Western Ringtail possum monitoring in the suburbs of Albany

Western Ringtail possum monitoring in the suburbs of Albany

The critically endangered western ringtail possum is one of Western Australia’s most threatened mammals but commonly sighted in gardens within cities of south-west Australia. Within suburban areas we have little knowledge of where they move and what resources they require. Radio tracking is being used to study their movements.

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BARDICK Echiopsis curta


This small brown coloured snake is often mistaken for a Death Adder by local bush walkers and farmers in the Albany area, due to a fat body, broad head and narrow neck. Only growing to 70cm long they make up for their small size by flattening and raising the head, puffing out the mid body area and acting aggressively when disturbed. The south coast Southern Death Adders are only found near Esperance and further east to South Australia, and have narrow bands across their bodies.

This attractive but venomous species could be a risk to pets and small children. It is often encountered during mild weather, particularly overcast humid days, foraging on roads, sandy tracks and walk trails in the late afternoon and early evening, searching for prey. It is at these times that many frog species are also active, hunting crawling and flying insects, and so they provide a meal opportunity for the Bardick. Unfortunately the cryptic camouflage of this snake, which may be light to very dark brown, makes them difficult to see from passing vehicles and many are injured.


Feature writer: M True

Is your cat killing us?

Feral cat eating an endangered phascogale  Source: Fredy Mercay (National Environmental Research Program's Northern Australia Hub)

Feral cat eating an endangered phascogale
Source: Fredy Mercay (National Environmental Research Program's Northern Australia Hub)

We know the threat that feral and domestic cats pose to our birds, mammals, frogs and lizards but did you know they can threaten our lives and influence our behaviour by infecting us with protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii?

Extensive research now shows that people infected with Toxoplasma gondii can experience behaviour change with the infection also being linked to an increase in schizophrenia and neurotic behaviour in the general population. Some scientists believe that toxoplasmosis infection could also influence human culture through its effects on individual personality (Lafferty 2006).

Life cycle of Toxoplasmosis gondii

Cats, which are the primary host, eats infected prey (secondary host) - the parasite infects wall of cat's small intestine - parasite multiplies and oocysts are released into the faeces - oocysts ingested by other animals (secondary hosts) which then form cysts in the animals' tissues, including muscle and the brain. More information.

How do humans become infected?

The main avenues of infection are from eating undercooked encysted meat, unpasteurised milk, gardening and not washing your hands thoroughly, changing the cat's litter tray and not washing contaminated fruit and vegetables. Children can become infected by playing in sand pits contaminated with cat faeces.

T. gondii can also be transmitted across the mother's placenta into the growing foetus, causing a range of problems including abortion.

How does this protozoan influence our behaviour?

This parasite has evolved to ensure it completes its life cycle. Research has shown that rodents infected with T. gondii show less fear of cats making them easier to catch, thus enabling the parasite to infect previously uninfected cats. These cats then go to produce high numbers of the infective oocysts in their faeces.

Research has shown that toxoplasmosis (the disease) in humans causes long term behaviour change. Women have an increase in intelligence and become more outgoing and novelty seeking. Men on the other hand have lower intelligence and become more withdrawn. Both sexes become more guilt-prone.

The mechanism changing behaviour in warn blooded vertebrates is believed to be the immune response within the brain to suppress the parasite. This changes dopamine production in the brain which in turn influences an individual's behaviour.

What is the best way to prevent infection with this brain parasite?

If uninfected cats do not get the opportunity to eat infected prey, they will not become infected and pass it on to other warm blooded vertebrates, a category into which humans fit. The best way to prevent parasite infection is to not let your cat roam the neighbourhood. Keep it in your house or a proper enclosure. Our wildlife and children will be a lot safer too.


Andrew Storrie, Great Southern Science Committee member

The Science of Dairymilking and Cheesemaking


More than 50 locals including a dozen regional educators joined Great Southern Science Council's Science of Dairy Milking and Cheesemaking talk in Denmark recently. Denmark artisan producers Malcom Hick (dairy) and Chris Vogel (cheese) shared experiences, technical knowledge and research about dairy milking using an automated milking system (aka AMS or robotic dairy) and designing the best cheese to make from local milk with relation to fat and protein content.

Malcom explained that, while robotic dairy milking technology came from Sweden, the innovation was ideally suited to his family dairy in Denmark. After three years success using AMS for his 100 cows to self-manage their milking schedule, Malcom is often free to do other work on his farm, and he has more time with his young family. "If I'm away from the AMS facility, the milking robot calls or texts me with any issue that needs my decision, for example if one of my girls isn't eating enough, or producing her usual amount of milk and I need to check her more closely."


Chris's artisan cheesemaking factory is within a few kilometers of Malcom's dairy, so milk is sourced within hours of starting the cheesemaking process. Chris explained that he and Malcom work together to fine tune their products, and since the AMS introduction, they've observed very inspiring and consistent terroir in Malcom's dairy milk. Malcom and Chris noted that the cows develop a more natural grazing behaviour when milking is self-scheduled, so a mosaic of pasture use allows the grass to keep up with grazing patterns, resulting in very consistent qualities in the milk.

"I work with the proportions of fat and protein in the milk to design cheeses", said Chris, "and it is always helpful to have a consistent, high quality milk supply so I can focus on making the best cheese possible."

This event was part of National Science Week in the Great Southern 2017, with participants taking advantage of Q&A time with the guest presenters to probe the topic and discuss community implications for technology and experience.

"I most enjoyed understanding the background to the products I consume", commented one participant, while another added, "Malcom and Chris are very knowledgeable, and I enjoyed learning about local people and local produce".

This talk was an example of the opportunities the Great Southern Science Council and its partners offer for Science In Our Community presentations, field days and discussions on topics about science, technology, engineering, maths and innovation, to increase science engagement in the region.

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Citizen Science puts some Numbers on the Critically Endangered Western Ringtail Possum in Albany

Kara Pot and ‘Stretch’ Little on the hunt for Ringtail Possums on Mount Melville during the recent surveys

Kara Pot and ‘Stretch’ Little on the hunt for Ringtail Possums on Mount Melville during the recent surveys

While most Albany residents would only see a Ringtail Possum when it is road-kill, over 40 volunteers have been out at night observing and counting these critically endangered marsupials on Mounts Clarence, Adelaide and Melville. The monitoring project aims to provide important information on population numbers, movements and habitat preferences to aid management of the species on the South Coast. Despite Albany being a stronghold for the species, little is known about them.

The 40 volunteers have helped with the program including community members ranging in age from 12 to 90 years old, university students, community groups and the Aboriginal Green Army.

The project involved monitoring by spotlighting for four nights at three sites on Mt Clarence/Adelaide and three sites on Mt Melville over four seasons in 2016/2017, with the final session just completed.

The number of Ringtail Possums seen while spotlighting was quite variable over the four nights and between sites, but it was not uncommon to see 8 to 12 over a one and a half hour period. There has been no clear variation in numbers between autumn and summer and mothers with young have been spotted throughout the year.

The joint project involves the Oyster Harbour Catchment Group, City of Albany, Department of Parks and Wildlife and the Centre of Excellence in Natural Resource Management at the University of Western Australia and is funded by the State government as a Natural Resource Management Project. The citizen scientists have been getting data on numbers and behaviour of these possums which is vital in aiding the Albany population's management and conservation.

A Ringtail Possum captured on a motion sensor camera

A Ringtail Possum captured on a motion sensor camera

The project has also supported an honours project at UWA Albany. Honours student Bronte Van Helden has radio-collared Ringtail Possums on the Mounts and found they have home ranges of just under one hectare and mostly used Marri and Jarrah at night. Daytime refuges included dreys (nests made of leaves), Marri hollows and thick ground cover. Bronte has commenced a PhD which will continue her studies of the Western Ringtail Possum.

A community survey using motion-sensing cameras is also planned in residential gardens around the Mounts to monitor possums in the urban areas adjacent to the remnant bush. How often and when the possums visit, and when the young are present in the population will be measured.

