The second day of my ‘Red Centre Holiday 2016’ began early, with a 5.30 am departure from Nyngan. I actually tried to find a geocache out the front of the caravan park in the dark, but had to give up because of the waterlogged conditions. So it was on my way early to my next stop – another geocache along the way. In fact I searched for about a dozen throughout the day, finding most of them. So geocaching broke up the trip a little, getting me out of the car from time to time.
At this point it may not be a bad idea to explain geocaching – that way if you have no idea about what I’m talking about, you soon will have at least a rudimental understanding of it.
My first major stop of the day was at Cobar for breakfast. Following Cobar it was Wilcannia and then on to Broken Hill, where I spent the night at the Broken Hill Tourist Park. I stayed in a cabin again as I was still suffering badly from the flu.
ABOVE: Taking a Break
So there wasn’t a lot to report on for day 2. It was just another day of moving closer to my destination really – something which would take 5 days to achieve. On this second day I travelled 587 km (1169 km total for the whole trip so far).
ABOVE: On the Road
So once again it was the usual ‘house keeping’ before bed – updating the daily journal, reviewing the holiday budget, checking in on social media, and editing and uploading photos. Then it was off to bed for an early start the next morning.
Our EcoCheck series takes the pulse of some of Australia’s most important ecosystems to find out if they’re in good health or on the wane.
Australia’s Top End, Kimberley and Cape York Peninsula evoke images of vast, awe-inspiring and ancient landscapes. Whether on the hunt for a prized barramundi, admiring some of the oldest rock art in the world, or pursuing a spectacular palm cockatoo along a pristine river, hundreds of thousands of people flock to this region each year. But how are our vast northern landscapes faring environmentally, and what challenges are on the horizon?
Above 17° south, bounded by a rough line from Cairns, Queensland, to Derby, Western Australia, are the high-rainfall (more than 1,000mm a year) tropical savannas. These are the largest and most intact ecosystem of their kind on Earth. With the exception of some “smaller” pockets of rainforest (such as Queensland’s Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park), the vegetation of the region is dominated by mixed Eucalyptus forest and woodland with a grassy understorey.
There is a distinct monsoonal pattern of rainfall. Almost all of it falls during the wet season (December-March), followed by an extended dry (April-November). Wet-season rains drive abundant grass growth, which subsequently dries and fuels regular bushfires – making these landscapes among the most fire-prone on Earth. The dominant land tenures of the region are Indigenous, cattle grazing and conservation.
These savannas are home to a vast array of plant and animal species. The Kimberley supports at least 2,000 native plant species, while the Cape York Peninsula has some 3,000. More than 400 bird and 100 mammal species call the region home, along with invertebrates such as moths, butterflies, ants and termites, and spiders. Many of the latter are still undescribed and poorly studied.
Many species, such as the scaly-tailed possum, are endemic to the region, meaning they are found nowhere else.
The general lack of extensive habitat loss and modification, as compared to the broad-scale land clearing in southern Australia since European arrival, can give a false impression that the tropical savannas and their species are in good health. But research suggests otherwise, and considerable threats exist.
Fire-promoting weeds such as gamba grass, widely sown until very recently as fodder for cattle, are transforming habitats from diverse woodlands to burnt-out, low-diversity grasslands. Indeed, the fires themselves, which are considered too frequent and too late in the dry season at some locations, are now thought to be a primary driver of species loss.
It is likely some threats may also combine to make matters worse for certain species. For instance, frequent fires, intensive cattle grazing and the overabundance of introduced species such as feral donkeys and horses all combine to remove vegetation cover. This, together with the presence of feral cats, makes some native animals more vulnerable to predation.
This globally significant ecosystem, already under threat, is facing new challenges too. Proposals to use the region as a food bowl for Asia are associated with calls for the damming of waterways and land clearing for agriculture.
This is against a backdrop of climate change, which among other effects may bring less predictable wet seasons, more frequent and intense storms (cyclones) and fires, and hotter, longer dry seasons. Such changes are not only likely to harm some species, but could also make those much-touted agricultural goals far more difficult to achieve.
A key priority for the Great Northern Savannas should be to maintain people on country. It’s often thought that the solution to reducing environmental impacts is removing people from landscapes, but as people disappear so too does their stewardship and ability to manage and care for the land.
A group of killer whales are on the hunt. They work together to submerge and drown a whale calf. But then more whales appear.
The newly arrived humpbacks bellow a trumpet-like call, and wield their five-metre-long pectoral flippers like swords against the prowling killer whales.
The killer whales are driven away from the calf, and the humpbacks also move away. As they do, the killer whales turn back and descend on the calf once more. In response, the humpbacks swing around and return to the calf’s defence.
The humpbacks position themselves close to the calf, between it and the killer whales, potentially putting themselves in harm’s way.
