Biology of the Ugly Islands

This file provides information, about the animals, the plants, and the vegetation types of the Ugly Islands.

The animals

Summary list

In the past . . .

Fossil bird 1 Fossil bird 2

The fossil evidence

Long ago, the island of Big Ugly seems to have supported a wide range of giant land mammals and reptiles, and two different species of wingless bird that stood about 3 metres tall, rather like the moa of New Zealand. There was also a large tortoise, up until about five thousand years ago, the time when the wingless birds also died.

There is a great deal of debate going on at the moment about how these birds should be reconstructed from the few available bones. While ten breastbones and nine skulls have been found, there have been 31 leg bones discovered, leading some experts to suggest that the birds were three-legged, and only about two metres tall. The two most likely reconstructions are shown here.

The mammals of the past are only represented by a few teeth, found in an ash bed which was until recently beneath a lava flow on Little Ugly. Most of the teeth are extremely large. There are also a few very small fossil teeth, which offer us a hint that snouters may have originated in the Ugly Islands. More work will be needed to confirm this.

Today: an overview

Many of the surviving plants and animals are extremely interesting to the biologist. In the first place, they should not be where they are, since the islands are a long way away from anywhere else by sea. In the past, people have wondered if there had been other islands, closer to the main continents, which had allowed island hopping. Now we think that the Old Ones may have brought many of these strange plants and animals to the islands.

The highlights of the animal life

The hairyoddity , Hirsutus insolitus , of Little Ugly is worth mentioning. This mammal is a curious member of the rodent family which walks on its hind legs, and which has long fine fur and very large ears.

The bombat , Vespertilio cadens , is a carnivorous bat which kills small fish by dropping stones near them to stun them, and then snatching them from the surface as they float, belly-up.

There are many untouched stands of rain forest on Big Ugly and a few on Little Ugly. The bombats nest in the trees of one type of forest, known locally as the inwit . On the forest floor below, lurks the agenbite ( Comus epimenides ), a completely non-venomous snake, the only snake on the islands. In fact, it is not only venomous, it has no teeth at all.

Apart from a wide range of small lizards, the other obvious reptile of the Ugly Islands is the slurp , Saurus soarus . This is a lizard which lives in the uphill rain forest, and which has developed a gliding habit. A flap of skin between the front and hind legs allows this lizard to glide very efficiently, catching flying insects with its long sticky orange tongue.

There are seven known species of frog, 120 species of bird have been seen in the islands, with 23 species (including the sinking ducks ) living nowhere else, and the seas around the islands seem to be packed with fish. There are no earthworms on the island, but every other kind of invertebrate seems to have at least one representative on the islands. A number of burrowing beetles and two small burrowing snails seem to have taken over the role usually played by earthworms.

Biological problems

There are still feral pigs on Big Ugly, and several feral goats on Little Ugly, descendants of goats left there by HMS Ugly . If something is not done about hunting down these last survivors, the populations will soon begin to climb again. The last goat to have been seen on Big Ugly was shot, on top of Cloudmaker about two years ago.

Offshore, halfway between Big Ugly and Little Ugly, is the badly named Green Island , better known to the locals as The Plug. It may have been green once, but now it has been over-run with white rabbits, pets which were washed ashore when a passing yacht was wrecked there twenty years ago. The rabbits have stripped the island almost bare, and plans are under way to wipe them out. This will be difficult, as the island is 2 km long and 1 km wide, and has two hills which are 300 metres above the sea.

A number of weeds have arrived on the islands. Most of these seem to have come direct from Australia, although New Zealand and North American weeds have also been recorded.

Cattle are bred on the islands, both for meat and for milk. These have caused a serious dung problem, and an increase in the number of small annoying flies. Scientists from Australia have been helping in a small-scale investigation to discover what dung beetles could be safely introduced to the islands.

