Ants are emerging as one of the keys to helping scientists ensure the rehabilitation of the Ranger uranium mine re-establishes biodiversity outcomes that are as close as possible to those in the surrounding Kakadu National Park.
With the mine due to cease operations this year, researchers from the Morrison Government funded Northern Australia Environmental Resources Hub have found that studying ants in Kakadu is providing benchmark information on what to aim for following rehabilitation of the mine.
Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said that the findings highlighted the Morrison Government’s commitment to seeing the site rehabilitated and the importance of its investment in the National Environmental Science Program.
“We have been very successful in protecting the natural environment through the operational phase of mining at Ranger, and that is due to a large extent to the cooperative work of scientists,” Minister Ley said.
“This latest research is helping to ensure that the land is rehabilitated to a standard that is fitting not only for the people who live in or visit Kakadu National Park, but also to all of its diverse animal and plant populations.”
Senator for the Northern Territory Sam McMahon said that the work of NESP scientists and the ants would play an important role in the future of the region.
“It is vitally important that our world heritage listed Kakadu National Park is protected for generations to come,” Senator McMahon said.
“This work will ensure rehabilitation of the Ranger uranium mine to the highest standard.”
Project leader Professor Alan Andersen from Charles Darwin University said ants are the most abundant animals in Kakadu and play many important ecological roles, so it makes sense to use them as indicators of the success of mine-site rehabilitation.
“While we monitor a number of animals, ants promote mine-site rehabilitation by enhancing soil formation and nutrient cycling,” Professor Andersen said.
“If ants are in good shape then this indicates a healthy ecosystem.”
Dr Alaric Fisher, Executive Director, Flora and Fauna Division within the Northern Territory Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security, said researchers had also gathered significant data since the 1990s on the vertebrate animals that inhabit the area.
“It means that we’ve got really solid data over a very long period of time about the biodiversity in the woodlands surrounding the mine, from which we can make a robust assessment about the success of rehabilitation in restoring a ‘natural’ ecosystem,” Dr Fisher said.
The Australian Government’s Supervising Scientist, Keith Tayler, said the study’s identification of 50 suitable reptile, bird and mammal species, combined with the characterisation of Kakadu’s ant communities, is allowing for the development of a comprehensive set of faunal standards to compare the rehabilitated site with Kakadu National Park.
“The goal of rehabilitation at Ranger is to produce a similar ecosystem to that in surrounding Kakadu, but first, of course, we need to know what is meant by similar. This research is helping us answer that question,” Mr Tayler said.
“Over the 40 years that we’ve been collecting environmental data, we’ve been able to demonstrate that the environment, including Kakadu National Park, has remained protected from the effects of uranium mining,” Mr Tayler said.