‘We know our community better than they do’: why local knowledge is key to disaster recovery in Gippsland


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Celeste Young, Victoria University and Roger Jones, Victoria UniversityOvercoming the odds is second nature to the Gippsland community. The people in this region have seen it all — fires, floods, droughts and extreme weather. And every time, these capable, resourceful and independent communities bounce back.

However, recovery from bushfires of the 2019/2020 Black Summer followed by the COVID-19 pandemic has been different.

Even before these events, we were researching vulnerability to natural hazards, risk ownership and diversity and inclusion nationally as part of our work with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.

Through a mix of interviews, focus groups and surveys, we sought insights about communities, how they recover after disaster and what factors have the greatest impact. We focused on community strengths and how to build on them.

Our recently released report, Growing the seeds: recovery, strength and capability in Gippsland communities, highlights that recovery is often non-linear. It’s not just the damage to infrastructure, houses, environment and farmland that makes recovery difficult; the emotional and physical toll is often gruelling as well.

The report identifies several opportunities for change, including the need for a long-term plan (five years minimum) for building community emergency management capability in the region — well before the next disaster strikes.

Our research highlights recovery is often non-linear, an observation well supported by other research in this field.
Growing the seeds report.

A brutal time

The 2019–20 fires damaged over half of the East Gippsland Shire, an area of over
1.16 million hectares. Over 400 dwellings and businesses were lost and four people lost their lives. Areas like Mallacoota were at acute risk. In some areas, communities were under threat for weeks and evacuated repeatedly, exhausting them before the recovery process began.

Then, the pandemic hit, disrupting the established pattern of recovery where people get together to make sense of what has happened and start to rebuild their communities. One person describe the timing as “brutal”. Another said:

When the fires happened, you had a couple of amazing people who stepped up, opened the hall, and everyone was coming in, and they started doing Friday night dinners and everyone was there. There were 200-odd people every Friday night and then COVID ended it.

Via online community consultations, interviews and focus groups, we asked community members to identify strengths that supported recovery and opportunities for change.

We also surveyed 614 people during October 2020 in fire-affected regions of Victoria and New South Wales, with 31% of respondents coming from Victoria and 69% from NSW.

When asked what strengths their community showed following the bushfires, they included generosity and kindness (69%), resilience (61%) and active volunteering (59%).


Growing the seeds report., Author provided

When asked to identify the main challenges since the bushfire, COVID was named as the main challenge (49%), followed by damage to the environment (39%), anxiety (31%) and overall fatigue (26%).


Growing the seeds report., Author provided

The combination of bushfires and the pandemic also created economic risks and disrupted supply chains. Small businesses make up 98% of the local economy, and many are heavily reliant on tourism.

Recovering through community strength and capability

Many of the strengths needed to drive recovery and resilience are already at the heart of these communities. These capabilities are more diverse and widespread than is often assumed.

There is considerable wealth and capacity in some areas, but also a high level of social and economic vulnerability, with some living hand-to-mouth.

There is significant local knowledge of risk management and recovery, which is often overlooked by experts coming in from outside. As one person told us:

You’ve got bureaucracy coming in from Melbourne who think that we’re just a bunch of country bumpkins who don’t quite know what we’re doing, yet we know our community better than they do.

Volunteer and informal economies are significant and underpin community resilience. Yet formal recovery strategies don’t target these areas very well; some people in the informal economy found they did not qualify for economic or business support at all.

The JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs helped maintain employment (albeit at levels of productivity that were lower than in the past). JobKeeper has now ended but support is still needed to boost productivity and help the local economy recover.

We also found:

  • government and some supporting agencies often lacked knowledge about the cultural, physical and social structures of different communities
  • some policies had perverse effects (for example, the HomeBuilder grant resulted in a lack of available builders)
  • programs and communication were often not tailored and did not accommodate the diverse needs of communities or specific cohorts within them
  • a lack of clarity as to what role the community have in response and recovery, and what risks they are responsible for
  • short-term allocation of resources and funding sometimes created an environment of uncertainty; for example, some participants raised concerns vulnerable community members may at risk when contracts for certain programs ran out, as the service offered would either cease or be led by a new contract-holder. As one person told us:

You can’t just bring someone in now and go, ‘Here you go, you take over all my people’, because the relationships and the trust that you build over this time, it’s not something you can hand over to someone else.

Knowing community strengths and supporting them

Recovery processes will never be perfect and we can also no longer assume communities will have time to recover from one disaster before the next arrives. As one person said:

People are suffering collective trauma, which creates anxiety and irritability. So, it is going to be difficult to move forward and I believe [name removed] will be a really changed place, this is something that will echo up and down along all fire-ravaged communities.

In natural hazard prone areas like Gippsland, it’s crucial to know what strengths already exist in the community so they can be harnessed when disaster hits. In other words, we need to find ways to support and grow community capabilities.

Listening to communities

It’s crucial communities, governments and the emergency services have a shared understanding of what the priorities are after a disaster and what can be realistically achieved.

A database of community capabilities would support more effective planning, policy-making and program development, as would a longer term collaborative project to identify and develop community capability.

Through listening to these communities we can learn from their experiences and support the development of community-led pathways to recovery.




Read more:
More than a decade after the Black Saturday fires, it’s time we got serious about long-term disaster recovery planning


If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone
you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.
The Conversation

Celeste Young, Collaborative Research Fellow, Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities (ISILC), Victoria University and Roger Jones, Professorial Research Fellow, Victoria University

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

We’re all ingesting microplastics at home, and these might be toxic for our health. Here are some tips to reduce your risk


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Mark Patrick Taylor, Macquarie University; Neda Sharifi Soltani, Macquarie University, and Scott P. Wilson, Macquarie UniversityAustralians are eating and inhaling significant numbers of tiny plastics at home, our new research shows.

