Updated: August 07, 2010
WildCountry ARC Linkage Grant
In 2005 an ANU WildCountry Research & Policy Hub (WildCountry Hub) was established and conducted research into key scientific questions posed by WildCountry. The research projects described below were funded by a Commonwealth Government ARC Linkage Grant awarded to the ANU in partnership with The Wilderness Society. A number of other academic institutions and the SA and NT Governments also contributed to this research program. The WildCountry Hub is no longer operating although ANU continues to undertake valuable research which can contribute to WildCountry objectives.
The ARC Linkage Grant projects, which will be conducted over 2005-2007, are:
1. Space/time variability in biomass production
This project is developing the capacity to model (predict) changes in the production of food and related habitat resources (such as water and shelter) though space and time, across the entire Australian continent.
Dr Sandy Berry and Prof. Brendan Mackey are bringing together and adopting existing computer simulation models, together with available continental environmental and remotely-sensed data. Major data sources will be remotely-sensed data from the NASA MODIS satellite and a new digital elevation model of Australia.
The aim of this project will be to generate across the Australian continent estimates at a monthly interval of net primary productivity (the amount of new plant due to captured sunlight), biomass production (plant growth) and leaf functional types (which determines the signal picked up by the satellite) at scales corresponding to significant habitat areas.
In addition to the computer-based analyses, field investigations will be undertaken in the Great Western Woodlands of South West WA to validate the computer model predictions.
The results will help identify priority landscapes and land management options for the conservation of dispersive fauna.
2. Patterns in dispersive fauna distributions
Many Australian animals, particularly many bird species, regularly move short to long distances to spend different parts of their lives in different habitats.
Animals move either by migration (yearly movements that occur predictably at particular seasons and to particular places) or nomadism (less predictable movements where animals wander widely seeking water and food). The highly dispersive nature of many of our animal species is a characteristic of the evolutionary responses to life in the dry, unpredictable Australian climate - and this characteristic provides big challenges for conservation of these species.
The WildCountry Hub is investigating the distributional patterns of selected animals with an emphasis on inland birds and vertebrate ground fauna in the non-agricultural (extensive) country.
2.1 The Flock Bronzewing
This research project focusses on an exemplar dispersive bird – the Flock Bronzewing. This is an iconic species of the open rangelands of northern Australia, known for their nomadic habits and for sporadic and infrequent appearance of spectacular huge flocks. Populations fluctuate dramatically throughout space and time and they are known as a “boom-bust” species. They can be locally abundant following good seasons but then vanish and may not reappear in the area for decades. Many aspects of the ecology of this enigmatic species remain a mystery.
Investigations are being undertaken to examine the bird’s dispersal patterns (where and when it moves), together with the causes and management consequences of this dispersal. This research is being conducted as a PhD project by Peter Dostine, working with Dr John Woinarski and Prof. Brendan Mackey.
The research methods utilise the continental biomass modelling results, and make use of an extensive mail-out of questionnaires to pastoralists and other rangeland residents to seek their participation in monitoring of this species distribution and abundance. Research will also be undertaken into charting dispersal patterns using tracking of tagged birds by satellite.
The research will aim to develop a capacity to predict movements for this highly irruptive species, as a showcase example of how conservation management needs to, and can, incorporate highly dispersive animals.
2.2 Avifauna conservation in the Great Western Woodlands of south west Australia
Lead by WC Science Council member Professor Harry Recher, field investigations are being conducted into the bird communities of SW Western Australia, through three annual 30-day field investigations in WA’s Great Western Woodlands.
The Great Western Woodlands, located south west of Kalgoolie in WA, are the largest remaining expanse of temperate woodland-dominated ecosystems on Earth. The conservation significance of these ecosystems for birds, especially dispersive birds, is largely unexplored.
Field survey results will be subsequently analysed for patterns and relationships with measured habitat attributes (such as vegetation height, cover, etc).
The aim is to determine the distribution and abundance of bird species through space an time, together with their foraging (feeding) and nesting requirements. Computer analyses will also be undertaken to map the identified critical bird habitat attributes on a landscape-wide basis.
