Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples understand the value of billabongs and utilise the life cycles of certain species of plants and animals that are part of billabong ecosystems. This knowledge and value has allowed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to survive in some of the harshest places on the continent.
The lifecycle of billabong species
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, water is an integral part of country that has cultural, social and economic importance. Water is a precious resource and during drought or dry seasons knowing where and how to find drinking water is critical and billabongs and their species are a key part of survival. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have many techniques for understanding where water can be obtained, including plant and animal indicators, knowledge of the landscape and knowledge passed down through generations and oral traditions. For example, in the desert environment of central Australia, the Ngtatatjara peoples have committed to memory the locations of important water supplies. Children learn these locations through oral instruction and visual mapping, ensuring the knowledge is widely known in the community1. The Pintupi people of the Western Desert of Western Australia preserve the knowledge of the location of water sources through song and the vast desert country is mapped in engravings on the back of spear-throwers2. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have long understood how to manage water resources, and continue to contribute to the management of Australia’s water resources today.
Billabong is a term that derives from the language of the Wiradjuri people in south western New South Wales, and describes a pond or pool of water that is left behind when a river alters course or after floodwaters recede3. Billabongs are not only a valuable source of freshwater but also provide a habitat for many freshwater species, including plants and animals. The life cycles of the plants and animals of the billabong ecosystem are intrinsically connected with seasonal changes.
The Ngan’gi peoples in the Daly River region of the Northern Territory have, and continue to, sustainably manage the billabong environment of their country4. At the end of the wet seasons, the billabong levels recede and the Ngan’gi people collect water lilies and red lotus lilies from the edge of the water and long neck turtle hunting begins5. The lilies are an important resource as the plant can be eaten through all stages of its life cycle. The tubers are roasted before eating and the seeds can be consumed roasted or ground into a bread6. The buds and stalks, which taste similar to celery, can also be eaten and the flowers provide a nectar7. Water lilies grow their seeds underwater in a fruit. In the warmer months, when the fruit is ripe, the seeds are released into the water and float to the surface where they are dispersed through the billabong by the current. As the seeds absorb water they sink to the bottom of the billabong and germinate in the mud. The stem will sprout and rise to the surface of the water, where it produces its characteristic leaf that facilitates photosynthesis.
The freshwater turtles are also a valuable food resource, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a deep understanding of the life cycle of the turtle that facilitates sustainable harvesting of both turtle eggs and meat. Nesting turtles dig a hole in the ground with their hind legs, lay up to 25 eggs in the hole, then cover the eggs with earth. The eggs hatch within a few months and the hatchling turtles make their way to the water. Freshwater turtles take about 10 years to reach maturity.
Nardoo is an aquatic fern that grows in freshwater environments, such as the billabong, and the spores were traditionally a nutritious and important food source for many Aboriginal groups. The unique life cycle of Nardoo allows the spores to remain viable in environments of low water availability or in times of drought, when the billabong waters dry up. The spores can remain dormant in these conditions, until rainfall or floods trigger regermination. The Yandruwanda peoples of the lakes area in South Australia utilised their knowledge of the life cycle of Nardoo to cultivate and harvest large quantities of Nardoo when the spores were available, ensuring a plentiful supply for making into breads8.
The water holding frog that inhabits billabongs, swamps and claypans can take up and store a large amount of water before it burrows beneath, into the earth. Aboriginal peoples requiring water in desert environments can locate the frogs underground by carefully observing for markings on the ground or by tapping the ground with the butt of a spear9. Once the frogs have been located, they can be squeezed to release their stored water for consumption. The water holding frog emerges from underground to continue its life cycle, spawning in still pools of water after rains or a flood. A female water holding frog can lay up to 500 eggs that lie on the surface of the still water or attached to vegetation. Fertilised eggs develop and hatch to release the tadpoles. Tadpoles develop into frogs over a period of weeks, through a process known as metamorphosis. During this process, the tadpole will lose its tail and grow legs and arms. The tadpoles internal gills are replaced with lungs that allow the adult frog to respire. The hot desert habitat of water holding frogs and limited water availability triggers more rapid metamorphosis than many other frog species, with the development from tadpole to adult frog occurring in approximately 14 days.
The billabong is an environment that is important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a place of meeting, of cultural significance, social importance, as a source of freshwater and as a source of many resources. Kings Billabong, situated on Nyeri Nyeri country on the Murray River in Victoria, and is home to over 500 species of flora and fauna10. The Australian Pelican is a waterbird native to Kings Billabong and breeding is dependent on water availability and rainfall. The female pelicans use the habitat of the Kings Billabong to build a nest on the ground close to the water’s edge, where the eggs will be laid. Eggs are incubated for 35 days, and after hatching the chicks remain in the nest for about 2 months. The pelican chicks then form a pod, with up to 100 other newly hatched chicks, and remain with this group until they can fly at about 3 months. Pelicans were traditionally an important food resource for the Yandruwandha people in the Coongie Lake region in South Australia and careful management of the billabong environment by the Yandruwandha people ensured the pelicans remained protected.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a long, deep and continuing understanding of the intricacies of the organisms that inhabit their country and have sustainable, monitored and managed the life cycles of those organisms for many thousands of years. Contemporary issues, such as salt water intrusion and introduced species are impacting some of Australia’s unique freshwater ecosystems. For example, the salt water ingress caused by feral animals at Arafura Swamp, a large freshwater basin in the Northern Territory, is affecting the ecosystem and disrupting the life cycles and habitats of the plant and animal species in that region11. The Yonglu peoples, who are the Traditional Owners of the land, are using traditional knowledges to inform land management in the area to rehabilitate the Swamp to its natural state and restoring the environmental habitats of the native species.
