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«Desert Ecology Research Group Institute of Wildlife Research Simpson Desert Ecological Expeditions Volunteer Information Project Summaries: The ...»

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Desert Ecology Research Group

Institute of Wildlife Research

Simpson Desert Ecological Expeditions

Volunteer Information

Project Summaries:

The renaissance predator: complex predator-prey interactions and vertebrate

diversity in arid Australia. Prof. Chris Dickman

Predators are often viewed simply as animals that hunt live prey, but emerging

evidence suggests that the effects usually quite subtle, sometimes positive, and reach

far beyond the organisms that they kill. Using an extensive database of observations of vertebrates in the Simpson Desert, western Queensland this project first identifies the red fox and the sand goanna as key regional predators and then outlines a novel program of observations and experiments to quantify their effects on the broader prey community. The results will probe and extend current theory about predator-prey interactions, providing the first mechanistic understanding of how predation influences prey diversity in arid Australia, and enhance our ability to conserve and manage the rich biotic resources that characterize the vast inland regions.

Dynamic networks in a patchy landscape: will species interactions adjust to increased climatic extremes? Prof. Chris Dickman and Dr Glenda Wardle Extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent and more intense in the near future and, more than changes in climatic averages, are likely to have dramatic effects on species populations and on the suites of interactions that sustain them. In this project we first identify series of plant and animal assemblages that exhibit interaction networks, and then outline novel observations and experiments that quantify how they change among habitats during extreme events in the climatically unpredictable environment of the Simpson Desert, Queensland. The results will probe and extend current theory about how ecological systems respond to extreme events, and provide the first insights into the mechanisms that drive change. The results will also foreshadow the impacts of extreme events as they intensify in uncertain environments elsewhere, and thus enhance our ability to conserve and manage the rich biotic resources that characterize Australia’s vast inland regions.

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2010.doc Biodiversity enhancement in arid Australia: the importance of micro-refugia and biotic interactions. Prof. Chris Dickman and Dr Glenda Wardle Arid environments are commonly thought to be structured by large-scale episodic events such as flooding rains, droughts and wildfires that redistribute resources across the landscape and drive the dynamics of species populations. However, emerging evidence suggests that small patches, or micro-refugia, in the arid landscape provide critical buffers for many species against the extremes of climate and provide the framework for interactions among them that elevate biotic diversity still further. In this project we seek first to quantify the biotic richness of micro-refugia – woodland stands – in the Simpson Desert of western Queensland, then to experimentally disentangle the interactions and other factors that promote species presence there, and finally to evaluate the pressures on these patches from grazing, wildfire and predation.

The opportunity to do this is unparalleled due to the recent cessation of pastoral activity in half of our proposed study region, and to the availability of large areas burnt in wildfires in 2001. Building on an extensive database on vegetation and vertebrate dynamics in the adjacent sand dune system of the desert, this project will allow us to identify local ‘hotspots’ of biodiversity, critically evaluate current ecological theory about species interactions, and provide effective guidance for the management of desert resources.

Boom and Bust: the role of fire and rain in driving the dynamics of seeds and rodents in arid Australia. Prof. Chris Dickman and Dr Glenda Wardle Fires and rainfalls are dramatic, episodic events that characterise the environment of arid Australia, and likely drive the dynamics of both seeds and eruptive, seed-eating rodents. This project aims to provide an insight into this complex system, using a combination of observational and experimental studies. This study looks at seed production, the fate of seeds in the environment, effect of water and fire on seed production and dynamics and how these factors influence rodent dynamics in arid Australia.

