Tag Archives: ships
This is the story of how a parasitic, skin-chewing insect came to conquer the world.
For more than a century, scientists have been puzzled as to how an obscure louse native to Australia came to be found on dogs across the world. Heterodoxus spiniger evolved to live in the fur of the agile wallaby.
Despite little evidence to back the idea, many researchers believed it was linked to people from Asia bringing the dingo to Australia in ancient times. Perhaps people later took dingoes infested with this parasite back home, where it spread to local dogs, and onwards from there.
But when we approached the question again using the most up-to-date information, my colleague Peter Contos and I came up with a completely different explanation – one that better fits what we know of ancient migration and trade in the Asia-Pacific region.
As we report in the journal Environmental Archaeology, this louse probably originated not in Australia but in New Guinea, an island with a long history of intimate connection with seafaring Asian cultures.
Louse on the loose
H. spiniger is a tiny louse that lives on mammals around the world, mostly dogs. Using its clawed legs to hang on, it bites and chews at the skin and hair of its hosts to draw the blood on which it feeds.
As all its closest relatives are specialised parasites of marsupials, mostly other wallabies, logic suggested that H. spiniger must have evolved within Australia. It also seemed logical it would have spread first to the dingo, Australia’s native dog.
Our first task was to figure out just how far away from Australia it had spread; this would inform the likely pathways by which it could have travelled to the wider world.
We looked at museum collections, entomological surveys, and veterinary research reports to generate a map of its worldwide distribution.
The specimens we found, collected from the late 19th century to the present day, showed that this species is found on every continent except Europe and Antarctica.
But in Australia, we couldn’t find a single verifiable instance of the parasite living on dingoes. The only cases were from agile wallabies and domestic dogs.
That meant the prevailing wisdom had been wrong, and we had to look elsewhere for the origins of H. spiniger.
Where did it really come from?
Although marsupials are best known from Australia, they are also found in other parts of the surrounding region. The agile wallaby is also native to the island of New Guinea, which was once joined with Australia.
Dogs have also been in New Guinea for at least as long as the dingo has been in Australia. Traditionally, dogs were kept in Papuan villages, and were used to hunt game, including wallabies.
It came as little surprise, then, that we found H. spiniger on both agile wallabies and native dogs in New Guinea – and only a few decades after the first ever identification of the species.
So here was a more likely place in which the first transfer from wallaby to dog took place. But who took them out of New Guinea and into the wider world?
New Guinea was first colonised by humans around the same time as Australia. But since that time, compared with Australia it has had notably stronger connections with the outside world, reaching back millennia before European colonisation of Australia in 1788.
Around 4,000 years ago, agriculturalists known as Austronesians sailed out of Taiwan to settle several archipelagos in Oceania. With them they brought domestic species of plants and animals, including dogs.
By 3,000 years ago, at the latest, they reached New Guinea. We suggest this was the crucial moment when dogs first picked up H. spiniger.
In the ensuing centuries, Austronesians went on to settle much of Indonesia, the Philippines, Melanesia and Polynesia, and coastal sections of mainland Southeast Asia.
They even settled as far as Madagascar, suggesting their voyages probably took them around the rim of the Indian Ocean, along the margins of India and the Middle East.
Dogs accompanying the migrants probably helped spread the louse, which is found almost everywhere they went.
This spans an enormous distance – from Hawaii to Madagascar – a testament to the ancient Austronesians’ supreme seafaring skills.
Our research suggests how the parasite first got around the world, but not precisely when. Its journey probably progressed at different times in different places.
The Austronesian diaspora established trade routes between the places they settled, some of which spanned impressive distances across several island groups.
Later, foreign traders connected these communities with greater Asia and Africa. And in modern times, dogs continue to be transported as desirable goods themselves.
Trade and contact has probably led to further, possibly ongoing, dispersal of H. spiniger.
Unfortunately there are no archaeological examples that could demonstrate the louse’s early presence outside New Guinea, because this species prefers hot, humid environments.
