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Eco researchers to the rescue

Volume 8 Number 5 May 14 - June 9 2012

An important new research study is using malleefowl to develop and test state-of-the-art strategies to combat major threats to biodiversity in arid ecosystems. Gabrielle Murphy reports.

Australia’s arid regions represent some of the world’s most fragile and threatened ecosystems and contain a suite of unique species which help define our domestic and international image, including kangaroos, bilbies, and the less-familiar malleefowl.

Known as ‘lowan’ in the local Indigenous language, and ‘Leipoa ocellata’ in the scientific lexicon, Australia’s malleefowl is listed nationally as vulnerable, and considered an endangered species in every state in which they are located.

“Malleefowl are an ideal species on which to develop and test what we refer to as ‘adaptive management’ or in simple terms ‘learning by doing’,” says Dr Michael Bode, an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s School of Botany, and chief investigator on an Australian Research Council Linkage project titled ‘Adaptive Management of arid and semi-arid ecosystems’.

“Adaptive management is a pragmatic process that considers management actions to be both an experiment aimed at improving our understanding of an uncertain ecosystem,” says Dr Bode, “and an intervention aimed a maximising conservation outcomes.”

According to the project’s partnership team, using malleefowl as a focus will provide unique opportunities for replicating management treatments and controls with many other species facing similar high rates of extinction, due to the common threats and attributes faced by native species in arid and semi-arid zones.

The research team, which is being administered by the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne includes researchers from the Victorian Malleefowl Recovery Group, Parks Victoria, and Iluka Resources Ltd.

“Malleefowl share a range of threats with other threatened species, such as inappropriate fire regimes, habitat loss and degradation, over-grazing, introduced predators, and climate change,” says Dr Bode.

Taneal Cope, a PhD student in the Department of Zoology at the University of Melbourne who is conducting targeted research into the conservation genetics of the endangered malleefowl, agrees.

“The conservation threats that affect malleefowl are also likely to affect other threatened species within the same environment,” says Ms Cope.

Ms Cope’s research, the first to undertake a substantial investigation of the genetics of malleefowl, is contributing substantially to the understanding, management and conservation of the species.

“My main aim is to determine how genetic variation is distributed within and between populations of malleefowl across Australia,” she says.

The malleefowl’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it is the only arid species of megapode found anywhere in the world. Stocky, chicken-like incubator or mound-building birds, megapodes are generally found in tropical zones.

“As a threatened arid species, malleefowl symbolise a largely underrepresented group of research animal,” says Ms Cope.

Results from Ms Cope’s project – combined with the outcomes from extensive investigations already conducted by well-organised volunteer networks, and monitoring programs such as the Victorian Malleefowl Recovery Group – provide an invaluable basis to inform conservation managers about the best ways to manage malleefowl populations.

“Without rapid conservation activity, high post-colonial extinction rates will continue in the near future”, says Dr Bode. “Management has got to begin immediately, but unfortunately our understanding of these fragile species and ecosystems is currently very limited.

“By synthesising data on populations and ecosystem dynamics, and on the prior performance of management alternatives, conservation managers can quickly identify and discard ineffective interventions, and focus on the most cost-effective suite of actions,” says Dr Bode.

“The trick is to act immediately, and design early management actions as experiments. That way the benefits of early intervention are reaped at the same time as knowledge of the best action is gained.”

/    www.botany.unimelb.edu.au

Supporting parents of troubled teens

Annie Rahilly looks at a new program raising mental health awareness in parents of teens.

Research

Growing up is hard to do – not just for children emerging into their teens but for the parents and carers accompanying them on this roller-coaster experience.

A new program being offered by the Centre for Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne is at the frontline with parents and teenagers offering First Aid Training for Parents of Teenagers (TPOT). Teenagers from 12-15 years, along with one parent, are invited to be a part of an innovative longitudinal study that will train parents and carers to be alert to the first signs of stress and depression.

Many adults have limited skills in recognising the early signs of mental disorder, identifying potential mental health-related crises, and assisting teenagers to get the professional help they need as early as possible.

Given that teenagers often turn to parents to seek help, a parent’s response to their teenager with an emerging mental disorder could make a big difference in whether or not the problem is recognised, assessed and managed with supportive behaviours during recovery.

Research indicates that mental disorders often have their onset during adolescence but teenagers often don’t receive professional help, or they delay seeking it. A delay of around eight years is not uncommon.

According to the 2006 National Survey of Youth Mental Health Literacy, 18 per cent of 12-17-year-olds reported depression symptoms in the past two years, and 15 per cent in the past 12 months. Data from the 2007 National Survey showed that only one in three teens aged between 14-16 years received professional help for mood disorders, one in five for an anxiety disorder and one in 10 for a substance use disorder (Reavley, 2010).

It is estimated that around 15.5 per cent of teenagers in the study will report symptoms of anxiety or depression over a year.

“Regardless of whether parents are randomly assigned to the 14-hour Youth Mental Health First Aid course or the 15-hour Red Cross Apply First Aid course, there are many potential benefits from either type of training. These include increased knowledge of mental or physical first aid, increased confidence and use of supportive behaviours in helping a teenager with a physical or mental health problem, improvements in their own mental health, and less stigma towards mental health problems.

For teenagers themselves these include improvements in mental health, increased help-seeking from parents and professionals if they have a mental health problem, increased perception of general social support from the parent, and less stigma towards mental health problems.

Basically, the project is likely to empower parents to better deal with a teenager’s emerging mental health problem or a physical injury needing assistance,” says Professor Tony Jorm, Professorial Fellow in the University’s Centre for Youth Mental Health.

“TPOT is a longitudinal study that allows for direct evaluation of the adolescent recipients of the mental health or physical first aid behaviours that are covered in the parents’ free training course. Participants will be asked to complete an annual telephone survey, possibly for up to ten years, so that the teenagers’ health can be tracked over time,” he says.

By recruiting teens at a young age, there is more of a chance for parents to be upskilled and ready to act sooner, should their teenager develop a mental health problem. If young teenagers see that parents can talk about mental health problems without stigma, teenagers may be more likely to ask for help should they need it during the adolescent period.

Teenagers also have their own unique ways in which they access information about the world in general. Recently University of Melbourne researchers found Wikipedia is the most highly rated website for accessing information on mental health-related topics.

The researchers assessed a range of on-line and print material on mental health-related topics and found that in the majority of cases, Wikipedia was the most highly rated in most domains.

Content about mental health was extracted from 14 frequently accessed websites, including Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and a psychiatry textbook. Text providing information about depression and schizophrenia was assessed.

The content was rated by experts according to accuracy, currency of information, breadth of coverage, referencing, and readability. Ratings varied significantly between resources according to topic.

Researcher Nicola Reavley discovered that the quality of information on depression and schizophrenia on Wikipedia was generally as good as, or better than, that provided by centrally controlled websites or psychiatry textbooks.

“We know that people seeking information about mental disorders want real-time answers and assistance with accessing help. The Internet is instant and Wikipedia is often the first stop for people looking for definitions, explanations and information about suggested treatments,” Dr Reavley says.

www.tpot.net.au