Get to know the flora and fauna of the city
Powerful owls roost high in Melbourne’s central parks, striped legless lizards slither in grassland near Craigieburn, leafy seadragons plunge through Port Phillip Bay and, in the suburb that gave them their name, Eltham copper butterflies flutter.
Australia is home to hundreds of thousands of species of plants and animals, bugs, beetles and bacteria – many of which share our city backyards, with or without our knowledge.
Some species, such as the Eltham copper butterfly, are threatened. Most of Melbourne’s native vegetation has been cleared.
“Our biodiversity is our living wealth,” says Kate Phillips, from Museum Victoria. “The plants and animals particular to our area have value because they’re found nowhere else, but they also supply eco-services that relate directly to human life, such as stopping erosion and keeping the water clean and the air breathable.”
If you want to help local species thrive, Ms Phillips says, the first step is to “be aware of what’s special in your area and learn to recognise it”.
You can begin by browsing one of Museum Victoria’s field guides – it has released a book and a free iPhone/iPad application – or its Biodiversity Snapshots website, which includes identification tools and recordings of bird calls.
The site was sponsored by the Atlas of Living Australia, a national biodiversity database – and another way to participate in ‘citizen science’.
The director of the Atlas, Donald Hobern, has a particular interest in moths. In his backyard in Canberra, he’s identified over 700 species. But you don’t have to do all the research yourself: using the website’s Explore your area function, you can learn about the critters that have already been reported around your neighbourhood.
“Here in Australia there is an enormous and largely unknown fauna and flora,” Mr Hobern says. “We’re interested in connecting with people to find out what’s in their local areas.”
By engaging with the living world within our cities and towns, Ms Phillips says, we learn to appreciate our connection with natural systems. “What’s the consequence of pouring the rest of my paint down the street drain? It’s going to spoil the water for platypuses.”
She says householders should reduce stormwater runoff by choosing permeable paving or soft landscaping rather than hard surfaces, such as concrete.
And make sure you control your pets. “Don’t let cats out at night, so they don’t eat native birds, and keep dogs on leashes at the beach or in nature reserves, because beach-nesting birds are very sensitive to disturbance,” she says.
To boost native habitats, Ms Phillips suggests visiting the Victorian Indigenous Nursery Co-operative in Fairfield for advice about the plants that suit your suburb.
Mr Hobern sees both practical and existential reasons for taking biodiversity seriously. “There’s an awful lot we don’t understand about the complex systems around us. But we do know there are many cases where human intervention has destroyed parts of the ecosystem and led to a pest species taking over everything.
“There’s evidence that richer systems, with many species interacting, create more balance. If we mess up too much, we don’t know the point at which things go horribly bad,” he says.
“And then, on another level, the sheer wonder and complexity of things just amaze me. I find it so depressing to think about a place where that riotous life is missing.”