Sydney University at Ethabuka

Friday 30 September, 2016

Scientists from all walks of life are drawn to the red sands of Ethabuka Reserve to volunteer under the expert guidance of our research partners from The University of Sydney.

University of Sydney volunteers step aside as research assistant David Nelson removes a snake caught in a pitfall trap. Photo Kate Cranney.
University of Sydney volunteers step aside as research assistant David Nelson removes a snake caught in a pitfall trap. Photo Kate Cranney.
It is early morning on Ethabuka Reserve and six scientists are dotted across a sand dune. Kneeling on the red sand, their arms disappear down deep holes – on closer inspection they are not holes, but pitfall traps.

Professor Chris Dickman retrieves a Knob-tailed Gecko from a trap; another scientist gingerly removes a sharp-toothed Mulgara. Now the scientists return to the vehicle, animals carefully contained in calico bags, ready to take the creatures’ vital stats.

The landscape may look untouched, but the path these scientists walk is, in fact, well-trodden. As we mark our 25th anniversary, Bush Heritage celebrates our supporters, and the work of one of our oldest scientific partners: the Desert Ecology Research Group from the University of Sydney, affectionately known as the “Ratcatchers”.

A Western Brown Snake in a pitfall trap, ready to be carefully measured and set free. Photo Kate Cranney.
A Western Brown Snake in a pitfall trap, ready to be carefully measured and set free. Photo Kate Cranney.
Chris Dickman is ever-conscious that his team’s work is dependent on the generosity of Bush Heritage supporters.

“We have seen the fantastic value of their contribution during the course of our research at Ethabuka and Cravens Peak, and are very grateful for the improvement of natural values that this allows.”

Step back more than 25 years to January of 1990. A lone vehicle drives up and down the sand dunes of the Simpson Desert in western Queensland. Professor Chris Dickman, a scientist specialising in desert animals is on a quest – concerned about the fate of Australia’s arid mammals, he is searching for a place to set up a longterm monitoring study.

Ethabuka, a cattle station, shows promise: there are relatively few rabbits, and early surveys reveal plenty of native animal life. In the distance, Chris sees a patch of gidgee trees, providing precious shade in the sea of spinifex grass. Main Camp is born – a place for scientists to camp while doing field work on Ethabuka.

Professor Chris Dickman measures a small monitor. Photo Bobby Tamayo.
Professor Chris Dickman measures a small monitor. Photo Bobby Tamayo.
In 2016, Main Camp still provides a home-away-from-home for scientists. Ever since that first trip, up to four times a year, University of Sydney ecologists, under the supervision of Chris and fellow Sydney University Professor and co-founder of the Desert Ecology Research Group, Glenda Wardle, drive 2,000km inland to Ethabuka and Cravens Peak.

They visit for up to four weeks at a time, studying everything from dingoes to tiny native bees. The team is made up of Chris and Glenda, long-term Operations Manager Bobby Tamayo, and a veritable army of scientists such as Aaron Greenville and students from the Desert Ecology Research Group.

Glenda estimates that more than 1,000 volunteers from far and wide have joined the trips since 1990, many of them returning in later years – impressive, given the trying conditions.

Professor Glenda Wardle with a Mulgara. Photo Kate Cranney.
Professor Glenda Wardle with a Mulgara. Photo Kate Cranney.
The group has encountered flooding rains, bush fires, dust storms and locust plagues of biblical proportion. They’ve worked with swarms of mosquitos and flies, and on days when the mercury rises to 50 degrees. (One summer the soles of Chris’ boots fell off – the glue had melted in the heat.)

Why would anyone return to such a place, year after year, for 26 years?

Ethabuka Reserve is internationally known amongst scientists and attracts great interest. But it also leaves its mark on people in a more intimate way.

“I have a great sense of joy to be able to see and catch and try to understand the great biodiversity that’s out here,” Chris says. “You can stand on a sand dune and look for kilometres in all directions and not see any sign of human activity. Then you look down at your feet and you see the tracks of myriad creatures. In a place that is apparently so harsh, it’s actually incredibly biodiverse!”

A Bearded Dragon basks in the sun at Ethabuka. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
A Bearded Dragon basks in the sun at Ethabuka. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
Our understanding of Ethabuka and Cravens Peak’s biodiversity would be much poorer without the University of Sydney’s meticulous, long-term monitoring. We now know that this area of the Simpson Desert protects the highest reptile diversity of any arid zone in the world: at least 54 species of lizards and snakes, including Australia’s largest goanna, the Perentie, live here.

The reserves are also home to 27 native mammals, like the Mulgara, a small, feisty marsupial that is vulnerable to extinction. With much of arid Australia grazed by cattle and facing pressure from feral animals, our reserves are relative safe havens for many species threatened with extinction.

The generous support of our donors allowed Bush Heritage to buy Ethabuka in 2004 and Cravens Peak in 2006. These decisions were guided by the University of Sydney’s research. Since then, we have formed a strong partnership with Chris, Glenda and their team.

A Red Kangaroo at Ethabuka. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
A Red Kangaroo at Ethabuka. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
The University of Sydney has provided long-term data on the animals and plants, and how their populations change over time. Their work has also contributed to the Ethabuka and Cravens Peak fire management plans.

Back on the sand dune the day is heating up. Weighed and measured, the scientists release the captured animals under spinifex tussocks. The Knob-tailed Gecko licks its eyes and walks away slowly. The Mulgara races out of view. A small, burrowing lizard disappears under loose sand, leaving an S-shaped trail in its wake.

And the researchers from the University of Sydney tally up another year of surveying the precious biodiversity of Ethabuka Reserve.

“Twenty-five years ago, the population of Hairy-footed Dunnarts at Ethabuka was zero. They were not known at that time even to occur in Queensland. Now they are one of the most common of all small mammals that we capture. Why focus on Hairy-footed Dunnarts? I confess, they are stunningly beautiful animals, and I can only conclude that people who think tigers are cute have simply never had the privilege of seeing a Hairy-footed Dunnart ... But seriously, their presence in the sand dunes on Ethabuka and Cravens Peak is surely a sign of an environment in very good hands.”
Professor Chris Dickman, Co-founder of the Desert Ecology Research Group from the University of Sydney
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