November 29 - December 5, 2020: Issue 476

Truffle munching wallabies shed new light on forest conservation

November 19, 2020: Edith Cowan University
Feeding truffles to wallabies may sound like a madcap whim of the jet-setting elite, but it may give researchers clues to preserving remnant forest systems.

Dr Melissa Danks from Edith Cowan University in Western Australia led an investigation into how swamp wallabies spread truffle spores around the environment. Results demonstrate the importance of these animals to the survival of the forest.

"There are thousands of truffle species in Australia and they play a critical role in helping our trees and woody plants to survive," she said.

"Truffles live in a mutually beneficial relationship with these plants, helping them to uptake water and nutrients and defence against disease.

"Unlike mushrooms where spores are dispersed through wind and water from their caps, truffles are found underground with the spores inside an enclosed ball -- they need to be eaten by an animal to move their spores."

Dr Danks and colleagues at the University of New England investigated the role of swamp wallabies in dispersing these spores.

"Wallabies are browsing animals that will munch on ferns and leaves as well as a wide array of mushrooms and truffles," she said.

"This has helped them to be more resilient to changes in the environment than smaller mammals with specialist diets like potoroos.

"We were interested in finding out whether swamp wallabies have become increasingly important in truffle dispersal with the loss of these other mammals."

Conservation by poo tracking
The team fed truffles to wallabies and timed how long it would take for the spores to appear in the animals' poo. Most spores appeared within 51 hours, with some taking up to three days.

Armed with this information, the researchers attached temporary GPS trackers to wallabies to map how far they move over a three-day period.

Results showed the wallabies could move hundreds of metres, and occasionally more than 1200 metres, from the original truffle source before the spores appeared in their poo, which makes them a very effective at dispersing truffles around the forest.

Dr Danks said this research had wide ranging conservation implications for Australian forests.

"As forest systems become more fragmented and increasingly under pressure, understanding spore dispersal systems is really key to forest survival," Dr Danks said.

"Many of our bushland plants have a partnership with truffles for survival and so it is really critical to understand the role of animals in dispersing these truffle spores.

"Our research on swamp wallabies has demonstrated a simple method to predict how far an animal disperses fungal spores in a variety of landscapes."

Melissa A. Danks, Natalie Simpson, Todd F. Elliott, C. E. Timothy Paine, Karl Vernes. Modelling mycorrhizal fungi dispersal by the mycophagous swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor). Ecology and Evolution, 2020; DOI: 10.1002/ece3.6873


It is critical to understand the role of animals in forest ecosystem health. Credit Todd F Elliott.

Alliance of four NSW universities to deliver game changer in education

November 24, 2020
The University of Newcastle, UNSW and the University of Wollongong – acting together as the NUW Alliance – last night announced Western Sydney University would be joining the Alliance as a joint venture partner to together lead a new approach to collaborative education and research.

NUW Alliance CEO Matt Gijselman welcomed the announcement.


The Minister for Skills and Tertiary Education joins the Vice-Chancellors of the four NUW Alliance universities and NUW CEO at the signing ceremony on Monday. Photo: NUW Alliance.

“The capabilities and expertise represented in this Alliance have not been brought together in this way in Australia before. The size and scale of this joint venture has not been seen before in Australia – 194,000 students plus 14,500 staff, working across 37 locations including 15 innovation hubs and driving $850 million in research funding. Today is a game changer in higher education. Together, and as individuals, we are among the world’s best,” said Mr. Gijselman.

The new arrangement draws on the extensive collaboration between the four universities that has already produced a New Education and Training Model (NETM) incorporating TAFE NSW and industry partnered education, research, and training. The formalisation of the joint venture arrangement underscores the long-term commitment to delivering the model.

The Alliance is focused on collaborative projects that will have real impact, including the delivery of the Multiversity – a single entity that brings together four of Australia’s leading higher education institutions to deliver 22nd century education, training, and research in the Western Parkland City.

