Growing up in Victoria, I spent many weekends camping, hiking and rock-climbing in spectacular places like the Arapiles, Cathedral Ranges, Mount Buffalo and the You Yangs. However, some of my earliest memories stem from England (where I was born) and involve catching newts in our pond, and chasing common lizards into their burrows. On moving to Australia, my childhood memories were similarly filled with images of inquisitive creatures peering out from dark rock crevices, or catching fleeting glimpses of small lizards nervously scuttling across exposed rock faces, all while I fumbled about looking for a trustworthy crag to anchor my climbing gear.
Little did I know these early experiences with nature would trigger a life-long passion for exploring rocky wonderlands and studying the creatures that call them home. Reptiles are truly fascinating animals, as many of you will attest, so I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to study them for the past 20 years (and many more to come).
One of the Conservation and Landscape Ecology Group’s key research interests is to understand reptile habitat-relationships and to quantify the ecological roles of small island-like rocky outcrops in human-modified landscapes. In many agricultural regions, historical land clearing has left rocky outcrops exposed, isolated, surrounded by secondary grasslands and cereal crops, infested with weeds and feral animals, and generally in extremely poor and degraded conditions.
Invasive woody weeds, soil erosion and nitrification, introduced rabbits and goats, inappropriate fire regimes, logging, quarrying and illegal bushrock removal have dramatically altered these systems to such a degree that it will take a huge amount of time and resources to restore these fragile environments back to a functional and healthy state. But, it can be done, and in some regions, it is being done by groups of dedicated landholders and Landcare groups.
Part of the reason why we decided to write a book on rocky outcrops was because there are significant biodiversity and productivity benefits to be gained from protecting and restoring these environments. By fencing them out, excluding or managing livestock and feral herbivore grazing pressure, native vegetation has the potential to regenerate; soil erosion can be mitigated, and biodiversity has the opportunity to return back to the hills.
Increased biodiversity is definitely one positive outcome, but there are economic benefits to landholders and the wider community as well. For example, reducing soil erosion and increasing grass cover around rocky outcrops has direct farm productivity benefits. Large rocky outcrops often support rock holes (gnammas), moss beds and natural springs, areas which retain moisture and slowly release it back into the surrounding environment long after a rain event. Hard-hooved animals such as sheep, cattle, pigs, goats, deer and horses can severely damage and pollute these sensitive areas. The increase in native birds and insects that return to a regenerating outcrop also contribute to controlling agricultural pests and pollinating crops. Rare and allusive pythons also occupy large rocky outcrops. These top predators venture into farmland during the warm months of the year to prey on introduced mice, rats and rabbits. Clearly there is much to be gained by restoring rocky outcrops and linking them back up with other landscape features.
Our latest book aims to introduce the many benefits of preserving and restoring natural geological formations in Australia. It includes chapters on why rocky outcrops are important from an ecological and cultural perspective, what types of animals are dependent on rocky outcrops for their survival, what are the main threats to rocky areas in different parts of Australia, and how they can be better managed to improve biodiversity and productivity outcomes. The book also highlights recent studies on rock-dependent reptiles by some of Australia’s leading researchers.
Rocky Outcrops in Australia is beautifully illustrated and features outstanding images by some of Australia’s most talented nature photographers. The book should appeal to a broad range of audiences from naturalists, natural resource management agencies, Landcare groups and private landholders. Copies of the book can be ordered through the CSIRO Publishing website, or by clicking on this link.
Michael, D.R., Cunningham, R.B. and Lindenmayer, D.B. (2008) A forgotten habitat? Granite inselbergs conserve reptile diversity in fragmented agricultural landscapes. Journal of Applied Ecology 45, 1742-1752.
Michael, D.R., Lindenmayer, D.B. and Cunningham, R.B. (2010) Managing rock outcrops to improve biodiversity conservation in Australian agricultural landscapes. Ecological Management and Restoration 11(1), 43-50.