Headphones, saw blades, coat hangers: how human trash in Australian bird nests changed over 195 years


This, if you can believe it, is part of a magpie nest.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

Kathy Ann Townsend, University of the Sunshine Coast and Dominique Potvin, University of the Sunshine CoastEnvironmental scientists see flora, fauna and phenomena the rest of us rarely do. In this series, we’ve invited them to share their unique photos from the field.


When we opened a box supplied by museum curators, our research team audibly gasped. Inside was a huge Australian magpie nest from 2018.

It was more than a metre wide and made up of the strangest assortment of items, including wire coat hangers, headphones, saw blades and plastic 3D glasses — a mix of detritus reflecting our modern lifestyle.

This was one of almost 900 Australian nest specimens dating back over 195 years that we inspected for our recent, world-first study.

We estimate that today, around 30% of Australian bird nests incorporate human-made materials (primarily plastics). We also noted a steady increase in nest parasites over this period.

It’s clear the types of debris the birds use has reflected changes in society over time. They highlight the unexpected and far-reaching ways Australians impact their environment, and put birds in danger.

The full magpie nest from 2018 that was collected outside a construction site.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

The first synthetic item

Birds and humans have been sharing spaces and habitats throughout history.

It’s well known birds incorporate material from their environment into their nests, making them ideal indicators of environmental changes and human activity. It’s also well known, particularly among scientists, that museum collections can provide unique insight into environmental changes through time and space.

Compare the magpie nest above to this natural butcherbird nest from 1894. Butcherbirds are in the same family as magpies.
Dominique Potvin, Author provided

With this in mind, our international team investigated Australian museum bird nest specimens collected between 1823 and 2018. Sourced from Museums Victoria and CSIRO’s Crace Site in Canberra, we inspected a total of 892 nests from 224 different bird species.

Australian birds generate an amazing array of nest types. Rufous fantails, for example, build delicately woven structures made of fine grass and spiderwebs, while welcome swallows and white-winged choughs create nests out of mud, which dry incredibly hard and can be used year after year.

A woven egg cup nest from 1870, made of grass and spiderwebs, by the rufous fantail.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided
Fabiola Opitz, a member of our research team, measuring mudnest collected circ. 1933 of a whitewinged chough. These mudnests can last for years.
Dominique Potvin, Author provided

Before the 1950s, human-made debris found in the nests consisted of degradable items such as cotton thread and paper.

This changed in 1956, when we found the first synthetic item in a bird nest from Melbourne: a piece of polyester string. This appearance correlates with the increased availability of plastic polymers across Australian society, seven years after the end of the second world war.

Australian magpies earn their name

We also determined, based on collection date and using historical maps, whether the nests came from natural, rural or urban landscapes. And it turns out the nest’s location, when it was built, and the species that made it largely determined whether human-made materials were present.

Brown nest with blue string
The nest of a noisy miner found on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, in 2020 with plastic string.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

Our study found nests built close to urban areas or farmland after the 1950s by birds from the families Craticidae (Australian magpies and butcherbirds), Passeridae (old world or “true” sparrows) and Pycnonotidae (bulbuls) had significantly more human-made debris.

Familiar to many an urban bird enthusiast, these species tend to adapt quickly to new environments. The incorporation of human materials in nests is likely one example of this behavioural flexibility.

The research team also had access to ten bowerbird bowers from the family Ptilonorhynchidae, spanning more than 100 years. Male bowerbirds are known for creating elaborate structures, decorated with a range of colourful items to attract a mate.

A silvereye or gerygong nest from 2019.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

In the 1890s, the birds decorated their bowers with natural items such as flowers and berries. Newspaper scraps were the only human-produced items we identified.

This changed dramatically 100 years later, where the most sought-after items included brightly coloured plastics, such as straws, pen lids and bottle caps.

A satin bowerbird collecting blue junk. Video: BBC Wildlife.

But there are tragic consequences

When birds weave non-biodegradable materials — such as fishing line and polymer rope — into their nests, it increases the risk of entanglement, amputation and even accumulation of plastics in the gut of nestlings.

For example, we found evidence of one pallid cuckoo juvenile dying in 1981 after it was entangled in plastic twine used by its adoptive bell miner parents.

This is the bell miner nest with twine that caused the cuckoo chick to die, according to the museum notes.
Dominique Potvin, Author provided

Plastic was not the only issue. We found the prevalence of nest parasites that attack the young chicks also increased by about 25% over the last 195 years.

Nest parasites can kill huge numbers of nestlings. Recent research into the forty-spotted pardalote in Tasmania, a threatened species, has shown nest parasites kill up to 81% of its nestlings.

What has caused this increase isn’t clear. However, the team determined it wasn’t directly linked to urban or rural habitat type, or the presence of human-made materials in the nest. This goes against the findings of other studies, which show a decrease of parasites in nests that incorporated items such as cigarettes.

Interestingly, we did find eucalyptus leaves might deter parasites, as nests that incorporated them were less likely to show evidence of parasitism.

An eastern yellow robin nest from 2003, with eucalyptus leaves, lichen, spider webs and no parasites. Eastern yellow robins are specialist nest builders that don’t tend to stray from using specific natural items.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided
This nest from 1932 is from an Australian magpie, using eucalyptus leaves.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

It may be, therefore, that sticking with certain natural materials is not only better for the safety of nest inhabitants, but also may have an added effect of pest control.

Stop littering, please

While most are aware of how plastics harm sea life, our study is one of the first to show the impact goes further to harm animals living in our own backyard. If the trend continues, the future for Australian birds looks bleak.

However, we can all do something about it.

A weebill or mistletoe bird’s woven nest from 1941, with tufts of spider webs and plant fluff.
Kathy Townsend, Author provided

It is as simple as being responsible for our rubbish and supporting proposed legislation and campaigns for moving away from single-use plastics.

The team had access to nests from 224 different species, which equates to only about a quarter of Australia’s total of 830 bird species.

There is still plenty more to discover.




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The Conversation


Kathy Ann Townsend, Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast and Dominique Potvin, Lecturer in Animal Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast

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

When coral dies, tiny invertebrates boom. This could dramatically change the food web on the Great Barrier Reef


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Kate Fraser, University of TasmaniaThis week, international ambassadors will take a snorkelling trip to the Great Barrier Reef as part of the Australian government’s efforts to stop the reef getting on the world heritage “in danger” list.

The World Heritage Centre of UNESCO is set to make its final decision on whether to officially brand the reef as “in danger” later this month.

To many coral reef researchers like myself, who have witnessed firsthand the increasing coral bleaching and cyclone-driven destruction of this global icon, an in-danger listing comes as no surprise.

But the implications of mass coral death are complex — just because coral is dying doesn’t mean marine life there will end. Instead, it will change.