The hopping hawks are well-known, and were described by James Ugly, but in the past thirty years, a new hawk species , called, naturally enough, the new hawk, has appeared in the islands.

Unfortunately, many of the animals that were described by James Ugly and Nehemiah Grue have since disappeared from view entirely, so that we are left with no more than the artists' impressions, and a few fossils. A storm in late 1994 uncovered a likely looking layer of wind-blown material which seems likely to reveal some useful bones: the bed has returned carbon-14 dates of around 250 to 350 years ago, but the bed is still to be fully explored.

The Mammals of the Ugly Islands

The hairyoddity

Hairyoddity The hairyoddity was named by Nehemiah Grue, a scientist who was on board HMS Ugly when the ship visited the Ugly Islands. Grue was a less than accurate artist, possibly because he drew the hairyoddity from memory. The drawing on the left is one of the drawings completed by Grue after the wreck of HMS Ugly , and is less than completely reliable.

The hairyoddity is of no particular importance ecologically, but its ears are used to make a delicious soup. It spends a great deal of time high up in the tree-tops, where it is safe from attack.

Three residents of Big Ugly want to set up hairyoddity farms on some of the Uglets. As the hairyoddity loves nothing more than palm seed and coconuts, the inhabitants of the Uglets do not favour this idea at all. The hairyoddity can swim considerable distances, they say, and would be likely to spread right across the whole chain of the Uglets, eating the palm seeds. The entrepreneurs from Big Ugly say this is no problem at all, as they will only breed genetically engineered hairyoddities which are unable to swim. They also point out that no hairyoddities have ever swum across from Little Ugly to the Uglets, and that the palm seeds on the Uglets are eaten by the runner crabs in any case.

The bombat

Bombat The bombat is apparently a highly intelligent animal. Its method of catching food is so unusual that many television film crews have visited the Ugly Islands, trying to catch them in action, but the shy bombats are wary of cameras, apparently mistaking them for guns. So while all of the Ugly Islanders are familiar with the bombats, very few outsiders have actually seen them hunting.

Up to twenty bombats can sometimes be seen working together to carry large boulders out over a large school of fish, but only at the time of a full moon. The bombat was named by Grue as Clava cadens , who was unfamiliar with bat taxonomy, and not a very good Latin scholar.

The snark

Snark The snark ( Boojum caesium ) is a carnivorous mammal which lives mainly by killing hairyoddities and mudrats, although it will also kill and eat almost any other small mammal, bird, frog, reptile, or fish that it can find, especially the leaping lizards when they come ashore.

Snarks are also eaters of carrion, so their bite can be extremely dangerous, since the teeth usually carry large numbers of germs.

Most of the people on the Ugly islands will kill any snark that they see on sight, arguing that the only good snark is a dead snark. They also know that the most dangerous snark of all is a snark which has just eaten a hairyoddity that was full of fermented meadberries. The snark becomes intoxicated, and rushes around, grey with rage, causing some people to draw comparisons with one of the more unpopular members of The Council, Jean Grey , who seems, they say, to be similarly destructive.

Snarks are fairly common on Big Ugly and Little Ugly, but are regrettably absent from The Plug, where they might be able to help keep the white rabbits under control.

The mudrat

mudrat The mudrat ( Mus limus ) is a burrowing mammal, found on the banks of the Big Ugly River, where it lives. The mudrats eat snails, insects and seeds.

Strictly speaking, the mudrat is an extremely large mouse, as indicated by its scientific name, but nobody on the islands worries too much about this. The mudrat is considered to be an endangered species, and it has now been listed on the IUCN Register of Odd and Peculiar Animals.

The Council is currently looking at a proposal to transfer some of the remaining mudrats to other parts of Big Ugly, in order to protect them from any sudden disasters, such as snarks.

The wombah

This animal is yet to be described satisfactorily by a reputable scientist, but has been tentatively described as Megahyrax anomalus .

