Secrets of Australia’s rangelands uncovered

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The secrets of the understudied Australian rangelands, which make up 81% of the continent, have been exposed in new scientific work.

The Australian rangelands, including deserts, grasslands, savanna woodlands and shrublands, support an extensive grazing pastoral industry, and perform important soil and biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration roles. Understanding the health and trajectory of these systems is critical to inform the adaptive and sustainable management practices required to maintain these economically important ecosystems in the face of changing climates and disturbance regimes. Yet these iconic Australian landscapes remain some of the most understudied ecological systems on the continent.

In an attempt to rectify this situation, the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) has published results from a large, continental-scale surveillance monitoring program, detailing precise information about the vegetation and soil of Australian rangelands – which includes most of the arid and semi arid ecosystems of South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territories.

The AusPlots facility of TERN has established nearly 500 permanent monitoring plots, capturing information on vegetation and soils. This information allows comparison of a suite of metrics across plots and regions; including, species richness, diversity, and composition, as well as vegetation characteristics such vegetation cover and the volume of woody vegetation.

This first standardised, continental-wide analysis of rangeland vegetation indicates that there is strong variation in species abundance with climatic variation, particularly rainfall for grassland and shrubland communities. The analysis also indicates that the abundance of species in desert systems is particularly sensitive to climatic change, which is likely to result in altered diversity and ecosystem function in the future.

The rangelands include some of Australia’s most iconic arid and semi-arid landscapes (including Uluru, Shutterstock), they support important pastoral and tourism industries, yet are some of our most understudied ecosystems

The standardised data generated by AusPlots enables analyses at large spatial scales, and the testing of predictions of ecosystem change through time. Leaf and soil samples have also been sampled for downstream chemical and genomic analysis.

In the future, the AusPlots field program will be directed towards improving coverage of space, under-represented environments, vegetation types and fauna and, increasingly, re-sampling of established plots. This will allow a near real-time analysis of the health state and trajectory of our important rangeland ecosystems, which support valuable pastoral and tourism industries.

Published in the journal PLOS ONE by lead author Dr Greg Guerin, the paper is the culimination of years of research performed by TERN’s AusPlots facility. The AusPlots Facility, which is based at the University of Adelaide, is a surveillance monitoring program that undertakes assessments of ecosystems across the country. Since 2009, they have been collecting data, making measurements and taking samples of plants and soils in 100m x 100m plots around rangelands and forests across Australia. This is the first formal publication to showcase the collated data-set to-date across Australia. The data-sets are freely available through TERN’s Advanced Ecological Knowledge and Observation System.


Guerin GR, Sparrow B, Tokmakoff A, Smyth A, Leitch E, Baruch Z, Lowe AJ (2017) Opportunities for Integrated Ecological Analysis across Inland Australia with Standardised Data from Ausplots Rangelands. PLoS ONE 12 (1), e0170137

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