The Western Parkland City is the focus of the 2018 Western Sydney City Deal. Under the Deal, three levels of government have committed to creating 200,000 knowledge jobs by 2038. The Multiversity has a pivotal role in realising that objective for a region among the hardest hit by the jobs and economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Multiversity will specialise in industry-experienced graduates and researchers in high-demand STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields and will be part of the Aerotropolis precinct at Badgerys Creek. By leveraging the expertise of the four institutions, students, employees, and the wider community will have unparalleled access to innovative teaching and research.

The Alliance represents a step change in industry, education, research and training collaboration. These world-first initiatives will unquestionably deliver job-ready graduates for the future.

Professor Paul Wellings CBE, Chair, NUW Alliance said; “The NUW Alliance looks forward to working with Western Sydney University for the jobs of the future as we develop a new model for the Multiversity within the Western Sydney Aerotropolis.”

Professor Barney Glover AO, Vice-Chancellor, Western Sydney University said: “The Western Sydney City Deal, Aerotropolis and Multiversity, combined, are an opportunity for generational change in the way we deliver the highest quality education and research for Western Sydney. As four universities, acting together, we can expand and accelerate these opportunities and other priorities in the interests of our shared communities.”

Professor Ian Jacobs, President and Vice-Chancellor, UNSW said: “Many challenges lie ahead of us as a state and a nation. Together these four universities represent a rich resource from which governments, business, industry and the wider community can draw upon as a partner to take on these challenges and prepare for our future.”

Professor Alex Zelinsky AO, Vice-Chancellor, University of Newcastle said: “The addition of Western Sydney University is a welcome expansion of the Alliance. Working together, our four institutions will be able to combine our research expertise and our networks with industry to help grow and transform our state.”

Changes in fire activity are threatening more than 4,400 species globally

November 23, 2020
Changes in fire activity are putting at risk more than 4,400 species across the globe, says a new paper led by the University of Melbourne, involving 27 international researchers.

"Those species include 19 per cent of birds, 16 per cent of mammals, 17 per cent of dragonflies and 19 per cent of legumes that are classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable," said lead author, Dr Luke Kelly, a Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Centenary Research Fellow.

"That's a massive number of plants and animals facing threats associated with fire."

The paper, Fire and biodiversity in the Anthropocene, published in Science, found that the species categorized as threatened by an increase in fire frequency or intensity, include the orangutan in Indonesia and mallee emu-wren in Australia.

"Recent fires have burned ecosystems where wildfire has historically been rare or absent, from the tropical forests of Queensland, Southeast Asia and South America to the tundra of the Arctic Circle," Dr Kelly said.

"Very large and severe fires have also been observed in areas with a long history of recurrent fire, and this is consistent with observations of longer fire seasons and predictions of increased wildfire activity in the forests and shrub lands of Australia, southern Europe and the western United States."

The research team also found a striking example from Australia: the total area burnt by bushfires in the eastern seaboard from August 2019 to March 2020, 12.6 million hectares, was unprecedented in scale.

However, some species and ecosystems are threatened when fire doesn't occur. Frequent fires, for example, are an important part of African savanna ecosystems and less fire activity can lead to shrub encroachment, which can displace wild herbivores such as wildebeest that prefer open areas.

"Understanding what's causing changes in different places helps us to find effective solutions that benefit people and nature," Dr Kelly said.

Researchers, including 27 authors from a combined 25 institutions around the world (including six authors from the University of Melbourne), identified three main groups of human drivers as transforming fire activity and its impacts of biodiversity: global climate change, land-use and biotic invasions. This means that people and governments around the world need to act and confront the diverse changes to the environment that are occurring.

"It really is time for new, bolder conservation initiatives," Dr Kelly said. "Emerging actions include large-scale habitat restoration, reintroductions of mammals that reduce fuels, creation of low-flammability green spaces and letting bushfires burn under the right conditions. The role of people is really important: Indigenous fire stewardship will enhance biodiversity and human well-being in many regions of the world."

