5 remarkable stories of flora and fauna in the aftermath of Australia’s horror bushfire season



hamiltonphillipa/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC-SA

Will Cornwell, UNSW; Casey Kirchhoff, UNSW, and Mark Ooi, UNSW

Around one year ago, Australia’s Black Summer bushfire season ended, leaving more than 8 million hectares across south-east Australia a mix of charcoal, ash and smoke. An estimated three billion animals were killed or displaced, not including invertebrates.

The impact of the fires on biodiversity was too vast for professional scientists alone to collect data. So in the face of this massive challenge, we set up a community (citizen) science project through the iNaturalist website to help paint a more complete picture of which species are bouncing back — and which are not.

Almost 400 community scientists living near or travelling across the firegrounds have recorded their observations of flora and fauna in the aftermath, from finding fresh wombat droppings in blackened forests, to hearing the croaks of healthy tree frogs in a dam choked with debris and ash.

Each observation is a story of survival against the odds, or of tragedy. Here are five we consider particularly remarkable.

Greater gliders after Australia’s largest ever fire

The Gospers Mountain fire in New South Wales was the biggest forest fire in Australian history, razing an area seven times the size of Singapore. This meant there nothing in history scientists could draw from to predict the animals’ response.

So it came as a huge surprise when a community scientist observed greater gliders deep within the heart of the Gospers Mountain firegrounds in Wollemi National Park, far from unburned habitat. Greater gliders are listed as “vulnerable” under national environment law. They’re nocturnal and live in hollow-bearing trees.

A greater glider with shining eyes at night
A citizen scientist snapped this photo of a greater glider in the heart of the the Gospers Mountain firegrounds.
Mike Letnic/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

How gliders survived the fire is still unknown. Could they have hidden in deep hollows of trees where the temperature is relatively cooler while the fire front passed? And what would they have eaten afterwards? Greater gliders usually feed on young leaves and flowers, but these foods are very rare in the post-fire environment.

Finding these gliders shows how there’s still so much to learn about the resilience of species in the face of even the most devastating fires, especially as bushfires are forecast to become more frequent.

Rare pink flowers burnishing the firegrounds

The giant scale of the 2019-20 fires means post-fire flowering is on display in grand and gorgeous fashion. This is a feature of many native plant species which need fire to stimulate growth.

Excitingly, community scientists recorded a long-dormant species, the pink flannel flower (Actinotus forsythii), that’s now turning vast areas of the Blue Mountains pink.

Pink flannel flowers are bushfire ephemerals, which means their seeds only germinate after fire.
Margaret Sky/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

Pink flannel flowers are not considered threatened, but they are very rarely seen.

Individuals of this species spend most of their life as a seed in the soil. Seeds require a chemical found in bushfire smoke, and the right seasonal temperatures, to germinate.

Rediscovering the midge orchid

Much of Australia’s amazing biodiversity is extremely local. Some species, particularly plants, exist only in a single valley or ridge. The Black Summer fires destroyed the entire range of 100 Australian plant species, incinerating the above-ground parts of every individual. How well a species regenerates after fire determines whether it recovers, or is rendered extinct.

The midge orchid.
Nick Lambert/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

One of these is a species of midge orchid, which grows in a small area of Gibraltar Range National Park, NSW.

All of the midge orchid’s known sites are thought to have burned in late 2019. The species fate was unknown until two separate community scientists photographed it at five sites in January 2021, showing its recovery.

Like many of Australia’s terrestrial orchids, this species has an underground tuber (storage organ) which may have helped part of it avoid the flames’ lethal heat.




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Don’t forget about insects

Despite their incredible diversity and tremendous value to society, insects tend to be the forgotten victims of bushfires and other environmental disasters.

Many trillions of invertebrates would have been killed in the fires of last summer. A common sight during and after the bushfire season was a deposit of dead insects washed ashore. Some died from the flames and heat, while others died having drowned trying to escape.

Dead insects washed up on the beach was a common sight in the fire aftermath.
BlueBowerStudio/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

One dead insect deposit — one of hundreds that washed up near Bermagui, NSW on Christmas Eve — included a range of species that have critical interactions with other organisms.

