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SAEON wetland scientists venture down under

By Brigitte Melly and Betsie Milne, SAEON
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Betsie Milne (above) and Brigitte Melly (below) presented posters on their postdoctoral research projects at the conference

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River red gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) lining one of the tributaries of the Macquarie River. In Australia this tree is a native indicator of healthy river systems, but in South Africa it is highly invasive, causing deterioration of our riparian habitat

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A post box at one of the farms in the Outback 130 km away from the nearest town, where mail and even fresh produce get delivered

The 2017 Wetlands in Drylands Research (WiDs) Network Conference was held at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Brigitte Melly from SAEON’s Fynbos Node and Betsie Milne from the Arid Lands Node both attended this conference and presented posters on their postdoctoral research projects.

WiDs delegates were greeted by the friendly faces of some of the founding members of this research network, which was established at an inaugural meeting in Parys, South Africa, in 2014. The conference was truly a multidisciplinary event, with plenary talks from local and international members who spoke on indigenous knowledge, ecology, geochemistry, integrating science and management, as well as current global challenges such as climate change.

Unlike a typical conference setting, WiDs was based on structured workshops and discussions following a keynote presentation. This provided everyone with ample opportunity to discuss, question and challenge their knowledge of wetland systems with other members of the global wetland community.

Field trip to the Macquarie Marshes

Brigitte attended the post-conference field trip to the Macquarie Marshes, located in the central region of the Murray-Darling Basin, New South Wales. This was an amazing opportunity for her to learn from the local scientists on how they manage large-scale (both in time and area) research projects and interventions in a semi-arid climate, with multiple stakeholders and confounding influences of drought and flood cycles.

The Macquarie Marshes are found in the upper reaches of the Macquarie River on an extensive flat plain, with relic stream channels that can be traced by the long stretches of river red gums. The Marshes extend over 2 300 km2, and contain a wide diversity of wetland types and water birds, as well as a number of wildlife species such as kangaroos to emus, and galahs to sulphur-crested cockatoos. The area is also a listed RAMSAR site and Important Bird Area.

These Marshes face several threats. Besides changing climate, there has been tension between aboriginals (Wailwan people) and farmers. The aboriginals claim historically important cultural activities and places, which now reside within private farmlands. Consequently, it has become imperative for the local government, private landowners and the aboriginals to develop relationships where cultural heritage (e.g. earth mounds and scarred trees) can be considered and maintained while allowing the farmers to manage their lands effectively.

From the Karoo to the Paroo

The Australian Outback is famous for its vast, unpopulated and arid spaces and perhaps every Tom, Dick and Harry not residing Down Under might believe that it is a very isolated, wild and dangerous place. Betsie visited the Outback after the WiDs Conference and to her astonishment, if it were not for the many species of parrots, cockatoos and bouncy roos (colloquial term for kangaroos), she could have been fooled to believe she was in the Northern Cape all along.

The horizon boasted red sandy plains, peppered with ephemeral pans and glorious sunsets. However, in the Outback farmers get their mail and fresh produce delivered to their stations (farms) and their only native terrestrial predator is the dingo. So, compared to Africa, the Outback is tame!

Betsie was invited to join Professor Brian Timms, a retired aquatic ecologist, on a field trip to the ephemeral pans of the Paroo (Pai-Roo) region located in the north-west of New South Wales and south-west Queensland. The collection of swamps, lakes and clay pans found here is the best reference for the pans of the Northern Cape. This is because so little is known about our South African arid systems.

Our weather patterns are also very similar, which enhances comparisons between these systems. Stories were told of skiing on the lakes of the Paroo in the 1970s and 1980s during the exact same years when the Northern Cape pans were full. Furthermore, in August 2016 when Betsie, to her amazement, stumbled across wet pans on a reconnaissance to the Karoo, 11 000 km away, Prof. Brian Timms also journeyed to the Paroo to do his first-ever winter sampling of wet pans.

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Apparently, a group of scientists and a mob of kangaroos have a lot in common…

Prof. Timms spent most of his career studying the limnology, ecology and biogeography of the pans in the eastern inland of Australia and as a result, their systems are fairly well understood and the list for associated aquatic invertebrates, especially Branchiopods, is comprehensive. He currently supervises a PhD student, Claire Sives, at the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), who focuses on the effect of water quality on food webs across different types of pans.

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Betsie Milne (top left) on one of the dry lakes in the Paroo and Prof. Brian Timms (top right) sweeping for invertebrates at a remnant pool on a clay pan, where they still found a few fairy shrimps (pictured below)

Betsie visited Claire at the laboratories of UNSW to exchange ideas on egg-bank sampling and hatching strategies. She also visited the Conservation Science Centre of the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (Parks and Wildlife Service) in Perth, Western Australia to look at their Branchiopod voucher collection.

The Department is currently characterising pans in the Pilbara Region of Western Australia, which could also serve as opportunity for comparison with the Northern Cape pans. According to Betsie, there are no limits to knowledge gained through embarking on these collaborative visits and she encourages all young scientists to pursue such opportunities.

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Claire Sives demonstrates how rose bengal staining enhances the identification of Branchiopods with microscopy (left); and Melita Pennifold from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions shows their Branchiopod voucher collection to Betsie (right)

Acknowledgements

Brigitte Melly and Betsie Milne would like to express their sincere gratitude to the various funders for enabling them to attend the conference and field trips. Funding to travel to the conference was supplied by the National Research Foundation Knowledge Interchange and Collaboration (KIC) Grant, Research and Innovation Reward Programme (RIRP) funds and a grant to Dr Henschel, Incentive Funds for Rated Researchers. The field trip to the Macquarie Marshes was sponsored by the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage and Macquarie University, while the field trip to the Paroo was sponsored by Prof. Brian Timms and the local farm owners.

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