Big Desert Adventures: Part One

The Big Desert Wilderness Area

The Big Desert Wilderness Area

My honours project was never my intended one. In fact, I originally thought I’d be working in a completely different ecosystem and on a different animal. However, upon finding out my new project involved the key words "predators" and "desert", my excitement levels were very nearly maxed out.

Those two words are significant for a couple of reasons. Working on predators was always a goal of mine, but not something I thought I’d be able to do until further into my career. Throughout my undergraduate years, the more charismatic animals, like large predators, seemed reserved only for the ‘rock star’ ecologists as opposed to the lowly honours student.  This seems to be the case especially of late, with Yellowstone National Park’s wolf population getting plenty of publicity, along with Australia’s very own dingo and Tasmanian Devil. The second word, desert, also piqued my interest quite a lot. Having grown up wandering the temperate forests of Far East Gippsland, the opportunity to explore the deserts of Australia has always escaped me. As such, it’s something I was never going to pass up.

One of the Big Desert's many dunes. (Photo: Fred Sannen)

One of the Big Desert's many dunes. (Photo: Fred Sannen)

However, I’m also excited for another reason. Since the first year of my science degree at Monash University, I’ve had an interest in trophic ecology. For those playing at home, trophic ecology is the study of which animals eat what and the wider consequences of those interactions in terms of behaviour, resource cycling and habitat use. It’s an area that’s often deceptively complex, with a new interaction or transfer of resources popping up when you least expect it – something that any ecologist would be used to!

Thus begins my project, investigating how Australia’s top carnivores (the Dingo, Red Fox and Feral Cat) interact with each other and their prey (kangaroos, goats and small mammals). The dingo's ecological role has been the centre of quite the heated debate in recent times, while the effects of foxes and cats in Australia is well documented. I’ll be measuring their habitat use using camera traps and scat surveys across dozens of locations throughout the remote Big Desert Wilderness Park and Wyperfeld National Park.

The Big Desert post-fire. 

The Big Desert post-fire. 

The Big Desert region is an amazingly diverse system, with a plethora of mammals, birds and reptiles to keep me busy in between surveys. The patchy Mallee heathland and dune system presents an environment quite unlike anything else in Victoria, highlighted further by the region’s remoteness. Add to that a complex fire history and the region presents a fantastic opportunity to see how our fauna responds to environmental change.

My first trip is in mid-April for two weeks, allowing plenty of time to get acquainted with an exciting new environment. To follow my progress, I’ll endeavour to post semi-regular tweets with the hash tags #BigDesertAdventures and, of course, #WildMelbourne as my fieldwork happens. Hopefully we’ll be able to track down some carnivorous critters, and I’ll have plenty to share upon return.

Footage from remote cameras in the Big Desert Wilderness Park in north-west Victoria. These cameras detect movement, and shoot footage in 15-second bursts. These 12 clips show some wonderful Australian native fauna, but some introduced species as well. (Video: Euan Ritchie)