Classroom activity - Science Year 4
In this classroom activity, students will work in collaborative groups to investigate the life cycle of a given organism. Students will research the organism, draw the life cycle and develop a creative way to present the life cycle of the organism to the class.
This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:
- Living things have life cycles (ACSSU072)
- Living things depend on each other and the environment to survive (ACSSU073)
- Science involves making predictions and describing patterns and relationships (ACSHE061)
This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 4 in Science:
- describe relationships that assist the survival of living things and sequence key stages in the life cycle of a plant or animal
- use formal and informal ways to communicate their observations and findings
Inquiry-based learning questions
- How do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use their knowledge of life cycles to sustainably manage their environment?
- Do all living things have life cycles?
- How is water important to plants and animals?
- What factors are important for the survival of plants and animals?
- How are the life cycles of plants and animals the same? How are they different?
- What would happen to the life cycle of organisms from the billabong in the event of a bushfire? Flood? Drought?
- Why are life cycles important to living things?
- How long does it take for an organism to go through its life cycle?
Activity 1 – Life cycles
Suggested timing for activity: (Two lessons, 30 mins each. Lesson 1: Student research and group work; Lesson 2: Student presentations and class discussion)
Required resources: (Internet access or access to resources such as encyclopedias or other research tools, teacher laptop and projector, printed or projected seasonal calendar, notebook, whiteboard and markers)
- Students will work in small collaborative groups (3-4) to construct a life cycle for a living organism this can be a plant or animal that is water dependant from an insect up to birds and mammals. Identifying when is breeding season and when they hatch or are born, when the wind or water is right, when there is the right food, no risk of fire or predators, this can be linked to traditional knowledge displayed in the Indigenous seasonal calendars (available from https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/Environment/Land-management/Indigenous/Indigenous-calendars or http://www.bom.gov.au/iwk/) can be used by the teacher as a tool to engage the students and describe the task. Students can identify the organism that they wish to research from the seasonal calendar used or identify an organism of local significance to research (e.g. Insects, Dragonflies, Platypus, Fish, Pelicans, Muttonbirds, Cockatoos, Gum trees, Lomandra, etc.).
- Students should be divided into groups of 3-4 and provided with research tools to find information about the life cycle of the chosen organism. Students can use internet research tools (for example https://www.natgeokids.com/au) or teachers can provide students with encyclopedias or fact sheets. Each group should have a different organism.
- In their groups, students should read the fact sheet or research the information to construct a labelled diagram of life cycle of the organism. The life cycle should be recorded in their notebooks. Students should then work together to prepare a presentation of the life cycle to the class in a creative way (write a poem, tell a story from the organisms perspective, write a diary etc.)
- Students present their life cycle to the class in their chosen way. The teacher should facilitate a discussion highlighting the similarities and differences between the life cycles using the Inquiry questions above. Construct a Venn diagram on the whiteboard to identify what life cycles have in common and how they are different.
1 Gould, R. A. (1969). SUBSISTENCE BEHAVIOUR AMONG THE WESTERN DESERT ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA. Oceania, 39(4), 253–274. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1834-4461.1969.tb01026.x
2 Thomson, D. F. (1962). The Bindibu Expedition. Exploration among the Desert and Aborigines of Western Australia: III. The Bindibu. The Geographical Journal, 128(3), 262–278. https://doi.org/10.2307/1794041
3 Australian National University. School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics. Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms. Retrieved from http://slll.cass.anu.edu.au/centres/andc/meanings-origins/b
4 Woodward, Emma, Jackson, Sue, Finn, Marcus, & McTaggart, Patricia Marrfurra. (2012). Utilising Indigenous seasonal knowledge to understand aquatic resource use and inform water resource management in northern Australia. Ecological Management & Restoration, 13.
5 Emma Woodward, Patricia Marrfurra McTaggart, Molly Yawulminy, Catherine Ariuu, Dorothy Daning, Kitty Kamarrama, Benigna Ngulfundi, Maureen Warrumburr and Mercia Wawul. 2009. Retrieved from https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/Environment/Land-management/Indigenous/Indigenous-calendars/Ngangi
6 Salleh, A. (2016). Way of the water lilies: Where science meets the billabong. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2016-07-07/way-of-the-water-lilies-where-science-meets-the-billabong/7571206
7 Low, T. (1991). Wild food plants of Australia (Rev. ed..). North Ryde, NSW, Australia: Angus & Robertson Publishers.
8 Pascoe, B., Ebooks Corporation, & ProQuest. (2014). Dark emu : black seeds : agriculture or accident? Broome, Western Australia: Magabala Books.
9 Bayly, I. (1999). Review of how indigenous people managed for water in desert regions of Australia. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia, 82, 17–17. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1430858359/
10 Parks Victoria. (2008). Kings Billabong Wildlife Reserve Management Plan. Retrieved from https://parkweb.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/313326/Kings-Billabong-Wildlife-Reserve-Management-Plan.pdf
11 Northern Land Manager. (n.d.). Management Project: Saltwater intrusion project – Arafura Swamp. http://www.landmanager.org.au/management-project-saltwater-intrusion-project-%E2%80%93-arafura-swamp
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.