Teacher background information


Year 5 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Biological sciences

Living things have structural features and adaptations that help them to survive in their environment (ACSSU043 - Scootle )

  • investigating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ knowledge of the adaptations of certain species and how those adaptations can be exploited (OI.5, OI.9)

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to understand how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have observed the structural adaptations of organisms and exploited these adaptations for material culture and domestic use. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long recognised the structural adaptations of organisms and such adaptations figure prominently in many facets of life including weaponry, utensils, regalia and costumes. Students have the opportunity to learn how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples understand that the structural adaptations of organisms have enabled the survival of the organism in the environment and that these adaptations can be exploited for other purposes.

Scientists often look to how nature has developed solutions to problems to inform strategies for new technologies and processes. One aspect of this is the investigation of unusual and interesting structural adaptations of organisms and how these have evolved. Biomimicry is the “examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems” (Library of Congress, 2017). Biomimicry, although considered a cutting-edge approach, has been exploited over millennia as a source of innovation. Some contemporary examples include the development of: wind turbines modelled on the propeller action of humpback whale fins, swimwear fabric created using the structure of sharkskin to reduce drag in water, and building ventilation design based on the intricate network of air pockets in termite mounds. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long employed the same approach to explore the adaptations in ecosystems for potential applications and solutions to problems. Structural adaptations are the physical features of an organism that have evolved to aid its survival in the environment. For example, teeth, claws, and spines provide defence mechanisms and assist in obtaining food.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples observed structural adaptations in their environment and incorporated them into a variety of innovative applications comparable to contemporary biomimicry.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long observed the structural adaptations of organisms within their environment and understood that such adaptations can be useful in other in other contexts. One of the adaptations of the stingray is the barb (or stinger) located on the stingray’s tail. The barb has an extremely sharp point, often has backward serrations, and can also be venomous. The barb is a defence mechanism that the stingray uses when threatened by predators. When a stingray encounters danger it may strike the predator with this barb: the sharp tip helps to pierce the skin, the serrations ensure the barb does not fall out, and the venom causes pain and tissue damage.

Weapons constructed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples throughout Australia demonstrate the adoption of stingray defence mechanisms in their design and structure. The Koko Tai’Yuri Peoples of the Kunjen Nation in Cape York used the stingray spine as a spear tip designed to shatter on impact. Prior to colonisation, the Gadigal People of the Eora nation, in the area now known as Sydney, also used stingray barbs as spear tips. They attached multiple stingray barbs in a downward orientation on the spear shaft so that the serrations secured the tip in the flesh. In the Brisbane region, one or two stingray barbs were fastened to a fighting spear, using twine and beeswax to attach the barbs to the spear shaft. The Kaurareg Peoples of Muralag Island in the Torres Strait Islands also used stingray barbs as spear tips in the construction of javelin style spears. Prior to colonisation, some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples crafted barbed or denticulate spear tips from wood, bone, shell or stone to mimic the structure and function of the stingray barb. For example, the Yanyuwa Peoples, Traditional Owners of the Sir Edward Pellew Islands and surrounding seas and coastal environments in the Gulf of Carpentaria, constructed a spear called a birnkili, featuring two denticulate prongs to prevent the spear from dislodging when hunting large fish.

In these instances, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples observed defensive stingray behaviour in its natural habitat, and this led to the exploitation of the stingray barb for their own purposes. In similar habitats, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People also observed that the mouth of a shark was a highly effective structural adaptation that was ideal for cutting through flesh. The sharp serrated teeth of some sharks, such as tiger sharks and great white sharks, are highly adapted to cutting the flesh of animals, such as seals and other ocean mammals. Prior to colonisation Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples exploited this knowledge and used the teeth of a hunted shark to manufacture knives. The Meriam Peoples of the Island of Mer in the Torres Strait and Peoples of the western Cape York region crafted knives using shark teeth fixed onto a length of wood with gum-cement or resin, to emulate the flesh-cutting capacity of the sharks from which the teeth were harvested.

