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

Australia is home to a unique and varied array of native flora and fauna. But our plants and animals often face threats – 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 we do at Charles Sturt University.

As Australia’s largest regional university, Charles Sturt is well placed to assess natural, rural and wild environments – and make a difference in their continued survival. We spoke to two of our leading researchers to discover the projects they’re working on around biodiversity, conservation and the natural world.

How do you listen to biodiversity?

Dr David Watson is an expert ecologist and a researcher with Charles Sturt University. He’s pioneering a new way of understanding nature and biodiversity.

“Along with a team of researchers around Australia, we’re working on acoustic ecology. We’re setting up a permanent array of data collection devices across the continent. They are always on, and the data they collect is open access. It’s available to everyone. The data we’re 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 experience.

“It is almost like the ultimate natural radio station – with 400 channels. You can tune in to a variety of environments and listen to what is happening there. For instance, you could tune in to:

  • a wetland in northern Australia
  • an alpine herb field in southern Tasmania
  • some of the driest deserts on earth.

“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.

“We can use the data for outreach projects, and as a way to promote engagement between people and nature. That’s particularly important for people who, for many reasons, may be unable to interact with wild places. A connection with nature is important to people’s wellbeing.

“This type of project has never been done before. What’s more, we’re 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 influencing 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 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’re reintroducing creeping mistletoe (Muellerina eucalyptoides) to Melbourne.”

“We’ve planted it 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 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. The numbers of trees where birds can nest has been falling. In addition,  using wooden nesting boxes to fill the shortfall has had limited impact. Consequently, Dr Watson and his team are trialling plastic nesting boxes for native species such as red-rumped parrots and striated pardalotes.

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

“We’re 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’re 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 Charles Sturt University. She’s leading two research projects dedicated to analysing – and hopefully preserving – Australia’s natural biodiversity.

The first looks at how the exclusion of feral livestock from savannah waterholes in northern Australia may benefit native plants and animals.

“Feral livestock populations in northern Australia are a primary factor causing populations of local native birds and mammals to decline. We’re assessing whether the presence of large hooved livestock (buffalo, cattle, horses etc.) at waterholes deters native animals from using those waterholes. Feral livestock foul the water, damage soils and deplete vegetation. 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. Hopefully, this will 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 to find 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. As a result, a large-scale operation to remove the rodents – to preserve native wildlife on the island – is planned. Dr Massaro outlined the scheme.

“Eradicating the rats will likely benefit many native birds that nest on the island. Rats currently eat the eggs and offspring of those birds. However, it’s unknown how the removal of rats will impact the threatened Lord Howe currawong. And it eats rats. The currawong is a keystone species within the Lord Howe terrestrial ecosystem.  This is because it has an omnivorous diet and acts as both 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 an invasive predator has been removed.”

Do you want to preserve Australia’s biodiversity?

If you’re inspired to help make a difference to Australia’s biodiversity, you can, here. Our 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.

Get in touch to chat through your options.