An Australian agency plans to pull the plug on a long-term ecological monitoring program in the stunning Simpson Desert.

Aaron Greenville

Australia to ax support for long-term ecology sites

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—The Simpson Desert of central Australia is as starkly beautiful as it is ecologically entrancing. Ranks of rusty red sand dunes run unbroken for hundreds of kilometers. During rare years with sustained downpours, moist swales are carpeted with spiky spinifex grasses that take on the appearance of fields of golden wheat. Desert ecosystems dominated by spinifex or Triodia grasses cover about 70% of Australia, but the only long-term experiment for studying them is set in a section of the desert in western Queensland—and that research site is now in jeopardy.

Launched in 1990, the study has shown that heavy rains cause flushes of vegetation and seeds that lead to booms of insects, small marsupials, and rodents. Outback pools draw immense swarms of parakeets called budgerigars. That explosion of life attracts feral foxes and cats, which have had a role in the extinction of 27 species and subspecies of mammals in Australia since European colonization in 1788. The invasive species ravage the native ones, which may spend many years hunkered down in scrubby woodland refugia until fresh downpours start the cycle again.

If you monitored the desert’s fauna for just a few years at a time you’d miss that dynamic, says Glenda Wardle, an ecologist at the University of Sydney here. “Long-term research in the Simpson Desert has provided fundamental insights into the ecology of outback Australia” and crucial information for protecting endangered species and other natural resources, says Wardle, co-leader of the Simpson Desert Mammal Monitoring project.

But such studies are now slated for the chopping block. A body funded by Australia’s federal government plans to stop funding all 12 sites in Australia’s Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTERN), including the 8000-square-kilometer Simpson Desert site, at the end of this year. In a letter in today’s issue of Science, Wardle and 68 co-authors decry the decision as “totally out of step with international trends and national imperatives.” She and leaders of the other projects are now scrambling to find other sources of funding before their coffers run dry.

LTERN’s demise could have major consequences, supporters say. “In a country like Australia, which is facing huge challenges with climate change, with expanding populations, with major pressures on its water supplies and land area—we’re not going to be able to predict anything about the status of our environmental assets,” says David Lindenmayer, LTERN’s science director, lead signatory of the letter, and an ecologist at the Australian National University in Canberra. Barring an 11th hour reprieve, some sites will surely have to shut down, he predicts. “That’s a catastrophic loss because it means we have no real ability to take a health reading on the country.”

LTERN covers more than 1100 long-term field plots in ecosystems including alpine grasslands, tall wet forests, temperate woodlands, heathlands, tropical savannas, rainforests, and deserts. Some sites are globally unique, including Victoria state’s forests of mountain ash trees (Eucalyptus regnans), the world’s tallest flowering plants. Each of the 12 networks of plots started as discrete university-run projects that in 2012 were gathered under the government’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) in Brisbane. But budget cuts and new government guidelines on funding priorities have forced TERN to terminate the AUS$900,000 program, says TERN Director Beryl Morris. TERN will continue to fund a handful of long-term sites that are not part of LTERN, including the Warra tall gum forests of Tasmania.

To illustrate LTERN’s value, scientists rattle off a number of major findings. In 2010, for example, studies centered on Kakadu National Park south of Darwin, Australia, revealed a population collapse of small marsupials and mammals. The cause, says network co-leader Jeremy Russell-Smith of Charles Darwin University in Casuarina, Australia, appears to have been more frequent fires, which created more open ground and allowed feral cats to decimate native species. “People assumed [that ecosystem] was pretty intact,” he says. “That view is totally incorrect, but you need long-term monitoring to show that.”

LTERN’s closure would have international implications, says David Keith, an ecologist at the University of New South Wales here who manages studies at three sites. Of 80 ecological communities listed as threatened by the Australian government, only 24 are monitored, and LTERN studies account for the longest and most reliable data sets. “Their discontinuation will substantially weaken Australia’s … ability to report on progress to meet international targets agreed to under the Convention on Biological Diversity,” he says.

Lindenmayer and others are making a last-ditch bid to find new pots of money to stabilize LTERN—and, if they’re lucky, expand the network to major ecosystem types currently lacking long-term monitoring. “I am hopeful,” says Keith, “that a phoenix will rise from the ashes.”