Teacher background information


Year 3 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Use and influence of science

Science knowledge helps people to understand the effect of their actions (ACSHE051 - Scootle )

  • researching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ knowledge of the local natural environment, such as the characteristics of plants and animals (OI.2, OI.3, OI.5)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ deep scientific understanding of the complex interrelationships of biotic and abiotic factors within the natural environment has long informed and continues to inform the management of Country/Place. Scientific knowledge of the behaviour of fire ensures that the effects of burning Country/Place are well understood and appropriately implemented. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples possess detailed understanding of the characteristics of flora and fauna in the local natural environment, including adaptations to fire and how organisms respond to fire management practices. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to research Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ knowledge of the local natural environment and how this knowledge informs human actions, such as fire management of the environment.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long understood the effects of human actions including managed burning of the environment. Long-held botanical and zoological knowledges of the organisms in respective ecosystems are critical to informing fire management practices. Combined, these knowledges inform the timing, frequency, intensity and area of fire application to an environment. The behaviour of fire depends on the variables involved. The intensity of a fire is impacted by the type and amount of fuel, the moisture content of the fuel and the surface area of an environment. Weather, including wind, humidity, temperature and rainfall, further impacts the behaviour of fire, and the shape of the terrain can influence the spread of a fire. These factors are carefully considered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the controlled application of fire to an environment. Scientific knowledge of the natural environment, including the characteristics of flora and fauna and how the organisms respond to fire, is also considered. 

For effective management of Country/Place through fire regimes, it is crucial that the fires are not too hot or extensive. Extremely hot fires can destroy an environment, sterilising the soil and preventing regrowth of important plant species. The Peoples of the Gundjeihmi Language Group in the central Kakadu region in the Northern Territory begin systematic application of fire after the monsoon season when the ground still has a high moisture content that prevents the fires from spreading uncontrollably. Throughout the dry season, small, low intensity fires are set systematically and progressively through the Country. Regular burning of floodplains serves to keep fuel loads low and promotes the growth of important resources, such as the lotus and water chestnut, for both Peoples and animals. At the beginning of the hot season burning of Country ceases, due to the risk of widespread destruction caused by uncontrolled fire, fanned by warm evening winds spreading through the land.

Peoples of the Olkola Nation on the central Cape York Peninsula time fires to coincide with the first wet season storms to maintain the open structure of grasslands and grassy woodlands. The endangered golden-shouldered parrot, described as a fire-dependent species, is of immense cultural significance to the Peoples of the Olkola Nation. The birds feed on the seeds of native grasses, in particular, fire grass (Schizachyrium fragile). The disruption of fire management regimes at the time of European colonisation resulted in decreased availability of grass seeds for the parrot and an increase in woody plants such as Melaleuca spp. that concomitantly attracted predatory species. As a result, the golden-shouldered parrot has now been classified as endangered. Part of the recovery plan for the species has involved the reinstatement of storm-burning fire management practices by the Olkola Peoples, to increase seed availability and provide appropriate habitats.

On the island of Saibai in the Torres Strait, fires that are purposefully set within the narrow seasonal window from September to October, burn with greater intensity and cover larger areas than fires used in mainland Australia. The environmental habitats of Saibai, which support a diverse range of flora and fauna species, are a product of this more intensive burning regime; continuation of these practices is essential to maintain these environments.   

As a result of burning on the Australian continent for millennia, a significant amount of Australia’s vegetation is fire tolerant. The Noongar Peoples of south-west Western Australia variably use both cool burning and fires of higher intensity based on an intimate knowledge of the vegetation and the response of the flora to fire. Lower intensity fires are set in a mosaic pattern in a biennial cycle to facilitate the growth of grasses and trigger germination of the seed bank stored in the soil. The Noongar Peoples understand the different characteristics of the vegetation types in the region and know that thicker growth is required in some areas. Vegetation in the south coast area, made up of a thick homogeneous community of trees, requires higher intensity fires to maintain dense plant and animal habitats. The Noongar Peoples apply higher intensity fires to this region when the density of the trees starts to become sparse, which occurs about every 10 to 15 years. The area is protected from the cooler fires set more frequently in other parts of the Country and the application of carefully monitored and controlled high intensity fire promotes new growth to maintain the dense forest environment.

Many Australian native plants are pyrophytic, that is, they have adapted to be tolerant to fire. For example, the seeds of some Banksia spp. are contained within a cone that is sealed with resin. On exposure to fire the resin melts and the seed pod dries, releasing the seeds from the cone onto soil that is nutrient-rich from the ash of the fire. Banksia spp. is an important resource for many Aboriginal Peoples. Noongar Peoples use the Banksia cone as a fire torch and the liquid nectar as a drink in its raw form or fermented into mead, while the Gunditjmara peoples of southwest Victoria use the empty cones of Banksia spp. to filter impurities from drinking water. Aboriginal Peoples understand the characteristics of the Banksia spp. and ensure that the action of applying appropriate fire regimes provides the optimum conditions for germination, growth and maintenance of important plant resources.

