Our helicopter rescue may seem a lot of effort for a plain little bird, but it was worth it



John Harrison/WIkimedia

Rohan Clarke, Monash University; Katherine Selwood, University of Melbourne, and Rowan Mott, Monash University

This article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Explore the project here and read more articles here.


As we stepped out of a military helicopter on Victoria’s east coast in February, smoke towered into the sky. We’d just flown over a blackened landscape extending as far as the eye could see. Now we were standing in an active fireground, and the stakes were high.

Emergency helicopter rescues aren’t usually part of a day’s work for conservation scientists. But for eastern bristlebirds, a potential disaster loomed.

Our mission was to catch 15-20 bristlebirds and evacuate them to Melbourne Zoo. This would provide an insurance population of this globally endangered species if their habitat was razed by the approaching fire.

As climate change grows ever worse, such rescues will be more common. Ours showed how it can be done.

A Chinook helicopter, with the bristlebird field team on board, lands in far eastern Victoria.
Tony Mitchell

The plight of the eastern bristlebird

Such a rescue may seem like a lot of effort for a small, plain brown bird. But eastern bristlebirds are important to Australia’s biodiversity.

They continue an ancient lineage of songbirds that dates back to the Gondwanan supercontinent millions of years ago. They’re reminders of wild places that used to exist, unchanged by humans.




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These days, coastal development has shrunk the eastern bristlebird’s habitat. The birds are feeble flyers, and so populations die out when their habitat patches become too small.

Fewer than 2,500 individuals remain, spread across three locations on Australia’s east coast including a 400-strong population that straddles the Victoria-New South Wales border at Cape Howe. Losing them would be a huge blow to the species’ long term prospects.

One of 15 eastern bristlebirds caught and evacuated from Cape Howe.
Author provided

A rollercoaster ride

On the day of our rescue, bushfires had been raging on Australia’s east coast for several months. The so-called Snowy complex fire that started in late December had razed parts of Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve then burnt into NSW. Now, more than a month later, that same fire had crossed back over the state border and was burning into Cape Howe.

Our 11-person field team had two chances over consecutive mornings. Using special nets, we caught nine eastern bristlebirds on one morning, and six the next. As we worked, burnt leaves caught in our nets – a tangible reminder of how close the fire was.

The captured birds were health-checked then whisked – first by 4WD, then boat and car – to a waiting flight to Melbourne. From there they were driven to special enclosures at Melbourne Zoo.

On the second day a wind change intensified the bushfire and cut short our time. As we evacuated under a darkening sky, it seemed unlikely Cape Howe would escape the flames.

A box containing eastern bristlebirds about to be loaded onto a boat.

In the ensuing days, the fire moved agonisingly close to the site until a favourable wind change spared it.

But tragedy struck days later when fire tore through eastern bristlebird habitat on the NSW side of Cape Howe. Many of the 250 individuals that lived there are presumed dead.

And despite the best efforts of vets and expert keepers at Melbourne Zoo, six of our captive birds succumbed to a fungal respiratory infection in the weeks after their arrival, which they were all likely carrying when captured.

Return to Cape Howe

Against the odds, bristlebird habitat on the Victorian side of Cape Howe remained unburnt. So in early April, we released a little flock of seven back into the wild.

We’d initially planned to attach tiny transmitters to some released bristlebirds to monitor how they settled back into their home. But COVID-19 restrictions forced us to cancel this intensive fieldwork.

Instead, each bristlebird was fitted with a uniquely coloured leg band. As restrictions ease, our team will return to Cape Howe to see how the colour-banded birds have fared.

Eastern bristlebirds released back into the wild at Howe Flat.
Darryl Whitaker/DELWP

A model for the future

The evacuation involved collaboration between government agencies and non-government organisations, with especially important coordination and oversight by Zoos Victoria, the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and Parks Victoria.

This team moved mountains of logistical hurdles. A rescue mission that would ordinarily take more than a year to plan was completed in weeks.




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So was it all worth it? We strongly believe the answer is yes. The team did what was needed for the worst-case scenario; ultimately that scenario was avoided by a mere whisker.

But climate change is heightening fire danger and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. Soberingly, further emergency wildlife evacuations will probably be needed to prevent extinctions in future. Our mission will serve as a model for these interventions.

The Conversation

Rohan Clarke, Director, Monash Drone Discovery Platform, and Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Monash University; Katherine Selwood, Threatened Species Biologist, Wildlife Conservation & Science, Zoos Victoria and Honorary Research Fellow, Biosciences, University of Melbourne, and Rowan Mott, Biologist, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I’m searching firegrounds for surviving Kangaroo Island Micro-trapdoor spiders. 6 months on, I’m yet to find any



Jess Marsh, Author provided

Jess Marsh, Murdoch University

This article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Explore the project here and read more articles here.