For many Aboriginal Peoples whose Country encompasses areas of dry arid or desert environments, knowing how and where to find water is critically important. The water-holding frog inhabits temporary swamps, claypans and creeks in these regions and adapted the ability to store water underneath its skin which can be absorbed into the body when water is scarce. The water-holding frog burrows underground to seek cooler temperatures and reduce evaporation. Early colonisers observed that Aboriginal Peoples found these frogs underground by identifying markings on the surface of the ground or by tapping the ground with the butt of a spear. When the frogs were located and retrieved, gentle squeezing released water from underneath the skin that was fit for human consumption. An early colonist credited his survival in the central desert region to a local Aboriginal man who provided lifesaving drinking water through his ability to source water-holding frogs when there was no other water source available. Aboriginal Peoples in desert regions understand the water holding adaptation of this species and in times of drought or emergency these adaptations may be exploited as a water source. This vital knowledge is still taught by the Traditional Owners in these regions to ensure that this potentially lifesaving skill is passed on.

The lawyer cane plant, often called wait-a-while, is a climbing palm that grows as a vine and is endemic to Queensland. It has adapted to its environment with curved hooks along the leaf sheath that help it catch onto other plants so that it can climb further into the canopy of the rainforest. The hooks can catch onto the flesh of passing animals and lodge in the skin; they can only be removed by slowly withdrawing the hooks in reverse, hence the name ‘wait-a-while’. Aboriginal Peoples exploited this structural adaptation of the plant to hook freshwater prawns and extract witchety grubs from bores in trees. Prior to colonisation, the Jirrbal Peoples of the Tully River region in north Queensland used the sharp spines on the lawyer cane in a cross-saw manner to cut and prepare meat for cooking or to saw through soft timber to harvest insects. They also inserted up to two metre lengths of lawyer cane into tree butts to extract the grubs of moths caught on the hooks of the vine. Prior to colonisation, the Kuku-Yalanji Peoples used the spikes to manufacture fishing hooks. Aboriginal Peoples’ knowledge of the adaptations of the lawyer cane led to the exploitation of the hooks of the plant for a multitude of purposes in domestic life.

Possum skin cloaks have long been a culturally important, essential item of clothing, particularly for Peoples whose Country/Place encompasses the colder climates across the south east of Australia. After European colonisation the manufacture of possum skin cloaks was prohibited. However, revival of the practice is providing a significant way for many Aboriginal Peoples, including the Gunditjmara and Yorta Yorta Peoples of Victoria, to reconnect with, and restore their cultures. Possum fur is a structural adaptation that is unique to this Australian mammal and enables the possum to survive in extremely cold and wet climates. Possum fibres feature a hollow structure that traps air to provide insulation. This lightweight fur can also draw moisture away from the skin, keeping the possum warm and dry. In extremely cold temperatures the presence of air in the hollow of the possum fibre also means the material will not freeze. Aboriginal Peoples observed the habitat of possums and exploited possum fur to manufacture possum cloaks and other clothing. Up to 70 possum skins were required to manufacture a single cloak. While a single larger animal, such as the kangaroo, may have provided a larger surface area of fur when compared with a single possum skin, the superiority of possum fur was well understood by Aboriginal Peoples, and possum fur was therefore a valuable commodity. Echidna quills were used to pin the fur to a flat surface (another example of exploitation of a structural adaptation by Aboriginal Peoples) to treat and dry the hide of the possum. The dried pelts were then sewn together to make a possum fur cloak or blanket, guaranteed to keep its wearer warm and dry regardless of the weather and climate.

There are many more examples of the structural adaptations of organisms exploited by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples that developed from observations of the organisms in their environment. The sea snail, Turritella spp. has a long, tightly coiled, spiral shaped shell that resembles a drill. Aboriginal Peoples in the Gulf region exploited these sea snail shells for their drilling capability, making holes in pearlshell for personal adornment. The Kuku-Yalanji Peoples of the tropical rainforest region in far North Queensland exploited the rough surface of the leaves of the sandpaper fig to smooth spear throwers or other wooden implements. The sharp edge of the shell of a particular bivalve mollusc (Tellina pharaonis) was used by the Tepiti and Tjungundji Peoples of the western Cape York region to manufacture surgical knives.

This elaboration provides students with an opportunity to deepen their understanding of the structural adaptations of organisms that help them to survive in their environment. Students can learn how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ observations of organisms in their natural habitat over millennia, have provided a deep understanding of the structural adaptations that facilitated the survival of organisms, including defence mechanisms, weaponry, attachment, and protection from the elements of nature. Students will have the opportunity to learn how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long practiced biomimicry by utilising adaptations of organisms for various purposes.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

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