The productivity of other important plant resources, such as cycads, can be increased through the systematic and purposeful application of fire. The Yuin Peoples of the south coast of New South Wales have long harvested cycad seeds; they have developed detoxification processes so that the seeds can be consumed as a reliable and nutritious food source. The application of short, intense fires in the appropriate season on Yuin Country improves the productivity of cycad seeds with approximately an eight-fold increase in food energy per area (kJ/m2) due to the increased proliferation of seeds. 

Fire management of Country/Place requires a deep understanding of animal habitats and behaviour. Careful application of fire to particular environments results in rapid regeneration of native grasses that provide feed for animals. The Martu Peoples of the Western Desert use fire in specific areas to encourage the regrowth of plants that provide important food sources for people and animals, create habitats for species, including endangered species such as the mankarr (bilby), and prevent larger, damaging fires. Other areas of Country are not burnt intentionally, to protect flora and to provide patches of mature growth as protection from predators.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ fire management techniques involving cooler, more controlled burning assist in the regeneration and propagation of native flora, thus protecting the biodiversity of plant and animal species. These cultural practices clearly illustrate deep understanding of the environment, and the environmental responses to fire regimes, that are believed to be responsible for the biodiverse landscapes across the Australian continent prior to European colonisation. The significance of purposeful ecosystem management through continued Aboriginal Peoples’ fire management practices is evident in the research regarding the Dukaladjarranj Peoples of north-central Arnhem Land. Unbroken custody of the Country of the Dukaladjarranj Peoples has ensured that fire regimes have provided abundant and diverse plant and animal species, in contrast to areas of broken custodianship and practices. The scientific knowledge that underpins the continued application of long practiced fire regimes fulfils cultural obligations to the land and maintains healthy ecosystems and the diversity of native flora and fauna in the region.

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to research how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ deep scientific understanding of the natural environment is critical in the application of fire to the landscape. The purposeful application of fire has long been informed, and continues to be informed, by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ knowledge of the local environment, including local conditions, climate, and the characteristics of plants and animals. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ action of implementing fire regimes is underpinned by intimate scientific understanding of the outcomes of such practices. Students can learn how the application of fire is carefully considered, including timing, intensity and frequency, and how fire regimes continue to be informed by a scientific understanding of the plant and animal life of the environment.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Beaton, J. M. (1982). Fire and water: Aspects of Australian Aboriginal management of cycads. Archaeology in Oceania, 17(1), 51-58.

Bebawi, F. F., & Campbell, S. D. (2002). Impact of early and late dry-season fires on plant mortality and seed banks within riparian and subriparian infestations of rubber vine (Cryptostegia grandiflora). Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture, 42(1), 43-48.

Bush Heritage Australia. (2019). Golden Shouldered Parrot. Retrieved from https://www.bushheritage.org.au/species/golden-shouldered-parrot

Director of National Parks. (2006). Kakadu knowledge for tour guides. Australian Government. Retrieved from http://learnline.cdu.edu.au/tourism/kakadu/downloads/Readings_KKTG.pdf

Eder, M., & Huss, J. (2018, July 3). Self-healing seed pods. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft Research News. Retrieved from https://www.mpg.de/12123073/self-healing-seed-pods

Garnett, S., & Crowley, G. M. (2002). Recovery plan for the Golden-shouldered Parrot (Psephotus chrysopterygius) 2003-2007: Report to Environment Australia, Canberra. Brisbane: Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

Gott, B. (2005). Aboriginal fire management in south-eastern Australia: Aims and frequency. Journal of Biogeography, 32(7), 1203-1208.

Gott, B. (2012). Indigenous burning and the evolution of ecosystem biodiversity. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, 124(1), 56-60.

Hill, R., Baird, A., & Buchanan, D. (1999). Aborigines and fire in the wet tropics of Queensland, Australia: Ecosystem management across cultures. Society & Natural Resources, 12(3), 205-223.

Kelly, G. (1999). Karla wongi fire talk: A Nyungar perspective on forest burning. Landscape, 14(2), 49-53.

Kohen, J. (1996). The impact of fire: An historical perspective. (Australian Plants Online). Retrieved from http://anpsa.org.au/APOL3/sep96-1.html

Lamont, B. B., Enright, N. J., Witkowski, E. T. F., & Groeneveld, J. (2007). Conservation biology of banksias: Insights from natural history to simulation modelling. Australian Journal of Botany, 55(3), 280-292.

Petruzzello, M. (2019). Playing with wildfire: Five amazing adaptations of pyrophytic plants. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/list/5-amazing-adaptations-of-pyrophytic-plants

Russell-Smith, J., Lucas, D., Gapindi, M., Gunbunuka, B., Kapirigi, N., Namingum, G., ... & Chaloupka, G. (1997). Aboriginal resource utilization and fire management practice in western Arnhem Land, monsoonal northern Australia: Notes for prehistory, lessons for the future. Human Ecology, 25(2), 159-195.

Victorian National Parks Association. (1996). Fire and biodiversity: The effects and effectiveness of fire management (Biodiversity Series No. 8). Proceedings of the Victorian National Parks Association conference 1994, Footscray, Melbourne. Canberra: Biodiversity Unit, Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories.