CQU Environmental students' mission to unearth Australian ecosystems

27 September 2021

Imagine discovering a new species or a megafauna extinct animal that roamed Central Queensland when there was nothing but rain forest – this is exactly what CQUniversity Environmental Science and Science students aimed to do at a recent three-day field course at the Capricorn Caves.

For the first time' CQUni students were able to take advantage of the fantastic resources at The Caves' where they surveyed the local bat population to ascertain what species are present in the caves.

Students used an advanced echolocation device to do identify the bat species without capturing or disturbing the bats. Each species of bat has its own unique call pattern that occurs at frequencies above human hearing called ultrasound.

CQUniversity Academic and Biologist Prof Simon Robson said bats are an important part of the Australian ecosystem and the unique skills required to identify the different bat calls needs to be passed on to the next generation.

"It's been great that we can work with the Capricorn Caves to let the students develop those skills so they can remotely survey the bats without interfering with them'" Prof Robson said.

"Rockhampton is particularly important because we have maternity colonies for two species of bats – Ghost Bats and Bent Wing Bats.

"Maternity colonies are essential resources' where thousands of female bats come together to have their babies once per year. The babies will then spread out to other colonies and that's why it's critically important that we look after them."

Bachelor of Science Ecology and Conservation Biology student Misty Neilson said the three-day field course has been fundamental to her studies.

"I learnt how the ecosystems have changed over the years and how they relate to the species before'" Ms Neilson said.

"You can learn so much about an ecosystem and its health just by looking at the bones found in these caves.

"The caves here are very unique. With Australia being so old and in the tropics' a lot of the ecosystems have deteriorated over time. It's really important to protect them.

"A lot of the species found here aren't found anywhere else in the world and if they go extinct here that's it."

Visiting Paleontologist Dr Scott Hocknull said imparting the knowledge of Australia's past is really exciting.

"The Caves gives a great opportunity for students that are learning about their environment to look into the past because once you see the past you can understand what our present is and hopefully that helps you look into the future'" Mr Hocknull said.

"It's encouraging to see these students get their eyes under the microscope and find everything from a tiny bone of a frog that lived here tens of thousands of years ago up to something that might even be a megafauna extinct animal that was here tens of millions of years ago."

"The thrill of finding these fossils and being able to identity what species they were is what takes a student from not knowing anything to becoming a bona fide Paleontologist."

The three-day field course was part of the Australian Vertebrate Fauna unit taught at CQU by Prof Simon Robson and Dr Guy Carton. In this unit students learn and practice the applied skill-sets and techniques required for faunal surveys and wildlife research in Australia.

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