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Desert research after a wet winter

Matt Warr (Ethabuka Reserve Manager)
Published 07 Nov 2016 by Matt Warr (Ethabuka Reserve Manager)

The unprecedented rain that's fell at Ethabuka Reserve this winter has presented the Sydney University Desert Ecology Research Group with a rare chance to study life in these unusual conditions. They've been studying the ecology of the desert on Ethabuka for over 25 years and these are the most significant winter rain events experienced, leaving everyone eager to see what lies ahead.

Unprecedented rain over the last few months has affected the day-to-day management of Ethabuka Reserve and surrounds, forcing this season's volunteer placement to finish early and cutting the reserve off from Bedourie and our closest neighbours for over a month. It's also prevented access for bulk fuel deliveries for over three months. Only now has the landscape started to dry out enough for us to get out amongst it to see the impressive transformation underway.

So far this year some areas of the reserve have seen over 500ml of rain with close to 150ml falling around the house over winter and some Sydney University weather stations measuring in excess of 200ml for the same period.

The Mulligan River has continued to run over a longer period than can be recalled by any locals we know. The Eyre Creek in Bedourie has run since the start of the year and many stations have checked through their records and can't find a similar occurrence. Old fire scars are starting to fill with new growth, stabilising the sand dunes. The herbs and forbes have appeared in mass numbers and are being feasted on by a growing number of native rodents.

Sydney Uni has just completed its last trip for the year and Professor Chris Dickman was astounded at the rain recorded and the amount of water laying in the landscape. Chris has been undertaking study of desert ecology on Ethabuka for over a quarter of a century, so we took the chance to gain an insight to what he’s thoughts were on the unusual rain event.

He began by explaining that winter rain like this was exceptional and no winter rain event like this has occurred before during their studies at Ethabuka;

"It presents an opportunity to gain information seen rarely in this landscape."

"Pitfall trap capture numbers have sky-rocketed – at least doubling from our last trip. And to add the excitement, a desert mouse was also caught – the first in close to 15 years.

"If good rains continue through the summer months then rodent populations are set to go through the roof. If not, then the Spinifex that's seeding and still setting seed now will increase their numbers.

We're preparing for this as we expect to see a rise in feral predators. 

Below is a quick recap of the projects that were on the go with Sydney University’s Desert Ecology Research Group this trip, amongst many others.

Predator Tunnel Project

These tunnels we constructed in response to wildfire, to look at a way of providing shelter post-fire for small mammals and dragons. This trip there's been much use of these tunnels by Diamond Doves and Button Quails and a large increase in snakes.

Giving up densities

A project that looks at how native rodents select seed, how deep they're willing to dig for the seed and what response do they have to seed familiarity? Will local populations select seed that's local to their area as preference to seed that doesn’t occur in their immediate location?

Dunnart, Wolf Spider interaction

Observation to try to identify why Wolf Spiders are favoured by Dunnarts over other prey. Researchers worked late into the night observing the behaviour of the Dunnarts when Wolf Spiders where introduced to the foraging area.

More detailed info on the research projects and general information about the Sydney University Desert Ecology Research Group, including about volunteering with them, can be found on their website at

Besides reading their findings you can flick through some of their photos and read past trip reports.

A sea of green. A sea of green.
An amphibian on dry, crusty soil. An amphibian on dry, crusty soil.
Ethabuka driveway near the homestead. Ethabuka driveway near the homestead.
Plants standing in the floodwater. Plants standing in the floodwater.
Boundary fence run after the rain. Boundary fence run after the rain.
Our Healhty Landscape Manager, Alex Kutt, in the field with Sydney uni. Our Healhty Landscape Manager, Alex Kutt, in the field with Sydney uni.
Prof. Chris Dickman and a volunteer checking pitfall traps. Prof. Chris Dickman and a volunteer checking pitfall traps.
Matt Warr, Alex Kutt and Prof. Chris Dickman. Matt Warr, Alex Kutt and Prof. Chris Dickman.

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