Exploring the Grampians

By Jenna Hanson 10 June 2014
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Scientists have shown once again that this vast western Victorian national park is crawling with many creatures great and small.

AS DR KEVIN ROWE painstakingly checks more than 650 small-animal traps set in heath and buttongrass below the steep cliffs of Grampians National Park, he expects them all to be empty.

Not because the Grampians (or Gariwerd to give it its Aboriginal name) is bereft of life – in fact it’s crawling with more than 40 recorded mammal species, 200 bird species and an abundance of reptiles, amphibians and insects. It’s because it is the middle of the day and most warm-blooded animals like to move around at night.

However, in one of the last traps we check, Kevin finds a dusky antechinus. The young, mouse-like marsupial, less than 10cm long, is devouring insects that were attracted to the mixture of ingredients, such as honey and oats, which is used to bait the traps.

“The adult males all died back in August when they mated for the last time and now we get a lot of the new males running around without their mums,” Kevin says.

The little male is missing a small circle of flesh in his ear – a genetic sample taken when he was caught previously by Kevin and his colleagues from Museum Victoria and Parks Victoria rangers, here for 12 days to conduct a comprehensive biological survey of the park.

The group is catching and documenting everything they find: growling grass frogs, black swamp skinks, tiger snakes, freshwater shrimp and Dobson-fly larvae. There are also beautiful rock scorpions that glow blue in the dark under a black light.

“That’s actually the way we find them at night – they’re like beacons,” says Patrick Honan, the live exhibits manager at the museum.

Three of the scientists are scuba diving down a river no more than knee deep in some places, looking for platypus food (small aquatic invertebrates), freshwater gudgeons, sponges and dragonfly nymphs. They find western swamp crayfish, which, at less than 3cm, are Australia’s smallest freshwater crayfish, and much bigger Glenelg River spiny crayfish, both of which are endangered in Victoria.

Head of science, Mark Norman, says the team is particularly excited that they’ve caught three species of antechinus (the dusky, yellow-footed and the agile), and also that, over the first three days of the study, they didn’t catch any house mice or introduced rats. “In other surveys we’ve done, we found 80–90 per cent of the traps had house mice in them,” he says.

A team of passionate researchers in the Grampians

The field work is part of a five-year plan to conduct small and large biological surveys in Victorian national parks. “It’s more a case of bringing a really big range of experts across lots of areas to just get a snapshot of what’s here right now,” Mark explains. “For us, it’s continuing what the museum has strengths in – species identification and understanding natural history and natural science.”

Mark says there is plenty of fun and liveliness among the camp and the researchers, “Their energy and their enthusiasm is really unstoppable and I’d say we’re really lucky…with the group we’ve got,” he says.

“I just love how someone says: ‘Oh, I’ve got this’, and everyone runs over to have a look… Then someone else says: ‘There’s an interesting praying mantis in the toilets’, and they’ll all run over there.”

As if to demonstrate, there is a rush of people out the back door of base camp. They’ve heard the announcement that a lace monitor has bolted up a tree just near the building. However, it turns out to be a renegade that had been caught earlier, placed in a sack in the shade to calm down, and in its bid for freedom had torn through the material as if it was tissue paper.

Within its vast 1680sq.km, Grampians National Park’s sandstone landscape, adorned with dramatic outcroppings of granite, is home to more than 800 native plants and a number of varied ecosystems that contribute to its rich animal life. The Grampians ranges also contains the westernmost vestiges of the Great Dividing Range.

“The majority of the Grampians is sandstone, which was laid close to 400 million years ago,” says Parks Victoria ranger Ryan Duffy. “I think it gives you a very classic Australian landscape.”

Ryan says the museum’s field trip will hopefully have a number of positive outcomes for the Grampians National Park and its rangers, including refreshing park records, some of which are decades old. Knowing the distribution of local and invasive species will help the rangers with the management of the park.

“I get to see the park from a different perspective,” says Ryan. “It’s also great just to spend every day going out…and exploring the different nooks and crannies of the park with people with very specialised skills who are also passionate about the park.”