ScienceWise - Sep/Oct 2007

Camping with Snakes

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Arthur Murgatroyd working as a student volunteer in an ANU wildlife survey that explores the connection between fire management and biodiversity in the mallee. (photo by Annabel Smith)
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The Eye. Thorn Tailed Geckos Strophurus assimilis, have eyes that need to be seen to be believed.
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Nephrurus stellatus, the starred knob-tailed gecko is a prodigious burrower and is most commonly captured after recent fire.

Understanding how fire management affects biodiversity

Dr Don Driscoll is looking for volunteers to sleep out in the wild this summer, and handle snakes and spiders (and other interesting animals). If you’re interested, drop him an email.

“Some people may think that this is a strange way to spend part of your summer break,” says Dr Driscoll. “But volunteers who have helped us in the past say they have the time of their lives. What’s more, for anyone with an interest in Australia’s biodiversity, this is an invaluable experience. You’ll gain practical knowledge and field skills that look great on your CV if you’re hoping to work in conservation in the future.”

The work is being carried out on the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia over this summer break. And it’s all for an important cause. “Our volunteers will be helping with a wildlife survey that explores the connection between fire management and biodiversity in the mallee,” explains Dr Driscoll, a Research Fellow working on ecological synthesis at the Fenner School of Environment and Society.

“Fire plays a critical ecological role in the extensive mallee ecosystems of Australia,” he says. “However, in fragmented agricultural landscapes fire regimes have been altered. When it comes to fire management, the predominant practice is simply fire suppression, but this could eliminate species that are dependent on fire. Occasionally fire suppression fails, leading to the complete incineration of small bush remnants. This could eliminate species that depend on long-unburnt habitat. “So, we’re interested in finding out how many species are threatened by this fire-suppression / incineration cycle? How important is it to implement management burns in remnant mallee ecosystems? We aim to resolve this key question through the mallee fire project.

“The fire project will also shed new light on our understanding of post-fire succession. Succession theory provides an important framework for predicting species’ responses to disturbances like fire. Our research project will test and further refine succession models, making it easier to predict how species might respond to novel fire scenarios.”

Volunteers will be working in remnant patches of eucalyptus mallee scrubland on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. They’ll be monitoring sites for reptiles, beetles and small mammals. Some sites have been recently burnt, others are long unburnt, and some have been experimentally burnt. By examining a broad range of species in these different treatments, Dr Driscoll and his colleagues expect to develop robust approaches to fire management.

“There are several important questions that our ongoing research will address,” he says. “How low do population sizes drop in the first two years after fire? Succession models predict that this is the time when population sizes should be smallest, and therefore, when populations face the greatest risk of extinction. Ongoing monitoring after recent experimental fires and wildfires will answer this question.

“Do early successional species recolonise burnt areas from adjacent unburnt areas or from within the unburnt habitat? Using grids of traps across burn boundaries, we’ll discover if species recover after fire by recolonising from unburnt areas. If they do, then implementing long thin burns would enhance the rate of colonisation.

“The data we’ve collected so far indicate that research into the implementation of fire mosaics to accommodate fire-specialist species is a priority because some species have opposite responses to fire.”

Dr Driscoll is running field trips to the Eyre Peninsula in December, January and February this coming summer. Food and transport is provided, and no experience is required.

“Volunteers can expect to get dirty, handle animals they’ve never seen before and discover ecosystems that most Australians don’t even know exist,” says Dr Driscoll. “It’s just too good an opportunity to pass up.”

Places are limited so, if you’d like to learn more, contact Dr Driscoll today.

don.driscoll@anu.edu.au

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