Orsi Decker awarded for research on the loss of Australia’s digging mammals and its consequences on soil health

Orsi Decker from the La Trobe University in Australia (where she also received her PhD) is awarded the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists in the category of Ecology and Environment for her work on soil ecology in Australia. Her next goal is to create a native invertebrate and microbe community in re-vegetated areas, more similar to our native remnant forests and less similar to a degraded paddock.

Her passion for the natural world has developed into a novel understanding of Australia’s loss of native digging mammals, and the subsequent consequences for the continent’s arid soil health. The rate of biodiversity loss is increasing and many animals native to Australia are severely threatened by human-driven climate change and environmental degradation. Currently, she is examining how restoration efforts could be improved to regain soil functions by introducing soil fauna to degraded areas. For her work, she wins the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists, in the category of Ecology and Environment.

“This is a huge deal for me, every time I think about it, I just still can’t believe it! Having a piece published in Science is probably the peak of my career. To be selected as a finalist also gives me a lot of optimism and hope that people still care about our natural world and maybe that many of us are concerned about the threats we are facing in this mass extinction period. Hopefully, we are ready to do something about slowing down the current rate of biodiversity decline”, says Orsi. 

How can the results from your research be applied by other scientists?

“I think it is important to realize that we need to conserve natural habitats as intact as possible to gain (or re-gain) ecosystem functions, where most interactions between species are crucial in order to maintain a balance.”

“My results also show how important it is to determine the roles/functions of species and how those functions can change depending on the habitat type we are in. This might help in identifying key goals in restoration projects and help land managers in localizing missing ecosystem functions from a restoration area and find possible solutions to restore those functions with natural processes.”

What influenced you to begin your studies in Biology? 

“I was always amazed by our natural world and all the creatures living in it, just really interested in everything that moves (or not!). I really enjoy watching the world beneath our feet, life in the soil and on the surface – it is just like looking at a different dimension with all the invertebrates in their exoskeletal shields minding their business. I am still amazed by all the diversity I see and every day when I am out doing fieldwork, I see something which I haven’t seen before. However, it is the saddest thing on Earth to watch our biodiversity decline and species going extinct in front of our eyes.”

Could you tell us something about the extinct native digging mammals to Australia? Were they marsupials? 

“Yes, they are marsupials. Many of the digging mammals are ecologically extinct, but haven’t gone extinct yet, like the bilbies, numbats, burrowing and brush-tailed bettongs. But some of the digging mammals are surviving well, like the echidnas or wombats. The ones that need protection – because they are the perfect size to be eaten by cats and foxes – are the bilbies, numbats, burrowing and brush-tailed bettongs, potoroos and bandicoots. These animals have a very unique look to them, and they move quite weirdly to be honest, halfway between jumping and running, all very fast. They are very curious creatures, and sometimes in reserves, bettongs might even follow you around if you do night surveys. I was very privileged to be able to hang out with these animals which can’t be seen in many places.”

What kind of soil fauna are you reintroducing in your work to regain soil function? Only native species to Australia?

“Currently, we are looking at reintroducing invertebrates and microbial communities to re-vegetated areas in the hope of restoring some processes which are done by invertebrates and microbes, like decomposition and nutrient cycling. Unfortunately, invertebrates and microbes are quite understudied in restoration projects, however, they are working really hard in every ecosystem having important functions! The goal is to create a native invertebrate and microbe community in re-vegetated areas, more similar to our native remnant forests and less similar to a degraded paddock.”

Would you like to share a junkyard garden solution with us?

“Haha, sure! I am mainly improving our garden for our chickens with the junkyard solutions: there is an old wardrobe which is now a nesting box; old CD stands, where I plant lucerne seeds, and the chickens can come and eat the seedlings in a row; big old shelve cases, where the chickens can jump up and roost if it’s raining; there are many old tiles in the garden, so invertebrates and little geckos can come and hang out under there; an old bike and some ‘milk crate towers’ for plants to climb upon.. things like these!”

Anything else you like to do in your spare time? 

“I am interested in herbal remedies, so I like learning about plants’ beneficial effects and I enjoy making different kinds of tinctures, syrups, bitters, balms and whatnot. I like to climb some rocks every now and then and doing yoga, but my main activity these days is hanging out with my rescue dogs: one plays hide and seek quite well by now, and the other one knows how to find truffles and how to track me following my footsteps if I disappear suddenly!”


Last updated: 2020-11-20

Content Responsible: David Gotthold(