Under climate change, winter will be the best time for bush burn-offs – and that could be bad news for public health


Giovanni Di Virgilio, UNSW; Annette Hirsch, UNSW; Hamish Clarke, University of Wollongong; Jason Evans, UNSW; Jason Sharples, UNSW, and Melissa Hart, UNSW

At the height of last summer’s fires, some commentators claimed “greenies” were preventing hazard reduction burns – also known as prescribed burns – in cooler months. They argued that such burns would have reduced the bushfire intensity.

Fire experts repeatedly dismissed these claims. As then NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons noted in January this year, the number of available days to carry out prescribed burns had reduced because climate change was altering the weather and causing longer fire seasons.




Read more:
How does bushfire smoke affect our health? 6 things you need to know


This public conversation led our research team to ask: if climate change continues at its current rate, how will this change the days suitable for prescribed burning?

Our results, published today, were unexpected. Climate change may actually increase the number of burn days in some places, but the windows of opportunity will shift towards winter months. The bad news is that burning during these months potentially increases the public health impacts of smoke.

A hot debate

Hazard reduction involves removing vegetation that could otherwise fuel a fire, including burning under controlled conditions. But its effectiveness to subdue or prevent fires is often debated in the scientific community.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons weighs in on a national debate about hazard-reduction burns.

Those with experience on fire grounds, including Fitzsimmons, say it’s an important factor in fire management, but “not a pancea”.

Despite the debate, it’s clear hazard reduction burning will continue to be an important part of bushfire risk management in coming decades.




Read more:
The burn legacy: why the science on hazard reduction is contested


Modelling future weather

Before conducting prescribed burns, firefighting agencies consider factors such as vegetation type, proximity to property, desired rate of spread and possible smoke dispersal over populated areas. But we wanted to distil our investigation down to daily weather factors.

We reduced those factors to five key components. These were maximum temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, fuel moisture and the McArthur forest fire danger index (the index used to forecast fire danger in southeast Australia).

We looked at these elements on prescribed burning days between 2004-2015. We then used climate models to simulate how the conditions would change with global warming over southeast Australia, relative to a baseline historical 20-year period for 1990-2009.

To make a valid 20-year comparison, we compared the historical period to a modelled period from 2060-2079, assuming emissions continue to rise at their current pace.

A controlled burn in bushland, with small flames and lots of smoke.
Under global warming, suitable conditions for prescribed burns will be shifted to late winter and early spring in many places.
Shutterstock

Surprisingly, we found, with one regional exception, the number of days suitable for prescribed burning did not change. And in many places, the number increased.

As the fire season lengthened under a warming climate, the number of days suitable for burning just shifted from autumn to winter.

Shifting seasons

Our research indicated that by 2060 there’ll be fewer prescribed burning days during March, April and May. These are the months when most burning happens now.

But there will be significantly more opportunities for burning days from June to October. This is because the conditions that make for a good day for prescribed burning – such as mild and still days – start to shift to winter. Today, weather in these months is unsuitable for conducting burns.

Interestingly, these results aren’t uniform across southeast Australia. For example, much of the Australian east coast and South Australia would see seasonal shifts in burning windows, with around 50% fewer burning days in March to May.

Much of Victoria and in particular the southern regions saw an increase in burning windows during April to May and, in some parts of the state, through September and October as well.

Only the east Queensland coast would see a total reduction in prescribed burn days from April to October.

The smoke trap

This may be good news for firefighters and those agencies who depend on prescribed burning as a key tool in bushfire prevention. But, as so often is the case with climate change, it’s not that simple.

A byproduct of prescribed burning is smoke, and it’s a very significant health issue.

Last year, research showed global warming will strengthen an atmospheric layer that traps pollution close to the land surface, known as the “inversion layer”. This will happen in the years 2060-79, relative to 1990-2009 – especially during winter.




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Unfortunately, the conditions that create inversion layers – including cool, still air – correspond with conditions suitable for prescribed burning.