A genetic approach is a better way forward. A start would be testing specimens from different parts of the world, to see when different regional populations – if they exist – branched off from one another.
This is particularly important in tracking its spread to the Americas, which likely occurred in recent centuries alongside European colonisation.
This research will help us further understand how migration, contact and trade unfolded in the prehistoric Asia-Pacific region, and how it affected the animal species – including the humblest of parasites – we see there today.
This paper would not have been possible without the contributions of Peter Contos, the work of volunteers on the Natural History Museum’s Boopidae of Australasia digitisation project, and the contributions of the public to Wikipedia Creative Commons, for which we are grateful.
Seventy five years ago this month, Australia, the UK, US and the Netherlands suffered a series of disastrous naval defeats against Japan in the narrow straits and seas around Indonesia. The warship wrecks in the Java Sea and the Sunda Strait are the final resting place for thousands of Allied sailors.
The sites are considered war graves by survivors and their descendants, following a long maritime tradition of respecting human remains on shipwrecks.
So it was with shock and deep disappointment that an international team surveying the Java Sea wrecks in November 2016 found that at least four Dutch and British shipwrecks – and one American submarine whose entire crew was captured alive – had simply vanished from the seabed some 70 metres below.
The ships were enormous – the HMS Exeter, for example, was a 175-metre heavy cruiser, longer than three Olympic-sized swimming pools. Other Allied ships in Indonesian waters have also been damaged.
The evidence suggests that the missing ships were stolen, or salvaged, for the valuable metal now sitting on the sea floor.
The recent desecration of the Java Sea naval wrecks was unsurprising to those familiar with the state of underwater cultural heritage in Indonesia. Last year, Inside Indonesia reported on measures being taken to mitigate damage to two other Allied wrecks in Indonesia: HMAS Perth and USS Houston in the Sunda Strait, west of Jakarta. These naval ships were attacked by a Japanese fleet in the early hours of March 1 1942, sinking with over a thousand lives lost between them.
In 2013, reports emerged of salvage barges removing scrap metal from the sites. Although Indonesian authorities were not identified as participating in the salvage operations, they were criticised for not doing more to protect the wrecks.
Well-meaning recreational divers have also been implicated. Commenting on the removal of a trumpet from USS Houston, the Executive Director of the USS Houston Survivors’ Association said:
We have no idea of the untold number of other divers who have pilfered our ship […] and have kept relics retrieved for their own personal use, “stealing” that which truly belong [sic] to the lasting memory of the bravery and dedication of the men who served on these warships.
Advocacy groups in Australia have long called on authorities to protect HMAS Perth. While a recent sonar scan confirmed that USS Houston was largely intact, results for HMAS Perth were inconclusive. Australian and Indonesian divers are due to return to HMAS Perth next month. Despite these efforts, some feel that it is already too late to protect HMAS Perth.
Why steal a ship?
Naval shipwrecks mean huge amounts of scrap metal, with huge potential re-sale value. The sheer quantity of scrap metal on a naval ship means that a single wreck can be worth up to A$1 million. The bronze propellers alone are worth tens of thousands of dollars each.
It is unlikely that the salvage was conducted in complete secrecy. The Java Sea wrecks lay close to one of Indonesia’s largest naval bases, and suspicious activity – not to mention visible environmental impacts such as oil spills – is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by passing marine craft.
Removing a shipwreck from the seabed requires time, know-how, and money. Salvage operations in southeast Asia appear to have become increasingly sophisticated.
Boats disguised as fishing vessels have been used elsewhere in the region. But my conversations with people close to the issue suggest that the Java Sea wrecks were likely removed using a major surface platform known as a claw barge. This reduces the need to rely on large numbers of divers, and, if operated together with specialist imaging equipment such as a sonar scanner, would maximise the efficiency of the salvage. It is also believed that the crew were armed.
The salvagers gave little-to-no consideration to objects of historical or archaeological significance.
