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DISPLAYING POSTS TAGGED: ecology (5)

The bountiful Mallee

Author
by Patrick
Publish date
17 December 2014
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In Bugs Alive! you can see almost 50 displays of live invertebrates. Most of them from either tropical or arid parts of Australia, illustrating the adaptations needed for living in extreme environments.

Blue butterfly and bee fly resting on grass stems Sleeping beauties, clothed in condensation in the early hours of the morning. | Left: Common Grass Blue (Zizina labradus) Right: A bee fly (Family Bombyliidae)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

So each year, when the weather conditions are right, we head out to the Mallee to boost our stocks of insects and spiders. The best time to visit is on a hot, humid night—which happened last week—just before or just after a thunderstorm. Like most desert species, Mallee insects wait months for the rain and then emerge from the spinifex in their thousands.

Two people in arid landscape Chloe Miller and Maik Fiedel searching through typical Mallee habitat.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

At night the desert resonates with the songs of katydids, the loudest of which come from Robust Fan-winged Katydids (Psacadonotus robustus). Unfortunately the fat abdomen of this dun-coloured species is often host to the larvae of tachinid flies (family Tachinidae). These parasites feed on the internal organs before emerging from the katydid which dies soon afterwards.

Brown katydid grasshopper A male Robust Fan-winged Katydid (Psacadonotus robustus).
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Most katydid species are surprisingly colourful, sporting bright greens, blues and reds.

Three katydid grasshoppers Left: Female Striped Polichne (Polichne argentata); Centre: The undescribed ‘Mystery Hump-backed Katydid’ (Elephantodea species); Right: The unfortunately-named Victorian Sluggish Katydid (Hemisaga lanceolata).
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

One of our prime targets is Mitchell’s Cockroach (Polyzosteria mitchelli) which we breed at Melbourne Museum off-display, perhaps the most beautiful cockroach in Australia. With its golden markings and eggshell-blue legs, this species is one of more than 500 native cockroaches that are rarely seen by the average Australian but which are extremely important in native ecosystems. They shouldn’t be confused with the five or so introduced cockroach species that infest our houses–native cockroaches are happy in the bush and almost never come inside.

colourful cockroach A female Mitchell’s Cockroach (Polyzosteria mitchelli)
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The desert seems to wake up after a rainstorm, with unexpected species such as snails and damselflies making an appearance.

Damselfly and group of snails Left: A female Metallic Ringtail damselfly (Austrolestes cingulatus). Right: Tiny desert snails (Microxeromagma lowei) living under bark.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria

Wolf spiders are the dominant ground species, their emerald eyes shining in the torchlight. This male wolf spider (below) was seen halfway down a burrow and was difficult to distract until we discovered the source of his interest—a large female wolf spider at the bottom of the burrow.

Wolf spider and burrow Left: A male wolf spider (LycosaRight: Close-up of the male.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Little Desert, Big Desert, Sunset Country and Hattah-Kulkyne each have their own distinct habitats and faunas, just a few hours’ drive from Melbourne.

Landscape with blue sky The endless sky and flat horizon of the Mallee region.
Image: Patrick Honan
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Eltham Copper Butterfly update

Author
by Kate Phillips
Publish date
13 May 2014
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Once thought extinct, the Eltham Copper Butterfly was rediscovered in 1986 in Eltham, in a small patch of bush that was going to be bulldozed to build houses. A campaign to save the butterfly’s habitat began and the local council, State government and local community raised the money to buy the land and make it a conservation reserve. Since then other sites have been reserved in other parts of Eltham, Greensborough, Castlemaine, Bendigo and Kiata.

Eltham Copper Butterfly Eltham Copper Butterfly (Paralucia pyrodiscus lucida) perched on Sweet Bursaria, Bursaria spinosa.
Image: Andrea Canzano
Source: Andrea Canzano
 

Over time, butterfly numbers in the Eltham reserves went down. People from the nearby houses would walk through the reserves, let their pets in and local kids couldn’t resist building cubby houses. Active trampling wasn’t the only problem. The reserves weren’t being grazed by native fauna or cleared by periodic burns any more. Vigorous native plants and weeds started to crowd out Sweet Bursaria, the butterfly's sole food. The habitat was no longer ideal for the larvae or butterflies which need patches of sunlight and clear flight-paths.

Eltham Copper larva with ants Eltham Copper larva being tended by Notoncus ants on a Sweet Bursaria bush. The Eltham Copper Butterfly can only live in habitats where this plant and these ants are present.
Image: Andrea Canzano
Source: Andrea Canzano
 

A couple of years ago I ventured out one cool September night to help with the larvae count at an Eltham reserve. While it was exciting to be in the bush at night we didn’t find a single larva where they had been numerous a few years earlier. Results like his made people realise that it was not enough to fence off reserves and expect the butterflies to flourish.