These “microplastics”, which are derived from petrochemicals extracted from oil and gas products, are settling in dust around the house.

Some of these particles are toxic to humans — they can carry carcinogenic or mutagenic chemicals, meaning they potentially cause cancer and/or damage our DNA.

We still don’t know the true impact of these microplastics on human health. But the good news is, having hard floors, using more natural fibres in clothing, furnishings and homewares, along with vacuuming at least weekly can reduce your exposure.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are plastic particles less than five millimetres across. They come from a range of household and everyday items such as the clothes we wear, home furnishings, and food and beverage packaging.

We know microplastics are pervasive outdoors, reaching remote and inaccessible locations such as the Arctic, the Mariana Trench (the world’s deepest ocean trench), and the Italian Alps.

Our study demonstrates it’s an inescapable reality that we’re living in a sea of microplastics — they’re in our food and drinks, our oceans, and our homes.




Read more:
We estimate up to 14 million tonnes of microplastics lie on the seafloor. It’s worse than we thought


What we did and what we found

While research has focused mainly on microplastics in the natural environment, a handful of studies have looked at how much we’re exposed to indoors.

People spend up to 90% of their time indoors and therefore the greatest risk of exposure to microplastics is in the home.

Our study is the first to examine how much microplastic we’re exposed to in Australian homes. We analysed dust deposited from indoor air in 32 homes across Sydney over a one-month period in 2019.

We asked members of the public to collect dust in specially prepared glass dishes, which we then analysed.

A graphic showing how microplastics suspended in a home
Here’s how microplastics can be generated, suspended, ingested and inhaled inside a house.
Monique Chilton, Author provided

We found 39% of the deposited dust particles were microplastics; 42% were natural fibres such as cotton, hair and wool; and 18% were transformed natural-based fibres such as viscose and cellophane. The remaining 1% were film and fragments consisting of various materials.

Between 22 and 6,169 microfibres were deposited as dust per square metre, each day.

Homes with carpet as the main floor covering had nearly double the number of petrochemical-based fibres (including polyethylene, polyamide and polyacrylic) than homes without carpeted floors.

Conversely, polyvinyl fibres (synthetic fibres made of vinyl chloride) were two times more prevalent in homes without carpet. This is because the coating applied to hard flooring degrades over time, producing polyvinyl fibres in house dust.

Microplastics can be toxic

Microplastics can carry a range of contaminants such as trace metals and some potentially harmful organic chemicals.

These chemicals can leach from the plastic surface once in the body, increasing the potential for toxic effects. Microplastics can have carcinogenic properties, meaning they potentially cause cancer. They can also be mutagenic, meaning they can damage DNA.




Read more:
Why ocean pollution is a clear danger to human health


However, even though some of the microplastics measured in our study are composed of potentially carcinogenic and/or mutagenic compounds, the actual risk to human health is unclear.

Given the pervasiveness of microplastics not only in homes but in food and beverages, the crucial next step in this research area is to establish what, if any, are safe levels of exposure.




Read more:
You’re eating microplastics in ways you don’t even realise


How much are we exposed to? And can this be minimised?

Roughly a quarter of all of the fibres we recorded were less than 250 micrometres in size, meaning they can be inhaled. This means we can be internally exposed to these microplastics and any contaminants attached to them.

Using human exposure models, we calculated that inhalation and ingestion rates were greatest in children under six years old. This is due to their lower relative body weight, smaller size, and higher breathing rate than adults. What’s more, young children typically have more contact with the floor, and tend to put their hands in their mouths more often than adults.

Small bits of plastic floating in the sea
Microplastics are found not only in the sea, but in our food, beverages, and our homes.
Shutterstock

Children under six inhale around three times more microplastics than the average — 18,000 fibres, or 0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per year. They would also ingest on average 6.1 milligrams of microplastics in dust per kg of body weight per year.

For a five-year-old, this would be equivalent to eating a garden pea’s worth of microplastics over the course of a year. But for many of these plastics there is no established safe level of exposure.

Our study indicated there are effective ways to minimise exposure.

First is the choice of flooring, with hard surfaces, including polished wood floors, likely to have fewer microplastics than carpeted floors.

Also, how often you clean makes a difference. Vacuuming floors at least weekly was associated with less microplastics in dust than those that were less frequently cleaned. So get cleaning!The Conversation

Mark Patrick Taylor, Professor of Environmental Science and Human Health, Macquarie University; Neda Sharifi Soltani, Academic Casual, Macquarie University, and Scott P. Wilson, , Macquarie University

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

Next time you see a butterfly, treasure the memory: scientists raise alarm on these 26 species


The bulloak jewel (Hypochrysops piceatus)
Michael Braby, Author provided

Michael F. Braby, Australian National University; Hayley Geyle, Charles Darwin University; Jaana Dielenberg, Charles Darwin University; Phillip John Bell, University of Tasmania; Richard V Glatz; Roger Kitching, Griffith University, and Tim R New, La Trobe UniversityIt might sound like an 18th century fashion statement, but the “pale imperial hairstreak” is, actually, an extravagant butterfly. This pale blue (male) or white (female) butterfly was once widespread, found in old growth brigalow woodlands that covered 14 million hectares across Queensland and News South Wales.

But since the 1950s, over 90% of brigalow woodlands have been cleared, and much of the remainder is in small degraded and weed infested patches. And with it, the butterfly numbers have dropped dramatically.

