Species discovery blitz at Charles Darwin Reserve

Monday 21 September, 2009

Gathering information about our reserves is an ongoing process. As our knowledge grows, we continue to fine-tune our management plans. An additional bonus is the occasional discovery of a rare species, or a species not previously known to exist on the reserve, or – most excitingly – a completely new species. Ecologist Dr Matt Appleby describes the recent ‘blitz’ at Charles Darwin Reserve.

Dave Britton and a volunteer from BHP Billiton record and pin moths. Photo Paul Evans.

Dave Britton and a volunteer from BHP Billiton record and pin moths. Photo Paul Evans.

Given the large size of some of our reserves, it's nice to know that there are people and organisations willing to help us uncover more information about them. During the first week in May, over 35 people came to help search and document the variety of life on the 68,000 ha Charles Darwin Reserve in Western Australia.

Expert biologists from a range of institutions came together with the support of a partnership between Earthwatch Australia and BHP Billiton Iron Ore. The aim was to conduct a species discovery blitz – essentially a biodiversity audit – on the range of habitats across Charles Darwin Reserve. It was an opportunity to discover species never recorded on the reserve and, if possible, find species that have never been described by scientists.

Heath, Charles Darwin Reserve, WA. Photo Matt Appleby.

Heath, Charles Darwin Reserve, WA. Photo Matt Appleby.

Such exercises may seem odd in this day and age in an area that has been continuously settled for just over a century. However, there are still plenty of gaps in our knowledge of local species, in particular, the invertebrates.

The growth of Western Australia’s wheat belt – and the clearing of land that came with it – was so rapid and extensive that the record of species held in the WA Museum and Herbarium is bound to be incomplete. Charles Darwin Reserve and other largely uncleared properties in the wheat belt offer a glimpse of what we have lost over vast areas of the state. A better understanding of these remnants will also enable Bush Heritage to better manage its reserves.

BHP Billiton staff, along with scientists from Earthwatch, provided volunteer assistance to the grateful experts. The dozens and dozens of extra hands (not to mention the extra ears and eyes…) were put to work netting insects and beating bushes for bugs, as well as a range of other techniques used to gather samples for further identification and analysis.

Charles Darwin’s greatgreat grandson, Chris Darwin – a Bush Heritage ambassador – was also an enthusiastic participant on the project.

Red-stem mallee, Charles Darwin Reserve, WA. Photo Matt Appleby.

Red-stem mallee, Charles Darwin Reserve, WA. Photo Matt Appleby.

Each day, five teams headed out into the field. The teams were divided into specialty areas, each led by an expert: Mark Harvey (arachnids) and Paul Doughty (reptiles), both from WA Museum; Terry MacFarlane (plants) from WA Herbarium at Manjimup; Celia Symmonds (plant bugs) from the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New South Wales, and Dave Britton (moths and allies) from the Australian Museum.

The volunteers learnt a variety of new and novel skills over the week. To the passerby the scene could have looked slightly bizarre, not least in the plant bug group. Plants were given a (gentle) beating to dislodge the bugs from their home; the bugs were then sucked up into small vials ready for inspection and classifying. Light traps were erected at dusk to capture moths using a large bedsheet. Tent-like structures were set up to gather flying insects travelling along gaps in the heath.

The reptile group relied on a variety of methods too. The traditional ‘dash and grab’ method was effective on the large open granite outcrops. Pitfall traps were also set up, but finding a soft patch of earth to dig a hole in proved elusive. A low fence is set up between the pits so that the reptiles walk up to and then along the fence and fall into a pit. The pits are checked regularly to remove any animals. Back in the makeshift lab at the homestead, the animals are identified using species keys (for the difficult ones) and are then released back where they were found.

A gecko (Byroe’s gecko, Heteronotia binoei) is unearthed while trawling the ‘rubbish dump’ for species. Photo Paul Evans.

A gecko (Byroe’s gecko, Heteronotia binoei) is unearthed while trawling the ‘rubbish dump’ for species. Photo Paul Evans.

The plant group kept a lookout for specific target species, particularly the elusive but stunning Wurmbea or early Nancy – a small herb related to the lily family. The diversity of plants on Charles Darwin Reserve is truly overwhelming on first contact – some common genera like Eremophila have over a dozen species just on this reserve. For the volunteers, searching for ‘unusual’ or rare species was difficult because the composition varied so much over short distances; however, the recently burnt heath outshone every other ecosystem for overall variety.

The hard work is now ahead of the biologists back in their labs. The species need to be classified and any species ‘new’ to science needs to be fully described and the descriptions published in scientific journals.

The number of undescribed species found on Charles Darwin Reserve and other more remote areas within Western Australia is quite staggering, and documenting these is a lengthy but essential part of the role of the Museum and Herbarium. A pseudo-scorpion found by Mark Harvey is bound to be one of many that is added to the list; and maybe even another species of the wonderfully named ‘feather-legged assassin bug’.

The array of species on Charles Darwin Reserve, whether they be plants, bugs or pseudo-scorpions, was stunning. Even looking at a single family of species, it was easy to be overwhelmed by the number (and the names) of species present. And we still need to survey the birds and mammals, and come back in spring when other species are more active or easier to identify!

Once the information is collated, we’ll be looking closely at how we need to change the way we manage the reserve in order to better protect this ‘island’ in the wheat belt.

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