For asthmatics and those sensitive to air pollution, smokier burn days could make winter months more difficult and add further stress to the health system.

It also creates an additional challenge for firefighting agencies, which must already consider whether smoke will linger close to the surface and potentially drift into populated regions during prescribed burns.

This is just one factor our firefighting agencies will need to face in the future as bushfire risk management becomes more complex and challenging under climate change.




Read more:
How does bushfire smoke affect our health? 6 things you need to know


The Conversation


Giovanni Di Virgilio, Research associate, UNSW; Annette Hirsch, Post Doctoral Research Fellow, UNSW; Hamish Clarke, Research Fellow, University of Wollongong; Jason Evans, Professor, UNSW; Jason Sharples, Professor of Bushfire Dynamics, School of Science, UNSW Canberra, UNSW, and Melissa Hart, Graduate Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, UNSW

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

Humans see just 4.7km into the distance. So how can we truly understand what the bushfires destroyed?



Jamie Pittock

Nanda Jarosz, University of Sydney

When the ashes from Australia’s last bushfire season cooled, we were left with a few mind-boggling numbers: 34 human lives lost, more than a billion animals dead, and 18.6 million hectares of land burned.

But those figures don’t necessarily help us understand what was lost. The human mind struggles to grasp very large scales. And in Australia, our colonial past skews the way we view landscapes today.

This disconnect is important. Many scientific concepts, including climate change, happen at scales outside human perception.

Understanding the scale of destruction wrought by bushfires is vital if governments and societies are to adapt in the future. So how can Australians truly come to terms with the damage wrought by last summer’s bushfires?

Dead koala in burnt forest
More than a billion animals died in last summer’s fires.
Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Beyond human perception

On average, humans can only see about 4.7 kilometres into the distance. So perceiving the true extent of the destruction bushfires requires using our imaginations.

This is not only true of bushfires. It also applies to human understanding of climate change, nanoseconds, the size of the Universe and the geological time scale (the millions of years over which continents, oceans and mountains formed).

But science has shown humans have trouble understanding, or imagining, large orders of magnitude. In one US study for example, university students struggled to understand the relative relationships between the age of the Earth, the time required for the origin of the first life forms, and the evolution of dinosaurs and humans.




Read more:
Click through the tragic stories of 119 species still struggling after Black Summer in this interactive (and how to help)


Even university students studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have been shown to struggle with identifying and comparing magnitudes at large scales.

So what’s actually going on in our brains here? Research suggests humans use both numerical and “categorical” information – concepts drawn from their prior experience – to estimate the size of an object. For example, a person estimating the width of a truck might set it as a proportion of the presumed width of highway lanes.

The use of this prior experience can improve the accuracy of estimations. But it can also introduce bias and lead to inexact estimations.

Students in lab
Even university students studying STEM subjects struggled to comprehend large orders of magnitude.
Shutterstock

Understanding vast landscapes

During the fires, satellite images and interactive maps sought to help us understand the scale of the crisis. But they can’t give a full picture of the life destroyed. So how might we otherwise understand the richness lost in a burnt landscape?

Unfortunately, our colonial views of the land are not much help here. British colonisation of Australia, and subsequent land laws, were established on the basis of “terra nullius” – meaning the land belonged to no one. This denied Indigenous people’s prior occupation of the land in order to legitimise its “lawful” settlement by Europeans.

Settlers tended to describe the Australian landscape as empty and unpopulated when, in fact, it was biologically [abundant] and peopled by Indigenous Australians.




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These colonial views have had lasting effects. It took more than 200 years before the terra nullius myth was formally dispelled by the 1992 Mabo decision.

Seeking to understand Indigenous perspectives of Country might help non-Indigenous Australians to truly comprehend the loss brought by bushfires. As Indigenous academic Bhiamie Williamson wrote on The Conversation in January:

the experience of Aboriginal peoples in the fire crisis engulfing much of Australia is vastly different to non-Indigenous peoples. How do you support people forever attached to a landscape after an inferno tears through their homelands: decimating native food sources, burning through ancient scarred trees and destroying ancestral and totemic plants and animals?

