Issue 32, July - December 2005

Museum mammals to help track decline

Kakadu resident and ranger Jessie Alderson talks with Mark Ziembicki about the status of mammals in the region

Kakadu resident and ranger Jessie Alderson talks with Mark Ziembicki about the status of mammals in the region. Mark is holding a stuffed nail-tail wallaby. Photo: Carol Palmer

If you are an Aboriginal person living in northern Australia and you or your community would like to contribute, contact Mark Ziembicki, Biodiversity Conservation Unit, NT NRETA and ANU or John Woinarski, Biodiversity Conservation Unit, NT NRETA, details at the bottom of the page.

A new research project aims to use Aboriginal knowledge to complement Western science to help explain where and why our northern mammals are in decline. Mark Ziembiki explains.

Mammals in northern Australia are in trouble. On the surface, our northern landscapes appear largely intact, but recent evidence suggests that not all is as it should be with our environments. Many mammal species and some birds have declined or disappeared across northern Australia, representing the major loss of biodiversity in the tropical savannas. These declines reflect those that have occurred in central Australia in the past where 15 species have become extinct, most of them throughout their entire range.

Many of the species that appear to be declining in northern Australia are from the same groups as those that have proved most susceptible to decline elsewhere in Australia: the so-called ‘critical weight range’ mammals including bandicoots, possums, quolls, smaller wallabies and larger rodents.

Comparisons of the present situation with historical records gives us an idea of the scale of these losses. Knut Dahl, an early zoologist/explorer, wrote of his experiences in the south-east Kimberley and Arnhem Land in 1897. His accounts provide some insight into how things have changed. He writes, for example, of the golden bandicoot in the Broome region: “very numerous in the coast country around Roebuck Bay... great numbers being brought to me”.

Map showing the distribution of the Golden Bandicoot

Map showing the distribution of the Golden Bandicoot. Once found in the dark yellow zones, it is now only found in a small area of the Kimberley, two small islands off Western Australia and one island off Arnhem Land.

These bandicoots are now only found in a small area of the Kimberley, two small islands off Western Australia and one island off Arnhem Land (see map).

Similarly, the golden backed tree-rat: “the houses of settlers…are always tenanted by (this species)”. It has not been seen in the Northern Territory since 1969 and now occurs only in a few small areas of the Kimberley.

Ecological research in northern Australia has historically lagged behind that of other regions. Although there had been a handful of baseline studies, pioneering surveys and unrelated studies of individual species in the past, most studies of northern Australia’s mammals began 10–15 years ago. Much of the focus of these recent efforts has been on broad-scale surveys of representative sites across northern Australia, re-surveys of baseline sampling sites and targeted, selected studies of individual, representative species.

The relative infancy of wildlife research in the north compounded by the inherent difficulties associated with studies of a largely nocturnal, secretive group of animals over large and sparsely settled regions means that much of our scientific knowledge is fragmented, punctuated by gaps in our understanding—making it difficult to pinpoint the extent and timing of losses that may have occurred.

Two Tool-Box Approach

Previous studies

Our present study is modelled on a similar study conducted in the mid-1980s by Burbidge 1 et al. (1988) that aimed to document the status of mammals across Australia’s deserts using Aboriginal knowledge.

Aboriginal people living in communities scattered across Australia’s deserts were shown museum skins and asked to provide local names, current and past status, and aspects of biology and ecology of each species.

This study demonstrated very successfully the use and importance of such knowledge by presenting new information about the distribution patterns and ecology of many species that would otherwise have been unavailable. The mammals of the central deserts were richer and more widespread than generally believed, but these regions underwent massive and rapid losses of species—a situation that seems to be repeating itself across Australia’s north.

To get a broader perspective in geography and time of the changes in mammal status in northern Australia, and to fill in some of these gaps in our knowledge, we aim to complement the scientific studies and historical records with the perspectives of Aboriginal people.

By using these two knowledge systems, we aim to use ‘two-tool boxes’ to address a common problem that is too difficult to tackle with just one set of solutions.

Many Aboriginal people that have been able to remain on country, or spend significant time there, retain an intimate knowledge of many of the plants and animals on their lands.

In collaboration with Aboriginal participants, we propose to chart the pattern of mammal decline across much of northern Australia through documentation of Aboriginal knowledge of the current and past status of mammals.

This approach is modelled on that used very successfully across Australia’s central deserts in the mid-1980s (see Burbidge et al. 1988) to describe the pattern of decline in the central Australian mammal fauna.

Over the 2005–06 dry seasons we will visit numerous communities and outstations across the Top End and Kimberley to speak to Aboriginal people about the status of mammals that live, or have lived, on their country. To help stimulate discussions, and also to help identify each species, we will travel with a suite of stuffed, museum specimens of each species—in effect a traveling mammal puppet show!

Mark Ziembicki prepares museum specimens at the Biodversity Conservation Unit Laboratory for the project

Mark Ziembicki prepares museum specimens at the Biodversity Conservation Unit Laboratory for the project. Photo: Jenni Risler

The study aims to support a two-way flow of information. Knowing about science helps Aboriginal rangers and communities look after animals and country at a time when things have greatly changed since the old days. And knowing about Aboriginal knowledge helps scientists understand country and what is important to Aboriginal people living on country.

We hope to get this exchange in the course of discussions and by the preparation of educational materials as requested by communities (for example, teaching materials, videos and posters.)

The results of these investigations, together with complementary information derived from western scientific studies, will enable us to chart the geographic and ecological pattern of decline of fauna across northern Australia.

These patterns can then be related to a broad set of environmental factors (including topographic relief, land use and tenure, fire regimes, history of settlement, feral animal distributions, etc.) to examine the processes underlying patterns and the causes of mammal declines. The information could then be used to assess the success of the region’s protected areas in conserving biodiversity and the kinds of management regimes needed to improve long-term conservation objectives both on and off reserves.

This is a collaborative project between the Australian National University (ANU), the Biodiversity Conservation Unit of Dept. Natural Resources, Environment & the Arts (NRETA), Northern Land Council, the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance and the Wilderness Society. It is funded by an ARC linkage grant to John Woinarski (NRETA) and Brendan Mackey (ANU).

1. Burbidge, A.A. & Johnson, K.A. et al. 1988, ‘Aboriginial knowledge of the mammals of the central deserts of Australia,’ Australian Wildlife Research, 15: 9–39.


Dr John Woinarski
NT Dept Natural Resourcs, Environment, the Arts and Sport
Tel: 08 8995 5000

Fax: 08 8995 5099

PO Box 496