2.3 A continental analysis of dispersive avifauna
Australia’s climate is characterised by highly seasonal and year to year variability in rainfall and water availability. Consequently there is high variability in space and time of plant productivity, and of food resources for animals. Many Australian animals have adapted to this variability in food resources by being highly mobile and able to travel large distances tracking rainfall and subsequent plant growth. The future conservation of these dispersive species requires an understanding of the time-based as well as the spatial dynamics of plant productivity over the continent. Using time-series of satellite imagery, along with recent advances in understanding about interactions between solar energy, plant response and image analysis, we can make quantitative estimates of plant productivity at monthly intervals over the continent.
Dr Sandy Berry, Prof. Brendan Mackey and Prof. Henry Nix are investigating continental patterns in the distribution of dispersive bird species, which will then be related to the output from the continental biomass production analysis (see project 2 above) and other continental data related to land use and land tenure.
The main resource for the bird analyses will be the continental database on the distribution of bird species compiled by Birds Australia. In addition to single bird species studies, biological distribution patterns will be analysed from the perspective of functional guilds (defined in terms of species that consume similar food resources and/or have similar body sizes).
3. Biodiversity declines in extensive country
The decline of native mammals across northern Australia is arguably one of the region’s most pressing environmental concerns. While there is mounting evidence for widespread declines our knowledge of the extent and timing of losses that may have occurred remains fragmented. This project aims to use Aboriginal knowledge of the current and past status of mammals to fill in gaps in our understanding.
Mark Ziembicki, with Dr John Woinarski, Prof. Brendan Mackey and Dr Barry Traill (TWS) are undertaking broad-scale investigations on animal decline in selected species in order to reveal the implications for conservation management across whole landscapes.
Mark Ziembicki is charting the pattern of animal decline across much of northern Australia through documentation of Aboriginal knowledge of the current and past status of mammals (and some birds). This approach is modelled on that used by Burbidge et al. (1988) to describe the pattern of decline in the central Australian mammal fauna, based on discussions with Aboriginal communities. This ethnozoological enquiry will be carefully structured through employment of Aboriginal advisers, to ensure that information exchange, and its subsequent use, is culturally appropriate and fair.
Complementary to this study, a representative set of protected areas (eg national parks) will be reviewed and analysed in terms of the extent to which they have maintained their biodiversity values, particularly with respect to dispersive animals and other animals showing general decline. The geographic and ecological patterns of decline of animals will be charted and then related to a broad set of computer data layers to examine the processes underlying such patterns.
The results of these investigations will provide information that can be used to guide future management of Northern Australian protected areas and conservation efforts off reserves.
4. Trophic regulation by strongly interactive species – the role of the Dingo in “controlling” foxes and feral cats, and implications for the conservation of native fauna”
In Australia there is evidence for trophic (food web) interactions mediated by the Dingo. It has been suggested that the Dingo and other large carnivores (meat-eating predators) play a significant role in the protection of middle-sized marsupial mammals by their impacts on the numbers and behaviours of foxes and feral cats.
This hypothesis, if true, is of significance to conservation planning. However, some preliminary investigations are needed before implementing a set of experiments to test the hypothesis.
Research is being be advanced in three ways.
A workshop was convened in 2005 to synthesize and review the published literature and expert knowledge regarding trophic regulation by strongly interactive species including the Dingo. A paper summarizing the results of the workshop and proposing conservation design criteria for management based on current knowledge of strongly interactive species is currently being prepared.
Based on the results of the expert workshop, additional research funding is being sort to design and implement replicated, controlled experiments on large private properties and in protected areas.
The third component is a research project into the ecological role of the dingo as a trophic regulator and its conservation value.
This research project, being undertaken by PhD student Renee Visser, in conjunction with a number of experts in Dingo research, is using the innovative new technology of thermal infrared videography to explore behavioural interactions between Dingoes, foxes and feral cats. Predation by foxes and cats has contributed to the decline of many native fauna species. The dingo may play a vital role in maintaining ecosystem health by limiting populations of foxes and feral cats and in turn, minimise their impact on native prey. They may do this by reducing access to shared resources such as water, food and habitat, in areas where these resources are limited. Through studying behaviour and shared resource use by Dingoes, feral cats and foxes in the arid zone, this research aims to understand the importance of dingoes in the conservation of biodiversity.
For more information, please contact:
The Wilderness Society Inc