The role of cracking clay soils in maintaining biodiversity in South Australia’s rangelands, and implications for sustainable management of arid zone landscapes

A project undertaken at the School of Natural and Built Environments, University of South Australia by PhD student Helen Waudby and supervised by Sophie (Topa) Petit

The cracking clay soils that occur in the South Australian rangelands provide shelter for small native animals and support biodiversity. Between 2008 and 2011the biodiversity of these areas and the effect of cattle, at study sites on a station in the arid north of South Australia. We sought to understand the role of cracking clay soils by trapping small vertebrates and invertebrates, radio-tracking, shelter studies, and vegetation assessments. We also surveyed pastoralists living in these areas to understand management issues.

The field work yielded some interesting results and we were able to witness the “boom” in rodents that tends to occur several months after large rainfall events. Many vertebrate species were caught, including plains rats and other native rodents, dasyurids such as Giles’ planigale (Planigale gilesi), gibber dragons (Ctenophorus gibba) and Woomera sliders (Lerista elongata). Many invertebrates were collected as well; their identification is in progress. Shelter use by fat-tailed (Sminthopsis crassicaudata) and stripe-faced (S. macroura) dunnarts was examined in several months. Radio-tracked individuals used a variety of cracks and burrows as shelter. Data loggers also revealed some interesting insights into the sheltering role of cracks.

Unusual rainfall patterns occurred during much of the field work and they no doubt influenced the research. We consider ourselves fortunate to have seen the arid zone during a rare “wet” period, even if the excess water made field work difficult at times. Helen Waudby completed her PhD and continues to publish her thesis chapters. We expect that this research will contribute to the knowledge available on the dynamics of small vertebrate populations in the arid zone and the characteristics of cracking clay ecosystems under La Niña weather conditions.


Waudby H.P. and Petit, S., 2017. Thermoregulatory value of cracking-clay soil shelters for small vertebrates during extreme desert conditions, Integrative Zoology 12, 237–249.

Waudby, H.P. and Petit, S. 2015. Small Australian desert vertebrate responses to grazing intensity during La Niña. Ecological Research, 30, 715-722

Waudby, H.P. and Petit, S. (2015). Epheremal plant indicators of livestock grazing in arid rangelends during wet conditions. The Rangeland Journal. 37, 323-330

Waudby, H.P. and Petit S. (2014). Disintegration of cattle hoof prints in cracking-clay soils of the arid South Australian Stony Plains region during a wet period. South Australian Geographical Journal, 113, 5-12

Waudby, H.P., Petit, S. and Brown, G. (2013). Use of creeks and gilgaied stony plains by cattle in arid rangelands during a wet summer: a case study with GPS/VHF radio collars. Range Management and Agroforestry 34: 101-107

Waudby, H.P., Petit, S. and Robinson. G. (2013). Pastoralists' knowledge of plant palatability and grazing indicators in an arid region of South Australia. The Rangeland Journal. 35, 445-454.

Waudby, H.P., Petit, S. and Robinson. G. (2012). Pastoralists' perceptions of biodiversity and land management strategies in the arid Stony Plains region of South Australia: Implications for policy makers. Journal of Environmental Management 112: 96 - 103.

Petit, S., Waudby, H.P., Walker, A.T , Zanker, R., and Rau, G. (2012). A non-mutilating method for marking small wild mammals and reptiles. Australian Journal of Zoology. 60: 64-71.

Waudby, H.P. and Petit, S. (2011). Comments on the efficacy and use of Visible Implant Elastomer (VIE) for marking lizards. The South Australian Naturalist 85(1): 7-13.


Figure 1. Rainfall was experienced during most field trips.

Figure 2. Gilgais fill with water after substantial rainfall events.


Figure 3. Installing drift fences for vertebrate trapping.


Figure 4. Gibber dragons were caught in warm months.


Figure 5. Fat-tailed dunnarts were among the most common species caught (photo by Matthew Gill).


Figure 6. We radio-tracked dunnarts to examine shelter use (photo by Alison Fairlamb).