From whales to potoroos, how are the Otways threatened species faring?
Over the past three years, things have been changing in the Great Otway National Park. You might not notice it as you drive along the Great Ocean Road, but a landscape-scale small mammal recovery project known as the “Otway Ark” is underway. Fox control is being undertaken and there’s a small army of researchers scouring the bush looking for signs of change or recovery.
Earlier this month, over 100 researchers and land managers came together at the fourth annual Otways Threatened Species Forum to share data and insights from their work on the Otway Ark and a range of other projects across the Otways.
The first results from the Otway Ark fox control program were presented by Claire Miller from Parks Victoria. The three years of monitoring data provided insight into the success of the baiting program in creating conditions that allow small to medium size mammals to persist. The data also informs recommendations for moving forward with the program. Sharing some very cute photos from the remote camera monitoring, Claire reminded those gathered of the Ark’s ultimate aim to conserve populations of small mammals, such as potoroos and bandicoots.
One of the big challenges in the Otways is that the landscape is not all National Park, it’s a patchwork of land tenure that also includes Forest Park and private land. This means that despite fox control occurring within the National Park, it remains vulnerable to reinvasion from foxes on bordering properties. Emma Birnbaum detailed the success of the Conservation Ecology Centre in expanding the program beyond Great Otway National Park, onto private properties and into the Otway Forest Park, to achieve more consistent results in this landscape-wide project.
Emma also spoke on an emerging threat in the Otways, feral pigs, which have potential to cause significant ecological and economic damage if left unchecked. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. As Emma described, with swift, collaborative action between landowners and researchers, this threat can be effectively abated before feral pigs gain a strong foothold in the region. The first step is gaining preliminary information on pig distribution in the Otways. The community can greatly assist with this by reporting any pig sightings or signs of damage caused by pigs on the app Feral Scan. It is available at feralscan.org.au.
The Forum provides a platform for researchers and land managers to present findings on a range of other projects in the Otways. Other presentations on the day included:
- Dr Bronwyn Hradsky of the University of Melbourne gave an update on her work studying the effects of landscape-scale fox control and prescribed burns on fox, feral cat and native mammal populations. She and her team are integrating their findings into a simulation model to help land managers identify effective and efficient management approaches.
- Mark Le Pla from the Conservation Ecology Centre described how advances in genetic sampling technology have been utilised to sample fox scats to improve efficiency and accuracy when estimating fox population densities.
- Matt Rees from the University of Melbourne presented findings from three years’ worth of data from 525 wildlife cameras examining feral cat population dynamics in the Otways. His research has indicated that there are a lot more feral cats in the Otways than we previously thought. His project will investigate whether fox control increases cat numbers and predation on small mammals by cats by reducing competition.
- Dr Phoebe Burns from Zoos Victoria presented on her hunt for the New Holland Mouse, a native rodent believed to be locally extinct. This belief was called into question after a hair was found in fox scat. Ongoing surveys are yet to detect the New Holland Mouse, however the project has provided vital information on a range of other threatened native species and reinforced the exceptionally high conservation value of the Carlisle Heath.
- Josh Griffiths from EnviroDNA described how the usually cryptic platypus can be easily detected with 97% accuracy through water sampling using environmental DNA (known as eDNA) and showed his results from the Upper Barwon River where platypus were found in 16 of the 48 sites surveyed.
- Michael Amor from the Royal Botanic Gardens presented research on how genetic methods can inform conservation actions for threatened species. In particular, the Tall Astelia, a threatened herb with only a few remaining populations in the Central Highlands and Otway Ranges.
- Fire can leave small mammals vulnerable to predation by removing vegetation cover. Deakin University’s Darcy Watchorn’s PhD project will provide artificial refuges for small native mammals in burnt areas and investigate their effectiveness at reducing feral predation.
- Annalie Dorph from the University of Melbourne investigated how fire and landscape factors influence small mammal populations. Findings indicate that varying prescribed burns to create adjacent habitat patches with high contrasts in time since fire resulted in the best outcomes for small mammals.
- Craig Morley of the Geelong Field Naturalists Club presented the Geelong Bird Report, which details more than 300 species found in the region. The report can be found at gfnc.org.au.
- Phytophora is a soil borne pathogen that infects and kills a range of tree species. Dr Barbara Wilson from Deakin University described the importance of reducing its spread in order to protect our environment and biodiversity.
- Emma O’Dwyer-Hall from Deakin University presented her findings on Southern Toadlet distribution in the Otways and how this is influenced by fire and climate.
- Trevor Pescott from the Geelong Field Naturalists Club presented on the potential impacts of prescribed burning in Yauger on the local long-nosed potoroo population.
- Mandy Watson from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning described how photos of Southern Right Whales submitted by the public greatly assist in monitoring population size, movement and breeding patterns. Any keen whale watchers who wish to contribute photos and sightings can do so at swifft.net.au/srwsmp.
The day ended on a very positive note with Tim Allen discussing the Australian Government’s commitment of $6m of funding for threatened species conservation in the Otways over the next 4 years. A significant amount of discussion and planning will be required to ensure this funding is invested where it’s most needed and will have the greatest impact for conservation. It will be wonderful to see what exciting research and positive conservation outcomes can be achieved in the Otways going forward.
If you’d like to know more, or attend future events, please email Jack Pascoe, Conservation & Research Manager at the Conservation Ecology Centre at email@example.com.