Young Eco Champion Erin Lake reports from Bush Blitz Hiltaba

You will remember the gorgeous Eco Warrior Erin Lake was lured to Canberra earlier in the year to take up a graduate position with Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

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Back here on the farm we all thought she would be gobbled up and spat out by the bureaucracy and how wrong we were. Erin has had a wonderful time. In fact she has now got a permanent position in Canberra and she couldn’t be happier. 

Last week she was lucky enough to be a part of the 16th Bush Blitz expedition to the Gawler Ranges in South Australia, as part of the Graduate program with the Department of Sustainability and Environment (SEWPaC) and today in her guest blog she shares many of the highlights from her trip 

November 2012 ………

The Hiltaba and Gawler Ranges Bush Blitz is the second for the year, and is being run for two weeks in total. My role was to help organise the field logistics, participant contracts and payments, and to assist as a field officer during the expedition. After months of planning and organisation we finally hit the road, and headed 8 hours north-west of Adelaide to a remote former sheep station in the Gawler Ranges!

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Hiltaba Station is a 77,000 hectare property in South Australia’s Arid Zone

The Bush Blitz crew arrived at the station last Sunday, and have been helping the team of scientists settle into the campsite for two whole weeks of intensive survey work.

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Luxury accommodation…. The Bush Blitz camp and shearer’s quarters

While this property has only recently been converted from a sheep station to a conservation reserve, many of the scientists have commented on the exceptional diversity of unique species and habitats that this majestic property contains within. Peter Lang from the SA Herbarium says that the Bluebush plains here at Hiltaba are a real treasure because they are often converted into cropping or grazing land making it difficult to find large areas in such good condition.

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Expansive Bluebush Plains- in good nick

 

Creatures Great and Small discovered on Bush Blitz Hiltaba

Hiltaba Station’s location adjacent to the Gawler Ranges National Park significantly adds to its ecological value, because it provides another jigsaw piece within the East Meets West NatureLinks wildlife corridor.

Greg Johnston, a leading ecologist with the Nature Foundation of South Australia, says that the Hiltaba Bush Blitz provides a unique opportunity to gain a specialised understanding of the species occurring on the property, which will significantly assist in the management of the unique biodiversity of the area.

Greg has been an amazing host, and has been working alongside the scientists daily to assist them in gathering information that can then be used to feed back into the ongoing management of the property in the future. Here he is with vertebrate expert Dave Stemmer from the SA Museum- looking at the three different species of bat which had been collected that morning.

 

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Greg Johnston (left) from the Nature Foundation SA and Dave Stemmer (right) from the SA Museum are very happy to be back in the field

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Going batty- Four individuals of three different species in one morning! Not a bad start and really highlights the amount of diversity which occurs in the area- no wonder Greg and Dave have such happy faces!

Mammals are only one part of the Bush Blitz experience however, and John Stanisic will tell you that it is always important to scratch the surface. John is one of Australia’s leading land snail experts and is known across the country as the Snail Whisperer. You may have heard of the Steve Irwin snail Crikey steveirwini ? Well it was John who named this snail after the late wildlife warrior, and he says that the story of the naming went around the world in 48 hours! That’s hot press for the slow moving sluggers!

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According to John, Hiltaba station contains a very diverse range of snail species, supporting the full suite of species that occur in the region, and he has already found 10 different species.

While they are not usually recognised as particularly charismatic species, John explains that snails are crucial for local ecosystems and actually have quite interesting ecologies. They predominantly live in sheltered rock piles where there is a long-term stable moisture regime and have a number of strategies to improve their chance of survival. They are able to excrete what is called an ‘epiphragm’ which is a mucous shield, protecting them in times of drought. Snails are also important indicators of environmental health, and provide play a major role in breaking down organic material in the soil.

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10 species of land snails have been found at Hiltaba- representing the full complement of the local fauna

John’s favourite snails are the large banded tree snails which are brilliantly coloured. There are around 30 different species and they live in the rainforest around Mackay and Proserpine.

Short range endemisim for snail species is very high as you can imagine, and some species are thought to only occur in ranges of around a couple of hectares, which means that whole species can be easily wiped out if proper precautionary measures aren’t taken to protect them. John’s findings at Hiltaba have added another 8 species to the current list of snails recorded for the Station.

Creepy crawlies are coaxed out of the woodwork at Hiltaba!

One of my less favourite things encountered on my Bush Blitz journey so far has been the spiders! The weather has been particularly good for spider hunting and luckily I had spider expert Barbara Baehr by my side to help me get around my arachnophobia while photographing them! Barbara is an absolute treasure to work with, and came all the way from Germany to study some of Australia’s most feared creatures.

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Barbara is primarily interested in the Lycosidae family which are the wolf spiders, and Opopaea – the Goblin spiders. She has even named one after Sir David Attenborough and got to present a framed specimen to him earlier this year!