In 2012 the Friends of Eltham Copper Butterfly in partnership with Nillumbik Shire Council, Parks Victoria, Friends of Diosma Road, Friends of Woodridge Linear Reserve and Eltham East Primary School obtained a Communities for Nature grant to protect and enhance the habitat of the Eltham Copper Butterfly.

The habitat restoration involved skilled workers selectively weeding the reserves and planting more Sweet Bursaria, other butterfly-attracting native grasses and daisies to bring the vegetation back to an ideal mix for the Eltham Copper Butterfly.

And the result? Already, only 12 months later, there has been a significant increase in the number of Eltham Copper Butterflies recorded in the counts in this summer (2013-14). It is an encouraging start, and supports the idea that active management can make a decisive difference for an endangered species. Ongoing community involvement and education is the other vital component. This takes many forms from festivals, to butterfly-friendly garden courses, to education in the local schools.

Children and performer Eltham East Primary School children have planted a butterfly garden. Here they're learning about the Eltham Copper Butterfly.
Image: Alison Bayley
Source: Alison Bayley
 

So it looks hopeful for the Melbourne Eltham Copper populations but what about the butterfly in Central Victoria?

In 2009 there were only three known butterfly sites in Central Victoria but in the last five years a small team surveyed 3,000 hectares of public land looking for the right habitat features for the butterfly – a combination of enough Sweet Bursaria bushes in an open forest habitat. Having identified promising areas, they went back at the right time of year to see if they could find the adults. With great excitement they found seven new sites bringing the total in the region to ten.

Julie Whitfield in butterfly habitat Julie Whitfield, a leader in Eltham Copper butterfly conservation in Central Victoria, at a site where a colony of butterflies was found at Big Hill, Bendigo.
Image: Kate Phillips
Source: Museum Victoria
 

However at the same time these new butterfly colonies were being discovered, the risk of fire was brought into sharp focus and fuel reduction burns given greater priority.

Areas surrounding regional towns such as Castlemaine and Bendigo are set aside to be burnt each year. Many of these overlap with the newly-discovered Eltham Copper butterfly habitat. The fuel reduction burns are designed to be ‘thorough’. While this is seen as good fire risk management it endangers fire-sensitive species such as rare orchids; a fire in Eltham Copper Butterfly habitat could wipe out one of its populations. However when on-the-ground knowledge is used to guide fuel reduction burns, important habitat pockets can be excluded. It is not a case of conservation versus safety, but a balancing of the two needs.

Thanks to Andrea Canzano, Karen Borton, Anne Fitzpatrick and Julie Whitfield for their contributions to this post.

Smoky mouse update

Author
by Phoebe Burns
Publish date
25 February 2014
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Phoebe is a University of Melbourne Masters student supervised by Dr. Kevin Rowe at MV. She is studying post-fire distribution and ecology of the Smoky Mouse in the Grampians National Park.

In September 2013, I moved to the Grampians, pitched a tent and set out to see how the endangered Smoky Mouse, Pseudomys fumeus, was faring in the aftermath of the February 2013 Victoria Valley fire. After three soot-covered months, I’m back in Melbourne enjoying modern comforts like showers and instant boiling water.

Grampians landscape Grampians landscape
Image: Phoebe Burns
Source: Museum Victoria
 

I began my surveys at the site where, prior to the fire, we found a healthy population of Smoky Mice in the November 2012 Museum Victoria Bioscan. By September regrowing bracken ferns and eucalypts added a splash of green to the blackened landscape. In spite of the devastation, I caught several healthy Smoky Mice including some of the same individuals we’d caught the previous November! The ecological significance of this discovery alone was cause to celebrate.

Adult Smoky Mouse Adult Smoky Mouse on a burnt log
Image: Phoebe Burns
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Between my first capture in September and my final trapping night in December, I surveyed 46 sites in and out of the burn scar across the Victoria Range in the Grampians. At six of those sites, all within the burn scar, I found Smoky Mice living in the rocky habitats. The mice in these populations were not just surviving, they were healthy and breeding. I caught adults weighing as much as 70 grams but I also found tiny juveniles newly emerged from the nest weighing only 12 grams.  

Juvenile Smoky Mouse Juvenile Smoky Mouse
Image: Phoebe Burns
Source: Museum Victoria
 

While I was looking to find Smoky Mice, my trapping methods meant I also caught a number of other small mammal species (and a few reptiles). I was lucky enough to encounter Swamp Rats, Rattus lutreolus, Heath Mice, Pseudomys shortridgei, Agile Antechinus, Antechinus agilis, and Dusky Antechinus, Antechinus swainsonii. The highlights of my small mammal by-catch were two tiny Eastern Pygmy Possums, Cercatus nanus, that found their way into my traps.

