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Professor Chris Dickman -

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For more than 20 years, Professor Chris Dickman has followed the extraordinary 'boom' and 'bust'
cycle that characterises the Simpson Desert. He speaks of some of the challenges facing the plants
and animals that inhabit the Simpson's pulsating expanse.

Professor Chris Dickman

Australia is mostly desert. Around seventy per cent of the continent is arid or semi-arid. Probably
the most distinctive feature of the Simpson Desert is the long red, longitudinal sand dunes. People
always assume it's going to be a barren, empty place with nothing there, and yet it's bursting with
life.

My first trip to the Simpson was in January 1990. Initially we thought that we'd get out to the
desert for five or six years. We thought that would be enough time to figure out how the desert
system works. That was now nearly twenty-one years ago, and we're still finding things that we
didn't even have a clue about.

Man

They're big, they're strong, they're feisty. They're the coolest thing out here. And he's a boy and
he's peeing!

Professor Chris Dickman

The Simpson Desert has got an incredible richness of vertebrate species. You're looking at world
records for numbers of species in a very arid area. Most action in the desert occurs during the,
the night time. The animals seem to be very mobile, perhaps tracking food as it shifts across the
desert landscape. Virtually all of the rodents eat a variety of foods. They'll eat insects, other
invertebrates, green plant material, even a bit of fungus.

What we found in the first year was that many of the small marsupials are actually not digging
their own burrows at all. They can't even dig - they just commandeer other animals' burrows.

One of the exciting things in the morning, you look forward to getting around the traps and seeing
what you've caught. Have you caught another mulgara, have you caught a female with pouch young,
have you got a desert mouse that you haven't seem for many years?

On every trip, we try to sample the food resources. We also look at the invertebrates, the things
running around on the ground. We bring them back to Sydney and then count them to see what we've
got.

Seeds are really the underpinning of all the life that we see in the central arid zone. It's all
the cover, the shelter that the animals require, the great diversity of plants themselves. It's
really absolutely crucial that we know more about these things.

You can get long periods of very dry conditions, and then maybe after a run of four or five years,
you'll get a very big rainfall. After a big rainfall event, the desert transforms. You get this
huge pulse of life. The annual grasses come up, the shrubs will begin to flower. Mammals will
breed. As the small mammals are doing well, so too are the foxes and the cats.

This is a cat dropping that's now fairly dry. You can actually see that it's full of mammal hair.
We found one cat that had six hopping mice in its stomach, plus around fifteen or sixteen dragons,
a small snake, and two rats. Three species have disappeared from the trapping record. The small
mammals have just been eaten to the point where they just have not come back into the dune system.

What goes on in the desert will often have quite big effects on people in the suburban areas. So
we're looking at the responses of all the biota as far as we can, to the big rainfall events, the
extended dry periods, to broad-scale wildfires - all of the ups and downs of climate.

We've got an opportunity to I guess, look into the future for other parts of Australia as it's
happening in real time in the centre. One of the things that's kept me going back to the desert
over all these years is that it's just a lovely place to be. It's just beautiful. You're away from
the telephone, you're away from email. I guess with technology improving, it'll be possible to sit
on top of a sand dune and send emails from there. But I don't think I want to know about that.

Topics: Nature

Producer: Anja Taylor

Researcher: Anja Taylor

Camera: Don Whitehurst

Gemma Deavin

Sound: Anthony Frisina

Editor: James Edwards

Story Contacts

Christopher R. Dickman

Professor in Terrestrial Ecology

The Institute of Wildlife Research

School of Biological Sciences

University of Sydney

Related Info

Chris Dickman Laboratory

Professor Chris Dickman awarded NSW Scientist of the Year for Biology