ecology

Our Home in the Wilderness

The wind outside comes and goes in fits of undirected rage. It hurtles past my window and drowns out the calls of the fledgling raven in the tree outside. Squat and downy, it grips swaying branches with fresh, uncertain claws. Yesterday it was marvellously sunny outside, and now… well, it isn’t. Such variable weather is an oft-cited trademark of Melbourne and surrounds, and is something Melbournians enjoy brandishing as a testament to the fact that we live in a land of extremes. Yet, for the young raven outside, Melbourne’s weather is perhaps one of the least extreme of the forces that influence its daily life. 

Indeed, all cities – not just Melbourne  – are places of stark contrasts. Worlds of conflict and polarity, where squat and downy lives must eke out an existence. As Associate Professor Kirsten Parris writes in her new book Ecology of Urban Environments, cities are ‘where the best and worst of human existence can be found, and where habitats constructed for people can complement or obliterate the habitats of other species.’ To study these contrasts and complements is to study urban ecology: a relatively young discipline and one that Parris defines as ‘the ecology of all organisms – including humans – in urban environments’.

Few fields of study could be more relevant to the life of the young raven outside my window, and fewer still could hold such timely pertinence for the contemporary hominid that sits at his computer writing about it from within warm walls. For, the world around us is changing and if we are to preserve ourselves, as well as our squat and downy friends, we must have knowledge. Parris captures the essence of our transformation of the planet – no more obvious than in urban environments – with a preface in the form of a poem by Mark Knopfler:

A long time ago came a man on a track
Walking thirty miles with a sack on his back
And he put down his load where he thought it was best
Made a home in the wilderness

And so goes the story across the planet. A story that began some twelve thousand years ago in the Middle East and one that has been repeated and reenacted at an ever-increasing rate across the globe. ‘Globally,’ writes Parris, ‘there were 740 urban areas with a human population >500,000 in 2008, including 22 with a population >10 million’.

In some regard, I’ve come to treat my copy of this text in the same manner my parents regarded our family medical book. We once saw that book as an essential tool for diagnosing illness and subsequently, treated it in accordance with the expert advice contained therein. Yet, in many ways what Parris has written is far more relevant to my life than such a medical text. That old, dusty book had information on any number of illnesses likely and unlikely to occur to the average human. Meanwhile, the issues and processes Parris describes are almost all relevant to any one of us, and at any given time. It is accessible too and while perfect for students, researchers, and policy-makers, I can’t help but feel it belongs on the shelf of the “average” family. What is written here can be seen, and heard, out my window: the construction of urban infrastructure including many surfaces impervious to rainfall, the removal of native vegetation and the planting of exotics, the hum of road traffic, the streets lights, the runoff, the waste, the dogs and the cats and the net-entangled fruit bats. This is a book about you and me and the community in which we are apart.

That community is shaped by our own actions – something we are often naive to. I can recall receiving noise complaints from neighbours whilst living in an apartment building – perhaps I was reading too loud – but the complaints of the natural world are often less obvious without the adequate training. Parris goes some way to highlighting our subtler but no less significant impacts, and provides some serious food for thought: ‘Human preferences … influence patterns of activity in different parts of a city, such as which places are visited, when, by how many people, and what they do there.’ For example: ‘Nature enthusiasts may be most likely to walk through parks of remnant patches of native vegetation in spring and summer, potentially trampling plants or disturbing breeding birds.’

The ever-hungry, black shape huddled in the tree outside is testament to the unequal impacts of urbanisation on our native biodiversity. Ravens cope well in urban environments– hell, they cope well under most circumstances – but many species do not, and as Parris notes, ‘The particular characteristics of urban habitats can result in the formation of novel ecological communities, some of which have no obvious analogues in natural environments.’

This inequality of the urban realm extends to our species also, and Parris dedicates an entire chapter to this subject. As Knopfler puts it:

Then came the mines, then came the ore
Then there was the hard times, then there was a war…
I used to like to go to work but they shut it down
I got a right to go to work but there’s no work here to be found

Parris highlights several relatable issues, such as access to urban parks and open spaces, the unequal distribution of noise and air pollution, and the dependence those of us living towards the edges of urban sprawl have on cars for transportation.

And the birds up on the wires and the telegraph poles
They can always fly away from this rain and this cold

And there’s the rub. Just like the poem’s narrator, we have but one home and ‘We’re gonna have to reap from some seed that’s been sowed’. Knopfler’s poem is an ominous tale of socio-economic downfall in big cities, and Parris does well to include it in her text. The impacts we are having on the natural world spin a no less foreboding yarn, and this book is an essential start to crafting a happier ending.  

Maybe my squat and downy friend outside will one day fly away, but there seem fewer and fewer places left for it to go where it won’t be touched by an urban world.   

This book belongs on your bookshelf if... you care to understand the processes at play around you and your home. 

Head to the Wiley website to purchase your copy. 


Chris McCormack
Chris recently graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Master's of Science in Zoology. He is the current Managing Director of Wild Melbourne and pursues his interests in science and natural history through the mediums of film, photography and written communication. 

