a small, furry critter I’ve adored from afar but never actually laid eyes on:

The platypus.

On a scale of one to weird…

On a scale of one to weird, platypuses score super-high. They’re venomous, lay eggs, make milk, breathe air and live in fresh water. How cool is that!?!?!

“It doesn’t get much weirder,” says Josh Griffiths, a senior ecologist with 10+ years’ experience working with platypuses.

“They’re the most unusual creature on the planet. There’s still so much we don’t know about them, so any time I go out or do research, I’m going to see something new.”

DSC_0306.jpgWhat do we already know about platypuses?

Well, we know platypuses are amazing.

Bill: Their super-sensitive bill can detect underwater electrical pulses made by tasty beetles, insect larvae and yabbies. This means platypuses hunt with their eyes, ears and nostrils closed.

Limbs: Their short limbs are webbed (great for paddling) and clawed (great for digging).

Spur: Males have venomous spurs on their ankles. “The venom causes excruciating pain and massive swelling in humans,” says Josh. Platypus venom is so odd, we’re hoping it can be used to treat diabetes.

Coat: Their thick waterproof fur is perfect for staying warm and dry.

Tail: Flat and wide like a paddle, their tail is great for swimming. It’s also filled with fat, for energy reserves.

Size:  1–3 kilograms. “Like a small rabbit,” says Josh, “but they’re a very strange shape, because they’re long and streamlined.” Think 40–50 cm from tip of tail to tip of bill.

Eggs: The female lays her eggs in a 25-30-metre-long burrow that she’s dug into the riverbank. “It’s quite an effort for a one-kilogram animal,” says Josh. “The eggs around about the size of a 5-cent piece when they’re laid.” After just ten days, the eggs hatch.

Jellybean babies: “When platypus hatch, they’re the size of a little pink jellybean,” says Josh. “They’re basically a mouth, with not much else. Mum stays with them almost constantly for the first few weeks.” During this time, she feeds her bean babies with milk.

Milk: A CSIRO team led by Janet Newman has found a curly protein in platypus milk is great at killing bacteria. “Platypus are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry,” says Janet.

Where to see platypuses

Platypuses live across eastern and southern Australia. They’re mostly nocturnal, live alone, and are super-shy. “We don’t see them easily, so we don’t know whether they’re disappearing or not,” says Josh.

However, fingers crossed, they’re relatively easy to spot in the Eungella National Park, which is where I’ll be heading before the Whitsundays Voices Festival. Wish me luck!

Join the platypus party

Next time you go platypus-spotting, be a citizen scientist and record your success (or failure) on platypusSPOT.

“You can see where other people have seen platypus and try your luck in those hot spots,” says Josh. Even better, your information helps us learn more about where platypus live.


Platypus can drown in yabby traps

What you can do to help platypuses today

There are two big ways we can all help platypuses:

  • Save water. “Every time we take a shower or turn on the tap, we’re using water from a platypus’ home,” says Josh.
  • Pick up litter: “It’s easy for a platypus to get tangled rubber bands or hair ties or bits of string,” says Josh. Platypuses also drown in yabby traps.

Injured platypus? Who you gunna call?

If you find an injured or sick platypus, don’t pick it up. “You could get put in hospital for your trouble,” says Josh. Platypus venom isn’t fun! Instead, call your local wildlife rescue operation.

Did you know?

Platypuses are one of only five living species of egg-laying mammals, called monotremes. The other four are all echidna species. Monotremes only live in Australia and New Guinea.

This post is adapted from an article written by me that first appeared in CSIRO’s Double Helix magazine. (c) CSIRO

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Festival fever, creative classroom competition and #amediting (still)

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A selfie of 900 kids pretending to take a selfie @ Scribbler’s Festival 2019

May is nearly over!

I’ve been super-busy, including appearances at Somerset Storyfest on the Gold Coast, Scribbler’s Festival in Perth and the Margaret River Readers and Writer’s Festival in…Margaret River.

Packing my bags, again!

Next month I’m off to the Gold Coast again as part of the Whitsundays Voices festival.

I’m still pinching myself – there’s nothing I love more than meeting readers, inspiring kids and meeting loads of other book lovers and creators.

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Pre-launch-party antics with Belinda Murrell and Kasey Edwards (AKA Violet Grace) at Sumerset Storyfest

#amediting #itshard

Ordinary life has been flat out too…camping trips and dog sits and tooth extractions and I’M STILL WORKING ON THAT SAME MANUSCRIPT and IT’S STILL DOING MY HEAD IN and I HOPE I’M GETTING CLOSER TO THE END.

This has been a really tricky thing to write and it’s proving even trickier to edit.

Hopefully the results are worth it. If not, I’ll have a little cry, hug my dog and know I’ve done my best. I’ve already learned so much from trying to write it.


Fun and games and school visits for the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival

Creative classrooms competition!

For those of you who are teachers or parents, Fremantle Press is running a fantastic Creative Classrooms competition.

This year’s prize includes every book on the 2019 children’s list, plus a selection of books suited to your school’s needs. What do you need to do?

Simply take photos of a creative classroom project you’ve been working on, inspired by any Fremantle Press book.

Email your photos to with the subject line: 2019 Fremantle Press Creative Classrooms Competition. Include your school’s details, who took the photos and who or what features in the photos.

Good luck! (And happy editing!)



