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Little mammals could be the heroes of our fire-prone forests

Helen Kempton, February 5, 2019 5:45PM Mercury

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An eastern bettong and its baby peer out of their hole in the forest. media_cameraAn eastern bettong and its baby peer out of their hole in the forest.

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Tasmania’s small mammals could be the firefighting heroes of the forest.

Eastern bettongs, bandicoots, potoroos and other animals dig for food on the forest floor, boosting soil fertility* and reducing the risk of bushfire by replacing bulk dry fuel with wetter organic* matter, according to research by scientists at the University of Tasmania.

The animals’ work also helps the forest recover after a fire.

An eastern barred bandicoot being hand raised at Melbourne Zoo as part of a breeding program to save the species from extinction.
media_cameraAn eastern barred bandicoot being hand raised at Melbourne Zoo as part of a breeding program to save the species from extinction.

The new study, by UTAS School of Natural Sciences’ Masters student Gareth Davies with Professor Chris Johnson and other researchers, focused on the temperate* dry forests in Tasmania’s southeast.

“The impact of small animals digging on forest floors, turning soil over and trapping organic matter, is vital in helping to create and maintain a diverse* ecosystem*,” Professor Chris Johnson said.

The study found that by digging, the mammals created pits that acted as traps for organic matter.

“Soil that formed as a result of breakdown of organic matter in the pits had higher fertility and moisture content and lower hardness than undisturbed topsoil,’ Prof. Johnson said.

“The animals digging create higher moisture content in the soil, which not only helps to reduce the risk of bushfire but also enables the habitat to bounce back quickly if it is affected by fire.”

Professor Chris Johnson in Tasmanian forest with an illustration of an eastern bettong. Picture: Eddie Safarik
media_cameraProfessor Chris Johnson in Tasmanian forest with an illustration of an eastern bettong. Picture: Eddie Safarik

The microbe*-rich soil created is also a boon* for invertebrates* such as beetles.

Tasmania is the only state or territory in Australia that is home to large populations of eastern bettongs, bandicoots and long-nosed potoroos.

The eastern bettong is extinct on mainland Australia and bandicoot and long-nosed potoroo populations are declining.

Kirsty Dixon holding a young bettong and potaroo at the University of Tasmania.
media_cameraKirsty Dixon holding a young bettong and potaroo at the University of Tasmania.

“Our data supports the hypothesis* that the loss of digging species has changed soil characteristics, reduced soil fertility and degraded* ecosystem functioning over large areas of Australia,” Prof. Johnson said.

He said the introduced superb lyrebird was also helping to reduce dry litter bulk on the forest floor in other areas of Tasmania.

VIDEO: A motion-sensor camera filmed a superb lyrebird southeast of Melbourne, Victoria, building a dirt platform to stand on to perform the bird calls it has learned to mimic

The superb lyrebird species was introduced into the Mt Field area about 60 years ago and is spreading into other tall, wetter forest types.

The study has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

GLOSSARY

  • fertility: how healthy and nutritious something is, such as the soil for growing plants
  • organic: relating to living or once-living things
  • temperate: mild climate, so warmer than Antarctica and not tropical like Queensland
  • diverse: wide range of different things
  • ecosystem: community of living things
  • microbe: microscopic organism
  • boon: bonus; a good thing
  • invertebrates: animals without a backbone
  • hypothesis: idea to be tested
  • degraded: damaged

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. What state did the study focus on?
  2. What are animals doing that benefits the forest?
  3. Is this good or bad for beetles?
  4. Are there eastern bettongs on mainland Australia?
  5. What species mentioned was introduced into Tasmania about 60 years ago?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Create a Play
Work in groups of three and create and write a 3-5 minute play about the small mammals reducing bushfire risk and helping to create a more diverse ecosystem in Tasmania.

Your performance should include the following elements:

Character names and descriptions written into the play

Outlining of key points contained in the article that are within your script

Entertaining to your class members

Can be a puppet show or dress up play

Perform your play to your class and discuss how different groups portrayed the same information in different ways.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Drama, English, Science, Personal & Social

2. Extension
List the reasons why you think the higher moisture content in the soil helps reduce bushfire risk and also enables the habitat to bounce back quickly if affected by fire.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science

VCOP ACTIVITY
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight all the openers you can find in blue. Discuss if they are powerful and varied openers or not. Why do you think the journalists has used a mix of simple and power openers? Would you change any, and why?

HAVE YOUR SAY: What is your favourite Australian mammal? Why? Share what you know about this mammal.
No one-word sentences. Use full sentences to explain your thinking.

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