You can find him on Twitter @Chris_M_McC

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

Wild and Proud

This is going to be contentious, but I’ve got to say it, parasites – particularly our native parasites – are pretty darn awesome. Almost every animal, bird, and fish has at least one endemic parasite, which means that they account for a large amount of biodiversity. Not only that, but parasites have some of the most interesting evolutionary relationships of any organism, as they interact with the environment as well as their hosts.

I’ve spent the last three years of my life dedicated to the nematode genus Cloacina, a parasite found in kangaroos, wallaroos, and wallabies. The genus is found across the entire continent, and all up there are about 110 species. For those who may not be aware, that’s a lot of species to have in a single genus! Even more interestingly, most of our macropods have more than one endemic species of Cloacina. All of these aspects raise interesting questions about how exactly all these Cloacina species have come to exist. Did they have a single origin? Why do some species of kangaroo have seventeen species of Cloacina, and some other species only have one or two? And what drives their evolution?

This baby swamp wallaby likely has many parasites in its stomach. 

This baby swamp wallaby likely has many parasites in its stomach. 

Over the last few years I’ve been trying to solve some of these questions by looking at the Cloacina species found within the common wallaroo and the swamp wallaby. I looked at genetic variation of about 30 Cloacina species, hypothesising that if I could figure out what’s driving genetic variation within Cloacina now, I may get some insight into how they evolved in Australia in the first place. I’ve presented my research at international and national conferences, and even described an entirely new species of Cloacina – which is practically living the parasitologist dream – but I’ve still been met with scrutiny. From friends, family, acquaintances, strangers, and even fellow researchers. It was as though as soon as the word ‘native’ was mentioned, people were immediately disinterested. Even at parasitic conferences I found some of my fellow parasitologists, who claimed to be passionate about studying worms and ticks of all kinds, were dismissive of what I was studying.

Cloacina

Cloacina

I couldn’t believe it. Australia is one of the most biodiverse continents on the planet, home to some of the coolest parasites in the entire world, and people were questioning why I wanted to study them? Had I missed something? 

I’m pretty sure almost everyone who studies wildlife has had ‘Are there any jobs in that?’ thrown their way. The only thing worse is ‘That seems a bit pointless’ (a ‘bit’ pointless, of course, means ‘completely’ pointless). Back in the days of Charles Darwin, studying wildlife was considered pretty up there in the scientific community. Now, it’s considerably less so, with some people even calling it ‘soft’ science. Obviously, those people have never had to deal with the teeth, beaks, or nails, or the perils of statistical analyses with hard-to-find samples and unwilling specimens.

Even though I’m a pretty big fan, I’ll admit that wildlife parasitology is a bit of a niche. I can sort of understand why few people are interested in finding out about the creeping, slithering, crawling things found within the skin and bellies of cute and cuddly creatures like koalas and kangaroos. Even my own family scrunched up their noses when I told them what I wanted to research in my Honours – and later Masters – degrees. While I was slightly hurt at the time, I quickly came to realise that my family were actually extremely supportive compared to the questioning I would get from others.

Wildlife research is often deemed inconsequential until it isn’t. Let’s take the Tasmanian devil, which went from a thriving marsupial to a critically endangered one in just a few years. Wildlife biologists had dedicated their time and energy to studying this species before the deadly face tumours began to afflict them, and it is only because we had these people monitoring the species biology, behaviours, and health before the outbreak that we’ve managed to save it from complete extinction. Bees weren’t of any interest to anyone until some species’ populations started to crash across the world, with large impacts on the environment and agriculture.

The Tasmanian devil. 

The Tasmanian devil. 

From the wildlife parasitology end, a recent study by Murdoch University in Western Australia found that some bacteria found within echidna ticks could cause disease in humans. We haven’t even touched on the conservation argument for wildlife research. An understanding of what wildlife need in their environment can help us figure out the right ways to manage our parks and landscapes. As well as helping the environment, maintaining our wildlife and green spaces are also in our own interest, with direct correlations between increases in green spaces and improved mental health. Just like all science, wildlife research is intersectional, and can lead to breakthroughs in areas like health, climate science, and even physics and engineering.

Somewhere along the way we’ve become disengaged with wildlife research. I’m not saying that we need to completely shake up scientific funding and channel all money into wildlife, and I also don’t think that everyone has to be interested in all forms of science. I understand that a burning passion for wildlife parasitology will only hit a certain few. My issue is that, when confronted with something novel and native, people are often dismissive – as though nothing worthwhile can be found in our native species. How can that be true, when we don’t even know how Cloacina evolved across the continent yet?

The paralysis tick, a native parasite. 

The paralysis tick, a native parasite. 

Science has always been a quest for knowledge, trying to solve the mysteries that existence has thrown at us. The diversity of life is one of those mysteries. There is so much we don’t understand about our own native species: their health, their habitats, how they came to be here, and what we can do to make sure they survive alongside us as our cities expand. For those who are sceptical of wildlife research, I encourage you to go out, learn, and explore our native habitats – it’s very likely you’ll find something worth researching. And to all my other fellow wildlife enthusiasts, I hope you stay wild and proud. 