Wombah The wombahs are small, light-grey, elephant-like mammals which are found in the higher mountains of Big Ugly. They are most probably related to the smaller mammoths, known as fossils and frozen specimens from Siberia and northern China, but it is a puzzle to explain how they found their way to the islands, although Bill James thinks he knows the answer, and you can learn more about the wombahs by clicking on this link.

The Birds of the Ugly Islands

The sinking ducks

The sinking ducks ( Persus oreillyi ) are usually found only around Finnegans Lake on Big Ugly, where they live mainly on the food they collect from the bottom of the lake which is just as well, since they would have trouble getting any food from the surface of the lake.

The sinking ducks get their name from the fact that they have very few feathers on their bodies, as these feathers are eaten during the night by the roara prawns. Without the body feathers to hold air, the sinking ducks are unable to float, although their wing feathers always remain intact. When the enter the water, they walk down into the depths, where they can remain for periods as long as five minutes.

The ducks are only slightly more dense than water, so it is possible for them to "fly" to the surface, where they gulp air before sinking again, to feed some more. Curiously, the ducks would probably not be able to survive in the warm "thermal" waters of Finnegans Lake if they had all of their feathers, as the insulation of the feathers, coupled with an outside temperature of 38 degrees Celsius, would almost certainly kill them by thermal stress.

The sinking ducks are also able to fly reasonably well, but they rarely fly away from the lake, as they get too cold. Those which do fly away are often trapped in the lowlands, and often fall prey to snarks, which do not normally go any higher than about 300 metres above sea level.

In times gone by, the sinking ducks were regarded as a delicacy, but they have been protected by Council order since 1978, and they are now plentiful once more. Some people have suggested trying to farm the sinking ducks in ponds fed by the thermal springs on Little Ugly.

The hopping hawk

The hopping hawk appears to have been on the Ugly Islands for a very long time, as there are forms of this bird on both Big Ugly and Little Ugly. The hawk has lost the power of flight, and has stumpy little wings, with the feathers modified to form hooks.

The hopping hawk chases after its prey by hopping over the ground, rather like a kangaroo, seizing its prey with the hooked wings, and then tearing it apart with its beak and also with the claws on its feet.

The new hawk

The first new hawks seem to have arrived there quite naturally, from China, and there are now some thirty of them. The new hawks kill and eat bombats, slurps and hairyoddities.

Careful observers say that the new hawks seem to be losing the ability to fly as well, though they can still glide long distances. These hawks hover and climb successfully in the updrafts near the many cliffs on the islands to gain height for hunting, and they are becoming very good at hopping after prey. This loss of flying power has limited their expansion, as they are not quite fast enough on the ground to escape from hungry snarks.

Some people are worried that the new hawks may replace the hopping hawks if they continue to lose their power of flight, as they will then begin to compete with the hopping hawks for the same sort of prey.

Liar birds

These are small greenish birds which live in the treetops, where they are almost invisible. They get their name from their ability to mimic almost any sound, causing all sorts of confusion to people wandering in the forests of the islands.

There are several variants of liar bird, with slightly different colours and slightly different food preferences (we think) in different parts of the Ugly Islands. Because the birds are so hard to see, and because they seem to have no identifying call of their own, nobody knows very much about them at all. The islanders have a very high respect for the truth, and often refer to these deceptive birds as "rubbish birds".

Reptiles of the Ugly Islands

The agenbite

Agenbite colour photo The agenbite of inwit is a weak snake, unable to catch and crush prey, and unable to kill with its venom. It survives by eating carrion, but the agenbites of Little Ugly seem to be turning vegetarian. The picture of the agenbite shown here is difficult to interpret, as it is well camouflaged, probably in order to allow it to sneak up on the Canute grass that it likes to eat. Unfortunately, this is the only available picture of the agenbite.

