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Background of the Pelican Lagoon Research & Wildlife Centre

Scientists, volunteer visitors and the local community have combined their talents to produce the Pelican Lagoon Research & Wildlife Centre- a place of ideas, not things.

Free from the impact of rabbits and foxes, it provides a series of Australian habitats which permit field research under near-pristine conditions. Situated on the eastern end of Kangaroo Island, South Australia, is a unique research centre, based on 150 Ha. of private land along the northern shore of Pelican Lagoon.

It was in this area in 1803 that some of the first scientific collections and observations were made by Robert Brown in the newly-discovered South Australia. Since that time these same waters and adjacent land have been periodically used by scientists who recognised the unique conditions of this natural laboratory.

During the 1970's, a long time island visitor and then chancellor of Flinders University, Sir Mark Mitchel, focused on the unique biological diversity of the area, and suggested the concept of a research base on the eastern end of the island. Bringing the concept to reality, however, was beyond the resources available at that time.

In 1979, biologists from the South Australian Museum were in need of an area for long-term field studies on island reptiles. They approached private land holders in the region of their study site and explained their need for a secure base from which to work. From this grew the concept of the Pelican Lagoon Research & Wildlife Centre and 'Land for Learning'.

Since that time the concept has grown through an 'esprit de corps' of researchers from all over the world. These scientists often focus on base-line studies (enabling the impact of Man's activities in other regions to be more fully assessed), whole-organism biology and/or problems not easily assessed under field conditions. Most projects are designed in five- and ten-year field phases and are often complemented by other current or future studies.

Nearly 70% of the island is privately owned, the remainder being under the umbrella of the South Australian National Park system. Kangaroo Island has the longest history of European occupation of any part of South Australia. The quality and diversity of island ecosystems is a unique treasure of global value. The fact that the residents did not over-indulge in the same devastating land-use practices that occurred on the mainland reflects an unspoken attitude of land stewardship that has long been part of the island community ethos.

The Research Centre

At Pelican Lagoon we have access to a series of habitats characterized by low pollution levels, near-pristine ecosystems and no damage from rabbits and foxes. Our aim is to foster sound scientific research into whole- organism biology and associated fields. The results provide data which is often no longer obtainable in altered and impacted mainland ecosystems. Such data is invaluable in testing and assessing scientific models under actual field conditions, and leads to new perspectives and insights.

Island wide private properties and public lands have become involved as researchers broaden their study areas or expand the scope of their projects. Island ecosystems range from low rainfall systems to wet sclerophyll rainforest. Some areas retain tracts of near-pristine habitats which land owners have chosen to leave subject to natural cycles. Other areas have documented histories of change and impactwhich help in assessing how they have altered and the significance of buffer zones between the rural lands and wild habitats.

Researchers based at the Centre make use of private facilities provided by land owners and the South Australian Museum (SAM). Simple but functional work spaces are provided in the SAM Laboratory and associated buildings that have grown from the direct labours of the researchers. The facility has been self sufficient with solar power and rainwater since 1980. Communal cooking and dining facilities are available 24 hours a day to accommodate the unusual working patterns of field biologists!

The Mediterranean climate and an early decision by researchers has set the pattern for field accommodation. 'Soft structures' in the form of all-weather continental style tents and under-cover platforms provide spacious and comfortable 'environmentally friendly' home-away-from-home accommodation. Close cooperation between the researchers and land owners has resulted in a working facility that minimizes man's impact on the ecosystem and provides the workers with access to their subjects.

Community Involvement

In 1981 a Docent (volunteer) program commenced which today continues to train interested people from the community and involve them directly with the research projects. In many cases trained docents, under the direction of resident biologists, carry on with routine monitoring of projects while the principal investigators are away.

All researchers operate under permits monitored by the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, South Australian Department of Fisheries or Commonwealth National Parks and Wildlife Banding Scheme.

From the beginning, researchers using this facility have shown initiatives which have led to new avenues of field work. Their willingness to work with local land owners, invest time in community education, and to take a constructive interest in local environmental problems has built a solid line of communication between two groups who, in the past, often misunderstood each other. Today, in a time when economic pressures to develop public lands can cause uncertainty of access to long-term field research sites, research agreements between private land holders and scientists are proving beneficial to all groups.

As more international researchers focus on Australian field studies we find that individual projects fit into a web of broad-based research that benefits from an open exchange of ideas and resources. The dedication and 'esprit de corps' of these field teams is infectious.

