Category: In the News

NPWS Hunter Discovery Tours Winter 2018

Whale Tales 2018

Whale Watching, Games, Sausage Sizzle AND MORE

Learn more about whales from whale expert Jeannie Lawson!

Join us to hear stories around these majestic creatures as well as to help spot the humpbacks as they venture north to warmer waters.


Event running THIS SUNDAY (24th) in Boat Harbour and SUNDAY 8th July in Fingal Bay.

See the attached flyer or our website for more details!

Dr Simon Clulow Published in Science

The August 04, 2017 cover of Science.

Excitingly Dr Simon Clulow, a member of the Conservation Biology Group has had a paper published in Science.

The paper, published with Australian and international co-authors identifies the frog fauna of New Guinea (including Papua New Guinea) at risk of a major catastrophic event, including species declines and extinctions, should the fungal chytrid pathogen, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, be introduced to the country. Currently, New Guinea is one of the few remaining global refuges for amphibians against chytrid. The paper argues for policy and biosecurity strategies to be put in place to pre-empt the impending threat by policies and actions to prevent the introduction of the fungus, and the adoption of strategies to manage the panzootic if the fungus is found there.  It recognises the need for a co-ordinated response for developing countries to manage chytrid risk, involving governments, researchers, NGO’s and communities to work together.

Dr Simon Clulow is also a member of FaunaBank network (an initiative of the Fauna Research Alliance) whose mission is to promote the use of reproductive technologies and biobanking to conserve the native fauna of Australia and the Pacific.

You can read the article here.

Dr Simon Clulow working in Papua New Guinea.

Project Lazarus


Our very own Professor Michael Mahony  attempts the seemingly impossible – to unwind extinction by bringing back to life the Australian gastric brooding frog.Profile Image

The project was awarded TIME Magazines top 25 best inventions of 2013.

Interest has recently been revitalised on the breakthrough genome technology, due to an ABC documentary starring Professor Mike Mahony and the University of Newcastle Team.

The The Lazarus Project has developed de-extinction technology which will resurrect vanished species and is the only Australian invention named in the global list.

The resurrection of the gastric brooding frog may also have implications for the medical world.

“The gastric brooding frog swallows externally fertilized eggs into its stomach, which then operates as a uterus. No other living creature can do this. This unique ability could help the medical world work out how to manage gastric secretions in the gut,” said Michael Mahony, Project Leader, Professor of Biology at the University of Newcastle and internationally-renowned ‘Frog Whisperer’.

Known as somatic cell nuclear transplantation, the cloning technology had never previously been successfully applied to dead tissue. In repeated experiments over five years, the nuclei of donor eggs from the distantly related Great Barred Frog, Mixophyes fasciolatus, were inactivated and replaced with dead nuclei from the gastric brooding frog which resulted in eggs spontaneously dividing and growing to early embryo stage.

Amazingly, the Lazarus Project team recovered the extinct frog cell nuclei from tissue samples collected in the 1970s and kept for 40 years in a conventional deep freezer.

“The tissue samples we recovered from the last known laboratory to have a colony of these species had not been treated with cryoprotectant, or ‘anti-freeze’ to stop the cells from expanding and becoming damaged during the freezing process. It wasn’t until we looked at the cells under the micro-scope that we could see the cell walls were still intact,” said Professor Mahony.

The research team believes a human spread fungus was the primary cause of extinction.

“If it is clear that we have exterminated a species, we arguably have an obligation to bring it back,” said Professor Mahony.

image courtesy of ©Dr. Michael Tyler/ Science Source

The frozen specimens were preserved and provided by Professor Mike Tyler, of the

University of Adelaide, who extensively studied both species of gastric-brooding f

rog – R. silus and R. vitellinus – before they vanished in the wild in 1979 and 1985 respectively.

“Recognition by a global publication as prestigious as TIME Magazine is evidence of University of Newcastle researchers driving world-class innovation. As global leaders in their field, they are developing solutions for the world’s most significant problems,” said Vice-Chancellor, Professor Caroline McMillen.