A human-centric view

Beyond the colonial influence, our generally human-centred view of the world also tends to render invisible the plants and wildlife within it. As Australian researcher Brendan Wintle and others noted in a recent paper, firefighting strategies routinely overlook the need to protect natural assets. They wrote:

It may be unrealistic to expect critical habitats of our most precarious species to compete for firefighting resources with houses and farms. We are far too self-interested. However, could we imagine the last remaining habitat for a brush-tailed rock-wallaby (Petrogale penicillata) might feature as an asset for protection in a fire that is burning through a wilderness area? Surely that needs doing.

In other words, gaining a better understanding the scale of a fire’s destruction means taking a more holistic view of what dwells in the landscape, and might need saving.

Brush-tailed rock wallaby and joey
Rock wallaby habitat should be protected from fire.
Taronga Zoo

Future fires

Under climate change, bushfires in Australia will become more severe and frequent. So bearing in mind our limited abilities to perceive the potential scale of loss next time, what can we do to prepare?

As Wintle argues, more work is needed to organise conservation efforts before, during, and immediately after a bushfire. That includes establishing “insurance populations” of species and keeping them out of harm’s way, and better monitoring and surveying before a fire, so we know which places need protecting.

Williamson wrote of how most Indigenous Australians “have been consigned to the margins in managing our homelands”, watching on as they were “mismanaged and neglected”, which increased the bushfire risk.




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The current bushfire royal commission has pledged to consider ways Indigenous land and fire management practices could improve our resilience to natural disasters. There is much room for ancient traditions to be incorporated into mainstream fire management.

It will take some time to grasp the repercussions of the last bushfire season. But it’s clear that we must transcend colonial, non-Indigenous, human-centred perceptions of the land if we’re to truly understand what was lost.

The Conversation

Nanda Jarosz, PhD Candidate, University of Sydney

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

Click through the tragic stories of 119 species still struggling after Black Summer in this interactive (and how to help)



Shutterstock

Anthea Batsakis, The Conversation and Wes Mountain, The Conversation

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


Before the summer bushfires destroyed vast expanses of habitat, Australia was already in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. Now, some threatened species have been reduced to a handful of individuals – and extinctions are a real possibility.

The Kangaroo Island dunnart, a small marsupial, was listed as critically endangered before the bushfires. Then the inferno destroyed 95% of its habitat.

Prospects for the Banksia Montana mealybug are similarly grim. This flightless insect lives only on one species of critically endangered plant, at a high altitude national park in Western Australia. The fires destroyed 100% of the plant’s habitat.




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And fewer than 100 western ground parrots remained in the wild before last summer, on Western Australia’s south coast. Last summer’s fires destroyed 40% of its habitat.

Fish, crayfish and some frogs are also struggling. After the fires, heavy rain washed ash, fire retardants and dirt into waterways. This can clog and damage gills, and reduces the water’s oxygen levels. Some animals are thought to have suffocated.

Here, dozens of experts tell the stories of the 119 species most in need of help after our Black Summer.

How can I help?

Recovery from Australia’s bushfire catastrophe will be a long road. If you want to help, here are a few places to start.

Donate

Australian Wildlife Conservancy

Bush Heritage Australia

WWF

Birdlife Australia

Also see this list of registered bushfire charities

Volunteer

Parks Victoria

NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service

Conservation Volunteers Australia

Landcare

The Conversation

Anthea Batsakis, Deputy Editor: Environment + Energy, The Conversation and Wes Mountain, Multimedia Editor, The Conversation

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

Fire-ravaged Kangaroo Island is teeming with feral cats. It’s bad news for this little marsupial



AAP Image/Supplied by WWF-Australia

Rosemary Hohnen, Charles Darwin University and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

When I visited Kangaroo Island for the first time after the summer bushfires, I thought I knew what to expect. But what really hit me was the scale.