For more information about the project, please contact Claire Bartron, Landcare Officer, Oyster Harbour Catchment Group Inc. or Sandra Gilfillan (Project Fauna Consultant)


Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study

Silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) enjoying an evening bath in Albany

Silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) enjoying an evening bath in Albany

Here is a chance to practice citizen science!

As the temperatures increase and the landscape dries, our local bird populations start to come under significant pressure to find fresh water to drink and bath in. If you like attracting native birds and animals into your garden you probably have a bird bath and possibly a bird feeder. You will be pleased to know that this qualifies you to be a citizen scientist!

The Deakin University in Victoria and Griffith University in Queensland are undertaking the Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study to investigate the impact of human contact on Australian bird diversity and abundance. One of the most common ways people interact with birds is through providing food and water.

The study is being conducted because the unknown impacts of providing food and water on bird ecology and diversity in Australia. While providing food and water to birds is a popular activity, little is known about which species are attracted to these resources and why people like to provide them. It is important to understand the ecological and behavioural effects of bird feeding as almost all information from other countries regarding bird feeding simply does not apply here. Feeding of wild birds is an important activity for large numbers of people and that the practice may be a significant way for many to connect with nature.

The Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study aims to gather data on the effects of supplementary feeding and providing water for birds and the reasons why people provided food and/or water. The results from the study will be used to develop guidelines for people who feed birds to do so with minimum risk and maximum benefit to birds.

The first survey week is Monday 30th January to Sunday 5th February with another three surveys to be conducted during the following three weeks in February 2017.

Anyone interested in taking part in this study can sign up at the Citizen Science Database Feeding Birds page https://csdb.org.au/feedingbirds/home.aspx. It only takes 10 to 15 minutes to register and complete the preliminary questions in preparation for the survey. So far Western Australia is lagging behind New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland in the number of people registered so there is still time to sign up!

Like the great Aussie backyard Bird Count this is a great opportunity to get involved with science and help our native birds at the same time.


Geology in Action at The Gap

Geological Survey WA team member Lauren Burley (red Jacket) shares research techniques with participants in Geology in Action field session at the Gap, Albany

Geological Survey WA team member Lauren Burley (red Jacket) shares research techniques with participants in Geology in Action field session at the Gap, Albany

The rugged Southern Ocean coast of Albany's beautiful Torndirrup Peninsula offered cold gusty southerlies and a welcome shower to more than 25 keen adventurers for the Geology in Action event at The Gap in October.

"After that first shower, the sun came out and dried up the site, but the group was very enthusiastic and keen to learn whatever the weather", said Dr Catherine Spaggiari of the Geological Survey of Western Australian and Great Southern Science Council

Catherine teamed with Dr Sandra (Sandi) Occhipinti of the University of Western Australia to encourage community members to experience the field work and meet scientists involved in a southwest western Australian geological survey field trip.

The event began with introductions of the field survey team (see below), an explanation of the Geological Survey of Western Australia (GSWA) within the Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP), research at UWA (Sandi), and the visiting geologists from the Department of Geology in the Ministry of Mineral Resources from Greenland.

The large group chat included...

  • Explanations about what the research team is doing and why

  • Geology is not only useful for mineral exploration but is fundamental to other research such as landscape evolution, ecology and biology, environmental science, as well as land use planning and tourism

  • Note that the data collected and published by GSWA are freely available online and provide an extensive public resource www.dmp.wa.gov.au/Geological-Survey/Geological-Survey-262.aspx

  • Explanation about the link between the geology in the Albany area to the better understood eastern part of the geological belt where GSWA has been working recently (east of Norseman), and to the rifted portion in Antarctica. Research in the Albany region, and indeed throughout the Great Southern region, is required to understand those links, and to be able to define the similarities and differences. The Albany region can inform us about the other regions, and vice versa.

  • Geological mapping is very much modernised, but still requires direct observations of the rocks.

