By Dr John Kanowski, Chief Science Officer
AWC’s model for effective conservation is founded on an evidence-based framework – using research to inform and refine our conservation actions. Collaboration is important to AWC’s Science Program, both for data and knowledge sharing and for improving conservation practices. AWC staff work with researchers, students, volunteers, universities, and other conservation organisations, and have published, collaborated on or hosted more than 350 research projects across a spectrum of conservation issues. More than 400 peer reviewed journal articles, books and book chapters have been published by AWC scientists and collaborators working on AWC properties. Here we highlight a few of the projects currently underway.
The impacts of introduced predators, feral herbivores and altered fire regimes are driving significant declines of Australia’s small to medium-sized mammals. Managing these threats and reintroducing locally extinct species within their former range are critical steps for ensuring the future of this country’s wildlife. AWC’s reintroduction program provides scientists with the opportunity to examine the effects of reintroduced species on the habitats in which they live.
How does vegetation change after the reintroduction of locally extinct species? AWC scientists, led by Jeanette Kemp and Rigel Jensen, are monitoring changes in vegetation associated with reintroductions at Karakamia, Mt Gibson, Mount Zero–Taravale, Newhaven, Scotia and Yookamurra Wildlife Sanctuaries, on Faure Island, and at Mallee Cliffs and Pilliga National Parks. Research released this year supports the assertion that small to medium-sized Australian mammals such as Bilbies (Macrotis lagotis) and Burrowing Bettongs (Bettongia lesueur) strongly influence the structure and composition of vegetation in the ecosystems of which they are a part (Kemp et al. 2021).
Does reintroducing locally extinct digging mammals impact soil functions such as nutrient cycling and water maintenance? What are the impacts of these reintroduced mammals on their invertebrate prey? Researchers from La Trobe University led by Dr Heloise Gibb are investigating these complex questions with assistance from AWC and hosted on AWC sanctuaries. Published findings indicate that mammal reintroductions can mitigate decline in soil function, particularly in arid Australia (Decker et al. 2019). These mammals also affect invertebrate abundance and composition where they are reintroduced (Gibb et al. 2021), highlighting the multitude of factors to be considered during reintroductions including the carrying capacity of safe havens and managing population growth.
At Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary, AWC is developing strategies to effectively manage cats and foxes in open (unfenced) landscapes. In 2020, aerial baiting was conducted over a 20,000-hectare treatment area and, in 2021, over an 80,000-hectare treatment area. Targeted cat trapping was undertaken in 2020 and 2021 as well as ground baiting to complement the aerial baiting. Control activities took place in winter to maximise bait longevity and reduce uptake by non-target species. Preliminary results from camera traps in the treatment area in 2020 indicate a decline in cat activity after baiting, followed by a slight increase in activity and the reverse in a comparison site. This research is vital for AWC’s plans to reintroduce locally extinct species outside the fence at Mt Gibson, starting with the Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) which was reintroduced in 2021, and progressing to the Chuditch (Western Quoll, Dasyurus geoffroii) in coming years. Cat and fox control should also help protect extant wildlife.
Hundreds of solar-powered acoustic sensors are being deployed across the country for a five-year period, providing an open access database of continuous acoustic recordings across different ecosystems (Roe et al. 2021). The A2O is collecting big data that can be used for biodiversity inventory and monitoring, and for measuring response to environmental perturbations such as floods and fire.
The project is led by Dr Paul Roe from the Queensland University of Technology Ecoacoustics Research Group and involves collaboration with Birdlife Australia, multiple universities, National Parks and government bodies, TERN, Traditional Owners, landholders and private conservation organisations including AWC. The sites have been chosen to cover a wide range of habitat types, natural and agricultural areas, and riverine and dry areas. AWC is a major contributor to this collaborative monitoring effort, hosting, maintaining and uploading data from recorders on Piccaninny Plains, Wongalara, Newhaven, Bowra, Kalamurina and Pungalina–Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuaries and Bullo River Station.
Nigel Jackett, a PhD student from the University of Queensland, is undertaking research to improve conservation of the Northern Masked Owl (Tyto novaehollandiae kimberli), a rarely seen, threatened species known to or likely to occur on at least nine AWC sanctuaries and partnership areas across northern Australia. This project aims to optimise detection techniques using arrays of remote sound recorders (the owls’ screeching call is an unmistakable sound), reveal the secrets of the owls’ diet, determine habitat and landscape use and examine the impacts of fire and feral herbivores on the nocturnal hunter. With the assistance of AWC ecologists, this research is being carried out at Piccaninny Plains, Brooklyn, Mount Zero–Taravale, Pungalina–Seven Emu, Mornington–Marion Downs and Charnley River–Artesian Range Wildlife Sanctuaries, on Dambimangari Country and at Yampi Sound Training Area.
Listen to the Northern Masked Owl’s call, recorded at Yampi Sound Training Area:
Very occasionally, AWC hosts research that is unrelated to conservation, but nevertheless good for science. A network of more the 50 digital observatories monitor one third of Australia’s night sky every night, capturing the path of meteorites and fireballs. Led by Curtin University’s Space Science and Technology Centre, this research is looking to answer questions on the formation of the solar system. AWC’s Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary hosts one of the autonomous digital observatories, leading to the recovery of at least six meteorites including the Murrili meteorite that fell on Kati Thanda–Lake Eyre (Sansom et al. 2020).
Decker O, Eldridge DJ, Gibb H (2019) Restoration potential of threatened ecosystem engineers increases with aridity: broad scale effects on soil nutrients and function. Ecography 42, 1370-1382.
Gibb H, Silvey CJ, RobinsonC, L’Hotellier FA, Eldridge DJ (2021) Experimental evidence for ecological cascades following threatened mammal reintroduction. Ecology 102, e03191.
Kemp JE, Jensen R, Hall ML, Roshier DA, Kanowski J (2021) Consequences of the reintroduction of regionally extinct mammals for vegetation composition and structure at two established reintroduction sites in semi-arid Australia. Austral Ecology 46, 653-669.
Roe P, Eichinski P, Fuller RA, McDonald PG, Schwarzkopf L, Towsey M, Truskinger A, Tucker D, Watson DM (2021) The Australian Acoustic Observatory. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 00, 1-7.
Sansom EK, Bland PA, Towner MC, Devillepoix HAR, Cupák M, Howie RM, Jansen-Sturgeon T, Cox MA, Hartig BAD, Paxman JP, Benedix G, Forman L (2020) Murrili meteorite’s fall and recovery from Kati Thanda. Meteoritics and Planetary Science 55, 2157-2168.
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