In fact, our new study has found it has a 42% chance of extinction within 20 years.

It isn’t alone. Our team of 28 scientists identified the top 26 Australian butterfly species and subspecies at greatest risk of extinction. We also estimated the probability that they will be lost within 20-years.


Author provided, Author provided

Without concerted new conservation effort, we’ll not only lose unique elements of Australia’s nature, but also the important ecosystem services these butterflies provide, such as pollination.

Only six are protected under law

We are now sounding the alarm as most species identified as at risk have little or no management underway to conserve them, and only six of the 26 butterflies identified are currently listed for protection under Australian law.

The Ptunarra Xenica is one of three at risk butterflies identified in Tasmania.
Simon Grove/Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

The good news is there’s still a very good chance of recovery for most of these species, but only with new targeted conservation effort, such as protecting habitat from clearing and weeds, better fire management and establishing more of the right caterpillar food plants.

Let’s meet a few at-risk butterflies

The butterflies identified are delightful and fascinating creatures, with intriguing lifecycles, including fussy food preferences, subterranean accommodation and intimate relationships with “servant” ants.

The Australian fritillary

Our most imperilled butterfly is the Australian fritillary, with a 94% chance of extinction within 20 years. Like many of our butterfly species, a major threat facing the fritillary is habitat loss and habitat change.

The swamps where the fritillary occur have been drained for farming and urbanisation. At remaining swamps, weeds smother the native violets the larvae depend on for food.

This is one of the last known photos of the Australian fritillary. If you see a fritillary, immediately contact the NSW Department of Planning Industry and Environment.
Garry Sankowsky

No one has managed to collect or take a photo of a fritillary in two decades, although a butterfly expert observed a single individual flying near Port Macquarie in 2015.

It might already be extinct, but as it was once quite widespread at swampy areas along 700 kilometres of coastal Queensland and NSW, we have hope there are still some out there.

The fritillary has impressive jet black caterpillars with a vibrant orange racing stripe and large spikes along their back, which transform into stunning orange and black butterflies.

Black caterpillar
Australian fritillary caterpillars are black with a distinctive orange stripe and spikes.
Garry Sankowsky

Anyone who thinks they have seen a fritillary should record the location, try to photograph it and the site and immediately contact the NSW Department of Planning Industry and Environment.

The fritillary is among many butterflies with specific diets. And these preferences can make species vulnerable to environmental changes such as vegetation clearing, weed invasions and fires.




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Photos from the field: zooming in on Australia’s hidden world of exquisite mites, snails and beetles


The small bronze azure

Caterpillars of the small bronze azure — found on Kangaroo Island (and a few other patches in South Australia and Victoria) — only eat common sourbush.

Following the extensive 2020 fires, the butterfly hasn’t been found in areas where the sourbush burnt. Luckily, it’s been found in small patches of unburnt vegetation, so for now it’s hanging in there.

The small bronze azure has not been re-found in parts of Kangaroo Island where common sourbush burnt in the January 2020 fires.
Richard Glatz

Like many butterflies, the lifecycle of the small bronze azure is enmeshed with a specific species of ant.

By day the butterfly larvae shelter underground in sugar ant (Camponotus terebrans) nests, then at night they’re escorted up by the ants to feed on the sourbush. For their care the ants are rewarded by a sugary secretion the caterpillars produce.

The eastern bronze azure

Some relationships with ants are even more unusual. Kangaroo Island’s other imperilled species — the eastern bronze azure — stays underground in sugar ant nests for 11 straight months. We don’t yet know what they eat.

Grey butterfly on a rock
An eastern bronze azure (Ogyris halmaturia) on Kangaroo Island. Their colouring is excellent camouflage on branches.
Michael Braby

In a macabre twist, they may be eating their hosts — the ants or the ant larvae. So why the ants carry them down and look after them is also a mystery.

It might be for sugary secretions, like with the small bronze azure, but the caterpillars could also be using chemical trickery, mimicking the scent of ant larvae to fool the ants.

Adults of the eastern bronze azure emerge only to flutter about for a few weeks in November, so at the time of the Kangaroo Island fires in January the entire population was safely underground in ant nests. And as the larvae don’t come up to feed on plants, they weren’t impacted by the loss of vegetation.

Orange and black butterfly on a green leaf
This is the black grass-dart, found near Coffs Harbour. The caterpillars eat Floyd’s grass (Alexfloydia repens) which is listed as endangered in NSW.
Mick Andren

It’s not too late to save them

By raising awareness of these butterflies and the risks they face, we aim to give governments, conservation groups and the community time to act to prevent their extinctions.

Local landowners and Landcare groups have already been playing a valuable role in recovery actions for several species, such as planting the right food plants for the Australian fritillary around Port Macquarie, and for the Bathurst copper.

Brown and green butterfly on a log
The Bathurst copper in NSW is benefiting from community planting of its food plant sweet bursaria.
Tessa Barratt

Indeed, most of the identified at-risk species occur across a mix of land types, including conservation, public and private land. In most cases, conservation reserves alone aren’t enough to ensure the long-term survival of the species.

Many landowners don’t realise they’re important custodians of such rare and threatened butterflies, and how important it is not to clear remaining patches of remnant native vegetation on their properties and adjoining road reserves.

People wanting to learn more about the butterfly species near them can use the free Butterflies Australia app to look up photos and information. You can also be a citizen scientist by recording and uploading sightings on the app.




Read more:
Curious Kids: Do butterflies remember being caterpillars?