Undertaken in labs at the University of Newcastle, biological work is led by Frog Whisperer, Professor Michael Mahony, along with Mr Simon Clulow and Dr John Clulow, all based at the University of Newcastle, with assistance from cloning specialists Dr Andrew French and Dr Jitong Guo and overseen by paleontologist Professor Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales.

Image supplied by Dr Michael Tyler. The image was taken in his laboratory in Adelaide and depicts the only recorded instance of a gastric brooding frog giving birth.

You can read more in The INDEPENDENT HERE


Take the plunge and secure your place aboard the BirdLife Australia and Aurora Expeditions voyage to Antarctica and South Georgia departing this November. You’ll spend 18 days sailing the wildlife-rich waters and enjoying daily landings and close encounters with the region’s magnificent bird species. Accompanying you on board will be BirdLife Australia’s very own Andrew Silcocks, who will interpret the region’s birdlife alongside Aurora’s team of naturalists and polar experts. You’ll land ashore to visit the world’s largest King Penguin rookeries and observe at least five other penguin species. Be mesmerised by numerous seabirds – including the world’s largest flying bird, the Wandering Albatross – as they wheel in the winds and follow in our wake.JUST ANNOUNCED – CANON COLLECTIVE EVENT
Joining us on board will be representatives from the Canon Collective. You’ll have the chance to trial new Canon equipment, with instruction and assistance from the Canon team. The Canon team will work alongside our professional photography guides – Joshua Holko (2015 Arctic Photographer of the Year) and Martyn Lucas, who will be delivering a dedicated photography program for all interested passengers.

Aurora Expeditions is offering BirdLife Australia’s members and supporters the chance to save 10% on the price of their expedition when you book before 31 August 2016. Limited places available, terms and conditions apply.

To find out more about this exclusive BirdLife Australia expedition to Antarctica and South Georgia click here.

Join Us Volunteer Volunteer

Newcastle University Ecologist Helps Assess Threatened Species

Dr Anita Chalmers from the School of Environmental & Life Sciences has just completed a term on the NSW Scientific Committee. She was appointed as a member of the Committee by the NSW Minister of the Environment in 2014. The function of the Scientific Committee, under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995, is to determine which species, populations and ecological communities are to be listed as threatened in NSW.


Photo- Dr Chalmers searching for new populations of Grevillea shiressii.

Dr Chalmers found the experience to be both rewarding and worthwhile. “I have really enjoyed my time on the Committee. It’s been hard work, but its also been really rewarding to have the opportunity to apply my scientific skills in a way that contributes to the conservation of biodiversity in New South Wales. It also reflects well on the reputation of ecologists within the Discipline of Environmental Science,” Dr Chalmers said.

For more information on the NSW Scientific Committee click here






Camden Haven research project to investigate school prawn productivity


Media Release: Department of Primary Industries

A substantial decline in the average annual catch of school prawns at Camden Haven on the North Coast of NSW has resulted in the estuary being listed as a research priority area.

A new research project on the estuary will be led by Department of Primary Industries (DPI) Fisheries Senior Research Scientist, Dr Matt Taylor, who said the project will determine whether School Prawns are still recruiting to certain areas of the Camden Haven estuary, and if estuarine conditions are adversely affecting prawn growth and survival.

“Fishers have reported that prawns have almost completely disappeared from some parts of the estuary, and since 2007 they have noticed prawns have been substantially smaller” Dr Taylor said.

It is thought that lower catches might be related to poorer water quality and the loss of habitat in parts of the estuary, a situation that is widespread in other estuaries on the NSW north coast where similar trends in prawn numbers and sizes have been also reported.

“We know from previous reports that the periodic presence of environmental conditions including low dissolved oxygen, low pH and the occurrence of heavy metals can produce lethal effects on prawns” said Dr Taylor.

These conditions can occur in estuarine waters as a by-product of acid-sulphate soil oxidation.