The name, by the way, refers to the toothless agenbite's habit of "gumming" their food many times, biting it again and again. This snake appears to be the origin of "traveller's tales" about the hoop snake, which travels by holding its tail in its mouth, and rolling along in a hoop, a tale known all over the world in one form or another.

Presumably the tale of the agenbite was preserved by the former crew of HMS Ugly , and was slowly converted into an unbelievable yarn as time went by. Unlike the legendary hoopsnake of the travellers' tales, the agenbite only rolls downhill, and it uses this form of travel only to escape predators, not to attack anything. No toothed snake can do this, as their fangs would quickly puncture the snake's tail.

The slurp

Slurp The slurp, Saurus soarus , is a gliding lizard with a large orange-yellow tongue. It climbs up tube-palm trees, and throws itself onto the air, gliding downwind and catch insects with its sticky tongue.

According to Bill James, who has spent many years watching them, slurps will also catch small birds and gliding frogs.

The gliding frogs

The gliding frog is usually identified as Rana dermoptera , although there may be two separate species. Certainly, if there is only the one species, this is divided into two populations. One lives on top of Cloudmaker , and is a ferocious hunter of any insect which moves. The lowland form, found mainly in the inwit and the lower, moister parts of the riverrun, spends much of its time attacking and eating the agenbites, which it hunts in packs of four or five.

The frogs have a flap of skin on each side of the body, stretching from front leg to back leg, and they use this to glide from any high point they have reached.

The Cloudmaker frogs use their gliding ability to catch insects in mid-air, while the lowland frogs only glide when they are trying to escape predators. Usually, they climb a tree, and if the predator comes after them, they glide to another tree.

The present theory about the frogs is that the Cloudmaker population began when a few of the lowland frogs were carried to the top of the plateau by an updraft during a storm, and finding no agenbites to eat, were forced to change to an insect diet.

The leaping lizard

To be strictly correct, this lizard, Saltosaurus voltans , is more of a hopping marine iguana, but the early islanders had already named the hopping hawk when they first came across this animal, and preferred to use the word "leaping". When it was first seen around 1860, the leaping lizard was quite rare, apparently because they were eaten by the snarks which were then more common in the islands. Some leaping lizards were also eaten by the bender fish.

The leaping lizards can swim very well. They eat fish more than anything else, sinking down into the deep ocean by squeezing their lungs in, so as to make themselves negatively buoyant. Then, as a suitable fish swims by, a leaping lizard will kick off from the bottom, and expand its lungs at the same time, so that it accelerates up from below the fish, seizing it in its jaws, and then bursting through the surface with a loud splash. Keeping the lungs fully inflated, the leaping lizard then paddles ashore, with the fish held firmly in its teeth.

In appearance, the leaping lizard looks very much like a tiny Tyrannosaurus rex , with its large hind limbs and its tiny front limbs, and savage teeth. The very largest specimens are less than 20 cm high, and the reptile looks completely unlike a Tyrannosaurus when its chest is fully ballooned out.

Leaping lizards can also hunt on land, jumping into the air to snatch any flying or gliding animal which happens to pass over them, but while it is on land, the lizard risks being caught and eaten by a snark.

Leaping lizards are the basis of an annual competition, with people from all over the islands gathering to see who has been able to find the highest leaper of them all.

Invertebrates of the Ugly Islands

The roara prawn

Roara prawn The roara prawn, Talitrus crudus , gets its name from its habit of rubbing its feelers together to make a mating call. As you can see from the illustration (completed by Barbara James, drawing in the style of Nehemiah Grue), the feelers are extremely rough, and they make a noise like two rocks being rubbed together.

Strictly speaking, it is not a prawn at all, but a land-living amphipod, although the eggs are actually laid in the waters of several of the rivers on the islands. The roara prawns can not live in sea water, which leaves us with an interesting puzzle, as they are found on many of the Uglets.

The roara prawns are found mainly in the Big Ugly area, around Finnegans lake, where the sinking ducks are to be found, and they feed mainly on the body feathers of the sinking ducks.

