Otways Ecological Research Forum 2023

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The annual Otways Ecological Research Forum brings together researchers, land managers, and other interested parties from across the Otways to share the latest ecological research being undertaken across the national park, state forests and on private land.

The 2023 Otways Ecological Research Forum was held on Wednesday 30th August at Colac Otway Performing Arts and Cultural Centre.

Scroll down for the summaries from this year’s presenters. You can download the agenda for the day as a PDF here. 

In 2021 and 2022, the forum was held online and the video recordings of many of the presentations are available to view here or here.

2023 Otways Ecological Research Forum – Speakers

Conserving threatened small mammals in the Otway Ranges: significant refuges and species management.

Wilson B. A., M.J. Garkaklis, P. Burns (Barbara Wilson Pty Ltd, Zoos Victoria, Deakin University, Wild Otways Initiative – Corangamite Catchment Management Authority)

While severe declines of small mammals have been recorded in the eastern Otways over the last decade, there is evidence that gullies, and coastal dunes are providing refuges for threatened species. A major focus of the Wild Otways Initiative was the identification of spatial locations of refuges for EPBC Act threatened mammal species (Southern brown bandicoot, Long-nosed potoroo, Swamp antechinus, Broad-toothed rat, New Holand mouse (Pookila) and Smokey mouse)) across the Otways landscape, and the development of Otways species management plans. Camera and live trapping were utilised to identify species and refuge locations.  These were mapped, and together with GIS shapefiles, they provide brief management guidance for each refuge. These can be used as part of land management; particularly bushfire, Phytophthora dieback, weed, predator and planned fire management. Species management plans were structured to nest under National Threat Abatement Plans, Species Recovery Plans and Threatened Species Commission Scientific Advice.  The project significantly increased knowledge supporting best practice for investment in the Otway Ranges including prioritising land management at identified key refuges, identifying priorities for future translocations of threatened species to provide national insurance populations, and identification of opportunities to invest in fenced areas across the landscape for protection of several threatened mammal species at the same locations.

Protecting plant and animal diversity in the Otway Ranges, Bells Beach (Ironbark Basin) and Great Ocean Road hinterland from Phytophthora cinnamomi dieback – The Wild Otways Initiative.

Garkaklis, M.J., Wilson, B.A., Lovett, K., Miller, T., Ashton, P. Wiggs, H. and Miller, J.

The 2021 Australian State of the Environment Report confirmed that the plant disease Phytophthora dieback had the second greatest impact to our terrestrial biodiversity of all introduced species.  This is second only to the introduced European rabbit.  The Australian Government’s Wild Otways Initiative Phytophthora dieback project recognised the magnitude of this threat in the Otway Ranges and invested in on-ground measures to demonstrate the effectiveness of pathogen control and to alleviate the threats to at risk biodiversity, particularly grasstree Xanthorrhoea australis dominated vegetation that is habitat for EPBC Act threatened species.  In this presentation we summarise the numerous achievements of this project, many a first for Land Management in Victoria.  The outcomes demonstrate the value of a land management focused project team made up of Traditional Owners, Parks Victoria, DEECA, the CCMA, Barbara Wilson Pty Ltd and the wider community.

The Big Pig-ture: Research Informing Effective Feral Pig Management Across the Otways

Tim Wilson & James Templeton – Conservation Ecology Centre

After three years of researching and managing feral pig populations across the Otways, we take a look at what we’ve found through fitting GPS tracking collars to pigs and deploying camera grids across four key areas. We also highlight the challenges and benefits of working with various stakeholders across private and government land tenures and what feral pig management in the Otways is going to look like moving forward. 

Life Among the Leaves: Invertebrate Conservation in the Southern Otways

Georgie Custance, Molly Fisher & Louisa Bartels – Threatened Species Conservancy

Invertebrates account for 95% of all animal species and play a vital role in ecosystem functioning. However, due to a lack of taxonomic and ecological understanding, limited public interest, and their small, cryptic nature they are often omitted from conservation efforts. The Threatened Species Conservancy, a non-for-profit committed to preventing the extinction of all Australian species, has successfully executed two invertebrate conservation projects in the Southern Otways in the past year. These projects, ‘Coastal Butterfly Conservation through Community Engagement’ and ‘Searching for our Lost Snails: The Great Otway Snail Blazer,’ have notably enhanced baseline knowledge of butterfly and snail communities in the region, while also raising awareness and fostering identification skill development within the community. We suggest that invertebrate groups, especially butterflies and snails, represent an extremely underutilised conservation tool that offer vital insights into our ecosystems and can guide restoration efforts. This valuable resource is accessible to everyone; it just begins with each of us taking a moment to look that little bit closer, where we can examine and appreciate the diversity of life residing amongst the leaves.

