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Crossing country

Life on land

“We go back to mid-December 2019. As the aeroplane begins its descent, the smoke and dust from the distant fires obscure the desert landscapes. We are about to land in Alice Springs”. Peter Hylands

Peter Hylands, Bobby Abbott, Andrea Hylands

May 21, 2023

It is mid-morning and the heat of the day is building. Climbing down to the tarmac, the powerful wind brings with it a heavy mixture of dust and smoke. It was hard to breathe, all is heat and dust. Around this time the catastrophic fire storms in eastern Australia were also beginning their terrifying destruction.

As it turned out we came to know these fires all too well, spending weeks travelling through the devastation. That is for another story and another time.

As Australia begins to burn

It is mid-morning and the heat of the day is building. Climbing down to the tarmac at Alice Springs Airport, the powerful wind brings with it a heavy mixture of dust and smoke. It was hard to breathe, all is heat and dust.

Around this time the catastrophic fire storms in eastern Australia were also beginning their terrifying destruction. As it turned out we came to know these fires all too well, spending weeks travelling through the devastation. That is for another story and for another time.

On the road now, from here we head roughly west, out of Alice Springs and through the West MacDonnell Ranges, not the usual ancient landscape unfolding before us, the startling and beautiful formations of this country, now obscured by the smoke and dust that surrounds us. That night, even the stars in the sky were blinded by the smoke from the burning forests and grasslands far away.

The next morning the wind had done its job and the air was clear again. It was good to breathe clean air once more. Here there had also been fire. Around us, the blackened stems of shrubs and trunks of trees with their bright green shoots.

In all the heat and dust the little bush flies remained active with their irritating habit of going for the corner of your eyes and if you happen to speak to someone, taking that opportunity to fly straight into your mouth, a fatal act, for the fly that is.

Species and places

I have an immense respect for the plants here, there are around 700 species across 39 plant communities in this part of the desert. Among those diverse plant communities are the plants that grow on the highest mountain peaks and plants that grow around the sheltered freshwater springs. In the deep gorges, in the shade and cooler damper places are the ancient plants that are the relics of a distant past, a time when tropical rainforests grew here.

Here the Finke River, its ancient meanderings through rocky country, makes its way through the deep gorges and mountain passes of its own making, to the distant edge of the Simpson Desert in South Australia. Here there are fish too, nine species to be exact. Unlike much of the rest of Australia it looks like the Finke's fish have not had to cope with invasive species, so far so good. How long this lasts, is anyone’s guess.

Just over 300 kilometers to the north west of here are the Alcoota fossil beds, which Andrea and I first visited in the 1980s once investigations of this fossil bed had recommenced. What the fossil discoveries at Alcoota revealed were the jumbled skeletal remains of the animals that lived here about 8 million years ago. And some were very big indeed.

This is Australia’s megafauna, the world’s largest known bird Dromornis stirtoni with a height of three meters and a bulk to match, at 500 kilos, it was heavier than New Zealand’s Moas Dinornithiformes and taller than Madagascar’s Elephant Birds Aepyornithidae. The remarkable plant eating Marsupial Tapir Palorchestes painei who’s closet living relatives are the Koala and Wombat, was also a very large animal, weighing around a tonne. These animals of the late Miocene were also joined by supersized crocodiles, lizards and wombats.

Megafauna species were dominant over a long period with large animals including the Diprotodon crossing country here. Conditions benefited the megafauna species in Australia, animals grew larger and came to dominate Australian ecosystems. Following the Miocene, Australia become drier and more arid as the ice age tightened its grip on climatic conditions.

We can group mammal extinctions in Australia into a series of distinct phases, roughly covering the last 100,000 years, phase one extinctions were the megafauna, the larger species are likely to have gone first, among the early casualties, Dromornis stirtoni being just one.

Phase two extinctions on mainland Australia included species such as the Thylacine (during the last 15,000 years).

Phase three extinctions are far more recent and are directly related to European settlement, Central Australia has proved particularly vulnerable to this human migration, numerous extinctions had occurred by the 1930s. So the impact of European settlement on species, particularly mammals, was rapid, occurring in Central Australia over a period of 60–70 years, if that.

It looks like the last of the megafauna, the smaller forms, went extinct between 40 - 50 thousand years ago, some 8 million years after the animals found in the Alcoota fossil beds had dominated this land.

These extinctions occurred as the Australian landscape dried out as the last ice age developed. There is evidence that megafauna species survived longer in Tasmania, which would have dried less than much of the mainland.

