QUT researchers study biodiversity from all angles

22nd September 2020

To celebrate National Biodiversity Month we check in with QUT's early career researchers focused on the conservation of biological diversity within Australia and beyond. 

Australia is the most biodiversity-rich developed country in the world. About 84 per cent of our mammals and 45 per cent of our birds are endemic to our landscapes and our continent is home to more than 24,000 native plant species. Every year, National Biodiversity Month promotes the importance of conserving our endemic treasures and improving our biological diversity.

The Anthropocene effects of habitat loss, invasive species and climate change have greatly inhibited the ability of our natural landscapes and systems to recover and thrive, resulting in an urgent need for us to better understand and protect our remaining ecosystems.

Supported by QUT’s Centre for the Environment and our partners, many of our early career researchers are focused on the conservation of biological diversity through a range of projects that examine, protect and improve the conservation of endemic species and natural systems in both terrestrial and marine landscapes.

Discover how these projects are actively conserving and improving biological diversity both within Australia and across the world.

 

The ecological impact of myrtle rust

Myrtle rust is a disease caused by the exotic fungus Austropuccinia psidii. This introduced species has had a devastating effect on our endemic flora - about 350 plant species have proved susceptible to this invasive threat.

QUT Master of Philosophy in Ecology student Santiago Diaz Torres’ project aims to understand the impact of myrtle rust in wet sclerophyll forests and how it might affect the plant biodiversity of these ecosystems.

“My work helps to conserve biological diversity by understanding the impact that myrtle rust has had in one of the most iconic Australian ecosystems and to develop the necessary knowledge to prioritise conservation efforts in the Tallebudgera Valley region.”

The role of macroalgal Halimeda bioherms

Very little is known about the biodiversity and ecosystem structure of the inter-reef marine habitats called Halimeda bioherms. These benthic habitats exist on the seafloor, 25 to 55m under water, on the outer continental shelf of the northern Great Barrier Reef.  

QUT Sessional Academic Mardi McNeil’s PhD project examined data from the Seabed Biodiversity Project to investigate this marine habitat’s biodiversity and the communities of plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates that call the Halimeda bioherms home.

“Our findings will directly inform reef management agencies tasked with documenting and understanding the deeper habitats of the Great Barrier Reef, their biodiversity and ecological structure and function, and how these deeper habitats may be impacted by future ocean warming scenarios.”

Filling clouds gaps in satellite images for forest monitoring

Satellite images are essential for frequent and large-scale forest monitoring in developing countries where data cannot be collected in the field due to expense, remoteness or conflict in the region. However, satellite images often have missing data due to cloud cover.

QUT Postdoctoral Fellow Jacinta Holloway Brown’s project developed machine learning approaches that use spatial and temporal information to monitor forest cover using freely available satellite images and created methods that fill in these cloud-cover gaps quickly and accurately.

“Measuring forest cover can identify important change over time such as deforestation and growth. It is also an important indicator of biodiversity as it can measure plant productivity and by proxy, species richness. ”

Acoustic observation of Australasian treecreeper species

Australasian treecreepers (Climacteridae) are woodland birds endemic to Australia and Papua New Guinea. In the future, climate change and habitat fragmentation may cause the geographic range of treecreeper subspecies to change and populations may become further isolated or overlap.

Brendan Doohan’s PhD project will explore patterns in treecreeper vocalisations (calls and songs) and genetic differentiation of treecreepers across eastern Australia, aiming to see if birds from different subspecies recognise the calls of other populations.

“If birds of different populations do not recognise each other’s calls they may not freely interbreed, so we need to understand these dynamics to manage their populations in response to potential changes to their current distributions due to land clearing and climate change.”

Detection strategies for antechinus conservation

Antechinuses are a group of native carnivorous marsupial which are considered threatened or endangered in most of their home range.

Due to their dwindling habitats, detecting these rare critters is tough. Traditionally, trap and release methods have been used to locate populations, however QUT PhD student Stephane Batista is working with Canines for Wildlife to test and optimise the detection of antechinuses using dogs. They hope to provide more detailed information about the distribution and habitat requirements of these threatened marsupials.

“The results of our study will inform long-term conservation strategies for threatened antechinuses and extend the utility and scope of detection dogs as a tool in small mammal conservation.”

Monitoring vulnerable koala populations using remotely piloted aircraft systems

Getting accurate estimates of population numbers for endangered species is crucial to their conservation, but koalas can be very difficult to detect and count in the wild. Evangeline Corcoran’s QUT PhD project is developing a method to more accurately and efficiently survey and estimate koala populations numbers using a combination of drones, thermal cameras and artificial intelligence.

“By developing a survey method that is more accurate, faster, and less invasive than traditional methods we aim to help wildlife managers make better, more timely decisions to protect this iconic, vulnerable species.”

Conservation of urban bat populations

Due to habitat loss, Australia’s only fishing bat, the large-footed myotis (Myotis macropus), has taken to making the urban landscapes of our cities and suburbs home.

QUT PhD student Vanessa Gorecki is using ecological and molecular methods to study how these bats use their urban roosts and to better understand their habitat selection and population gene flow. The research has identified that under-road culvert roosts are a limited resource for them and that a disturbance to, or loss of, their chosen spot could significantly impact their populations.

“My research contributes towards the conservation and management of a specialist bat found in urban environments, contributing towards urban biodiversity conservation. I have identified that M. macropus movement in an urban environment is restricted to riparian corridors and maintaining open green space in urban areas is vital for the viability their populations.”

Powerful Owl acoustic monitoring

Australia's Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) is our largest species of owl, with a wingspan of up to 1.4m. These impressive birds of prey are under threat from habitat loss, as our east coast urban sprawl continues to cut into their forest habitats.  

Powerful Owl populations can be tricky to track due to their large home ranges and remote habitat locations. Monitoring their populations using eco-acoustics can help researchers more accurately identify population data and better understand the impact of threats to their eco-systems.

In partnership with Bird Life Australia, QUT masters student Callan Alexander’s research aims to provide the acoustic backbone required to uncover Powerful Owl habitat and population data. This will allow researchers to determine which factors are associated with greater breeding success and also develop more accurate species distribution models. The data the project will uncover could help state governments and councils make better informed environmental management decisions in their urban and regional planning.

"Acoustic monitoring provides valuable insight into the vocalisations of Powerful Owls throughout their breeding season. You can’t protect something unless you know where it is, so an eco-acoustic approach will allow for improved monitoring of this cryptic species. This knowledge can then be used to guide land management decisions and hopefully improve protections for this incredible apex predator."

To learn more about the work QUT is doing to bring research, government, industry and community together to create real-world solutions to the most pressing environmental challenges visit our Centre for the Environment.

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