Our partners – we couldn't do without them

Tuesday 20 March, 2007

Contributors to this article include John Long, Museum Victoria, Alison Howes and Martine Maron, University of Southern Queensland, and Colleen Kredell.

Cravens Peak Reserve, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.Cravens Peak Reserve, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

In a laboratory in Museum Victoria, samples of fossil-laden rock from Bush Heritage's Cravens Peak Reserve in Queensland are fizzing away in acetic acid. They're gradually yielding many small but well-preserved remains of ancient fishes from the 380- to 390-million-year-old sites.

In the woodlands of Carnarvon Station Reserve in central Queensland, Alison Howes from the University of Southern Queensland is measuring variations in the vegetation and counting numbers of small woodland birds and their aggressive competitors, noisy miners.

Noisy miner, an aggressive competitor to small woodland birds. Photo Paul Evans.Noisy miner, an aggressive competitor to small woodland birds. Photo Paul Evans.

While Alison is working on the birds, dedicated volunteers Don and Betty Wood continue to collect and photograph the vast array of plants at Carnarvon. They're gradually building both a field and digital herbarium, as well as recording changes in the vegetation structure at key sites. This information is helping Bush Heritage ecologists to track the recovery of the habitats over time.

Back in Melbourne, American intern Colleen Kredell has been working in the Bush Heritage Conservation Support Centre conducting a sustainability audit of the organisation. Her report is helping us to minimise our energy use and waste. Her efforts are changing for the better the way we think about and use energy.

At nearly every reserve, and in every way, members of the community are working with us to help us to conserve and understand the land in our care and to improve the way we work. Partnerships like these, whether with research organisations, groups or individuals, are building a network in which information, expertise, opportunities and enthusiasm are shared. Everybody benefits.

Dr John Long looks for fish fossils. Photo Courtesy Museum Victoria.Dr John Long looks for fish fossils. Photo Courtesy Museum Victoria.

The greatest beneficiaries of all, however, are our landscapes, threatened species and the environment generally. The Bush Heritage Conservation Partners Program is helping to build these connections and provide opportunities and support for its participants.

Through these partnerships we're discovering some remarkable facts about our reserves. The joint expedition by Museum Victoria and the Australian National University to Cravens Peak Reserve in July 2006 is a great example. John Long, Tim Holland and Brian Choo from Museum Victoria and Gavin Young and Tim Senden from Australian National University set out across Cravens Peak to relocate some outstanding fossil beds first found in 1977 by Dr Young.

Gould’s monitor at Boolcoomatta Reserve. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.Gould’s monitor at Boolcoomatta Reserve. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

They knew that these sites contained a great diversity of ancient fish species from the early to middle Devonian Period, including the world’s only known representatives of the unique class of jawless vertebrates. Their two days of rough four-wheel driving into the north of the property was rewarded. The team found limestone containing perfect three-dimensional fossil scales, spines of jawed fish and perfect teeth and scales from early sharks.

In sandstone sediments they found that one particular group of fishes, extinct armour-plated fishes called placoderms, was dominant. Perhaps the most significant fossils found at the sites were the remains of early bony fishes. These included the remains of giant predator fishes and extinct groups like the daggertoothed fishes.

Cravens Peak Reserve could be of international significance in having the oldest known record in the world of this group of fishes.

Dr Gavin Young rediscovers the fossil sites. Photo courtesy Museum Victoria.Dr Gavin Young rediscovers the fossil sites. Photo courtesy Museum Victoria.

As the acetic acid continues its work back in the laboratory more discoveries will be made, perhaps including new evidence of the unique jawless vertebrates.

At Boolcoomatta Reserve in South Australia a stream of research groups is providing baseline data on nearly everything you can think of. Last year the reserve hosted 45 scientists and volunteers from the Scientific Expedition Group, as well as the Field Naturalists Society of South Australia and the Mineralogical Society of South Australia.

The Scientific Expedition Group team spent 12 days gathering information on plants, animals and archaeological sites. Among their discoveries were a rare South Australian plant Australian broomrape (Orobanche cernua) and another stand of the endangered purple-wood (Acacia carnei).

The significance of an old axle and two wheels was not lost on them. It came from a vehicle used by Douglas Mawson on an early expedition to the region. One of the wheels now resides in the South Australian Museum; the other wheel and the axle remain on the reserve.

The discovery by the Field Naturalists Society of the skeletal remains of threatened or extinct species such as the yellow-footed rock wallaby, golden bandicoot, Gould’s mouse and sticknest rat tell us a lot about the wildlife that the reserve would once have supported, and thus its past habitats. This information may help to determine how we manage the reserve and its wildlife into the future.

Wuttagoonaspis, an extinct placoderm found in the sandstone. Image courtesy Museum Victoria.Wuttagoonaspis, an extinct placoderm found in the sandstone. Image courtesy Museum Victoria.

Alison Howes’ work on noisy miners at Carnarvon Station Reserve also provides the sort of ecological information that will guide management decisions on the reserve. She's trying to discover why the noisy
miner, usually an occupant of more degraded habitats, is still present in such high numbers despite marked improvements in the quality of the woodlands over the past six years.

Noisy miners are aggressive, colonial birds and are known to contribute to the decline of populations of smaller woodland birds. If Alison can discover the reasons for the persistence of the miners, then Darren Larcombe and Matt Warnock, reserve managers at Carnarvon, may be able to modify their land management regime to discourage the miners and enhance the habitats for the smaller woodland species.

Providing opportunities and support for young people through training and involvement in conservation management is also a major benefit of the Conservation Partners Program. International interns, such as Colleen, come and live in Australia and work with Bush Heritage as a requirement for completing degrees in conservation management.

Spotted pardalotes are harassed by noisy miners. Photos Wayne Lawler / EcoPix. Spotted pardalotes are harassed by noisy miners. Photos Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

The Rick Farley Memorial Scholarship also provides support for young Indigenous Australians who wish to work in conservation management. Wandandian man Darren Brown is the first recipient of this  scholarship.

Bush Heritage reserves protect not only rare ecosystems and threatened species but also critical sites that need to be carefully managed. These include important sites for Indigenous Australians, springs and waterways, geological formations, fossil beds and sites of historical importance.

There are also unique management issues on some properties, which make the involvement of experts from outside Bush Heritage invaluable. Their research and experience help us to make the best possible decisions about caring for the land and its special values.

Our conservation partners bring this expertise and knowledge to us, giving us a better understanding of the land, its ecology, its evolutionary history and its cultural significance. This understanding is the key to
ensuring that the reserves are properly managed for the long term.

Alison Howes’ work is being supported by a grant from Land and Water Australia.

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