The Conversation


Michael F. Braby, Associate Professor, Australian National University; Hayley Geyle, Research Assistant, Charles Darwin University; Jaana Dielenberg, University Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Phillip John Bell, University Associate, School of Natural Sciences, University of Tasmania; Richard V Glatz, Associate research scientist; Roger Kitching, Emeritus Professor, Griffith University, and Tim R New, Retired: Emeritus Professor in Zoology, La Trobe University

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

Meet 5 of Australia’s tiniest mammals, who tread a tightrope between life and death every night


Andrew Baker, Queensland University of TechnologyAustralia has a rich diversity of mammals, with around 320 native, land-based species, 87% of which are found here and nowhere else. Many of these mammals are secretive, only active at night, and small, weighing less than one kilogram.

Mammals are “endotherms”, which means they must generate their own heat and maintain the temperature within a narrow range. This requires a lot of food.

For small mammals, which have a high surface area to volume ratio, the energetic cost is even higher. This makes them particularly prone to heat gain and loss, putting them in peril every night.

The silver-headed antechinus, which weighs up to the equivalent of six $1 coins.
Gary Cranitch/QueenslandMuseum, Author provided

So how on earth do they cope?

Well, there are some advantages to being small. It’s harder to be seen by predators, and there are more places to hide. If the soil type is right, there’s no shortage of cracks and holes to slip into.

Such habitats not only keep small mammals concealed from predators during the day and parts of the night, but the temperature and humidity is also more stable underground, which means they expend less energy in maintaining body temperature.

To further conserve energy, many small mammals will also enter “torpor” — an inactive period that slows down their energy-burning metabolism. Torpor is like a mini hibernation that typically lasts for hours, rather than days.

A long-tailed planigale feasting on a grasshopper. In the corner, you can see it sitting on scientist Euan Ritchie’s finger for scale.
Euan Ritchie

For small mammals — prone to losing heat and needing to catch and eat up to half their body weight in food each night — having some periods of down-time during energy-conserving torpor can mean the difference between life and death.

In addition to the nightly challenge of finding enough food to maintain a stable body temperature, keep a complex brain functioning and have enough energy to move up to several kilometres, Australia’s small mammals face a host of human-caused threats. These include habitat clearing, climate change and feral predators.

The combined pressures have too often proven insurmountable. With 34 species lost forever, Australia has the worst modern-day mammal extinction record of any country on Earth.

So how can we turn this appalling situation around?

First, we humans must appreciate these unique animals and decide they need to be saved. That requires knowledge and understanding, so let’s get to know some of these mysterious mammals a little better.

1. Long-tailed planigale (Planigale ingrami)

Weight: 2.6-6.6 grams (up to two 10c coins)

Can you imagine a mammal that can weigh less than a ten-cent piece yet leaps five times its own height to bring down prey far larger than itself with persistent, savage biting to the head and neck?

This is the long-tailed planigale, the smallest Australian marsupial and one of the world’s smallest mammals.

Long-tailed planigale
Long-tailed planigales may be tiny, but they’re ferocious predators.
Anders Zimney, Author provided

They are ferocious predators, and anything that can be subdued is viciously attacked, including large centipedes, spiders, insects, small lizards, and even other small mammals.

They live in narrow crevices of cracking clays in blacksoil plains and move below and above the surface at night in search of food. Here, they run the risk of being eaten by predators, such as owls and feral cats.




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The conversion of grassland to agriculture and cattle grazing causes the soil to become compacted, which also poses a threat to this species.

2. Little forest-bat (Vespadelus vulturnus)

Weight: 2.6-5.5 grams (up to two 10c coins)

The little forest-bat is a denizen of various forest types found throughout southeastern Australia.

Its activity depends on temperature — in some parts of southern Australia, during cold periods, individuals may not emerge from roosts for several weeks.

Profile of the little forest-bat
When it’s cold, the little forest-bat won’t emerge from roosts.
Chris Lindorff CC-BY

This species feeds exclusively on flying insects, including moths and mosquitoes.

And they’re not considered threatened — unlike most Australian mammals, they appear to be tolerant of disturbance and will utilise agricultural or urban landscapes if no woodland habitat is available.

3. Eastern pebble-mouse (Pseudomys patrius)

Weight: 10-19 grams (up to seven 10c coins)

This is one of four species of tiny native mice that construct mounds of pebbles that comprise conical, volcano-like ramparts built around burrow entrances. This is unique behaviour among the world’s mammals.

The pebble mounds can be large, weighing more than 50 kilograms and encompassing 10 square metres — astonishing constructions given the architects weigh as little as 10 grams!

Eastern pebble mouse with a pebble in its mouth
Mouse-built pebble mounds can weigh more than 50kg.
Anders Zimny, Author provided

Mounds are energetically expensive to build. They are a critical limiting resource for eastern pebble-mice because females raise their litters in the mounds and their female offspring tend to disperse only as far as the next available mound. Some mounds may even remain in use for centuries, re-used by successive generations.

The erosion of hills and spread of dune fields in arid Australia are reducing the distributions of pebble-mice.

4. Mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus)

Weight: 30-82 grams (up to nine $1 coins)

The famously adorable mountain pygmy possum is the only Australian mammal limited to alpine and sub-alpine regions, where snow covers the ground for up to six months of the year.

The possums may move more than one kilometre each night in search of food, which includes seeds, fruits, spiders and insects. They have a preference for Bogong moths (Agrotis infusa).

They double their body weight prior to hibernation, which lasts between five and seven months. During this time, their body temperatures may drop down to 2℃ for up to 20 days at a time.

This species is endangered, and there may be as few as several thousand individuals in total across three isolated populations.