The Carlisle Heath Research Program: A Potted History

Jack Pascoe – Conservation Ecology Centre and The University of Melbourne

The Carlisle Heath is of interest due to its range of values, it hosts a diverse mammal assemblage despite a lack of ongoing predator control, has been habitat for a culturally identified species, and because it represents a highly flammable ecosystem that poses a threat to adjacent communities. To balance these values we need a strong understanding of how those values interact.

To address this knowledge gap, a partnership of researchers and land custodians has formed over the past decade to direct a program of applied ecological research in the region. In this presentation we will give a potted history of what we have learned, what we still need to learn and what we will be working on to ensure we can clearly see our way into future heath management.

Describing the response of predators and prey to fire in a biodiverse heathland.

Mark Le Pla – Conservation Ecology Centre and The University of Melbourne

Over the past few years, the CEC and UniMelb have been intimately following the movements and fate of predators and prey in the Carlisle Heath – a biodiverse heathland west of Gellibrand. In particular, we have been particularly interested in describing how the predator-prey dynamics of the heathlands change after planned burning. Working closely with local land managers, we have learnt much about the challenges and opportunities facing predators and prey post fire and, in this presentation, I will share the most interesting developments derived from this research thus far. 

Addressing Woody-Shrub Encroachment Through Strategic Fire Management

Tamika Farley-Lehmer – The University of Melbourne

In the face of escalating bushfire threats driven by a more combustible climate, effective forest fuel management is imperative. However, contemporary fire regimes, often utilizing high-intensity autumn burns, seem to be exacerbating vigorous post-fire woody shrub recruitment. This phenomenon, termed “woody-shrub encroachment”, marks a transition from graminoid-herbaceous to shrub-dominated landscapes, augmenting elevated forest fuel biomass and obstructing low-intensity burns. Consequently, vulnerability to severe fires is heightened, intensifying bushfire risk.

Nonetheless, a growing body of evidence suggests that the correct application of fire may hold the key to mitigating shrub encroachment. Here, I delve into potential ecological mechanisms whereby strategic variations in fire seasonality and management practices could curb shrub recruitment. By exploring this dynamic interplay, this research seeks to provide insights into tackling the challenge of woody-shrub encroachment. Ultimately, these findings may inform future strategies to foster more resilient ecosystems and enhance bushfire management. 

Density Estimates of Invasive Predators in Three Distinct Otway Landscapes

Emma Birnbaum – Conservation Ecology Centre

The density of invasive predators is a significant factor in determining the level of control required to reduce predation pressures on native mammals. Replicating monitoring protocols, successfully used to produce the first estimates of feral cat and fox density in the wet forests of the central Otways (Rees et al. 2019; Le Pla et al. 2022), we used camera traps and scats to estimate the density of feral cats and foxes in three distinct Otway landscapes. These results provide important insights into the distribution and abundance of invasive predators in the Otways and will inform future management efforts to protect native wildlife.

Investigating the feasibility of translocation of the swamp antechinus in the Otway Ranges

Jemma Cripps – Zoos Victoria

Zoos Victoria has been working in partnership with the CCMA, DEECA and Parks Victoria, under The Wild Otways Initiative, to investigate the feasibility of translocations of the threatened swamp antechinus in the Otways. This presentation will briefly outline the background of the project and summarise the research and results from this 12-month investigation.

Genetic diversity of Southern Brown Bandicoots in the Otways and across Victoria.

John George Black – Cesar Australia

Genetic diversity and connectivity are vital attributes of healthy populations, as these help protect populations from accumulating harmful genotypes through inbreeding and genetic drift. Although ecologists have an excellent understanding of the distribution of Southern brown bandicoots in the Otways, so far there is no published genetic data to directly assess diversity and connectivity, and therefore it is unknown how resilient these populations are.

As part of my research, I use single nucleotide polymorphism data to look at the current state of diversity and isolation in Southern brown bandicoots in the Otways, and contextualise these findings to genetic data from other populations across Victoria. 

I find a core population at Carlise Heath is showing preliminary signs of fragmentation, and postulate that animals in a second population at Anglesea are likely completely isolated. Despite this, I find that the overall genetic diversity within the Otways is higher than most wild populations and two haven populations, stressing the need for migration pathways and refugia in the ongoing management of this species.

Dreeite Ngootyoon Meerreeng (Healthy Country) Overview

Laura Prentice, Brodey Hamilton and Matt King – Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation

EMAC are leading an approach to restore ecology on Warrion (Bandicoot) Country through a prism of Eastern Maar biocultural methods and values. This approach recognises the relationship between nature and culture. It integrates traditional knowledge, respects cultural diversity, engages communities, and prioritises ethical considerations, leading to more inclusive, holistic, and sustainable restoration outcomes. Modern western conservation science methods and technologies are being used to support this Biocultural approach.