In recent research, my colleagues and I discovered dead coral hosted 100 times more microscopic invertebrates than healthy coral. This means up to 100 times more fish food is available on reefs dominated by dead coral compared with live, healthy coral.

This is a near-invisible consequence of coral death, with dramatic implications for reef food webs.

When coral dies

Tiny, mobile invertebrates — between 0.125 and 4 millimetres in size — are ubiquitous inhabitants of the surfaces of all reef structures and are the main food source for approximately 70% of fish species on the Great Barrier Reef.

These invertebrates, most visible only under a microscope, are commonly known as “epifauna” and include species of crustaceans, molluscs, and polychaete worms.




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When corals die, their skeletons are quickly overgrown by fine, thread-like “turfing algae”. Turf-covered coral skeletons then break down into beds of rubble.

We wanted to find out how the tiny epifaunal invertebrates — upon which many fish depend – might respond to the widespread replacement of live healthy coral with dead, turf-covered coral.

A sample of epifauna under the microscope.
Kate Fraser

I took my SCUBA gear and a box of lab equipment, and dived into a series of reefs across eastern Australia, from the Solitary Islands in New South Wales to Lizard Island on the northern Great Barrier Reef.

Underwater, I carefully gathered into sandwich bags the tiny invertebrates living on various species of live coral and those living on dead, turf-covered coral.

But things really got interesting back in the laboratory under the microscope. I sorted each sandwich bag sample of epifauna into sizes, identified them as best I could (many, if not most, species remain unknown to science), and counted them.

I quickly noticed samples taken from live coral took just minutes to count, whereas samples from dead coral could take hours. There were exponentially more animals in the dead coral samples.

The Great Barrier Reef may soon be listed as ‘in danger’
Rick Stuart-Smith

Why do they prefer dead coral?

Counting individual invertebrates is only so useful when considering their contribution to the food web. So we instead used the much more useful metric of “productivity”, which looks at how much weight (biomass) of organisms is produced daily for a given area of reef.

We found epifaunal productivity was far greater on dead, turf-covered coral. The main contributors were the tiniest epifauna — thousands of harpacticoid copepods (a type of crustacean) an eighth of a millimetre in size.

In contrast, coral crabs and glass shrimp contributed the most productivity to epifaunal communities on live coral. At one millimetre and larger, these animals are relative giants in the epifaunal world, with fewer than ten individuals in most live coral samples.

Dead coral rubble overgrown with turfing algae.
Rick Stuart-Smith

These striking differences may be explained by two things.

First: shelter. Live coral may look complex to the naked eye, but if you zoom in you’ll find turfing algae has more structural complexity that tiny epifauna can hide in, protecting them from predators.

A coral head is actually a community of individual coral polyps, each with a tiny mouth and fine tentacles to trap prey. To smaller epifauna, such as harpacticoid copepods, the surface of live coral is a wall of mouths and a very undesirable habitat.




Read more:
Almost 60 coral species around Lizard Island are ‘missing’ – and a Great Barrier Reef extinction crisis could be next


Second: food. Many epifauna, regardless of size, are herbivores (plant-eaters) or detritivores (organic waste-eaters). Turfing algae is a brilliant trap for fine detritus and an excellent substrate for growing films of even smaller microscopic algae.

This means dead coral overgrown by turfing algae represents a smorgasbord of food options for the tiniest epifauna through to the largest.

Meanwhile, many larger epifauna like coral crabs have evolved to live exclusively on live coral, eating the mucus that covers the polyps or particles trapped by the polyps themselves.

Harpacticoid copepod are just an eighth of a millimetre in size.
Naukhan/Wikimedia, CC BY

What this means for life on the reef?

As corals reefs continue to decline, we can expect increased productivity at the base level of reef food webs, with a shift from larger crabs and shrimp to small harpacticoid copepods.

This will affect the flow of food and energy throughout reef food webs, markedly changing the structure of fish and other animal communities. The abundance of animals that eat invertebrates will likely boom with increased coral death.

We might expect higher numbers of fish such as wrasses, cardinalfish, triggerfish, and dragonets, with species preferring the smallest epifauna most likely to flourish.

The dragonet species, mandarinfish, feeds on the smallest harpacticoid copepod prey.
Rick Stuart-Smith

Invertebrate-eating animals are food for a diversity of carnivores on a coral reef, and most fish Australians want to eat are carnivores, such as coral trout, snapper, and Spanish mackerel.

While we didn’t investigate exactly which species are likely to increase following widespread coral death, it’s safe to say populations of fish targeted by recreational and commercial fisheries on Australia’s coral reefs are likely to change as live coral is lost, some for better and some for worse.




Read more:
The outlook for coral reefs remains grim unless we cut emissions fast — new research


The Great Barrier Reef is undoubtedly in danger, and it’s important that we make every effort to protect and conserve the remaining live, healthy coral. However, if corals continue to die, there will remain an abundance of life in their absence, albeit very different life from that to which we are accustomed.

As long as there is hard structure for algae to grow on, there will be epifauna. And where there is epifauna, there is food for fish, although perhaps not for all the fish we want to eat.The Conversation

Kate Fraser, Marine Ecologist, University of Tasmania

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

5 rocks any great Australian rock collection should have, and where to find them


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Emily Finch, Monash UniversityRoad tripping with a geologist is a little different. While you’re probably reading road signs and dodging roadkill, we’re reading road cuttings and deciphering the history of the area over the previous millions — or even billions — of years.

Geology has shaped the Australian landscape. In Victoria where I live, for example, the western plains are pockmarked by Australia’s youngest volcanoes, while the east of the state has been pushed up to form the mountains of the Great Dividing Range.

Along the southern margin of the state are fossilised braided rivers, relics of when Australia drifted away from Antarctica. Evidence of this event extends into Tasmania, where dolerite, a rock that signifies this rift, looms in enormous columns over Hobart from Mount Wellington.

This probably won’t surprise anyone who knows me, but I have rocks peppered around my house that I’ve collected on my travels. Every time I look at them, I not only think about how the rocks were formed, I’m also reminded of the trip when I collected them.

With international and even state borders set to remain closed for a while longer, this is the perfect time to take a great Australian road trip, become a rock detective, and build up your rock collection while you’re at it.

To help you get started, I’ve listed five rocks any great Australian rock collection should have.

Green, volcanic crater
The crater of an erupted volcano near Mount Gambier in Victoria.
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1. Mantle xenoliths

Western Victoria

The youngest rocks in Australia are those that erupted out of Australia’s youngest volcano in Mount Gambier, South Australia, 4,000 to 8,000 years ago. That volcano is the culmination of an enormous field of volcanoes that span central and western Victoria.