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Looks like an ANZAC biscuit, tastes like a protein bar: Bogong Bikkies help mountain pygmy-possums after fire


Their biggest threats include droughts due to climate change, predation by feral cats and foxes, and habitat destruction, particularly after the devastating 2019-20 bushfires razed 15% of the species’ range.

5. Silver-headed antechinus (Antechinus argentus)

Weight: 16-52 grams (up to six $1 coins)

The 15 species in the genus Antechinus are “suicidal reproducers”. All males drop dead at the end of the breeding season, poisoned by their own raging hormones.

This is because the stress hormone cortisol rises during the two-week breeding period. At the same time, surging testosterone from the super-sized testes in males causes a failure in the biological switch that turns off the cortisol. The flood of unbound cortisol results in systemic organ failure and the inevitable death of every male.

But this happens only after they’ve unloaded their precious cargo of sperm, mating with as many promiscuous females as possible in marathon sessions lasting up to 14 hours.

Profile of the silver-headed antechinus
Antechinus species are famous for their marathon breeding sessions.
Gary Cranitch/Queensland Museum, Author provided

Silver-headed antechinuses are found only patchily in a few isolated populations of high-altitude wet forest in mid-eastern Australia. They eat mostly insects and spiders and are likely preyed upon by owls and feral cats.

The silver-headed antechinus is endangered and threatened by climate change. The species lost almost one-third of its core habitat in the 2019-20 megafires.

Yet, torpor can assist here as well, even after such extreme events. Antechinuses (and other small mammals) are known to use torpor more often after fire, when food is scarce and the risk of predation is higher, as there are fewer places to hide in a scorched landscape.




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Animal response to a bushfire is astounding. These are the tricks they use to survive


The Conversation


Andrew Baker, Senior Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology

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

Tiny Game of Thrones: the workers of yellow crazy ants can act like lazy wannabe queens. So we watched them fight


Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Pauline Lenancker, James Cook University and Lori Lach, James Cook UniversityThe invasive ant world is a competitive one, rife with territorial battles and colony raids. And yellow crazy ants (Anoplolepis gracilipes), one of the world’s worst invasive species, have an especially interesting trait: they’re the only invasive ant known to have workers who can reproduce.

Worker reproduction has big implications for a colony’s social dynamic. So we observed and experimented with more than 200 captive colonies of yellow crazy ants to understand what triggers worker reproduction and the potential costs and benefits for the colony.

We used a range of techniques, including removing queens and observing worker behaviour, and setting up ant gladiator rings to test how well reproductive workers fought other ants.

It wasn’t just for fun — learning about ants’ basic biology, including reproduction, may allow us to better understand their success and tailor management programs to help save the ecosystems they threaten.

Life in the queendom

Yellow crazy ants are thought to originate in southern or southeastern Asia but have spread across much of the Indo-Pacific, including several locations in Australia. They’re most well known for the cascade of ecological effects they’ve caused on Christmas Island by killing red land crabs and contributing to the damage, such as tree die-back, caused by scale insects.

Attempts to control or locally eradicate them are ongoing on Christmas Island, in Arnhem Land, and several locations in Queensland, including in and around the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

Yellow crazy ants, accidentally introduced by cargo ships, and subsequently multiplying to number in the billions, threaten the yearly crab migration on Christmas Island.

Like honey bees and wasps, yellow crazy ants are social insects. In these colonies, queens, workers and males all play distinct roles.

Queens and workers are all females. The queens reproduce, while the aptly named workers are the colony’s labourers, primarily responsible for bringing in food, caring for the queens’ offspring and defending the colony. The sole role of males is to mate with a queen before dying.

This elaborate task division is thought key to the success of social insects. However, in yellow crazy ant colonies, workers challenge the reproductive monopoly of the queen and produce males.

We could differentiate workers with active ovaries from regular workers by looking at their abdomen, which would be oversized as eggs take up space in the larger workers’ abdomen.

Five yellow crazy ants, four of which have large abdomens
In this picture, the worker ant on the far right has a regular-sized abdomen while the other workers have abdomen that looks swollen.
Dr Peter Yeeles, Author provided

When the queen was present, typically less than 20% of workers in our captive colonies had oversized abdomens. When we removed the queen, as much as half of the workers became oversized. We returned the queen after two months, and found the number of oversized workers decreased.

Our findings are consistent with the idea queens inhibit worker reproduction through pheromones, one of many chemical signals in ant colonies influencing ant worker behaviour and colony dynamics. Indeed, an ant queen’s failure to “smell” fertile may leave her subject to eviction or execution.

More lazy than crazy

So, did our yellow crazy ant queen wannabes behave more like workers or royalty? Our observations of oversized and normal workers revealed stark differences in behaviour.

Regular workers foraged during 85% of observations, whereas oversized workers were seen looking for food in only 5% of observations. Most of the time, oversized workers were immobile and remained sheltered inside their nests.

Three yellow crazy ants
Regular-sized workers are territorial and aggressive.
Peter Yeeles, Author provided

These oversized workers are slow to move when the nests are disturbed, not displaying the fast, erratic movement for which the species is named. Their behaviour was more similar to queens than workers.

Colony and resource defence is another important task for workers, as yellow crazy ant colonies often compete with native ants.

To test how these sluggish workers compare to normal workers in colony defence, we placed three oversized workers in one container, three regular workers in another, and paired each group with one gladiator, the charismatic green tree ant.

Green tree ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) are native and known for being very aggressive and territorial.

Our two videos show the typical response of oversized and regular workers.

