Edgbaston’s hidden charms

on 30 Mar 2015 

As part of my doctoral research I have spent a lot of time on Bush Heritage Australia’s Edgbaston Reserve. I’ve guided a lot of people through its plains and pockets with an expectant gaze to the faces of my visitors, looking for a reflection of the excitement I feel, but am always shocked when the sentiment expressed is ‘underwhelmed’. So, for my first blog post I wanted to share three tips to help one understand why I think Edgbaston is the jewel of Bush Heritage’s Queensland crown, and hopefully inspire visitors to tune in to its subtle charms.

1) Permanent water in an impermanent landscape

Spending some time in the arid and semi-arid parts of Australia you realise the importance of permanent water. Outback landscapes are characterised by ephemeral ‘boom and bust’ waterways – the big outback rivers of the Lake Eyre basin pulse on El Nino – La Nina decadal cycles. However, there are freshwater ecosystems of the outback that provide clean, still and special water all the time – springs.

Unlike waterholes, rock holes and ephemeral or permanent rivers, springs are a constant source of clean clear water. Because of the connection to the vast underground aquifers that supply them they're constant – not only in flow but also in water temperature, chemistry and clarity. Because of this, they're home to unparalleled outback wetland diversity which, without their permanence, would disappear or retreat to more coastal regions.

2) It's all a matter of scale

When most of us walk about the landscape, we want to see phenomena of epic proportion – mountainous crags, plummeting waterfalls, expansive plains, galloping mega-fauna. But the marvels of Edgbaston are made on a different scale, no less epic if you put yourself in the right perspective. 

Like the infamous red-finned blue-eye, all of the special fauna of Edgbaston are SMALL – most are less than 2cm long. They must be small because their homes are rarely more than 100m2 of standing pools no deeper than 10cm. But when you see the landscape from their scale you start to realise how amazing each spring is. In every square meter there are hundreds of snails, shrimps and bugs crawling about the forest of weird and wonderful plants. There are ‘microhabitats’ ranging from deep, dark and dirty pools to trickling floral meadows and ephemeral ‘bad lands’. Per meter, that’s some pretty good value for money if you're willing to shift your perspective. And all these amazing animals and plants are concentrated in one area, so you don’t have to walk far to see them all.

3) Hints of past, reminders of current threats

Surprisingly (to me) few people know of the importance of springs and the fauna and flora that live there.  Globally, springs are hotspots of both cultural and biological significance – they are oracles, life sources, gathering points and vital habitat. Australia’s springs are some of the most diverse of all. Springs fed by the Great Artesian Basin (like those on Edgbaston) are home not only to more species of freshwater plants and animals than any other waterway, but also the majority of those species are only found in the springs of one property.

Edgbaston is the most astounding example of this phenomenon in Australia. Over 15 species found on this single property are found nowhere else in the world. The red-finned blue-eye is a great example of a fish in this situation, but they are only one of the species. Amongst the snails for example there are over nine species, each more different than the next, and only found on Edgbaston. Most of these have evolved both morphologically and physiologically so far from their nearest relative that they can't live anywhere but these particular pools. Their kin have seen the Australian interior shift from rainforest, to an inland sea, to a vast dry and salty desert. And have held on through every step of the way.

In the past they weren’t alone. Numerous regions in the outback (Eulo, Lake Eyre and Lake Frome) house springs. Each of these regions was most likely home to their own specialised flora and fauna, each with their own evolutionary stories. Yet, since the colonial expansion of European pastoralists in the arid interior, 80% of springs have dried up or been destroyed. This devastating loss of habitat has led to the extinction of most springs-specific species before they were even documented. Only the records of explorers and the accounts of Aboriginal peoples that treasured them stand testament that they ever existed. 

Edgbaston has persisted despite this loss. It is believed to be one of the few areas of springs where the majority of its original flora and fauna remain in tact. It provides a vital home for more species of spring specialists than any other area of Australia. And it is protected – which means a lot in Queensland.

Bush Heritage protects more springs on Edgbaston than any other state or federal conservation agreement (rivalling the other largest in South Australia). With the looming threats of resource sector expansion (e.g. the largest coal mine in the southern hemisphere operated by Adani is situated right next to a critically listed set of springs) and persistent disturbances from cattle, pigs and humans, it is reserves like Edgbaston that are guaranteeing that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past and exterminate the remaining evolutionary treasures that occupy this incredibly special ecosystem.

So, if you ever want to wander the ‘wastes’ of Edgbaston, come with these thoughts in mind, along with the appreciators' tips below and I can guarantee you'll come through the gates as excited as I am every time I arrive. 

Tip 1: Imagine you left your water bottle at home and the distress of thirst among spinifex dunes. THEN realise that you don't have to walk more than a kilometre to find clean, clear drinking water at all times of the year.

Tip 2: Adjust the way you see the landscape. Not all animals and plants share the same spatial perspective as us – to a tiny snail a single spring is the equivalent of a forest, and imagine the spring is your whole world. If you want to know why Edgbaston is so special, pull up a chair, or a plank, or an inflatable pool bed and get a new perspective.

Tip 3: Appreciate that while you might not think tiny fish, or snails, or bugs, or plants are important, each one of the species that occupies Edgbaston has persisted through Australia’s dynamic interior's drastic changes, has scraped by the skin of its teeth past the mass extinctions that ravaged their kin with the colonial expansion and stand as a testament to all the other springs species that remain threatened with extinction daily in other parts of Australia.

I would like to thank Bush Heritage Australia for allowing me access to Edgbaston. I would like to acknowledge the elders past and present of the Iningai (Edgbaston), Jagera and Turrbal (The Univeristy of Queensland) peoples who are the traditional custodians of the country on which I work, and the concerted efforts of my academic elders (Dr. Winston Ponder, Dr. Russel Fairfax, Dr. Adam Kerezsy, Assoc. Prof. Rod Fensham, Dr. Peter Unmack) without whom I would be lost.