“However sub-lethal effects from degraded environmental conditions that compromise growth and reproductive output are largely unknown for prawns, so we want to understand the role this might be playing in the declining productivity of School Prawn stocks” Dr Taylor added.

The research project will commence in September 2015 and run for three years, with a final report due in December 2017.

It will guide future restoration activities in the Camden Haven estuary and act as a case study for other coastal estuaries in NSW.

The is a collaborative research project with the University of Newcastle, and funded by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) on behalf of the Australian Government. The project is further supported by DPI Fisheries, the Professional Fishermen’s Association, Hastings River Fishermen’s Cooperative, Port Macquarie- Hastings Council and North Coast Local Land Services.

Further information about the Camden Haven School Prawn research project is available at

How you can help scientists track how marine life reacts to climate change

From The Conversation – 7 October 2015


There are many factors that determine where a marine species will find a place to call home, such as wave exposure, salinity, depth, habitat and where other friend or foe species live.

But sea temperature plays a critical role in how far north or south an animal can live. This is due to the strong effect temperature has on almost every system and process in the body.

As our climate warms, we know some marine animals are already on the move, such as king crabs marching into Antarctica and tropical fish turning up in new regions of South Africa, New South Wales and as far south as Tasmania.

These changes in distribution are seen as a key fingerprint of climate change. But as with many large-scale patterns and processes in ecology, the devil is in the detail, and overall it’s a pretty smudgy fingerprint.

There is substantial variation between species in the speed and magnitude of their responses to climate change. Species with geographically limited ranges, endemic species, or those with specific habitat requirements are possibly at greatest risk.

Marine animals that are widely distributed or are highly mobile as adults seem to have the greatest capacity to shift where they live. Yet this does not explain or encompass all the variation in species’ responses.

Where to call home?

A large part of the problem is that we have a poor understanding of where many species live in the first place.

Complicating matters are mobile species of fish, lobsters or squid that can have different distributions across their larval, juvenile and adult stages, or with different seasons – summer vs winter. They might also occupy different habitats or areas when they are breeding or feeding.

So which one of these distributions do we monitor or assess to determine if a species has shifted its range?

Ideally, we would like to know where a species range boundaries have existed in the past, for all life stages, and how these are shifting in response to a changing climate.

But Australia has 60,000km of coastline and thousands of species, of which we have very limited data for most, making access to this baseline information extremely difficult.

Even where we do have a reliable estimate of the range of a species, defining and establishing exactly when a change has occurred still requires substantial information. Changes in distribution take place over time and through a series of stages.

At the range edge that is extending into new areas there may just be a few new arrivals at first. However, numbers may increase over time until there is a persistent population.

At the range edge that is getting too warm, individuals may start to struggle and decline in performance before the population decreases and then local extinction occurs.

Without intensive survey data available, it is much easier to detect a change at the extending edge of a species’ distribution than it is to detect a change at the contracting edge. It is easier to report, and be more confident about, the first observation of something new in an area than it is the last to be seen in an area.

Additionally, it is not uncommon for vagrant marine animals to sometimes venture far from home (particularly as juveniles), but then be unable to survive for longer periods of time. Even if they do survive, they may not reproduce and set up a new home turf there.

Who’s new to the neighbourhood?

Given range shifts progress in stages over time, starting with an arrival stage, how do we determine when a few individuals stop being vagrant visitors and start being the beginning of a new population?

Changes in the distribution of larger and more charismatic species are going to be easier to detect than in more cryptic species. A large manta ray swimming around Tasmania’s east coast would be (and indeed was – see image above) easily recognised. If they start turning up in larger numbers we will be sure to hear about it.

In contrast, a small intertidal or cryptic snail would be not so easy to identify or even spot. We may well be underestimating shifts occurring in rare or inconspicuous species, and this could be complicating our understanding of the overall pattern.

So it’s not easy to pinpoint the finer details of exactly how warming waters are changing the distribution of our species. The fact that strong global and regional patterns of pole-ward movements are being seen, despite these differences in responses and detectability, is evidence of the large and inescapable nature of the effect.

