Australia's Great Sandy Desert
Wildlife, Plants, People and Culture
The Great Sandy Desert lies within a bioregion that Australian naturalists call the Eremaean Botanical Province. Its plant community is dominated, according to the Australian Natural Resources Atlas, by "desert grassland, low woodland and shrubs. Southern areas of the bioregion comprise tree and shrub steppe with spinifex grasslands." Wetlands, located near ancient drainages, along the Rudall River, and within deep gorges, host relict and rare plant species.
A few of the more interesting Great Sandy plants, according to Garden Guide, include:
- Desert bloodwood (Corymbia opaca), a rough-barked tree with leathery leaves and thick, blood-like sap. It grows as much as 30 feet high on the desert plains. It has roots that store water to sustain the plant during droughts.
- Paperbark tree (Melaleuca cajuputi), a tree with layers of bark that resemble paper. It may grow as a 75-foot tall tree or as a shrub in stands, primarily in the wetlands of the desert's more humid and hot regions. Its new shoots, adorned with thick and silky hairs, give the tree a somewhat silvery sheen. Its oil serves both as an antiseptic and as an insect repellent.
- Bramble wattle (Acacia victoriae), a thorn-studded shrub or small tree that, somewhat like the honey mesquite of the American Southwest, extends the reach of its root system outwards to seek out subsurface water and nutrients. It tends to favor sunny areas with medium to heavy soils, and unlike the honey mesquite, it casts a heavy shade.
- Soft Spinifex (Trodia pungens R. Br.), a sharp-pointed grass that grows in clumps atop small mounds. Its stems take water and nutrients from its long roots. It thrives on the desert's sand dunes and rocky outcrops.
Based on limited research and sparse ecological data, the Great Sandy's wildlife population, concentrated around wetlands and lakes, is known to include some 150 to 200 bird species, more than six dozen reptile species, at least some three dozen mammal species as well as numerous other wildlife forms, said the Australian Natural Resources Atlas.
Evidently, several species, some now rare, occur nowhere else. These include, for instance, the great desert skink, a gecko, several burrowing frogs, a scorpion, an earthworm and a land snail. Unfortunately, the current faunal mix also includes several invasive species that threaten native wildlife as well as native plant communities.
A few of the wildlife residents of the Great Sandy Desert include:
- Dwarf bearded dragon (Pagona minor), a 15-inch-long lizard with spines on its throat and underside. Chameleon-like, its colors change to earth-tones to blend with its environment or to brighter colors during interactions with other dwarf bearded dragons. The male bobs its head vigorously, probably to try to proclaim dominance over nearby males. Some bearded dragon species have become popular pets.
- Scarlet-chested parrot (Neophema splendida), an 8-inch-long bird dressed in a rainbow of colors. In addition to its scarlet chest, it has a deep blue face, bright green and pale blue wings, a green tail, and yellow underparts. Often difficult to spot in spite of its bright coloration, the elusive bird may be threatened by loss of habitat and entrapment for the pet trade.
- Flying fox (Pteropus scapulatus), a 10- to 20-ounce bat that sometimes flies in groups of a million or more. Reddish brown with translucent wings, it often roosts in stands of paperbark trees. Feeding on nectar and pollen and dispersing seeds and pollen, it plays a key role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem.
- Dingo (Canis lupus dingo), a wild dog, typically auburn in color, that may have been introduced into Australia from southeastern Asia by seafaring Aboriginals more than 3000 years ago, according to the Henipavirus Ecology Collaborative Research Group. Ranging from 20 to 40 pounds in weight and some three feet in length, the dingo forms packs of up to a dozen individuals, and it preys primarily on small mammals, although it will take occasional domestic livestock, birds and reptiles. It breeds freely with domestic dogs, making hybridization a threat to the species.
- Red kangaroo (Macropus rufus), the largest native mammal in Australia and the largest marsupial (mammals that carry and nurse their young in an abdominal pouch containing teats) in the world. A male may stand six feet tall and weigh 200 pounds. The female is substantially smaller. The red kangaroo prefers open grasslands, relying on green plants to satisfy much of its requirement for moisture. It uses its powerful back legs to fight off predators, battle other kangaroos, and leap up to 30 feet.
Unfortunately, Great Sandy Desert's native wildlife and plants are threatened by various invasive species, many of them imported by European and other settlers during the 19th century. A few of the most damaging include feral foxes and cats, which prey on the native wildlife, and camels and rabbits, which deplete parts of the native plant community.
Rabbits, introduced from Europe, have likely inflicted more environmental damage than any other feral species, having denuded landscapes, facilitated erosion, ringbarked and killed young trees and degraded native species' food sources.
Other than a few mining centers and livestock stations, the Great Sandy Desert's scattered populations consist primarily of a limited number of Aboriginals, who were among those who arrived in Australia by sea thousands of years ago. Collectively, across the continent, the Aboriginals -- when the Europeans arrived in the 18th century -- numbered several hundreds of thousands and spoke more than 250 languages, with some 600 dialects. Although highly variable in their belief systems, the Aborigines shared a profound sense of spirituality, which they celebrated in their creation stories, traditions, visions, music, dance, art and sacred lands.
What is perhaps the most spectacular single example of Great Sandy Desert Aboriginal art is known as Ngurrara: The Great Sandy Desert Canvas, which measures some 26 by 32 feet. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2003, "[The artwork] was created by senior [Aboriginal] artists as part of their case in the Walmajarri native title claim, and was sold at a Sotheby's auction in July for $213,000."
"With a bird's eye view," said Larissa Behrendt, Aboriginal lawyer and writer, "the canvas makes the viewer[s] feel as though they are floating across the country. The waterholes, trees, salt lakes and people are visible. It shows the path of serpents and ancestors. It tells panoramic story of ceremonies being performed, creation stories, of spirits, of snoring fathers."
The Big Sandy Desert -- a part of the famed Australian Outback -- offers "stunning scenery, magnificent rocks and gorges and coloured sands...unique plants and animals," according to the travel writer known simply as "B." Its national parks and natural formations draw many tourists. Some half million visit the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park each year. The desert's more remote regions, for instance, an old livestock drovers' trail known as the Canning Stock Trail, lure some of the more adventurous.
If the back country proves irresistible, "please be aware," said B., "that it requires thorough preparation, experience and knowledge. You need a very reliable vehicle and detailed maps, enough fuel, necessary spare parts, and plenty of water. You can never take too much water!
"And above all," she said, "let someone know where you are going, and when you intend to arrive. People have died in the Great Sandy Desert, because they neglected this one simple step..."
If you have no experience in the area, you will be far safer if you enlist the services of a tour operator. Back country trips can last for several weeks.
- A dingo pack's dominant pair usually mates for life, asserting a right to be the only two of the pack to breed and reproduce. In fact, the dominant female kills the young of any other female in the pack that might dare to have a litter. The dominant pair's young receive care from the other pack members.
- Wild camels, which roam across the Great Sandy Desert and other interior regions, are descendents of escaped and abandoned dromedary camels that were originally imported from Afghanistan as draft animals by the early explorers and pioneers. According to some estimates, Australia's camels exceed 1,000,000--the largest feral population of the animal in the world.
- Early in the 20th century, in an attempt to erect a barrier against invasive species, the Australian government built an 1140-mile "rabbit proof fence" across the Great Sandy and adjoining regions. The longest fence in the world, it became a national symbol in the classic Australian movie "The Rabbit Proof Fence." Parts of the fence remain standing to this day.
by Jay Sharp
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