Project: 3.2.5

Arid Zone Monitoring: Surveys for vertebrates across arid and semi-arid zones

Project Leaders: Sarah Legge, Katherine Moseby

Research in Brief

Monitoring animal populations in Australia’s sandy deserts is challenging. Desert species can be patchily distributed, at low densities, and have boom-bust cycles. As a result, we know very little about the distribution, abundance, and status of our desert wildlife. However, Indigenous groups, NGOs, environmental consultants and some government agencies have been carrying out track surveys for about a decade. If these data were collated, they would provide a national picture of the distribution of many native species and their threats, and could also be used to assess the effectiveness of conservation actions such as fire and predator management, at local, regional and national scales.

This project aims to work with all groups that have track data, to pool these data into a single database. As well as providing advice to groups about whether their tracking surveys are telling them what they want to know, the collated data can be used to create contemporary distribution maps of species and their threats across the deserts. The project will also strengthen tracking protocols, promote more widespread use of this valuable monitoring technique, aid species recovery programs, and showcase the work carried out by Indigenous and other groups in Australian deserts.

The research also aims to lay the groundwork for an enduring national database for tracking surveys that can continue to collect and store future data, enable analysis of long term population trends and allow evaluation of broadscale management actions.

This project belongs to everyone who has been involved in tracking surveys over the years, and is being developed collaboratively with all the partners.

Lizard tracks. Photo: Neils Photography 
CC by 2.0 Flickr

Why is the research needed?

We know little about the distribution, abundance, and conservation status of many threatened and culturally significant animals in remote Australian deserts. The lack of information makes it difficult to describe the distributions of threatened species, and how they are changing in relation to the distributions of threats, such as introduced predators and wildfire and the management of those threats.

How will the research help?

Indigenous ranger groups, government agencies, arid zone ecologists and NGOs have surveyed many hundreds of sites for tracks and other sign over the past ten years, using a standardised method. These data have never been collated nor analysed collectively. This project aims to bring this large volume of data together, and use it to describe the distributions of native species; and how those distributions are affected by threatening processes and environmental variables, at local and national scales.

The information generated by the project will aid species recovery programs and allow for enhanced monitoring, assessments, listings and reporting, as well as raising the profile of the work performed by Indigenous and other groups in Australian deserts. Importantly, the project may provide a method for analyzing the effectiveness of broadscale management actions such as fire and predator management. Promotion of the track-based monitoring technique and the database supporting it will greatly enhance the consistency and power of data collection for threatened and significant species in arid Australia

A monitor in the Pilbara. Photo: Stefan Jurgensen Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What research activities are being undertaken?
  • Collating and analysing existing track-based data collected by the project partners.
  • Recommending improvements to the sandplot survey methodology, and undertaking field trials of any potentially improved method at selected sites.
  • Enhancing information exchange between organisations using similar methods.
  • Developing a blueprint for creating a national database for long-term hosting, data depositions and sharing, analysis and reporting.

Who is involved?

This project team involves everyone who has been involved in tracking surveys over the years.  This includes over 30 ranger groups, 5 large Indigenous organisations, 5 NGOs and NRM groups, and 4 government conservation agencies and arid zone experts.  

The TSR Hub team are based out of the Australian National University, the University of Queensland, the University of Melbourne and Arid Recovery.

Where is the research happening?

The research will take place over Australian desert regions, including South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. The data are collected by Indigenous groups, government agencies, environmental consultancies and NGOs across Australia’s deserts, from the Kimberley to South Australia, including iconic deserts like the Great Sandy Desert, the Great Victoria Desert, the Tanami Desert, the Simpson and Strzelecki Deserts. The analyses will be carried out at the University of Melbourne, and the University of Queensland.

When is the research happening?

The project will run for two years from 2018 to 2020. The trials will be carried out at selected sites in 2019.

Further information

For more information please contact:

Sarah Legge -
Taleah Watego-Piggott -
Katherine Moseby -

Project Partners

Top image: KJ Martu Rangers recording animal sign near a Martu burning site. Image: KJ