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Letter from the Simpson Desert Expedition 2015: the journey begins

By: Jo Stewart, Category: Science, Date: 04 Aug 2015

The first missive from journalist Jo Stewart, who is documenting the work of our science team in the Simpson Desert.

Jo Stewart's feet in the Simpson Desert

Jo Stewart's feet in the Simpson Desert
Photographer: Jo Stewart © Australian Museum

“About 100 years ago the mammal fauna of this region was much more diverse. Feral animals like cats have wiped out a whole fleet of medium-sized native animals. The Museum has specimens of these in the collection and they are a constant reminder of what we have lost. Fortunately this is one of the areas of Australia where there is a wide range of small carnivorous mammals like dunnarts and native rodents including several mice species.”
– Dr Sandy Ingleby

Let’s play a game of word association. What do you think of when you hear the word ‘scientist’? Perhaps you think of a man in a white coat with goggles working in a sterile lab – this is one of the most common images that springs to mind. It’s a stereotype that endures despite all of the achievements of women working in science. I've seen that stereotype smashed in the last few days as Australian Museum Research Institute staff Dr Sandy Ingleby, Dr Anja Divljan and Janet Waterhouse and I travelled 2000 kilometres by vehicle from Sydney to Birdsville, followed by another few hours into the Simpson Desert with a team from Australian Desert Expeditions led by Andrew Harper. We’re now camped with camels in the middle of the desert with no toilets, no showers, no phone reception, no wi-fi and definitely no double-shot lattes. At night, the only light comes from the moon, the camp fire or the torchlights on our heads. This is the way that we will live and work for 18 days.

So why are we here, forsaking all the comforts of the modern world? It's all in the name of science on an exploratory expedition called Project 138. The largest parallel sand desert in the world, the Simpson Desert, has drawn explorers in for centuries. Yet the part that we’re journeying through, along the 138th meridian, has scarcely been visited by the scientific community. “It’s estimated that 45% of mainland Australia has been unexplored by scientists, which is why we are doing what we’re doing,” says Andrew.

We’re here to measure the impact that feral animals have had on the native fauna. While you’d be forgiven for thinking the desert doesn’t support life, there is much life here, with marsupials, reptiles, birds and insects all calling the desert home. Unfortunately, so do feral cats, foxes and brumbies, and the Australian Museum’s band of intrepid scientists hope to gather enough data to get a clearer picture of the impact of these invasive species. Over the last few days we’ve been setting a variety of pitfall traps, light traps and camera traps, locating burrows and finding tracks in the sand to help us make an assessment on the area. 

Working in the desert is a challenge with warm days, cold nights, dry dusty winds and a steady stream of flies providing a working environment a world away from an air conditioned office or lab. As we travel on foot our trusty camels carry our food, water, gear and scientific equipment. So, there is definitely more to working in science than labs. For the female zoologists I’m travelling with, science means digging into sand dunes with shovels, sweating under the hot sun, capturing spiders with their hands and sleeping under the stars.

 

Follow the journey with regular postings here on the Museum’s blog page, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook channels using the #AMexpedition hashtag.

The Australian Museum Simpson Desert Expedition is funded by a grant from the Australian Museum Foundation.