Biodiversity publications archive

Refugia for biological diversity in arid and semi-arid Australia

Biodiversity Series, Paper No. 4
S.R. Morton, J. Short and R.D. Barker, with an Appendix by G.F. Griffin and G. Pearce
Biodiversity Unit
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1995

4. Foci of biological diversity in Western Australia (continued)

4.5. Great Sandy Desert


284,993 km².

Primary land-use

Aboriginal use, mineral exploration.

National Parks and Nature Reserves

Rudall River National Park (part); proposed Percival Lakes Nature Reserve; in the far south-east, Uluru National Park.

Management problems

Foxes and cats are at high density (Burbidge and Pearson 1989), and camels are obvious (Short et al. 1998; Reid et al. 1993). Numerous feral animals were seen on helicopter surveys by Burbidge and Pearson (1989). Rabbits not common in the north-west (present occasionally in caliche soils), but are so towards the south-east. Fire management is a problem (Pearson 1991; Reid et al. 1993). At Uluru, tourist pressure is a potential problem (Reid et al. 1993).

ANZECC-listed species

Mammals: Bilbies Macrotis lagotis (V) located by aerial survey (Burbidge and Pearson 1989); the populations are the largest known in Western Australia. The species was also recorded in surveys reported by McKenzie and Youngson (in Burbidge and McKenzie 1983). Other ANZECC-listed mammals were specifically searched for but not located: rufous hare-wallaby Lagorchestes hirsutus (E), desert bandicoot Perameles eremiana (E), western quoll Dasyurus geoffroii (E), and red-tailed phascogale Phascogale calura (E) (see also Reid et al. 1993). The mulgara Dasycercus cristicauda (V) occurs at Uluru National Park in sandplain described as being transitional between the mulga outwash around Uluru and Kata Tjuta and the dunefields beyond (Reid et al. 1993).

Birds: Alexandra's Parrot Polytelis alexandrae (V) was sighted at Lake Tobin by Start and Fuller (in Burbidge and McKenzie 1983), and informal reports suggest that it is regularly encountered along the Canning Stock Route. It was not seen during recent surveys at Uluru National Park (Reid et al. 1993).

Species that are regionally endemic

No species of mammal is endemic to the Great Sandy Desert (McKenzie and Youngson in Burbidge and McKenzie 1983; Reid et al. 1993). Similarly, there are no bird species endemic to the Great or Little Sandy Desert (Start and Fuller in Burbidge and McKenzie 1983). The gecko Diplodactylus fulleri and the skinks Lerista ips and L. vermicularis appear endemic to the Region.

The grass Eriachne scleranthoides is confined to Kata Tjuta and Mount Currie (Hooper et al. 1973; Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service 1991). Most individuals of the sandhill wattle Acacia ammobia occur in Uluru National Park, and an undescribed grass Eragrostis sp. appears confined to Uluru (Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service 1991).

Relict populations

Reptiles: The pygopodid Delma pax is represented by an apparently relict population at Uluru (Reid et al. 1993). The great desert skink Egernia kintorei has not been recorded from WA since 1964, but is known from the transitional sandplain at Uluru National Park which was described above (Cogger et al. 1993; Reid et al. 1993).

Invertebrates: The scorpion Cercophonius squama occurs at Mutitjulu on the southern margin of Uluru (Smith 1983). The scorpion is a temperate species dependent on the microclimate at a permanent spring on the south side of the rock. An undescribed and apparently relictual earthworm is known from Uluru (Reid et al. 1993). A camaenid land-snail, Basedowena olgana, occurs only on Kata Tjuta and Mount Conner (Solem 1993).

Plants: Several plants are confined to moist gorges at Uluru and Kata Tjuta: Stylidium inaequipetalum, Parietaria debilis, Ophioglossum lusitanicum coriaceum, Isoëtes muelleri, and Triglochin calcitrapum (Hooper et al. 1973; Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service 1991).

Other significant populations

Reid et al. (1993) mentioned significant populations at Uluru National Park of marsupial moles Notoryctes typhlops, striated grasswrens Amytornis striatus, rufous-crowned emu-wrens Stipiturus ruficeps, scarlet-chested parrots Neophema splendida, grey honeyeater Conopophila whitei, the desert mouse Pseudomys desertor, and a skink Ctenotus septenarius.

Rare plant species: Thryptomene naviculata, Sclerolaena crenata, Indigofera ammobia, and Ptilotus marduguru (Burbidge and McKenzie 1983).

Wetland sites

Dragon Tree Soak is a swamp believed to be a relict of the riverine vegetation found along the Mandora Palaeoriver during its partial rejuvenation by the wetter climates of the early to mid Holocene (Jaensch and Lane 1993). The swamp supports beds of bullrush Typha domingensis and is surrounded by a low woodland of Sesbania formosa; these and other plants are markedly confined to the Soak. It is used by birds from the surrounding hummock grasslands but also has species generally associated with scrub or tree-lined watercourses elsewhere. Species not recorded elsewhere in the region but present in the Typha beds were the Clamorous Reed-Warbler Acrocephalus stentoreus and the Australian crake Porzana fluminea (Jaensch and Lane 1993).

Rudall River and Lake Dora contain permanent pools and soaks with stands of Melaleuca sp. in addition to Eucalyptus camaldulensis and E. microtheca (Start and Youngson in Burbidge and McKenzie 1983; Jaensch and Lane 1993). The wetland complex has a rich avifauna, including many waterbirds (see Start and Youngson, p. 107), and Jaensch and Lane (1993, p. 10-159) comment that the wetlands "provide semi-permanent refuge for fauna of this arid area". The Rudall River's entire catchment lies within a National Park, a situation which is unusual for ephemeral rivers of the north-west (Lane and McComb 1988).

Lake Amadeus is a massive saline lake system in the NT lacking significant surface inflow. It is listed by Fleming (1993) as an important wetland. Yeatman (1992) surveyed fauna along the system, but found mainly widespread species.


Dragon Tree Soak (see section 10.14), Rudall River (10.15), Lake Amadeus (12.5), and Uluru and Kata Tjuta (12.12) seem to constitute refugia.