Thriving in the hot zone

Professor Chris Dickman

Professor Chris Dickman gathers data in the desert

Professor Chris Dickman is going to extremes to make incredible discoveries about how animals and other wildlife adapt to desert conditions.

When biologist Professor Chris Dickman started exploring the Simpson Desert in 1990, he didn’t think he’d still be out there 21 years later. But after the first five or six years, he and his team realised they had only just scratched the surface. Now they make three or four trips to the Simpson each year.

“The ecological processes driving the patterns of biodiversity we were seeing were so great and so variable. We realised we had to keep coming back through the good and bad seasons.”

Despite its arid nature, the Simpson Desert is home to a wide range of reptiles, small mammals, birds and vegetation and is extremely sensitive to environmental change. Academics, students and volunteers have all taken part in research there.

Together they have discovered the amazing adaptations that frogs and desert mice use to cope with extreme conditions, how floods, wildfires and invasive species affect native small mammals and how so many species seem to appear and disappear at different times and places in the desert.

With arid zones making up 70 percent of Australia, the Simpson research has collected important data that reveal patterns of biodiversity impacting our environment. With climate change expected to make more parts of the world arid, the research also provides insight into how ecological patterns worldwide will change in decades to come.

In 2009 Professor Dickman and his research colleague Associate Professor Glenda Wardle received ARC funding to continue their research for five more years, meaning they will create the longest ecological dataset for any arid zone in the southern hemisphere.

“At that point we’ll be in a position to consolidate a lot of the information that we have, and build some really good understanding to allow the on-ground management to take place, to conserve the biodiversity of the Simpson and other arid environments,” says Professor Dickman, who was named NSW Scientist of the Year in the ‘Plant and Animal Sciences’ category in 2010.

To date, more than 500 volunteers have made the epic 2000km journey from the University of Sydney to the Simpson. Many have chosen to return to the desert again and again – testament, Professor Dickman says, to the fascinating qualities of the work.

“In addition to the fact that the environment out there is beautiful and has some magnetic quality that gets under your skin and draws you back irresistibly every year, there are so many fascinating questions from a biological or ecological point of view.

“You really can’t wait to get back out there to find out what new surprises the desert will throw at you.”