Shield shrimps © Mike Gillam
By MIKE GILLAM
During two years of relentless drought we witnessed great hardship in our location. Birds, macropods and lizards starved to death while the scavengers, kites and crows held firm.
The second year was especially telling. As the subsoil baked hard, some of our established native trees, so carefully matched to soil and location, began to falter; foliage discolouring and curling. For the first time in 10-15 years we watered a vulnerable few and they quickly recovered.
Then it rained; a light shower of 25mm. As our water tanks began to fill you’d think we’d won the lottery. Where else would a native plant community sing so vibrantly in response to such meagre rainfall?
We received two rainfall events totalling about 65mm and by early March the whole town was smiling. Viewed, though, through the prism of a spring and summer firestorm down south and now a pandemic, even the ebullient joy of rain lost much of its gloss.
Was it a sense of survivor guilt? We all knew someone scarred by the worst wildfires in Australia’s history. Lost family, forests and homes; charred ecosystems and vaporised dreams.
Now, our friends and families are grappling with a pandemic, some are already in isolation, some are stranded in faraway places and some are measuring their own mortality.
Against this backdrop, a chance conversation with Kieran Finnane led to my rash promise to provide a photograph each week for the duration of the pandemic! Not a huge impost on my time I reasoned; really just an extension of current work.
A close colleague, Steve Morton, has been commissioned by CSIRO Publishing to produce a book on the ecology of Australia’s deserts. I’m working on the photographs to accompany his writing and hope to be finished in about 12 months.
At the mention of COVID-19 my mind drifts fatalistically to some of my oldest and dearest friends. From congested cities to remote communities, friends are always asking about my work and I realise some may not live to see publication of the forthcoming book.
Personally, the cartoonesque shield shrimps provide some distraction from the awful realities of the wider world; of the dire health risks posed by this virus to Indigenous communities and the millions who are crowded into refugee camps in Bangladesh and Syria. What will become of those held in Chinese government ‘re-education’ camps, reputedly one million?
I took this image last month at the Ilparpa Claypans. Here in a location heavily impacted by people and neglected by governments, various aquatic crustaceans including fairy and clam shrimps thrive with a little help from dedicated Landcare volunteers.
As their frenetic life cycle draws to an end, adult shrimps jostle in the shallows for favourable egg laying sites. They dig depressions in the mud, deposit their eggs and cover over the site. Their purpose fulfilled, most will die within days.
After two or three weeks the clay-pan waters recede and dry out. Shrimp eggs are imprisoned in the hardening clay for months or years as they wait for the next significant rainfall event.
Steve Morton has provided the following extract from his manuscript:
Since its scientific discovery in the nineteenth century the shield shrimp has been considered as one widespread species in arid Australia. However, recent scrutiny … reveals at least 18 species within the supposed single form, implying that Australian shield shrimps make up half the global diversity of this group. Only a few of the species yet bear scientific names. Several of them have wide geographic distributions, some appear restricted, and up to three may be found living together; the means by which they differentiate themselves ecologically remain to be discovered. To add to the enigma, it seems that populations of any one species can be made up of sexually reproducing individuals, of males and hermaphrodites, or solely of hermaphrodites.