Australia's desert springs

Threats to Australian springs.

A map of spring supergroups is located at the bottom of this page.

All of the larger, and most permanent springs in Central Australia are associated with the Great Artesian Basin (GAB). It is one of the largest artesian or groundwater basins in the world and covers 1,760,000km (633,600mi) or 22% of Australia (Ponder 1986). Eleven "supergroups" of springs are recognised (Habermehl 1982, Ponder 1986). Habermehl (1982) estimates there are approximately six hundred "springs"; however one "spring" may represent between two and four hundred individual spring outlets (Ponder 1986), thus the total number is considerably higher. Most Australian springs are relatively small with a discharge of <1 l/s (1qt/s), only eleven springs have a discharge >5-138 l/s (1.25-36gal/s), and all are located at Dalhousie Springs (Smith 1989). Many springs have a distinctive mound, thus they are often referred to as mound springs, although the size and composition of mounds vary between springs. Springs which do not form mounds are often referred to as artesian springs. Water from most of the springs is sufficiently low in dissolved solids to be suitable for stock and/or human consumption. For a short summary of the Aboriginal and European history of the springs see Harris (1981). Other than the springs detailed here, no other springs are known to harbour endemic fishes, and relatively few contain fishes at all. A few are known to contain endemic invertebrates, mostly hydrobiid snails (Ponder & Clarke 1990). Most of the remaining springs are relatively small, degraded and/or poorly known. Numerous springs remain undescribed, and the chances of new discoveries is high.

Dalhousie Springs supergroup

Dalhousie Springs are thought to have formed one to two million years ago (Kreig 1989). Within Dalhousie springs there are 100 individual spring outlets of which approximately 80 are still active. The springs occur in an area of about 70km (25mi) (Zeidler & Ponder 1989a). Dalhousie Springs account for 41% of the natural spring discharge from the GAB (Habermehl 1982). Dalhousie Springs are the only major group which produce warm water outflows; many springs have temperatures between 30 and 46C (86-115F). There springs have by far the most significant spring fauna in Australia with six fish species, Dalhousie catfish (Neosilurus sp A), Dalhousie hardyhead (Craterocephalus dalhousiensis), Glover's hardyhead (C. gloveri), spangled perch (Leiopotherapon unicolor), Dalhousie mogurnda (Mogurnda sp 2), and Dalhouie goby (Chlamydogobius gloveri), four of which are endemic. In addition, there are at least six endemic hydrobiid snails, and several small crustaceans including a blind amphipod (Zeidler 1991). In addition, one species of crayfish and one species of frog are also possibly endemic (Zeidler and Ponder 1989b). Due to its isolation there are currently no introduced aquatic animals in any of the springs. In addition, there has been very little modification to the springs except for the introduction of date palms (Phoenix dactylifera). In 1985, the property containing Dalhousie Springs was purchased by the South Australian Government to form Witjira National Park (Harris 1989), making Dalhousie Springs the first complete spring group to be protected within Australia.

Dalhousie Springs

Spring Ca5, the largest spring at Dalhousie Springs, South Australia. Peter Unmack photo. 5 species can usually be found in the pool at any time although the abundance of certain species varies. Dalhousie hardyhead, Dalhousie catfish, spangled perch, Dalhousie mogurnda, and Dalhousie goby. Temperature in the pool varies from one end to the other at 37 to 40C (98-104F). Spring discharge is 138l/s (36gal/s).

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Spring Ca2, a large circular pool with a stream flowing out of it. A lightning strike caused a fire one week before this photo was taken. Five fish species present.

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Spring A2, one of the larger pools at Dalhousie Springs, South Australia. Peter Unmack photo. Six species inhabit this spring and it's outflows. Dalhousie hardyhead, Glover's hardyhead, Dalhousie catfish, spangled perch, Dalhousie mogurnda, and Dalhousie goby. Water temperature is 33C (91F). Spring discharge is around 54l/s (14gal/s).

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Spring Cb2, one of the smaller pools present at Dalhousie. Water temperature is 38C (100F). The spring vegetation was apparently burnt the previous year. Five fish species present.

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A veiw from the distance of one of the Dalhousie Springs. This mound could be dry, have a small seep or contain a pool of water in it.

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Lake Eyre supergroup

This is the largest spring supergroup in terms of the number of individual springs. These occur in a band approximately 400km (240mi) long by 20km (12mi) wide around Lake Eyre (Ponder et. al. 1989). Around 100 named "spring groups" are present within the Lake Eyre supergroup (Casperton 1979), although there are perhaps several thousand individual outlets, most of which are very small. The average age of water emerging from springs in the south-west is one million years (Bentley et. al. 1986). Desert goby (Chlamydogobius eremius) have been recorded from thirty springs, Lake Eyre hardyheads (Craterocephalus eyresii) and spangled perch (Leiopotherapon unicolor) are occasionally recorded, and one exotic, dambusia (Gambusia holbrooki) is found in a few springs. Endemic invertebrates include ten species of hydrobiid snails from two genera (Ponder et. al. 1989), several ostracods (De Deckker 1979), amphipods, an isopod (Nicholls 1943), and a Platyhelminth (Sluys 1986); few other groups have been studied. Spring pictures go from south to north.

