SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—The Simpson Desert of central Australia is as starkly beautiful as it is ecologically entrancing. Ranks of rusty red sand dunes run unbroken for hundreds of kilometers. During rare years with sustained downpours, moist swales are carpeted with spiky spinifex grasses that take on the appearance of fields of golden wheat. Desert ecosystems dominated by spinifex or Triodia grasses cover about 70% of Australia, but the only long-term experiment for studying them is set in a section of the desert in western Queensland—and that research site is now in jeopardy.
Launched in 1990, the study has shown that heavy rains cause flushes of vegetation and seeds that lead to booms of insects, small marsupials, and rodents. Outback pools draw immense swarms of parakeets called budgerigars. That explosion of life attracts feral foxes and cats, which have had a role in the extinction of 27 species and subspecies of mammals in Australia since European colonization in 1788. The invasive species ravage the native ones, which may spend many years hunkered down in scrubby woodland refugia until fresh downpours start the cycle again.
If you monitored the desert’s fauna for just a few years at a time you’d miss that dynamic, says Glenda Wardle, an ecologist at the University of Sydney here. “Long-term research in the Simpson Desert has provided fundamental insights into the ecology of outback Australia” and crucial information for protecting endangered species and other natural resources, says Wardle, co-leader of the Simpson Desert Mammal Monitoring project.
But such studies are now slated for the chopping block. A body funded by Australia’s…