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5 top tips for turning your child on to reading

Do you have a reluctant reader? Want some book suggestions for reluctant readers? The secret is turning your child on to stories.
Here are my five top tips:
1) Start with story.
Your child will fall in love with reading when they are driven from inside themselves to turn the pages. Choose books with stories that will resonate with your individual child.
To turn your kid onto reading, you need to find them stories about the things they’re interested in. Stories about monsters and sacrifice and true friendship and fight scenes and magic and miracles and unicorns and quests and so much more.
2) Read out loud to your child.
Even if your kid knows how to read, read to them out loud. This is about you and your child sitting together on the couch. No music, no TV, no devices. And *YOU* do all the reading. No strings attached.
Reading to your kid is super-important, because learning to read can be super-boring. When was the last time you sat down to read the phone book? Or a dictionary? Reading is about so much more than recognising words and letters. It’s about STORY. So choose a story to read to you child that is so exciting, so thrilling, so engaging that they will beg to you keep reading. Because THEY HAVE TO KNOW what happens next. And then read that story to them.
3) Don’t try to shield your kid from the world
Scary and sad and mean are part of your child’s world. And there is no safer way to learn to cope with these things that to read scary and sad and mean stories and scenes together with your trusted adult, on the couch, together.
Reading stories is a super way to learn how to cope with difficulties and hard times. And 99% of children’s stories have a happy ending that fills you and your child with hope. Sharing stories together is an incredibly positive way for your child to learn about the world.
4) Aim high.
The more words your child hears, the better their literacy becomes, so don’t limit the vocabulary you expose them to.
Choose a book that is far in advance of what your child can read. Choose a book that contains words they don’t understand. Don’t worry if even you don’t understand some of the words (this happens to me a lot!). Anything goes so long as the story is something that hooks them in and has them wanting more.
5) Read together every day
Make reading together on the couch or in bed a daily thing. Your aim is to hook your child with the story you are reading. You can’t do this if you only read every now and then. You need to remember the story and the characters if you are to care about what happens next.
Fair warning: despite the author’s very best efforts, it may take a few chapters for your child to become fully invested in a story. Try to read for at least 15 minutes together, every day. You don’t have to finish a complete chapter (some chapters are SOOOO long), but aim to finish on a bit of a cliffhanger.
You want your child to beg you for five more minutes of reading, so they can find out what happens next.
This is the power of stories.
And stories are the purpose of reading.


WAYRBA, Notables and Woy Woy!

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Science writers of Australia, unite!

Yikes – it has been a busy start to the year. I’ve been speaking at libraries and schools and jetsetting to Sydney and retreating to Margaret River.

I’ve also been lucky enough to have two books longlisted for children’s book prizes: 

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I was with a group of emerging writers at The Children’s Bookshop in Beecroft when we heard the CBCA news…


Both of these things are a dream come true. I get to have a little sticker on my books!

Plus (even better than the sticker), I have the feeling that children and adults are reading and enjoying and sharing conversations about my books. Wheeee! It’s the author’s equivalent of an Olympic medal and I feel I have run a marathon or two.

THANK YOU to each of *YOU* for helping along the way. 

There are more marathons to run, but it’s way more fun to run with company 🙂 (PS: I’m more of a fast walker, myself).

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Some WA children’s book creators rocking Sydney’s penthouse accommodation 😉 

Side trip to Woy Woy

I know many of you will be asking, how did you do all this and a trip to Woy Woy too? Well, the answer is, I made a terrible, terrible mistake.

I accidentally missed my train change and ended up on an express to Woy Woy instead of hopping to Beecroft.

This resulted in an approximately three hour detour, which was initially horrifying (WHAT HAVE I DONE?? WHERE WILL I SLEEP??) but ended up extremely relaxing (I am chronically early, so managed to arrive only ten minutes late for my Beecroft event)(Plus, the train ride to Woy Woy is beautiful! Although I recommend you plan your trip first :-))


WOy WOy.jpg

Woy Woy: Why would you go anywhere else?

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OFF THE TRACK to be serialised in Term 4

Hooray! I’m super-excited to announce that Off The Track will be serialised in The West Australian’s ED! magazine in 2019.

Below is an interview I did to celebrate the news.

Now all I need to do is get out my editing blade and cut the book down to 10 excerpts of 1000 words each. Should be easy, right? (Right?) (Huh?)

west australian interview off the track


Why do you use local; nature spots as the settings for your stories?

I love to tell stories our children can identify with. It’s super-exciting to be able to picture exactly where a story is happening. And in this case, it’s not New York, it’s not London, it’s Western Australia, because cool stuff can happen here too.

I love to write adventures that happen outside, in the fresh air and the trees, because I want to encourage children and families to get outside and reconnect with nature.

Do you think more kids should be bugging their parents to take them exploring in the wilderness?

If your kid is bugging you for more time exploring in the wilderness, then you have it easy. Just say “Okay honey” and make it happen.

Where is your favourite place to explore the wilderness in WA?

I love the Bibbulmun Track, so it’s no surprise that this is the setting for Off The Track. The Bibb is so long, you can experience all kinds of wilderness across many different parts of WA. Wherever I’m hiking, I always have a feeling of being out in the world, of the enormity of nature. It helps me to put everyday problems and struggles into perspective.

What’s the best part about being an author?

I love that my job is always changing and I can dive deep into different stories and different ideas. I also love the extremes of my job. I can spend the morning alone in a silent room, and the afternoon at a school speaking to 500 kids. Whatever I’m doing, my goal is always to inspire kids to become keen readers and engaged citizens.

Do you have a favourite place in Perth?

I have loads of favourite places in Perth… The beach. King’s Park. Home. Fremantle. North Perth. Our living room on a sunny winter’s afternoon, when the sun streams in and the kids are playing together nicely (yes, this does happen).

Where do you write?

I do most of my writing at home. We have an open plan office-cum-library-cum-computer room. It’s also the dog’s room. She has her own couch and she can type on my keyboard if she jumps up in just the right spot. That’s how I know it’s time for a walk.

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