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Bon Bon's biodiversity revealed: a biodiversity audit on Bon Bon Station Reserve in the arid north of South Australia has revealed a treasure trove of native plant and animal species.

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Located south of Coober Pedy, the vast former pastoral property, Bon Bon Station, is now owned by Bush Heritage Australia. In October 2010, more than 20 scientists and volunteers arrived for a five-day biodiversity survey. Their expedition was part of Bush Blitz, a three-year multimillion dollar partnership between the Australian government, BHP Billiton, Earthwatch and AusPlots. The continent-scale survey--begun in March 2009--aims to find, collect and identify the species not yet fully assessed by science that live in the diverse habitat areas of our national reserve system. (1)

Amazingly, 75 per cent of Australia's biodiversity is still to be described or discovered. In an era when biodiversity loss is a focus, Bush Blitz is helping scientists to track changes to habitats and biodiversity against environmental influences such as climate change and feral species.

The program has a timely focus on taxonomy--the categorisation and naming of species--as fewer people are taking a specialist interest in different groups of organisms. Without good taxonomic science, we don't know what's out there; what's threatened, or not; or how to conserve it.

Groups of scientists from each state, including experts on vertebrates, invertebrates and native plants, have been conducting up to six survey expeditions each year: discovering and collecting new species, and making new distributional records--except for birds, which are already well described. The researchers report their work to the Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS), which is coordinating Bush Blitz. The expeditions are targeting about 300 reserves that have been added to the National Reserve System within the past 15 years.

ABRS compiles main program reports for each survey and Bush Blitz data is collated yearly into a report on the state of knowledge of approximately 20 000 species. The first-ever report on the biodiversity in Australia's reserve system was published in 2010, providing a baseline for the program.

Despite being a sheep grazing station for 130 years, Bon Bon Station has outstanding nature conservation values. It was purchased by Bush Heritage Australia in 2008 with federal, state and private funding. (2)

Bush Heritage manages the property, with the aim of conserving and restoring its special biodiversity and natural landscapes. These include mulga, myall and black oak woodlands, chenopod shrublands, ephemeral wetlands and fringing dunes, and melaleuca drainages.

Scientists and Earthwatch volunteers worked together on the 5-day Bon Bon Bush Blitz survey. Their precious samples and data are now with state museums and herbaria for cataloguing and assessment.

Mr Andy Young, an entomologist from Kangaroo Island who specialises in moths, butterflies and beetles, was part of the team. He says the Bon Bon Station survey was a very rewarding trip, especially given that so few Australian insects have been described.

'After a couple of good wetter seasons, the country is looking great, with signs of life recovering everywhere; he says. 'I ticked off a couple of major families and have perhaps 160 new or un-named things to confirm from this trip. Most of the other scientists were coming across new things regularly too, or stuff not seen for a long time. We all pitched in and helped each other.'

Landscape ecologist Dr Jim Radford, Science and Monitoring Manager at Bush Heritage Australia, helped coordinate the survey. He says the added value of having the mix of scientists working together was a revelation and a highlight of the five-day survey.

'The botanists from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Nick Neagle and Helen Vonow, turned out to be pivotal for the whole expedition; he says. 'They covered most of the property, and as a result were able to provide plant species lists as background to trapping sites for the vertebrate and invertebrate ecologists.

'There was then teamwork between the botanists and say, the bee specialists, to identify which plant species a particular bee was pollinating, so we could then begin to explore interactions and associations between species, which added depth to the data.'

Dr Radford describes the region as previously being a 'black hole' for biological records, but the thriving conditions produced good preliminary results for the scientists.

'Many of the ephemeral water holes retained water, and there was lots of vegetation flowering,' he says. 'The botanists were pretty excited by the ephemeral species. They collected over 450 plant specimens to add to their collections, and made over 1200 plant records.'

The mammalogists and herpetologists (reptile and amphibian specialists) also did well, with twice daily visits to different trap types in various habitats. At least six small mammals were confirmed as on site, but there are likely to be more. 'The list of reptiles has been increased to 47, with a possible significant geographical morph [a species variation] of the broad-banded sand-swimmer [lizard].'

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The entomologists collected day and night in a range of habitats, including wide salt flat areas and single, small ponds.

Mr Young kept a diary for Ecos about the trip (read his diary online at www. ecosmagazine.com). He describes techniques he used to collect his target species and reveals the stamina and dedication needed to stay up late catching them, and then keep awake the next day to deal with the 'pinning' and DNA sampling of hundreds of specimens.