Barbara has spent many hours at Hiltaba sorting though the leaf litter looking for tiny spiders to observe under the microscope. She has also been probing sticks into giant holes in the ground and ‘tickling out’ enormous trap door spiders. She is able to catch them quite comfortably and refers to them as ‘darlings’- most certainly not the description I would give them…

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Under the microscope- spiders are Barbara’s specialty

Who said that Fishing was bore-ing?

I was fortunate enough to go out for a day in the field collecting groundwater samples from a number of bores at Hiltaba Station, looking for tiny creatures which live in the groundwater. These ‘stygofauna’ could be tiny worms, molluscs or crustaceans and are usually blind. Stygofauna experts Remko Leijs and Rachel King showed us how to collect the samples and then we took them back to the lab to see if there were any stygofauna swimming around under the microscope. clip_image024

Fishing is not my strongpoint at the best of times- now i have been really put to the test- fishing for creatures that are millimetres in length!

The Hiltaba Bush Blitz has enabled the first stygofauna to be collected from the region, and so far Remko and Rachel have found worms and molluscs, meaning that the groundwater here is still in great condition.

Remko is also one of Australia’s top native bee experts, and was kind enough to show me some of the Hiltaba collections under the microscope.

So far, 26 species of native bees have been surveyed at Hiltaba from just one flowering Eucalypt, I had no idea that there were so many different species!

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This native bee (I call him Lego man bee) has been mounted and will be taken back to the SA Museum

Remko explained that there is still not a great deal known about Australia’s native bees and there are not many people in Australia who are studying them. Bees are a difficult subject to study, as you can imagine it is very hard to count the populations. They are collected by sweeping a net over the flowering parts of trees and shrubs

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It is tough being a bee sometimes…

There are 1500 species which have been described, however in the last 30 years there has been a lot of revisions and of the 500 that have been revised, around half have been found to be new species.

To revise a species, you need to first obtain the holotype- which is the specimen that was used to first describe a new species. Many of the holotypes are held by international museums such as the British Museum, so obtaining them adds a further level of complexity to an already complex process.

Remko’s favourite bee is the Blue Banded Bee as you can see it is very beautiful, and he has dedicated a lot of research into studying the populations. Remko is also looking into how Australia’s horticultural industry can utilise these native bees for pollination, rather than relying on importing foreign honey bees.

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Bee-autiful, the Blue Banded Bee collected from Hiltaba Bush Blitz

A botanical paradise of flowers and fruits

I have been lucky enough to go out surveying with the Botanists from the South Australian Herbarium, doing a big loop around Hiltaba station’s north eastern corner. Peter Lang from the Herbarium is exceptionally knowledgeable about the local plants, having worked in the SA’s successful Biological Survey program -which set out to collect baseline data on the plant communities right across the state.

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Peter Lang presses specimens for the Herbarium

Hugh Cross is a genetic biologist and is also a lichen and moss expert, and today we managed to collect a number of different species of lichen to be examined back in the lab. clip_image034

Hugh collecting lichen from this Western Myall (Acacia papyrocarpa) tree, which is probably around 200 years old

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These colourful lichen specimens will go back to the lab for further analysis

Hugh and I also went looking for parasitic plant specimens such as Exocarpus and Santalum (Quandong). We collected a small sample from a number of individual trees in an area, and these samples will be taken back to the lab to test their DNA. Hugh and his associated back at the Herbarium are interested in finding out whether neighbouring parasitic trees are ‘clones’ and have the exact same DNA, or whether there is any genetic variation amongst the populations. Genetic analysis of plants and other tissues is certainly progressing full steam ahead. Hugh says that “Genetic analysis of the soil has allowed us to discover a wealth of hidden diversity beneath the ground”. It is a fascinating ecology that we usually just step over.

Juergen Kellermann also accompanied us on our botanical mission across Hiltaba. Originally from Germany, i was astounded by Juergen’s knowledge of Australian flora (not to mention his exceptional navigation skills!). He was very excited to find numerous populations of Stenanthemum arens, which is a member of the Rhamnaceae family of plants (the buckthorns).

The (Sten-an-them-um) is an endemic species and has only been found in areas around Hiltaba station. While it may not be much to look at, it is a very important indicator of the health of Hiltaba’s arid vegetation communities, showing us that they are able to provide refuge for a unique and diverse range of species.

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Juergen gets a closer look at the Stenanthemum arens

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One of my personal favourite botanical finds was this Ptilotus (tie- lotus) species, which is similar to the Foxtails that you would plant in your garden. Such beautiful colours and a very delicate flower.

Bush Blitz is a biodiversity discovery program between the Australian Government, BHP Billiton and Earthwatch Australia which aims to document the plants and animals across Australia’s National Reserve System.

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