Posted: July 30, 2011

Natural Resource Management and Rainforest Research, Australia


Academic Update

On the 11th of July, 21 students arrived at The SFS Center for Rainforest Studies to explore flora and fauna of Northeastern Queensland. Soon after they had become familiar with life in our campus they were taken west to see the dry outback of Australia. Here they saw their first large kangaroos, bettongs and also a lot of microbats. Students familiarized themselves with features of the dry vegetation by collecting data on canopy density, tree heights, size of trees and soil characteristics. The same features they measured then in areas with rainforest allowing them to compare various types of vegetation.

In their second week students were introduced to ecological methods for faunal elements. They learned about invasive and non-invasive methods to monitor animals and practiced many of them in the lab and the field. One of them was the identification of mammals using hair samples; another was the identification of microbats using species-specific calls. Students had the chance to observe flying foxes and endemic ducks in order to learn techniques of recording animal behaviors. Data collection of faunal elements focused on cane toads to see which cane toads survive the tropical winter, what they eat and how they are infested by parasites. This required field work after dusk with large spotlights, which also gave students the opportunity to see possums and tree kangaroos.

Collected toads were dissected in the lab and the data will help answer the many questions on cane toad populations in tropical winters. The week finished with an introduction into spatial tools in ecological research. Students collected spatial data using GPS and integrated these data into maps. They also practiced radio-tracking and learned about the use of GIS for triangulation.
Dr. Sigrid Heise-Pavlov, Lecturer in Rainforest Ecology

 

Student Reflection
The lava tube unfurled before me like nothing I had ever seen, its ceiling an enormous, curving arch of compacted earth and stone, its floor a moist, pungent mixture of moldering silt and bat guano. Where the white light of our headlamps ended, there was only darkness, cool and mysterious, beckoning us forward.

As we walked through this subterranean world, I was struck by how sharply it contrasted with the sun-baked landscape we had left behind. Above our heads lay the savannah country of the Australian Outback, a land of endless blue skies and yellow, sun-burnished grasses far removed from this place that light rarely touched, where seasons and days had no meaning.

The bats found us before long. They came wheeling out of the dark by the hundreds, their small, furry bodies flying right at us and then darting away at the last moment, each wing beat a light breeze on the cheek. Eventually we came to a widening in the tube, an airy chamber where the bats had gathered en masse, disturbed by our presence. There were more bats here than I had ever dreamed of seeing, an entire colony of Horseshoe bats flying in circular motion, forming a vortex of ghostly gray shapes that took my breath away. Bats flitted in and amongst peculiar fibrous ropes which hung from the ceiling high above—the roots of trees sent down into the earth in search of water. Unlike any bird, the bats flew upon silent wings, although the tunnel walls still echoed with the high-pitched keen of their calls.

We stood there for awhile, shining our lights upon this eerie spectacle, and then it was time to leave and most of us turned back the way we had come, making for the surface and the hot, noontime sun we had left behind. I lingered for a bit, waiting as one by one, the lights of my fellow students started to recede, waiting until it was only my light that I could see. On a whim, I turned my light off and stood there for a second in that perfect darkness, listening to the sound of a thousand flying bats. In the dark, they sounded just like a far off stream, like so much water rushing along in the deeps.
Thomas Dai, Harvard University