Insights into our desert world

Published 20 Jun 2006 

Chin Liang Beh, Bobby Tamayo and Chris Dickman are ecologists with the Institute of Wildlife Research, University of Sydney, and have been undertaking research at Ethabuka for many years.

A brewing storm at Ethabuka in June 2005 began another desert cycle of plenty. Photo Katrina Blake.A brewing storm at Ethabuka in June 2005 began another desert cycle of plenty. Photo Katrina Blake.

To protect a vast tract of Australian bush, deep in the red heart of our arid country, was the dream of Professor Chris Dickman and his research team after many years of studying the precarious lives of our desert animals at Ethabuka Station.

The recent protection by Bush Heritage and its supporters of Ethabuka, and more recently Cravens Peak in the Simpson Desert, owes much to the dedication of the ecologists led by Chris Dickman at the Institute of Wildlife Research, University of Sydney. The salvation of these two former cattle properties is a vitally important contribution to nature conservation and the recovery of the precious arid-zone environment.

Chris Dickman’s early work in the goldfields east of Perth in Western Australia sparked his passion for studying the ecology of small animals in arid environments. Motivated by a strong desire to protect these Australian species driven to precariously low population levels, Chris set up a permanent research study site at Ethabuka after his initial visit in 1989.

Chris Dickman measures a small monitor. Photo Bobby Tamayo.Chris Dickman measures a small monitor. Photo Bobby Tamayo.

He knew there was something very special about the sandhills and swales of Ethabuka, and rains the following year proved him correct. The floods brought amazing life to the land, and the desert began to share some of its many secrets.

The researchers found that tiny native rodents and marsupials, such as the spinifex hopping-mouse and lesser hairy-footed dunnart, would travel up to 15km over several nights in pursuit of food, water and shelter. Imagine travelling non-stop by foot from Sydney to Melbourne just to get a good meal!

As plants burst into life after the rain, so the populations of small animals flourished on the abundance of seeds and insects. Seed-eating rodents such as the sandy inland mouse responded first, breeding rapidly. Their young were also breeding within just six months.

Larger carnivorous marsupials such as the threatened mulgara responded next, feeding on the burgeoning rodent populations. But the rains also brought many unwelcome visitors. Feral cats and foxes travelled into the desert to feast on the increased numbers of native animals.

Central military dragon. Photo B Essex and C Free.Central military dragon. Photo B Essex and C Free.

Professor Dickman and his team found that the critical time for setting in place control measures for these introduced predators was six to nine months after good rains. Fire also proved to be a major environmental factor that shaped animal populations. Small patchy fires enhanced the diversity and structure of the landscape and mobile small mammals could move out of small burnt patches into neighbouring unburnt habitat.

On the other hand, large wildfires that covered many thousands of hectares could devastate mammal populations by removing all the food and shelter for vast distances. Foxes and cats moved in following such fires and the surviving animals, now exposed, made for an easy meal.

Research findings such as these have helped numerous organisations across Australia to better implement their landscape- and species-management programs. Bush Heritage will use this information to target its feral animal control programs and guide its controlled burning.

As key Bush Heritage research partners, Professor Dickman and his team continue to study the desert ecosystem in what's now the longest-running arid-zone research program in the southern hemisphere. They will continue to contribute towards the collective understanding and management of these amazing conservation reserves.

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