Why this 28-year-old scientist is devoting her life to roadkill


“Carcasses are actually these wonderfully interesting centres of life,” she says.

When an animal dies – or is killed – it can provide a free feed to other creatures, while also releasing nutrients into the soil for other plants.

The community of living things that the dead beasts nourish is called the necrobiome.

It nourishes everything from creepy crawlies to cats, dingoes to wedge-tailed eagles, and fungi to grass.

But almost two years into a PhD, which she hopes to complete by 2020, the University of Sydney researcher says her work is beginning to reveal the varied effects of carcasses that are left in the bush, or on the side of the road.

However, her work is so vast and so little-researched it is raising more questions than answers.

Take, for example, the night parrot.

A nocturnal, ground-dweller considered the birdwatchers’ holy grail, its rediscovery in 2013 was one of the great wildlife stories of the 21st century.

But the bird shares its desert home with feral animals such as camels, as well as the cats and foxes which are driving it towards a final extinction.

Ecologist Emma Spencer monitors a fake night parrot nest to see if it has been raided by foxes lured to the area by a camel carcass.

Ecologist Emma Spencer monitors a fake night parrot nest to see if it has been raided by foxes lured to the area by a camel carcass.Credit:James MacDiarmid / Barefoot

In an effort to protect its habitat and keep the bird safe from predators, land managers shoot and kill the camels, cats and foxes.

But it seems this could have unexpected consequences.

As part of her research, Ms Spencer set up and monitored fake night parrot nests near dead camels.

Foxes appeared to be drawn to the carcasses and then often turned on and raided the nearby fake parrot nests.

“So if you are going around shooting all of [those pests] to try and benefit the night parrot you might actually be, by creating more carcasses, increasing the threat level for those animals,” she says.

The young scientist is currently compiling research to back up those observations.

On the other hand, feral animal culls could provide free and easy meals for dingoes, boosting their numbers during times of drought.

A growing body of research is revealing how dingoes can benefit native animals by controlling fox and cat populations.

As apex predators, dingoes prefer larger prey such as kangaroos, and do not tolerate cats and foxes in their territories. This creates a haven for smaller native animals that can co-exist with dingoes.

‘Carcasses can do both a positive and negative things in the landscape,’ says Emma Spencer, who is on a mission to make death ‘a less scary thing’.

‘Carcasses can do both a positive and negative things in the landscape,’ says Emma Spencer, who is on a mission to make death ‘a less scary thing’. Credit:James MacDiarmid / Barefoot

While roadkill is largely random, culling is very deliberate.

So would it be possible to harness the positive impacts of culling pests, while avoiding the negatives?

For example, camel culls could be better timed to boost dingo numbers and reduce fox and cat numbers, while avoiding night parrot breeding times?

Only more research can definitely answer those questions.

“We’ve got to think a bit more before we kill,” she says.

But the problem is, not enough people are doing that thinking. And Ms Spencer thinks she knows why.

“I think one of the reasons that we don’t like to think about those questions, apart from the fact that it makes things more difficult, is that we have this huge aversion to death,” she says.

“We don’t like to talk about it very much in our society.”

She used to be guilty of it herself. When asked what she did for a living at dinner parties, the ecologist would reply, vaguely, that she worked with scavengers, foxes, dingoes and insects. Not anymore.

“I’ve come to realise the reason I was shying away from talking about carcasses is the same reason that it is so under-studied and that people seem to not want to think about it very much in Australia,” she says.

She has found that revealing her exact line of work has generally done anything but kill the conversation.

“Mostly people react all right,” she says.

“Carcasses aren’t as scary and gross as movies and TV shows like to portray.”

Which means next time you pass a carcass on the side of the road, Ms Spencer hopes you see beyond the death towards the life it supports.

Joe Hinchliffe reports breaking news for The Age.

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