The Australian Museum has announced a scientific expedition to the Solomon Islands to research a coconut cracking megabat and giant rat, with Professor Tim Flannery as one of the leaders of the program.
The expedition will be the most extensive survey of the oceanic archipelago since the 1990s and offers a rare opportunity to gain valuable insights about mammalian evolution in an isolated ecosystem.
The team will use a combination of DNA sampling, camera traps and traditional local knowledge to piece together information on the behaviour and distribution of the monkey-faced bat and giant rat. The results will influence the design of long term conservation efforts at the Solomon Islands.
The Galapagos of the Western Pacific
The Solomon Islands are a series of six major oceanic islands located in the Western Pacific Ocean. They are remarkable in that clusters of these islands have been largely isolated from major land masses throughout their geological history.
From an evolutionary biology standpoint, the Solomon Islands are invaluable as each island has developed a unique biodiversity independent of the others. Flannery has described them as “the Galapagos of the Western Pacific”.
“The islands are around 40 million years old and the fauna on each island in the chain are different,“ Professor Tim Flannery told The Conversation. “They have never been connected by a land bridge, so they have both been colonised separately either by water or flown there.
“It’s like the Galapagos Islands. Take a blank slate and let the species come in and populate it.”
There are five known species of monkey-faced bat (genus Pteralopex) and at least one species of giant rat (Solomys ponceleti) that are endemic to the Solomon Islands, and the expedition leaders hope to discover more species of both.
They are also the largest mammals on the Solomon Islands. However, sightings have been few and far in between, with current knowledge limited to museum specimens and anecdotes.
There is an urgent need to gain a greater understanding of the mega-fauna, with one species of monkey-faced bat (Pteralopex flanneryi, named after Tim Flannery) and one species of giant rat (Solomys ponceleti) classified as “critically endangered” by The World Conservation Union.
Basic questions about their biology, habitat and reproduction still remain a mystery. Flannery said that the expedition will answer those questions, which are crucial to starting conservation efforts.
“We need to start building from the ground up. To design an effective conservation method we’re in that crucial information gathering stage.”
Coconut cracking megabats
What is known about the species of monkey-faced bats and giant rats found on the Solomons is that they have evolved characteristics unique to their species. In the absence of any other land based mammal, they have occupied an ecological niches no other bats or rats have ventured into before.
With a wing span of over a metre and a half, the monkey-faced bats are “megabats”, and are one of the biggest bats in the world. Their common name originates from their primate-like appearance.
“They dwarf the fruit bats around Sydney. The biggest ones are very striking, enormous black bats with big boxy heads,” said Flannery.
The monkey-faced bats in the remote Solomon Islands have evolved characteristic usually associated with monkeys. They have complex teeth and jaws so powerful it allows them able to crack green coconuts. The molars have a unusually large number of cusps and heavy incisors to break through the hard husks of the coconut. In addition the bats have a “double canine” with two big cusps.
To Flannery’s knowledge, no other mammal has that kind of unique canine.
The Solmons giant rat weighs up to two kilograms and has reproductive behaviour unseen in other rat species. The last recorded sighting in 2006 of a female and young showed that they had only one young at a time.
However Flannery explained that in the absence of any mammalian carnivores, the monkey-faced bat and giant rat did not evolve any defence mechanisms. This proved especially disastrous for the species when feral cats were introduced.
“They’re a naive species. We’ve had accounts of people taking monkey-faced bats out of tree holes and they won’t even attempt to bite you. They are just so unaware of predation.”
The brink of a new era of discovery
In addition to locating the monkey-faced bat and giant rat, the team will also be canvassing the Solomon Islands for other undiscovered native mammals. Samples will also be sent to the Australian Museum Research Institute for molecular analysis to describe species scientifically. Local community involvement will also be an invaluable component.
“We are dealing with what are probably going to be fragmented specimens. There might be an old trophy skull hanging in a house for years or a jawbone. Fragmented DNA for analysis will be a big part of our work.”
Designing a conservation program would also be crucial to ensure long term preservation of the Solomon Island biodiversity.
