Most of us don’t see that many carcasses apart from the odd bird, rat or toad and along the side of the road as roadkill. Normally we don’t give them a lot of thought. I had thought about carcasses when I was on a committee for gully erosion in farms when one of the properties we examined was strewn with cattle corpses. “Drought” The property owner claimed. The images haunted me for a time but I didn’t give a lot of thought to carcasses until some years later when I was waiting with another couple of people to drive to Newcastle to man the evacuation centre following an extreme weather event and our fourth team member was late. When she turned up she told us her excuse – she had seen fresh road kill. It hadn’t been there the night before when she had driven by and as the night had been cool she believed it was an edible morsel which she just had to have. My companions and I were horrified – we would have left the carcass on the road. She wasn’t the only person who sought road kill. I went to an exhibition of road kill in the Noosa Regional Gallery a couple of years ago. The artist was not the only person who follows this line of art. Simryn Gill is one example of an artist who finds squashed road kill to which she fits little wheels, places them compellingly with all the animals heading in the same direction. A herd mentality inevitably leading to death. For me this is macabre. I don’t understand the head space of someone who would do this.
Earlier this year I was again thinking of carcasses again with great sadness. The fires have decimated our wildlife and the drought has led to the death of many animals in our dry regions. Their skin and bone bodies bloating in the unrelenting heat of the Australian sun. So many deaths. So many bodies. Do they leave the carcasses where they fall? The fly population must be in seventh heaven. In deed the ABC reported in Aug 2019 of a study being carried out by University researcher Jonathan Finch where he placed carcasses in a commercial orchard near Katherine in the NT with the intent of generating flies to carry out the fertilisation of crops that had previously relied on the diminishing bee population. They found it to not only be as affective as pollination by bees but yielded larger crops of bigger blueberries. Dr Cook – Dept of Primary Industries entomologist – said that although results were encouraging a lot of work needed to be done to ensure the right kind of fly came out of the carcass and that these were sterilised so as not to create a problem themselves.
It seems as though it will be some time before wholesale throwing distribution of carcasses will occur on orchards so is it okay to just leave them rot by the side of the road or in the paddocks and desert? Emma Spencer, a Phd student from Sydney University set out to find whether animal carcasses could help sustain dingo populations in time of drought. It was already well known that carcasses nourish hungry scavengers and support plant growth as they leech nutrients into the soil below, then, as soon as rain falls the carcass is surrounded by sprouting green grass.
Although she has been unable to prove that the dingo numbers benefit from the presence of carcasses she has shown that the carcasses benefit predominantly feral animals such as foxes and cats with native scavengers such as the wedge tail eagle, sand goanna, little crow and Australian raven partaking in the bodies less than was expected. It was found however that the population of ground nesting birds such as the endangered night parrot was put in peril when a carcass was nearby as the scavenging animals quickly discovered the nests and ate the eggs.
I can see this research is meaningful and will have benefits in how we deal with carcasses into the future as our continent becomes drier and more ravaged with fire. Are you like me? I admit – I am left asking why these researchers and artists got into this line of enquiry in the first instance. And as my Grandfather used to say to me when I would ask why – ” Y’s a crooked letter and Z’s no better.”