The wild western end of the island, once a vast mallee woodland peppered with wildflowers and mobs of roaming roos, had been completely erased. An immense dune field covered with sharp blackened sticks now stretched beyond the horizon, to the sea, hollow and quiet.

While fire is a fundamental process in many Australian ecosystems, the size and severity of this fire was extreme, and the impacts on the island’s wildlife has been immense.




Read more:
Summer bushfires: how are the plant and animal survivors 6 months on? We mapped their recovery


For the many threatened species on Kangaroo Island, such as the critically endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart, their fight for survival still isn’t over. High numbers of feral cats roaming the landscape now pose a huge threat to their persistence, with little vegetation left within the fire scar to provide cover for wildlife.

In fact, our recent research found there are, on average, almost double the number of cats per square kilometre on Kangaroo Island than on the mainland.

The scale of the fires

Kangaroo Island is uniquely positioned, home to wildlife native to both eastern and western Australia. It protects nationally threatened species, such as the glossy black-cockatoo, the pygmy copperhead, Rosenberg’s goanna and the Kangaroo Island dunnart.

The recent bushfires on Kangaroo Island were the largest ever recorded there, destroying swathes of habitat. Over a period of 49 days the fire burnt 211,255 hectares, impacting almost half of the island, particularly the western and central regions.

For the critically endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart, the fires burnt approximately 95% of the species’ known habitat and left them on the brink of extinction.

Dunnarts face extinction

The Kangaroo Island dunnart is a small carnivorous marsupial weighing about 20 grams, with soft sooty fur and dark eyes. The species eats mainly insects, and shelters in hollow logs and in the skirts of grass trees.

Even prior to the fire the species was considered likely to become extinct in the next 20 years. Despite extensive survey efforts, the dunnart had only been seen at 19 sites on Kangaroo Island between 1990 and 2019.

Our own survey work between 2017 and 2018 confirmed the persistence of the dunnart at just six sites in the national park, with Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife detecting several additional records on private land. All sites were in the western half of the island where the recent fires burned.

Many dunnarts are likely to have died in the fire itself, but individuals that survived are left extremely vulnerable to starvation and feral cat predation.

Cats roaming the island in big numbers

Between two and six million feral cats are estimated to live in Australia, and collectively kill more than three billion animals per year.




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The problem is so large, a parliamentary inquiry is, for the first time in 30 years, investigating the impact of feral and domestic cats to native wildlife.

What’s more, in some areas on Kangaroo Island where the availability of animal carcasses is high, the density of feral cats is more than ten times as high as mainland estimates.

There are twice as many cats per square kilometre on Kangaroo Island than on mainland Australia.
Shutterstock

A high cat density poses a formidable threat to wildlife survival during the post-fire period, because cats will sometimes travel large distances to hunt within recent fire scars. Research is underway on the island to examine exactly how the fires have changed cat densities and hunting behaviour in and around burnt areas.

How to control feral cats

Controlling feral cats is one of the biggest challenges in Australian conservation. Cats are cryptic and cautious, hard to find, see, trap and remove.

Despite the challenge, a large-scale feral cat eradication is underway on Kangaroo Island. This is the largest island on which cat eradication has ever been attempted, and the project will take years.




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In the meantime, feral cats are being controlled around the last refuges for Kangaroo Island dunnarts. There are multiple methods for this including shooting and cage trapping, but in remote areas that are hard to access, poison-baiting is likely to be an effective, long-term strategy.

Most feral cat baits are meat-based, but our research shows possums and bush rats are still likely to consume them.

Therefore, researchers have worked for many years on strategies to minimise the potential impacts of feral cat baits on native wildlife. For example, the poison can be delivered within a hard plastic pellet, inside the meat bait.

Field trials have indicated that while cats swallow portions of this bait whole, ingesting the pellet, most native wildlife will chew around and discard the pellet.