Despite the challenges, the research program could contribute much to the nature of mammalian conservation and research.
“The reality is that we are poised on the brink of a new era of discovery because there are so many species which have remained undetected. So there will be a new burst of activity where we will see many new species described and hopefully for the first time ever effective conservation,” said Flannery.
Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (RET) has had a rough time in recent years. After a 2014 government review recommended it be abolished, both major parties eventually agreed to downsize the RET in 2015. But even with bipartisan support, investment in new projects has slowed to a trickle.
So how do we bring investor confidence back to the sector? We provide a solution in our latest report from the Grattan Institute: a healthy climate policy. A good climate policy, perhaps surprisingly, means that one day we won’t need the RET at all.
The problem with renewable energy
The RET mandates that 33 terawatt-hours of electricity must be generated from renewables by 2020. To meet the target, renewable generators such as wind and solar farms create Renewable Energy Certificates (REC) for each unit of electricity they produce. Electricity retailers are required to buy enough certificates from renewables to meet the target.
The income renewables receive from selling credits along with the income they receive from selling electricity provide the financial justification for renewable energy projects.
Renewables are long-lived investments – they need to earn revenue for many years to pay off the initial costs of building them. Renewables built to meet the target in 2020 need to prove they can generate revenue beyond this point in order to get finance to build them in the first place.
Allowing renewables to create RECs between 2020 and 2030 is a means to provide this revenue certainty. The problem is that, under current policy, renewables will not generate RECs beyond 2030. In investment terms, 2030 is fast approaching.
The problem can be solved, though. Revenue from selling RECs is not the only source of income for renewables. If the price of electricity after 2030 is high enough, renewables will not need the incentives provided by the RET.
Before July 2014 there was a good reason why the electricity price would be high after 2030: Australia had put a price on carbon.
Now that the carbon price has gone, both future electricity prices and government policy are less certain.
Beyond the RET, existing government policies do not provide any incentive for building more renewable generation. It is no wonder that the environment for investing in renewables, at least in the short term, is poor.
A blueprint for climate policy
But it can change. Our report outlines a climate change policy roadmap for Australia that both parties can embrace under their existing policies.
The report shows how the government’s climate change policy (the Emissions Reduction Fund, which pays polluters to reduce emissions) can be transformed over time to reduce emissions as well as attracting investment in clean technology.
For the electricity sector this involves changing the Emissions Reduction Fund initially to what is known as an intensity baseline scheme.
Under an intensity baseline scheme, big polluters, such as brown coal, are penalised. Emissions producers have to buy permits or credits for every unit of electricity they generate based on the amount of carbon in that electricity. But low or zero polluters earn credits for each unit of electricity they generate. They can then sell these credits.
Eventually, all businesses would have to buy permits for every unit of greenhouse gas they emit.
The upshot is that the cost of producing electricity from fossil fuels increases, while the cost for producing electricity from renewables goes down. In this way an intensity baseline scheme will encourage investment in new renewable energy.
Let the RET retire
This does not mean that once an intensity baseline scheme is introduced the RET no longer has a purpose and should be abolished. Existing investments in renewables have been made in good faith and should be protected from any change of policy.
Besides, the RET can operate alongside an intensity baseline scheme, providing additional revenue to projects if revenue from the intensity baseline scheme is insufficient. It will also protect existing investments in renewables that have been made in good faith.
But the RET should not be extended beyond its current timeframe (a target to 2020 and certificates credited to 2030). A robust intensity baseline scheme will provide incentives for renewable generation and should make an additional policy unnecessary.
As long as the baseline on emissions is tight enough, renewables should be enough to meet any emissions reduction target that Australia chooses to adopt. Setting a separate target might mean that Australia pays too high a cost to reduce its emissions.
Most importantly for the renewables industry and other industries, our roadmap provides a policy framework that both major parties can adapt and adopt. A bipartisan climate policy is vital to achieving the stability needed for businesses to invest in the low-emissions technologies this country needs if it is to transition successfully to a low-carbon economy.
