By Katherine Tuft
Scientists and artists are working together to help conserve the greater stick-nest rat (Leporillus conditor).
Stick-nest rats (‘stickies’) are native rodents that build impressive stick castles as homes to shelter and raise families in. Their nests are built up over many generations, and sometimes expand to form granny flat stick-nests nearby.
Known to the Wangkangurru people of the Simpson Desert as ‘Wopilkara’, stickies were once widespread across southern Australia, but they disappeared from the mainland as rabbits, feral cats and foxes invaded. Thankfully, some survived on offshore islands.
Dedicated conservationists have worked hard to re-establish stickies in places they were lost from. The first to return to the mainland arrived at Arid Recovery in outback South Australia in 1998.
Stickies suffered during the mega-drought of 2018-19 in the driest and hottest weather on record. They struggled to find food and suffered extreme heatwaves.
Because stickies nest above ground, they are more exposed to heat than burrowing animals like bilbies. We tested the heatwave conditions stickies are exposed to in different shelters (stick-nests, warrens of burrowing animals, and artificial rock piles). We found that rock piles reduce heat exposure, but warrens are the best.
This is where artist Jane Bamford comes in. Stickies don’t always have access to other animals’ burrows, so she is designing terracotta burrows just for them.
Jane’s artworks are being tested by stickies at Arid Recovery and at Monarto Safari Park. We’re using camera traps to see how stickies interact with the artworks and data loggers to measure how well the tubes moderate the temperature.
The nice thing about working with clay is that it’s a natural material. If we find that Jane’s designs work to buffer heat extremes and that stickies use them, they could even be made from locally sourced clay.
Jane has also designed nesting dome structures for stickies to use as a head-start and a breezy central chamber as they construct a nest for the first time when establishing in a new location.
This project is a collaboration between Jane Bamford and Arid Recovery, with support from Arts Tasmania and Zoos SA. This display is supported by the Alice Springs Desert Park and Apmere Mparntwe as part of the Alice Springs Ceramics Triennale.