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11 Jan

Life after death – the importance of carcasses in the landscape

Have you ever wondered what happens to wallabies and kangaroos after they die?

 

Sure they smell, most people who’ve stepped foot in the bush know this, and yes we often come across ominous skulls buried not-so-deep under the leaf litter. But what you may not know, is that these carcasses play an important role in woodland ecosystems.

 

At Mulligans Flat, a group of ecologists spent five years studying the effects of carcass decomposition in the landscape. They kept an eye on 12 sadly departed kangaroos, and then 12 similar plots without carcasses, to compare the difference in the ecology of the earth.

 

After examining the soil, ecologists discovered that the breakdown of these animals brought an important source of plant food to the ground – phosphorous. The plots which once housed kangaroo carcasses were now eight times richer in phosphorous than the plots which had not.

 

This means that dead kangaroos are not just a reminder of our own mortality, they are returning nutrients to the soil, helping plants to grow and feeding the ecosystem at large.

 

Ecologists also found that certain plant types grew on the carcass soil site. They predicted that these localised areas of different soil chemistry, may therefore be important for the diversity of plants in woodland environments.
So next time you catch a whiff of that distinctive nose-scrunching smell, just remember that it signifies an important ecological process helping to grow our bushlands.

 

A study by Australian National University ecologist, Philip Barton, at Mulligans Flat looked into the effects of carcass decomposition in the landscape. Pictured here is one of the kangaroo carcasses monitored over time.

A study by Australian National University ecologist, Philip Barton, at Mulligans Flat looked into the effects of carcass decomposition in the landscape. Pictured here is one of the kangaroo carcasses monitored over time. Photo credit: Philip Barton

 

This post is based on the research publication: Substantial long-term effects of carcass addition on soil and plants in a grassy eucalypt woodland by Barton et. al. 2016, as part of the ANU Mulligans Flat-Goorooyarroo Experiment.