Pilbara conservation research to bring global benefits

February 22, 2018

Endangered species: The research will focus on mammal species like the northern quoll (Credit: Mark Cowan DBCA)

Endangered species: The research will focus on mammals like the northern quoll (Credit: Mark Cowan DBCA)

Murdoch University researchers have won major funding to develop new tools that protect the environment in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

Associate Professor Peter Spencer and adjunct lecturer Kym Ottewell from the School of Veterinary and Life Sciences, are applying a new method of genetic modelling to identify key habitats that will support the long-term survival of native wildlife.

Their investigation will focus on 13 small to medium-sized mammal species in the biodiversity hotspot, including four endangered species – the northern quoll, bilby, ghost bat and Pilbara leaf-nosed bat.  These species have suffered a rapid decline in number since European settlement.

Partners in the research include Australian National University, CSIRO, Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), Roy Hill Iron Ore, Biologic Pty Ltd, Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute and the Western Australian Museum.

The research team is at the forefront of a new approach to conservation science, taking tools from the fields of genomics, evolutionary biology and landscape genetics to apply to landscape-scale conservation. This seeks to find a better balance between biodiversity and the range of other land uses, including pastoralism, resource extraction, local economies and tourism.

“The Pilbara is one of the oldest landscapes on earth and the rich biodiversity makes it an excellent case study to demonstrate this approach which can be applied to natural landscapes worldwide,” Professor Spencer said.

“Globally the conservation community is recognising that a static and fragmented system of protecting specific habitats is often inadequate to conserve populations over big areas and long periods of time.”

The researchers are effectively putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, connecting habitats that the animals like to live in, with the landscape that they like to move through. This knowledge will help to conserve populations when they experience disturbance – for example, through fire or mining activity – and better allow them to respond to environmental change.

“Our research aims to locate core habitats for species, as well as pathways that facilitate their movement, because dispersal is the glue that holds populations together and enables them to colonise new habitats and respond to climate change,” Professor Spencer said.

“By measuring gene flow, we can evaluate not only whether the species moved, but more importantly, whether it survived and reproduced in the new landscape.”

Using state-of-the-art analytical techniques, Professor Spencer aims to develop a modelling tool to help secure future genetic diversity by predicting suitable habitats as well as dispersal corridors for species with different movement characteristics and habitat needs.

The research findings are expected to provide valuable assistance to iron ore miner Roy Hill in meeting development approval conditions to protect threatened fauna habitats and, with research partners, identify areas for conservation prioritisation.

“This project addresses research gaps that have been identified by government and industry stakeholders actively involved in conservation management, and should provide substantial and lasting conservation benefits for the Pilbara,” Professor Spencer said.

Professor Spencer’s team, which has a record of producing high-impact research, has received a $356,000 grant from the Australian Research Council to conduct the three-year study.

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