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In western Victoria, the volcanoes were formed from magma that ascended from the Earth’s mantle — the layer between the Earth’s core and crust. While the magma was rising, it tore off chunks of the surrounding mantle rock and transported it to the surface. We can find these chunks of the mantle — or mantle xenoliths (xeno = foreign, lith = rock) — in cooled lava today in western Victoria.

At first, these rocks look like any other piece of black or brown basalt, but then you turn them over or crack them open and there’s a blob of bright green rock staring back at you. The mantle rock inside is comprised mainly of olivine, which is a green mineral, and some black/brown pyroxene.

Green rock blob encased in black rock
Green mantle xenolith (xeno = foreign, lith = rock) encased in cooled basaltic lava from Mount Shadwell, Victoria.
Dr Melanie Finch, Author provided

Mantle xenoliths are a great place to start your rock collection because not only will they be your very own piece of Earth’s mantle, but you can find them yourself through a bit of fossicking around some of the volcanoes in western Victoria.

2. Meteorites

The Nullarbor Desert, South Australia and Western Australia

The Nullarbor is a desert plain region which straddles the border of South Australia and Western Australia.

The dry environment is ideal for preserving meteorites that fall to Earth, and the light colour of the limestone country rock and lack of vegetation means the black and brown meteorites are easier to see.

A black meteorite standing out against the white limestone of the Nullarbor Plain.
Professor Andy Tomkins, Author provided

Even if you don’t have a great eye for spotting meteorites hiding in plain sight, you can do as the geologists do and use a magnet on a stick to help you. Most meteorites are iron-rich, so wandering around with a magnet hovering over the surface is a good way to pick them up.

Thousands of meteorites have been found in the Nullarbor, some up to 40,000 years old.

3. Metamorphic rocks

Broken Hill, New South Wales

You’ve probably heard of Broken Hill because of the large silver, lead and zinc mine there. But the geological conditions that created the ore deposit around 1.7 billion years ago also made some beautiful rocks.

A visit to Broken Hill’s Albert Kersten Mining and Minerals Museum will demonstrate the vast array of unusual minerals found in the region, some of them described for the first time at this locality.

If you’re seeking your own chunk of Broken Hill’s geological history, Round Hill is the place for you. Just a short way out of the town centre, you’ll find beautiful red garnets surrounded by patches of white minerals (quartz and feldspar).

A geologist holding a rock with various colours
A large garnet from the Broken Hill region.
Professor Andy Tomkins, Author provided

These rocks started out as sand and mud, and record the history of being buried and heated to over 700℃ deep below the Earth’s surface. This process caused the rock to start melting and created the striking stripey, garnet-rich rocks we find there today.

4. Banded iron formation

Western Australia

Banded iron formation is a layered sedimentary rock mainly comprised of alternating bands of chert (a sedimentary rock made of quartz) that’s often red in colour and silver to black iron oxide. It is the main host of iron ore, and can be found in several regions in Western Australia.

The Hamersley Province in the northwestern part of Western Australia has the thickest and most extensive banded iron formations in the world. They are about 2.45 to 2.78 billion years old.

Red and brown bands along a rock face
Banded iron formation at Forescue Falls, WA.
Graeme Churchard/Flickr, CC BY

Geologists believe they formed on a continental shelf, where thick continental crust extends out into the ocean and then drops away to oceanic crust.

Banded iron formation is exciting because it no longer forms on Earth today, meaning it records an ancient process that we no longer see happening.

It is thought to have formed in ancient oceans, which were starting to increase in oxygen content at the time. It records the chemical input of these oceans, as well as sediments from the continent and volcanoes on the ocean floor.

5. Dinosaur fossils

Central and western Queensland

Oh to have been in Queensland 100 million years ago! Judging by the fossils found in parts of the state, it would have been a cornucopia of dinosaur activity.

From an unlikely duo of dinosaurs in a 98-million-year-old billabong in Winton, to fossilised evidence of a dinosaur herd at Lark Quarry, Queensland is the place to go to peer back in time to the Mesozoic Era between 252 and 66 million years ago.

And if you’re really lucky, you might even have dinosaur bones on your property, like the huge, long-necked sauropod discovered just this year on a Queensland cattle farm.

An outback museum with a dinosaur statue in front
The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum in Winton, Queensland, is home to the largest collection of Australian dinosaur fossils. (Note: not a real dinosaur.)
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When building your Australian rock collection, remember to check first if fossicking is allowed in the area. When you find an interesting rock, your state or territory geological survey might be able to help with identifying it.

Happy hunting!




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How to hunt fossils responsibly: 5 tips from a professional palaeontologist


The Conversation


Emily Finch, Beamline Scientist at ANSTO, and Research Affiliate, Monash University

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

‘Environmental accounting’ could revolutionise nature conservation, but Australia has squandered its potential


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Peter Burnett, Australian National University and Michael Vardon, Australian National UniversityLet’s say a new irrigation scheme is proposed and all the land it’ll take up needs to be cleared — trees felled, soil upturned, and habitats destroyed. Water will also have to be allocated. Would the economic gain of the scheme outweigh the damage to the environment?

This is the kind of question so-called “land accounts” grapple with. Land accounts are a type of “environmental account”, which measures our interactions with the environment by recording them as transactions. They help us understand the environmental and economic outcomes of land use decisions.

Environmental accounting, for which Australia has a national strategy, seeks to integrate environmental and economic data to ensure sustainable decision making. Last month, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the country’s first national land account under the strategy, describing it as “experimental”.

Environmental accounting could be a game changer for conserving nature, but the account released by the ABS falls flat. It’s yet another example of Australia’s environmental policy culture: we develop or adopt good ideas, but then just tinker with them, or even discard them.

A (really) long time coming

Environmental accounting has been a long time coming and dates back to the 1980s. It’s closely related to sustainable development, and in fact, the two ideas developed in parallel.

In 1992, the Rio Earth Summit endorsed both, and nations agreed to develop an international system of environmental accounting.

But it took the UN 20 years to endorse the System of Environmental Economic Accounting (SEEA) — the rules for developing accounts — as an international statistical standard. This endorsement means they’re authoritative and compatible with national accounts.

Then, in March this year, the international standard was finally extended to cover ecosystem accounting.

So, how are environmental accounts used?

“National accounts” are a way to measure the economic activity of Australia and they tell us our gross domestic product (GDP). Linking existing national accounts to environmental accounts means important decisions can capture environmental and economic outcomes, obviously making for better decisions.

For example, the case for orienting a stimulus package towards investing in renewable energy and land restoration will be much stronger if it can quantify not only economic benefits, but gains to natural assets, such as through revegetation.

Revegetation
Gains to natural assets, such as revegetation, should be measured alongside economic gains.
Shutterstock

Stuck in ‘experimental’ mode

Australia, through the ABS, was an early mover in developing environmental accounting. It has produced experimental accounts since the mid-1990s.