The most effective way to detect changes in distribution are repeated, structured scientific surveys, such as those undertaken by Reef Life Survey.

Let the public help

Unfortunately, surveys and data from our intertidal zones, sandy sea floors or in the open ocean are sparse. But Australia does have more than four million recreational fishers, divers, boaters and beachcombers who can help give scientists a heads-up on where we might need to look in more detail.

Participants in Redmap, the Range Extension Database and Mapping project, have already recorded observations of many out-of-range species, some in abundance.

Photos sent in to Redmap are verified by one of a team of more than 80 scientists around the country. These photos provide an early indication of which species might be shifting, highlighting where additional research could be targeted.

The gloomy octopus (above) for example was one of the first species reported to Redmap. Subsequent research confirmed this species had indeed made a new home in Tasmania and is successfully breeding there.

Each Redmap sighting is like a piece of a puzzle that over time will help reveal a picture of which species might be on the move in Australian seas.

There remains much we do not know about why some species shift and others do not, or what the impacts of changing distributions might be on the structure and function of our natural seascapes, biodiversity and fisheries.

While fishers may welcome hooking new species and divers in temperate waters will love to see Nemo in their marine backyard, other less desirable changes are also anticipated.

In 2016, several hundred scientists from around the world will meet in Hobart, Tasmania, for the Species on the Move conference to discuss this global redistribution of species, how these changes in distribution may be better predicted, and how to assess the magnitude of their ecological, social and cultural impacts.

Disused mines blight New South Wales, yet the approvals continue

Associate Professor Phillip Geary 

From The Conversation – March 23, 2015

It’s been widely reported that the coal mining industry is facing a prolonged downturn, with investment analysts at Citibank telling clients last year not to expect a rapid revival in thermal coal prices, while many Australian coal producers have posted financial losses in recent years.


Rio Tinto’s Mount Thorley-Warkworth mine in the Hunter Valley, which looks set to expand further. The NSW planning department says it would “not be reasonable” to require Rio Tinto “to completely or even partially backfill the final void”. Lock The Gate Alliance/Flickr, CC BY

That’s why it is surprising to learn of a recent spate of approvals for mine expansions in the coal heartlands of New South Wales. It seems that even in a downturn, the approvals process for new mines – at least in NSW – is continuing to move as fast as ever.

Those mine approvals will leave a lasting legacy. According to the NSW Auditor-General, as of 30 June 2012 there were about 573 derelict mine sites in NSW (including gold and other minerals, as well as former coal mines). And only a small fraction of those derelict mines were being rehabilitated.

New mine approvals

Earlier this month, the NSW Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) gave a green light to Rio Tinto’s controversial Mount Thorley-Warkworth extension in the Hunter Valley. The move follows the PAC’s decision last month to approve two other big coal mine expansions, at Moolarben, near Mudgee, and Bengalla, near Muswellbrook.

In each case, the argument hinged on economic benefits, such as the direct and indirect spending associated with the project, the government royalties they will generate, and the jobs they will create and existing jobs they will secure.

The negative aspects of these developments, such as the impact on the local environment and communities, including the way regional landscapes are being scarred by huge holes in the ground, do not seem to have received the same consideration by the PAC and by most in the media.

In the case of Yancoal’s expansion near Mudgee, the PAC acknowledged that 1,534 hectares of land will be cleared (of which 123 hectares is deemed to contain endangered ecological communities).

Meanwhile, Rio Tinto’s Mount Thorley Warkworth project is expected to have a significant impact on the community of Bulga and its surrounding environment.

The rules on who’s responsible for mined land

In NSW all exploration and mining activity must be conducted in accordance with approvals under the Mining Act 1992 and the rehabilitation of mined land is therefore covered by law.