'It's hard, menial work in the field,' says Mr Young. 'And then there's the time-consuming cross checking and verification of my specimens, once I get back, with the [South Australian] Museum and the Australian National Insect Collection at CSIRO in Canberra--one of the best in the world.

'It is hard to emphasise enough the value of having such a centralised and well-managed collection in Australia. Their dedicated maintenance of this resource and CSIRO's publication of excellent insect monographs and field guides are absolutely essential to us taxonomists.'

Dr Radford says Bush Heritage will wait for summary reporting from ABRS, compiled from scientists' accounts, and will then integrate the information into their current management plans for the property.

'We'll have a better idea of what's there, and therefore, how to manage it; says Dr Radford. 'With plants, for example, our vegetation mapping will now be supplemented with the species lists, and we'll be better able to plan our fire management and weed control.

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'Bush Blitz focuses on inventory and cataloguing and so will be limited for some sorts of ecological knowledge. But even with the relatively small trapping effort, the Bush Blitz revealed helpful information on animal distributions.

'We found that the stony plains in the north of Bon Bon that support chenopod shrublands, and particularly the low-lying clay pan depressions surrounded by low shrubs, were very diverse for vertebrates. It was amazing how many animals we could trap in such a small area, which is testament to the productivity of the habitats. The Mulga woodlands surprised us; they seemed to have relatively few species, and reptile fauna were especially low. We don't yet know why, and it may just be seasonal or an artefact of low survey effort.

'We can use this information to prioritise our feral predator and erosion control, now that the relative productivity of these different habitats is realised.'

'The new information for management is probably the top highlight of the expedition from our perspective.'

Mr Michael Preece, Director of the ABRS, says there is a close relationship between Bush Blitz and the National Reserve System, which is Australia's premier investment in biodiversity conservation. This is because each Bush Blitz expedition provides a critical 'snapshot' of the biodiversity contained within that reserve.

Mr Preece says the expeditions' results compiled by ABRS and provided to the reserve managers, contribute directly to the scientific knowledge underpinning adaptive management of the reserves. The accumulated Bush Blitz data will ultimately be uploaded into the Australian Government's Australian Read the diary of Bush Blitz entomologist, AndyYoung

National Heritage Assessment Tool (ANHAT). This database is an important source of information about the natural heritage significance of areas, and their priority for inclusion in the national reserve system.

'In addition, Bush Blitz data lodged with state museum and herbaria as well as national taxonomic databases, incrementally adds to meeting our wider international obligations around biodiversity conservation,' says Mr Preece.

'Further careful taxonomic and genetic work on samples collected from the expeditions will clarify speciation boundaries and other taxonomic riddles, but more questions will also be thrown up. The important thing is that we are getting greater clarity on the distribution of important species.'

About the Australian National Insect Collection

The Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC) is the pre-eminent collection of Australian insects, maintained by CSIRO for researchers, industry and government agencies.

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ANIC was established in 1928, and is now the world's largest collection of Australian insects and related groups such as mites, spiders, earthworms, nematodes and centipedes.

More than 12 million specimens are housed in the Collection, which is based at CSIRO Entomology in Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory. The collection grows by more than 100 000 specimens each year.

ANIC comprises specimens collected by CSIRO staff, as well as donations and bequests from individuals and other institutions. It is an important research resource used by CSIRO researchers, university staff and students, and scientists from Australian and international research organisations.

ANIC also produces relevant papers and books in conjunction with CSIRO Publishing and other publishers.

See: www.csiro.au/places/anic

Read the diary of Bush Blitz entomologist, Andy Young

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'Moth man' entomologist Andy Young's diary provides a fun insight into his adventures and work as an insect taxonomist in the field, hunting for undiscovered species as part of Bush Blitz. His five daily entries are published on the Ecos website: www.ecosmagazine.com

More information

Bush Blitz: www.bushblitz.org.au

Bush Heritage Australia: www.bushheritage.org.au

(1) The national reserve system, which covers more than 11 per cent of the continent, is made up of more than 9000 properties: national parks and reserves managed by all levels of government, Indigenous lands and protected areas run by non profit conservation organisations, and ecosystems formally managed for conservation by farmers as part of their working properties.

(2) Two thirds of total purchase and establishment costs came from the National Reserve System (NRS) component of the federal Caring for Our Country program. The Government of South Australia also assisted. Private funding came from the Besen Family Foundation.
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Title Annotation:Focus: BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION
Author:Porteous, James
Publication:Ecos
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2011
Words:1714
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