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Long-term desert ecology data now openly-available through diverse TERN data infrastructure

From top: A map of the Desert Ecology network's 12 study sites; a downpour over Cravens Peak in central western Queensland in November 2011; ecologist Glenda Wardle of Sydney University collecting data in the Simpson Desert; ecologist Tony Popic bagging Crotolaria cunninghamii; and Ethabuka Spring in south-west Queensland. (Photos courtesy of Aaron Greenville and Glenda Wardle)

Decades of observations on Australia’s iconic arid plants and animals are now available via TERN’s data infrastructure. Our advanced data infrastructure and links to international portals enable intelligible data reuse by arid ecologists around the world.

Flooding rains interrupt prolonged drought. New vegetation growth greens red desert landscapes. Animals absent during dry periods irrupt, bursting suddenly into plague proportions. The transformative boom and bust rhythms of arid Australia reflect extremes of climatic conditions rather than seasons, and are characterised by irregular pulses of productivity that punctuate long periods of drought. In comparison with drylands elsewhere, the unpredictability of rainfall in central Australia is globally distinctive.

It is in this setting in Queensland’s Simpson Desert that you will find the Desert Ecology Plot Network, part of TERN’s Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTERN).

A team of researchers led by Professors Chris Dickman and Glenda Wardle from the Desert Ecology Research Group (DERG) at The University of Sydney has, with TERN support, been working to understand the patterns and processes at work in this environment for over 25 years.

This sustained monitoring and data collection at sites in the Simpson Desert has captured a crucial history of the region’s flora and fauna, represented by an exceptionally diverse set of population-related observations totaling hundreds of thousands of records, with some 60,000 records on small mammals and lizards alone.

The Desert Ecology research provides invaluable data on some of Australia’s iconic arid plant and animal species and how they have responded to fires, to wet and dry years, to feral predators, and to conversion of pastoral properties to reserves.

“Sudden transformations of the landscape, as experienced during the record wet years of 2010-2011, trigger novel ecological interactions and processes that present land managers with challenges and opportunities, ” says Glenda.

The Desert Ecology network comprises 12 study sites that are visited on regular monitoring trips to collect data on the density and diversity of small mammals and reptiles; vegetation floristics and structure; and weather (temperature and rainfall).

These exceptional data are now discoverable and accessible by three TERN portals reflecting our layered and complementary strategy to data publication tailored to the differing needs across the ecosystem science community. In the first instance they are discoverable via the catalogue of all of TERN’s dataset holdings, the TERN Data Discovery Portal, which points to the other two portals: the LTERN Data Portal and the Advanced Ecological Knowledge and Observation System (ÆKOS).  The LTERN Data Portal publishes researcher-curated, reusable, opaque data collected by researchers of the LTERN network.

TERN’s ÆKOS publishes a mix of other inventory, surveillance, monitoring and experimental data, in addition to the DERG data. This technically advanced data infrastructure specialises in publishing all ecological data and knowledge about them to make the most of the data and to enhance research efficiencies. It does this by exposing the data observations and the methods by which they are collected before download, saving time and effort on assessment of the data for repurposing.

Access via ÆKOS gives ecologists and managers the observations, data records and metadata at their fingertips—enabling fast, upfront and intelligible assessment of the data’s reuse potential. It also provides a direct link to international data portals, including DataOne’s OneSearch, increasing the data’s discoverability and likelihood of reuse. AEKOS’s research contributors will be able to track their data citations via Thomson Reuter’s Data Citation Index as it is now a registered portal thanks to TERN’s joint effort with the Australian National Data Service (ANDS).

The open availability of the DERG data via multiple TERN data portals is already facilitating new and exciting research into the responses of species to environmental extremes in Australia’s arid zone and enabling more informed recommendations for land management.

One study used the data to better understand the importance of native woodlands as refuges for native animals on arid grazing lands—research that later led to managers reassessing cattle stocking rates to ensure the responsible management of private property between two conservation parks.

Another study is using the long-term data to disentangle the interactions between species, rainfall and wildfire—a study that has implications for how we manage introduced cats and foxes and better control their costly impacts on rangeland grazing operations.

‘The availability of such broad-scale, long-term data helps ecologists and managers better understand how crucial it is to take action to identify and combat threats such as feral predators after these boom periods”, says Chris. “We are very pleased and excited that our work contributes to improved conservation measures for the fragile inland environment into the future.”

These data are vital for us to work out what’s happening in arid Australia so we can then decide how to sustainably manage it for conservation and production.

  • Today, the core team of the Desert Ecology research network comprises a dedicated group including Operations Manager, Bobby Tamayo who has been on staff since 1995; Dr Aaron Greenville with 16 years in the group as a research assistant, PhD student and now postdoc; Dr Chin-Liang Beh who coordinates the volunteer program so essential to field work; and David Nelson who has three years experience as a research assistant in DERG, but brings years of enthusiasm for frogs to the job. Please see their website for more information and contact details: www.DesertEcology.edu.au

Published in TERN newsletter April 2016

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