Michael Clarke, Professor of Zoology at La Trobe University, who supported the study, echoed Dr Kelly's call, saying "Our research highlights the magnitude of the challenge fire poses to animals, plants and people, given worsening climatic conditions -- a conclusion echoed in the recent Royal Commission report into last summer's fires."

Luke T. Kelly, Katherine M. Giljohann, Andrea Duane, Núria Aquilué, Sally Archibald, Enric Batllori, Andrew F. Bennett, Stephen T. Buckland, Quim Canelles, Michael F. Clarke, Marie-Josée Fortin, Virgilio Hermoso, Sergi Herrando, Robert E. Keane, Frank K. Lake, Michael A. McCarthy, Alejandra Morán-Ordóñez, Catherine L. Parr, Juli G. Pausas, Trent D. Penman, Adrián Regos, Libby Rumpff, Julianna L. Santos, Annabel L. Smith, Alexandra D. Syphard, Morgan W. Tingley, Lluís Brotons. Fire and biodiversity in the Anthropocene. Science, 2020; 370 (6519): eabb0355 DOI: 10.1126/science.abb0355

NUW Energy project to find better energy solutions for all Australians

November 23, 2020
NUW Energy, an Australian-first collaboration of the best researchers from three leading universities, is working on finding solutions to Australia’s future energy needs and on ways to lower energy costs for households.

Matt Gijselman, the CEO of NUW Alliance, the research alliance of the University of Newcastle, UNSW Sydney and the University of Wollongong, said he was pleased to formally announce the partnership of NUW Energy.

“NUW Energy is a unique collaboration of our best and brightest researchers seeking innovative ways of lowering energy bills for NSW households and businesses,” Mr Gijselman said.

NUW Energy draws upon the research expertise across UNSW Sydney, the University of Newcastle and the University of Wollongong, to explore one of the most significant challenges facing Australia – our energy future.

The NUW Energy project will work closely with government and industry to provide a data- and research-driven approach to policy-setting and decision-making, along with driving regional economic growth and job opportunities in the sector.

“NUW Energy is focused on the delivery of safe, secure, reliable and affordable energy to power New South Wales now and into the future,” Mr Gijselman said.

The formation of the NUW Alliance has been given the green light by Matt Kean, Minister for Energy and Environment.

“There has never been a more important time for this Alliance to come together. And there have never been bigger challenges facing our state,” Mr Kean said.

“These extraordinary times lend new urgency to the purpose of NUW Energy, to explore the challenges of climate, energy and the environment and to find new solutions that sustain our economic prosperity and ensure the health of the environment.”

About NUW Energy and NUW Alliance
NUW Energy represents the largest and most compelling Australian research cohort to be addressing current energy issues. Representing a global network of leading industry partners and allied research agencies, NUW Energy enables simple, streamlined and direct access to world-class research expertise, removing the traditional barriers that inhibiting collaboration between academic, industry and government.

NUW Energy represents more than 200 discrete areas of world-class energy research capability and unprecedented access to 30 distinct, world-leading research facilities, centres and institutes of research and innovation in NSW.

Over-arching objectives of the NUW Energy collaboration include the development of:
  • Integrated network technology to address future energy demands
  • Close cooperation between researchers and industry to ensure NSW is at the forefront of the development of advanced energy solutions
  • Opportunity to undertake high quality research underpinned by the needs of the energy sector that drives global best practice and offers enhanced educational opportunities for industry and students.
The NUW Alliance comprises three of Australia’s leading research-intensive universities – the University of Newcastle, UNSW Sydney and the University of Wollongong.

The mission of the NUW Alliance is to seek out the big collaborations that make a difference, collaborations that unlock new value, impact and benefit for our communities across NSW.