Desert island biogeography: vertebrate dynamics after fire-induced fragmentation of habitat in central Australia. Prof. Chris Dickman Wildfires in the summer of 2001 burnt over three million hectares of hummock grassland in the Simpson Desert of Queensland and Northern Territory, leaving scattered patches of unburnt spinifex amid much larger areas devoid of green vegetation. Observations in 2002 showed that, within six months of the fire, small mammals have become entirely confined to the unburnt patches and that over ninetyfive percent of lizard activity occurred there. This project seeks first to characterise the patchy distributional pattern of terrestrial vertebrates in the newly-fragmented desert environment, and then to experimentally evaluate the importance of food and shelter resources in facilitating community recovery. Wildfire events of this magnitude are infrequent in central Australia, and have occurred in the Simpson Desert only four times in the last century. The effects of wildfire on wildlife in arid areas of Australia have received little attention in the past.





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2010.doc PhD Project by Nic Hills: Complex predator-prey interactions of goannas and small vertebrates in arid Australia.

Predator-prey interactions greatly influence the evolution of adaptive traits, and are a major driver of the dynamics of populations, communities and ecosystems. Predators frequently drive shifts in prey activity and habitat use directly by their presence, and often have wide ranging effects on non-prey species via indirect interactions.

Observations in the Simpson Desert over the last 20 years indicate that there are two dominant terrestrial predators in the system, the exotic Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) and the native Sand Goanna (Varanus gouldii).

This project seeks to disentangle the complex effects of the Red Fox and Sand Goanna on small vertebrate prey in arid Australia, and identify their differing roles in depleting and enhancing the rich small mammal and lizard faunas that characterize desert landscapes. Additionally, this project will determine the habitat use and foraging behaviour of all species’ of goanna in the region, including the Sand Goanna (Varanus gouldii), Short-tailed Pygmy Goanna (V. brevicauda), Pygmy Desert Goanna (V. eremius) and Pygmy Mulga Goanna (V. Gilleni).

PhD, Tony Popic, Plant – Pollinator networks: Processes behind patterns

Mutualistic interactions such as pollination are pervasive in nature. Over 90% of all flowers plant species rely on animal pollinators to reproduce, and animal pollinator species number 300 000. Studies repeatedly reveal that pollination is predominantly generalised such that plant species are pollinated my multiple pollinator species and a pollinator species pollinates multiple plant species. In a community context such interactions can be studied in the form of a network. I recently compiled a plant – pollinator network for an area of the Simpson Desert. This network had certain aggregate properties such as high nestedness, low connectance, power-law degree distribution and small world properties. The focus of my PhD is now to evaluate the processes and mechanisms behind these patterns. Such mechanisms include species abundance and distribution through time and space, morphology, phenology, plant reward, pollinator movements, and sampling artefacts. Understanding how such mechanisms shape plant – pollinator interactions in a community context is important in order to understand the ecological and evolutionary implications of mutualistic interactions.

PhD project by Anke Frank: The effects of grazing on small mammals and reptiles in the Simpson Desert, QLD Arid Australia covers more than 70 percent of the Australian continent. Pastoralism is not only the main land-use in arid Australia, it is also believed to be one of the biggest threats to arid Australia. My project aims to clarify the effects of grazing on small mammals and reptiles in the Simpson Desert. Surprisingly, very little is known about the effects of cattle grazing on these animals. This study aims to investigate and quantify the effects of grazing on small mammals and reptiles by answering the

following questions:

1. How does a difference in grazing history affect the diversity and abundance of small mammals and reptiles in spinifex grassland and gidgee woodlands in the Simpson Desert?

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2010.doc

2. How does the diversity and abundance of small mammals and reptiles change when cattle are removed?

3. How are differences in diversity and abundance of small mammals and reptiles related to physical features, i.e. vegetation structure and soil?

4. Which behaviour of cattle, camels or kangaroos has a potential to cause a “grazing effect” on small mammals and reptiles?

The field work for this project includes pitfall and funnel trapping to investigate the small mammal and reptile fauna on grazed, longer ungrazed and recently ungrazed grids, behavioural observations of cattle, camels and kangaroos (mainly at watering points), vegetation studies and invertebrate trapping on three properties in SW Queensland.

