A marvellous new book by Dr Steve Morton, who has spent his life studying Australian Deserts, gives us a chance to put these awe-inspiring spaces into proper perspective.

Image from ‘Australian Deserts’

Australian deserts are not Hollywood deserts; they are not the Sahara, endless stretches of baking sand. Instead, they are much more interesting and special places, places where millions of years of boom and bust cycles of flood and drought have created landscapes like nowhere else on earth and flora and fauna uniquely Australian. They are not empty, dead, places for they almost always feature considerable vegetation and complex ecosystems; but what is perhaps most remarkable about them is their sense of space and scale.

Space is the first of several generalities that I will mention in attempting to draw together what we have learned about the 5 million square kilometres of wonderful ecological complexity that make up the Australian arid zone. Huge scale and flatness are the dominant human impressions of inland Australia. These features may not be to everyone’s taste, for they can evoke the sense of an insignificant human speck in an endless, unpopulated, uncaring landscape.

Morton, S., Australian Deserts, Ecology and Landscapes, CSIRO, 2022, p.228.

This is a CSIRO publication, but written in an accessible and informal style which is easily readable. Dr Morton has given us a book which could be our key to a better understanding of these incredible spaces, which make up 75% of the Australian landscape.

Understanding arid Australia requires thinking in terms of a spectrum! Saltbush shrublands and tussock grasslands grow on slightly more fertile soils, and river channels and drainage lines form ribbons of relative fertility, which is the reason why such country can support commercial sheep and cattle grazing. Yet all the organisms within arid Australian ecosystems have the mark of nutrient paucity somewhere upon their lifestyles, for all species evolving on the ancient, worn-down continent must be able to deal with it. The consequences ramify throughout arid Australian ecosystems: they are evident in every following section, beginning with the relationship between accumulated biomass and fire.

Morton, S., 2022, p. 231.
Illustration from Australian Deserts, Ecology and Landscapes

Anyone travelling in Australia will benefit from reading this book; it may help to give them a better understanding of the plants, animals and landscapes of the continent; it may help with some of the questions they have, such as, how do waterbirds know when there are floods in the desert?

In long-distance flights, a grey teal frequently bypasses abundant wetlands in favour of exploration into the distance. It then settles briefly on a tiny water source such as a pastoral tank or an ephemeral claypan, before returning within days to its point of origin in a remarkable feat of navigation. Such flights appear to be prospecting journeys allowing the bird to learn the geography of the Outback. The grey teal uses these experiences later, after rainfall, when its flights are navigationally precise and timed for arrival with floodwaters. Movements of grey teal are an amalgam of prior knowledge, flying capacity, and perhaps even some predictive ability.

Morton, S., 2022. p. 214

Absolutely recommended. Take it with you on your next big trip. It may open your eyes to what is out there.

Dr Steve Morton, Australian Deserts, Ecology and Landscapes, CSIRO, 2022.

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