3 February, 2021
Yarns from a modern Outback explorer
Dr Jen Silcock’s research on the Queensland outback has contributed to a greater understanding of Outback plant and animal communities and how they have changed over time. Jen recently spoke on Outback Yack, Our Living Outback’s online stories platform. Here, we’re sharing some of those stories about her research and her travels.
Dr Jen Silcock’s research on the Queensland outback has contributed to a greater understanding of Outback plant and animal communities and how they have changed over time. Jen recently spoke on Outback Yack, Our Living Outback’s online stories platform. Here, we’re sharing some of those stories about her research and her travels. Jen estimates that she's trekked thousands of kilometres through sand dunes and stony hills - and worn out many pairs of cheap thongs (her Outback hiking shoe of choice) along the way!
For most of my adult life I've been wandering around Western Queensland marveling at, investigating and documenting its natural history. I’ve travelled for months with pack camels and many days on foot to reach some of Australia’s most remote crooks and crannies.
Through my research, I have followed ancient tracks in search of long-forgotten freshwater desert springs, documented new plant species in inaccessible places, and studied cryptic wildlife like night parrots, yellow-footed rock-wallabies and bilbies.
Seeing all these places has taught me that our Outback landscapes are incredibly rich in rare, weird, and wonderful natural history, worthy of our stewardship and protection.
Much of my research is focused on Outback plants. From the Mulga Lands to the vast grasslands of the Mitchell Grass Downs, to the rare gems found on the stony hills, to the fertile floodplains of the Channel Country: I think many people have very little idea of how incredibly varied and diverse our Western Queensland plant communities are.
The Mulga Lands, for example, are full of little known and underappreciated plants. There are contentious narratives about what Mulga country ‘should’ look like to be healthy, and what it looked like in the past. The frontier history in the Mulga country was brutal in a lot of areas and that meant a rapid and major change in land management from Aboriginal stewardship and management to management for pastoralism.
Protecting areas for conservation in the Mulga country, whether in National Parks or by working with pastoralists to combat threats like feral animals and invasive weeds, is vital to protecting the natural heritage found in the Mulga lands.
Another place I’ve spent many nights camped out is the stony hills of far western Queensland. There, barren plateaus are home to intriguing plants that have evolved to specialise in living in such a harsh environment. “Spiky” was one of my son’s first words as his feet grew accustomed to them. Spiky plants thrive in salty areas, stony areas, and areas that have been grazed around bores and dams. If you pick them up carefully, you will see the architecture of the spines and the colours of them. Burrs are a spectacular survivor species.
My research team has spent a couple of decades documenting the freshwater springs of the Great Artesian Basin. These springs are home to unique plants, fish and snails, which are found nowhere else and many of which remain undocumented. Many of the artesian springs have dried up or become extinct due to aquifer drawdown with bore drilling. Some of the remaining ones are under threat from gas and mining projects that will use enormous quantities of Great Artesian Basin water.
In my travels, I've learned that supporting local people who are passionate about caring for our Outback landscapes is key to ensuring their future. Sustaining the natural environment and tackling the threats to its health by supporting the people who care for the Outback is Queensland’s greatest conservation opportunity. More boots on the ground are always needed. Hands-on land managers, whether they be Indigenous rangers, pastoral property managers, or dedicated conservation workers are crucial in combating threats like feral animals, decline of native animal species, spread of invasive weeds and long-term lack of regeneration of long-lived trees and shrubs.
I’m grateful to work with so many good people and a fantastic research team in our amazing backyard of Outback Queensland. I’m proud that my adventures in the Outback have contributed to a greater understanding of how Outback plant and animal communities work and how we can manage the threats to ensure these remarkable values remain intact.
This article was contributed by and published in support of the Our Living Outback project. More information at www.outbackqueensland.org.au .