Category Archives: Visuals

Extended “20 years of desert research” exhibition walk through

This video walks you through the University of Sydney’s Desert Ecology Research Group’s exhibition celebrating 20 years of Simpson Desert research. It was launched on Thursday 12 August and will be on in the SciTech library until 3 December.


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Some Like it Hot: celebrating 20 years of desert research… OPEN

See the story here

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Iconic Landscapes and 20 years of desert research exhibitions

Both the ‘Iconic Landscapes’ and ’20 years of desert research’ exhibitions opened last Thursday (12 August) at the University of Sydney’s Scitech library.

See a short walk through both displays below. (A more detailed video of desert exhibition coming soon)

ICONIC LANDSCAPES – exhibition introduction…

In August 2009, a team of Arts and Science scholars from the University of Sydney commenced a year-long study of how scientific researchers can make better connections with the people who live in the environments that the scientists investigate. The project was called ‘Iconic Landscapes’, because of the special regions that were examined: 1) Sydney Harbour, 2) the Simpson Desert in the arid dry-zone and, 3) the rangelands in Western NSW.  The ‘Iconic landscapes’ team examined how fresh knowledge can be made available to the local people and how local knowledge can be accessed while research is under way.   The team started with a hunch that more ‘down-to-earth’ explanations about the objectives of the scientists could be combined with better understanding of the values of the people living in the study regions.  Perhaps this dual approach could produce richer knowledge and experiences for everyone involved?  

The project needed to test this hunch or hypothesis. So the team looked at how scientists were investigating and communicating their knowledge of: 

1) wildfire and predators in the Simpson Desert 

2) engineered habitats for seawalls in North Sydney 

3) the grazing behaviour of sheep and kangaroos in the rangelands.  

Most importantly, the team paid close attention to how and why the community members engaged (or did not engage) with the scientists.The team staged special events in each location, bringing the communities and scientists together to explore not only scientific research but also the emotions and desires of various people involved with the particular regions. These exchanges were important, as they helped scientists reconsider how to make inquiries and deliver results that meet the challenges and the deep feelings that are most important to the communities.Unlike conventional ecological studies, ‘Iconic Landscapes’ sought to combine scientific and cultural observations by supplementing empirical data collection with humanities methods of analysing why people do what they do and how communities form bonds and act together.  Using cross-disciplinary techniques, the study sought a better understanding of the relationship between biological events, ecological and social value and human practices of place-making.  In addition to scientific data-gathering, ‘Iconic Landscapes’ also pursued ‘softer’ or more qualitative investigations involving storytelling, memory-gathering and playful word-associations in response to questions about the emotions attached to particular places. At the end of the project, when we gather up all the different ‘data-sets’ generated by ‘Iconic Landscapes’, we can see a little more clearly how particular communities experience nature, how they perceive their immediate surroundings, and what they want and need from the people who come into their territories.    So, this collection of videos, stories, word-patterns and images gives some fresh and refreshing insights into the scientific and cultural perceptions that tangle together in each of the three landscapes. 

20 YEARS OF DESERT RESEARCH – exhibition introduction…

There’s something about arid Australia that is incredibly magnetic… Once you get red sand under your skin, it pulls you back irresistibly. You don’t have much say about it. 

– Professor Chris Dickman 

20 years ago, Ecology Professor Chris Dickman arrived in the Simpson Desert. He planned to spend five or six years researching the patterns, distributions and abundances of small mammals and reptiles in the area before moving onto another site. After two decades, the University of Sydney’s Desert Ecology Research Group (DERG), of which Dickman is director, shows no sign of slowing down, or moving on. The 2000 kilometre journey north, through NSW and Queensland, is made three to four times a year. Each of these trips involves the participation of professors, students carrying out Honours and PhD projects and volunteers. To date, over 500 volunteers have been out on roughly 150 trips. Many have returned again and again. 

The desert itself is made up of a parallel dune system running southeast to northwest, extended for up to 200kms. While the Simpson Desert is only one part of the continent’s vast arid zone, it covers more than 17 million hectares of central Australia. DERG works mainly within Queensland’s Diamantina Shire channel country area of Bush Heritage Australia’s Ethabuka and Cravens Peak reserves as well as Carlo cattle station and Tobermorey station in the Northern Territory. 

The DERG is driven by a fascination with the richness of animal life, the systems that sustain them and by the imperative to conserve and manage the land. It is among the longest and most comprehensive arid zone research projects in Australia.

While numerous studies have been undertaken in the past, the DERG’s current two Australian Research Council projects are investigating the effects of predators on small mammals and reptiles and a follow up to the broad scale wild fire that went through the desert in 2001 and 2002 looking at the recovery of mammals, reptiles and plants.In this exhibition you will see a snapshot of life, fieldwork and the great diversity of plants and animals in the desert. 

It is hoped the DERG’s research will contribute vital information on how common and threatened species respond to fire, exotic species and grazing in the arid zone. It will also define the resources required for population and community recovery. 

Advances in ecological understanding are crucial for protecting, restoring the arid biome of Australia, which is experiencing pressure from changed land management regimes and uncertainty with respect to climate change in the future. 

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Desert reflections – June 2010

Watch this video to see how the June 2010 Desert Ecology Research Group team reflected on their time in the desert…

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Desert skies

A series of sinking suns and rising moons weave together in an ever changing Simpson Desert sky…

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The ‘booming’ desert

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.

Professor Chris Dickman, from the School of Biological Sciences, has been investigating the ecology of the Simpson Desert for 20 years


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.

Prints in the sand: "In the height of a dry summer the dunes are still covered with the tracks of small mammals, lizards, snakes and birds," says Professor Chris Dickman.


“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.

Unique dataset: Professor Chris Dickman and the University of Sydney's Desert Ecology Research Group have been studying the Simpson Desert for 20 years.


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
Cost: Free
Location: Eastern Avenue Auditorium, The University of Sydney
Bookings: Register online: or via or phone: (02) 9351 3021.


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Simpson Desert science meets the community

The video below tracks the first community information event held in Bedourie for locals to find out more about what the University of Sydney’s Desert Ecology Research Group does in the desert.

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