See the full Barrier Truth coverage of the July 18 ‘Iconic Landscapes’ community event held at the Fowlers Gap Arid-Zone Research Station.
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The words green and desert do not usually go hand in hand. But in 2010, the description couldn’t be more fitting. It’s a rare event, but when the rains arrive in Australia’s central deserts, the seemingly desolate environment erupts with life.
Now, months after the February and March saturation of Western Queensland, the effects are starting to take hold.
For Professor Chris Dickman, University of Sydney Ecology Professor, Institute of Wildlife Research Director and Desert Ecology Research Group (DERG) founder, it is a particularly rewarding occurrence. After 20 years of continuous research in the Simpson Desert, this is only the fourth ‘boom period’ induced by heavy rain he has experienced.
And it’s at times like these, according to Dickman, “everything’s moving”.
“Water surged down the river channels and as it did, it carried with it organic matter and debris, providing the water, nutrients and all the material necessary for a lot of plants to germinate,” says Dickman.
As deeper-rooted perennial species like the Coolabahs and Emu Bush recharge and flower, birds and insects have followed.
Dr Glenda Wardle, fellow DERG leader, Botanist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney, says resources from the germination of annual plants will also flow onto the small mammals and reptiles.
But boom periods are not long-lived. The birds, according to Dickman, will be around in large numbers until the seed resources disappear in a few months. Rodents will increase to a peak around September.
“Next year, numbers will start coming down,” says Dickman.
And this is not just the result of drying conditions. Predators like foxes and cats are also attracted to the abundance of life in the desert. Even the Mulgara, the biggest of the predator marsupials, is vulnerable.
“They’ll eat rodents, Mulgaras and everything else and hang about until dry conditions prevail again,” says Dickman.
Predators are also the focus of a DERG study looking at the effects introduced species like the red fox have on small mammals, lizards and the broader prey community. Their other main study, focused on climate, seeks to look at how ecological systems, including plant-pollinator interactions, respond to extreme events, like wild fire.
As they celebrate 20 years of a long line of projects, Dickman and Wardle are nowhere near experiencing their last ‘boom period’. When Dickman first set out to the Simpson Desert in January 1990, he thought they’d know all they could about biodiversity in Australia’s arid dry-zone after five or six years. That was two decades ago.
“After the 1991 rains, it became apparent it was a much more complex system, with many more species, interactions and chance effects than we’d ever appreciated to being with,” he says.
Like Dickman, Wardle thinks it’s a landscape worthy of long-term study. “There are very few systems in ecology when you can work on all levels simultaneously and get a handle on how diversity functions,” she says.
But with every ‘boom’ period there comes a ‘bust’: a cycle that, according to Dickman, characterises inland Australia.
Predictions for arid Australia are that we’ll have longer dry periods, punctuated by even bigger boom events in even greater amounts than currently, says Dickman.
“We’ve got at least an inkling of how the boom and bust system works at the moment,” says Dickman. “We know some species will be OK with this. Some will spend more time under ground. Others, we’re not so sure about.”
For Dickman, studying how species and ecological communities cope in different conditions, in light of climate change, is crucial.
But even in dry times, Dickman recognises the desert environment as a place that is “bursting with life.”
“In the height of a dry summer the dunes are still covered with the tracks of small mammals, lizards, snakes and birds,” says Dickman.
“There’s a richness that hasn’t been great affected by human activity.”
With the Desert Ecology Research Group showing no sign of slowing down, Dickman prepares to look back on their progress. The Some Like It Hot public talk on 12 August is a chance to share what has kept him busy all these years.
Sydney Science Forum – Some Like It Hot
Date: Thursday 12 August 2010
Time: 5.45pm – 6.45pm
Location: Eastern Avenue Auditorium, The University of Sydney
Bookings: Register online: www.usyd.nicheit.com.au/science/science_forum/ or via email:firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: (02) 9351 3021.
Part One: Scientific Citizens. In the first of this year’s Reith Lectures, Lord Martin Rees explores the challenges facing science in the 21st century.
We are increasingly turning to government and the media to explain the risks we face. But in the wake of public confusion over issues like climate change, the swine ‘flu vaccine and, more recently, Iceland’s volcanic ash cloud, Martin Rees calls on scientists to come forward and play a greater role in helping us understand the science that affects us all.
…Today, science has transformed our lives. Our horizons have hugely expanded; no new continents remain to be discovered. Our Earth no longer offers an open frontier, but seems constricted and crowded – a ‘pale blue dot’ in the immense cosmos.