Resources and Energy (NSW Trade and Investment) has the responsibility for setting and assessing sustainable rehabilitation outcomes, and the industry must demonstrate to them “best practice ecological rehabilitation” of mined land if they are to recover their mine closure bond. There is therefore a strong financial incentive for miners to do a good job, as they must demonstrate that they have a plan for post-mining land use and mine closure when open-cut mining ceases.

Corinne Unger from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation is among those to have raised the question of how Australia should be better managing the 50,000 abandoned mine sites across the country.

There are more and more of these “final voids” – typically meaning huge holes in the ground – being left as a legacy of both former and current opencut mining operations.

The Newcastle Herald reported earlier this month that:

Mining in the Hunter Valley could leave a legacy of more than 10,000 hectares of land consumed as “final voids”, or giant holes left by mines, prompting a push for the state government to investigate their cumulative impacts on the region’s water table and agriculture. The independent Planning Assessment Commission has urged the government to undertake the study, and branded as ‘‘unacceptable’’ mining giant Rio Tinto’s proposal for a 950-hectare final void at its Mount Thorley mine site – an area it notes is … about a sixth of Sydney Harbour.

In advice issued to the commission, the Department of Planning has revealed it is “not aware of the total size” of existing and approved voids in the Hunter. But approval had been given for about 30 to be developed that on a “conservative estimate” would cover 7500 to 10,000 hectares, it said.

This has been a long-running issue. Back in 2005, a NSW Department of Planning report found that there would be more than two dozen of these large open holes left on the floor of the Hunter Valley, and that all would become “saline water sinks” without rehabilitation.

The question is: why aren’t these miners required to fill in their final voids as a matter of course, as part of the government-approved mine rehabilitation plan?

One word: cost.

As The Newcastle Herald has also reported, a Rio Tinto spokesman said that the final void left behind at the Mount Thorley-Warkworth mine “will be largely hidden from view due to the surrounding landscape and extensive rehabilitation works planned after mining”. But will it be completely filled in? No.

The NSW Department of Planning has estimated it would cost at least A$2 billion over the life of the mine to completely fill the void, and said it would “not be reasonable to impose a condition that requires Rio Tinto to completely or even partially backfill the final void”.

The NSW government has a wide range of legislated powers for regulating mine site rehabilitation, including setting environmental management and rehabilitation conditions, requiring rehabilitation security bonds and enforcement powers to ensure lease holders comply with their obligations.

But the regulators now accept that mine voids from current mines are to remain in the landscape once mining ceases, despite their legal responsibility to ensure that miners undertake best-practice rehabilitation, if they are to recover their bond monies.

It seems that rehabilitation of the final void is going a little too far in terms of “best-practice ecological rehabilitation” of mined lands. The cost to rehabilitate the final void should be borne by the industry that has earned income from digging up and selling the coal. It should no longer be acceptable to leave a large hole in the ground as a legacy.

Cleaning up the problem

Later this month, a Best Practice Mine Rehabilitation Conference is being held in Singleton, which will feature a panel discussion on the role that final voids could play in the landscape of the Hunter Valley.

In my view, this would not be needed if the industry and regulators were doing the right thing for the community and the environment by requiring that these features be filled in.

As the situation currently stands, the hundreds of mining holes that litter the Hunter Valley represent a significant financial liability to the state.

Very little government funding is available for their ongoing management, let alone their rehabilitation. In 2013-14, the NSW government allocated just A$4.276 million for the rehabilitation of derelict mines – and that amount fell in 2014-15 to A$4.071 million.

That’s a pittance of the A$1.5 billion that the NSW mining sector says it paid to the NSW government in 2013-14.

Whoever wins the March 28 election, the next NSW government needs to recognise the financial liability being left to current and future taxpayers not only from derelict sites, but also the current mines being allowed to be left behind in future without complete rehabilitation.

For “best practice” to mean something, this should mean that people living in regional NSW are not left with a landscape blighted with hundreds of holes in the ground.

The material or views expressed on this Blog are those of the author and do not represent those of the University.  Please report any offensive or improper use of this Blog to
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