Life on the edge

Thursday 16 June, 2016

For the vulnerable endemic species found on Hamelin, the old saying “it’s a small world” couldn’t be more apt. With suitable habitat a precious rarity, careful land management could offer a better future for these threatened creatures.

The Western Grasswren. Photo by George Chapman CC Some rights reserved
The Western Grasswren. Photo by George Chapman CC Some rights reserved
As dawn breaks across Hamelin Station, painting the vast landscapes with gentle hues of blue that merge into orange, you could be forgiven for thinking you had the whole place to yourself. But beneath the nooks and crannies underfoot, one of Hamelin’s more remarkable species is waiting for just the right time to emerge and warm itself in the morning light.

Beneath the nooks and crannies underfoot, one of Hamelin’s more remarkable species is waiting for just the right time to emerge and warm itself in the morning light.

Hamelin Sink. Photo by Photo by Simon Fordham / NaturePix.
Hamelin Sink. Photo by Photo by Simon Fordham / NaturePix.
Appearing from its burrow where it spends the cold night and parts of the hot day hiding, the tiny Hamelin Skink scampers amongst the spinifex, foraging for food.

The Hamelin Skink is undoubtedly a striking creature. Its tiny, 6cm body is dwarfed by its whip-like tail, which can measure twice as long as its body. Its blackish body and dark-brown head and tail are marked with eight narrow white stripes stretching from eye to tail, interspersed with black stripes broken with pale spots and blotches. A wonderful quirk of evolution, these dots and dashes are thought to confuse predators, helping the lizard make a speedy escape.

Long-tailed dunnart. Photo by Jiri Lochman.
Long-tailed dunnart. Photo by Jiri Lochman.
Yet predators aside, life for this endemic reptile is constantly precarious. It is native to Hamelin and one other neighbouring station and is only found in a small area (roughly 150km²) of spinifex with a eucalypt overstory. The extremely restricted range makes the Hamelin Skink vulnerable to extinction. Bushfires have the potential to damage its habitat, leaving it with nowhere else to live.

“Hamelin Station is critical to the survival of this species, with 80% of all sightings having taken place on the property,” says Bush Heritage Ecologist Vanessa Westcott.

Malleefowl nest mounds have been found on the property. As vegetation recovers from the long history of grazing it is hoped that the Mallefowl population will rebound. Photo by Jiri Lochman.
Malleefowl nest mounds have been found on the property. As vegetation recovers from the long history of grazing it is hoped that the Mallefowl population will rebound. Photo by Jiri Lochman.
“Key management actions that will be taken to protect this species include management of fire regimes, feral predators (cats and foxes) and feral herbivores (rabbits and goats).” The Hamelin Skink is just one of the species found in this biodiversity hotspot. Another is the Western Grasswren, a small, active bird that also occurs on Hamelin and has a limited distribution. It hops along the ground with a cocked tail, searching for insects. Western Grasswrens were once widespread in WA but have declined dramatically in the last one hundred years. Today just three sub-populations remain, well-separated and confined to very small areas. More than half of Hamelin Station’s 202,000 hectares is potentially suitable habitat for these birds. “We are going to work to manage fire and feral predators, and remove any remaining stock animals, to help ensure there is an ongoing self-sustaining population of the Western Grasswren on Hamelin,”says Vanessa.

Common Greenshank. Photo by Jiri Lochman.
Common Greenshank. Photo by Jiri Lochman.
“The first step will be to undertake monitoring for both the Hamelin Skink and Western Grasswren. This will help us to make management decisions and help to protect these species in the long term.”

When it comes to protecting these precious species, knowledge is the key. Bush Heritage’s Hamelin Station Reserve team has already started work to understand the property’s complex ecology and how to address the challenges ahead. This work will inform a comprehensive conservation plan that will protect the landscape these species rely on. It may indeed be a small world for these vulnerable species, but it’s Bush Heritage’s mission that this vital habitat won’t become any smaller.

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