Ecological science in the Tasmanian midlands

about  Tasmanian Midlands 
on 01 Aug 2016 

The Tasmanian Midlands is a patchwork of colours. White sheep are peppered across a paddock. There are red roofs, silver sheds, and swathes of brown soil, cultivated for crops. The patches of remnant native vegetation appear various shades of green. From a hill top, it’s all rather bucolic.

But a bettong (a native ‘rat kangaroo’) might see things a little differently. It might need to travel to another patch of woodland to find a mate. This is a risky business: patches of native vegetation are often separated by cleared paddocks. Out there, without cover, the bettong is vulnerable to predators. If only there were a connecting corridor of vegetation to conceal it, as it travelled from A to B…

Five PhD students from the University of Tasmania are investigating how native animals – like the bettong – feed, move and avoid predators in the Midlands. Collectively, they’re studying the birds, bats, bettongs, feral cats and native carnivores that live in the Midlands. They want to know what native animals consider ‘good habitat’ in this fragmented landscape. With this information, we can improve the design of habitat restoration projects, so that they support native animals. In other words, what is an animal-centric view of habitat restoration?

The information the students collect is vital. The Tasmanian Midlands is one of Australia’s 15 biodiversity hotspots. It is also a priority landscape for Bush Heritage. It boasts a high level of endemism (species that only live in that place) but many species are threatened with extinction or are declining in number. Feral cats pose a grave threat to birds, mammals and reptiles, and there are fears that, since the facial tumour has decimated Tasmanian Devil numbers, feral cat populations could multiply. (In one year, a Midlands farmer shot 280 feral cats on their property!) And temperate grasslands – one of our most endangered ecosystems – are under increasing threat from intensive grazing and conversion to pasture.

The project ‘Restoring Resilience in Wildlife Populations’ is an Australian Research Council funded partnership between Greening Australia and University of Tasmania (headed by Associate Professor Menna Jones and Professor Chris Johnson), in collaboration with Bush Heritage Australia, the Tasmanian Land Conservancy and the Tasmanian Government. Given most of the Midlands is privately owned, these groups work with committed farmers to protect or create links between habitat fragments.

Bush Heritage and the Tasmanian Land Conservancy protect key habitat remnants. Greening Australia runs revegetation programs to connect disconnected patches of forest and grassland together.

And five scientists – Rowena, Glen, Kirstin, Riana and Kirsty – will help to guide future restoration efforts. Kate Cranney, our Science Communicator Intern, recently visited the scientists in the Midlands. Over the next week we’ll meet these researchers, and learn all about bettongs, birds, bats and bucolic farmland! 

 

- Kate Cranney, Science Communicator Intern.