This process continues and repeats for many hours, but it is not a calf of their own species, it is a grey whale calf.
This is not an isolated case. Robert Pitman, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, and his colleagues report more than 100 incidents where humpback whales have approached or actively intervened in killer whale hunting attempts.
Surprisingly, most of these have been predation attempts on other species, such as seals, other whales or even fish.
The question is: why would these humpback whales place themselves in danger by interposing themselves between one of their few predators – killer whales – and an individual of an entirely different species?
You scratch my back…
Altruistic behaviour is some of the most difficult to explain in evolutionary terms. In a biological context, altruism refers to cases where one individual’s behaviour provides a benefit to another individual at a cost to itself.
It doesn’t need to be as dramatic as throwing themselves on a grenade, but even placing themselves at a small disadvantage could jeopardise their chances of surviving and reproducing.
And if they don’t reproduce, then neither do the genes that encouraged the individual to be altruistic. This is why – all else being equal – you would expect altruistic genes to slowly disappear from a population over multiple generations.
But there are cases of altruistic behaviour in nature, particularly among closely related groups. One example is an individual meerkat who calls to alert its group to the presence of a predator, particularly as that call could make the predator more likely to notice the vigilant meerkat.
This kind of behaviour can evolve and remain stable in a population due to a process called kin selection. This is because the meerkat is closely related to the other members of its group, so it shares many genes with them. Even if it does end up sacrificing itself, if it helps its relatives survive, they may also be carrying the genes that encourage altruism.
Other cases of altruism in nature are supported by recriprocation: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.
An example would be vampire bats that share blood meals. They do so on the assumption that their friend will return the favour at some later date.
However, for kin selection or reciprocal altruism to evolve, there needs to be a high level of social cohesion within the group.
For example, individuals need to be able to recognise who is a relative or a friend, and who is not. Presumably, you are less likely to put your neck on the line for a distant relative or for someone who is not likely to repay the favour.
So it might not be surprising that a humpback mother would vigorously defend her own calf from attacking killer whales. But why would a humpback approach and position itself between attacking killer whales and another whale’s calf?
As mentioned above, if an individual is prone to behave in a way that reduces their chance of surviving and reproducing, we would expect the genes that promote that behaviour to dwindle over generations and eventually vanish from the population. And even if an adult humpback puts itself at minimal risk by interfering with killer whales, minimal risk is more than zero risk by avoiding them altogether.
Pitman and his colleagues think there might be more social cohesion among humpbacks than we previously thought, and kin selection and/or reciprocal altruism could be playing a part.
Individual humpback whales return to the same region to breed. This means that there is a good possibility that humpbacks are related to their immediate neighbours. Pitman suggests this means it may be worth a humpback helping other humpbacks to protect their calves from killer whale attacks.
However, it is trickier to explain apparent altruism directed towards other species. Pitman and his colleagues explain that for the humpback whale, this intervention on behalf of other species is a “spillover” behaviour. They suggest it is an extension of the humpback whales’ “drive” to protect their own calves.
Humpbacks may have learned to respond to vocalisations of attacking killer whales, which trigger them to drive the killer whales away, regardless of the species being attacked.
If this tendency to drive away killer whales whenever they are attacking has helped humpbacks to protect their own calves, then the genes that promote it could be maintained in the population, even if other species benefit at times.
This interspecies altruistic behaviour may be “inadvertent” altruism – it can be altruism in the individual case but it is ultimately driven by self-interest.
When it comes to conserving the world’s oceans, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Globally, there has been an increasing trend towards placing very large marine reserves in remote regions. While these reserves help to meet some conservation targets, we don’t know if they are achieving their ultimate goal of protecting the diversity of life.
In 2002, the Convention on Biological Diversity called for at least 10% of each of the world’s land and marine habitats to be effectively conserved by 2010. Protected areas currently cover 14% of the land, but less than 3.4% of the marine environment.
Australia’s marine reserve system covers more than a third of our oceans. This system was based on the best available information and a commitment to minimising the effects of the new protected areas on existing users. However, since its release the system has been strongly criticised for doing little to protect biodiversity, and it is currently under review.
In a new study published in Scientific Reports, we looked at the current and proposed marine reserves off northwest Australia – an area that is also home to significant oil and gas resources. Our findings show how conservation objectives could be met more efficiently. Using technical advances, including the latest spatial modelling software, we were able to fill major gaps in biodiversity representation, with minimal losses to industry.
A delicate balance
Australia’s northwest supports important habitats such as mangrove forests, seagrass beds, coral reefs and sponge gardens. These environments support exceptionally diverse marine communities and provide important habitat for many vulnerable and threatened species, including dugongs, turtles and whale sharks.
This region also supports valuable industrial resources, including the majority of Australia’s conventional gas reserves.