Hope emerges after huge survey effort

Despite the gravity of the risk to Kangaroo Island wildlife, there is hope. A huge, dedicated and effective survey effort by both government and non-government organisations has resulted in the detection of Kangaroo Island dunnarts at more than 22 sites.

Kangaroo Island dunnarts have been spotted in devastated parts of the landscape.
Jody Gates, Author provided

These small populations have been found mostly within patches of unburnt vegetation, but also – almost unbelievably – in areas that have been completely burnt.




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Many of these populations appear to be very small and isolated. And now, more than ever, they’re extremely vulnerable. Targeted cat control and/or protection of vulnerable populations with exclusion fencing may be the only way to prevent their extinction.

By controlling cats, we can help native species like the Kangaroo Island dunnart get through this difficult time, and continue to fulfil their place in that wild landscape for years to come.


The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Paul Jennings, Pat Hodgens, Heidi Groffen, James Smith and Trish Mooney, for their generous contributions to this article.The Conversation

Rosemary Hohnen, Adjunct associate, Charles Darwin University and Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University

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

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



John Harrison/WIkimedia

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The plight of the eastern bristlebird

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

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




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

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

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

A rollercoaster ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to Cape Howe

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

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

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

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

A model for the future

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

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




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

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

The Conversation

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

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

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



Jess Marsh, Author provided

Jess Marsh, Murdoch University

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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The sea-faring spider

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

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

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

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

Assessing the damage

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

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

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

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

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

Why should we care?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


The Conversation

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

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

A few months ago, science gave this rare lizard a name – and it may already be headed for extinction


Australian Museum

Jodi Rowley, Australian Museum

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


Bushfires are a threat to most animal species. But for one rare lizard living on a rocky island in the sky, a single blaze could wipe the species off the planet.

The Kaputar rock skink (Egernia roomi) is thought to have have one of the smallest ranges of any reptile in New South Wales – at the summit of a single extinct volcano, Mount Kaputar.

The existence of this mysterious skink was informally known for decades, and in August last year the species was finally scientifically described. But months later, it may already be headed for extinction.

Late last year, bushfires are thought to have ripped through more than half the Kaputar rock skink’s habitat. We don’t yet know what this means for its survival, but the outlook is not good.

The fire in Kaputar National Park that tore through the skink’s habitat.
Narrabri Rural Fire Brigade

A very special skink

The Kaputar rock skink is handsome lizard, typically around 10 centimetres in body length, with dark chocolate brown and grey scales and an orange belly.

It’s found in the Nandewar Ranges near Narrabri. The ranges – weathered remnants of ancient volcanic eruptions between 21 and 17 million years ago – rise out of the surrounding plains in a series of breathtaking rock formations.




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The Kaputar rock skink lives on one of these outcrops, Mount Kaputar. It exists on a narrow band of rock at the summit, more than 1,300 metres above sea level.

This high elevation areas is cooler than the surrounding plains, which suits this cool-adapted species perfectly. But the species’ tiny range means it’s highly vulnerable. When danger strikes, the Kaputar rock skink has nowhere to go.

The skink lives at the highest point of Mount Kaputar.
Jodi Rowley, Author provided

When the fires hit

Bushfires tore through the Nandewar Ranges in October and November last year, reportedly burning more than 17,000 hectares of bush. More than half of Kaputar rock skink habitat is believed to have burned.

The expert panel advising the federal government on bushfire recovery has named the skink as one of 119 severely-affected species needing urgent conservation intervention. But the species’ rugged, remote habitat, combined with COVID-19 restrictions, have delayed efforts to assess the extent of the damage.




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It’s likely that many Kaputar rock skinks died during the fires themselves, although we hope others survived by crawling deep into rock cracks.

But after the fires, threats remain. Vegetation loss may make the skinks easy prey, and in a charred landscape, there may be little for the reptiles to eat.

