Written by: Helen A. Truscott, Robin Lungeli-Magar & Arashdeep K. Sandhu
As a group of Charles Darwin University Environmental Science students along with staff we travelled from Darwin to Mataranka. A small township approximately 420 km South of Darwin with an estimated population of 400 people.
The objective was to look at environmental gradients and ecosystem function by assessing landforms, soil and vegetation. We took a break from Slim Dusty’s “Essential Australian” CD playing on repeat in Katherine to stock up on supplies then onto the Territory Manor Camp ground.
In the morning after being awoken by camp donkeys we headed to the first of two sites at Mataranka station to compare burnt and unburnt savanna woodland vegetation and soil characteristics. The first was the frequently burnt site with an approximate burn frequency of four years. After day two in the field, we were all exhausted and turned in for an early night. Day three we headed to the second site, the unburnt site. This site had no fires recorded for 16 years but had a low intensity fire last October.
Figure 1: Donkeys acting as alarm in our Mataranka camping site
The most distinct difference between the two sites was that the unburnt site had far more dense woody vegetation, with a taller top story and less grasses. Notably at the unburnt site, the Acacia species had died in the October fire but the Eucalyptus seemed more fire tolerant. During our sampling, we found evidence of Wallaby grazing but as there was no cattle currently present on the station, the overall grazing pressure was low over the sample sites. At the end of day three, very sweaty and reasonably sunburnt, we headed to the beautiful Bitter Springs for an underwater lecture.
Figure 2. First day on in the field at the burnt site of Mataranka Station
Figure 3: Wallaby hole spotted in Unburnt site
Professor Lindsay Hutley highlighted the importance of ground water feeding aquatic systems and agriculture in the Top End and potential issues with increased irrigation in agricultural use. At which point Dr Carla Eisemberg hijacked a turtle from nearby swimmers and gave an impromptu lecture on the Worrell's short-necked turtle, Emydura subglobosa worrelli. Interestingly, Australia and South America share some of the same species of turtle dating back to the Gondwana era.
Figure 4: Turtle observation during underwater lecture, Bitter Springs
Later in the evening, we headed out to Elsey National Park to spotlight fauna. During our 50 minutes of spotlighting, we weren’t lucky enough to spot a huge number of fauna but there was a fair amount of spiders, bats, fishes, one native frog and many introduced cane toads.
Figure 5: Local Species of frog spotted during spotlighting at Elsey National Park, Mataranka
The next day before leaving we stopped at Coodardie Station; a small family run cattle property where they practices holistic land management. Owners Claire and Mike O’Brien explained how they are using the cattle as tools to run an ecologically sustainable system through high intensity, low-frequency grazing and fire exclusion. From here we headed North into the Douglas Daly region to further investigate vegetation changes over latitudinal gradient.