A strong and often unexpected sense of dedication is experienced in this scientific melting pot. Field workers find new means of financing to stretch the number of field trips per year and extend the field time to match the task rather than fit calendars. Whole-organism biology demands a greater awareness of natural cycles and makes the biologist work harder to devise experiments that can be divided into manageable and practical units for field study.

Many projects can benefit from intensive manpower. EARTHWATCH volunteers and similar groups provide useful assistance in the field.

by Kate Hale

December 1996
Published in the Kangaroo Island Investigator Magazine, Edition 2, 1996


A hundred years ago, echidnas were frequently roasted and eaten by Kangaroo Island's early settlers wanting a dietary change from fish, wallaby and Kangaroo. Today these mysterious and silent spiky creatures are being studied in intimate detail at a unique scientific research station which has been established on the north east side of Kangaroo Island.

The work carried out at the Pelican Lagoon Research and Wildlife Centre by resident scientists Dr. Peggy Rismiller and partner Mike McKelvey has earned Kangaroo Island a worldwide reputation as an unpolluted and virtually pristine place in which to study flora and fauna in its natural environment. Peggy's echidna television documentary has now been screened in more than 45 countries around the world to an audience of possibly 60 million people. In this article we meet Kangaroo Island's dedicated scientists, and learn a little more about their work.


" We still have no idea how many echidnas there are in the world, how long they live for, when they become sexually mature, or what happens to the young after weaning," Peggy said.

Mike McKelvey is an American-born biologist, artist and photographer who came to Kangaroo Island in the 1970's and bought 50 hectares of land adjoining Pelican Lagoon.

In 1979, biologists from the South Australian Museum were in need of an area for long-term field studies on island reptiles. They contacted Mike McKelvey, and eventually established their field study unit on his property. From this humble beginning has grown the Pelican Lagoon Research and Wildlife Centre.

In the late 1980's fellow American Dr. Peggy Rismiller joined Mike on the property and began research to uncover some of the mysteries of the short-beaked echidna, which is native only to Australia and Papua New Guinea.

"I studied the literature available on echidnas and found that in 200 years of scientific research, we still don't know the answers to some of the most basic questions about echidnas, " said Dr. Rismiller.

In the near-pristine environment offered by Kangaroo Island, Peggy and volunteer assistants monitor and track a group of 68 echidnas who live in the Pelican Lagoon area. Around 20 of these egg-laying mammals are fitted with tiny radio transmitters which enables the scientists to track their whereabouts on an hour-to-hour basis.

Using the data collected by this method, and also detailed observation of the animal population over an eight year period, Peggy is slowly unraveling the mysteries of the world's oldest-surviving mammal. We do know that echidnas can live for a very long time, as one echidna lived in captivity for 49 years.

However, there is still a great deal of research to be done before we can begin to understand why echidnas are so successful and how they have survived in our changing world.

Peggy's work has gained her an international reputation, and she is now in high demand as a guest speaker at universities, scientific institutes and public venues worldwide. Peggy and Mike have published numerous books and scientific papers, in addition to the echidna television documentary which was completed in January, and first screened in April 1995.

The Pelican Lagoon Research & Wildlife Centre run by Mike and Peggy for more than a decade and operates on environmentally-friendly principles. It uses solar power, and the centre is self-sufficient in water. There is only one permanent building on the land - a communal kitchen/dining room cum office which is used as a home base by visiting researchers.

All other buildings on the land are soft-sided, such as their all-weather continental-style tents. This arrangement ensures that the effects of human habitation are minimized, whilst providing a comfortable lifestyle. For the same reason the centre is not open to the public.

However, researchers, scientists and artists wanting to study in an unspoilt natural environment can use the centre as a base for their work, with resources and scientific equipment provided.

At present there are around 10 long term scientific projects which are based at the centre, and work is being carried out on echidnas, goannas, tiger snakes, fairy penguins and marine vegetation.

The existence of the research centre has enabled many visiting scientists to carry out their work more cost-effectively, and utilizing volunteer labour, such as Earthwatch volunteers who stay at the centre whilst assisting with research.

"One of the reasons that Kangaroo Island is unique is because foxes were never brought here, and introduced rabbits never survived, so the animals' habitat has been preserved," said Mike.

"The farmers here on Kangaroo Island are some of the most aware in Australia. They recognize the value of their land," he said


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