This includes orchid dupe wasps (Lissopimpla excelsa), the only known pollinator of the orchid genus Cryptostylis. Transverse ladybirds (Coccinella transversalis), an important predator of agricultural pests such as aphids, also washed up. As did metallic shield bugs (Scutiphora pedicellata), spectacular iridescent jewel bugs that come in green and blue hues.

Some insects died from the flames and heat, while others died having drowned trying to escape the flames.
BlueBowerStudio/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

The unlikely survival of the Kaputar slug

Creatures such as kangaroos or birds have a chance to flee bushfires, but smaller, less mobile species such as native slugs and snails have a much tougher time of surviving.

The 2019-2020 bushfire season significantly threatened the brilliantly coloured Mount Kaputar pink slug, found only on the slopes of Mount Kaputar, NSW. When fires ripped through the national park in October and November 2019, conservationists feared the slug may have been entirely wiped out.




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But park ranger surveys in January 2020 found at least 60 individuals managed to survive, likely by sheltering in damp rock crevices. Community scientists have spotted more individuals since then, such as the one pictured here found in September 2020.

But the slug isn’t out of the woods yet, and more monitoring is required to ensure the population is not declining.

Bright pink slug
A community scientist spotted this rare slug in firegrounds.
Taylor/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

Continuing this work

While community scientists have been documenting amazing stories of recovery all across Australia, there are still many species which haven’t been observed since the fires. Many more have been observed only at a single site.

The Snowy River westringia (Westringia cremnophila), for instance, is a rare flowering shrub found on cliffs in Snowy River National Park, Victoria. No one has reported observing it since the fire.

So far these community scientist observations have contributed to one scientific paper, and three more documenting the ability for species to recover post-fire are in process.

Recovery from Black Summer is likely to take decades, and preparing a body of scientific data on post-fire recovery is vital to inform conservation efforts after this and future fires. We need more observations to continue this important work.




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


The Conversation


Will Cornwell, Associate Professor in Ecology and Evolution, UNSW; Casey Kirchhoff, PhD Candidate, UNSW, and Mark Ooi, Senior Research Fellow, UNSW

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

Open data shows lightning, not arson, was the likely cause of most Victorian bushfires last summer



Tracy Nearmy/AAP

Dianne Cook, Monash University

As last summer’s horrific bushfires raged, so too did debate about what caused them. Despite the prolonged drought and ever worsening climate change, some people sought to blame the fires largely on arson.

Federal Coalition MPs were among those pushing the arsonist claim. And on Twitter, a fierce hashtag war broke out: “#ClimateEmergency” vs “#ArsonEmergency”.

Fire authorities rejected the arson claims, saying most fires were thought to be caused by lightning.

We dug into open data resources to learn more about the causes of last summer’s bushfires in Victoria, and further test the arson claim. Our analysis suggests 82% of the fires can be attributed to lightning, 14% to accidents and 1% to burning off. Only 4% can be attributed to arson.

Lightning in the sky
Lightning, not arson, caused most Victorian bushfires last summer.
Twitter

What we did

We started with hotspots data taken from the Himawari-8 satellite, which shows heat source locations over time and space, in almost real time. We omitted hotspots unlikely to be bushfires, and used a type of data mining called “spatiotemporal clustering” – where time dimension is introduced to geographic data – to estimate ignition time and location.

We supplemented this with data from other sources: temperature, moisture, rainfall, wind, sun exposure, fuel load, as well as distance to camp sites, roads and Country Fire Authority (CFA) stations.




Read more:
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Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) holds historical data on bushfire ignition from 2000 to the 2018-19 summer. The forensic research required to determine fire cause is laborious, and remotely sensed data from satellites may be useful and more immediate.

By training our model on the historical data, we can more immediately predict causes of last summer’s fires detected from satellite data. (Note: even though we were analysing events in the past, we use the term “predict” because authorities have not released official data.)

DELWP’s data attributes 41% of fires to lightning, 17% to arson, 34% to accidents and 7% to hazard reduction or back burning which escaped containment lines (which our analysis refers to as burning off).

Causes of fires from 2000-2019. Lightning is most common cause. The number of fires is increasing, and this is mostly due to accidents.
Own work

To make predictions for the 2019-20 bushfires, we needed an accurate model for causes in the historical data. We trained the model to predict one of four causes – lightning, accident, arson, burning off – using a machine learning algorithm.

The model performed well on the historical data: 75% overall accuracy, 90% accurate on lightning, 78% for accidents, and 54% for arson (which was mostly confused with accident, as would make sense).

The most important contributors to distinguishing between lightning and arson (or accident) ignition were distance to CFA stations, roads and camp sites, and average wind speed.

As might be expected, smaller distances to CFA stations, roads and camp sites, and higher than average winds, meant the fire was most likely the result of arson or accident. In the case of longer distances, where bush would have been largely inaccessible to the public, lightning was predicted to be the cause.

Spatial distribution of causes of fires from 2000-2019, and predictions for 2019-2020 season.
Own work

What we found

Our model predicted that 82% of Victoria’s fires in the summer of 2019-2020 were due to lightning. Most fires were located in densely vegetated areas inaccessible by road – similar to the historical locations. (The percentage is double that in the historical data, though, probably because the satellite hotspot data can see fire ignitions in locations inaccessible to fire experts).

All fires in February 2020 were predicted to be due to lightning. Accident and arson were commonly predicted causes in March, and early in the season. Reassuringly, ignition due to burning off was predicted primarily in October 2019, prior to the fire restrictions.

Spatio-temporal distribution of cause predictions for 2019-2020 season. Reassuringly, fires due to burning off primarily occurred in October, prior to fire restrictions. February fires were all predicted to be due to lightning.
Own work

Quicker fire ignition information

Our analysis used open-data and open-source software, and could be applied to fires elsewhere in Australia.

This analysis shows how we can quickly predict causes of bushfires, using satellite data combined with other information. It could reduce the work of fire forensics teams, and provide more complete fire ignition data in future.

The code used for the analysis can be found here. Explore the historical fire data, predictions for 2019-2020 fires, and a fire risk map for Victoria using this app.


This analysis is based on thesis research by Monash University Honours student Weihao Li. She was supervised by the author, and former Principal Inventive Scientist at AT&T Labs Research, Emily Dodwell. The Australian Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers supported Emily’s travel to Australia to start this project. The full analysis is available here.

The Conversation

Dianne Cook, Professor of Business Analytics, Monash University

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

Before and after: 4 new graphics show the recovery from last summer’s bushfire devastation



Airborne Research Australia, Author provided

Jorg Michael Hacker, Flinders University

Two days before Christmas last year, a fire reached our heritage-protected bush property in the Adelaide Hills, and destroyed our neighbour’s house. For the next two weeks we were on constant alert to keep the fire in check.

Green shoots of grass trees after bushfire
Grass trees are some of the first plants to regrow after a bushfire.
Wikimedia, CC BY

A few weeks later, I flew over fire-affected areas in the Adelaide Hills and had my first aerial view of the devastation. Fighting fires around my home, and what I saw on this flight, convinced me to get involved with helping recovery in the aftermath of the fires.

In the past year, I’ve taken high-resolution aerial data to monitor the recovery of fire-affected areas and help with post-fire efforts. This work includes clearing access tracks into burnt forests, locating unburnt areas within burnt forests to serve as refuges for wildlife, or simply documenting the degree of destruction.

I now have a unique dataset – a combination of very high-resolution and detail from three sensors: aerial photography, airborne Lidar (a way to measure distances with laser light) and hyperspectral imaging (looking at the landscape and vegetation with hundreds of narrow wavelengths).

Flying at just 250 metres above the ground, it’s possible to generate complete three-dimensional views and animations of the landscape and its features at resolutions in the 10cm-range.

Usually such airborne data is only available to government agencies, industry and sometimes researchers, but rarely to the general public. So we decided to make the data publicly available, so anyone can download it. It will help you appreciate the level of destruction, and how it varied for different landscapes.

My property, for example, is showing strong regrowth, but most of our neighbour’s block burnt so intensely that even now, after nearly one year, there’s very little regrowth even in terms of ground cover.

Here are a few examples of the landscape’s recovery around Kangaroo Island, generated from our data.



Bushfires decimated almost half of Kangaroo Island. The image sequence above shows a small area on Kangaroo Island before the fires and about one, three and nine months afterwards.

Before the fires, the landscape was dominated by dense bushland, which the fires nearly completely destroyed. The first signs of regrowth were visible after three months, and even more so after nine months.

The imagery is so detailed you can inspect the regrowth even for individual trees and scrubs. And in the slider below, you can more clearly compare how well the bushland regrew between February and October this year.