Some countries are now taking significant steps to produce and apply accounts. And a communiqué issued by the G7 in May endorses the UN’s SEEA and encourages making nature a regular part of all decision-making – in other words, “mainstreaming nature”. This is something for which SEEA is ideal.




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You probably missed the latest national environmental-economic accounts – but why?


It’s no accident this communiqué emerged from London. The UK is a leader in the field of applying accounting to environmental and economic management. It had a Natural Capital Committee for some years and its 25-year environmental plan provides for further account development, including for urban areas, fisheries and forestry.

Australian governments, on the other hand, have been slow to use environmental accounts. They took until 2018 to agree on an unambitious national strategy, which specified “intermediate” outcomes, only to 2023.

These targets include such policy basics as making environmental information for accounts “findable” and “accessible”. This is not far removed from what federal and state governments first signed up to in an agreement 30 years ago.

And the strategy places the holy grail of policy integration “into the future” beyond 2023 — for example, off into the never-never. As a result, we are on a slow track and seemingly stuck in “experimental” mode.

So, what’s the problem with the new land account?

The new land account is a very small step. While it has gathered a lot of information in one place, it tells us little, and essentially repackages old information (the newest data is for 2016).

It’s also in a format that cannot be integrated with national accounts, or even with other environmental accounts so far produced in Australia, such as those covering waste, water, energy and greenhouse gas emissions.

Integration of environmental and economic information is the raison d’etre for the international system. So how did this happen?

Coal plant
The new land account from the ABS can’t be integrated with other environmental accounts, such as accounts for greenhouse gas emissions. So what’s the point of it?
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For accounts produced outside the ABS (such as for greenhouse gas emissions), different accounting frameworks were used, so this is understandable, though unfortunate. For the land accounts, it is less understandable and we can only speculate.

Not being able to integrate the land, water and national accounts means the environmental-economic trade-offs cannot be assessed. It seems the government is struggling to integrate an exercise of integration!

Governments fiddle while the planet burns

Australia’s 2021 intergenerational report, released last month, shows how far we are from producing good environmental information.

The environment section of the report acknowledges climate change and biodiversity loss as major problems, and the need to account for and maintain natural capital. But it goes on to do little more than make general observations and recite standard government talking points about existing policies.




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Intergenerational reports ought to do more than scare us — they ought to spark action


If the report was informed by comprehensive environmental accounts, it could support the modelling of environmental trends going forward. This would give us a real sense of likely changes to natural capital and its impact on the economy.

But there are no plans for such an approach. In fact, this kind of “high potential, low ambition” approach to environmental policy is something of a trademark for this government. Another example is the recent cherry picking of recommendations from an independent review of Australia’s environment law.

While such an approach may deliver a successful political placebo, it is a formula for policy failure.

Just how loud will the wake-up call have to be? Recently, a climate-change-induced “heat dome” hit western North America. Lytton, Canada, which is closer to the North Pole than the equator, shattered temperature records with a staggering 49.6℃, before being decimated by wildfire.

If only such disasters, including our own Black Summer, would raise policy ambition more than the temperature.




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The Conversation


Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University and Michael Vardon, Associate Professor at the Fenner School, Australian National University

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

Almost 60 coral species around Lizard Island are ‘missing’ – and a Great Barrier Reef extinction crisis could be next


Michael Emslie

Zoe Richards, Curtin UniversityThe federal government has opposed a recommendation by a United Nations body that the Great Barrier Reef be listed as “in danger”. But there’s no doubt the natural wonder is in dire trouble. In new research, my colleagues and I provide fresh insight into the plight of many coral species.

Worsening climate change, and subsequent marine heatwaves, have led to mass coral deaths on tropical reefs. However, there are few estimates of how reduced overall coral cover is linked to declines in particular coral species.

Our research examined 44 years of coral distribution records around Lizard Island, at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. We found 16% of coral species have not been seen for many years and are at risk of either local extinction, or disappearing from parts of their local range.

This is alarming, because local extinctions often signal wider regional – and ultimately global – species extinction events.

Healthy coral near Lizard Island in 2011, top, then six years later after two bleaching events, bottom.
Healthy coral near Lizard Island in 2011, top, then six years later after two bleaching events, bottom.
Zoe Richards

Sobering findings

The Lizard Island reef system is 270 kilometres north of Cairns. It has suffered major disturbances over the past four decades: repeated outbreaks of crown-of-thorns seastars, category 4 cyclones in 2014 and 2015, and coral bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020.

Our research focused on “hermatypic” corals around Lizard Island. These corals deposit calcium carbonate and form the hard framework of the reef.

We undertook hard coral biodiversity surveys four times between 2011 and 2020, across 14 sites. We combined the results with published and photographic species records from 1976 to 2020.

red fleshy coral with blue spots
Micromussa lordhowensis is popular in the aquarium trade.
Zoe Richards

Of 368 hard coral species recorded around Lizard Island, 28 (7.6%) have not been reliably recorded since before 2011 and may be at risk of local extinction. A further 31 species (8.4%) have not been recorded since 2015 and may be at risk of range reduction (disappearance from parts of its local range).

The “missing” coral species include:

  • Acropora abrotanoides, a robust branching shallow water coral that lives on the reef crest and reef flat has not been since since 2009
  • Micromussa lordhowensis, a low-growing coral with colourful fleshy polyps. Popular in the aquarium trade, it often grows on reef slopes but has not been seen since 2005
  • Acropora aspera, a branching coral which prefers very shallow water and has been recorded just once, at a single site, since 2011.

The finding that 59 coral species are at risk of local extinction or range reduction is significant. Local range reductions are often precursors to local species extinctions. And local species extinctions are often precursors to regional, and ultimately global, extinction events.

Each coral species on the reef has numerous vital functions. It might provide habitat or food to other reef species, or biochemicals which may benefit human health. One thing is clear: every coral species matters.




Read more:
The outlook for coral reefs remains grim unless we cut emissions fast — new research


reddish coral underwater
Acropa abrotanoides, one of the corals ‘missing’ from around Lizard Island.
Zoe Richards

A broader extinction crisis?

As human impacts and climate threats mount, there is growing concern about the resilience of coral biodiversity. Our research suggests such concerns are well-founded at Lizard Island.

Coral reef communities are dynamic, and so detecting species loss can be difficult. Our research found around Lizard Island, the diversity of coral species fluctuated over the past decade. Significant declines were recorded from 2011 to 2017, but diversity recovered somewhat in the three following years.

Local extinctions often happen incrementally and can therefore be “invisible”. To detect them, and to account for natural variability in coral communities, long-term biodiversity monitoring across multiple locations and time frames is needed.

