In this issue

Issue 109

Red alert for red-eyed pigeons
A decline and change in land management practices in the Top End has seen large hot fires, late in the dry season, become more prevalent. These fires can burn extensive areas of savanna, and tend to destroy the seed on which grain-eating animals feed. C
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Agriculture weeds out cadmium
Cadmium represents a threat to Australia's reputation for clean agricultural production, and to free trade in international food commodities. The National Cadmium Minimisation Strategy, a national strategy for reducing cadmium levels in food crops, will complement the efforts of fertiliser manufacturers to source low-cadmium phosphates.
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Small particles, big business
Transparent, UV blocking nanoparticles are ideal for sunscreens, cosmetics and clear varnishes. The particles appear transparent because they are too small to scatter visible light.
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Cotton blends
The fungus-resistant qualities of Australia's Sturt's desert rose may be called upon to protect Australia's $1.7 billion cotton industry from the devastating impacts of fusarium wilt. CSIRO and the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDP) are investigating a range of counter measures including traditional breeding and gene technology, and identifying wilt-resistant varieties of Australia's 17 wild cotton species.
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Silent streams
Globally, about 100 species of frogs have been infected with a killer fungus whose identity, until recently, remained a mystery. More than 30 years of research by CSIRO and other collaborators was finally rewarded when the chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dentrobatidis, was identified. Scientists are now looking at management strategies, trialling anti-fungal drugs and developing a diagnostic kit, in an attempt to halt further declines in frog populations.
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Breath-testing the savanna
Australia's tropical savannas are the focus of world-first research into the effects of rising carbon dioxide levels on a natural tropical ecosystem. Scientists involved in 'OzFACE', the Australian Free Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment Study, are piping different concentrations of carbon dioxide over plots of savanna grasses and young trees, and measuring changes in plant performance, species composition, nutrient levels and carbon flow. Preliminary studies suggest a range of impacts could be expected, such as increased grass growth and drought tolerance, a thickening woody layer, and changes in competition between trees and grasses. Scientists are also looking at the effect these changes could have on grazing and the production of plant defence compounds in the leaves of trees.
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Australia may host a gigantic new radio telescope, known as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA will be 100 times larger than the current generation of radio telescopes. Australia is part of an international consortium planning the telescope. Researchers at CSIRO and several Australian universities are investigating a number of design concepts. The SKA will be used to study a wide range of problems in astronomy, in particular how stars and galaxies formed in the early Universe.
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Space-age farming
Western Australian wool-growers are testing the use of satellite imagery to assist pasture management. Using CSIRO technology, the amount of 'greenness' measured by satellites across the state's south-west, is converted to biomass or 'food on offer' (FOO) and 'pasture growth rates' (PGR). By 2002, farmers will be able to download weekly or monthly images from the Internet, showing FOO and PGR for their whole farm or individual paddocks. Using the pasture measurements, growers can determine feed budgets for their sheep, aimed at maximising pasture use and improving wool value.
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Breeding like rabbits
Rabbit farming is a new and expanding industry in Australia, but there has been little opportunity for selective breeding programs aimed at improving production. CSIRO's Crusader breeding program aims to improve production by selectively breeding rabbits for improved reproductive and growth traits. This requires detailed recording of individual rabbit's pedigrees and 'estimated breeding values' for certain traits. Scientists are also developing a simpler strategy for farmers to select and breed better rabbits. In time, rabbits will be benchmarked across industry and scientific breeding programs.
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Surprise pastures
Commercially grazed pastures traditionally have been overlooked in conservation strategies, but in the past decade, reports have emerged of significant native vegetation surviving in pastures, including rare species. CSIRO scientists have investigated this new outlook on pastures in a study of ground flora associated with major land uses and habitat types at three beef production properties in south-east Queensland. The study found that a wealth of plant species were maintained in native pastures, due in part to selective grazing pressures. It has also yielded advice for graziers on how to maintain productive agricultural ecosystems amid the grassy eucalypt (mostly ironbark) woodland and forest.
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Tracking camels
Feral camels in central and northern Australia are extremely mobile and capable of using very large areas.
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Penguins and oil don't mix
The Iron Baron oil spill at the mouth of Tasmania's Tamar River in 1995 resulted in extensive penguin deaths.
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Life on the edge
A study has compared the influence of habitat edges created due to human activity, or 'edge effects', on the distribution and abundance of birds at Bunyip State Park, Vic. Overall, there was a significantly higher number of bird species and individuals in forest edges than in forest interior sites.
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Sharks at all-time low
Commercial fishing on Australia's South-East Fishery deepwater trawl grounds have resulted in an 80 per cent decline of the overall catch rates of 15 species of sharks and rays on 1976-77 levels.
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Weed-beating wheats
Researchers are studying the ability of wheat cultivars to compete with annual ryegrass.
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Bats as aircraft
Aerodynamic theory has been aplied to understanding the form and flight of eight microbat species. The bats are superbly designed for flight, with ears that act as canard wings.
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Backyard blues
Urbanisation is usually disastrous for wildlife, but the blue-tongued lizard seems to be an exception. In Sydney, the blue-tongued lizard remains abundant, being found in backyards.
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