In the first video, each encounter between a yellow crazy ant and green tree ant ends with the green tree ant rapidly retreating, often after having her legs bitten and pulled by the yellow crazy ant.

In the second video, you can see how oversized workers were more sedentary, less aggressive and less likely to start fighting with the green tree ant than normal workers in the first video. They were also less likely to kill their oppon-ant.

It seems oversized workers are lazy and would be ineffective at defending the colony. So why do they occur at all?

Like walking vending machines

Generally, ant colonies need workers to function and only the queen can produce this caste. In the ant world, the death of the queen signifies the death of the colony.

However, if the queen dies after laying eggs, including one destined to become a queen, then the virgin queen who eventually emerges can mate with a worker-produced male. This is important because males are unlikely to be present unless the colony is very large.

So while workers lack organs for receiving and storing sperm, their ability to produce males asexually may extend the life of the colony.

What’s more, oversized workers can produce sterile eggs as well, which serve as food for the queen and other colony members. We believe these workers may be like walking vending machines within the colony, providing food when conditions aren’t suitable for foraging.

A male yellow crazy ant with one female eye and one male eye.
A male yellow crazy ant with one female eye and one male eye.
Pauline Lenancker, Author provided

We also found males with mismatched eyes. These odd-looking individuals may possess a female eye on one side and a smaller male eye on the other side.

Such individuals are potentially sex mosaics, with male and female genes spread across their body in patches. Whether these individuals function as normal males is a question for further research.

What’s next?

Researchers don’t know the full story of yellow crazy ant reproduction, but it’s likely to be highly complex and potentially unique. Our study contributes to solving this mystery.

Eradication and control programs for yellow crazy ants will benefit from understanding their reproductive system and behaviour. It can shed light on how even a few workers and eggs — who may be inadvertently moved around by humans or persist after control treatment — could eventually build into large numbers.

Likewise, understanding foraging behaviour is useful for planning insecticidal baiting, because effective baiting relies on foraging ants bringing bait back to the colony to share with queens and larvae.

We have no doubt future genetic work and experiments will shed further light on the fascinating reproductive biology of yellow crazy ants.




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The Conversation


Pauline Lenancker, Research scientist, James Cook University and Lori Lach, Associate Professor, James Cook University

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

More people die in winter than summer, but climate change may see this reverse


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Ivan Charles Hanigan, University of Sydney; Alistair Woodward, University of Auckland, and Keith DearClimate change not only poses enormous dangers to the planet, but also harms human health. In our study published today, we show some of the first evidence climate change has had observable impacts on Australians’ health between 1968 and 2018.

We found long-term heating is associated with changed seasonal balance of deaths in Australia, with relatively more deaths in summer months and relatively fewer deaths in winter months over recent decades.

Our findings can be explained by the gradual global warming associated with climate change. Over the 51 years of our study, annual average temperatures increased by more than 1°C in Australia. The last decade (2011 to 2020) was the hottest in the country’s recorded history.

If we continue on this trajectory, we’re likely to see many more climate-related deaths in the years to come.

What we did and found

Using the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and other sources, we gathered mortality data for people aged 55 and over between 1968 and 2018. We then looked at deaths in summer compared to winter in each year.

We found that in 1968 there were approximately 73 deaths in summer for every 100 deaths in winter. By 2018, this had risen to roughly 83 deaths in summer for every 100 deaths in winter.

The same trend, albeit of varying strength, was evident in all states of Australia, among all age groups over 55, in females and males, and in the three broad causes of death we looked at (respiratory, heart and renal diseases).

Elderly woman coughing with blanket over her
Historically, winter death rates have tended to be higher than in summer. But this is changing as our planet warms.
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Hot and cold weather can have a variety of direct and indirect effects on our health. Winter death rates generally exceed those in summer months because infectious diseases, like influenza, tend to circulate more in winter. Meanwhile, heat stress can exacerbate chronic health conditions including heart disease and kidney disease, particularly for older adults.

But the gap between cold-related deaths and heat-related deaths appears to be narrowing. And when we compared deaths in the hottest summers with the coldest winters, we found particularly warm years increase the likelihood of seasonal mortality ratios approaching 1 to 1 (meaning equal deaths in summer and winter).

With summers expected to become hotter, we believe this is an early indication of the effects of climate change in the future.




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Our research is unique

Globally, our study is one of very few that directly shows the health impacts of climate change. Most other studies examine the effects of past weather or climate conditions on health and extrapolate these into the future based on projected climate change scenarios, with associated uncertainties. For example, demographic characteristics of the population are likely to change over time.

Climate change occurs slowly, so typically, we need at least 30–50 years of records to accurately show how climate change is affecting health. Suitable health information is seldom available for such periods due to a variety of challenges in collecting electronic health data (especially in low- and middle-income countries).

Further, long-term health trends can be influenced by numerous non-climate related factors, such as improvements in health care.

In our study, we used Australian mortality records that have been collected with remarkable consistency of detail and quality over the last half century. And by focusing on the ratio of summer to winter deaths within each year, we avoid possible confounding associated with, say, improvements to health care.




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However, we were unable to consider some issues such as the different climate trends in small areas within each state/territory, or the effects of changing temperatures on different occupation groups, such as construction workers.

Our data also don’t allow us to account for the possible effects of people’s adaptation to warmer temperatures in the future.

Dry, cracked riverbed
Summer deaths will almost certainly increase in the years to come.
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Looking ahead

The changing ratio of summer to winter deaths has previously been identified as a possible warning sign of the impact of climate change on human health.

In one study on the topic, the authors found Australia may initially experience a net reduction in temperature-related deaths. That is, increased deaths from heat during summer would be offset by fewer deaths in winter, as winters become more mild.

