News

20 years of desert research showcased on ABC Radio National



2 March 2010

Professor Chris Dickman on a research field trip examining Dasycercus cristicauda, also called Mulgara, a carnivorous marsupial found in the Simpson Desert. Photo Credit: Aaron Greenville.
Professor Chris Dickman on a research field trip examining Dasycercus cristicauda, also called Mulgara, a carnivorous marsupial found in the Simpson Desert. Photo Credit: Aaron Greenville.

Renowned Australian desert ecologists Professor Chris Dickman and Dr Glenda Wardle were featured in a documentary on Radio National discussing their knowledge of Simpson Desert ecology - from how the desert system copes with massive bushfires to dynamics and impacts of feral animal populations - an understanding which has been gained from one of Australia's longest and most comprehensive arid zone studies that has spanned 20 years.

The radio piece features reporter Karon Snowdon accompanying members of the Desert Ecology Research Group on a three-week field trip to the Simpson Desert, led by Chris Dickman and Glenda Wardle from the School of Biological Sciences. While in the field, Karon Snowdon conducts interviews with Chris Dickman and Glenda Wardle to find out about their research and what they have learnt from their long-term study of a particularly unique desert ecosystem.

Chris Dickman, founder of the Desert Ecology Research Group who pioneered ecological research in the Simpson Desert over 20 years ago, shares insights into the effects of fires, introduced predators, rainfall - and the complicated interactions between these factors - on desert ecology, in particular that of mammals.

Glenda Wardle describes how her nine year study of the native poplar tree Codonocarpus cotinifolius, from the beginning of a seedling's life to the adult tree's death, has revealed new evidence that the tree may switch genders during its life, rather than existing as separate male and female trees as was previously thought.

The documentary also highlights conservation issues of the Simpson Desert and includes an interview with Dr Guy Fitzhardinge, a board member of Bush Heritage Australia, the conservation charity body who purchased 450,000 hectares of cattle station land in 2003 to form one of the world's largest arid zone conservation reserves. Bush Heritage Australia based their decision to purchase both Ethabuka and Craven Peak cattle stations primarily on the conservation research outcomes of Chris Dickman's long-term study.

The Simpson Desert, which on the surface seems devoid of life, is actually one of the "biodiversity hotspots for the insectivorous marsupials or the lizard fauna" in Australia, according to Chris Dickman. Yet this arid system is extremely sensitive to environmental changes and over the course of his 20-year study, Chris Dickman has documented the local extinction of around 3 small mammals at a single field site.

In 2009 Chris Dickman and Glenda Wardle were awarded funding from the Australian Research Council to continue their research for a further five years, and in doing so will create the longest ecological dataset for any arid zone in Australia - or indeed, the southern hemisphere.

Chris Dickman says "I think if we get to 25, 26 years or so we'll have been through some of the big events so I think at that point we'll be in a position to consolidate a lot of the information that we have, build some really good understanding to allow the on ground management to take place, to conserve the biodiversity of the Simpson Desert and other arid environments."

The transcript and audio file of "Ecology of the Simpson Desert" from Radio National's Science Show can be downloaded from http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/default.