While there were no major ice sheets on the Australian mainland, the impact of the changing climate on plant life distribution and plant species was significant. The most arid period for Australia would have been during the ice maximum, the Earth’s ice caps advancing from about 80,000 years ago with maximum aridity around 20,000 years ago, by which time megafauna were extinct.

Large animals require a large amount of food and are clearly very sensitive to changes in vegetation type and distribution.

These dramatic changes in climate occurred in the presence of Aboriginal people who also had to cope with the rapid changes in their environment. That they did so, in such harsh and rapidly changing conditions, was remarkable.

Back to the present, the largest fish are the algae feeding Bony Bream Nematalosa eribi and one of the smallest the Finke Goby Chlamydogobius japalpa at just 6 centimetres.

The most wide spread of all these species of Finke fish is the Spangled Grunter Leiopotherapon unicolor, a strong swimmer with the ability to swim rapids and jump small waterfalls. When it rains here it can rain very hard and rivers fill and flow quickly, a trickle turning to a torrent.

This is of course reptile country, there are 76 species in this region, frogs too, this time 6 species. There are birds of course, 152 species are known here.

Life for animals has been particularly tough in the last hundred years or so, the great vanishing of species occurred in the early part of the last century.

Mammals have done particularly badly as a result of the arrival of Europeans here. Of the 42 native mammal species that were scampering, hoping or flying around the bush in this region, 14 are now extinct (2 bat species and 12 terrestrial mammals).

On this occasion my visit here is brief, but we are in the remotest of places, I don’t see any mammals at all, day or night. And that includes Kangaroos.

The grim picture for arid Australia is that more than 30 per cent of the native mammal species that lived across these vast deserts just a short time ago are extinct, lost and gone forever. Among the critically endangered is the endearing Central Rock Rat Zyzomys pedunculatus.

Doing a rough count, there are around 128 animals in the Northern Territory that are threatened with extinction and likewise for at least 100 plant species, many animals and plants are in deep trouble, and those are the ones we know about. Extreme climate change conditions in Australia will not help their survival, nor will the introduced and endlessly spreading Buffel Grass, which dominates the landscapes of more and more arid places.

A note on Kangaroos and Wallabies

In the Pleistocene period Kangaroos flourished, the diverse range of Macropodids species included large species, Hadronomas from the Alcoota fossil beds being just one.

During my frequent visits to Central Australia over the last few years, producing films and working on various projects with Aboriginal people here, and we spend a lot of time in remote places where most Europeans will never go, I have seen very few Kangaroos or Wallabies in these places, six Euros to be precise and a cluster of Wallabies around Alice Springs, particularly near the Botanical Gardens.

Kangaroos and Wallabies to the west of Alice Springs are now entirely missing from the road kill. One of the first questions tourists passing through this region ask, is where are all the Kangaroos? That is a very good question indeed.

Euros are adapted to their hot and dry home, living in rocky hill county habitat, Euros do not disperse across large distances, but if left in peace, continue to live in or near the places where they were born. This makes the species particularly vulnerable to guns and the large-scale hunting that has significantly reduced populations of the species.

The power of evolutionary processes can be described in that the Euro can survive in the harshest conditions for long periods without drinking water. The heating and further drying of Central Australia, because of climate change, is likely to test the Euros capacity for survival to the limit. Black-footed Rock Wallabies should also be a feature of these rocky hill scapes, this species is also in decline and nowhere to be seen in the regions I have visited recently to the west of Alice Springs and beyond.

The Black-footed Rock Wallaby (there are five sub-species) once lived throughout the central desert region, its range stretching from the Tanami Desert to the Musgrave and Petermann Ranges in the south and west to the Great Sandy and Gibson Deserts. Populations have now disappeared from much of its former range with most of the remaining population clinging on in the MacDonnell Ranges. There remain other scattered and isolated populations.

WWF say of the species

“Unlike other Kangaroos and Wallabies, young Black-footed Rock Wallabies that have left the pouch but are not yet weaned, do not stay with their mothers continuously. While their mother goes off to feed, they are often left in a sheltered area. This may be because of the treacherous terrain in which these animals live. Very little is known about the social system of this species”.

The images in this story were taken during a journey on bush tracks (doing our rounds checking places) by Bobby Abbott and Peter Hylands in the region between Ormiston Gorge and Mount Sonder in the West MacDonnell Ranges in December 2019. Temperatures were in a range of 40 - 44 degrees Celsius. The vehicle used was a Toyota Land Cruiser.