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William Murphy via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Mysterious Irish Island That's Populated by Australian Wallabies

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William Murphy via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Peer out the passenger window of an airplane arriving or departing Dublin Airport in County Dublin, Ireland and you may get a bird’s eye view of two islands with significant stories behind them. One is Ireland’s Eye, thick with fog and gothic history—an artist named William Kirwan was convicted of killing his wife during a holiday there in 1852. The other is Lambay Island, a rocky, green terrain spread across 650 acres that was long ago used as a layover for Vikings and pirates in pillaging operations.

What really sets Lambay apart, however, needs to be seen up close—and then only if you're lucky. At any given time, between 100 and 140 red-necked wallabies roam the grounds, bouncing away from tourists and residents and grazing on grass along with cattle and deer. Natives of Australia, the displaced wallabies have attracted plenty of attention and curiosity over the decades. Who brought them? And what happens if they begin to outgrow a small slice of land more than 9000 miles from home?

An aerial shot of Lambay Island. Wikimedia Commons

In April 1904, banker Cecil Baring was browsing Ireland’s Field newspaper when he came across a classified advertisement that caught his attention. “Island for Sale” referred to Lambay, which had been owned for most of the previous century by the Talbot family and was named after the Norse word for “lamb.”

Baring paid a sum in the range of £5250 to £9000 (around $700,000 to $1,200,000 today), an investment that secured Lambay as a Baring property handed down from one generation to another. Cecil commissioned an architect named Edward Lutyens to renovate the worn castle that sat on the land; it eventually became a refuge for Cecil’s adult son, Rupert, who became a fixture in newspapers in 1935 when his fiancé, Angela, sued him for “breach of promise” after he didn't marry her. (Their published love letters became the entertainment of the day, with Rupert's pet name disclosed as "Boodles.")

In the 1950s, the Barings reportedly planned for a zoo to occupy Lambay. Among the animals brought over were wallabies, tortoises, and lizards. It’s not known how many were delivered or how many survived, but "Boodles" apparently took a liking to the kangaroo’s smaller relatives. In the 1980s, when the Dublin Zoo experienced a surge in wallaby numbers, the Barings agreed to take seven of them for Lambay.

Rupert died in 1994, but the wallabies remained. Rupert’s son, James, a pilot who owned London’s Regent Sound Studio that hosted the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, inherited the island. Once, kayakers decided to step on the grounds and ran into James, asking if the legend about the wallabies was true. It was.

James Baring died in 2012, leaving the island to the Lambay Estate Company and his son, Alex, who is a part-time occupant and plans on opening the area to a high-end tourist trade. (Alex did not respond to requests to comment for this article.)

Clearly, the unusual sight of roving, red-necked wallabies is intended to be part of the attraction. But what do the animals make of Irish landscapes when the species was reared in Australia?

“They’re actually quite adaptable,” Kevin Drees, a director of animal care at Blank Park Zoo and an expert in captive wallabies, tells mental_floss. Thanks to an ability to grow a dense coat of fur, “they can cope with cooler temperatures than kangaroos, which is one of the reasons they’re so popular in zoos.”

Lambay is not so strange an environment for them as it might appear. (It's also not the only island outside of Australia they occupy: Inchconnachan in Loch Lomond, Scotland has had wallabies for over 60 years after a wealthy vacation resident introduced them in the 1940s.) While the presence of puffins and cattle makes for what Drees calls “an unnatural grouping of animals,” they have plenty of grass to munch and plenty of places to hop and hide when their shy instincts kick in around humans. Docile, they’re unlikely to mimic the boxing kangaroos of Australian lore, and the only time they might get anxious is if a visitor brings a dog along.

“They’re very clever,” Michael Bermingham, a business associate of Baring’s who has made several treks to the island, tells mental_floss. “They’ll climb up on rocks where you can’t follow.”