Participants in the  Geology in Action  field day learn about mapping features with Geological Survey of WA researcher Dr Catherine Spaggiari (centre, green jacket)

Participants in the Geology in Action field day learn about mapping features with Geological Survey of WA researcher Dr Catherine Spaggiari (centre, green jacket)

The group then split into two pods of participants to explore the site and talk with scientists, with Catherine’s pod chatting initially nearest the car park area, and Sandi's pod climbing further up the features for a broad view.

Catherine's pod

  • Catherine showed the group basic principles of mineral and primary rock identification, and how to understand what has happened to the rocks after they initially formed, by looking at mineral and textural details (metamorphism and deformation).

  • The group discussed questions about where the rocks formed, how deep in the crust, and differences between extrusive (volcanic) and intrusive (e.g. granites) processes of rock formation.

  • Questions were asked about how rocks formed at several kilometres depth get to the surface and the group discussed processes such as buoyancy of magmatic rocks, transfer along large faults, and the the link between uplift and erosion.

  • There were also questions about the shapes of the boulders and outcrops, and weathering processes, and whether these were typical at this site.

  • Catherine also fielded questions about how geologists and collaborators approach mapping, how they decide what to do and where to go. Catherine suggested that much of this depends on analysing available imagery and data first, then working out the issues that need to be resolved.

  • The group looked at the cross-cutting relationships of the complex rocks at The Gap, and how to observe the youngest to oldest rocks and their features.

  • Participants also viewed site geophysical imagery on the tablet field computer, where they could see the rocks through the vegetation and water.

Sandi’s pod

  • Sandi's group was also interested in the imagery on the tablet field computer and wanted to know what aeromagnetic, Landsat TM, and radiometric imagery represented.

  • Aeromagnetic images show the relative magnetic intensity of a 3D volume of crust that penetrates several kilometres below the surface.

  • Radiometric data is a measure of the abundances of potassium (K), thorium (Th), and uranium (U), of the top 30 centimetres of rock and soil.

  • The group discussed how rocks deform, and noted evidence of this in the rocks at The Gap. They also discussed how the rocks observed were formed at great depth under elevated pressure and temperature and how they got to the surface where they are now exposed.

  • Sandi discussed questions regarding students being able to access company data and company drillcores for their projects, and how the geological community work together to educate up and coming geologists. Sandi noted that, in general, this works very well and most companies will help with student projects as it also benefits them. The WA Department of Mines and Petroleum also release company reports and data for public access.

Thanks to Dr Catherine Spaggiari of Great Southern Science Council and Geological Survey of Western Australia for arranging this unique opportunity for regional community members to talk with scientists in the field, and to the entire team for sharing their interest, inspiration and expertise during this Science In Our Community event.

  • Dr Catherine Spaggiari - Geological Survey of Western Australia

  • Lauren Burley - Geological Survey of Western Australia

  • Dr Sandra Occinpinti - School of Earth and Environment, UWA

  • Dr Vaclav Metelka - School of Earth and Environment, UWA

  • Ashley Uran - PhD student, School of Earth and Environment, UWA

  • Kristian Grube - Ministry of Mineral Resources, Greenland

  • Arent Heilmann - Ministry of Mineral Resources, Greenland

Department of Parks and Wildlife provided permits and advice to the survey team and GSSC. South Coast NRM and the Western Australian Museum Albany and Great Southern Weekender helped with promotion, and Liz Tanner donated some images from the day for participants.

Great Southern Science Council encourages adventurers to contact the organisers or on-site team for more information on anything discussed on the day.

Please complete our quick online feedback survey to help GSSC plan more and better events.

Contact the team via projectofficer@greatsouthernsciencecouncil.org.au

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Marine Mammal Discovery Cruise aboard Sail-A-Way


More than 35 adventurers enjoyed a break in Albany's wintery weather to cruise King George Sound on Sunday 21 August in search of marine mammals and enlightenment during National Science Week in Albany. "It's a treat to be out today, with a break in the wind and some welcome sunny skies for our coast expedition" said event organisers Paul Wettin and Liz Tanner, Great Southern Science Council, as the cruise departed from Albany Marina.

