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Science & knowledge

Highlights from 2020-21 of our investments in research and partnerships that expand our understanding of the natural world and improve our capacity to look after it.

Future-proofing phascogales

Ten years after 30 Red-tailed Phascogales were translocated to Bush Heritage’s Kojonup Reserve in south-west Western Australia, a genetics project is shedding light on the health of their population, and helping us determine what needs to be done to secure their future.

In 2021, with the Kojonup population breeding, the translocation is considered a success. And for Red-tailed Phascogales, which now inhabit less than 1% of their former range across Australia, that’s promising news.

But as climate change and changing fire patterns pose new threats to the species, adaptability and resilience are critical, which is where the genetics project comes in.

“If there’s more genetic diversity, then the population will be more resilient in the face of change,” explains Rhiannon de Visser, the University of Western Australia student who is conducting the research.

UWA research student  Rhiannon de Visser on  Kojonup Reserve, WA.  Photo by Nic Duncan.
UWA research student Rhiannon de Visser on Kojonup Reserve, WA. Photo by Nic Duncan.

“For example, if a disease was to go through the population and all those animals had the same genetic makeup, then they’d all be susceptible to the disease.”

Rhiannon and Bush Heritage ecologists have now conducted several monitoring trips to Kojonup to collect genetic samples from as many phascogales as possible.

Back in her lab, Rhiannon will analyse the genetic diversity of the samples and report her findings to Bush Heritage, allowing our ecologists to make a science-driven decision about whether more Red-tailed Phascogales need to be brought into Kojonup to diversify the population’s genetic pool.

Her research has been generously funded by Maxine and Peter Wilshaw, with additional financial and in-kind support from Bush Heritage.

We’re trying to determine how many of those foundation animals are represented genetically in the current population. Hopefully their genetics are fairly varied, but if that’s not the case we’ll be looking at another translocation to increase the gene pool.
–Angela Sanders, Ecologist, South West

Using our influence for good

As an apolitical organisation with over 30 years of on-ground conservation experience, Bush Heritage is often invited to provide expert input into legislative decisions relating to the protection of the Australian bush.

We see supporting legal instruments of environmental protection as an extension of our vision: healthy country, protected forever. Once laws are in place, they’re difficult to change or roll back, so it's important we use our expertise to influence them when they could significantly help or hinder our vision.

Last year, we made 16 submissions to government on proposed changes to, and reviews of, environmental policies and laws. One of our most significant was to the 10-year review of Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Bush Heritage supports the majority of the review’s recommendations and has been advocating for their implementation and funding alongside the Places You Love Alliance and other like-minded NGOs.

Captive-bred fish released into wild

Growing to about the size of a matchstick, the Red-finned Blue-eye is Australia’s rarest and smallest fish, and is found only in freshwater springs on Bush Heritage’s Edgbaston Reserve in outback Queensland.

When Bush Heritage purchased Edgbaston in 2008, only two populations of the Red-finned Blue-eye were left, one of which had already been invaded by the introduced and highly aggressive Gambusia, or Mosquito-fish – the main driver of the Red-finned Blue-eye’s decline.

Bush Heritage came up with a two-pronged approach to saving the species: 

  1. It translocated some fish to Gambusia-free springs, and
  2. It invested in a captive-breeding program.

In early 2020, the first lot of captive-bred fish was successfully released back into the wild, where they’ll hopefully continue to breed and build a healthy, sustainable population.

This project has received funding support from the Queensland Department of Environment and Science Community Sustainability Action grant program.

The science of scats

Recent research has confirmed that competition for food is likely restricting the health and distribution of some Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies in South Australia.

A Yellow-footed Rock  Wallaby on Boolcoomatta  Reserve. Photo Matthew Baker.
A Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby on Boolcoomatta Reserve. Photo Matthew Baker.

Once found across much of south-eastern Australia, the species is now confined to isolated populations. Bush Heritage and University of Adelaide researchers, supported by the Thyne Reid Foundation, collected 190 scats, or poo samples, from across the range of one known population in the Olary Ranges, and analysed them to determine the extent to which the wallabies’ diets overlap with those of other herbivores.

They found there was significant crossover with feral goats and Euros during dry periods, when food resources are scarce. This suggests that the wallabies’ population could expand if this competition was managed. Further research from this project will include seasonal comparisons and health assessments of the species.