Green coral
Acropora aspera has been recorded just once, at a single location, since 2011.
Anne Hoggett

In most locations however, data on the distribution and abundance of all coral species in a community is lacking. This means it can be hard to assess changes, and to understand the damage that climate change and other human-caused stressors are having on each species.

Only with this extra information can scientists conclusively say if the level of local extinction risk at Lizard Island indicates a risk that coral species may become extinct elsewhere – across the Great Barrier Reef and beyond.




Read more:
Is Australia really doing enough for the Great Barrier Reef? Why criticisms of UNESCO’s ‘in danger’ recommendation don’t stack up


The Conversation


Zoe Richards, Senior Research Fellow, Curtin University

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

A tale of two valleys: Latrobe and Hunter regions both have coal stations, but one has far worse mercury pollution


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Larissa Schneider, Australian National University; Anna Lintern, Monash University; Cameron Holley, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, University of Canberra; Neil Rose, UCL; Ruoyu Sun, and Simon Haberle, Australian National UniversityWe know coal-fired power stations can generate high levels of carbon dioxide, but did you know they can be a major source of mercury emissions as well?

Our new research compared the level of mercury pollution in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and the Latrobe Valley in Victoria.

And we found power stations in the Latrobe Valley emit around 10 times more mercury than power stations in the Hunter Valley. Indeed, the mercury level in the Latrobe Valley environment is 14 times higher than what’s typically natural for the region.

So why is there such a stark difference between states? Well, it has a lot to do with regulations.

Following a NSW requirement for power stations to install pollution control technology, mercury levels in the environment dropped. In Victoria, on the other hand, coal-fired power stations continue to operate without some of the air pollution controls NSW and other developed countries have mandated.

To minimise the safety risks that come with excessive mercury pollution, coal-fired power stations in all Australian jurisdictions should adopt the best available technologies to reduce mercury emissions.

A dangerous neurotoxin

Mercury is a neurotoxin, which means it can damage the nervous system, brain and other organs when a person or animal is exposed to unsafe levels.

Coal naturally contains mercury. So when power stations burn coal, mercury is released to the atmosphere and is then deposited back onto the Earth’s surface. When a high level of mercury ends up in bodies of water, such as lakes and rivers, it can be transferred to fish and other aquatic organisms, exposing people and larger animals to mercury that feed on these fish.




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Mercury does not readily degrade or leave aquatic environments such as lakes and rivers. It’s a persistent toxic element — once present in water, it’s there to stay.

The amount of mercury emitted depends on the type of coal burnt (black or brown) and the type of pollution control devices the power stations use.

The Latrobe Valley stations in Victoria burn brown coal, which has more mercury than the black coal typically found in NSW. Despite this, Victorian regulations have historically not placed specific limits on mercury emissions.

In contrast, NSW power plants are required to use “bag filters”, a technology that’s used to trap mercury (and other) particles before they enter the atmosphere.

While bag filters alone fall short of the world’s best practices, they can still be effective. In fact, after bag filters were retrofitted to Hunter Valley’s Liddell power station in the early 1990s, mercury deposition in the surrounding environment halved.

Mercury deposited in sediments of Lake Glenbawn (left) in the Hunter Valley and Traralgon Railway Reservoir (right) in the Latrobe Valley.

The best available technology to control mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants is a combination of “wet flue-gas desulfurization” (which removes mercury in its gaseous form) and bag filters (which removes mercury bound to particles).

This is what’s been adopted across North America and parts of Europe. It not only filters out mercury, but also removes sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other toxic air compounds.

Using lake sediments to see into the past

Lake sediments can capture mercury deposited from the atmosphere and from surrounding areas. Sediments that contain this mercury accumulate at the bottom of lakes over time — the deeper the sediment, the further back in time we can analyse.

We took sediment samples from lakes in the Latrobe and Hunter valleys, and dated them back to 1940 to get a historical record of mercury deposition.

This information can help us understand how much naturally occurring mercury there was before coal-fired power stations were built, and therefore show us the impact of burning coal.

A power station by a lake
Lake Narracan: one of the lakes we sampled sediments from, near a coal-fired power station in Latrobe Valley.
Larissa Schneider, Author provided

From these records, we found the adoption of bag filters in the Hunter Valley corresponded with mercury depositions declining in NSW from the 1990s.

In contrast, in Victoria, where there’s been no such requirement, mercury emissions and depositions have continued to increase since Hazelwood power station was completed in 1971.

What do we do about it?

In March, the Victorian government announced changes to the regulatory licence conditions for brown coal-fired power stations. Although mercury emissions allowances have been included for the first time, they’re arguably still too high, and there’s no requirement to install specific pollution control technologies.

There’s a risk this approach won’t reduce mercury emissions from existing levels. Victoria should instead consider more ambitious regulations that encourage the adoption of best practice technology to help protect local communities and the environment.

Coal-fired power station at the end of a road, at night
Loy Yang power station, Victoria’s largest, burns brown coal which contains more mercury.
Shutterstock

Another vital step toward protecting human health and the environment from mercury is for the federal government to ratify the Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty to protect human health and the environment from mercury.

Despite signing the convention in 2013, the Australian government is yet to ratify it, which is required to make it legally binding in Australia.

Ratifying the convention will oblige state and federal governments to develop and implement a strategy to reduce mercury emissions, including from coal-fired power stations across Australia. And this strategy should include rolling out effective technologies — our research shows it can make a big difference.


The authors acknowledge Lauri Myllyvirta from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air for her contributions to this article.




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The Conversation


Larissa Schneider, DECRA fellow, Australian National University; Anna Lintern, Lecturer, Monash University; Cameron Holley, Professor, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, Professor, University of Canberra; Neil Rose, Professor of Environmental Pollution and Palaeolimnology, UCL; Ruoyu Sun, Associate Professor, and Simon Haberle, Professor, Australian National University

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

Is Australia really doing enough for the Great Barrier Reef? Why criticisms of UNESCO’s ‘in danger’ recommendation don’t stack up


Shutterstock

Terry Hughes, James Cook University; Jon C. Day, James Cook University, and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of QueenslandIn case you missed it, last week the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO revealed its draft decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” — a decision that appeared to shock the Australian government.

In an opinion piece published yesterday in The Australian newspaper, Environment Minister Sussan Ley acknowledged climate change is the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef, and that it “has been through a few rough years”.

She has also suggested, however, UNESCO’s draft in-danger decision is a surprise and was politically motivated. Neither of these claims is credible.

So let’s look at Australia’s reaction so far, and why criticisms of UNESCO’s draft decision don’t stack up.

The poster child for climate change

An in-danger listing of a World Heritage property recognises a decline in the “outstanding universal value” that makes the site internationally significant. It sets off alarm bells to identify the underlying causes of decline, and triggers stronger interventions to prevent further damage.