However, they predict this pattern would reverse by mid-century under the business-as-usual emissions scenario, with increases in heat-related deaths outweighing decreases in cold-related deaths over the long term.

Our findings support these worrying predictions. If warming trends continue, it’s almost certain summer deaths will increase, and come to dominate the burden of temperature-related deaths in Australia.

We found the speed of change in the ratio of summer to winter deaths was fastest in the hottest years within each decade. This strengthens our conclusion we’re observing an effect of long-term climate change.




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Besides helping to answer the question, “does climate change affect human health?”, we believe our findings should inform planning for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The implications are considerable for the planning of hospital services and provision of health care, as well as for emergency services, housing, energy supply, holiday periods and bushfire disaster preparedness.The Conversation

Ivan Charles Hanigan, Data Scientist (Epidemiology), University of Sydney; Alistair Woodward, Professor, School of Population Health, University of Auckland, and Keith Dear, Adjunct Professor of Public Health

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

This $1 billion energy deal promises to cut emissions and secure jobs. So why on earth is gas included?


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Samantha Hepburn, Deakin UniversityIn case you missed it, a major A$1 billion energy deal between the Morrison and the South Australian government was revealed recently.

The bilateral deal represents a key driver for the national economic recovery from COVID. It promises to provide jobs in the energy sector and contribute to South Australia achieving net 100% renewables by 2030.

But there’s a big caveat: the agreement involves a joint commitment to accelerate new gas supplies into the east coast market.

With so much money on the table and other nations recently doubling down on climate commitments, let’s look at the good and bad bits of this landmark deal in more detail.

A gas-led economic recovery

The agreement was announced ahead of US President Joe Biden’s climate summit last week, which saw Australia spruik technology growth to cut emissions instead of committing to new climate targets.

In total, the federal government will contribute A$660 million and the South Australian government A$422 million towards the new deal.

Both governments have also agreed to a gas target of an additional 50 petajoules of energy per year by the end of 2023, and 80 petajoules by 2030. Their rationale is the need to improve energy security and reliability.

This focus on gas in the agreement stems from the federal government’s much-criticised, gas-led economic recovery plan, which argues new gas supplies are vital for future energy security.




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In February, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission outlined a potential shortfall of 30 petajoules of gas for the east-coast market leading up to 2024. This shortfall could impact energy supply, and the federal government has used this to help justify opening new gas reserves.

However, nothing is certain — COVID has reduced global demand for gas so any shortfall will likely be deferred. Meanwhile, renewable technology and hydrogen production and use are rapidly advancing.

Bad: investing in gas

With the seismic shift in the economics of renewables over the past decade, investing in new gas supply is unnecessary and retrograde. In fact, it’s now more expensive to transition from coal to gas than from coal to renewables.




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For example, the cost of lithium ion batteries used for battery storage has fallen over the past decade by nearly 90%. But the cost of gas — both economically and environmentally — has steadily risen. This inevitably means means its role in the energy market will diminish.

Eventually, gas generators will be retired without replacement. Victoria’s March quarter data, for example, shows black coal generation volumes dropped by 9.5% and gas generation dropped by 43%. Meanwhile, rooftop solar went up 25%, utility solar up by 40% and wind power by 24%.

Solar farm in the desert at sunset
Up to $110 million will be spent on solar thermal and other storage projects in South Australia.
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And at the end of the day, gas is still a fossil fuel. There are approximately 22 major gas production and export projects proposed for Australia. A report from The Australia Institute in September 2020 suggested that, if produced, these projects could lead to about half a billion tonnes of emissions.

If all potential gas resources in Australia were tapped, the report indicates it could result in emissions equivalent to three times the current annual global emissions.

Good: investing in critical infrastructure

The energy deal sets aside $50 million towards the new $1.5 billion electricity interconnector between South Australia and NSW. This is critical infrastructure that will allow South Australia, Victoria and NSW to share energy reserves.

Indeed, the Australian Energy Market Operator has reported in excess of 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects near the proposed interconnector. This means South Australian wind and solar could contribute more significantly to electricity generation in both Victoria and NSW.

In turn, this will have a positive effect on pricing. Forecasts suggest the proposed new interconnector could reduce power bills by up to $66 a year in South Australia and $30 in NSW.

The energy deal also reserves funding for “investment priority areas”, which include carbon capture storage, electric vehicles and hydrogen. For example, $110 million is allocated for energy storage projects. This level of funding will help develop a world-class hydrogen export industry in South Australia.

The verdict

The energy deal is a funding win for renewable energy and technology, with energy technology advancing much faster than anticipated. However, its focus on gas is environmentally and economically regressive.

It’s completely inconsistent with the powerful climate plan announced by the Joe Biden administration at the Climate Summit last week, which includes a pause and review of oil and gas drilling on US federal land and doubling energy production from offshore windfarms by 2030.




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In March, the European Union’s parliament voted in favour of a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. This will impose a tariff on products being sold into the EU according to the amount of carbon involved in making them. The Biden administration in the US has announced a similar plan.

What’s more, the European Union and the US, as outlined at the recent Climate Summit, are planning to impose fees or quotas on goods from countries failing to meet their climate and environmental obligations. This may mean Australian manufacturers will end up paying for the governments failure to take rapid action to drive down emissions.