Under sail and motor on the 35-foot twin hull sailboat Sail-A-Way, skipper John Woodbury, with crew Anke and Tony, made course to Nannarup Beach to find Southern Right Whales that had been in the area earlier that day. Natural sciences commentary by Deon Utbar of Department Parks and Wildlife, and skipper/educator John Woodbury, and photography and camera tips from enthusiast Keith Lightbody ensured a well-rounded program of discovery and conversation on-board.

There were at least three Southern Right Whales socialising closely in the shallow surf line near Nannarup Beach, and they were very likely courting, possibly mating. Another two individuals were spotted just offshore from Nannarup Beach, quietly resting at the surface. The weather was calm enough to see whale exhalation blows, which are wide, and sometimes separate "V" shapes from twin blowholes of Southern Right Whales or Humpback Whales.

After observing and discussing these whale pods for some time, the group agreed to venture across to Breaksea Island, where they found approximately three dozen New Zealand Fur Seals hauled out along the rocky ledges, possibly hunkering before a predicted squall coming through from Albany to the west.


Most of the animals appeared to be resting, with a few watching our vessel, a few grooming or absently squabbling, and a couple sliding into the water as we sailed past in quiet wonder. Just before heading back to Albany, toward the darkening sky and rainclouds, we spied a single Australian Sea Lion entering the water from the lower splash zone ledges.

Birdlife was quiet, with a couple dozen gannets floating either on the ocean surface or aloft in the light breeze. A pair of sooty oyster catchers and a pair of fairy terns were notable amongst the island birds, which included a handful of pacific gulls, crested terns, and fleshy footed shearwaters, all near Breaksea and Michelmas Islands.

"Deon explained research and innovations in the region that help us understand and manage marine mammals", said Great Southern Science Council Community Engagement Officer Liz Tanner, "and Deon, John and Keith helped interpret the Southern Right Whale social behaviour we were fortunate to see near Nannarup Beach. Discussions included research and technology for cetacean identification, drones, sound data, remote cameras and weather systems."

  • Whales and dolphins can be identified individually, especially, humpbacks with their distinctive black and white tail colours, southern right whales by their callosities, and dolphins with unique dorsal fin shapes and markings. More than 100 orca (killer whales) individuals have been catalogued in the Bremer Canyon study over the past few seasons.

  • Auditory data recorders are deployed in King George Sound to collect cetacean sounds in an effort to better understand the sounds that are important to whales and dolphins.

  • Remote motion-sensor cameras are deployed on some of the islands in the region to monitor wildlife such as seals and sea lions and birds.

  • Drones can be used in many ways, including monitoring wildlife such as pinniped colonies, cetaceans or sharks with less disturbance and more efficiently than light aircraft. Legislation around drone flight patterns and minimum approach distances to wildlife is under review to use this new technology to its full potential, but in a sensitive, sustainable way.

  • A recent National Geographic documentary "Birthplace of the Giants" was recommended for amazing footage, some filmed using drones, of humpback birthing behaviour off Western Australian coast.

On the journey home, Skipper John Woodbury invited passengers to experience changing weather conditions in the sound as he guided the vessel from Breaksea Island though the gathering squall, and paused briefly in the heavy rainfall to feel the full effect. Numerous people drew in hoods and pulled up zips to stay out on deck with John to enjoy the full Albany coastal weather experience.


Andrew Storrie

The Science of Grapes and Wine Revealed in South West Western Australia

The highly knowledgeable speakers at  The Science of Grapes and Wine , Rob Diletti (left) and David Botting (right). Photo credit: Andrew Storrie

The highly knowledgeable speakers at The Science of Grapes and Wine, Rob Diletti (left) and David Botting (right). Photo credit: Andrew Storrie

In February 2016 the Great Southern Science Council and South Coast NRM hosted The Science of Grapes and Wine where two experts in grape growing (viticulture) and wine making (oenology) helped unravel the science behind the production of high quality wines in southern Western Australia.

Rob Diletti, the James Halliday Winemaker of the Year 2015 and winemaker for Castle Rock Estate and several other wineries, and David Botting, Howard Park's Chief Viticulturist, both fascinated the audience with the complexity of making great wine.