The roara is unpopular with a lot of people because it calls mainly at night, and so keeps the islanders awake. A bigger problem is caused when the roaras wake up the mutton birds which nest on the island, or when they disturb the African Shouting Spiders.

African Shouting Spider

These spiders, Clamora africana, do not actually shout, but they make a loud noise by rubbing their pedipalps together. They are referred to as African, because there is a very similar spider found in East Africa, but there are no known populations anywhere between Africa and the Ugly Islands. It is likely that the first settlers travelled to the islands on a long-range bird.

The spiders of the Ugly Islands make a noise which sounds like a shout in Swahili, but this is not a common language in the Ugly Islands, so it is basically ignored. In fact, it was only recently that the attached documentturned up in the Australian War Memorial Archives, where it was passed on to this project by somebody who noticed the references to the Ugly Islands. There is also a picture of a young Shouting Spider, spinning up a parachute to glide off on.

The Shouting Spider grows to a very large size, but this takes many years, by which time most have been eaten by hairyoddities, which like to eat the spiders' legs -- this explains the odd appearance of the spider in the picture. Shouting Spiders can regrow their legs, and can survive with as few as three legs, but will die of starvation if they have two or fewer legs.

The Shouting Spiders of Little Ugly are quite a lot smaller than those of Big Ugly, but nobody is quite sure why this is.

The Lamington beetles of the Uglets

Lamington beetle burrows These beetles ( Lamingtonium taeterum ) are large and carnivorous. They appear in many ways to be related to the click-beetles (Elateridae) of other parts of the world, but the jaws, or mandibles, suggest that they are more closely related to some of the scarab beetles.

Because of their meat-eating habits, and because they live together, the Lamingtons have been placed in their own family among the beetles, the Lamingtoniidae. They are dark brown, with prominent white spots, and they have an almost rectangular body, 5 cm long and 2 cm wide, with huge jaws at one end.

The jaws are attached to a head which is hinged to the body, and able to be flicked upwards very fast. The beetles live in the sands of the Uglets, and in the sand behind some of the beaches on Little Ugly. The adult beetles gather in groups of about forty, and burrow into the dry sand, flicking the sand away with their hinged heads.

Over time, their flicking action produces a cone-shaped hole, about 40 cm across, with treacherous sliding sides. The beetles then lurk at the bottom, waiting for a runner crab, a young bird, or even a small mammal, to slide down the slope.

The arrival of a victim is the sign for action, and at once, all of the beetles begin flicking sand out of the hole, while those which come into contact with the prey, take on a grip on any limb they can reach, a grip which will not be released, so long as the prey is alive, or so long as the limb is attached. With its eyes filled with sand, and with one or more legs missing, most prey die very rapidly, after which the adults bury the prey some 10 cm deep, where their grubs will find it and eat it. The adults seem to survive mainly on food reserves, and by scavenging the cut-off limbs in the pit.

The snarks on Little Ugly enjoy nothing more than eating Lamingtons. They catch them by dangling one paw over the Lamington hole, and when a Lamington grabs onto the snark's claw, lifting the paw out and crunching the Lamington beetle in one quick bite.

The islanders say that the beetles are named after one of the earliest settlers, Josiah Lamington, who always wore dark brown clothes, and who had a severe case of dandruff for all of his life on the islands.

The runner crab

Runner crabs are found on the beaches and shores, all over the Ugly Islands. They are small active crabs, which will scavenge almost any dead material found on the beaches. The dead whale which attracted the navigators of HMS Ugly in the first place, was eaten in just five days, according to Nehemiah Grue.

On the Uglets, runner crabs will often eat fallen palm seed, but so far, they do not seem to have learned how to climb the trees.

The Fish of the Ugly Islands

Bender fish

The bender fish ( Grendel polydens ) is about one and a half metres long, and mostly good meat. Unfortunately, all of the non-meat part of the bender fish is teeth, spines and bad attitude.