Ley foresees a negative effect of the proposed in-danger listing on reef tourism. However, there’s no evidence from the Galapagos Islands, the Belize Barrier Reef or the Everglades National Park — all World Heritage properties and tourism hotspots — that an in-danger listing led to any discernible impacts on tourist numbers.

Most tourists, international or domestic, are already well aware of the pressures facing the Great Barrier Reef, but they are still keen to see it. From 2015–2018, more than two million visitors each year used a tourism operator to visit the reef. During 2020, COVID led to significant decline in visitor numbers so this period has been particularly difficult for the tourism industry.

Ley also claimed Australia, and the reef, didn’t deserve to be the poster child for climate change perils. But why can’t they be? The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most obvious examples of the costs of inaction on anthropogenic climate change.

The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed as a World Heritage Area in 1981. And for the past two decades Australia has meticulously documented its ongoing deterioration.

According to Australia’s regular reporting to UNESCO, the major causes of the reef’s decline in outstanding universal value is pollution from agricultural runoff, which has now been eclipsed by heat stress from climate change.




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Extreme summer temperatures in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017 and 2020 have reduced coral cover and changed the mix of species, altering the biodiversity and other World Heritage attributes of the reef for many decades to come.

Unless global warming is stabilised soon, the reef will become unrecognisable. Indeed, in 2019, Australia’s latest five-yearly Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report projected the future of the reef as “very poor”.

Is Australia doing enough?

Ley also suggests Australia is doing everything it can to protect the reef — but is it really?

UNESCO certainty doesn’t think so. The draft decision from UNESCO, which will be considered next month by the World Heritage Committee, noted that interventions to reduce inshore pollution over the past five years have been “largely deficient”.

Bleached coral
There has been slow progress in meeting reef water quality targets.
Shutterstock

There have been some positive achievements in reducing water pollution levels. But the slow progress in meeting many of the water quality targets is documented clearly in the 2017–2018 and 2019 reef Water Quality Report Cards, produced jointly by the federal and Queensland governments.

UNESCO cites Australia’s poor progress on reducing emissions as an additional area requiring considerable improvement, to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement and Australia’s responsibilities under the World Heritage Convention.




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UNESCO has also asked Australia to work with it to develop corrective measures and to ensure the revised Reef 2050 Plan — the overarching framework for protecting the reef to 2050 — addresses the threats.

An in-danger listing is a call to arms to all countries to work together to save the reef from human-caused heating. So the ongoing collaboration between Australia and UNESCO could then enable the Great Barrier Reef’s removal from the in-danger list.

Is Australia suddenly being singled out?

Ley wrote that the Great Barrier Reef was suddenly and unexpectedly “singled out” for an in-danger listing, which she interpreted as a suggestion that “Australia can single-handedly change the emissions trajectory of the whole world”.

However, the dialogue between UNESCO and Australia on the Great Barrier Reef’s protection has a long history. And in making its in-danger recommendation, UNESCO acknowledged Australia “on its own cannot address the threats of climate change”. But UNESCO does appear to have concerns about Australia’s record on emissions reduction.

For example, in 2011 the World Heritage Committee expressed “extreme concern” over the approval for liquefied natural gas facilities on Curtis Island within the boundary of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. A year later, it asked Australia to ensure coastal development isn’t permitted if it effects the outstanding universal value of the property.

In 2012, 2013 and 2014, prior to the annual meetings of the World Heritage Committee, UNESCO raised the possible inscription of the Great Barrier Reef on the in-danger list.

Significantly, in 2017, the World Heritage Committee emphasised the importance of state parties (countries adhering to the world heritage convention, such as Australia) undertaking the most ambitious implementation of the Paris Agreement. This is an important pathway to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change on World Heritage properties.

UNESCO invited all state parties to act on climate change under the Paris Agreement “consistent with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”.

So what are Australia’s responsibilities?

Ley is correct to point out that all 29 World Heritage listed coral reefs, scattered throughout the tropics, are extremely vulnerable to human-caused climate change.

However, Australia is responsible for the world’s largest coral reef system, and has far higher capabilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than other, less wealthy countries.

But Australia’s record on protecting ecosystems and people from climate change is comparatively very poor. And despite being responsible for 20 World Heritage Areas, we have one of the highest per capita emission rates in the world.

The federal government continues to spruik a fossil-fuelled, gas-led COVID recovery, with ongoing subsidies for new coal mines. This support for coal and fossil gas is inconsistent with Australia’s commitments to the World Heritage Convention.

Rejecting the science-based assessments by UNESCO is further damaging Australia’s reputation as a laggard on addressing climate change. Surely, Australia can do better.




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Terry Hughes, Distinguished Professor, James Cook University; Jon C. Day, PSM, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor, The University of Queensland

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

Meet the broad-toothed rat: a chubby-cheeked and inquisitive Australian rodent that needs our help


Christine Wacker, Author provided

Chris Wacker, University of New EnglandAm I not pretty enough? This is the first article in The Conversation’s series introducing you to the unloved Australian animals that need our help


When people think of rodents, they usually think of introduced species such as the black rat and house mouse. But Australia actually has around 54 native rodent species, which live in a vast range of habitats across the continent, from the ocean to spinifex-dotted deserts.

My research focuses on the broad-toothed rat, a vulnerable, chubby-cheeked rodent that lives in parts of Tasmania and pockets of southern Victoria. It even thrives beneath the snow in the Australian Alps and in Barrington Tops in New South Wales.

You may have already heard of the broad-toothed rat from articles about the damage feral horses do in Kosciuszko National Park, or as one of the species living near the highly photogenic mountain pygmy possum.

But I don’t want to turn this into a debate about feral horses or a popularity contest with the pygmy possum. As the broad-toothed rat rarely, if ever, gets its own story, I want to introduce you properly to this fascinating, unique, and beautiful species, focusing on those that live in Kosciuszko National Park.

A very special rodent

The broad-toothed rat (Mastacomys fuscus) is often referred to by wildlife scientists as Australia’s guinea pig. However, it belongs to a very different group of rodents.

Weighing approximately 150 grams — about the same size as the introduced black rat — the broad-toothed rat looks like any typical rodent at first glance.

The broad-toothed rat has a trusting and inquisitive nature.
Rhi Wilson, Author provided

But with its chocolate coloured coat, long, soft, almost luxurious fur, little to no musky smell, chubby face, and calm and inquisitive nature, it bears little resemblance to any introduced species.

The broad-toothed rat gets its name from its wider-than-usual molar teeth, which help it chew the stalks of sedges and grasses. It also nests in these grasses, and moves unseen through an elaborate network of tunnel-like runways. The broad-toothed rat shares these runways with other small mammal species, such as the bush rat and the dusky antechinus.

