In this issue

Issue 106

Genetic metamorphosis
The cane toad, Bufo marinus, could be controlled by a new biological method aimed at disrupting toad development. The first stage of research involves identifying a gene that disrupts toad development so that tadpoles do not metamorphose into adults. The second stage involves development of a viral vector for delivery of the developmental gene.
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Stocking the FloraBank
In response to the dwindling supply of native seeds, an information network called FloraBank has been set up. FloraBank will improve the availability and quality of native seed used for revegetation and conservation, and provide technical support to community groups that collect, handle and store seed for revegetation.
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Finding the best fragments, before fragmentation
When developers move in, many resident plants and animals die or move on, as habitats become fragmented. Owen Price is surveying the animals and plants in 45 woodland fragments in one of Darwin's agricultural areas. The results will help him assess which areas of woodland should be conserved.
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Sweeter energy, inspired by photosynthesis
Scientists have found a way to create artificial photosynthesis. Rather than trying to recreate a plant in the laboratory, the scientists incorporated the principles of photosynthesis into the construction of tiny energy and fuel production systems.
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Saving Lake Victoria
A South American Neochetina beetle is controlling water hyacinth in Lake Victoria, Africa. The biological control of the weed proved more effective and sustainable than harvesting or herbicide use, and has saved millions of people from social and economic dislocation, and possible starvation. Affected communities were involved in raising the beetle.
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Dirty deeds
Riverland citrus growers, CSIRO entomologists and the Bookmark Biosphere Reserve are working together to reduce on-farm costs by better managing soil biological diversity. Properties with high soil biodiversity were found to have many kinds of pests, but none causing significant crop damage. Properties with low soil biodiversity often had at least one major pest species. It emerged that perennial groundcover provides superior habitat, and a supplementary pollen food source, for predatory mites that feed on the larvae of Kelly's citrus thrips, a major pest in the region. A diverse groundcover also improves soil water retention, reduces evaporation and increases organic matter. This in turn improved nutrient retention and reduced nutrient runoff to the Murray River.
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Rare qualities
Conserving rare species requires understanding of what traits affect species abundance, persistence at low numbers and vulnerability to change. Research has shown that plant species can be abundant at some sites, but rare elsewhere, or rare in all locations. The latter species has a poor capacity for rapid increase in population. These differences in species have provided the basis for a framework for assessing rarity. An eight-category framework can be applied to any group of plants to identify patterns critical to the conservation of rare species. The method also identifies inherent plant traits and patterns of distribution that put a species at potential risk of extinction.
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Plain predictions
Outbreaks of Brandt's vole and overgrazing by livestock are turning Inner Mongolia's grasslands to desert. Ecological modelling could help predict vole outbreaks. Research into fertility control methods for the vole could also provide an alternative to the current practice of poison baiting. It is hoped that improved methods of vole control coupled with sustainable levels of livestock grazing will halt or reverse desertification.
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Changing habitat
The revival of the Richmond birdwing butterfly offers hope that through research, education, dedication and teamwork, local communities can secure a future for threatened species.
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Issues of rarity cloud plans for action
An action plan has drawn attention to the issue of butterfly conservation. The plan considers the problems involved in evaluating the conservation status of butterflies. The plan also highlights the need to address 'threatening processes' such as habitat destruction and the importance of community participation in species recovery. A conservation project to save the Richmond birdwing butterfly illustrates the successful application of these concepts.
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Bubble bubble ...
Acid sulphate soils in inland Australia are a consequence of rising groundwater and a rich geology of iron-sulphate minerals. Research has identified the processes leading to the formation of acid sulphate soils, which destroy both land and water quality. Affected areas of Australia will eventually be mapped with the help of radar data that identifies areas of soil moisture. Acid sulphate soils may also be used to locate mineral deposits commonly association with sulphide ore bodies.
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Anti acids
Researchers at CSIRO Plant Industry are tackling the management of soil acidity on Australian farms in two ways. They are refining GrazPlan, a farm management tool, that helps landowners to understand, predict and prevent the spread of soil acidity, and are seeking a genetic route to produce aluminium-tolerant crop varieties.
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Stone age crows
New Caledonian crows fashion tools from leaf stems in order to extract fat insect larvae from burrows. Crows in different localities have distinctly different tool traditions.
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Dietary cunning
Dietary studies show that the red fox is an opportunistic predator and scavenger with diverse tastes.
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Faulty indication?
Biological indicators are increasingly being used to assess and monitor biodiversity or ecological change. But biological indicators have their limitations, can be misleading or fail altogether.
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Lone box warning
Lone yellow box trees, Eucalyptus melliodora, produce less seed than those in woodland, and their seeds are also less viable. This has implications for seed saving from isolated trees.
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Olives spreading
Feral olives are considered noxious weeds in some states. The foraging activities of birds and small mammals are contributing to the spread of olive seeds.
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Modelling the forces of nature
Researchers at CSIRO Building Construction and Engineering have built a house in their laboratory to gauge its response to loading scenarios caused by natural disasters, such as earthquakes. The results form the basis of a model that can be used to optimise the strength of buildings.
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