Getting to know Gariwerd

From burning to booming (and back again) - a tale of fire and water. 

Back in 2006, a major wildfire burned approximately 85,000 hectares of the Grampians National Park. Lightning sparked the blaze and a burning question – how will the system respond to this large, high intensity fire? Although we didn’t know it at the time, this event was the forerunner to the birth of a long term study and partnership. Every year for the past nine years, a Deakin Wildlife and Conservation Biology Honours student has taken on the task of delivering the Grampians mammal trapping.  Without fail, these students have (with some trepidation) dived into the experience before emerging triumphant and as confident and competent researchers. 

We annually trap 36 study sites throughout the park. When the trapping first began, we were inundated by exotic species (mostly the invasive house mouse). The region was recently burnt but was also in the grips of the ‘Millennium Drought’ – not an ideal situation. After a few more years of poor rain, the landscape was drenched for the first time in many years and with that, the drought was broken (but sadly not for long!). With the downpour came an uprising.

In 2012, 18 months after the deluge, the mammal numbers had boomed, doubling from the previous year and almost four times the numbers of the first year. The sheer amount of mammals was not the only change; the composition had shifted to a landscape dominated by native species. This was an exciting time with the smoky mouse being detected for the first time in the study, as well as an albino heath mouse and many bandicoots carrying pouch young captured.

While these conditions seemed to be conducive to small mammals, it presented a number of challenges for our research team. Many roads crumbled during the onslaught of rain, making access incredibly difficult and time consuming. After many kilometres at a snail’s pace, help from the Parks Victoria quad bike, and a series of turnarounds, trapping was completed. 

Following on from this boom the rainfall once again began to decline. As a result, the mammal numbers followed suit before stabilising at low numbers from 2014 onwards. Native species are still managing to dominate the landscape, although in the last two years the number of house mice has begun to increase – funnily enough there were 127 captures in both 2015 and 2016, what are the chances!? As these conditions have unfolded, we have seen an incredible opportunity to investigate the impacts of future climate change. Future scenarios outline an era where there is a highly variable climate, with protracted periods of below average rainfall punctuated by flooding events. It was like looking in a mirror! 

Since we began our investigation into the effects of variable climate, our research has yielded some unexpected results. What we have found indicates that our temperate system is acting much like the arid regions of Australia. In arid zones, mammals experience booms and busts associated with the sporadic rainfall that these areas receive. What we’ve found is that our system (originally thought to be more predictable and stable in that sense) was responding this way as well. 

With native species showing a preference for areas that remain unburnt for longer, the pattern of wildfire occurrence becomes increasingly worrying; with larger and more regular fires looking to become the norm, the future of our native species may be threatened.  In the last 10 years alone, approximately 90% of the Grampians National Park has experienced wildfire (in 2006, 2013 and 2014!), leaving very few long unburnt areas. This means that the distribution of fire age classes is less than optimal for small mammals.

The interaction between the effects of fire and climate create a complex web to manage for biodiversity; it does, however, provide hope. We have seen populations bounce back from almost undetectable levels, so as long as conditions don’t remain sub-optimal for extended periods and large, high intensity wildfires do not increase in number, experienced species should have the capacity to recover.

Our experience in the Grampians has been amazing, and thought-provoking. We have realised the significance of and invaluable knowledge obtained from long term studies, especially when facing the uncertainty of the effects of future climate change. It allows us to observe the peaks and troughs experienced by a system that may have been overlooked or undetectable in a snap shot study. While snap shot studies are important, we need to value and support long term studies, particularly as the onset of climate change intensifies.

Check out our latest paper from our Grampians research here.  

Follow our research on Twitter @Wild_Gramps

This is a guest post by Deakin University PhD student Susannah Hale and Associate Professor John White.

All images taken by Susannah Hale

Science Shorts: Fire, Climate, and Small Mammals

This month, we were fortunate enough to visit the beautiful Grampians National Park and chat with Deakin researcher, John White. John has worked on the ecology of the Grampians for around a decade, and his team's research has yielded surprising insights into the influence of climate on small mammal populations. 

Oddly similar to the boom and bust ecology found in arid ecosystems, the small mammals of our Grampians appear to be highly responsive to rainfall. During dry periods populations are low but they soon explode following high rainfall events. While this is interesting from a scientific perspective, it raises questions about the longevity of our small mammal populations in the Grampians. As our climate shifts and dry periods become more frequent and more enduring, the isolated populations 3-4 hours West of Melbourne may struggle to hang on. 

Adding to their struggle is the increasing risk of large, intense fires. Such disturbance events may outright kill our furry friends, or deprive them of the food or cover necessary for them to survive at high numbers. However, as John's PhD student Sussie is finding, there are some areas within the Grampians' vast expanses that tend to be less prone to burning and retain moisture during dryer periods. These wetter refuges offer our small mammals a heightened chance at survival  and may be the key to conserving these species in this ruggedly beautiful but precarious landscape. 


Wild Melbourne's Chris McCormack speaks with John White and his PhD student, Susannah Hale of Deakin University about their ecological research in the Grampians National Park. John's team are finding fascinating responses of small mammals to fire and climate in this amazing Victorian landscape.

Photos credit Robert Geary

A Night With Tim Flannery


Professor Tim Flannery never planned to become a scientist. Discovering ‘more new species than Charles Darwin,’ was never a major life goal, nor was becoming one of Australia’s most important proponents of climate change action. Instead he was to become an English teacher, while spending his weekends searching for fossils at Black Rock beach in Melbourne.

