Last month, I joined up with fellow ecologists Professor David Watson and Richard McLellan on a couple of magnificent Bush Heritage reserves in the western rangelands of Western Australia. We were conducting innovative fieldwork on hemiparasitic trees in the Santalaceae Family.
Richard is investigating the ecological functions of the West Australian Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum), Quandong (S. acuminatum) and the Leafless Ballart (Exocarpos aphyllus). I was there to scope out sites for my honours project that predominately focuses on key aspects of the ecology of E. aphyllus.
A number of scientific papers by Prof. Watson and his associates propose that parasitic plants such as Mistletoes can play important ecological roles within ecosystems. In a partnership between Charles Sturt University and Bush Heritage, we're further contributing to this field of study by looking into the importance of these Santalaceae species within arid and semi-arid ecosystems in WA.
A bit of background
E. aphyllus is quite common throughout Southern Australia. Despite this, there has been relatively little research conducted on the Exocarpos genus.
This is quite the opposite for WA Sandalwood. During the 1800s and early 1900s, S. spicatum was immensely over-harvested throughout its range – mostly for the aromatic heartwood that’s used in incense, perfumes and cosmetic products.
Stricter permits are now in place for ‘pulling’ Sandalwood since the establishment of such acts as the Western Australian Sandalwood Control Act of 1929, and more recently the WA Biodiversity Conservation Act (2016). However, S. spicatum is extremely slow growing in arid environments and its regeneration suffers from extremely low recruitment rates. Consequently the species is struggling to keep up with the rate of exploitation, and faces a challenging future.
We spent a week at Eurardy Reserve, on beautiful Nhanda country, submersing ourselves in Santalaceae science and making close friends with the flies.
Dave and Richard had already made their peace with the flies after a week up at Hamelin Station Reserve. They had both swallowed some of the local insects and it wasn’t long before I joined them unavoidably. With our lips firmly pursed, we installed litter traps and camera traps that we will be revisiting on a regular basis for the next two years with help from all of the reserve staff.
I also had the opportunity to set up some exclusion plots from which I'll be extracting samples in the near future – predominately to find out more about the invertebrates that dwell within the leaf litter below E. aphyllus. Eurardy treated us well, with sightings of a Smooth Knob-tailed Gecko (Nephrurus levis), the magnificent Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksia) and an Australian Bustard (Ardeotis australis) to name a few.
After a flawless week we packed up and headed-off for our next stint of fieldwork at Charles Darwin Reserve. On arrival, a good 8mm of rain drenched the landscape. It was warmly received by Reserve Manager Will Hansen, and by every living organism in the dried-out bush. The water was soaked up instantly by the cryptogamic soil crust causing lichens to illuminate with colour.
While in the field walking through the amazing York Gum woodlands (Eucalyptus loxophleba) we came across an old pile of Sandalwood bark. Presumed to have been left during the 1980s. It was quite saddening to see the damage of past happenings with the wild populations now so sparse.
While staying at the reserve we joined the Bush Heritage staff to speak with Directors of the Badimia Bandi Barna Aboriginal Corporation about working collaboratively on healthy country – especially when it comes to restoring sandalwood populations. Meeting with the Badimia was a humbling experience and I hope the collaboration leads to great things in the future.
Not long before leaving, Prof. David Watson spotted a (rarely seen) Woolly Mistletoe (Amyema nestor). Like a diamond in the rough, the vibrant peach and red flowers in a mass of lustreless leaves had us all gawking in awe. It was a great way to finish a fantastic few weeks of fieldwork.
Personally I’d like to say thank you to Bush Heritage for supporting our research on these very special reserves, and to the accommodating managers, Ben and Tina at Eurardy Reserve, and Will and Liv at Charles Darwin Reserve, for making us feel welcome and for generously helping with the project.