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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ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program: Reith Lecture Series – Scientific Citizens

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…

Full transcript


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Desert of the Heart

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… 

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Some like it hot: 20 years in the desert

On August 12, ecology professor and director of the University of Sydney’s Desert Ecology Research Group, Chris Dickman, will give a talk about his 20 years of research in the Simpson desert. It is open to the public and everyone’s invited! Please see registration details below.

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The start of something new…

On Sunday July 19 Adam Munn, a scientist looking at the grazing patterns of different animals in the NSW Rangelands, gave a talk on his findings. It was the first of what is now hoped will be regular annual presentations and or open days, to share important information with the surrounding public and graziers, at Fowlers Gap Research Station.

Menindee Lakes


Rippled river bed, Fowlers Gap Research Station


Water trail




Empty bed




Leaves and sky






Adam presenting his findings




Post talk discussion

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Iconic Landscapes on ABC’s Country Hour

Kangaroo grazing effects

By Amy Spear

Friday, 16/07/2010

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)

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