Catching a bender fish is a very exciting experience, but very few tourists feel the need to do it more than once. When the bender fish are running in August and September, most of the people of Little Ugly will be out there fishing. The rest will be travelling to and from Ugly harbour with loads of bender fillets, ready to go into the processing works there.

The secret to catching bender fish, according to Chuffer Harris , is to use a steel trace to join the fishing line to the hook, and to wrap the trace in used chewing gum, so as to clamp the bender's mouth shut. Then, as the head comes onto the landing ramp, you hit it with a hammer, haul the fish inboard, hit it a second time with the hammer, and then keep on hammering it until the hammer is soft.

Cultural morays

The cultural morays are gentle eels of the reefs around the Uglets. They eat only seaweeds, and they gather willingly around the islanders' boats when people play politically correct music to them.

They are particularly fond of simple peasant melodies, but will actively swim away from any playing of the works of Abba, Barry Manilow, or the Bee Gees. They have been known to attack boats in which tape recorders were playing songs by Kylie Minogue, anything by N'Sync, or any songs associated with the typical karaoke machine. While the eels are vegetarians, they have strong teeth, and have been known on one occasion to chew their way through an ironwood hull in less than two minutes when provoked beyond all reason by excerpts from a Eurovision Song Contest tape, played by an unthinking tourist.

The plants

There are some thousands of plant species on the islands, many of them with peculiar characteristics. many of these plants are economically important. Only a small selection is described here now, but more plants will be added later. This section is followed with an overview of the main vegetation types found on the islands .

Summary list

Canute grass

Canute grass, Canutus pudicus, is found mainly on the shores of the Ugly Islands, where it colonises the sand at the back of beaches, although one variety can be found growing on some of the cliffs of the islands. The grass gets its name from the story of King Canute defying the tides, as the grass holds the foredunes together against the "king high" tides of summer and winter.

There is some argument about the Canute grass of the Ugly Islands. There are those who say that it possesses some degree of intelligence, while others say that it simply responds in an automatic way, like the insect-trapping plants of the Cloudmaker heath, to which it is related.

The "intelligence" group say that the plant is able to detect the approach of an agenbite, and that it links fronds with other plants as the high tides roll in, threatening to tear away the sand that they are growing in. Further study will be needed before the question can be resolved.


The coconut palm is a standard plant wherever it goes. The Ugly Island coconuts are no different from those found elsewhere in the world.

Tube palms

Tube palms, Fistula pinnatus , are only found on the Ugly Islands. They produce very long, very narrow stems which are hollow, all the way along. For this reason, the tube palm is highly valued as a source of piping to transport water from dams on Big Ugly to people's houses.

Recent studies have shown that tube palms can be grown successfully in managed forests. There are quite a few other palm species on the islands, and some of the Uglet palms are now being studied, to see if they can be cultivated as well.

Seed palms

The seed palm is a major source of income for the islanders. Once, they used to collect the seeds and sell it to people in other countries, or to extract oil, but now they germinate the seed themselves, and export the seedlings, earning almost twenty times as much as they used to, ten years ago. They do not export oil any more.

The main losses come from the hairyoddities on Little Ugly, and from the mudrats on Big Ugly, both of which thoroughly enjoy eating palm seeds. This helps to explain why the Uglets are a major source of palm seeds, as there are no mammals there to eat them, although the runner crabs of the Uglets eat some of the seeds.

Most seed palms are surrounded by grass and herbs, as the spreading leaves gather rain, and pull it in towards the smooth trunk of the palm, where it trickles down and enters the sandy soil.

Because rabbits cannot climb, there are still some old seed palms alive on The Plug, but they are not looking very healthy. This is because rabbits have eaten all of the ground cover, and most of the soil around the palms has eroded away, or dried out. No new palms have been able to get established since the rabbits landed there.