Mary Shuttleworth

Mary Shuttleworth is a Masters graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she pursued her interests in ecology and parasitology. She is interested in science communication, education and community engagement.

Find her on Twitter at @muttersworth.

Suburban wilderness: the Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve

Heading south out of Melbourne, the search for wild spaces is quicker and easier than you might think. Two turns off the Peninsula Link freeway (built to help shuttle increasing numbers of residents and visitors to Mornington or Rosebud) and the suburban sprawl breaks on the edge of a unique remnant of natural bushland.

The Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve is 214 hectares of dappled stringybark woodland, flower-spotted heaths, and wetlands that reappear every spring, announced by calling frogs. From the long central break, paths curve and twist among soft hills and sand dunes left behind by the changing levels of ancient seas. At the peak of the greatest dune, surrounded by squat Epacris and heath wattle, the view stretches clear to the Dandenong Ranges in one direction and Arthur’s Seat in the other. Descending through the taller stands of Eucalyptus and Banksia interrupts a dizzying whirl of wrens, thrushes and cuckoos. Patient strolling is rewarded by the sight of shuffling echidnas, while the bounding black wallabies make an unusual hazard for bike riders.

Langwarrin Flora & Fauna Reserve. Image: Parks Victoria

Langwarrin Flora & Fauna Reserve. Image: Parks Victoria

The quality and variety of wildlife in this small space is staggering. At least 50 orchid species have been found within the reserve, including some rare and threatened examples like the purple diuris. The critically endangered New Holland mouse, and the southern emu-wren have both been spotted. The southern brown bandicoot has habitat here that is repeated almost nowhere else.

These assemblages would be wonderful enough on their own, but take on a particular significance in this location. The Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve was only made a protected space in 1985; from almost 100 years earlier, the land had been in military hands, belonging to the Victorian Government in the late 19th Century and the Commonwealth following Federation. During this tenure, land was cleared for parade grounds and encampments, for training, and for the grazing of local livestock. In one tense period during World War I, German prisoners of war were interned on the site. A little later, as blithely related by a sign near the reserve’s carpark, a hospital was constructed to treat returning soldiers suffering venereal disease.

Prior to the establishment of the military reserve, it is likely that the area was cleared for agriculture along with the majority of the Mornington Peninsula. Pasture and cropland were crucial in the expansion of Melbourne, both for trade export and to support the booming population that arrived with the gold rush. However, poor soils and inconvenient landscapes meant that some of the bushland was left uncleared – in the Langwarrin district this left behind reservoirs of seed and habitat that have been lost elsewhere, along with evidence of the First Australian Boonerwrung people’s cyclic passage as they tracked seasonal food sources. Nowadays, the reserve is used by residents for exercise, recreation, horse riding, and nature study.

Langwarrin Flora and Fauna reserve houses a diverse range of fauna. Image: Parks Victoria. 

Langwarrin Flora and Fauna reserve houses a diverse range of fauna. Image: Parks Victoria. 

It is a rarity to find a space like the reserve, as well as its larger neighbour the Pines Flora and Fauna Reserve, in an area that has consistently seen a dramatically increasing residential community. Since the beginning of the 21st Century, the outer suburbs of Melbourne have experienced some of the fastest population growth in Australia. New housing estates and the rezoning of agricultural land saw building booms in the Frankston area of up to 30% expansion between 2001 and 2011. There is a more complete development of land, an increase in population density, and pressure on roads and other infrastructure.

It is to be expected that all this impacts negatively on those remaining islands of native bushland. Management plans for the reserves of the area are constantly looking to the dangers of feral animals, of foxes and rabbits, and of the occasional presence of free-roaming housepets. There is also a cost that comes with allowing human access to each space, with risks such as erosion exacerbated by cyclists and horse-riders to the point of path closures during wet weather. A further danger is the spreading of invasive plants from nearby gardens: Pittosporum undulatum has a well-deserved reputation for choking out woodland understories, while coastal tea-trees alter fire regimes in uncertain ways. Pathogens like the cinnamon fungus, Phytophthora cinnamomi, are spread on the soles of walkers’ shoes and cause indiscriminate damage to vegetation.

Image: Parks Victoria

Image: Parks Victoria

Inevitably, though, people will keep coming into these spaces – and they have a right to. Using green spaces for walking, relaxing, or exercising has been shown to improve mental health and a sense of connection with the landscape. The reality is that without that tangible value, it is difficult to explain the necessity of preserving these beautiful, complex and fragile ecosystems.

While of course no one likes to brag, it is mentioned quite often that Melbourne is the world’s most liveable city. The Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked our city first among 140 locations each year since 2011, and other polls put us in similarly high positions. Our parks and gardens do a lot to contribute to our own mental wellbeing, and shape our lifestyles for the better. These islands of natural bushland are equally beneficial, with the added bonus of keeping Australia’s native plants and animals on the ground and in our perception.

These parks are kept for all of us, not just the conservationists who catalogue their secrets. Make the time. Look around you. Seek out a new wilderness to explore.


PAUL JONES

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development