History tells us fires do affect high-elevation skinks. For example, fire is thought to have driven the rock-dwelling Guthega skink (Liopholis guthega) to become locally extinct at some sites on the Bogong High Plains in northeast Victoria.

A mountain of threats

Species restricted to a small area are vulnerable to any loss of habitat. And fire is not the only threat to the Kaputar rock skink.

Climate change is a big concern. While many species respond to increasing temperatures by migrating uphill to cooler climes, that’s not possible for the skink, which is already precariously perched on a summit.




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Introduced goats may also be taking a toll as they trample through the rocky terrain.

Evidence suggests humans are also a disturbance to the Kaputar rock skink’s habitat. The reptiles live close to the edge of cliff lines that are readily accessible by walking tracks. Trampling of low vegetation has been observed at many sites, as have disturbed rocks – the latter possibly from people wanting to find and photograph the species.

The Kaputar rock skink’s tiny habitat was badly affected by fire.
Mark Eldridge, Author provided

Where to now?

Scientists know relatively little about the Kaputar rock skink. One thing we’re sure of, though, is that the species’ existence is threatened.

Surveys are needed at known skink locations, as well as surrounding areas where it might lie undiscovered. Understanding where the species occurs and how it responds to fires, drought and other disturbances is critical to conservation efforts.




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Of course it’s the middle of winter now, so the skinks may not be very active on their cold mountain top. But my colleagues and I hope to travel to Mount Kaputar soon to survey the skink’s habitat and find out how the species fared.

It’s just months since science officially welcomed the Kaputar rock skink to the world. It’s far too early to say goodbye.

Dane Trembath, an Australian Museum biologist with a focus on reptiles, contributed to this article.

The Conversation

Jodi Rowley, Curator, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology, Australian Museum

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

Summer bushfires: how are the plant and animal survivors 6 months on? We mapped their recovery


Anthea Batsakis, The Conversation; Nicole Hasham, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, The Conversation

Australia roared into 2020 as a land on fire. The human and property loss was staggering, but the damage to nature was equally hard to fathom. By the end of the fire season 18.6 million hectares of land was destroyed.

So what’s become of animal and plant survivors in the months since?

Click through below to explore the impact Australia’s summer of fires had on an already drought-ravaged landscape and the work being done to rescue and recover habitats.


The Conversation

Anthea Batsakis, Deputy Editor: Environment + Energy, The Conversation; Nicole Hasham, Section Editor: Energy + Environment, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, Multimedia Editor, The Conversation

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

‘Death by irony’: The mystery of the mouse that died of smoke inhalation, but went nowhere near a fire



Source: Museums Victoria/David Paul

Andrew Peters, Charles Sturt University

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


I looked through the microscope at the insides of a dead smoky mouse, and could barely believe my eyes. Thousands of tiny smoke particles lined its lungs. But the mouse had been kept more than 50 kilometres from the nearest bushfires. How could this be?

As it turned out, the critically endangered mouse had died from smoke inhalation. Some 45 had been held at a captive breeding facility near Canberra. Nine ultimately died – the first recorded wildlife in the world killed by bushfire smoke far outside a fire zone.

The deaths were a blow for conservation efforts. But in recent weeks, there’s been good news: smoky mice have been spotted at seven sites burnt in the fires. For now, at least, the species lives on.

The smoky mouse case shows bushfire smoke can affect wildlife far from the fire zone.
NASA Earth Observatory

A unique, bulgy-eyed rodent

The smoky mouse is shy, gentle and small – usually about nine centimetres in body length, plus its tail. They are rather cute, with bulgy eyes and very soft grey fur which inspired the species’ name.

In the wild, the smoky mouse is limited to a few sites in Victoria’s Grampians and East Gippsland, as well as in Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales. It lives in underground communal nests, in heath and forest habitats.




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Ancestors of the smoky mouse arrived in Australia more than five million years ago when the Australian continent finally drifted close enough to Southeast Asia for rodents to raft across.