Although the Barings allow boat and walking tours, it’s by invitation only: The island remains largely untouched by human intervention. Only the Barings, a few farmhands, and a veterinarian spend any real length of time in residence there. “The animals there really tend to the land,” Bermingham says. “Grazing is important to maintain it.” And while wallabies like to swim, it’s virtually impossible they could make it the three miles to shore to invade the coast.

The real problem, as Drees sees it, is twofold. Wallabies can reproduce quickly, leading to potential overpopulation problems. (Their babies, known as joeys, can feed from the mother while a fertilized egg waits for an opportune time to continue development and take over the pouch.) And because the inhabitants are descended from a small number of non-native relatives, inbreeding is a possibility.

“Inbreeding can lead to health issues, like heart defects,” he says. "You'd have to bring in [new] wallabies to keep that from happening."

For now, the wallabies of Lambay appear to be thriving. And one way the Barings appear to be keeping their numbers under control is by entering into a partnership with Bermingham, who has an exclusive agreement to claim a portion of the wallaby population for his own purposes.

“I like making wallaby slider burgers," he says.

iStock

Bermingham is co-owner of M&K Meats, a prospering meat supplier in Rathcoole that enjoys a brisk trade in organic, farm-to-fork premium meats that he sells to high-end clients all over Ireland and the UK. Three years ago, he agreed to peddle wallaby meat sourced exclusively from Lambay Island.

“It’s very lean, very rich in protein,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s the grass diet, or the herbs on the island, but it has a fascinating flavor.”

Wallaby steak, he admits, is “not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.” Still, interest in the meat appears to be gathering momentum. “Wallaby meat in Ireland—people go, ‘What?’ Some are intrigued, some take it or leave it.”

M&K appears to be taking enough of it to keep the population curbed. Culling is done on site, with hunters dispatching of the wallabies using rifles. Because they’re so averse to humans, Bermingham says it can make a round-up difficult. “The last time, it took a guy three days to get four of them.”

Bermingham also captures rabbit and deer on site, with cattle and lamb taken as livestock. Because of the island’s seclusion, he says the meat is untouched by any of the illnesses that can plague agricultural farming on the mainland.

It’s not yet known whether Baring’s plans for tourism will include an on-site wallaby dining experience. But the time may have come when the animals are less an invasive species and more an integral part of the island’s unique ecosystem.

“If it’s about nature, no, the wallaby doesn’t fit,” Drees says. “But if it’s about the history of the island, then perhaps they see the value in it. It would make a good study in human-altered habitats.”

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
Original image
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b
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Animals
Here's the First-Ever Video of Sand Cat Kittens Playing in the Wild

Sand cats are as elusive as they are adorable. Native to the isolated deserts of Asia and Africa, the nocturnal felines are adapted to desert life, and can go for long periods without water. They’re stealthy predators of venomous snakes and small rodents, and escape detection thanks to their pale sandy coats and furry paws, the latter of which make their tracks nearly invisible. These reasons, among others, are why sand kittens have never been captured on video—until now.

As The Independent reports, researchers from Panthera France, a wild cat conservation group, recently found and filmed three sand cat kittens in Morocco. Thought to be around two months old, they were hiding among vegetation as they waited for their mother to return.

Led by biologists Alexander Sliwa and Grégory Breton, the managing director of Panthera France, the researchers first embarked on their quest to locate and study the wild cat in 2013. Over the course of multiple expeditions, they encountered adults, but no offspring.

In April 2017, during their fifth expedition, Sliwa and Breton were heading back to camp at night when they spotted three pairs of gleaming eyes in the darkness. "They belonged to young sand cats, yellowish, small wild cats with broader faces and larger ears than domestic cats," Breton recounted on Panthera France's blog. Astonished, the scientists managed to record the kittens and identify and radio-collar their mother.

Experts think this is the first time that sand cat (Felis margarita) kittens have been documented in their African range. Until Sliwa and Breton locate even more baby cats for us to ogle, you can enjoy their video footage below.

[h/t The Independent]

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