For years, the renewables sector has lacked stability. This plan can bring it back.
These images are a selection of photos taken recently near Lizard Island off the north Queensland coast. They document the ongoing bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef as ocean temperatures continue to be driven upward by climate change.
The bleaching process
Before corals bleach, they are often a deep brown or khaki-green colour. These colours come from the symbiotic algae (sometimes called zooxanthellae) that co-exist with the coral polyp.
During bleaching, as the symbiotic algae depart, you can see the beautifully coloured polyps. Sometimes polyps are transparent and we see only the white skeleton beneath. Other polyps may be brightly coloured, as seen here.
But whether white or fluorescent, these corals are far from happy. Once the final stage of the bleaching process is reached, it is likely the coral has been stressed for days or weeks. From here on, it may recover slowly – by re-acquiring its symbiont friends – or it may die, having run out of energy in the absence of the symbiotic algae that provide it with carbohydrates.
What often happens next is that the coral is covered with a film of turf algae, which takes over the parts of the reef previously colonised by healthy coral.
Bleaching can be strangely beautiful
Unfortunately, what we are now seeing on the northern third of the Great Barrier Reef is the death of many of these beautiful organisms. But, as noted above, the bleaching can in some cases be weirdly beautiful, as the corals shed their algal cloaks and reveal themselves.
These pictures show a variety of heavily bleached corals, with almost no remaining symbiotic algae. From this point it is a long, slow road to recovery – even those corals that survive will remain metabolically and reproductively compromised for months.
The amazing colours are pigments present in the coral polyps themselves. They are often fluorescent – hence the day-glo appearance of some corals and their amazing fluorescence on torch-lit night dives.
Some healthy corals display such vivid blues and other colours naturally, not during a bleaching event. But these corals are rare. What we are seeing on reefs in northern Queensland is certainly bleaching.
When the polyps die, macro or turf algae take over – a process that is already evident along parts of the 800 km of worst-affected Great Barrier Reef.
Especially in warm or nutrient-rich waters, these algae outcompete any coral trying to settle or spread on the reef, taking over areas that corals previously dominated.
Fish losing their homes
Not only is the turf algal community uglier than healthy coral, but it means the other species that depend on the coral lose their livelihoods too. Eventually, the reef structure itself breaks down, meaning that many fish species will need to move on or die.
That includes fish that feed on coral, such as this Okinawa goby…
… and those that just use it for shelter, such as this black damselfish juvenile.
The turquoise-blue chromis damselfish form huge clouds or schools over coral heads, and use coral branches for shelter when predators come along. The picture immediately below was taken before bleaching, while the one after that shows the fish on a bleached colony.
Anemones (which are close relatives of corals) are also prone to bleaching, which causes similar problems for the fish that use them for shelter.
Here are some more before and after photos, showing the effects of bleaching on the anemones that species such as clownfish use as a refuge.
Living with coral… or without it
When I saw the coral this perky little blenny is sitting in, I was convinced I was looking at a healthy colony! Maybe Lizard Island was not 100% bleached after all.
Unfortunately, closer examination shows that the coral head has died and a thin film of algae covers the branches. The little blenny is farming his patch and cropping the algae so that it does not become overgrown.
One-third of all marine life spends at least part of its life cycle on a reef. What happens when these reefs disappear?
Current predictions are that coral reefs worldwide could be gone within 25 years. How much will be left after this global bleaching event? How much will be left for future generations?
Given the globally accepted link between carbon emissions, climate change and reef bleaching, the decision to approve the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland right next to the Great Barrier Reef really is adding insult to injury.
The continued loss of the Great Barrier Reef is an environmental tragedy and a huge blow to all Australians who cherish this natural wonder and to the tourists who flock here to see the reef – particularly after seeing David Attenborough’s new documentary on it.
Further afield, coral bleaching is a potential humanitarian crisis in countries that rely on reefs for food and basic livelihoods. Let’s not forget that when Australia burns or sells coal it is contributing to this global problem as well.