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Two decades of desert

Published 21 Dec 2010 

There's something about Ethabuka's big skies, little critters and red desert dust that Chris Dickman just can't get enough of.

Map of Ethabuka Reserve

For scientist Chris Dickman, Beethoven is the perfect desert soundtrack.

There are sonatas for looking at the stars and symphonies that embody the dramatic desert rains. 'If the others let me get way with it, I'll play Beethoven whenever I can,' says Chris.

For 20 years, the softly spoken ex-Englishman has been driving over Ethabuka Reserve's dunes in a quest to unlock the secrets of its amazing biodiversity.

The property, purchased in 2004 with he help of Bush Heritage supporters, is home to one of the most diverse systems of plants and animals seen in any desert environment in the world.

From Leeds to the Simpson Desert

Chris DickmanChris Dickman with a sandy inland mouse. Photo: Aaron Greenville.

Chris Dickman is Professor of Ecology at the University of Sydney and has recently been named NSW scientist of the year in the Plant and Animal Sciences section. When he's not on the land mapping vegetation and monitoring animals, he's busy writing papers and books on wildlife and conservation.

After graduating in science from Leeds University in the mid '70s, Chris travelled through the Iranian deserts, central Afghanistan and Israel's Negev desert. 'I was fascinated with how the world works and how life manages to persist in some of the harsher parts of the world,' says Chris.

He was drawn to Australia because it was 'a 45 million-year experiment in evolution, isolated from the world for a vast amount of time. In terms of the biology, there's nowhere else like it'.

In 1990, Chris travelled to the Simpson Desert National Park to look for animal and plant life, but found it overrun by rabbits. Ethabuka, however, was rabbit-free. Chris was immediately seduced. 'You could take a morning stroll on the dunes and it was just a superhighway of small mammal and lizard tracks.'

Ethabuka: Chris's second home

Ethabuka has since become like a second home, where Chris spends two to three months a year. 'It has a very clean feeling about it. There's a strong contrast between the red of the sand and the blue of the sky. It's a starkly beautiful place as well as being harsh.'

So harsh, in fact, that one summer's day, the high temperature of the sand melted the glue on one of his shoes, causing the sole to fall off. Chris admits, 'At the end of a summer desert trip you're feeling pretty hot and frazzled. If you spend very long out there, you do find yourself thinking, 'I wish I could just dive into the surf'.'

Yet Chris returns again and again. 'Seeing how it could change was quite a revelation. I had an expectation it was a more static place, like a forest. The desert can change almost before your eyes.'

Chris's top four desert critters

Asking Chris Dickman to nominate his favourite desert animal is like asking a parent to choose their favourite child.

After some deliberation, he decided he couldn't come up with just one. Instead he's decided to tell us about his top four.

Hairy-footed dunnartHairy-footed dunnart. Photo: Leanne Hales

Hairy-footed dunnart

'In terms of cute and cuddly, the hairy-footed dunnart probably has the edge.

Sometimes they call it the hobbit marsupial because it's got really huge hind feet, but it's not a jumping marsupial.

It has a beautiful white belly, great big ears and great big eyes. It's a really beautiful little animal.'

MulgaraMulgara – Jiri Lochman / Lochman Transparencies


'It's a compact little animal with a conical-shaped head.

Its tail looks a bit like a carrot, bright red at the base and black at the tip, where it stores fat for later consumption.

The mulgara's got attitude. You can sometimes see the tracks from a mulgara running at top speed, hunting down a gecko or another small mammal. They're voracious predators.'

Knob-tailed geckoKnob-tailed gecko. Photo: Wayne Lawler / Ecopix

Knob-tailed gecko

'Knob-tailed geckos are irresistibly beautiful.

They have a triangular-shaped tail, with a little knob at the end of it, and if they think there might be something odd going on, they waggle the knob around.

They've got huge great eyes, and they're just looking at you, waggling this little ball at the end of their tail. It's very endearing.'

Thorny devilThorny Devil. Photo Jiri Lochman / Lochman Transparencies

Thorny devil

'I've chosen the thorny devil because it's probably the most bizarre lizard in the world.

It's usually the favourite of the volunteers – guaranteed to get all the cameras out and have everyone ooh and aah. It's a great little beast.'

After 20 years, what has Chris learned?

Returning to the same place over a long period allows scientists to recognise patterns in plant and animal behaviour. It is only now, for example, after observing successive big rains, that Chris is starting to unlock the mysteries of spinifex's seeding patterns and the effects it may have on the rodent population.

Chris's research on Ethabuka has influenced reserve managers' conservation techniques, from feral animal control to the way they conduct controlled burning. Monitoring also enables managers to locate and track the numbers and responses of vulnerable species. On his next trip to the reserve, Chris will relocate goannas to assess the effects they have had on other desert species.

Another bonus of Chris's 20 years at Ethabuka has been the opportunity to train countless students in the desert environment, and more recently, to share his knowledge with Bush Heritage ecologists, reserve managers and volunteers.

Chris is happy to think that in the future, Bush Heritage will continue his monitoring work when 'the wheelchair won't get over the sand dunes'.

Passing on the knowledge

Bush Heritage Ecologist Max Tischler is just one who has benefited from Chris's wisdom over the years. 'He has an infectious thirst for knowledge,' says Max, 'and an incredible dedication to conservation. We're privileged to have one of the most highly regarded ecologists, not just here but internationally, helping guide our management and protecting these important places.'

Chris enjoys the camaraderie that develops between ecologists and volunteers on desert trips. 'After hearing stories, telling hopeless jokes and chewing over the day's experiences by the campfire,' says Chris, 'you get to know people quite well. By the end of the trip you feel like you can let your hair down a bit.'

He's known to let his hair down with an 'emu dance' that's as singular as some of the animals he studies. 'It's probably a hybrid from looking at emus and watching old Monty Python films,' Chris theorises, when pressed for more information.

Right now, though, it's a new trip he's thinking about. News has just come in from Reserve Manager, Mark Lithgow, that the roads are finally open after the big rains left them stranded for weeks. Chris is wasting no time – he's heading home to pack his bags for Ethabuka, to record and study the colourful carpets of wildflowers, the millions of budgies and the explosion of fauna.

'We've got nearly 21 years of information from Ethabuka, which is a fabulous baseline. We can use that to look at the effects of future climate change and different land management practices. The more that data is extended into the future, the more valuable it will become. That's the legacy.'

Ethabuka Reserve was purchased with the assistance of the Australian Government. The reserve is managed for nature conservation as part of the National Reserve System. We would also like to acknowledge The Nature Conservancy for their generous support of this work.

Bush Heritage supporters Chris Dickman, Libby Robin and Mandy Martin are co-editors of Desert Channels: The Impulse to Conserve (CSIRO Publishing), a stunning book that explores the 'impulse to conserve' in the distinctive Desert Channels country of south-western Queensland, especially Ethabuka and Cravens Peak reserves. Bush Heritage scientists, ex-board members and science partners are among the book's list of highly respected contributors.

By Fiona Rutkay

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