You will be helping in aspects of each project. All the projects are being conducted in the Simpson Desert, south-west Queensland over an area that encompasses two cattle properties, Carlo and Tobermorey, and two private reserves owned by Bush Heritage, Ethabuka and Cravens Peak.

Study Site The study sites are located predominantly in the red sand dune country, with surrounding areas including claypans, Gidgee flats and rocky outcrops. The vegetation consists mainly of spinifex grass (Triodia basedowii) and gidgee (Acacia georginae) with small stands of Eucalyptus and small forbs on the dune tops and sides. Native animals found in the area include 14 species of small mammal, 54 reptile species, 4 frog species and innumerable bird species. Unfortunately, there are also populations of foxes, cats, goats, rabbits and pigs.

We obtain water from bores, supplied from the Great Artesian Basin. The water can be slightly salty at times.

Work completed

Volunteers can gain experience in a number of aspects of our field work including:

1) Pitfall trapping and handling of small mammals and reptiles.

2) Establishing and maintenance of new and existing trapping grids.

3) Predator abundance surveys including spotlighting and track counts.

4) Vegetation surveying and collection.

5) Invertebrate sampling.

6) Bird surveys and counting.

Travel We drive to the study sites (see figure 1) in 4WD Landcruisers or Hiluxes equipped with UHF radios, satellite phones and first aid kits. The trip usually takes two and a half to three days depending on road conditions and we camp off the road at night.

Weather The Simpson Desert and Channel Country areas are renowned for unpredictable weather conditions. In general, temperatures from October to April can range from a minimum of 10°C at night to 40 C+ during the day. From May to September, the temperatures can drop to as low as –5 C at night and rising to a maximum of 30 C.

Although the rainy season occurs in summer, it can rain any time and it is advisable to bring a raincoat/jacket at all times of year.

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2010.doc Accommodation We stay in a 5 million star hotel, or to be more exact, we camp out under the stars inbetween the dunes. Occasionally it rains in the desert, so tents are required. We “bush camp”, or in other words camp without any facilities (showers, toilets, etc).

What to bring Clothes In warmer months: shorts, t-shirts, long-sleeved shirts (me no fry), raincoat, hat and at least one jumper or jacket. Light coloured clothes are slightly cooler to wear although they do look much dirtier by the end of the trip! In cooler months: Same as above, but bring warmer clothes. Beanies, gloves and thermals are useful if you have them, as temperatures get to freezing in winter.

Please limit your bags to one large backpack, daypack and sleeping gear(tent, sleeping bag and roll mat or swag).

** Bring OLD CLOTHES, as we get pretty smelly and dirty ** ***Please pack your daypack with the personal items you need for the drive up and back e.g. toiletries, clothes you sleep in, etc. Otherwise your items will be buried in the back of the vehicle.*** Important items* Tent, sleeping bag, roll mat, pillow, boots, torch/spare batteries, leather/garden gloves, mozzie net in summer, humour, sunscreen, insect repellent, hat, sunglasses, swimming cossie and a towel.

Optional extras Swag, binoculars, camera, sandal/thongs for camp wear, books, music tapes, gaiters/boyangs (spinifex and seed defence), small first aid kit, “Wet-Ones” etc, are a good temporary shower substitute.

*If you don’t have access to any of the important items let us know and we will try to get some extras for you.

Cost Food for the trip will be about $150 per person. If you have any food preferences (i.e.

vegan, allergies etc) please let us know at least a week before the trip so we can cater for you. Food for the trip up and back is not supplied, so you will need money for this and any other purchases you may wish to make (i.e. souvenirs, alcohol).

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2010.doc Further Reading Dickman, C.R., Letnic, M. & Mahon, P.S. (1999). Population dynamics of two species of dragon lizards in arid Australia: the effects of rainfall. Oecologia 119: 357-366.

Dickman, C.R., Mahon, P.S., Masters, P. & Gibson, D.F. (1999). Long-term dynamics of rodent populations in arid Australia: the influence of rainfall. Wildl. Res. 26: 389-403.



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