Bilateral agreements provide critical planning and funding for Australia’s energy progression. However, they should not prolong the use of fossil fuels under the guise of energy security. To do so undermines global climate change imperatives and hinders Australia’s progress in a new energy era.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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

Spot the difference: as world leaders rose to the occasion at the Biden climate summit, Morrison faltered


Lesley Hughes, Macquarie University and Will Steffen, Australian National UniversityPrime Minister Scott Morrison overnight addressed a much anticipated virtual climate summit convened by US President Joe Biden, claiming future generations “will thank us not for what we have promised, but what we deliver”.

But what will his government actually deliver?

Morrison’s speech was notable for its stark lack of ambition and a defensive tone at odds with the urgent, front-footed approach of other world leaders. He resisted the peer pressure to enter the global fold on climate action by setting clear goals, saying Australia made only “bankable” emissions-reduction commitments.

Morrison instead pointed to Australia’s “transformative technology targets”. As we will explain below, those targets are small, vague and certainly not “bankable”. And the spending commitments pale in comparison to the past and future cost of extreme weather in Australia.

Expectations of Australia heading into the summit were low – a fact perhaps reflected in the summit’s agenda. Morrison’s address was way down in the running order – he was 21st of 27 speakers. Biden was reportedly not in the room when Morrison spoke. And in an unfortunate glitch, Morrison’s microphone was on mute at the start of his speech.

The summit did deliver some major gains. There was palpable relief as Biden brought the US back to the table on global climate efforts, committing to an emissions-reduction target twice the ambition of Australia’s. Other nations including Japan, Canada and Britain also outlined major new commitments.

But sadly for Australians, the summit revealed the stark contrast in climate policy leadership between Morrison and his international peers.

Scott Morrison in front of Sydney harbour backdrop and Australian flags
The contrast on climate policy leadership between Scott Morrison and Joe Biden was on display at the summit.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

The world steps up

Biden opened the summit by emphasising the urgent need to keep global warming below 1.5℃ This century. Failing to do so, he said, would bring:

More frequent and intense fires, floods, droughts, heat waves, and hurricanes tearing through communities, ripping away lives and livelihoods, increasingly dire impacts to our public health […] We can’t resign ourselves to that future. We have to take action, all of us.

Biden committed the US to a 50-52% emissions reduction by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. Other notable emissions-reduction pledges included:

There were hopes Morrison would use the summit to announce Australia would finally join more than 100 countries to set an emissions target of net-zero by 2050. (Australia’s current emissions trajectory has us on track to get to net-zero in the year 2167).

But Morrison dashed those hopes early, telling world leaders: “For Australia, it is not a question of if or even by when for net-zero, but importantly how”.

He pointed to the government’s Technology Investment Roadmap, including A$20 billion to bring down the cost of clean hydrogen, green steel, energy storage and carbon capture. He also spoke of a goal to produce clean hydrogen for A$2 a kilogram, and his dream that Australia’s hydrogen industry would one day rival the scale of California’s Silicon Valley.




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Homes with solar panels on roof
Morrison spruiked Australia’s high uptake of rooftop solar.
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Will technology save us? Not likely

Earlier this week, Morrison set the scene for his address by announcing a suite of technology funding commitments. Let’s take a closer look at them.

On Wednesday Morrison announced A$540 million for regional hydrogen hubs and carbon-capture and storage (CCS) projects. Some A$275 million will be committed to seven hydrogen hubs in regional areas over five years – that’s about A$7.8 million per hub each year.

It’s hard to see this buying much more than a plan on a piece of paper. Further, there’s little detail on how much will be spent on clean vs dirty hydrogen – that is, hydrogen generated from renewables vs fossil fuels. However the proposed location of some of these hubs in fossil-fuel rich areas, such as the Latrobe Valley and Hunter Valley, does not bode well.

A further A$263.7 million over ten years will fund CCS projects. Since 2003, the Australian government has spent more than A$1 billion on CCS projects, with very little to show for it.

Globally, CCS has been criticised as unproven and expensive, simply designed to extend the life of fossil fuel industries.




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trucks carry coal through mine
CCS critics say it is simply a move to prop up fossil fuel industries.
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The third tranche of funding, announced on Thursday, is A$566 million for research partnerships with other countries for new technology such as green steel, small modular nuclear reactors and soil carbon storage. There was little detail in the announcement, so for now it remains rather hypothetical.

In sum, the government will spend a relatively small amount on hydrogen production and CCS, spread wafer thin in various regional areas (and at least some of it subsidising fossil fuels), plus hypothetical funding for research.

Compare this to the A$35 billion cost of extreme weather disasters in Australia between 2010 and 2019, as detailed in this Climate Council report.

More recently, the New South Wales government estimated the potential cost of last month’s devastating floods at A$2 billion. A report by the NSW Treasury estimated by 2061, future economic costs of climate impacts in four key risk areas (bushfires, sea level rise, heatwaves and agricultural production) could reach up to A$17.2 billion a year – and this is just for NSW.




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Debris washed up against bridge
The recent NSW floods caused $2 billion in damage, the state government says.
James Gourley/AAP

A tale of two leaders

Morrison told world leaders Australia would update its emissions-reduction target ahead of the Glasgow climate summit later this year. The current target – a 26-28% cut by 2030, based on 2005 levels – is broadly viewed as woefully inadequate.

Any increased ambition would be long overdue. However, more broadly, the contrast on climate policy between Morrison and Biden could not be clearer. Biden used the summit to tell world leaders:

Your leadership on this issue is a statement to the people of your nation and to the people of every nation, especially our young people, that we’re ready to meet this moment […] We really have no choice. We have to get this done.

Morrison, depressingly, showed little sign of hearing that message.The Conversation

Lesley Hughes, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University and Will Steffen, Emeritus Professor, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

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