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Climate change study at Charles Darwin

Published 27 Jul 2016 by Dr Nic Dunlop

Charles Darwin Reserve (then White Wells Station) was purchased by Bush Heritage in 2005 with the primary objective of protecting some of the last expanses of woodland that had been systematically cleared from the Western Australian wheatbelt. The Reserve is bounded by other former pastoral stations that collectively encompass the largest surviving swathe of wheatbelt vegetation, sandwiched between the grossly over-cleared agricultural zone and the rangelands with their legacy of misuse from overstocking. Collectively the 'Conservation Stations' were miraculously saved from the plough on several occasions by changing circumstance and bureaucratic inertia.

To get your bearings on the Conservation Stations one looks for Mount Singleton, a prominent dolerite outcrop that is the highest feature for hundreds of kilometres. It sits at the apex of two (arguably 3) major bioregions straddling the mulga-eucalypt line.

The cultural significance of the region

Mount Singleton is a maternal echidna in a creation myth, known as Ninghan amongst the Noongar people of the South West region and Gundawa by the Yamatji language groups of central western Australia. The songline and its sacred places, including a nearby granite outcrop called Warrdargga, is also sung by desert (Wongi) people living far to east. At Gundawa Noongar people traded Balga Gum (a useful glue) from the south-western bioregions for ochre provided by Badimia from the arid Murchison.

A meeting place for aboriginal cultures

As aboriginal cultures evolve in response to ecological resources it is hardly surprisingly that language groups correlate well with the scientific concepts of bioregions. Around Gundawa a biota representative of the south-western Western Australian biodiversity hotspot meets that of the arid shrublands that occupy much of central Australia. The vegetation types characteristic of both systems are interspersed at the boundary by soil changes, placing populations of south-west and arid zone plants and animals in close proximity. Frontiers like this are the ideal locations to test predicted responses of plants and animals to anticipated climate changes, such as the rising minimum temperatures, the seasonal distribution in rainfall and extreme drought or storm events.

Charles Darwin Reserve - an optimal location for terrestrial climate change ecology

Charles Darwin Reserve was optimally located to establish a long-term citizen-science program to investigate terrestrial climate change ecology. It also had a number of other prerequisites for a project of this type. The land was under conservation management protecting the study area from impacts other than climate change (except mineral exploration and mining). It also had accommodation and other infrastructure allowing teams of budding ecologists to hang out for extended periods at low cost. Institutional scientists have also been attracted to conduct research on the Reserve for similar reasons, including the WA Museum and Edith Cowan and Murdoch Universities. So the meeting place has increasingly become a focus for the scientific community.

The Conservation Council of West Australia's Citizen Science program

The Conservation Council Citizen Science Program started preliminary fauna survey work on Charles Darwin Reserve in 2006 with the objective of selecting the biological indicators that would be tracked in the long-term. The Charles Darwin Climate Change Observatory became operational in 2008 with the commissioning of our central automatic meteorological station and the initial sampling of 10 ecological indicators. These indicators included vegetation at some BHA monitoring sites, ant species and communities, bat species and communities and small mammals (Dunnarts).

2016 an amazing year for rainfall

The years that followed were mostly droughts and difficult times for the Reserve's plants and animals. The current year (2016) has been the first to exceed long-term average rainfalls so we keenly await the response. In 2015 the indicators we used were evaluated and a remote sensing investigation was carried out to try and identify habitat patches where productivity persisted during the drought periods (funded by the Gundawa Conservation Association). This information is being used to restructure some of our sampling to include some of these 'putative refugia' to get a better understanding of how some animal populations manage to persist in the landscape. Some bird species and bird community indicators are now being added to the monitoring program (with respect to refugia sampling). The Hay Paddock at the homestead is a classic 'old field' experiment on the edge of the wheatbelt. That area is now being observed as a potential model of what nature will do on abandoned farmland on the edge of the wheatbelt in a changing climate.

Over 70 citizen-scientists have participated in the Observatory Program over the years, with a hard core group of recidivists. We will gather again at the meeting place for the spring sampling very soon.

Dr Nic Dunlop
Citizen Science Coordinator
Conservation Council (WA)

Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo Paul Evans. Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo Paul Evans.
The MET Station. Photo Nic Dunlop. The MET Station. Photo Nic Dunlop.
Nic Dunlop with a volunteer at the MET Station. Nic Dunlop with a volunteer at the MET Station.
Nic Dunlop & Chris Darwin discussing the Observatory Program in 2009. Nic Dunlop & Chris Darwin discussing the Observatory Program in 2009.
Nic Dunlop and 'citizen scientists' at Charles Darwin Reserve 2014. Photo Vanessa Westcott. Nic Dunlop and 'citizen scientists' at Charles Darwin Reserve 2014. Photo Vanessa Westcott.
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