Biodiversity and Charles Sturt University: research for Australia’s natural world

CSU biodiversity research

Australia is home to a unique and varied array of native flora and fauna. But our plants and animals often face threats – everything from urban construction to climate change. Protecting the natural biodiversity of the country is an important part of preserving healthy ecosystems. So it’s also a key part of the research that Charles Sturt University (CSU) does.

As Australia’s regional university, CSU is well positioned to assess and innovate natural, rural and wild environments in Australia – and make a difference in their continued survival. We spoke to two of CSU’s leading researchers to discover the projects they’re currently undertaking around biodiversity, conservation and the natural world.

How do you listen to biodiversity?

 Dr David Watson is an expert in ecology and a researcher with CSU. He’s pioneering a new way of understanding nature and biodiversity.

“Along with a team of researchers around Australia, at CSU we are working on acoustic ecology. We are setting up a permanent array of data collection devices across the continent. They are always on, and the data they collect is open access so it is available to everyone. The data we are collecting is sound. We’re in the process of installing 400 devices, all uploading acoustic data to the cloud.”

In Dr Watson’s analogy, this research opens up a whole new listening experience.

“It is almost like the ultimate natural radio station – with 400 channels. You can tune into a wetland in northern Australia, an alpine herb field in southern Tasmania or some of the driest deserts on earth, and listen to what is happening there.

“We selected locations that were representative of Australian ecosystems. We can use the data to analyse many things that affect those environments. For instance, we can monitor seasonal shifts in frog choruses – and therefore populations. Or we can hear whether invasive species like cane toads are encroaching on an area.”

And it’s not just benefits to native wildlife that are integral to this acoustic ecology research. As Dr Watson explained, it can also change people’s lives.

“The data also has many other applications. We can use it for outreach projects, and as a way to promote engagement between people and nature, particularly people who, for many reasons, may be unable to interact with wild places. And a connection with nature is important to people’s wellbeing.

“This type of project has never been done before, and we are doing it on a continental scale. People can experience an entire soundscape of a location over time. And we can gain valuable and unique insights into the country’s natural environments.”

Is mistletoe just for Christmas?

Biodiversity is also important in Australia’s urban areas. Another of Dr Watson’s research projects is making a big impact on how cities preserve and encourage native animals.

This collaboration with the City of Melbourne aims to increase urban biodiversity. Dr Watson has been working in this area for more than 20 years. He has been looking at how mistletoe – which has a reputation as a pesky parasite – actually helps improve ecological diversity and increases wildlife populations. This latest project, as Dr Watson explained, has several positive outcomes for Australian cities and their wildlife.

“There is a big push to make cities friendlier for wildlife while still maintaining all the functions that people need in urban spaces. We are reintroducing creeping mistletoe (Muellerina eucalyptoides) to Melbourne.”

The reintroduction of a native species can transform an entire ecosystem, as Dr Watson detailed.

“We’ve planted the mistletoe on plane trees. These trees are not native, and are essentially there as shade and ornaments. Consequently, native animals don’t really interact with such trees. By adding mistletoe to the canopy we transform the streetscape (without having to plant native trees and wait for them to grow). Furthermore, we provide native animal species such as butterflies and birds with fruit, flowers, leaves and habitat.

“Also, mistletoe can increase the cooling effect of trees in urban areas. Cities get hot, with all their concrete. Mistletoe’s transpiration means the cooling effects of trees continues even in hot conditions, when most plants will effectively shut down to preserve their water.”

How do you protect birds from heat waves?

Cooling is a crucial factor in another of Dr Watson’s projects – providing 3D-printed nesting boxes that allow birds to survive changes in temperature. Reductions in the number of trees where birds can nest, combined with the limited effectiveness of wooden nesting boxes to fill the shortfall, has led Dr Watson and his team to trial plastic nesting boxes for native species such as red-rumped parrots and striated pardalotes.

“As climate conditions become hotter and drier in southern Australia, many places where animals used to live are becoming uninhabitable. This project responds to the challenge of climate change, developing innovative ways to make homes for wildlife that can handle climatic extremes, from summer heatwaves to winter cold snaps.

“By mimicking naturally occurring structures and using new technology to make structures that can be integrated into buildings, streetlights and other parts of the built environment, we are helping Australian wildlife adapt to changing climates.”

How can we restore biodiversity around waterholes?

Dr Melanie Massaro is a lecturer in ornithology and ecology at CSU. She is leading two research projects dedicated to analysing – and hopefully preserving – Australia’s natural biodiversity.

The first project looks at how the exclusion of feral livestock from savannah waterholes in northern Australia may benefit the occurrence of native plants and animals. Dr Massaro explained its importance.

“Feral livestock populations in northern Australia are a primary factor causing populations of local native birds and mammals to decline. We are assessing whether the presence of large hooved livestock (buffalo, cattle, horses etc.) at waterholes and the associated degradation of the environment deters native animals to use those waterholes. Feral livestock foul the water, damage soils and deplete vegetation around the periphery of waterholes. As a result , this limits resources for native animals, which need clean water and vegetation as food and shelter.

“By excluding feral livestock from waterholes through small-scale fencing, we can test whether we can create refuges for native species and thereby preserve the abundance and diversity of species in these locations.”

How can we ensure the long-term survival of threatened island species?

The second project Dr Massaro is leading aims at finding conservation approaches that ensure the long-term survival of threatened island birds.

The accidental introduction of ship rats to Lord Howe Island in 1918 caused a wave of extinctions among the native animals. Their continued presence threatens the survival of birds, reptiles, invertebrates and plants of this World Heritage site. Therefore, a large-scale operation to remove the rodents – to preserve native wildlife on the island – is planned for 2019. Dr Massaro outlined the scheme.

“Eradicating the rats will likely benefit many native birds that nest on the island, because rats currently steal eggs and offspring of those birds. But it is unknown how the removal of rats will impact the threatened Lord Howe currawong, as this species forages on rats. The currawong is a keystone species within the Lord Howe terrestrial ecosystem. This is due to the fact that it has an omnivorous diet and acts as a seed disperser and predator. Any considerable changes in its population size or its diet due to the eradication of rats will likely have broader implications for the Lord Howe ecosystem.

“This is a unique chance to understand how an ecosystem recovers after a highly invasive predator has been removed.”

Do you want to preserve Australia’s biodiversity?

If you’re inspired to help preserve Australia’s biodiversity, CSU’s postgraduate environmental science courses – like the Master of Environmental Management – give you the opportunity to contribute new knowledge to this vital area of research. Or you could focus on a particular area of animal science, such as ornithology.