Eastern Pygmy Possum Adult female Eastern Pygmy Possum
Image: Phoebe Burns
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The last three months were physically and mentally challenging, hiking up mountainsides in the rain and hail, being snowed on one day and sweating in the heat the next, but it was worth every unpredictable minute. I feel so privileged to explore the beautiful, rugged wilderness of the Grampians National Park and to have encountered so many remarkable species. The Parks Victoria staff provided a wealth of logistical and emotional support. It’s great to know that our parks are in such capable hands and that the Smoky Mice of the Victoria Range are thriving in spite of the fires.

Links:

MV Blog: Smoky Mice in the Grampians

Smoky mice in the Grampians

Author
by Phoebe Burns
Publish date
31 May 2013
Comments
Comments (3)

Phoebe is a University of Melbourne Masters student supervised by Dr. Kevin Rowe at MV. She is studying post-fire distribution and ecology of the Smoky Mouse in the Grampians National Park

Smoky Mouse Smoky Mouse, Pseudomys fumeus. Grampians, November 2012.
Image: David Paul
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The Smoky Mouse (Pseudomys fumeus) is an elusive and endangered rodent native to southeast Australia. Historically, the Grampians in western Victoria have been home to healthy populations of the mouse, though years can pass without observations of the species. During the November 2012 Museum Victoria Bioscan, we found a large population of Smoky Mice in the Victoria Range in the west of the Grampians; an amazing find as the mouse had not been detected in such high numbers since the 1980s!

In February 2013 a wildfire burnt through 35,000 hectares of the Grampians, including 80 per cent of the Victoria Range and the locations we surveyed in November. While such a large fire raised concerns about the survival of the Smoky Mouse population, we’re using the opportunity to understand how the species responds to fire. So far things are looking promising: earlier this month we found evidence of rodent activity in a small sheltered patch in the middle of a burnt gully and the vegetation is regenerating well. Excitingly, Parks Victoria staff have detected Smoky Mice on cameras in the southern end of the Victoria Range.

Fire has shaped the communities of plants and animals that live in the Grampians, but we still have so much to learn about the role it plays in the lives of our native rodents. Regular burns are essential to the reproduction of some plant species, which in turn provide habitat for our animal species. The Smoky Mouse relies on specific plant communities to provide food and shelter; fire is necessary to ‘reset’ these plant communities to prevent them growing to a point where they are no longer suitable for the mouse. However, fire is best delivered in a patchy mosaic, allowing animals to live in unburnt areas while adjacent burnt areas regenerate and the plant community returns to a suitable state. Wide-scale fires like the one in February are not ideal, and we’re eager to learn what impact it may have on the native fauna.

We’re hopeful that the Smoky Mouse is living in unburnt patches throughout and around the burnt areas. Over time the Smoky Mouse will recolonise the recently burnt areas and we’ll be able to map the movement of the species across the landscape using genetic techniques. In the short term, I will be hiking around the Grampians monitoring the progress of the Smoky Mouse over the next year. I hope to learn where the mouse is persisting and how the species responds to fire in order to help plan management techniques to ensure the conservation of the species for generations to come.

  Smoky Mouse Smoky Mouse, Pseudomys fumeus. Grampians, November 2012.
Image: David Paul
Source: Museum Victoria

Links:

YouTube video: Moth hunting at the Grampians

MV Blog: Gallery of the Grampians survey

Bushfire survivors

Author
by Kate C
Publish date
23 September 2010
Comments
Comments (0)

An article in the Age today shared the good news that the rare leafy liverwort Pedinophyllum monoicum survived the Black Saturday bushfire disaster in tiny remnants of Yarra Ranges rainforest. It was discovered through the Rainforest Recovery Project which is revisiting sites that were sampled prior to the fires.

This sort of work is critical to our understanding about how ecosystems recover - or don't - from bushfire. MV Curator of Hepetology, Jane Melville, received an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant in June this year to continue her work on the ecology, demography and genetics of frogs in the Kinglake region. A surprising number and diversity of frogs survived the February 2009 fires.

Toolangi frog field site This field site in Toolangi was badly affected by bushfire, yet yielded an adult frog previously caught in 2008. It is thought that frogs survived the fire by hiding in and around bodies of water like this dam.
Image: Bec Bray
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Frogs and liverworts share one characteristic that make them particularly important indicators: they are very sensitive to drying out. Neither would survive a direct fire front but  persist in unburnt pockets (or refugia) that offer protection. Long-term studies will monitor how the forests recover in coming years; since frogs are mobile, it is hoped that they will spread relatively quickly back into their former range. Rainforest plants generally aren't quite so responsive so we're very fortunate that this small, tender plant made it through the fires.

Links:

Type specimen of Pedinophyllum monoicum held at Te Papa Tongarewa

What is a liverwort? - Australian National Botanic Gardens

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