There once existed a myth about a mysterious city made of gold, El Dorado, located somewhere in the remote Amazon of South America. The thought of discovering endless riches drove Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century on countless gripping adventures. Gold fever has since motivated many people to search for this gleaming substance, often resulting in greed, anger and death. But there are other golden things in our world - living creatures, tiny wondrous organisms perfectly crafted by evolution - which, although not worth much in monetary value, can provide just as much mystery, plenty of mental stimulation and far more satisfaction than a pice of lifeless metal. Today in Sydney I found three of them.
An ordinary street scene, in the middle of which you can see an ordinary sign post. No, it's not made of gold! But when I looked closely I could make out a beautiful eight-legged creature who makes her living from spinning with gold silk.
This is a Sydney Golden Orb Spider (Nephila plumipes). Orb Weavers are a widespread and conspicuous Australian species, something that doesn't necessarily do them much good - being a spider and standing out might lead to you getting swatted by a fearful Australian human! However, unless you happen to be a small, flying insect, there is no reason to be worried about these creatures at all. They aren't poisonous and spend virtually all their time hanging in their wonderful webs, and even if one plasters across your face as you accidentally walk into it, the spider will quickly drop down and run for cover. Golden Orbs take their name from the colour of their silk. Even on cloudy days the web has an eye-catching lustre. It is often this which has alerted me to golden orbs' presence, together with the chain of food morsels which can easily be seen hanging from the web. The large spiders you can see are the females - males are much smaller and can sometimes be found clinging to leaves and stems of plants to which the female's web is attached.
When I zoomed out a bit and headed down the garden path to the block of flats I'm staying in, I was delighted to notice a well-kept garden bed with a little sea of mostly native ground-covers growing on a bed of fresh wood-chips. There were purple Scaevolas but more eye-catching were the tiny pom-pom heads of yellow poker flowers. Their golden glow is spectacular in the midday sun, and I soon saw that I wasn't the only one attracted to the colours. A tiny native bee honed in on the purple blooms, and a small fly (Drosophila?) was going for gold. Through a macro lens I observed the incredible fine detail of its body: coarse hairs stuck out from its thorax which glowed a solid gold like some type of giant treasure in an Egyptian's tomb.
Other golden jewels were visible on an even finer level. Grains of pollen were glued to the fly's body hair and the tips of its feet, the precise reason why the plant has concocted a sweet nectar for the fly to drink, and attracted it with a vivid golden sign which says 'Free: Sweet Drink'! When it ventures to the next sugar-meal, the fly will unsuspectingly do the plant a favour and transfer pollen grains, allowing the plant to reproduce.
So what is the third creature I found? It is another microscopic insect which is invisible to the naked eye. If I hadn't zoomed it to snap the fly with a macro lens I wouldn't have seen it. But its tiny body moved as it also sought nectar from the yellow flower, the movement catching my eye. I'm not even sure what it is - a tiny beetle perhaps? You can just make it out in this photo, another small animal as golden as the web of the Orb Spider.
All that glitters is not gold. Indeed, it can sometimes be something much more exciting! And all in a small patch of greenery inside a busy city suburb.