Blitz in the Bush for New Species

08 November 2012

A team of South Australian Museum experts will head to the Gawler Ranges this weekend to scour the land for new species in Hiltaba in the State's northwest.

Bush Blitz is a project designed to document the plants and animals across Australia's National Reserve system and is a partnership between the Australian Government, Earthwatch Australia and BHP Billiton. The project has increased the numbers of new species discovered and described by Museum's scientists. The field trip to Hiltaba is the 16th Bush Blitz expedition since the program began in 2010.

From this Sunday, our team will work in the field with researchers from other institutions as well as local Aboriginal rangers, traditional owners and BHP Billiton employees.

The rocky terrain of the Gawler Ranges, 55 km north of the town of Wudinna, is home to more than 162 species of fauna and 976 of flora.

South Australian Museum Senior Researcher in Herpetology Dr Mark Hutchinson says while there is some information about life at Hiltaba, the picture is incomplete.

"For example, there are 28 reptile species already recorded, but the general area of the western Gawler Ranges has over 60 species. We know there must be many of these that occur at Hiltaba but have not been documented yet," he says. "We will be aiming to increase the known list of reptiles and mammals that occur within the Hiltaba reserve."

During the Bush Blitz (11–23 November), the team will also be looking for new stygofauna, bees, butterflies and moths, grasshoppers, springtails, vertebrates and invertebrates. Scientists will be setting live traps including pitfalls, funnel traps, box traps and harp traps for bats, and scouring various undercover habitats during the day and with spotlights at night.

The Nature Foundation SA purchased the 77,355 hectare Hiltaba reserve in April 2012 with the Australian Government contributing $562,132 through the Caring for our Country program. It is located 260 km west of Port Augusta and is the home of nationally-listed threatened species, including Yellow-footed Rock Wallabies, Mallee Fowl and Slender-billed Thornbills.

Bush Blitz has discovered some 600 species that are new to science in more than 60 reserves — helping to increase our knowledge of Australia's amazing biodiversity.

Nature Foundation SA chief executive officer Andrew Reilly says Hiltaba has helped connect almost 750 kilometres land, from the Western Australian and South Australian border to the Eyre Peninsula, creating a crucial link in the East Meets West Naturelinks Corridor.

"Looking closely at Hiltaba and the Gawler Ranges will give us a better understanding of the plants and animals of this surprisingly diverse region, helping us to manage Hiltaba for future generations," he said.

Gawler Ranges National Park senior ranger Michael Freak said the rocky granite hills of the ranges received higher rainfall than surrounding areas, creating greater species diversity.

"The diversity means our chance of discovering new species out here is actually quite good. We're all looking forward to getting out on the ground with the scientists, and getting the blitz underway."

Bush Blitz programs have provided obvious beneficial results for natural science since Museum staff began participating in the trips. At a past Blitz at Witchelina and Bon Bon Pastoral Lease in the State's north in October 2010, scientists found many new species of insect. Some remain undescribed.

A new species of bee, genus Homalictus, was found at Bon Bon Reserve in 2010.

Senior researcher Dr Mark Stevens says 30 new species of bees were found and 80 of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).

"Specimens have been compared with the South Australian Museum's collections. Only a small number of species could be positively identified. It is estimated that at least 50% of the species are currently undescribed," he says.

Post-survey studies of the species collected at Hiltaba this year will be conducted at the South Australian Museum.