While many of us would go out of our way to avoid encounters with the many species of spiders and insects found in the Tamar Valley, there are those who instead go out of their way to find and attract as many of these creatures as possible.
Bush Blitz is a species discovery program that operates around Australia, setting up camp in specific locations that have been identified to have gaps in the research and cataloguing of species that populate that environment.
Throughout March the team at Bush Blitz, along with local scientists from the Queen Victoria Museum and art Gallery and The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, as well as personnel from the Australian Defence Force set up camp in the Stony Head Military Training Area, just a short drive from George Town.
The purpose of their mission? To identify, find and catalogue the various flora and fauna inhabiting the area, with the potential of discovering a completely new species.
David Maynard, the Curator of Natural Sciences at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery said that identifying these species was key to being able to adequately manage the natural environment.
“Humans know a lot about the charismatic species like mammals, 98% of mammals are already known even though there’s only about 5 or 6 thousand species on the planet, yet insects are the most abundant and diverse group of animals, there could be 5 million species on the planet, yet we only know 1 million of them.”
“What are the other 4 million and what’s their role in the ecology and the planet?”
“Here we are trying to manage whole ecosystems, yet we don’t understand what lives in them.”
In addition to giving a snapshot of the current inhabitants of the environment, Mr Maynard said it also helps understand how new species may be able to live in the environment as the climate continues warming.
“This work is really important because the climate is warming, we know that – it’s irrefutable, and that will have great impacts on Tasmania’s fauna, and also it’s going to let a lot more mainland species live here if they get here.”
“For instance, we’ve found mainland cockroaches that ten or twenty years ago simply couldn’t have survived the winter here because it got too cold and would knock them out, however now, our winters are not as cold as they used to be.”
“We might like that as humans, don’t have to burn as much firewood, but it also allows those things like the Queensland fruit fly a greater opportunity to survive here, and that’s going to be to Tasmania’s detriment.”
As I was invited to join a team of Scientists heading into the field to look for spiders, as a self-confessed arachnophobe I considered what life decisions had led me to this point in my life.
I was then informed that the team had a technique to let the spiders come to you, rather than go looking for them.
The Technique? The high-tech process of leaving your car engine running.
“There’s many different ways to collect insects” Said Mr Maynard, “we’re simply idling our diesel ute and we don’t understand why, but it appears that the vibrations created are a stimulus to the insects and spiders and a lot of those animals will start just moving towards the Ute.”
“For us it makes really easy, there’s quite dense bush, now we could spend hours trying to rummage through there and maybe get some of them.”
“Why when we could idle a Ute and they come to us?”
“It’s a much more effective way to do it.”
Much to my delight, it wasn’t all about the spiders. The team were cataloguing all types of life in the area, including wombats, Tasmanian devils, moths, moss, and so much more.
Also accompanying the teams of scientists was a group of teachers from around Tasmania, who were able to learn the techniques and skills being used to observe and find wildlife and pass that knowledge on to their students via virtual learning.
Helen Wilson, a grade 6 teacher from Launceston Church Grammar said the experience was empowering.
“Because I’m a generalist, as most primary school teachers are, I just wanted to increase my skills but not so much about me, it’s more about what you can bring back to the classroom.”
Ms Wilson said that the opportunity to show the classroom the scientific process was exciting to show young people the career opportunities available in STEM.
“We’ve got real scientists here doing real jobs, so they can see that if you’re passionate about something, it can become your job.”
Bush Blitz Manager Jo Harding said that although the Stony Head site is not accessible to the public, anyone can get involved with Bush Blitz from the comfort of their own backyard.
“We do have a virtual bush blitz and you can get on to it via the web, or you can get an app on your phone and you can take photos of plants and animals and insects that you see that you want to know more about.”
“Maybe you want it identified, or you want to know whether this is rare, whether it’s common. If you put it on iNatrualist and we have what’s called backyard species discovery”
“We did have a situation where a lady in Wollongong took a photo of a spider on her recycling bin and she posted it online and a spider expert from the museum of Melbourne saw it and said ‘I think that’s a new species.’”
“He connected with her, she packed it up and sent it to him and it was a new species of spider, so it’s very possible to discover a new species.”
To learn more about Bush Blitz, visit www.bushblitz.org.au
Bonus Material – Online Only
Dr David Hocking, the Senior Curator of Vertebrate Zoology and Palaeontology at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery worked hard to incorporate the best of modern technology into the Bush Blitz.
One example of such technology was working to produce a 3D model of wombat tracks and traces which can be seen below:
Dr Hosking also captured footage of a broad range of wildlife through the nights, which gives us an insight into animal behaviours and habitats.