The removal of propellers and trumpets is one thing. But the desecration of submerged war graves is undoubtedly the most troubling aspect of this story.
The presence of human remains on the wrecks does not deter illicit salvagers from their nefarious activities. However, the legal status of underwater war graves is ambiguous.
There is no international consensus on military human remains on sunken warships, and the onus is on states to make appropriate provisions for war grave recognition. Under Indonesian legislation, objects older than 50 years can be considered as cultural heritage. However, none of the wrecks mentioned in this article have been officially recognised – in fact, not a single underwater site has been heritage listed.
The international community has condemned the disappearance of the Java Sea wrecks, with the Dutch launching an immediate investigation. The UK Ministry of Defence also expressed serious concern about “unauthorised disturbance of any wreck containing human remains”, and requested that Indonesian authorities take “appropriate action”.
When the news broke that the ships had vanished, the head of Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (National Archaeological Centre of Indonesia), Bambang Budi Utomo, was quoted as saying:
The Dutch government cannot blame the Indonesian government because they never asked us to protect those ships. As there was no agreement or announcement, when the ships go missing, it is not our responsibility.
Chief of Indonesia’s Navy Information Office, Colonel Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta, confirmed Indonesia’s view that the Dutch, British and US governments should have done more to protect the wrecks:
The Indonesian navy cannot monitor all areas all the time. If they ask why the ships are missing, I’m going to ask them back, why didn’t they guard the ships?
Although Indonesia quickly committed to investigating the mystery of the missing wrecks, these initial messages undoubtedly caused further damage to Indonesia’s already-problematic reputation in conserving underwater heritage.
Rather than trading diplomatic blows, Indonesia and the nations that the ships belong to must work together.
Indonesian researchers have been working on the HMAS Perth since 2015, assessing its condition and vulnerability.
The results confirm that the wreck has been damaged by salvagers. There are other threats too, including overly-enthusiastic recreational divers, sea sand mining operations, shipping traffic, and marine pollution from coastal development in nearby Banten Bay.
Last year, researchers conducted local sessions to raise awareness of the sites, which they believe is key to reducing damage to the site. The project team is also considering introducing a maritime conservation area around the HMAS Perth site. Other suggestions include public display signs and expanding commemoration activities to include coastal communities.
There are also efforts being made to increase awareness within the broader population. In Jakarta, the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries’ new Marine Heritage Gallery will bring underwater objects to both government officials and the general public.
In Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s busiest maritime trading destinations, there are plans to open a Regional Training Centre for Underwater Cultural Heritage inside Makassar’s historic Fort Rotterdam.
Internationally, the United Nations’ Ocean Conference will convene in New York in June with the aim of reversing the decline in the health of the world’s oceans. So far underwater cultural heritage is not on the agenda. It is up to UN members to ensure that these issues, and not just marine life, get their time in the spotlight.
Sunken warships have both historical and emotional significance. They must be valued for more than the sale of their parts.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at self-inflicted disasters at sea during war.
The link below is to an article that looks at the Bowling Harbour Boat Graveyard in Scotland.
Canada: The RMS Empress of Ireland Sinks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
On this day in 1914, 1024 people died when the ocean liner RMS Empress of Ireland sunk in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada. It had collided in the early hours of the morning with the Norwegian collier ‘Storstad.’
Launched in 1906, the Empress of Ireland often crossed between Quebec in Canada and Liverpool in England. It had not long departed on another crossing when the accident occurred. There was a heavy fog which resulted in both ships not being able to see the other.
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War Comes to Australia: The Bombing of Darwin
On this day in 1942, Japan launched the first of a number of air raids on northern Australia, striking Darwin in the Northern Territory. The bombing of Darwin on the 19th February 1942 resulted in the deaths of over 250 people, hundreds more wounded, the destruction of 23 aircraft and 10 ships, with an
additional 25 ships damaged. The Japanese lost 7 aircraft in the attack.
Australia suffered more than 60 attacks from Japanese aircraft during World War II.
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