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Much of Australia’s native flora have evolved to cope with fire. Grass trees are among the first species to recover, and the Lidar data below demonstrates just how dramatic this recovery is.

Thousands of grass trees (“yuccas”) on Kangaroo Island grew up to seven metre-high flowers in the months after the fires. This is a typical phenomenon for this species after fire, and we were lucky enough to see this first hand on our bushland property, too.


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The video below shows the regrowth in and around a tree plantation on Kangaroo Island, directly after the fires and then after nine months. You can clearly see the intense regrowth on the ground and near the bottom of the burnt trees.

Usually firegrounds are observed via satellite imagery, imagery captured from high-flying survey aircraft and, more recently, using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). None of these observations can map the landscape at the exceptionally high detail over large areas and with the combination of sensors as we have flown.

High-resolution aerial photographs at pixel sizes as small as five centimetres can be put together in a mosaic, covering many square kilometres. Combined with Lidar, and the hyperspectral scanner, we get detailed animations, such as those in the video, which can zero in on various intricate aspects, such as vegetation health.



How these datasets can help bushfire recovery

With a some moderate funding, we can continue these regular mapping flights next year and beyond to learn how these areas develop. We can put this into context with other factors, such as burn severity, soil structure and vegetation type.

Such detailed datasets would assist researchers assessing flammability and fuel load (dried vegetation) which, in turn, would help prevent and even fight future fires.




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Flammability and fuel load, alongside the slope of the landscape, are key parameters in computer simulations of fire behaviour. High resolution datasets depicting landscapes before and after bushfire can verify the simulation results, and help to improve the performance of the models.

Our datasets can also be useful for people needing to access areas directly after the fires, such as identifying where burnt trees have fallen, or are just about to do so.

For our own bushland block in the Adelaide Hills, these detailed imagery and datasets means we can study the regrowth from the Cudlee Creek Fire almost a year ago, as well as from previous fires. For example, some areas were burnt in the 2015 Sampson Flat Fire and had already regrown over the four years — only to be burnt again.

Continuing such flights would require a comparatively low amount of funding. However, this is currently not available in the standard government grant system. You can download data from the mapping flights over Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island.




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The Conversation


Jorg Michael Hacker, Chief Scientist at Airborne Research Australia (ARA); and Professor, Flinders University

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

3 billion animals were in the bushfires’ path. Here’s what the royal commission said (and should’ve said) about them


Ashleigh Best, University of Melbourne; Christine Parker, University of Melbourne, and Lee Godden, University of Melbourne

The Black Summer bushfires were devastating for wildlife, with an estimated three billion wild animals killed, injured or displaced. This staggering figure does not include the tens of thousands of farm animals who also perished.

The bushfire royal commission’s final report, released on October 30, recognised the gravity of the fires’ extraordinary toll on animals.




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It recommended governments improve wildlife rescue arrangements, develop better systems for understanding biodiversity and clarify evacuation options for domestic animals.

While these changes are welcome and necessary, they’re not sufficient. Minimising such catastrophic impacts on wildlife and livestock also means reducing their exposure to these hazards in the first place. And unless we develop more proactive strategies to protect threatened species from disasters, they’ll only become more imperilled.

What the royal commission recommended

The royal commission recognised the need for wildlife rescuers to have swift and safe access to fire grounds.

In the immediate aftermath of the bushfires, some emergency services personnel were confused about the roles and responsibilities of wildlife rescuers. This caused delays in rescue operations.

To address this issue, the royal commission sensibly suggested all state and territory governments integrate wildlife rescue functions into their general disaster planning frameworks. This would improve coordination between different response agencies.




Read more:
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Another issue raised by the commission was that Australia does not have a comprehensive, central source of information about its native flora and fauna. This is, in part, because species listing processes are fragmented across different jurisdictions.

For example, a marsupial, the white-footed dunnart, is listed as vulnerable in NSW, but is not on the federal government’s list of threatened species.

To better manage and protect wild animals, governments need more complete information on, for example, their range and population, and how climate change threatens them.

As a result, the royal commission recommended governments collect and share more accurate information so disaster response and recovery efforts for wildlife could be more targeted, timely and effective.

A wildlife rescuer holds a koala with burnt feet in a burnt forest
Adelaide wildlife rescuer Simon Adamczyk takes a koala to safety on Kangaroo Island.
AAP Image/David Mariuz

Helping animals help themselves

While promising, the measures listed in the royal commission’s final report will only tweak a management system for wildlife already under stress. Current legal frameworks for protecting threatened species are reactive. By the time governments intervene, species have often already reached a turning point.

Governments must act to allow wild animals the best possible chances of escaping and recovering on their own.

This means prioritising the protection and restoration of habitat that allows animals to get to safety. As a World Wildlife Fund report explains, an animal’s ability to flee the fires and find safe, unburnt habitat — such as mesic (moist) refuges in gullies or near waterways — directly influenced their chances of survival.




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Wildlife corridors also assist wild animals to survive and recover from disasters. These connect areas of habitat, providing fast moving species with safe routes along which they can flee from hazards.

And these corridors help slow moving species, such as koalas, to move across affected landscapes after fires. This prevents them from becoming isolated, and enables access to food and water.

Hazard reduction activities, such as removing dry vegetation that fuels fires, were also a focus for the royal commission. These can coexist with habitat conservation when undertaken in ecologically-sensitive ways.

As the commission recognised, Indigenous land and fire management practices are informed by intimate knowledge of plants, animals and landscapes. These practices should be integrated into habitat protection policies in consultation with First Nations land managers.

The commission also suggested natural hazards, such as fire, be counted as a “key threatening process” under national environment law. But it should be further amended to protect vulnerable species under threat from future stressors, such as disasters.




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Governments also need to provide more funding to monitor compliance with this law. Another new World Wildlife Fund report warns that unless it is properly enforced, a further 37 million native animals could be displaced or killed as a result of habitat destruction this decade.

And, as we saw last summer, single bushfire events can push some populations much closer to extinction. For example, the fires destroyed a large portion of the already endangered glossy black-cockatoo’s remaining habitat.

What about pets and farm animals?

Pets and farm animals featured in the commission’s recommendations too.

During the bushfires, certain evacuation centres didn’t cater for these animals. This meant some evacuees chose not to use these facilities because they couldn’t take their animals with them.

To guide the community in future disasters, the commission said plans should clearly identify whether or not evacuation centres can accommodate people with animals.




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Evacuation planning is crucial to effective disaster response. However, it is unfortunately not always feasible to move large groups of livestock off properties at short notice.

For this reason, governments should help landholders to mitigate the risks hazards pose to their herds and flocks. Researchers are already starting to do this by investigating the parts of properties that were burnt during the bushfires. This will help farmers identify the safest paddocks for their animals in future fire seasons.

Disasters are only expected to become more intense and extreme as the climate changes. And if we’re to give our pets, livestock and unique wildlife the best chance at surviving, it’s not enough only to have sound disaster response. Governments must preemptively address the underlying sources of animals’ vulnerability to hazards.




Read more:
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The Conversation


Ashleigh Best, PhD Candidate and Teaching Fellow, University of Melbourne; Christine Parker, Professor of Law, University of Melbourne, and Lee Godden, Director, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environmental Law, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne

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

From Kangaroo Island to Mallacoota, citizen scientists proved vital to Australia’s bushfire recovery


Alan Finkel, Office of the Chief Scientist and Erin Roger, CSIRO

Following the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, many people throughout Australia, and across the world, wanted to know how they could help in response to the environmental disaster.

Hundreds contacted the Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA), Australia’s peak citizen science body, for guidance on how to participate in relevant scientific projects.

It was a golden opportunity to show that science can be, and is, done by all kinds of people – not just those working in labs with years of training and access to high-powered instruments. A scientist can be you, your children or your parents.

And this recognition led to the establishment of the Citizen Science Bushfire Project Finder, a key outcome from the bushfire science roundtable, which was convened in January by Federal Science Minister Karen Andrews.

To establish the project finder database, ACSA partnered with the CSIRO and the Atlas of Living Australia to assist the search for vetted projects that could contribute to our understanding of post-bushfire recovery.

Five months on, the value is evident.

Science as a way of thinking

In response to the bushfires, one citizen science project set up was the Kangaroo Island Dunnart Survey. A record number of citizen scientists answered the call to assist in recovery efforts for this small marsupial.

