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Grant for Alice buffel grass scientist

By Patrick Nelson

Dr Schlesinger … investigating the effect of buffel grass on interactions between native fauna and flora Dr Schlesinger … investigating the effect of buffel grass on interactions between native fauna and flora

A Charles Darwin University researcher will continue important studies into the environmental effects of an invasive pastoral grass after winning a prestigious $56,000 science grant.

Alice Springs based Lecturer in Environmental Science Dr Christine Schlesinger said the Hermon Slade Grant would allow her and interstate colleagues to continue work on buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) for the next three years.

“We will examine to what degree buffel grass has disrupted interactions between native plants and animals in Central Australia’s woodland and shrub land communities,” Dr Schlesinger said.

“We already know about the decline in the diversity of ground-layer plants in areas invaded by buffel grass, but there is less understanding about longer term effects on shrubs and trees.

Dr Schlesinger said buffel grass fires were more intense, more frequent and thus posed a greater threat to trees and shrubs than if the fire were fuelled by native grass.

“We can see evidence of this in recently burnt areas, but it is not known how seed banks have been affected or whether and how future recruitment of seedlings is limited.”

Dr Schlesinger said shifts in the structure and diversity of woody plants were likely to have serious adverse consequences for the many animals that relied on them for food and shelter.

“Recent studies have confirmed that there are fewer species of ant in areas invaded by buffel grass and that birds spend less time in areas taken over by buffel.

“Although animals often respond directly to changes in plant communities, the resulting differences in abundance and behaviour, especially of seed or fruit eating species, can in turn impact on the dispersal and recruitment of plants through complex interactions.”

Dr Schlesinger said buffel grass was recently listed in Australia as a “key threatening process” for its potential impact on native biodiversity.

“It is also becoming ubiquitous in semi-arid regions throughout North and South America. Our work has important implications for the management of the invasive plant at a global level.”

Dr Schlesinger said there was an opportunity for environmental science students to undertake much of the work as Honours or post-graduate research projects.

“Most of the field work will take place in and around Alice Springs while glasshouse germination trials will be based at the University of Wollongong.

“Preliminary work has already begun, but we expect to get into full swing this month,” Dr Schlesinger said.