Fiona Backhouse, u5175017
Field work, while hard, can be very rewarding, and a much more insightful way to learn about the local biodiversity than scrolling through the Atlas of Living Australia, or flicking through a book on Australian animals. I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the local biodiversity while volunteering with Stephanie Pulsford, a PhD student at ANU, in particular the biodiversity in box-gum grassy woodlands.
Box-gum grassy woodland is found along much of eastern Australia, and is characterised by tussock grasses, sparse shrubs, and, in the ACT, yellow box or Blakely’s red gum. Land clearing and grazing have reduced the woodland to five percent of its original extent, and it is now listed as endangered. These woodlands provide important habitat for many species, but the patches that have been left after clearing are suffering further degradation from grazing among other things. This degradation means there is a loss of suitable habitat for the local species, and larger patches of uninhabitable grazed land that they must cross to reach new habitat. Stephanie’s project is on how animals move between suitable patches, and what land management we can use to aid in their movement.
The majority of box-gum grassy woodland is found on private land, so communication and cooperation with land owners is essential to its protection. To look at the effects of grazing methods on these woodland ecosystems we collected data from private properties around the Canberra region. On each property, transects were placed to encompass different grazing treatments, and to compare between grazed land and adjacent woodland. Trap lines were set up along each transect, with a length of plastic to block animal movement, and a bucket trap and funnel trap on either side of the plastic. Some of the transects were set up along a fence line, or had scattered woody debris, to see if this aided in animal movement.
The first job to do when we visited each transect was to collect all the animals in the traps, making a note of which trap they were caught from including the side of the trap line they were found. Besides a lot of beetles and too many wolf spiders for my liking, we found lots of small reptiles and amphibians such as spotted marsh frogs, copper-tailed skinks, Boulenger’s skinks and jacky lizards. One transect had seven tiny toadlets in just one bucket, and provided me with a shock when I opened a funnel trap to find a brown snake coiled inside! Once collected, each animal had its length and weight measured, and was tagged using a fluorescent dye to identify recaptures. The animals were then released the other side of the trap line that they were caught, with the assumption that the animal was initially travelling in that direction.
It was a valuable experience getting to know the sort of biodiversity research that is happening, and a great chance to get introduced to the little-known biodiversity in the area. Stephanie’s research will provide an important insight into some of the ways we can conserve box-gum grassy woodlands.