These ancient rodents diversified into more than 50 species. Many, like the smoky mouse, are in decline. Others, like the white-footed rabbit-rat have already become extinct.

Several threats are reducing smoky mouse numbers, but feral cats and foxes are a major cause.

Baby smoky mice photographed in 2017 at the captive breeding facility.
Office of Environment and Heritage

Death by irony?

Some 119 animal species were identified for urgent conservation intervention following the fires. The smoky mouse was among them. Modelling showed 26% of its distribution overlapped with burnt areas, and in NSW more than 90% of the species’ habitat burned.

I am a wildlife health and pathology expert based in Wagga Wagga in NSW, and part of my job is to diagnose why animals have died. The first dead smoky mouse I encountered had come from a Canberra breeding facility. It was sent by a vet and arrived via courier in mid-January.

Through the microscope: smoke particles in the lungs of a smoky mouse suffering smoke inhalation.

In a note attached, the vet suggested bushfire smoke had killed the smoky mouse – and asked, in a nod to the species’ name, if this was a case of “death by irony”.

Canberra, like many other cities and towns, was shrouded in thick smoke in January. But the breeding facility was more than 50 kilometres from the nearest fire zone, so I thought the vet’s theory was unlikely.

When I and other veterinary pathologists examined organs of the mouse under the microscope, the only abnormality we could find was fluid and congestion in the mouse’s lungs.

Over the following month, eight more smoky mice died. I inspected the lungs of one – to my shock, it contained thousands of brown smoke particles. Once I knew the distribution of particles to look for, I found them in most of the other dead mice too.

The mice didn’t die immediately after inhaling the smoke. They hung on, but when temperatures in Canberra spiked at more than 40℃, they went into respiratory distress and died.




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Death from smoke inhalation has long been suspected in wildlife. But it’s poorly recorded because after bushfires, the bodies of dead animals are usually incinerated or too decomposed to make a diagnosis.

The smoky mouse case shows bushfire smoke can damage wild animals far beyond fire zones. That means the impact of bushfires on wildlife may be greater than we thought.

Seven smoky mice have been spotted in the wild since the bushfires.
Museums Victoria

A bit of good news

There is hope for the smoky mouse. Motion-sensing cameras set up in Kosciuszko National Park after the fires have recorded smoky mice at seven burnt sites. Over the next year, more sites will be surveyed to better understand how many individuals remain, and where they live.

Most smoky mice at the Canberra captive breeding facility survived, and there are plans to release some into the wild. This captive breeding program has also been identified as a priority for federal funding.

But as global warming escalates, fires in Australia are predicted to become even worse. Now more than ever, the future of the smoky mouse, along with many other Australian animals, hinges on decisive climate action. Captive breeding programs and blind hope will not be enough.




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The Conversation

Andrew Peters, Associate Professor of Wildlife Health and Pathology, Charles Sturt University

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

Before and after: see how bushfire and rain turned the Macquarie perch’s home to sludge



Mannus Creek in NSW during the 2020 bushfire period.
Luke Pearce, Author provided

Lee Baumgartner, Charles Sturt University; Katie Doyle, Charles Sturt University; Luiz G M Silva, Charles Sturt University; Luke Pearce, and Nathan Ning, Charles Sturt University

This article is a preview of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a multimedia project launching on Monday July 13. The project tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Sign up to The Conversation’s newsletter for updates.


The unprecedented intensity and scale of Australia’s recent bushfires left a trail of destruction across Australia. Millions of hectares burned and more than a billion animals were affected or died. When the rains finally arrived, the situation for many fish species went from dangerous to catastrophic.

A slurry of ash and mud washed into waterways, turning freshwater systems brown and sludgy. Oxygen levels plummeted and water quality deteriorated rapidly.

Hundreds of thousands of fish suffocated. It was akin to filling your fish tank with mud and expecting your goldfish to survive.

