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.

IMG_1723-2.jpg

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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“Remarkable and timely” “funny and informative”: reviews that make me smile

It’s only a week till I blast off with Russ the Bus into Newcastle and Gosford.
Wooo hoo! I can’t wait!

I’m really looking forward to meeting hundreds of kids and teachers and having a fantabulous time!

It’s also only five weeks till Christmas (!!!???!!!)

If you’re wondering how to give the gift that keeps on giving, give a book to a child you love.

And if you need some book suggestions, I humbly (not so humbly? :-)) present two recent reviews, below. (Want more book recommendations for kids? Check out this amazing event at the State Library of WA.)

Writers spend a lot of time alone in our own heads. We’re always wondering if what we’re writing will ever be read, or liked, or used to help inspire readers to live bigger, braver, more informed lives.

So THANK YOU to all of you who take the time to review our work and help get our stories and ideas into the hands of the young people we write them for.

YOU ARE ALL LOVELY!

And now, on with the book reviews… 🙂

Magpies review.JPGZeroes & Ones (2018)
In Magpies magazine

Despite its catchy title and attractive cover featuring a squat, colourful, friendly robot, it is the subtitle The geeks, heroes and hackers who changed history that really best sum up this remarkable and timely book.

Within its five detailed chapters, information is fed to the reader in a series of compact, information-rich fact boxes, with the author’s amusing, hip writing style being sure to resonate with young, switched-on readers.

She reminds them that this is their future and encourages and challenges them to decide how they are going to carry on the digital revolution which they will inherit.

It introduces and outlines the motivations of all the major players to date (e.g. Turing, Jobs, Assange, Zuckerberg, etc.) but more importantly explains how and why the inventions and computer advances which have developed in the last few decades have grown into the overarching behemoth of technology which we all share today.

The unusual combination of colours (black writing of difference sizes and fonts presented on alternating white and yellow background) is striking, and the few illustrations of photographs which accompany the text serve mainly to break up the information and occasionally to simply clarify.

Readership? As well as the obvious group—upper primary and lower secondary readers of both sexes—I would recommend this captivating book to everyone who has held a digital device of any kind in the past twenty years!

This intriguingly delightful book is utterly absorbing—and every so slightly scary!

Highly recommended.

Russ Merrin

Kids Reading Guide review

Off The Track (2018)
In Kids Book Review

Harry thinks he’s in for the worst weekend ever when he has to go hiking and camping. No phone to play with?!

Little does he know of the fun, scary, crazy adventure that awaits!

This is a funny and informative story about getting away from it all.

Kids Book Review 

 

Thank you!!!! And wish me luck with Russ the Bus!

 


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One year anniversary of wreck discovery

SS Macumba_2_Credit Marine National Facility.jpg

Sonar pulses were used to map the 40-metre-deep wreck, showing its broken bow. Photo: CSIRO Marine National Facility

Last October, I was lucky enough to cover the thrilling discovery of a lost wreck. One year on, let’s revisit the events of that time…

On August 6, 1943, two Japanese airplanes attacked the SS Macumba, a 2500-tonne merchant ship in waters north of Arnhem Land.

The ship’s engine room was hit, three crewmen were killed, and the boat sank, disappearing into the ocean.

For seventy-four years, despite many searches, its final resting place was a mystery.

Then, in the dead of night on October 4 last year, the mystery was solved.

Wreck mystery solved

On October 3 2017, the crew onboard the CSIRO research boat Investigator was given just twelve hours to find the Macumba. The vessel was passing by the spot where the Macumba had last been seen, and though many previous searches had uncovered nothing, they wanted to give it another try…

The crew used sonar pulses to search the seafloor in a grid pattern. By studying how the pulses bounced back to the top, the team could work out what might be on the ocean’s bottom.

After ten hours of searching, they spotted some “unusual” features. The ship turned for another look.

 

Shark about to attack dropcam_Credit CSIRO.png

A specialised drop camera was used to photograph the wreck—and this resident reef shark.  Photo: CSIRO Marine National Facility

Midnight success

 

“It was very early in the morning, about 1 am, so everyone was very tired,” says Hugh Barker, voyage manager onboard Investigator. “As soon as [the wreck] appeared on our screens, everyone was celebrating. It was quite special to be the first to see the Macumba in 74 years.”

The team used sonar to map the wreck, which was 40 metres down. They also dropped a camera to photograph it. They discovered the wreck was teeming with life, including “an inquisitive reef shark that seemed to be guarding the site,” Mr Barker says.

The wreck will now be protected as a historic shipwreck.

Frozen in time

Shipwrecks are like time capsules, says Dr Ross Anderson, Curator of Maritime Archaeology at the Western Australian Museum.

“Everything on a shipwreck is frozen in an exact moment of time,” he says. “Shipwrecks, like all archaeological sites and heritage places, are tangible links to our past.”

Dr Anderson’s favourite wrecks are the HMAS Pandora, which ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef in 1791, and the Batavia, Australia’s second earliest shipwreck, which was wrecked off Western Australia in 1629.