Blanche Cup

The top of Blanche Cup with Hamilton Hill in the background. Hamilton Hill is an ancient spring deposit that may be a million years old. The top of this hill represents the former level of the landscape. Desert goby were introduced into Blanche Cup around 1967, however, none have been captured since 1994.

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The alternative view, looking from Hamilton Hill down on Blanche Cup. For scale there is a Toyota Landcruiser parked at it's base. Two other smaller mound springs are present to the left.

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The Bubbler

The Bubbler has the highest discharge of any individual spring today in the Lake Eyre Supergroup. This spring is called The Bubbler because it "erupts" every so often. Prior to water extraction, water was reputed to rise 3-4 feet into the air, today it probably only reaches a foot or so. Desert goby are present below a small waterfall in the spring outflow.

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Coward Springs

They don't call 'em mound springs for nothing! A view of the Coward Springs mound, the green patch is part of the lower spring outflow.

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Looking downstream from the head of Coward Springs. Up to three fish species have been recorded, although only one, the desert goby is permanently resident. This spring, which is grazed by cattle should soon be fenced. It has a discharge of 2-3 l/s (2-3 qrt/s). Water emerging from springs in this vicinity has an age that averages one million years!.

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Coward Springs provides a good example of spring development over time. At the very top of Coward Springs there is a large travertine circle which represents a former discharge point. A few metres below this is a tiny waning seep. The main outflow (the photo above) is found to the right of this photo towards to side of the mound.

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Hewson Hill Springs

Even tiny springs, such as this tiny springs emerging from Hewson Hill teem with life such as ostracods and amphipods. These little critters must have reasonable though unknown dispersal abilities to persist in such precarious habitats.

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Elizabeth Springs

Just north of Coward Springs is a large travertine hill known as Elizabeth Springs (not to be confused with the Queensland Elizabeth Springs). An effect known as terracing, a striking example of nature's unique architecture. Desert goby are present. Most spring organisms have no problems climbing these sort of obsticles.

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Hybrobiid snails

Tiny endemic snails abound in most non degraded springs.

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Vaughen or Outside Springs?

To fence or not to fence?

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Freeling Springs

Looking upstream at the head of the largest spring within Freeling Springs. Desert gobies are common.

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Springsure supergroup

Edgbaston Springs

Edgbaston Springs are a part of the Springsure supergroup. At least 44 springs have been identified at Edgbaston Springs (Wager 1994), some of which have naturally become extinct. Most of the springs are very small, shallow, marshy, and none form mounds. Four native fish have been recorded, redfinned blue eye (Scaturiginichthys vermeilipinnis), Edgbaston goby (Chlamydogobius squamigenus), Myross hardyhead (Craterocephalus sp), (all endemic) and spangled perch were recorded once; dambusia are also present in many springs. These springs contain the smallest natural habitat of any fish in Australia. The area inhabited by the redfinned blue eye is approximately 6-8km (2.2-2.9mi). Edgbaston Springs also contains some of the harshest freshwater environmental conditions; temperatures may very diurnally by up to at least 21C (38F) (Wager & Unmack in prep.). Despite the small size of Edgbaston Springs, they contain a significant fauna which rivals Dalhousie Springs. This fauna includes seven snails from one genus; six of which are sympatric in some springs (Ponder & Clarke 1990). There are also undescribed ostracods, amphipods and other invertebrates present (Ponder 1986).

The type locality of the redfinned blue-eye. Temperatures in this spring may vary by at least 17C (31F) in only 3-4 hours. Maximum depth is 4cm (1.6in) Edgbaston goby are also present in small numbers.

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Small spring on Edgbaston, Queensland. Contains the best Edgbaston goby populations out of all the Edgbaston Springs.

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A large shallow spring on Edgbaston, Queensland. Contains redfinned blue eyes, a few Edgbaston gobies, and dambusia are irregularly found. Dambusia tend to get into the spring during rainfall events from other nearby springs, but then they die out again.

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Springvale supergroup

Elizabeth Springs

Elizabeth Springs are a part of the Springvale supergroup. There were several springs in the Springvale supergroup which were active prior to water extraction. Today, Elizabeth Springs, which was once probably the second or third largest spring in the GAB is the only extant spring remaining in the Springvale supergroup. Today, it flows at <5% of its original rate. Elizabeth Springs consists of approximately thirty individual spring outlets spread over an area of 0.6km (0.22mi). These springs have suffered a significant loss of water due to decreased groundwater pressure in the area and cattle damage. They have since been fenced and the property was also recently acquired by the Queensland National Parks Service. One fish, the Elizabeth Springs goby (Chlamydogobius micropterus), and one hydrobiid snail are known to be endemic (Unmack & Wager in prep.).