A 2013 global analysis found that regions featuring both high numbers of species and large fossil fuel reserves have the greatest need for industry regulation, monitoring and conservation.
Not all protected areas contribute equally to conserving species and habitats. The level of protection can range from no-take zones (which usually don’t allow any human exploitation), to areas allowing different types and levels of activities such tourism, fishing and petroleum and mineral extraction.
A recent review of 87 marine reserves across the globe revealed that no-take areas, when well enforced, old, large and isolated, provided the greatest benefits for species and habitats. It is estimated that no-take areas cover less than 0.3% of the world’s oceans.
In Australia’s northwest, no-take zones cover 10.2% of the area, which is excellent by world standards in terms of size. However, an analysis of gaps in the network reveal opportunities to better meet the Convention on Biological Diversity’s recommended minimum target level of representation across all species and features of conservation interest.
We provided the most comprehensive description of the species present across the region enabling us to examine how well local species are represented within the current marine reserves. Of the 674 species examined, 98.2% had less than 10% of their habitat included within the no-take areas, while more than a third of these (227 species) had less than 2% of their habitat included.
Into the abyss
Few industries in this region operate in depths greater than 200 metres. Therefore, the habitats and biodiversity most at risk are those exposed to human activity on the continental shelf, at these shallower depths.
However, the research also found that three-quarters of the no-take marine reserves are sited over a deep abyssal plain and continental rise within the Argo-Rowley Terrace (3,000-6,000m deep). These habitats are unnecessarily over-represented (85% of the abyss is protected), as their remoteness and extreme depth make them logistically and financially unattractive for petroleum or mineral extraction anyway.
Proposed multiple-use zones in Commonwealth waters provide some much-needed extra representation of the continental shelf (0-200m depth). However, all mining activities and most commercial fishing activities are permissible pending approval. This means that the management of these multiple-use zones will require some serious consideration to ensure they are effective.
A win for conservation and industry
An imbalance in marine reserve representation can be driven by governments wanting to minimise socio-economic costs. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Our research has shown that better zoning options can maximise the number of species while still keeping losses to industry very low. Our results show that the 10% biodiversity conservation targets could be met with estimated losses of only 4.9% of area valuable to the petroleum industry and 7.2% loss to the fishing industry (in terms of total catch in kg).
Management plans for the Commonwealth marine reserves are under review and changes that deliver win-win outcomes, like the ones we have found, should be considered.
We have shown how no-take areas in northwest Australia could either be extended or redesigned to ensure the region’s biodiversity is adequately represented. The cost-benefit analysis used is flexible and provides several alternative reserve designs. This allows for open and transparent discussions to ensure we find the best balance between conservation and industry.
Solar households in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales will this year cease to be paid for power they export into the electricity grid. In South Australia, some households will lose 16 cents per kilowatt-hour (c/kWh) from September 31. Some Victorian households will lose 25 c/kWh, and all NSW households will stop receiving payments from December 31.
These “feed-in tariffs” were employed to kick-start the Australian solar photovoltaic (PV) industry. They offered high payments for electricity fed back into the grid from roof-mounted PV systems. These varied from state to state and time to time.
For many householders, these special tariffs are ending. Their feed-in tariffs will fall precipitously to 4-8 c/kWh, which is the typical rate available to new PV systems. In some cases households may lose over A$1,000 in income over a year.
But while the windback may hurt some households, it may ultimately be a good sign for the industry.
What can households do?
At present, householders with high feed-in tariffs are encouraged to export as much electricity to the grid as possible. These people will soon have an incentive to use this electricity and thereby displace expensive grid electricity. This will minimise loss of income.
Reverse-cycle air conditioning (for space heating and cooling) uses a lot of power that can be programmed to operate during daylight hours when solar panels are most likely to be generating electricity. The same applies to heating water, either by direct heating or through use of a heat pump. For heating water, solar PV is now competitive with gas, solar thermal and electricity from the grid.
Batteries, both stationary (for house services) and mobile (for electric cars), will also help control electricity use in the future.
A boost for the industry?
The ending of generous feed-in tariffs is likely to modestly encourage the solar PV industry. This is because many existing systems have a rating of only 1.5 kilowatts (kW), which could not have been increased without loss of the generous feed-in tariff.
Many householders will now choose to increase the size of their PV system to 5-10kW – in effect a new system given the disparity in average PV sizing between then and now.
A new large-scale PV market is also opening on commercial rooftops. Many businesses have daytime electrical needs that are better matched to solar availability than are domestic dwellings.
This allows businesses to consume the large amounts of the power their panels produce and hence minimise high commercial electricity tariffs. The constraining factors in this market are often not technical or economic, and include the fact that many businesses rent from landlords and tend to have short terms for investment. Business models are being developed to circumvent these constraints.