In winter, low shrubs hold the snow off the ground, creating a subnivean space (the area between snow and terrain). This creates a relatively cosy environment, keeping the temperature of the runways above zero, even when the air above this space is much colder.

When most of the snow has melted in October, the broad-toothed rat’s breeding season is triggered and generally lasts until March the next year. They have on average only two to three young, and these are unusual because they’re partially furry at birth.

Tunnels in tufts of grass
Broad-toothed rat runways, shared by other small mammals.
Chris Wacker, Author provided

Why native rodents matter

Native rodents are essential in many ecosystems. They disperse seeds by forming seed caches. This is when rats keep seeds in storage to eat, and when they vacate their burrow, the uneaten seeds can germinate.

They often have the role of ecosystem engineers, providing burrows and runways for small mammals that cannot dig their own. This is particularly common for desert rodent species that dig burrows, which are then used by small marsupials.

Native rodents may also be early indicators of local environmental change, like furry canaries in a coal mine. When their populations decline, populations of other native species, such as small marsupials, also decline soon after because whatever affects the rodents, will affect other small mammals.

But broad-toothed rats are in danger

Of the 54 species of native rodent, 16 are vulnerable or endangered. Their biggest threats include introduced rodents who compete for resources, predation by cats and foxes, and general human activity such as land clearing.

While the damage feral horses do to the vegetation in the Australian Alps is a well-known problem, the broad-toothed rat also has many other threats.

It’s currently classified as vulnerable or near threatened in much of its range. While the exact number of individuals is difficult to determine, it’s clear the rat’s range is getting smaller, in part due to climate change-induced reduction in snow cover.

The typical habitat of the broad-toothed rat habitat in the Australian Alps.
Chris Wacker, Author provided

Since their reproductive behaviours are triggered by the environment, changes in temperature and snow cover can be catastrophic. Reduced snow cover also means less protection during the colder months.

Another reason these rats are unusual among native Australian rodents is they’re entirely herbivorous. Any variation in temperature, rainfall, snow melt, or drainage alters the types of vegetation that grows. And changes in available grasses reduce the food and nesting material the rats have access to.




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In the Australian Alps, broad-toothed rats have very few native predators. But a 2002 study found foxes, and perhaps feral cats, prefer eating broad-toothed rats over other small mammal species. Whether this is due to the rats being easier to catch or because they’re tastier is unclear.

Because the broad-toothed rat lives in Kosciuszko National Park, it also lives side-by-side with the ski industry, and will even inhabit the disturbed areas alongside ski runs. But ski resorts change drainage patterns, groundwater and surface water, changing the type of vegetation that grows.

The ski industry in the Australian Alps threatens the broad-toothed rat.
Shutterstock

With the continued reduction in natural snow from climate change, and heavier reliance on artificial snow for tourism, the impact on the fragile alpine ecosystem will need to be closely monitored so we can protect the broad-toothed rat.

Three ways you can help

Unfortunately, just having “rat” in its name can turn people away from caring about this species, as rats are typically seen as destructive and diseased.

But does an animal have to be cute and endearing to gain public and political sympathy? Well, unfortunately, yes.

Research from 2016 shows native rodents are the least cared about and researched of all animals, and they gain the least amount of funding.

So, what can the average person do?

First and foremost, learn about what species live where you live, and make sure you can correctly identify a native rodent from an introduced species.

Second, when you hear people complain about all rodents, tell them about our natives, and even show them a photo. Most people have a change of heart once they see one.

Finally, appreciate that our native rodents are just as important as our marsupials, monotremes, bats, amphibians, reptiles and birds, and are just as affected by our activities as any other animal group.




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Chris Wacker, Postdoctoral Research Fellow – School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England

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

Australia’s threatened species plan has failed on several counts. Without change, more extinctions are assured


Euan Ritchie, Deakin University and Ayesha Tulloch, University of SydneyAustralia is globally renowned for its abysmal conservation record – in roughly 230 years we’ve overseen the extinction of more mammal species than any other nation. The federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy was meant to address this confronting situation.

The final report on the five-year strategy has just been published. In it, Threatened Species Commissioner Dr Sally Box acknowledges while the plan had some important wins, it fell short in several areas, writing:

…there is much more work to do to ensure our native plants and animals thrive into the future, and this will require an ongoing collective effort.

Clearly, Australia must urgently chart a course towards better environmental and biodiversity outcomes. That means reflecting honestly on our successes and failures so far.

How did the strategy perform?

The strategy, announced in 2015, set 13 targets linked to three focus areas:

  • feral cat management
  • improving the population trajectories of 20 mammal, 21 bird and 30 plant species
  • improving practices to recover threatened species populations.

Given the scale of the problem, five years was never enough time to turn things around. Indeed, as the chart below shows, the report card indicates five “red lights” (targets not met) and three “orange lights” (targets only partially met). It gave just five “green lights” for targets met.

Year Five - Final Report
Summary of the Threatened Species Strategy’s targets and outcomes.
Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

Falling short on feral cats

Feral cats were arguably the most prominent focus of the strategy, despite other threats requiring as much or more attention, such as habitat destruction via land clearing.

However, the strategy did help start a national conversation about the damage cats wreak on wildlife and ecosystems, and how this can be better managed.

In the five years to the end of 2020, an estimated 1.5 million feral cats were killed under the strategy – 500,000 short of the 2 million goal. But this estimate is uncertain due to a lack of systematic data collection. In particular, the number of cats culled by farmers, amateur hunters and shooters is under-reported. And more broadly, information is scattered across local councils, non-government conservation agencies and other sources.




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Australia’s feral cat population fluctuates according to rainfall, which determines the availability of prey – numbering between 2.1 million and 6.3 million. Limited investment in monitoring makes it impossible to know whether the average of 300,000 cats killed each year over the past five years will be enough for native wildlife to recover.

The government also failed in its goal to eradicate cats from five islands, only achieving this on Dirk Hartog Island off Western Australia. Importantly, that effort began in 2014, before the strategy was launched. And it was primarily funded by the WA government and an industry offset scheme, so the federal government can’t really claim this success.

On a positive note, ten mainland areas excluding feral cats have been established or are nearly complete. Such areas are a vital lifeline for some wildlife species and can enable native species reintroductions in the future.

feral cat holds dead bird
Feral cats were eradicated from just one island under the strategy.
Mark Marathon/Threatened Species Recovery Hub

Priority species: how did we do?

The strategy met its target of ensuring recovery actions were underway for at least 50 threatened plant species and 60 ecological communities. It also made good headway into storing all Australia’s 1,400 threatened plant species in seed banks. This is good news.

The bad news is that, even with recovery actions, the population trajectories of most priority species failed to improve. For the 24 out of about 70 priority species where population numbers were deemed to have “improved” over five years, about 30% simply got worse at a slower rate than in the decade prior. This can hardly be deemed a success.