The Kangaroo Island dunnart was already listed as endangered before the fires, with population estimates between 300-500 individuals. And initial post-fire assessments indicated a significant further decline in its population, highlighting the importance of tracking the species’ recovery.

Meanwhile, nearly 1,500 kilometres away from Kangaroo Island, a local resident set up “Mallacoota After Fires” in the small community of Mallacoota, Victoria – a region hit hard by the bushfires.

This has enabled the community to record and validate (via an app and website) how the fires impacted the region’s plants and animals.

So far, the project has documented the existence of a range of flora and fauna, from common wombats to the vulnerable green and golden bell frog. It has also captured some amazing images of bush regeneration after fire.

Science does not just belong to professionals. As eminent US astronomer Carl Sagan noted, “science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”.

This suggests that, when properly enabled, anyone can actively participate. And the output goes beyond the rewards of personal involvement. It contributes to better science.




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The need for ongoing engagement

Citizen science is significantly contributing observations and expertise to bushfire research. Across southeast New South Wales and the ACT, several hundred citizen scientists have:

  • conducted targeted landscape-wide surveys of threatened species, or new weed or pest incursions
  • collected specified data from plot locations stratified against fire history
  • assessed whether wildlife actually use water and feed stations established by communities after a fire has been through. (Data suggests the use of the stations is limited).

And it’s not just in local communities. Platforms such as DigiVol have enabled citizen scientists from around the world to review thousands of camera trap images deployed post-fire to monitor species survival and recovery.

Still, there is much more to do. Australia is a vast continent and as we saw last summer, the fire footprint is immense.

But there is also a huge community out there that can help support the implementation of science and technology, as we adapt to our changing climate.

Reaching out at the right time

In January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked the CSIRO, supported by an expert advisory panel chaired by one of us (Alan Finkel), to develop recommendations for practical measures that would increase Australia’s disaster and climate resilience.

The report on Climate and Disaster Resilience gives due emphasis to the importance of citizen science in complementing traditional research-led monitoring campaigns and sharing locally specific advice. One component of the response also brought together national stakeholders, to develop a series of more detailed recommendations regarding the critical role of citizen science.

Citizen scientists can be involved in important data collection and knowledge building. They can collaborate with disaster response agencies and research agencies, to develop additional science-based community education and training programs.

Also, citizen science is a way to collect distributed data beyond the affordability and resources of conventional science.

With that in mind, the task now is to better marry the “professional” scientific effort with the citizen science effort, to truly harness the potential of citizen science. In doing so, we can ensure environmental and societal approaches to disaster recovery represent a diversity of voices.

The role of the community, particularly in developing resilience against environmental disaster, can be a most useful mechanism for empowering people who may otherwise feel at a loss from the impact of disaster. Furthermore, by working with communities directly affected by bushfires, we can help measure the extent of the impact.

We call on our professional scientist colleagues to actively collaborate with citizen science groups. In doing so, we can identify priority areas with critical data needs, while also informing, enriching and engaging with diverse communities in science.

Equally, we encourage citizen scientists to share and tell their stories across social and political settings to demonstrate the impact they continue to have.

The beneficiary will be science.




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The Conversation


Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Office of the Chief Scientist and Erin Roger, Citizen Science Program Lead, CSIRO

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.




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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.




Read more:
Double trouble: this plucky little fish survived Black Summer, but there’s worse to come


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.




Read more:
After the bushfires, we helped choose the animals and plants in most need. Here’s how we did it


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.

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.




Read more:
Yes, the Australian bush is recovering from bushfires – but it may never be the same


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.




Read more:
After the bushfires, we helped choose the animals and plants in most need. Here’s how we did it


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



Read more:
Don’t like spiders? Here are 10 reasons to change your mind


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.

Double trouble: this plucky little fish survived Black Summer, but there’s worse to come



Tarmo A. Raadik

Mark Lintermans, University of Canberra

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.


On a coastal holiday last summer, I was preoccupied. Bushfires were tearing through southeast Australia, and one in particular had me worried. Online maps showed it moving towards the last remaining population of a plucky little fish, the stocky galaxias.

I’ve worked in threatened fish conservation and management for more than 35 years, but this species is special to me.

The stocky galaxias was formally described as a new species in 2014. Its only known population lives in a short stretch of stream in Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales. A single event could wipe them out.