My theme in these lectures is that the Royal Society’s old values should endure. Today’s scientists, like their forbears, probe nature and nature’s laws by observation and experiment. But they should also engage broadly with society and with public affairs.
Indeed, their engagement is needed now more than ever. Science isn’t just for scientists. All should have a voice in ensuring that it’s applied optimally – and to the benefit of both the developing and developed world. We must confront widely-held anxieties that genetics, brain science and artificial intelligence may ‘run away’ too fast. As citizens, we all need a feel for how much confidence can be placed in science’s claims. And these are themes I’ll explore in all four lectures.
And, as I’ll discuss, this is a crucial century. The Earth has existed for 45 million centuries. But this is the first when one species, ours, can determine – for good or ill – the future of the entire biosphere…
See the recent Sydney Alumni Magazine article describing life and research on a University of Sydney Desert Ecology Research Group trip to the Simpson Desert…
Kangaroo grazing effects
By Amy Spear
It’s been an ongoing debate and one that’s provoked thought from both country and city folk alike.
But now it seems there’s an answer.
Research shows that when it comes to effects of grazing on Australian rangelands, one kangaroo is equivalent to point 4 of a sheep.
Adam Munn, from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Wollongong, has been conducting the research at Fowlers Gap near Broken Hill, for the past 5 years.
Fowlers Gap is a research station run by the University of New South Wales.
He says it’s important that they’ve found out the facts.
“For a while now the comparative grazing impacts of kangaroos has been that one kangaroo has been equal to point 7 of a sheep and we’ve suspected for a long time that, on a whole animal basis, that was an over estimate.”
He says they wanted to get a handle on it so they could really take into account the grazing pressure of kangaroos when estimating total grazing pressure on an environment.
The research has taken 5 years.
In this report:
Adam Munn, scientist, University of Wollongong
Visit the site
Listen to the July 16 Country Hour podcast (Adam Munn is speaking three quarters of the way through)
Land Managers to attend animal impact talks
A scientist from the University of Wollongong will present a talk to local land managers at Fowlers Gap about the impacts of animals this weekend.
Adam Munn has been studying the difference between the impact sheep and kangaroos have on the land.
He has found the impact of a kangaroo is about 30 to 40 per cent that of a sheep.
Mr Munn says he hopes the information can be used by land managers and government bodies to understand the impact kangaroos might be having on the environment.
“Ultimately what we’re hoping to do is build a picture,” he said.
“Now that we have a good idea about some of the kangaroo species, we want to expand this research into looking at different animals such a feral goats and different breeds of sheep.
“[Then we’ll] really be able to figure out what the ratios are of animals you can have on the land to improve your environmental, and therefore your economic, sustainability.”
The public is invited to attend the talk which begins at 10:00am (AEST) Sunday at the Fowlers Gap Research Station.
On July 1 the University of Sydney’s Desert Ecology Research Group and Bush Heritage Australia held a community information evening in Bedourie to explain what it is they have been doing out the in the Simpson Desert for 20 years.
Community and council members, as well as managers and owners of the stations bordering Bush Heritage’s Cravens Peak and Ethabuka properties, were in attendance.
ABC rural reported, Amy Phillips, from Longreach, was at the event.
Click here to listen to the ‘Country Hour’ radio piece from 2 July.
The Simpson Desert is home to 15 small mammals, more than 150 bird species, six types of frogs and more than 54 reptile species, making in one of the most prosperous reptile communities of any arid zone in the world.
But it’s not all plain sailing with introduced predators; foxes and cats really make their mark on the environment.
In the far western Queensland town of Bedourie scientists have taken a break from their work which looks into the predators’ impacts.
The group from the University of Sydney includes volunteers who along with the scientists have been coming out for around 21 years.
Professor Chris Dickman says there are 15 people braving the cool desert air and are part of a team they like to call the rat catchers.
He says there are some awesome little critters way out west.
“Well I think some of the favourites for me personally are the Mulgara, a small carnivorous marsupial with real attitude.”
“It’s smaller relative, a thing called a hairy-footed Dunart – it’s really kind of a Hobbit-looking marsupial with huge hairy hind feet.”
Professor Dickman talks about a predator crunch where the native mammal populations are coming down and the foxes and cats are increasing.
“From our work over the last 20 years we’ve seen three species disappear from the sand dunes, not to say they’re extinct, they do occur elsewhere in Australia.”
He sounds a warning that the hopping mouse might be next to be pushed out of this habitat.
“All it takes is a very long period of very low numbers and they’re gone.”