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RPS Ecologists at work in the NSW Blue Mountains

With so much of their time spent out in the field, RPS’ ecology team often flies below the radar.

23 May 2022

Asia Pacific

Australia

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Quiet achievers they may be, but the monitoring and management programs they design and implement are of vital importance. Not just for RPS clients and their projects, but for the advancement of environmental science, and the protection of biodiversity.

Here, we take a deep dive into the team’s work managing the interface between industry and ecology in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.

RPS ecologist completing field work in the Blue Mountains region of New South Wales
RPS ecologist surveying and monitoring around the Lost City in the Blue Mountains region of New South Wales

The Blue Mountains: resource-rich and ecologically diverse

The New South Wales Blue Mountains region is home to some picturesque, yet rugged corners of Australia. While the human population in some of these places may be small, they are home to a wide range of flora and fauna species.

For close to a decade, RPS has worked with clients to develop biodiversity management plans, monitor environmental assets and undertake research on vulnerable and endangered ecological communities and species throughout the area.

With a focus on plants, animals and ecosystems that rely on groundwater, the species and communities that the team study include Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone, Blue Mountains Water Skink (Eulamprus leuraensis), Giant Dragonfly (Petalura gigantea), Caesia parviflora var. minor (Small Pale Grass-lily), and Boronia deanei (Deane’s Boronia).

"To help companies manage the potential impact of their operations on local ecosystems, a thorough survey of plants, animals and communities, and ongoing monitoring is required,” says RPS Senior Ecologist, Shelomi Doyle

RPS Ecology team with Caesia parviflora var. minor (Small Pale Grass-lily) in the Blue Mountains region of New South Wales
Caesia parviflora var. minor (Small Pale Grass-lily) flower and bee

“In remote and spectacular landscapes like the Blue Mountains, monitoring programs require some exploration, and an adventurous spirit! We get to know the area intimately through seasonal surveys, and we sometimes stumble on surprises.

“An example is the Xerochrysum palustre (the Swamp Everlasting Daisy) that we noticed during a routine survey. It’s a Vulnerable-listed plant that had not been previously recorded in this area,” says Shelomi.

Technology-enabled monitoring

The team employs a variety of methods for monitoring, and technology now plays a significant role in their work.

“We monitor seasonally (every three months) by visiting established points to record species, and comparing aerial imagery collected by a fly-over.

“By using near infra-red imagery, we can analyse the photosynthetic processes of vegetation. This detailed assessment gives an indication of any potential drying impacts on flora in swamp areas.

“Using near infra-red data in conjunction with a more detailed flora transect program carried out annually (where we assess vegetation on the ground), allows us to provide a snapshot of the health of these rare and important environments.”

Blue Mountains Water Skink on top of a purple flower
Blue Mountains Water Skink, photo by RPS Principal Ecologist, Mark Aitkens

Going genetic with fauna

When it comes to monitoring for species like the Giant Dragonfly (Petalura gigantea) and the Blue Mountains Water Skink (Eulamprus leuraensis), advanced genetic analysis is playing more of a part than ever before, says Shelomi.

“While we still use a transect approach to observe individuals and their behaviour, we are using an emerging technology called environmental DNA (eDNA) to test for presence of the Giant Dragonfly as they shed their DNA into the surrounding water.”

“For the Blue Mountains Water Skink, our annual monitoring includes a genetic program where we collect DNA samples directly from individuals to analyse the relationships between populations in different swamp areas” she said.