The University of Newcastle, UNSW Sydney and the University of Wollongong, acting together as the NUW Alliance, continue to build on their local and global reputations as leaders in research and student experience. The universities have a proud history of achievement that has led to strong outcomes in international university rankings.

Professor Valerie Linton, Executive Dean, Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences, University of Wollongong said the collaboration was unlike anything previously seen in Australian higher education.

“There is nothing you could throw at us that we couldn’t grapple with because of our depth and breadth of experience,” Prof. Linton said. “Collaborations and alliances like this are the way of the future. Building capabilities and multi-faceted approach to solving the really big challenges that face society.”

Professor Alan Broadfoot is the Executive Director of the Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources.

“As individual institutions, we are centres of excellence. When we act together, we can deliver competitive advantage in advanced energy integration,” Prof. Broadfoot said.

“It’s important that industry, government and academia work together because there is not a solution in just one sector.”

Justine Jarvinen, CEO UNSW Energy Institute, added that each university brought highly impressive skill sets to the project.

“NUW Energy allows us to take the unique capabilities of UNSW Sydney, the University of Newcastle and University of Wollongong and combine them in ways that can amplify our impact,” Ms Jarvinen said.

“We see hydrogen as part of a whole energy ecosystem, where we can bring our expertise and add it to the expertise of our colleagues in Newcastle and Wollongong and ask, ‘how do we create a hydrogen economy for NSW and Australia?’ ”

When hoarding becomes a health problem

November 26, 2020
Hoarding can affect anyone – no matter their age, gender or finances – and if you are wondering how to help a loved one you might only see at Christmas, an academic clinical psychologist shares her expertise to help avoid tension this festive season.

Professor Jessica Grisham of UNSW Science has more than 16 years’ experience researching and treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and OC spectrum disorders, such as hoarding.

An international authority on hoarding disorder, Prof. Grisham acknowledged the physical manifestation of hoarding – for example, a house filled with rubbish – was confronting and stigmatising, but noted that it was a mental health issue.

“It has been an uphill battle to shift people’s perceptions of hoarding, but we have made some progress through identifying it as a psychological disorder in the most recent DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition),” she said.

“Hoarding is a severe disorder and is more common than many might think – an estimated 2.5 per cent of people have this problem.

“It’s a myth that people who hoard are just lazy or messy – hoarding disorder is a treatable mental health condition and we need to make the public aware of that and remove the stigma – people with hoarding problems are much less likely to seek treatment if they feel ashamed.”

Prof. Grisham said hoarding was also a serious disorder because of the health and safety risks it posed to the person with the condition and to the wider community.

“A Melbourne study in 2009 showed hoarding fire incidents accounted for only 0.25 per cent of all residential fires but 24 per cent of preventable fire fatalities during the same period,” she said.

“And NSW Fire and Rescue states that 12 per cent of all fire fatalities in NSW are people reportedly living in hoarding and squalor conditions. These tragedies show just how acute the issue is.”

An extreme, emotional attachment to objects
Prof. Grisham said hoarding was a deeply ingrained attachment to possessions that in some cases might have its roots in a traumatic event – for example, the death of a loved one – and co-existing mental and/or physical health issues.

“The official psychiatric diagnosis is defined in the DSM-5 as a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of actual value, that leads to a perceived need to save the items and significant distress associated with no longer having them,” she said.

“So, a person who hoards is excessively attached to their belongings and this prevents them from discarding those items, leading to a huge amount of clutter in their homes – to the point they are unable to live or function the way other people do.”
Hoarding is different to being untidy or having extra stuff in your home, Prof. Grisham said.

“Many people relate to having a disorganised space or a bit of extra clutter, but they are otherwise able to function properly in their home and would be happy to have the mess tidied up and the rubbish thrown out,” she said.

“The difference with someone who has a hoarding problem, however, is their extreme emotional attachment to things – they would feel very upset or threatened if anyone tidied up, cleaned or removed their objects.