David Botting explained how vineyard site selection is critical for the production of best quality grapes to produce high quality wine. Factors important in site selection and vineyard layout include:

  • aspect, or direction the slope faces

  • topography and erosion management

  • elevation

  • soils – are highly variable across a field and must be mapped and tested

All this goes into making what the French call "terroir". This is the complete environment that gives wines their particular regional or vineyard character. David demonstrated the effect of terroir with a tasting of riesling from two different Howard Park blocks.

David highlighted regional innovation in viticulture needed when in 2010 the Great Southern and Margaret River experienced a significant heat spike before harvest. This, combined with low humidity and wind, shrivelled grapes on the vine and tested the skills of the wine makers. This prompted David to adapt a technique apple growers use to prevent sunburn to apples to wine grape production (mvcitrus.org.au/mvcb/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Sun-Protection-Manual-for-Fruit.pdf). Apple growers spray fruit with “sunscreens” or use shade cloth systems. For the great southern grapes in Western Australia, shade cloth was placed on the western side of north-south orientated vines during berry set, yet in such a way to allow air flow to minimise fungal diseases of the grapes. This has become an important technique in maintaining grape quality during recent years.

David noted smoke taint of grapes as a big problem for wine makers. Smoke taint can give the wine unpleasant burnt flavours. Collaborative research between growers, the Department of Agriculture & Food WA and the University of Western Australia has produced an on-line risk calculator to help wine producers decide if they can use grapes that have been affected by smoke www.agric.wa.gov.au/fire/wine-grape-smoke-effect-reduction-smoke-taint-risk-calculator-star.

For Rob Diletti wine making is equal parts art and science. "I use a number of scientific processes in every aspect of my wine production" said Mr Diletti. The science is a combination of botany, microbiology, physics and chemistry, while the art comes from experience and the love of what he produces.

Pressing the grapes produces a cloudy juice that is full of solids and nutrients. When producing white wine, settling tanks allow much of the solids to sink to the bottom with the clear juice pumped from the top. Nitrogen can be bubbled through the juice to float solids which are then removed from the surface. White wines are filtered then stabilised with a protein.

Red wines get their colour and flavour from the skins. Carbon dioxide will lift the skins and solids to the vat surface and must be plunged back up to three times per day. The tannins and phenolic compounds give red wine their added "character" but this must be carefully managed. When fermentation is complete the developing wine is barrelled where slow oxidation changes and 'softens' these compounds.

Informal discussions at Due South Tavern following The Science of Grapes and Wine. Left to right: Shane Wilkes, Howard Park Wines; Rob Diletti, winemaker; Jennifer Scott and Beverley Bradshaw. Photo credit: Andrew Storrie

Informal discussions at Due South Tavern following The Science of Grapes and Wine. Left to right: Shane Wilkes, Howard Park Wines; Rob Diletti, winemaker; Jennifer Scott and Beverley Bradshaw. Photo credit: Andrew Storrie

Fermentation is a complex event as the yeast must be carefully managed in their conversion of sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Cooling the wine is used to manage the rate of fermentation. The multiplication of the yeast is also limited by the alcohol they produce. Rob believes in using natural yeasts in the fermentation of his wines.

Following the presentations, participants gathered for wine and nibbles in Due South, where Rob and David discussed their work and answered questions in a relaxed atmosphere.

This Science in Our Community event was an initiative of Great Southern Science Council with support from the Australian Government Initiative Inspiring Australia, Due South, South Coast NRM and our presenters, to encourage science engagement and conversations in south west Western Australia.

To get involved in future events, email Liz Tanner.


Andrew Storrie

Great Southern Science Drinks - What is it all about?


Great Southern Science Drinks are held on a Friday afternoon about once a month, following the Great Southern Science Council monthly meeting. Science drinks are an informal get together than runs from 5.00pm until whenever you wish to leave. It's a great opportunity to meet local scientists from the Great Southern area from a wide range of different disciplines who you might not normally meet.

If you would like to get involved in Science Drinks, email Andrew Storrie and he will put you on the invitation list. Reminders are sent out a week before Science Drinks is happening to give you time to plan.


Andrew Storrie