Issue 13
Tuesday, 02 August 2016
Charles Darwin University
Ecology students gather data on a river red gum in the West MacDonnell Ranges
Ecology students gather data on a river red gum in the West MacDonnell Ranges

Ecology students explore ancient desert river

By Patrick Nelson

Students have gathered baseline data on fish, birds and river red gums in the ancient Finke River and its tributaries during Charles Darwin University’s first desert ecology field trip in Central Australia.

Coordinator and senior lecturer in ecology Dr Christine Schlesinger said 15 students spent five days in the field exploring the ecology of the world heritage listed West MacDonnell Ranges.

“Students learned of the importance of desert rivers for aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals, in an environment where moisture and resources are often scarce,” Dr Schlesinger said.

The group trekked through sandy river channels to assess the health of 100-year old river red gums and survey bird communities associated with these iconic Australian trees, and braved icy pools to collect aquatic samples. 

“Motion triggered camera traps were also used as part of building students’ field, technical and practical skills,” Dr Schlesinger said.

The new course focuses on desert river and waterhole environments and gives the students an understanding of how rainfall variability affects the animals that live there.

“On this occasion we detected low numbers of invertebrates and fish in waterholes and only small differences in salinity between pools,” Dr Schlesinger said. 

Dr Schlesinger said recent heavy rain had caused several flows of the Finke River, enabling fish to move between normally isolated water holes. 

“Similarly lots of water means birds often associated with tree-lined river channels and permanent water sources, can disperse widely across the landscape,” she said.

 “We expect to see very different patterns in dry times and the full scientific value of the data will be realised over time. Future students will have the opportunity to make these fascinating comparisons between dry and wet times.”