“When the hoarding problems cause extreme interference in a person’s life or they experience significant distress as a result of it, then we would consider it to be a clinical disorder, rather than someone who has just let their stuff get out of hand.”

In addition to the above signs of a potential hoarding problem, Prof. Grisham said people who hoard might also feel shame or anxiety and try to hide their hoarding.

“Maybe they never have visitors in their home or, it's been a long time since anyone has been there and you suspect something is wrong.  For example, the house might smell or a build-up of clutter can be seen from the street,” she said.

“Another sign is of new possessions continually entering the person’s home – perhaps they frequently engage in online shopping or comb op shops, nature strips or car boot sales and always take things home. This might be a worrying sign clutter is building up.”

Preventing or discouraging hoarding
Prof. Grisham said helping someone with their hoarding problem was extremely challenging, but there were several important considerations:
  1. Avoid arguments and seek their permission: Never threaten the person, have a heated argument with them or discard things without their permission. Massive clean-ups cause huge distress to the person and they generally will start hoarding again if everything is forcibly removed.
  2. Be prepared for ambivalence: Many people with hoarding problems are unmotivated or ambivalent about seeking treatment and some lack insight into their situation.
  3. Focus on harm reduction through education: Emerging treatment programs encourage relatives to start a conversation with the person who is hoarding about minimising health and safety risks linked to their habits. Safety is an important goal of intervention – achieving a perfectly clean house might be impossible. For example, bring attention to fire hazards, blocked toilets or covered electrical outlets. This education can occur while a person is seeking help for their hoarding.
  4. Minimise and discourage accommodation or enabling: Well-meaning family or friends can sometimes do things to prevent distress in the person who is hoarding, but they actually contribute to the problem – for example, driving the person to a car boot sale, dropping off charity donations at their house, or giving them unwanted things like magazines or newspapers. So, tell the person doing the enabling that their actions are inadvertently feeding into the problem.
  5. Be aware of comorbidities: People who hoard often have co-existing physical and/or mental health problems – for example, physical disability, chronic fatigue, arthritis, obesity, depression or anxiety. This is where evidence-based treatment programs can help to address these challenges in conjunction with the hoarding problem.
How to seek professional intervention
Prof. Grisham said if the person with the hoarding problem was not getting help, you should start a conversation with them about how the problem is impacting them, and suggest they seek third party assistance.

“Ask the person about how the clutter is affecting their life and reassure them that you are not going to ask them to do anything initially, but that you think their excessive collecting and saving might be causing them some challenges. Ask if they would be open to considering possible ideas,” she said.

“It may help to debunk the myth that the person will be immediately forced into a big clean-out if they seek help, while bringing up the topic of how their clutter is impacting them to warm them up to the idea of getting help.

“If the person is unwilling to see a treatment provider, the aim is to get the person on board and encourage them to make their own baby steps towards change. It needs to be a collaborative process.

“Prioritise the biggest risk issues and things that are going to make a difference to their life – changes that enable them to cook in their kitchen or sit on their couch and have a cup of tea. These types of steps may be a good starting point.”

Prof. Grisham said if the person with the hoarding problem agreed to seek treatment, you could then suggest they ask their general practitioner to refer them to specialist hoarding treatment providers.

“There are treatment programs, psychologists and therapists who have expertise in hoarding disorder. For example, Catholic Healthcare offers the group treatment program Buried in Treasures. There is also another organisation, Lilly Pilly Counselling, starting a Buried in Treasures treatment program in Redfern.

“The organisation where I supervise is Lifeline Harbour to Hawkesbury which offers a group treatment program. We have treated more than 150 people and it’s been very successful – people feel validated and less alone when they meet others who are also struggling and it inspires them to make bold changes in their own lives.

“I also recommend the new City of Sydney guide on Understanding Squalor and Hoarding – it’s helpful for understanding hoarding, including risks to public health and the need for a community-wide response.”

Disclaimer: These articles are not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.  Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Pittwater Online News or its staff.