Mala with baby in pouch
Populations of the mala, or Rufous Hare-wallaby, were improving before the strategy.
Wayne Lawler/Australian Wildlife Conservancy

What’s more, the populations of at least eight priority species, including the eastern barred bandicoot, eastern bettong, Gilbert’s potoroo, mala, woylie, numbat and helmeted honeyeater, were increasing before the strategy began – and five of these deteriorated under the strategy.

The finding that more priority species recovery efforts failed than succeeded means either:

  • the wrong actions were implemented
  • the right actions were implemented but insufficient effort and funding were dedicated to recovery
  • the trajectories of the species selected for action simply couldn’t be improved in a 5-year window.

All these problems are alarming but can be rectified. For example, the government’s new Threatened Species Strategy, released in May, contains a more evidence-based process for determining priority species.

For some species, it’s unclear whether success can be attributed to the strategy. Some species with improved trajectories, such as the helmeted honeyeater, would likely have improved regardless, thanks to many years of community and other organisation’s conservation efforts before the strategy began.

Conservation worker releases woylie
The improved outlook for some species is due to conservation efforts before the federal strategy.
WA Department of Environment and Conservation



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What must change

According to the report, habitat loss is a key threat to more than half the 71 priority species in the strategy. But the strategy does not directly address habitat loss or climate change, saying other government policies are addressing those threats.

We believe habitat loss and climate change must be addressed immediately.

Of the priority bird species threatened by land clearing and fragmentation, the trajectory of most – including the swift parrot and malleefowl – did not improve under the five years of the strategy. For several, such as the Australasian bittern and regent honeyeater, the trajectory worsened.

Preventing and reversing habitat loss will take years of dedicated restoration, stronger legislation and enforcement. It also requires community engagement, because much threatened species habitat is on private properties.

Effective conservation also requires raising public awareness of the dire predicament of Australia’s 1,900-plus threatened species and ecological communities. But successive governments have sought to sugarcoat our failings over many decades.

Bushfires and other extreme events hampered the strategy’s recovery efforts. But climate change means such events are likely to worsen. The risks of failure should form part of conservation planning – and of course, Australia requires an effective plan for emissions reduction.

The strategy helped increase awareness of the plight our unique species face. Dedicated community groups had already spent years volunteering to monitor and recover populations, and the strategy helped fund some of these actions.

However, proper investment in conservation – such as actions to reduce threats, and establish and maintain protected areas – is urgently needed. The strategy is merely one step on the long and challenging road to conserving Australia’s precious species and ecosystems.




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The Conversation


Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University and Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney

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

Climate explained: how the IPCC reaches scientific consensus on climate change


Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Rebecca Harris, University of Tasmania


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz


When we say there’s a scientific consensus that human-produced greenhouse gases are causing climate change, what does that mean? What is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and what do they do?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides the world’s most authoritative scientific assessments on climate change. It provides policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and risks, and options for cutting emissions and adapting to impacts we can no longer avoid.

The IPCC has already released five assessment reports and is currently completing its Sixth Assessment (AR6), with the release of the first part of the report, on the physical science of climate change, expected on August 9.

Each assessment cycle brings together scientists from around the world and many disciplines. The current cycle involves 721 scientists from 90 countries, in three working groups covering the physical science basis (WGI), impacts, adaptation and vulnerability (WGII) and mitigation of climate change (WGIII).

A group photo showing the diversity of people contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
People contributing to IPCC reports come from 90 countries and different backgrounds. This image shows the Working Group II team.
Author provided

In each assessment round, the IPCC identifies where the scientific community agrees, where there are differences of opinion and where further research is needed.

IPCC reports are timed to inform international policy developments such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (First Assessment, 1990), the Kyoto Protocol (Second Assessment, 1995) and the Paris Agreement (Fifth Assessment, 2013-2014). The first AR6 report (WGI) will be released in August this year, and its approval meeting is set to take place virtually, for the first time in the IPCC’s 30-year history.

This will be followed by WGII and WGIII reports in February and March 2022, and the Synthesis Report in September 2022 — in time for the first UNFCCC Global Stocktake when countries will review progress towards the goal of the Paris Agreement to keep warming below 2℃.

During the AR6 cycle, the IPCC also published three special reports:

Graph of curent warming across the globe.
The IPCC’s special report on global warming at 1.5 showed present-day warming across the globe.
IPCC, CC BY-ND

How the IPCC reaches consensus

IPCC authors come from academia, industry, government and non-governmental organisations. All authors go through a rigorous selection process — they must be leading experts in their fields, with a strong publishing record and international reputation.

Author teams usually meet in person four times throughout the writing cycle. This is essential to enable (sometimes heated) discussion and exchange across cultures to build a truly global perspective. During the AR6 assessment cycle, lead author meetings (LAMs) for Working Group 1 were not disrupted by COVID-19, but the final WGII and WGIII meetings were held remotely, bringing challenges of different time zones, patchy internet access and more difficult communication.




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The IPCC’s reports go through an extensive peer review process. Each chapter undergoes two rounds of scientific review and revision, first by expert reviewers and then by government representatives and experts.

This review process is among the most exhaustive for any scientific document — AR6 WGI alone generated 74,849 review comments from hundreds of reviewers, representing a range of disciplines and scientific perspectives. For comparison, a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal is reviewed by only two or three experts.

The role of governments

The term intergovernmental reflects the fact that IPCC reports are created on behalf of the 193 governments in the United Nations. The processes around the review and the agreement of the wording of the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) make it difficult for governments to dismiss a report they have helped shape and approved during political negotiations.

Importantly, the involvement of governments happens at the review stage, so they are not able to dictate what goes into the reports. But they participate in the line-by-line review and revision of the SPM at a plenary session where every piece of text must be agreed on, word for word.

Acceptance in this context means that governments agree the documents are a comprehensive and balanced scientific review of the subject matter, not whether they like the content.




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The role of government delegates in the plenary is to ensure their respective governments are satisfied with the assessment, and that the assessment is policy relevant without being policy prescriptive. Government representatives can try to influence the SPM wording to support their negotiating positions, but the other government representatives and experts in the session ensure the language adheres to the evidence.

Climate deniers claim IPCC reports are politically motivated and one-sided. But given the many stages at which experts from across the political and scientific spectrum are involved, this is difficult to defend. Authors are required to record all scientifically or technically valid perspectives, even if they cannot be reconciled with a consensus view, to represent each aspect of the scientific debate.

The role of the IPCC is pivotal in bringing the international science community together to assess the science, weighing up whether it is good science and should be considered as part of the body of evidence.The Conversation

Rebecca Harris, Senior Lecturer in Climatology, Director, Climate Futures Program, University of Tasmania

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