Ironwood trees

The name ironwood should describe these immediately. The ironwood trees ( Ferrus arborealis ) grow to a height of sixty metres on the higher ground of the ranges on Big Ugly. On the eastern side of Cloudmaker, between the cliffs and Finnegans Lake, there are quite a few which reach seventy metres in height, while the ironwoods of the Riverrun grow as high as ninety metres. As well, there are quite a few smaller specimens on Little Ugly. There are no ironwood trees on the Uglets, but the islands with volcanic rock on them often have a small number of the closely related floatwood trees.

Ironwood timber is slightly more dense than water, and extremely hard. It resists the attack of all known marine pests, and so is in great demand around the world to make pilings for wharves and jetties. The tree grows fast -- almost two metres a year, and produces a straight-grained knot-free timber. The very best ironwood timber comes from the inwit forests.

The ironwood timber is cut in July on Big Ugly, and in October on Little Ugly, depending on the weather.


The floatwood, Buoysia lignans , looks just like the ironwood, but floatwood timber is almost 50% air bubbles, producing a tough light wood which is perfect for boat building. The timber is easy to work while it is green, but it warps when it is allowed to season. The seasoned timber does not warp, but it is very much harder to work with, so most boats are made of green floatwood.

Boats made of the unseasoned floatwood are usually built very fast, so that the timbers are held tightly together and cannot warp, but the spaces between the planks need to be caulked with fibre and tar each year, to keep the water out.

The best floatwood timber comes from trees growing in valleys on Little Ugly, or from those in the centre of the inwit forests of Big Ugly.

Firewood trees

Firewood trees ( Arbor flammiferens ) are common throughout the islands. They get their name from their habit of dropping dead branches when the wind blows. The wood is solid and dense, and burns with a clean flame.

In the early days of settlement, many of the firewood trees were chopped down to provide firewood. Now most homes have a supply of the trees growing nearby, and only the fallen branches are used for fuel.

The meadberry bush

The meadberry ( Esculentum antiscorbutum ) is a fruit, some sugar, and high in vitamin C. The berries were greatly favoured by 19th century sailors in the Pacific as a cure for scurvy. The berries carry a symbiotic fungus which helps to ferment the sugars within the berry, so that a ripe berry is mildly intoxicating, both to humans and also to animals which eat the berries. It also contains caffeine, making meadberry mead a very refreshing drink.

In the past, meadberries were only crushed by hand for local use, but today, the juice is exported, and several islanders are looking closely at the possibility of cultivating the crop, or possibly, exporting seeds for sale around the world. Right now, there is a ban on exporting any seeds or plants of this species, but so far, this has not mattered, since nobody has been able to persuade the seeds to germinate away from the Ugly Islands.

On the two main islands, meadberries grow wherever there are ironwoods, so either the plants depend on each other, or they both have a common requirement. The best meadberries on Big Ugly come from the riverrun, and a few similar patches of soil on Little Ugly also give very good berry crops. Everybody agrees that the best meadberries of all are those found on the Uglets, where they thrive in the dry sandy soil, even though there are no ironwoods there at all. Meadberries also occur on the Canute dunes .

Other plants

There are about forty different grasses growing on the Ugly Islands, or about sixty if you include the introduced species on the farms of Big Ugly. Around the coasts, there are no less than five different species of mangrove to be found, and the forests contain more than 400 species of tree and shrub.

There are at least a hundred mosses, around thirty ferns, and nobody has yet counted the lichens, but there seem to be twenty or more, just around the coastal areas. Peg Wilkins claims to know of at least 200 small flowering plants, but she estimates that thirty of these are introduced weeds.

At the last count, there were about seventy plants with edible fruits, and 22 crop plants in regular cultivation. There are only two known poisonous plants, both on Little Ugly, and both eaten by the hairyoddity, which seems to suffer no harm from them.

