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  • Victoria Biodiversity Conference

Reflecting on VicBioCon22: From backyard biodiversity to Antarctic algae

Did you know that rates of speciation in marine fish are highest in polar waters? The Victorian Biodiversity Conference, held virtually on the 3rd and 4th February 2022, kicked off with a wonderful plenary talk from La Trobe University’s Prof. Melodie McGeoch. She took the audience on a biodiversity tour of Antarctica, describing the surprising richness that can be found on the continent – think less known lichens and endolithic communities, rather than seals and penguins.

Up next, a panel of five experts from local councils and project management committees shook off the post-lunch slumber on Day 1, tackling the critical topic of ecological restoration in the suburbs. We were inspired by their stories of success and tangible outcomes, ranging from restoring pocket reserves in urbanising landscapes to transforming wasteland into parkland. And, it turns out you’re not the only one with greener fingers thanks to COVID lockdowns! Interest in creating wildlife-friendly gardens has dramatically increased over the past two years.

Attendees were treated to a diverse selection of six sessions across the first day of VicBioCon22, ranging from Science Communication to Fire Ecology, to Threatened Species. In the Urban Ecology and Conservation session, we heard from the winner of the VicBioCon Research Grant 2021, Dr. Scarlett Howard, who presented the early findings of her work on native Australian bees. Alarmingly, urbanisation may be impairing the bees’ learning, hindering their ability to associate specific behaviours with outcomes.

Dr. Jack Pascoe from the Conservation Ecology Centre closed the day’s talks by sharing his personal story and that of his Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal colleagues in bringing back traditional fire management practices to Cape Otway. From a largely pristine landscape of Dr. Pascoe’s youth, Cape Otway was stripped bare of its eucalypt canopy due to a combination of lengthy fire exclusion and koala over browsing. However, collective efforts including reseeding and targeted burns were able to reinvigorate the landscape.

For some evening fun on Day 1 of the conference, we held an online murder mystery at the Smithsonian Zoo, a VicBioCon original written by Ella Loeffler and Katherine Berthon. It was great to see everyone really get into character and dive deep into the mystery. There were arrogant businessmen, jealous rivals, an over-zealous cameraman and a lovestruck bird (literally, a White-Naped Crane inspired by a real-life bird named Walnut). There were lots of pointing fingers, but alas, the real culprit got away even after many guesses!

Day 2 began bright and early. This time we heard from the inspirational On-Country Bushfire Recovery Crew of the Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation (GLaWAC). The crew leaders described their values-based approach in ongoing partnerships with Parks Victoria and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) to monitor the presence and condition of biodiversity following the devastating 2019/2020 bushfires. They are involved in a number of exciting projects featuring a diversity of plants, mammals and birds, and are devoted to developing sustainable cultural burn practices on their country.

A panel of experts then tackled the timely issue of climate change and the surrounding narrative. Prof. David Karoly shared his considerable knowledge on ways Australia and the world can limit warming to 2 degrees, while acknowledging that there are now unavoidable and massive adverse impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity. Paul Beaton spoke about the strategic way Environment Victoria advocates to implement the science from a policy sense, while Deborah Hart from CLIMARTE talked about the culture of climate activism and the role of art in climate action engagement. Michelle van Gerrevink from the City of Darebin spoke about leading the team who kicked off the first local government climate emergency declaration, embraced by many LGAs in Melbourne since. The fact that communities want change and action gives Michelle hope, her sage advice being that collaboration is key!

Dr. Marissa Parrott finalised proceedings with a superbly inspirational talk on her diverse role with Zoos Victoria - doing what she has wanted to do since age three - to help animals! Did you know that zoos welcome around 700 million visitors annually (1/10 of the global population)? This makes it possible for them to contribute a whopping $500 million dollars to conservation every year. Marissa described some of the many projects the zoo is currently involved with, from bandicoot reintroduction programs to campaigns to save seabirds from the sinister impacts of helium balloons. She also spoke about Zoos Victoria’s flagship $80m ‘Fighting Extinctions’ campaign, which aims to save 27 of Australia’s most endangered and unique species.

The winning posters, both botanically-minded, caught our eye with Iris Hickman’s work on an alpine grevillea (Grevillea australis) and the likely implications of a changing climate for this special plant. Nina Roberts took out second place with her ground-breaking work with an Indigenous women’s knowledge group on Dja Dja Wurrung country to ‘bring the Yams back’, a project fostering a cross-cultural partnership in sharing knowledge around this culturally significant species.

Mikaeylah Davidson impressed the audience with her work on one of the world’s most spectacular frogs - the Southern Corroboree Frog - picking up first place for her 10-minute talk on the causes of high mortality in corroboree frog embryos. She identified a range of factors influencing survivorship, including several fungal pathogens that before Mikaeylah’s study had only been seen in plants. Some of the developing tadpoles were even growing two heads – that can’t be good!

With empty bellies and heads full of information from the day’s talks, we headed to the in-person networking event in the Nangak Tamboree Wildlife Sanctuary at the Bundoora campus of La Trobe University. With high spirits, delegates asked more questions of those excellent presenters, while enjoying a delicious pasta or freshly crushed fruit slushie with friends old and new. As dusk fell, two intrepid groups took to the grassy woodland by night, with torches and binoculars. Our twilight tour turned up a huge number of Brushtail and Ringtail Possums throughout the reserve, with some extraordinary views of several Kreft’s Gliders (formerly Sugar Gliders), feeding unperturbed on wattle sap on the edge of the path. An Eastern Grey Kangaroo even made a cameo appearance. What an extraordinary way to round-off the conference!

Thank you to everyone who attended and presented at VicBioCon22. We hope to see you again (in-person) in 2023!

Written by Dr. Alex Maisey and Liza Ivanova.

Edited by Jacinta Humphrey.

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