I’m standing on a hill in Kangaroo Island’s Western River Wilderness Protection Area, looking over steep gullies and sweeping hillsides. As far as I can see, the landscape is burnt: bright patches of regrowth contrast with skeletal, blackened trunks. It’s stark, yet strangely beautiful.

It’s late May, five months after the catastrophic summer fires burned 90% of the park. I’m here to assess the damage to some of our tiniest Australians.

Much attention has been given to the plight of Kangaroo Island’s iconic birds and mammals – the Glossy Black Cockatoo and the Kangaroo Island Dunnart, for example. However, the invertebrates – spiders, insects and myriad other groups – have largely been overlooked. These groups contain some of Australia’s most threatened species.

Among the invertebrates listed by the federal government as a priority for intervention is an unassuming, brownish-black spider with squat legs and a body about the size of a A$2 coin. Its name: the Kangaroo Island Micro-trapdoor spider (Moggridgea rainbowi).

The trials it now faces offer an insight into the enormous challenges ahead for invertebrates – the tiny engines of Australia’s biodiversity – in the wake of last summer’s cataclysmic fires.

A female Kangaroo Island Micro-trapdoor spider (Moggridgea rainbowi)
Jess Marsh, Author provided



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The sea-faring spider

The Kangaroo Island Micro-trapdoor spider has an interesting history. It is the only member of its genus found in Australia, its closest relative being in Africa. Studies show it arrived here between 2 and 16 million years ago, likely rafting across the ocean on vegetation! A true voyager.

Kangaroo Island Micro-trapdoor spiders exist only on Kangaroo Island. They live in short, 6cm burrows, built neatly into creek banks. They are slow, calm spiders, spending most of their time in their burrow, determinedly holding the door shut with their fangs.

The females care for their young; I have opened a trapdoor to find 20 tiny spiders living together with their mother. When ready, the young disperse short distances to build burrows of their own, tiny versions of the adult’s.

When ready, young Kangaroo Island Micro-trapdoor spiders build their own burrows not far from their mothers’.
Jess Marsh, Author provided

Assessing the damage

My colleagues and I are in this conservation park today to locate patches of less fiercely burnt land in which to look for survivors. Sadly, all the known western populations of this enigmatic spider were destroyed. I am yet to find any survivors in the fire ground, but it is early days.

We will be out here for the next year or so, walking hundreds of kilometres of creek lines, searching for signs of life. There is a lot of land out there. Around 210,000 hectares was burnt, almost half of Kangaroo Island. I remain hopeful that some colonies have survived.

If we find some Kangaroo Island Micro-trapdoor spiders – what then?

Surviving the initial blaze is the first step in the struggle for survival. The post-fire environment has many threats – habitat loss, exposure to hungry predators, weeds. Today, I noticed areas where soil, loosened by fire, has washed into creeks, completely burying them.

If we find some surviving individuals, we’ll protect them by installing sediment control, removing weeds and monitoring them in future.

Why should we care?

Not everyone loves spiders. I get that. But the functions invertebrates perform are vital. Our ecosystem relies on them; humans rely on them. Yet collectively our understanding of invertebrates – their importance and their value – is dangerously low.

The Kangaroo Island Micro-trapdoor Spider plays its own role the ecosystem. It is a predator, but we don’t really know what it eats. It’s a food source for birds, mammals or reptiles, but we don’t know what eats it. So, why should we care?

Firstly, I firmly believe every species has its own intrinsic value; every extinction, although a natural part of life, is a loss.

Secondly, the ecosystem is so complicated we don’t know exactly how the loss of one species will impact its prey, the parasites that live on it or its predators. And when we’re facing multiple extinctions, these effects could be devastating.

The Kelly Hill Conservation Park in Kangaroo Island was badly burnt in last summer’s fires.
Jess Marsh, Author provided

The Kangaroo Island Micro-trapdoor spider, the Kangaroo Island Assassin Spider, the Green Carpenter Bee – we only know these species are threatened because scientists like me have spent years or decades studying them.

But the majority of Australia’s invertebrate species are yet to be discovered. Many will be similarly at risk, but we have no way of measuring the scale of risk or the repercussions. That’s a fact we should all find scary.

There is hope, though. It’s not yet over for these species. Work such as ours is a step towards understanding how worsening bushfires will affect these vital, but often forgotten, members of our ecosystem.




Read more:
Bushfires: can ecosystems recover from such dramatic losses of biodiversity?


The Conversation

Jess Marsh, Research fellow at the Harry Butler Institute, Murdoch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.