Rats & dragons at Ethabuka

about  Ethabuka Reserve  
on 01 May 2015 

This April has seen rats descend upon Ethabuka – the self-proclaimed Sydney University 'Ratcatchers' research team that is. It’s a rare occurrence to have such a large team of the Sydney Uni research crew visiting, and a special one as the research heads in to its 26th year at Ethabuka.

Professor Chris Dickman, who started researching on Ethabuka 26 years ago, has said that the trapping and monitoring infrastructure is particularly well set up here for the work his team does. He hopes the partnership between Sydney Uni and Bush heritage on Ethabuka will continue indefinitely.

During the past 25 years of research the Ratcatchers have undertaken between 90 to 100 projects, most involving several trips on site.

Chris tells us “We’ve only scratched the surface of what is in the desert! Each ‘boom’ period is different, and we’ve monitored only four so far. We need to know more for effective conservation and management. Long-term monitoring, targeted research on rare/threatened species, impacts of cats/foxes and dingos as well as the impacts of extreme events on the biota (e.g. droughts, floods, fires and cyclones) and their interactions with feral predators will help to achieve conservation goals.”

One of the projects currently underway is Eveline Rijksen’s dragon study. Eveline is looking at the effects of predation on the military dragon and the central netted dragon. Monitoring their behaviour and response to feral cats, foxes and native predators, and working out how this is affected by their habitat.

Eveline is doing several experiments to find out how the two species differ in their response to predation and habitat, and which is more vulnerable in what situations.

Understanding this will help us better understand how they will survive in the future, whether we might need to step in to help, and what issues (such as fire regimes) might cause the greatest concerns.

In her experiment Eveline uses 10m x 10m enclosures with each corner having one of four different spinifex densities (100%, 50%, 25% and 0% cover). She uses a kite to replicate a bird of prey and maps dragon tracks left in the sand to see what density of spinifex the lizards prefer to seek as shelter.

I’m blow away by the commitment the Sydney Uni team have shown, during the past 25 years, to understand the desert and how it all fits together.

Volunteers are an essential part of Ratcatcher crews. Without their help and passion so many of their projects would not have been so successful. Our own volunteers jumped at the chance to get their hands dirty and spend time helping them.

With a bit of rough maths we calculated that during his time out at Ethabuka Chris has spent more than three years camped under the same patch of Georgina gidgee.

We hope to continue to work with his team to ensure this fascinating and vital research prospers for years to come.

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