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Australian fieldwork: a pocket guide

By Jack Ashby, on 27 May 2011

I’m writing from the Kimberley region of north-western Australia, where I’m spending a month or so trapping animals with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). This is how I spend my holidays, or at least as many of them as I can. This is my third trip to Oz over the past year, and I’ve spent about seven of the last 13 months doing fieldwork here.

This has caused several people to ask me why I keep coming back to Australia; it’s a big world out there and there are plenty of mammals to chase around the rest of the globe. Why I don’t I go somewhere else?

Well, it is a big world, but Australia is pretty big too, and the reason I keep coming back to join teams of field workers is that the ecology and the recent ecological history of the continent is so fascinating. The chance to come and explore the wildlife of the Kimberley was too good to miss. I’ve never been up here before, and while I’ve seen plenty of the animals that live here elsewhere, there is still a massive suite of species I still need to tick off.

What we’re doing is very similar to the work I was doing last August with AWC at another of their reserves in the Northern Territory. We set pitfall traps, cages, trapdoor traps and funnels which catch most things small that run along the ground – small mammals, lizards, snakes and frogs. The information collected is used in conjunction with data about the vegetation, fire and flood history and land-use to establish a picture of the ecology of the species and the region, and how best to manage it.

What really gets me about Australia is that wherever you go there is a completely different diversity of animals. Many species only occupy tiny pockets of habitat, some just hundreds or even tens of square kilometres in area. This is either due to the highly specific needs of those animals – a combination of factors like rainfall, temperature, vegetation and rock type which restrict them to one tiny spot. Alternatively many if not most of Australia’s native mammals have suffered huge constrictions in their ranges since Europeans arrived a couple of centuries ago with farming, cats, foxes and rats (to name a few), leaving only the least disturbed spots and islands as refuges.

The Kimberley is one of those areas that has a high number of animals with very limited distribution, but even within this corner of Oz the region is divided into different habitat types with extremely specialist or restricted-range species occupying only certain pockets of it. The trouble is that many of them are very little known. It can be very difficult to ascertain details of a remote region’s fauna – not all areas are accessible; not all animals are easy to trap; animals in low density are necessarily less likely to be found; you can’t prove absence.

Trapping isn’t the only method of studying diversity. This week I’ve spent a lot of time staring down the microscope at hairs I’ve pulled out of dingo scats, using a combination of features to work out what species they’ve been eating: a good – though not fool-proof – way of getting information without setting eyes on any animals. Infrared camera-traps are also fantastic tools in place here. They are non-invasive and don’t discriminate against animals that don’t trap easily.

AWC have recently acquired a property in the northern Kimberley – only a couple of hundred kilometres from where I am now. One of the ecologists helicoptered up there last week to install camera traps, and yesterday they went to collect them and see what wandered by. The results were incredible – extremely rare and restricted rock wallabies, bizarre scaly-tailed possums, northern quolls and others seemed constantly to stroll passed the infra-red beams. Only a couple of the animals observed also live on the reserve where I am now trapping. This is the Australia that keeps bringing me back – I will never run out of new places and new fauna to visit.

There is a frustrating element to all this though. When you find things on camera traps obviously it’s not the same as seeing them in the flesh. Although the desire to see them “live” is personal, not scientific, I reckon your average zoologist would spend all night with a spotlight trying to find the animal caught on camera. Normally this is a fruitless venture as animals don’t generally want to be seen. However the act of trying counts for something – at least you could have seen it.

But when the cameras were set a distant helicopter ride away, creeping out of your tent in the dark to find the critters is just not an option. Another year, maybe I’ll get there.

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