The largest spring present at Elizabeth Springs. This view is from the head looking downstream over it's marsh. Gobies are common.

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One of the medium sized springs at Elizabeth Springs. This small outflow contains a moderate population of Elizabeth Springs goby.

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Bentley, H. W., Phillips, F. M., Davis, S. N., Gove, H., Habermehl, M. A., Airey, P. L., Calf, G. E., Elmore, D., Gove, H. E. & Torgerson, T. 1986. Chlorine 36 dating of very old groundwater 1. The Great Artesian Basin, Australia. Water Resources Research. 22: 1991-2001.

Casperton, K. C. 1979. Mound springs of South Australia. Part 1. Physical features, history, biota and conservation requirements. South Australian Department of Environment & Planning, SADE 20.

De Decker, P. 1979. Ostracods from the mound springs area between Strangways and Curdimurka, South Australia. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia. 103: 155-168.

Habermehl, M. A. 1982. Springs in the Great Artesian Basin, Australia - their origin and nature. Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology & Geophysics, Australia Report No. 235.

Harris, C. 1981. Oases in the desert: the mound springs of Northern South Australia. Proceedings of the Royal Geographers Society of South Australia. 81: 26-39.

Harris, C. 1989. Dalhousie Springs - An introduction. In, Natural History of Dalhousie Springs. Eds. Zeidler, W. & Ponder, W. F. South Australian Museum, Adelaide. pp 1-4.

Harris, C. 1992. Mound Springs: South Australian conservation initiatives. The Rangeland Journal. 14(2): 157-173.

Krieg, G. W. 1989. Geology. In, Natural History of Dalhousie Springs. Eds. Zeidler, W. & Ponder, W. F. South Australian Museum, Adelaide. pp 19-26.

Nicholls, G. E. 1943. The Phreatoicoidea. Part 1. The Amphisopidae. Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania. 1942: 1-145.

Ponder, W. F. 1986. Mound springs of the Great Artesian Basin. In, Limnology of Australia. Eds. DeDeckker, P. & Williams, W. D. CSIRO, Australia and W. Junk, The Hague. pp 403-420.

Ponder, W. F. & Clark, G. A. 1990. A radiation of hydrobiid snails in threatened artesian springs in western Queensland. Records of the Australia Museum. 42(3): 301-363.

Ponder, W. F., Hershler, R. & Jenkins, B. J. 1989. An endemic radiation of hydrobiid snails from artesian springs in Northern South Australia: their taxonomy, physiology, distribution and anatomy. Malacologia. 30(1): 1-140.

Sluys, R. 1986. First representative of the order Macrostomida in Australia (Platyhelminthes, Macrostomidae). Records of the South Australian Museum. 19 (18): 399-404.

Smith, P. C. 1989. Hydrology. In, Natural History of Dalhousie Springs. Eds. Zeidler, W. & Ponder, W. F. South Australian Museum, Adelaide. pp 27-40.

Unmack, P. J. & Wager, R. N. E. (in prep.) Threatened fishes of the world, Elizabeth Springs goby, Chlamydogobius sp.

Wager, R. 1994. The distribution and status of the red-finned blue eye. Final Report Part B: The distribution of two endangered fish in Queensland. Endangered species unit project number 276.

Wager, R. N. E. & Unmack, P. J. (in prep) Threatened fishes of the world, Scaturiginichthys vermeilipinnis.

Zeidler, W. 1991. A new genus and species of phreatic amphipod (Crustacea: Amphipoda) belonging in the "chiltonia" generic group, from Dalhousie Springs, South Australia. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia. 115(4): 177-187.

Zeidler, W. & Ponder, W. F. 1989a. Summary.. In, Natural History of Dalhousie Springs. Eds. Zeidler, W. & Ponder, W. F. South Australian Museum, Adelaide. pp 123.

Zeidler, W. & Ponder, W. F. 1989b. Conclusions and recommendations. In, Natural History of Dalhousie Springs. Eds. Zeidler, W. & Ponder, W. F. South Australian Museum, Adelaide. pp 125.

Australian spring supergroups associated with the Great Artesian Basin


Spring supergroups

1 Lake Frome 2 Lake Eyre 3 Dalhousie 4 Mulligan River 5 Springvale 6 Flinders 7 Barcaldine 8 Springsure 9 Bogan River 10 Bourke 11 Eulo

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The Australian desert fishes pages are compiled and maintained by Peter J. Unmack
Many thanks to Karen Randall for her excellent drawing of a desert goby that is
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This file was last modified:  18 March 2003