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The Rhodes Lab Visits Alice Springs for ESA2014 – Part 2

Last month, the Ecological Society of Australia held its annual ecology conference in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. A few of us were lucky enough to attend, so we thought we’d offer you our diverse perspectives of the event. We are: a post-doc recently arrived from Canada (Matthew Mitchell), an Australian PhD student (Rebecca Runting), and a PhD student from India (Payal Bal). This is the second post in the series, so make sure you take a look at the first post, and check back tomorrow as the final post goes live.

From pastoral property to conservation reserve (by Rebecca Runting)

For me, the highlight of the ESA conference was the “Transitioning Times” field trip to Owen Springs (50 km west of Alice Springs) reserve lead by Chris Pavey. Owen Springs was previously used to run cattle, but since it was purchased by the NT government in 2000, it has been in the process of conversion to a conservation reserve. Having lived mostly in coastal areas, the first thing that struck me about Owen Springs was its vastness – 1780 km2 – although that’s fairly typical for pastoral properties in the area. It was difficult to imagine keeping track of cattle over such a large area. Chris highlighted some of the management issues for the property, the most notable being buffel grass.

Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris, native to most of Africa, southern Asia, southern Iran and Sicily) was introduced to the area in the 1960/70’s to prevent erosion (and dust) around townships. However, the hardy grass soon took over vast tracts of land, displacing much more biodiverse native ground cover (see pic). Management of this invasive species has proved to be difficult: cattle do not show a particular preference for it (so returning cattle to the land won’t help), and fires give buffel grass an advantage (as it is able to recover faster than the native ground covers).

However, it’s not all bad news: localised control (through spraying) has proved successful for saving a population of a threatened species: Slater’s skink Liopholis slateri (the population in Owen Springs has ~25 individuals). This species survives by building burrows in tree mounds where it can get an unobstructed view of its prey (largely insects). Being denser than the native ground covers, buffel grass can obstruct the view of the skink and render the habitat unsuitable. Claire Treilibs (a PhD student of Chris Pavey) lead us to an active mound of this species where buffel grass is under control due to successful local management. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to handle the heat long enough to catch a glimpse of one of the skinks, but if we did, it would have looked like this. It was encouraging to see how a simple, site-based management action could have a great impact on a threatened species, amidst the broader challenges of landscape management.

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