In this issue

Issue 67

Big change study
To provide direction and focus for work on the many interrelated aspects of atmospheric and climate change, and avoid duplication, the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) has devised a complex operation termed the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP). This comprises six vast core projects. ICSU has asked Australia to host and organise one of these - Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems (GCTE). The five other core projects that make up IGBP cover atmospheric chemistry and its interactions with the biosphere, global changes that occurred in the past, the role of the oceans and the coastal zone, the hydrological (water) cycle, and analysis and modelling of the entire system.
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Fingerprinting fish
Otoliths are small, disk-shaped bones that 'float' inside a fish's middle-ear. We can tell an individual fish's age from the number of rings on each otolith. By comparing the chemical fingerprints of otoliths from fishes caught in a number of locations, it is possible to learn about the origins and migration patterns of commercial fishes, leading to better understanding of their population dynamics and better strategies for sustainable fishing levels.
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The Russians are coming
Duiraphis noxia is the Russian wheat aphid, a 3-4 mm long pest of barley, oats, wheat and other grains. In what may well be the world's first application of pre-emptive pest control, scientists from CSIRO's Division of Entomology have bred Aphelinus varipes, a 1-2 mm parasitic wasp from the Soviet Union, in strict quarantine conditions and have released several batches to control the Russian wheat aphid should it arrive in Australia as a 'stowaway' aboard a passenger plane or in cargo.
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Alive ... but for how long?
Only 15 of the 33 species of mammals once found in the Perth area have weathered the impact of European settlement. Scientists have rediscovered one - the forest-dwelling black-gloved wallaby, Macropus irma - only 10 kilometres from Pert, WA. Predation by foxes seems to be important. During a survey of the 2,600 hectare Whiteman Park, 44 species of small vertebrates, including the increasingly rare nectar-feeding honey possum, Tarsipes spenserae were identified.
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A direct approach to salinity control
Raising the groundwater and the salt stored in aquifers to the surface has made an increasing amount of the Murray-Darling Basin's fertile soil unfit not only for grazing but for crops and other plants. The most efficient solution in environmental, social and economic terms so far has been to pump saline groundwater into disposal basins, where evaporation removes as much as possible of the water - which then re-enters the hydrological cycle - and leaves a concentrated solution that can be stored indefinitely, crystallised and purified for commercial use, or returned to deep aquifers.
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Life in the Bungle Bungle
In the north of Western Australia lies the rugged and inaccessible Kimberley Range, and outstanding among its attractions is Bungle Bungle National Park. To find out more about the region's ecology, the Western Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) commissioned the CSIRO Centre for Tropical Ecosystems Research in Darwin to carry out a detailed biological survey there. Their survey confirmed that parts of it are severely degraded because of the high densities of introduced mammals, now turned feral, that have roamed there for the last century. However, despite its poor treatment in the past, it retains a healthy biological diversity.
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An alternative to chemical pesticides
Bollworms - caterpillars of the genus Heliothis - cause damage costing Australian crop farmers an estimated $450 million a year. Bollworms have been a target of 'chemical warfare' for decades, with some unfortunate results. It so happens that a group called the nuclear polyhedrosis viruses (NPV) infect Heliothis caterpillars in the wild and can indeed kill them. By genetically engineering this virus, a suitable viral insecticide for bollworm pest control can be developed.
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Measuring the costs of clearing
Tree-clearing in the semi-arid tropics of Queensland can only be economically worthwhile if combined with pasture improvement and, most importantly, if it does not involve any risk of land degradation. Landscapes prone to suffer from salinisation should never be cleared. Land with steep slopes and unstable soils should not be deforested because of the danger of erosion. If uncontrollable regrowth of trees is likely, it makes little economic sense to try to clear the land in the first place.
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Beneath the waves of Jervis Bay
Jervis Bay, is one of the most unspoilt regions of the New South Wales south coast. It is now the site of a major 3 year ecological study begun in 1988. By the time it ends, scientists will have described the existing marine environment in detail, recording species and their distribution above and below the water. They will have charted salt marshes, mangroves, and beds of seagrasses, and measured the abundance and variability in numbers of fish and mobile invertebrates. The physical environment is also being studied. They are monitoring the water quality, and developing a computer model of the Bay's water circulation and how this interacts with the coastal waters beyond.
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Trees for salty land
Soil salinity is a major form of land degradation in some agricultural regions. There are places where salt occurs naturally at the surface, but too often its presence has resulted from tree-clearing or irrigation. So now the search is really on for salt-tolerant trees, especially hardy natives with potential economic uses. Various Australian Acacia, Melaleuca, Casuarina and Eucalyptus species could fit the bill, and so could Sesbania formosa, the dragon-flower tree, which grows well in swampy soils in the tropics.
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Metals, muck, and magnets
The development of magnetic methods of water purification provides some examples of the use of lateral thinking by CSIRO scientists. The SIROFLOC process uses magnetite to strip pollutants from drinking water, sewage, or industrial waste-water. The magnetite is then regenerated and recycled.
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A fish-killing virus
About 15 or 20 years ago, anglers started noticing large die-offs of redfin perch - a fish much sought-after by the recreational fishing fraternity - in the early summer in lakes of north-eastern Victoria. The scientists suspected that they were dealing with an infection, perhaps caused by a new or exotic virus. Testing revealed a virus belonging to the iridovirus family. The scientists christened the new find epizootic haematopoietic necrosis virus, or EHNV for short.
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Cassowary hatching
The male cassowary, like the male emu, guards the eggs and does not leave the nest during the 48 day incubation period, and it is during this period and over the following 9 months of rearing the chicks that the male bird is at his most aggressive. However, in northern Queensland there has been an alarming decrease in number. The primary cause appears to be clearing of land for cattle-grazing, which means total destruction of most of the best country for the species - coastal plains and the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. Predation by dogs on chicks and by feral pigs on eggs and chicks may be a significant factor in cassowary population decline, as is competition for food by pigs.
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Better blood assessment
If red blood cell deformability could be readily assessed, the problem of determining blood shelf-life could be overcome. But measuring the flexibility of such tiny cells is far from easy. A team at the CSIRO Division of Applied Physics have devised and patented a unique and accurate way of assessing red-blood-cell deformability, using ultrasound.
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Better red than dead
In the rainforests of northern Queensland, seed dispersal by animals has led to the development of large, brightly coloured fruit. In the relatively still environment of the rainforest floor, colour can be detected at greater distances than odour, so odour is more 'useful' only at night.
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