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Long-term climate change study

Published 21 Dec 2013 

Charles Darwin Reserve in Western Australia is situated at the junction of two major bioregions, in a landscape of extraordinary biodiversity. Its location makes it ideal for a long-term study into how climate change is impacting native plants and animals.

Sunset on Charles Darwin ReserveSunset over Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo: Jiri Lochman / Lochman Transparencies

As the morning sun sheds its first light across a subtle landscape of undulating sandplains, dense mulga scrub and shimmering salt lakes, Bush Heritage staff and volunteers are already up and on the go on your Charles Darwin Reserve.

At dawn, each of the strategically placed pitfall traps needs to be checked, and the overnight catch recorded and released as quickly as possible.

Exceptional natural diversity

In a landscape with three times the biodiversity of Australia's tropical rainforests, the animals found in the traps are many and varied, ranging from spiders, to centipedes, small mammals like dunnarts, geckos and even the occasional brown snake.

Within one of Australia's only two internationally recognised biodiversity hotspots, Charles Darwin Reserve provides essential habitat and vital insights into the conservation of thousands of plant and animal species.

It's also ideally located for gathering information about the long-term effects of climate change in such a biodiverse area.

White-striped freetail batWhite-stripped freetail bat captured on Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo: Andrea Tscimer

Under current climate models, the region where the reserve is located is predicted to become rapidly hotter (particularly its summer minimum temperatures) and drier - with an increasing proportion of its rainfall occurring in the summer months.

It's at these sort of contact points where you're going to first see the changing ecology of plants and animals due to the effects of climate change.

– Dr Nic Dunlop Project Leader, Climate Change Observatory Project, Charles Darwin Reserve

The Climate Change Observatory Project, based on the reserve, will provide essential monitoring of a range of climate change-sensitive plants and animals over a 30-year period. This information will be shared with scientists, parks and other conservation organisations across Australia, so they can adapt their future management techniques.

A climate change ‘tension zone'

Dr Nic Dunlop is with the Conservation Council of Western Australia - the peak body in the state for conservation groups. As well as running the organisation's Citizen Science Program, which gives volunteers the chance to get involved with scientific research and monitoring, Nic has been Project Leader on the Climate Change Observatory Project since its launch in 2008.

He says that the location of Charles Darwin Reserve in a climate change ‘tension zone' provides a unique opportunity to gain valuable long-term data.

Eucalyptus treeEucalyptus tree. Photo: Paul Evans

"Charles Darwin Reserve and the adjoining land that's also managed for conservation provide a very large continuous block of native vegetation - around 300,000 hectares - bounding a region of mid-west Western Australia that's largely cleared."

Charles Darwin Reserve also straddles the meeting point of two bioregions, with the semi-arid Avon Wheatbelt bioregion to the south-west and the arid Yalgoo bioregion to the north.

"So you have a junction between these two distinct bioregions," says Nic. "It's at these sort of contact points where you're going to first see the changing ecology of plants and animals due to the effects of climate change.

"The unfragmented nature of the landscape means that we can observe animals on the move and in fact entire communities in a state of flux. Some species at the edge of their distribution will probably disappear (and probably already have) and others will be added from the adjoining bioregion."

Retreating species

The project team has chosen 10 key ecological indicators to monitor the impacts of climate change over three decades. Continuous climate data is also being collected from a purpose-built meteorological station located on the reserve.

"We're looking at a range of plants and animals, including bats, ants and dunnarts. Bats are important indicators of climate change because unlike other small vertebrates they can fly, which means they can redistribute relatively easily. But they're also extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity."

Fat-tailed dunnartFat-tailed dunnart. Photo: Tim Doherty

In fact, the data collected on bats over the last five or six years is so far providing the most conclusive evidence of the effect that climate change is having on some animals. Studies have shown that the southern forest bat has retreated south towards wetter areas, and is being replaced by two arid zone species from the north, the inland forest bat and Finlayson's cave bat.

A wealth of knowledge

In its first five years, the project has published two scientific papers and is, according to Nic, starting to turn up some real surprises.

"We're seeing some animals completely disappear from the landscape during droughts and then reappear in the few years when we've had average rainfall.

"For instance, we didn't see the Gilbert's dunnart for the first four years, but as soon as we had some decent rain it became the dominant dunnart species."

So the big question is, where are these climate-sensitive animals retreating to when conditions are too hot and dry? "From a long-term conservation point of view, this is vitally important because these are the places that so many of the most vulnerable animal species are going to become increasingly dependent on," says Nic.

With 25 years still to run on the Climate Change Observatory Project, Bush Heritage is committed to supporting this important research work - not just for the benefits it will bring to the protection of your reserves, but also for the contribution it will make to the preservation of our nation's biodiversity.

Help support a decade of achievement on Charles Darwin Reserve

In the 10 years that Bush Heritage has owned and managed Charles Darwin Reserve, it has kept revealing new and exciting species, including 21 that are entirely new to science. To protect this natural treasure trove, we need your support with ongoing management work like feral animal control, scientific monitoring and fire management. Please donate to help us continue our work.