However, this was not to be. Tim Flannery has become one of Australia’s most successful and influential scientists, while also communicating his love of natural history through both novels and television. As such, Flannery has the ability to demand quite the audience at any speaking engagement. Monday night’s conversation with renowned journalist, Anne Summers, was no different.

However, it’s Flannery’s latest, and perhaps most significant achievement that brought such a crowd to the Melbourne Town Hall. For many years now, Professor Flannery has been a strong advocate of climate change action, as both a scientist and head of the Climate Commission. Now, after the Abbott Government brought down the Climate Commission in one fell swoop, Flannery has gone on to bigger and better things in heading up the Climate Council.

Professor Tim Flannery launches the Climate Council

Noticeably, the pride swells in his voice as he begins describing the Climate Council’s early success; ‘It’s true. I was terrified the morning we launched the Council because if we didn’t get the public support, it would have sent a terrible message.’ Instead, the reverse occurred, with the Council raising well over one million dollars to date and Flannery couldn’t be happier. With sincere gratitude, he then said directly to the audience; ‘Thank you so much, you’ve done a great thing for your country.’

However, Tim Flannery’s initial exposure to the issue of climate change was surprisingly humbling. After being asked to report on the issue to the South Australian government, it was only then when he realised just how big a problem it was. ‘My colleagues in South Australia in the climate area were pulling their hair out at the lack of public interest. If I as a trained scientist can have overlooked the importance of climate change, what are the chances that the average person on the street has done the same, and that’s when I decided to make the switch.’

The importance of Flannery’s burgeoning interest in climate science cannot be understated, as it instigated somewhat of a watershed moment in Australia. He has since written an outstanding book on the subject (The Weather Makers) and raised considerable awareness both at home and abroad, despite some strong opposition. Remarkably, Flannery has even faced death threats for communicating the clear, factual science of climate change. When asked if he was scared of the perceived threats, he said ‘No, I don’t usually get scared by that sort of thing, but I get dismayed.’ This proved a poignant moment in the night, with Flannery clearly still saddened by the strong rejection of the science he is trying to communicate.

Naturally, Summers pushed the conversation in the direction of addressing climate sceptics, including the absurd politicisation of the issue. While being somewhat diplomatic with regard to climate change sceptics, it’s something Flannery has little time for; ‘Once you engage with this sort of information, you give people credibility that they otherwise wont have.’ Flannery then commented on the methods some journalists use to mislead the public on climate science; ‘If you’re thinking about buying influence, you go to the least informed because they’re the cheapest. Throw in some misinformation, don’t make it too complex, and you can buy influence cheaply.’

The conversation then quickly turned back to the science, with Flannery emphasising the importance of the next few years. ‘I don’t think we have crossed a tipping point yet, but I think we’re getting close. This decade is the one that really counts. If we can get our emissions trajectory on a strong downward slope, we’ve got a chance of avoiding that tipping point.’

Summers then asked about the potential effectiveness of the current government’s plan of direct action, with Flannery’s answer managing to draw a few laughs; ‘Well Anne, what is direct action? I don’t think anyone knows, we’re waiting to hear?’ Unsurprisingly, it’s an economic approach that Flannery suggests will achieve the greatest effect, suggesting ‘if you ask economists what the best way of dealing with carbon pollution is, they’ll say put a price on it… because it works.’

The angry summer of 2012 / 2013. Professor Flannery and the Climate Council predict things will be worse if no action is take. Photo: Climate Council. 

The angry summer of 2012 / 2013. Professor Flannery and the Climate Council predict things will be worse if no action is take. Photo: Climate Council. 

Flannery then extends his commentary to the management of the Australian environment as a whole; ‘Ecosystems are important; they’re what sustains us. What we don’t do, so often in environmental issues, is ask where are the key issues and then cost effectively address them.’ Its here where the normally softly spoken Flannery raised his voice somewhat, the passion obvious as he reflected on Australia’s current environmental policies, ‘we don’t seem to prioritise; we don’t seem to hold people accountable. If we fail and species go extinct, who is accountable?’

Despite the apparent dire situation, Flannery remains hopeful; ‘I do have a deep faith in human nature, I do have a deep faith that we’ll deal with this issue when we understand what’s at stake.’ Throughout the 90 minutes for which Flannery was on stage, this was the point to which he kept returning to and reinforcing – the need for education and understanding of the issue. It’s a notion that’s unfortunately lacking across a number of issues in which ignorance breeds resistance.

Arguably the best part of the night came as Anne Summers finished her interview and allowed the audience to question Flannery. The questions were far reaching from in depth climate science to Flannery urging the general public to stand up and take action. In particular, his suggestion for younger people, ‘If I was a student now... I’d get involved with organisations that are dealing with clean energy. Certainly get involved with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Or I would get involved with politics.’

His answer for dealing with climate sceptics is brilliantly simple, suggesting that the basic question of ‘What would it take to change your mind?’ is enough to encourage people to stop and think. Flannery then reinforced this by suggesting that ‘a lot of their problem is they’ve stopped listening. So I think that question is really important as it re-engages them.’

Importantly, an event such as this highlights how vital scientists like Tim Flannery truly are. Not only are they fantastic researchers, but also they’re wonderful and engaging communicators prepared to speak out on important issues. Mention must also be made also of Anne Summers, who proved to be an excellent interviewer, never rushing Flannery through his anecdotes or answers to her questions. Those in attendance have been given one powerful thing tonight – hope. The fact that Flannery remains confident that climate change can be curtailed serves as sound advice for us all to not give up just yet.