On January 2 the bushfires forced my family and I to evacuate our holiday home. As we returned to Canberra, I was still worried. Fire maps showed the stocky’s stream virtually surrounded by fire.

A few days later, I prepared for an emergency rescue.

Fire tore through south east Australia in January, threatening the stocky galaxias.
Victorian government

In critical danger

The stocky galaxias is the monarch of its small stream; the only fish species present. I’ve been trying to protect the stocky galaxias before it was even formally recognised.

Over the last century or more, the species has seen off threats from predatory trout, storms, droughts and bushfires. Snowy 2.0 is the latest danger.

It’s listed as critically endangered in NSW and is being assessed for a federal threatened listing. Before the fires, there were probably no more than 1,000-2,000 adults left in the wild.




Read more:
After the bushfires, we helped choose the animals and plants in most need. Here’s how we did it


As the fires burned, I knew we had to move quickly. I wanted to collect up to 200 stocky galaxias and take them away for safekeeping.

Rainfall after bushfires is major threat to fish, because it washes ash and sediment into streams. Storms were forecast for the afternoon of January 15. So early that morning, myself and two colleagues, escorted by two staff from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, drove to the stocky galaxias stream.

A colleague and I waded in and began electrofishing. This involved passing an electrical current through water, stunning fish momentarily so we could catch them.

The author and his colleagues used electrofishing to catch the fish.
Mark Lintermans

After 45 minutes we’d collected 68 healthy stocky galaxias. Woohoo! Further downstream we collected 74 more. By now, fire burned along the stream edge. We packed the fish into drums in the back of my car and drove out.

We headed to the NSW Department of Primary Industries’ trout hatchery at Jindabyne, where we measured each fish and took a genetic sample. I felt immensely relieved and satisfied that we’d potentially saved a species from extinction.

The fish have been thriving in the hatchery building. Stocky galaxias have never been kept in captivity before, but our years of field work told us the temperatures they encountered in the wild, so holding tanks could be set up appropriately.




Read more:
Conservation scientists are grieving after the bushfires — but we must not give up


Back to the stream

The captive fish can be used for breeding, but the species has never been captive-bred before and this is not a trivial task.

When they’re reintroduced to the wild, the sites must be free of trout, and other invasive fish like climbing galaxias. Natural or artificial barriers should be in place to prevent invasive fish invasion.

In late March I finally got back to the stocky galaxias’ stream to see whether they’d survived. At the lower stretch of its habitat, the fire was not severe and the stream habitat looked good, with only a small amount of ash and sediment.

Upstream, the fire had been more severe. At the edge of the stream, heath was razed and patches of sphagnum moss were burnt. Again, sediment in the stream was not too abundant. But fish numbers were lower than normal, suggesting some there had not survived.

Stocky Galaxias live in a short stretch of a single stream.
Credit to come

The fight’s not over

The stocky galaxias species might have survived yet another peril, but the battle isn’t over.

Feral horse numbers in Kosciuszko National Park have increased dramatically in the last decade. They’ve degraded the banks of the stocky galaxias’ stream, making it wider and shallower and filling sections with fine sediment. This smothers the fish’s food resources, spawning sites and eggs.

Before the fires, plans were already afoot to fence off much of the stocky galaxias habitat to keep horses out. Fire damage to the park has delayed construction until early 2021.




Read more:
Snowy 2.0 threatens to pollute our rivers and wipe out native fish


The biggest long-term threat to the species is the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro development. It threatens to transfer an invasive native fish, the climbing galaxias, to within reach of stocky galaxias habitat. There, it would compete for food with, and prey on, stocky galaxias – probably pushing it into extinction.

Despite this risk, in May this year the NSW government approved the Snowy 2.0 expansion, with approval conditions that I believe fail to adequately protect the stocky galaxias population. The project has also received federal approval.

Future in the balance

The stocky galaxias is unique and irreplaceable. I want my grandchildren to be able to show their grandchildren this little Aussie battler thriving in the wild.

The damage wrought by Snowy 2.0 may not be apparent for several decades. By then many politicians and bureaucrats now deciding the future of the stocky galaxias will be gone, as will I.

But 2020 will go down in history as the year the species was saved from fire, then condemned to possible extinction.

The Conversation

Mark Lintermans, Associate professor, University of Canberra

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