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Surveys of Flinders use technology from 1930s and 2010s

Sitting in a small plane made largely of wood and Irish linen, skimming back and forth over the paintbox-splashed northern Flinders Ranges, AusPlots ecologist Mr Emrys Leitch was hard at work.

He was using his scientific expertise to survey suitable sites on private land to monitor the rare spidery wattle (Acacia araneosa), a wispy shrub reminiscent of a daddy-long-legs, which occurs only in a 10 km2 pocket of South Australia. Half of its range is in the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, the first private park established in South Australia.

The plane, a 1930s-designed Auster three-seater, was piloted by Mr Doug Sprigg, the son of Reg Sprigg, who founded the sanctuary in 1967. Also aboard was the Director of the Australian Transect Network, Mr Stefan Caddy-Retalic.

Emrys said it was more effective and easier to initially survey such rugged country from the air than by foot or four-wheel drive.

‘We couldn’t have done an aerial survey without Doug’s offer,’ Emrys says.

‘We were able to survey the whole range of the spidery acacia, as well as other communities further north on the Mawson Plateau. In return for access to the Spriggs’ land, we used our expertise to tell them a bit more about what was going on there. They are keen to conserve the acacia, and the rest of the vegetation there, but being a private enterprise they often don’t have enough resources to monitor or collect baseline data. What we can tell them will feed into a management plan for the shrub.

‘It’s a great partnership between the private sector and our publicly funded institution, for the gain of the whole Australian community.’

Acacia araneosa is listed as vulnerable by the Commonwealth and as endangered by the South Australian Government.

The sanctuary is on the boundary of the Vulkathunha–Gammon Ranges National Park, at the northern end of the Flinders Ranges, on the edge of Lake Frome. It is part of the Lake Eyre basin.

‘Arkaroola is in an area that is low rainfall, even for the Flinders,’ Stefan says. ‘It’s a real boom-and-bust ecosystem. There might be almost no rain for a decade or more then a year or two of good rains, which contrasts with the much more even rainfall further south.

‘Studying this amazing survivor will help us understand how other species might adapt to environments that dry out with climate change, and that knowledge will help us understand how we can adapt and maintain viable communities and economies here, too.’

 

From a three-seat Auster, Emrys Leitch (left) surveys the Arkaroola ranges (right), where the old Arkaroola station homestead nestles among the hills in the background

 

Stefan said that the survey work at Arkaroola, and nearby Balcanoona, have extended the Australian Transect Network’s reach another 100 km north. The transect covers the change in rainfall amount and variability — an increase in aridity — that occurs from Cape Jervis, south of Adelaide, into the northern Flinders.

‘Balcanoona is also pretty interesting,’ Stefan says.

‘It’s jointly managed by the Traditional Owners and the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources. It’s the largest stretch of natural temperate grassland reserved in South Australia, perhaps in the whole country, and the southern extent of the Mitchell grass that extends into north-western Queensland and the Northern Territory.’

As well as being a successful field trip in terms of ecological science, Stefan said the work in the northern Flinders had been a huge success on two other fronts: working hand-in-glove with two other TERN facilities, AusPlots and Eco-informatics, and collaboration with citizen scientists.

‘Matt Schneider, the data analyst from Eco-informatics, came along, and saw how the data is collected and used in the field. With that understanding, he can improve how data is crunched through the facility’s software, and that helps end-users have more useful information from the data,’ Stefan says.

‘It’s was also great for us who work in the field much of the time to have him explain some of the possibilities as well as the limitations of the software.

‘We were also really lucky with some volunteers working with us in the field. We can’t normally survey along the tops of ranges, because it’s too difficult to get equipment-laden vehicles up there. But for this survey, among the volunteers was a husband-and-wife team who are into rogaining (24 hour orienteering), and they took our equipment and just stormed up these ridges. We’ve got some great data as a result of that.’

 

A section of the famous Ridgetop track at ArkaroolaFrom Lake Frome looking north-west towards Arkaroola. Mt Painter can just been seen in the background.

 

 

Published in TERN e-Newsletter September 2013

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