The rooftop PV market also now has large potential in competing with retail electricity prices. The total cost of a domestic 10kW PV system is about A$15,000. Over a 25-year lifetime this would yield an energy cost of 7 c/kWh.
This is about one-quarter of the typical Australian retail electricity tariff, about half of the off-peak electricity tariff, and similar to the typical retail gas tariff. Rooftop PV delivers energy services to the home more cheaply than anything else and has the capacity to drive natural gas out of domestic and commercial markets.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are 9 million dwellings in Australia, and the floor area of new residential dwellings averaged 200 square metres over the past 20 years. Some of these dwellings are in multi-storey blocks, others have shaded roofs and, of course, south-facing roofs are less suitable than other orientations for PV.
However, if half the dwellings had one-third of their roofs covered in 20% efficient PV panels then 60 gigawatts (GW) could be accommodated. For perspective, this would cover 40% of Australian electricity demand. Commercial rooftops are a large additional market.
The total cost of a 10-50 megawatt PV system (1,000 times bigger than a 10kW system) is in the range A$2,100/kW (AC). A 25-year lifetime yields an energy cost of 8 c/kWh. This is only a little above the cost of wind energy and is fully competitive with new coal or gas generators.
Hundreds of 10-50MW PV systems can be distributed throughout sunny inland Australia close to towns and high-capacity powerlines. Australia’s 2020 renewable energy target is likely to be met with a large PV component, in addition to wind.
Wide distribution of PV and wind from north Queensland to Tasmania minimises the effect of local weather and takes full advantage of the complementary nature of the two leading renewable energy technologies.
The declining cost of PV and wind, coupled with the ready availability of pumped hydro storage, allows a high renewable electricity fraction (70-100%) to be achieved at modest cost by 2030.
Australia is renowned for its iconic wildlife. A bilby digging for food in the desert on a moonlit night, a dinosaur-like cassowary disappearing into the shadows of the rainforest, or a platypus diving for yabbies in a farm dam. But such images, though evocative, are rarely seen by most Australians.
More than ever before, we need accurate and up-to-date information about where our wildlife persists and in what numbers, to help ensure their survival. But how do we achieve this in a place the sheer size of Australia, and with its often cryptic inhabitants?
Technology to the rescue
Fortunately, technology is coming to the rescue. Remotely triggered camera traps, for example, are revolutionising what scientists can learn about our furry, feathered, scaly, slippery and often elusive friends.
These motion-sensitive cameras can snap images of animals moving in the environment during both day and night. They enable researchers to keep an eye on their study sites 24 hours a day for months, or even years, at a time.
The only downside is that scientists can end up with millions of camera images to look at. Not all of these will even have an animal in the frame (plants moving in the wind can also trigger the cameras).
This is where everyday Australians can help: by becoming citizen scientists. In the the age of citizen science, increasing numbers of the public are generously giving their time to help scientists process these often enormous datasets and, in doing so, becoming scientists themselves.
What is citizen science?
Simply defined, citizen science is members of the public contributing to the collection and/or analysis of information for scientific purposes.
But, at its best, it’s much more than that: citizen science can empower individuals and communities, demystify science and create wonderful education opportunities. Examples of successful citizen science projects include Snapshot Serengeti, Birds in Backyards, School Of Ants, Redmap (which counts Australian sealife), DigiVol (analysing museum data) and Melbourne Water’s frog census.
Through the public’s efforts, we’ve learnt much more about the state of Africa’s mammals in the Serengeti, what types of ants and birds we share our cities and towns with, changes to the distribution of marine species, and the health of our waterways and their croaking inhabitants.
In a world where there is so much doom and gloom about the state of our environment, these projects are genuinely inspiring. Citizen science is helping science and conservation, reconnecting people with nature and sparking imaginations and passions in the process.
Researchers are asking for the public’s help to identify animals in over one million camera trap images. These images come from six regions (Tasmanian nature reserves, far north Queensland, south central Victoria, Northern Territory arid zone, and New South Wales coastal forests and mallee lands). Whether using their device on the couch, tram or at the pub, citizen scientists can transport themselves to remote Australian locations and help identify bettongs, devils, dingoes, quolls, bandicoots and more along the way.
By building up a detailed picture of what animals are living in the wild and our cities, and in what numbers, Wildlife Spotter will help answer important questions including:
How many endangered bettongs are left?
How well do native predators like quolls and devils compete with cats for food?
Just how common are common wombats?
How do endangered southern brown bandicoots manage to survive on Melbourne’s urban fringe in the presence of introduced foxes, cats and rats?
What animals visit desert waterholes in Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon)?
What predators are raiding the nests of the mighty mound-building malleefowl?
So, if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, love Australian wildlife and are keen to get involved with some important conservation-based science, why not check out Wildlife Spotter? Already, more than 22,000 people have identified over 650,000 individual animals. You too could join in the spotting and help protect our precious native wildlife.