Vegetation types

Summary list

Depending on who you listen to, there are about twenty to forty different vegetation groupings which can be identified on the Ugly Islands. These are just a very small selection of the many types.

Cloudmaker heath

Most of the species counts will need to be revised, as a recent botanical expedition to the top of Cloudmaker has found very many new species. At the same time, they failed to discover any lowland species of plants growing there, although there were quite a few of the genera also found in the lowlands, represented by different species.

Cloudmaker CAPTION: Walking over the Cloudmaker plateau is difficult, with bogs, swamps, deep pools and boulders to be got around.

There is continuous rain on top of Cloudmaker, which means that minerals in the soil are leached out very fast. Under these conditions, the plants of the Cloudmaker plateau have had to develop all sorts of tricks to capture nutrients, and there is a large range of "insect-eating" plants on the plateau, almost all of them new to science.

The plants of the area are all small and stunted, and specialised at sheltering in among the rocks and pebbles, with roots that spread over many tens of metres. In fact, what often appears to be a whole population is often one individual plant, popping up in a number of places. Most of the plants appear to have strong chemicals in their sap, probably to discourage insects from eating them, or to kill off tiny pests and parasites.

The inwit

Nobody seems to know where this name comes from, but the word seems to have been first used as the name of a small farm on the shores of Finnegans Lake. Later, the name was used to describe the forest of the western shores of the lake, and then spread to other similar forests.

The inwit is found mainly to the west of the Big Ugly Range, in the catchment of the Dead Whale River. The ironwood trees of the inwit give the best ironwood timber, and the floatwood timber from these forests is as good as any you can get in the islands. There are smaller patches of inwit to be found in some of the valleys of Little Ugly.

The trees of the inwit form an interlaced canopy, a roof of leaves, which keeps most of the sun from getting through to the forest floor, which is usually damp, and mostly covered with mosses and ferns. The mosses are a mystery, as they seem to be able to absorb any leaves which fall on them from above. The inwit can vary a great deal from place to place, but the islanders say that if the agenbite is found there, then the forest is an inwit.

The riverrun

The soil of this area is usually 20 metres deep, and fairly dry, as the water soaks down to the bedrock below. The soil is held together by the roots of the trees and some very tough shrubs which thrive in these conditions. The surface of the ground is mainly covered by a mat of mosses and lichens. This mat also climbs onto the bases of the ironwood trees in the area.

Most of the rain that falls in the area is absorbed by the moss-lichen mat, so that to survive in the riverrun, plants need to have extremely deep roots, or to be very efficient at collecting water from the dry soil.

The Canute grass dunes

The dunes are populated by a tough group of creepers and small shrubs, mainly meadberry bushes, although these do not usually yield the best berries.

The Uglet scrub

Most of the Uglets are just a few metres above sea-level, and the groundwater is quite salty. The soil is little better than sand, and the scrub is mainly made up of meadberry bushes growing in between palms.

The Gorgeland hills

The Gorgeland hills are a series of rocky heights on the south coast of Big Ugly. They are separated from each other by the gorges which give the area its name. The plants of this area are all small and stunted, well able to stand up to the winds and salt spray which blow in here for much of the year, carried by the onshore winds which are common for most of the year in this area.

While the plant species are the same over most of the hills in the area, the insects and spiders are different on each hill, probably because they have been isolated populations for long periods of time.


Snouters may have originated here . . .

Snouters have only been recorded in one other place, the Hi-Yi-Yi archipelago, visited by Harald Stumpke, just after World War II, and since destroyed, rendering this whole group of mammals, the Rhinogradentia, extinct. They used their noses much as an elephant does. Some of the more extreme species of snouter even used the nose as a "foot", and hopped along on it.

The Old ones

This rather dramatic name has been invented by Bill James to indicate the people he believes may have been living on the islands at some time in the past. You can read more about his theories regarding the Old Ones in other parts of this site.

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Last revised March 6, 2007.

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