In a corner of one of earth’s “biologically wealthiest” nations lies one of thirty-four global biodiversity hotspots; the very southern end of Western Australia.
What’s a biodiversity hotspot?
To qualify as a ‘hotspot’, a region must have 30% or less of its original natural vegetation1. It must also have accommodate at least 1500 endemic (found nowhere else on the planet) vascular plants – therefore, it’s irreplaceable. And not in the “Beyonce’s-man-thinks-he’s-irreplaceable-but-she-could-have-another-him-in-a-minute” kind of way. Restoring a hotspot takes much more than minutes, days, years…
What are we doing about it?
… 13 years and counting, to be exact.
Informally established in 2002, Gondwana Link embodies “looking at the bigger picture” kind of conservation. In response to decades of extensive land clearing, grazing pressure and fragmentation, the project aims to restore 1000km of bushland across south western Australia. Incorporating large-scale processes such as biota movement, geographic speciation and species responses to climate change – which are aligned along environmental gradients – is typically a major conservation challenge2. The project overcomes this by acting as a large-scale corridor which captures a variety of ecological communities (Mediterranean and mallee woodland, tall wet forests, wetlands, shrublands, heath etc etc!)
And on a smaller scale?
Between the Fitzgerald River and Sterling Ranges National Park lies one of the biggest “breaks” in the link. Isolation between forest patches such as these leads to a whole host of complications for biodiversity. In WA, populations of native species such as the woylie (Brush-Tailed Bettong, Bettongia penicillata ogilbyi) and the Ngwayir (Western Ringtail Possum, Pseudocheirus occidentalis) have experienced reduced abundance and diversity, and increased susceptibility to disease/disturbance as a result of forest fragmentation and population isolation3, 4.
So what are we actually doing?
Due to the nature of large-scale restoration, such projects have received criticism for overlooking stakeholders and failing to maintain collaborative networks7. Our field site – the Peniup property in the Fitz-Stirling area – is co-owned by Greening Australia and Bush Heritage Australia, and collaborates with volunteers, landcare groups and scientific advisors6. Cropped and grazed since the early 1900s, the property now hosts hundreds of hectares of regenerating native vegetation, divided into a series of 42 plots. Making use of permanent plots in this way is fundamental for the precise and accurate monitoring of changes and trends in forest productivity and health5, especially considering that each plot accommodated variously selected vegetation based on the underlying soil type in that particular area.
So… What exactly was I doing?
On locating the plots, we laid out two perpendicular tape measures so that we had a point of reference when walking down the rows (to avoid any mishaps… see link below).
Getting from tree to tree along the transect involved an elaborate operation, commencing with a perilous army roll, locating the path of least resistance through the maze of branches and leaves, and jamming the explosive… measuring device towards the tree stem to get an accurate-as-possible reading without losing an eye (splinters, of course, were inescapable).
Significance of this field work
Along each row, we marked whether the tree/shrub was present, dead or alive, as well as recording its diameter at 10cm. Recording this information is an effective way to monitor plant growth rates (reflecting ecosystem health) and levels of carbon sequestration – increasing both of these factors are defining project goals. This is critically important considering that limited data availability has been noted as a key constraining factor to selecting robust, relevant biodiversity targets and achieving conservation success2.
- Conservation International, 2015, Accessed online at <http://www.conservation.org/How/Pages/Hotspots.aspx>, 24 April 2015
- Rouget, M., Cowling, R.M., Lombard, A.T., Knight, A.T. & Kerley, G.I.H. 2006, “Designing large-scale conservation corridors for pattern and process”,Conservation Biology, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 549-561.
- Pacioni, C., Wayne, A.F. & Spencer, P.B.S. 2011, “Effects of habitat fragmentation on population structure and long-distance gene flow in an endangered marsupial: The woylie”,Journal of zoology, vol. 283, no. 2, pp. 98-107.
- Wayne, A.F., Cowling, A., Lindenmayer, D.B., Ward, C.G., Vellios, C.V., Donnelly, C.F. & Calver, M.C. 2006, “The abundance of a threatened arboreal marsupial in relation to anthropogenic disturbances at local and landscape scales in Mediterranean-type forests in south-western Australia”,Biological Conservation, vol 127, no. 4, pp. 463-476.
- Corona, P., Chirici, G., McRoberts, R.E., Winter, S. & Barbati, A. 2011, “Contribution of large-scale forest inventories to biodiversity assessment and monitoring”,Forest Ecology and Management, vol. 262, no. 11, pp. 2061-2069.
- Gondwana Link, 2015, Official Website: http://www.gondwanalink.org/aboutus/wherewework.aspx
- Wyborn, C. 2011, “Landscape Scale Ecological Connectivity: Australian Survey and Rehearsals”, Pacific Conservation Biology, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 121-131