The UNSW Life in Arid Lands (BIOS3161) course provides you with a unique opportunity to learn about plant and animal life in arid lands. You’ll receive practical research training at UNSW’s spectacular Fowlers Gap Arid Zone Research Station in western NSW. This course combines both on-campus class sessions and a week-long field trip to Fowlers Gap.

Arid lands contribute to our unique biodiversity. In Australia, 44 per cent of the land is desert, and a further 37 per cent is semi-arid grassland or shrub communities. Arid climates have a distinctive landscape with little vegetation and loose surface materials that result in erosion. On an annual basis, arid lands receive less than 10 inches of rain with semi-arid lands receiving 20 inches. The small levels of precipitation have dramatically shaped native plant and animal ecosystems.

The Life in Arid Lands course recognises that Australia is in a unique position to provide students with an opportunity to learn and research life in arid zones. The course offers advanced training in conducting independent research in plant and animal biology through the development and implementation of a field research project. Through course material, you’ll examine the formation of global arid regions, the evolutionary history of flora and fauna, and the adaptations of plants and animals to arid environments.

Upon course completion, you’ll understand the biology of the major arid lands around the world. You’ll also have experience in conducting fieldwork research in a semi-arid environment and the skills for designing, implementing and communicating research projects.

Term offering: Term 1

Course attendance: In person

Level: Undergraduate - Third year


  • Biology
  • Ecology

Course code: BIOS3161

Course breakdown

This course is intended for Stage 3 students pursuing a major in Biology or other third-year students with an interest and adequate background in biology. Throughout this course, you’ll advance your training in conducting independent research, understanding scientific literature and the effective communication of science. If you wish to further your studies, this course provides excellent preparation for honours research.

Major topics covered include:

  • Global deserts in perspective
  • Structure and function of arid landscapes
  • Thermal ecology
  • Physiological and morphological adaptation
  • Community ecology
  • Dealing with temporal and spatial variation

While Fowlers Gap provides comfortable accommodation, fieldwork in the arid environment often requires being exposed to hot, cold and dry conditions. In addition, it requires navigating uneven terrain. Depending on your research project, you may spend several hours outdoors each day.

Conditions for enrolment

To be eligible for this course, you must have completed at least one of the taxonomic diversity courses: Vertebrate Zoology (BIOS2061), Biology of Invertebrates (BIOS2031) or Flowering Plants (BIOS2051).

Career opportunities

Career opportunities within the area of arid lands varies from roles in teaching to research and from scientist to consultant.

Relevant roles

  • Environmental scientist
  • Environmental technician
  • Environmental manager
  • Teacher science communicator

What our graduates say

“The field trip to Fowlers Gap was by far the best aspect of the course. It was a fun and interesting way to gain hands on experience with the course content. Field work-based courses are the best way in my opinion to learn gain practical experience in biology and they are the best science courses at UNSW. Having such a small class meant that we all got to do real practical work and develop relationships with each other and the staff. It was great to have so many staff there who were all willing to help and share their knowledge. Not only did I learn so much out there, but it also motivated me and got me excited for life post uni.”

- Life in Arid Lands graduate.

Find out more

For more information, please contact Associate Professor Lisa Schwanz.

E: l.schwanz@unsw.edu.au

T: +61 2 9385 0034