Australian Wetlands Database

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Piccaninnie Ponds Karst Wetlands


Key facts and figures:

Date of listing:

21 December 2012

Cave diver at Piccaninnie Ponds Karst Wetlands,  Photo: Richard Harris

Australian Ramsar site number:



1, 2, 3, 4, 8


South Australia


862 hectares

Drainage Division or IMCRA  region:

South East Coast

Wetland type: 

  • 9 - Canals and drainage channels, ditches
  • E - Sand, shingle or pebble shores; includes sand bars, spits and sandy islets; includes dune systems and humid dune slacks
  • R - Seasonal/intermittent saline/brackish/alkaline lakes and flats
  • Tp - Permanent freshwater marshes/pools; ponds (below 8 ha), marshes and swamps on inorganic soils; with emergent vegetation water-logged for at least most of the growing season
  • Ts - Seasonal/intermittent freshwater marshes/pools on inorganic soils; includes sloughs, potholes, seasonally flooded meadows, sedge marshes
  • U - Non-forested peatlands; includes shrub or open bogs, swamps, fens
  • W - Shrub-dominated wetlands; shrub swamps, shrub-dominated freshwater marshes, shrub carr, alder thicket on inorganic soils
  • Zk(b) - Karst and other subterranean hydrological systems, inland

Key features of the site:

The Piccaninnie Ponds Karst Wetlands Ramsar Site is located in south-east South Australia, near Mount Gambier. It is an exceptional example of karst spring wetlands, with the largest and deepest of the springs reaching a depth of more than 110 metres. The majority of the water comes from an unconfined regional aquifer and is consistently 14-15 degrees Celsius. The karst springs support unique macrophyte and algal associations, with macrophyte growth extending to 15 metres below the surface as a result of exceptional water clarity. A number of different wetland types exist on the site, including a large area of peat fens.

There are four distinct areas of the Ramsar site. Piccaninnie Ponds (also known as Main Ponds) consists of three interconnected bodies of water - First Pond, The Chasm and Turtle Pond - rounded by an area of shrub dominated swamp. Western Wetland consists of dense closed tea-tree and paperbark shrubland over shallow dark clay on limestone soils. Eastern Wetland includes the spring-fed Hammerhead Pond. Pick Swamp, on the extreme west of the site, includes areas of fen, marshes and sedgelands as well as the spring-fed Crescent Pond on peat soils.

The system is an important remnant of an extensive system of wetlands that once occupied much of the south-east of South Australia. The major groundwater discharge points are Main Ponds, Hammerhead Pond and Crescent Pond. Water principally leaves the site via Outlet Creek and the Pick Swamp drain outlet, which connect the site to the sea. There are a number of fresh groundwater beach springs located on the site.

The geomorphic and hydrological features of the site produce a complex and biologically diverse ecosystem which supports considerable biodiversity, including a significant number of species of national and/or international conservation value. These include the orange-bellied parrot, Australasian bittern and Yarra pygmy perch.

The site attracts 20,000 visitors annually for cave diving, snorkelling, bushwalking, educational activities and birdwatching. The site also has spiritual and cultural value. The Traditional Owners of the land, the Bunganditj (Boandik) and local Indigenous people have a strong connection with the site. Traditionally the site provided a good source of food and fresh water, and evidence of previous occupation still exists.

Justification of the listing criteria:

Piccaninnie Ponds Karst Wetlands Ramsar Site meets five of the nine criteria:

Criterion 1: The site represents an outstanding example of two rare wetland types within the South East Coast Drainage Division - karst and coastal fen wetlands. Karst and other subterranean hydrological systems have a range of conservation and cultural values and are recognised as being globally important. Fen peatlands are one of the most vulnerable wetland types and are highly susceptible to degradation. The hydrological and geomorphic combination of karst wetland, fen wetland and beach springs, all in good condition, makes this site truly unique within the bioregion, if not nationally.

Criterion 2: The site supports seven nationally or internationally listed species of conservation significance: Yarra pygmy perch, dwarf galaxias, Australasian bittern, orange-bellied parrot, Glenelg spiny freshwater crayfish, maroon leek-orchid and swamp greenhood.

Criterion 3: The site is a unique karst wetland system which provides habitat for an extensive and diverse assemblage of native flora and fauna that are highly representative of the pre-European biodiversity of the Lower Limestone Coast region. The karst wetland system on which this biodiversity depends is rare within the bioregion, and represents one of the few remaining areas of permanent freshwater in the South East of South Australia. The biota of the subterranean areas of the karst wetlands are believed to be significant. The site also falls within a national biodiversity hotspot, supporting similar or greater numbers of waterbirds compared to larger nearby coastal wetlands and Bool and Hacks Lagoons Ramsar Site. Over 30 floral associations and 250 plant species have been recorded, a number of which are used by six butterfly species that are of conservation concern. The site supports 10 of the 21 native fish species found in the drainage division.

Criterion 4: The site is a known winter roosting and feeding location for the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot. It also provides habitat for 79 bird species including 24 species listed under international agreements: China-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (CAMBA) (20), Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (JAMBA) (19), Republic of Korea-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (ROKAMBA) (16), BONN (17) and 50 nationally-listed migratory or marine species. Native fish populations include seven species that are diadromous and three freshwater obligate species which rely on permanent freshwater. This site is a permanent source of freshwater and is believed to be a drought refuge.

Criterion 8: The site is an important spawning ground for the Yarra pygmy perch and dwarf galaxias, both of which are threatened. Despite the karst system being relatively isolated, this system supports species that spawn both within the freshwater wetlands as well as in the nearby marine environment including spotted galaxias, climbing galaxias and pouched lamprey.

Please see the More Information page for additional information on this Ramsar site and access to the Ramsar Information sheets and other associated site documents.