Items discovered on both wrecks help us understand how people lived hundreds of years ago.

And there’s still treasure to be found. “There are still many ships lost that were carrying bullion [like precious metals and coins] and other high value cargoes,” he says.

CSIRO research vessel Investigator_Credit CSIRO.jpg

CSIRO’s research vessel Investigator solved the 74-year-old mystery last year. Photo: CSIRO

Searching for treasure

Finding a wreck can be low-tech or high-tech. The divers who re-discovered the Batavia were shown where to look by a crayfisherman who’d spotted the curve of a giant anchor deep in the water.

The Pandora was re-discovered using a magnetometer, which measures changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. In this way, metal objects such as anchors and cannons often help us find lost wrecks, Dr Anderson says.

Other times, colour can point the way. If you’re keen on discovering sunken treasure, keep your eyes peeled for the green of tarnished copper, or the black of crusted silver.

This article first appeared in Crinkling News.

 


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My top five activities for book and science lovers

Fremantle Press recently featured my top five activities for teachers to use with their book and science lovers in the classroom.

In case you missed it…here it is again!

Activities for Science Week and Book Week.JPG

1. Design your red planet submarine
We’ve just discovered a giant underground lake on Mars! Now we need to find out what’s in it. Imagine you’re in charge of designing the Mars Submarine Explorer. Draw it and label the features that’ll help you in your adventure. Then, when you’re ready, jump in and take it for a ride … Write down what happens and let us know what you discover!

2. Forget the Floss, dance the Peacock Spider
Kick off your day with a peacock spider-inspired dance routine to get your creative juices flowing. And while you’re busting moves, marvel at the fact that these incredible arachnids were only discovered last month and they live right here in Western Australia … How lucky are we?! When you have your breath back, imagine how it felt to be the first person in the world to see these spiders in action … Write a scene where you’re that person, sneaking through the bush on the trail of a new and amazing discovery.

3. Billionaire inventor
Ten of the 20 fastest-rising billionaires in the world work with new technologies. Imagine you’re an insanely rich technology entrepreneur. Now imagine you want to spend a wad of cash on a new project. What type of technology will you choose? A robot? A spaceship? A helpful gadget? A crazy invention? Sketch out your project and write an advertisement that explains what it will do. How will you encourage us to part with our money so we can own the Next Big Thing?

4. What if rhinos roamed Australia?
Rhinos are critically endangered, so why not introduce them to Australia? I love this plan! And it’s amazing for story ideas … What if rhinos roamed with kangaroos? What if your part-time job was caring for a rhino herd? What if poachers came to hurt your rhinos? What if we could have pet rhinos? Or use rhinos instead of lawnmowers? Brainstorm some ideas for what might happen in your story.

5. Create an emergency whistle
Hiking in the bush is a fantastic way to learn more about the world around you. There are insects and flowers and birds and trees, and there’s also survival, if things go wrong. When you read my latest book, Off the Track, you’ll learn the best way to stay safe in the bush is to be prepared. You can also learn a sweet trick that just might save your life. Spoiler alert: the trick is how to make a super-annoying whistle from an ordinary piece of paper. And remember, it’s not just super-annoying, it’s also educational! Yay, the science of sound!


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Zeroes and Ones advance copy!

Zeroes and Ones-Cristy Burne.JPGI’m way too excited to let you know I HAVE MY ADVANCE COPY OF ZEROES AND ONES!!!

This is my first book with Brio Books.

I love the gorgeous books they make, and I was quietly hoping they would make my book look and feel the way they make Adam Spencer’s books look and feel (which is amazing!).

AND THEY DID!!!

It’s shiny!

It’s pretty!

It’s a whopping 237 pages and running your fingertips across the raised font on its cover feels Just So Lovely!

It’s dedicated to the innovators of tomorrow.

When I imagined this book, I wanted it to be something kids could be inspired by. I wanted it to contain real-life stories of hope and failure and dedication and triumph. And I hoped it would be a book parents and children and teachers could read to help think about where we fit in this world of STEM* and STEAM** and social media and tablets and apps and all the other things that demand our attention.

I wanted this to be a book that kids could read with a view to creating technology, not just consuming it.

And well, it’s here now. I tried my best…and I hope Zeroes and Ones has achieved all of these things and more. Also, I hope it’s quirky and funny and OMG-is-that-really-true interesting.

Pre-order now!

If you know a mini innovator who loves computers and coding, wacky facts and hard-to-believe stories, you can pre-order your own highly strokable copy of Zeroes and Ones today, from Booktopia, or Boffins, or QBD, or ask at your fabulous local bookstore and they’ll order it in. THANK YOU! It’s recommended for kids in upper primary and beyond.

And I hope you enjoy your fast and fabulous non-digital journey through computing and time! What happens next is up to you…

 

And acronyms decoded:

* STEM = science, technology, engineering and maths

** STEAM = science, technology, engineering, arts and maths