Take, for example, the plight of the endangered Macquarie perch (Macquaria australasica), an Australian native freshwater fish of the Murray-Darling river system.

A Macquarie perch.
Luke Pearce, Author provided



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A special fish

Macquarie perch were once one of the most abundant fish in the Murray-Darling Basin. Revered by the community and once responsible for supporting extensive Indigenous, recreational, commercial and subsistence fisheries, they are an iconic species found nowhere else in the world. However, they have very specific needs.

Macquarie perch like rocky river sections with clear, fast-flowing water, shaded by trees and bushes on the banks.

Massive change wrought on our rivers over the past century means Macquarie perch are now only found at a handful of locations in the Murray-Darling Basin.

One habitat – Mannus Creek near the NSW Snowy Mountains – is particularly special because it was relatively pristine before the fires. In fact, this creek contained the last population of the threatened Macquarie perch in the NSW Murray catchment. A study in 2017 found a Macquarie perch population that was restricted to a 9km section of the creek but was doing quite well.

That was until bushfire rapidly swept through the catchment in January this year.

Some of us visited the creek three weeks after the fires. The intensity, ferocity and speed of the fires meant nothing was spared. The former forest floor was literally a trail of death and destruction – dead and charred kangaroos, wallabies, deer, possums and birds were everywhere.

All that remained of Mannus Creek was green pools in a blackened landscape, still smouldering days after the fire front passed. We immediately feared for the Macquarie perch we’d sampled, which were quite healthy less than a year before.

To our surprise, some Macquarie perch had survived. But with most of the catchment fully burnt, and no vegetation to stop runoff, we knew it was a ticking time bomb.

A desperate rescue attempt

With little time, we had to remove as many fish as possible from Mannus Creek before the rains arrived. The plan was to create an “insurance population” in case rain caused the water conditions to deteriorate.

We rescued ten fish. Days later, rain washed ash and silt into the channel. Within hours, the once-pristine creek became flowing mud with the consistency of cake mix.

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A government rescue team arrived a few days later to rescue more fish, and despaired at the “wall of ash and mud”.

An ark across Australia

Those ten individual Macquarie perch now live in an “ark” of at-risk species, spanning government and private hatchery facilities.

The ark is housing not only the Macquarie perch but other threatened species too. The rescued individuals, and perhaps their entire species, would have almost certainly perished during runoff events without these interventions.

Now a waiting game begins.

What next for the Macquarie perch?

Nobody knows for sure how many fish survived in Mannus Creek, nor how long it will take for the creek to recover. It could be years.

Ash and mud flow into Lake Macquarie after the fires.
Luke Pearce, Author provided

The challenge now is to support the rescued fish until it’s safe to either return them to the creek, or breed offspring and introduce them to their natural habitat.

Fish must be kept healthy and disease-free in captivity, and enough genetic diversity must be maintained for the population to remain viable.

If these rescued fish are held in captivity for too long, they might die. But equally worrying is that affected waterways may not recover in time to allow reintroduction.




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While maintaining the rescued populations, we must redouble our efforts to improve their natural habitats.

Burnt areas can allow pest plant and animal species to take hold and change habitats, so these threats need to be controlled. Finding similar, unburnt refuge areas is also crucial to prepare for future events and protect ecosystem resilience.

Working through these considerations – and quickly – is essential to giving these species the best hope of survival.

Funding, equipment and human resources are desperately needed to help our rivers recover. But we know that without an effective on-ground intervention, recovery could take decades.

For the iconic Macquarie perch, that would be too late.




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The sweet relief of rain after bushfires threatens disaster for our rivers


The Conversation


Lee Baumgartner, Professor of Fisheries and River Management, Institute for Land, Water, and Society, Charles Sturt University; Katie Doyle, Freshwater Ecologist, Charles Sturt University; Luiz G M Silva, Freshwater Fish Scientist, Charles Sturt University; Luke Pearce, Fisheries Manager, and Nathan Ning, Freshwater Ecologist, Charles Sturt University

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