Letter from the Simpson Desert Expedition 2015: treasures in the dunes
The fourth missive from journalist Jo Stewart, who is documenting the work of our science team in the Simpson Desert.
At the three-quarter mark of the expedition, the Museum team has settled into a routine with 6am starts and 8pm bedtimes bookending days of walking, digging pitfall traps, collecting specimens and assessing animal burrows. Sadly we’re seeing overwhelming evidence of feral animal activity with daily sightings of rabbit burrows, feral cats, and feral camel remains. Only last night, Dr Sandy Ingleby and Dr Anja Divljan set up camera traps that captured the cats skulking about on the dunes at night, no doubt preying on small native animals like dunnarts and hopping mice. Dr Sandy Ingleby comments: “We’ve seen multiple tracks and burrows of the amperta, a threatened species of native carnivorous mammal, which is encouraging. It’s also a good sign that we haven’t captured any introduced house mice in our traps. By far the most common species we’ve caught is the Sandy Inland Mouse, which has regularly been found in our pitfall traps set on the dunes.”
While the expedition team has settled into a routine, the desert has not. A fickle character, the desert is capable of creating toe-numbing mornings, thirst-inducing days and stretches of terrain filled with vicious plants that bite. There are surprises around every dune, and last night after a beautiful burnt-orange sunset, a ferocious wind whipped up from nowhere, sandblasting us as we huddled in our swags and said farewell to the hats and clothes we’d hung up in the trees around the camp before bedtime. As quickly as the wind blew through camp, it vanished, leaving us with a morning sky of cloudless blue. This unpredictability makes fieldwork a real challenge for the Museum team – being blustered while digging pitfall trenches to trap animals or attaching bat detectors to trees crawling with insects comes with the turf. It also makes new discoveries all the more significant. Every animal we trap, weigh and observe is celebrated; every photo of a feral animal we capture on night cameras is valued; and every bone or feather we collect on our walks is prized.
Soon the Museum team will return with a catalogue of invaluable data on the state of the flora and fauna of this rarely visited section of the Simpson Desert. We will also return with stories of marauding feral camels, choking on flies while eating damper, chasing butterflies with butterfly nets for kilometres through the desert and waking up in the morning with a swag full of ants.
But it isn’t all hardship out here. There’s also opportunities for stargazing free from light pollution and smog; watching kites, kestrels and other birds soar above with effortless grace; and seeing mighty bearded dragons emerge from their resting places. All this beauty is a reminder of why this pocket of Australia is worth investing in, valuing, understanding and protecting. While very remote and far removed from the cities most of us live in, the desert matters.
Follow the journey with regular postings here on the Museum’s blog page, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook channels using the #AMexpedition hashtag.
The Australian Museum Simpson Desert Expedition is funded by a grant from the Australian Museum Foundation.