The devil is in the detail – the ecology of ngiyari (thorny devils, Moloch horridus) at Uluru.

By 11/22/2023Current Projects
HSF 22059 | Amount: $81,800 | Project Leader: C Schlesinger | Project Period: 0

A project undertaken at Charles Darwin University, and supervised by Dr Christine Schlesinger.

Situated on Anangu country within the jointly managed Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, this project is applying a decolonising and community-centred approach to research on the autoecology and thermal ecology of thorny devils, (Moloch horridus). We use the local Pitjantjatjara name – ngiyari – for the species. We intend to disrupt usual practice, prioritize research of interest to local people with reciprocal benefits, and enable more equal partnerships and local co-design of research agendas. Partnering with the Park and Nyangatjatjara College – an independent Aboriginal owned senior college at Yulara – we have co-developed research that enables and responds to input from diverse members of the community with local co-benefits as a central priority.

Community day

Using the research as a catalyst, and through our partnership, we aim to form tangible links between the scientific aspects of the research, local experience and knowledge of the community including that held by Anangu youth, senior knowledge holders and piranpa (white/non-indigenous people), the school curriculum and the conservation and management interests of the Park. The approach and the anticipated broader social outcomes are central priorities. Aside from its uniqueness, the relational values associated with ngiyari make them a particularly intriguing focal species in our context.

Ngiyari are highly charismatic and valued from diverse perspectives. For example, historical photos depict Anangu men and boys performing ngiyari inma (ceremony) in the remote SA communities of Pukatja (Ernabella) and Fregon in the 1940s and 60s. The adoption of the ngiyari as the symbol for the Angus Downs Indigenous Rangers based in Imanpa, several 100 km east of Uluru, and the naming of a street in the community of Indulkana in northern SA are indicative of the continued significance of the species for First Nations people in central Australia. Interest and fondness for thorny devils is shared by many non-indigenous residents (and, indeed, visitors) to remote Australia.

Thorny Devil.

Ngiyari are listed ‘least concern’ on the IUCN Red List due to their wide distribution – which, paradoxically probably contributes to their cultural importance across vast regions – however, like many cryptic species, especially in understudied desert regions, their true status is unknown. Rarely seen despite their wide distribution, the Uluru-KataTjuta National Park is unique in that significant road infrastructure and high traffic volume intersects with thorny devil habitat. Accounts from residents, including Nyangatjatjara school students who travel from their home in Mutitjulu to Yulara on their way to and from school each day, attest that ngiyari become suddenly conspicuous on roads at certain times of year and are frequently squashed be unwary drivers. It is not known whether they are attracted to thermal or other properties of roads, or just passing by.

Thermal image

Remarkably little is recorded about ngiyari ecology, but their distinctly bimodal activity in spring and autumn, with little activity in the coldest and warmest seasons, suggests temperature is important and thermoregulatory opportunities provided by roads may be attractive at certain times. As ngiyari have small home ranges, relatively low reproductive rates and live up to 20 years, the levels of roadkill observed may be impacting local populations. Minimizing impacts of high volumes of traffic on thorny devils and other wildlife, is a concern within the World Heritage listed Park.

This research will combine observations made by local people throughout the year with thermal imaging and tracking data to understand activity patterns, thermal ecology and use of roads by ngiyari to support the management and conservation of wildlife populations in the Park. More broadly, the research will offer insight into how native fauna respond to extreme environmental conditions. In the already extreme environments of central Australia temperatures and sequences of very hot days are increasing, directly impacting people and many other local animal and plant species. For example, combined with dry conditions, record breaking temperatures are promoting catastrophic fire events and extensive mortality of long-lived trees. Impacts on native fauna are generally less well understood.

However, for lizards and other ectotherms the importance of behavioral thermoregulation in optimizing performance and avoiding extreme temperature is well established, making them model organisms for understanding fundamental questions about how organisms navigate environmental extremes, and how environmental change is impacting biodiversity. These understandings will be crucial to support the future management of biodiversity.