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 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.

Birdwatching increased tenfold last lockdown. Don’t stop, it’s a huge help for bushfire recovery



Shutterstock

Ayesha Tulloch, University of Sydney; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Georgia Garrard, RMIT University; Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland, and Monica Awasthy, Griffith University

Many Victorians returning to stage three lockdown will be looking for ways to pass the hours at home. And some will be turning to birdwatching.

When Australians first went into lockdown in March, the combination of border closures, lockdowns and the closure of burnt areas from last summer’s bushfires meant those who would have travelled far and wide to watch their favourite birds, instead stayed home.

Yet, Australians are reporting bird sightings at record rates – they’ve just changed where and how they do it.

In fact, Australian citizen scientists submitted ten times the number of backyard bird surveys to BirdLife Australia’s Birdata app in April compared with the same time last year, according to BirdLife Australia’s Dr Holly Parsons.

But it’s not just a joyful hobby. Australia’s growing fascination with birds is vital for conservation after last summer’s devastating bushfires reduced many habitats to ash.

Birds threatened with extinction

Australia’s native plants and animals are on the slow path to recovery after the devastating fires last summer. In our research that’s soon to be published, we found the fires razed forests, grasslands and woodlands considered habitat for 832 species of native vertebrate fauna. Of these, 45% are birds.

Some birds with the largest areas of burnt habitat are threatened with extinction, such as the southern rufous scrub-bird and the Kangaroo Island glossy black-cockatoo.

Government agencies and conservation NGOs are rolling out critical recovery actions.

But citizen scientists play an important role in recovery too, in the form of monitoring. This provides important data to inform biodiversity disaster research and management.

Record rates of birdwatching

Birdwatchers have recorded numerous iconic birds affected by the fires while observing COVID-19 restrictions. They’ve been recorded in urban parks and city edges, as well as in gardens and on farms.

In April 2020, survey numbers in BirdLife Australia’s Birds in Backyards program jumped to 2,242 – a tenfold increase from 241 in April 2019.

Change in the number of area-based surveys by Australian citizen scientists over the first six months of 2019 compared with 2020. Data sourced from BirdLife Australia’s Birdata database.

Similarly, reporting of iconic birds impacted by the recent bushfires has increased.

Between January and June, photos and records of gang-gang cockatoos in the global amateur citizen science app iNaturalist increased by 60% from 2019 to 2020. And the number of different people submitting these records doubled from 26 in 2019 to 53 in 2020.




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What’s more, reporting of gang-gangs almost doubled in birding-focused apps, such as Birdlife Australia’s Birdata, which recently added a bushfire assessment tool .

The huge rise in birdwatching at home has even given rise to new hashtags you can follow, such as #BirdingatHome on Twitter, and #CuppaWithTheBirds on Instagram.

A gang-gang effort: why we’re desperate for citizen scientists

The increased reporting rates of fire-affected birds is good news, as it means many birds are surviving despite losing their home. But they’re not out of the woods yet.

Their presence in marginal habitats within and at the edge of urban and severely burnt areas puts them more at risk. This includes threats from domestic cat and dog predation, starvation due to inadequate food supply, and stress-induced nest failure.

That’s why consolidating positive behaviour change, such as the rise in public engagement with birdwatching and reporting, is so important.

A female superb lyrebird calling to her reflection in a parked car in suburbia. Her nest was later discovered 100 meters from the carpark.

Citizen science programs help increase environmental awareness and concern. They also improve the data used to inform conservation management decisions, and inform biodiversity disaster management.

For example, improved knowledge about where birds go after fire destroys their preferred habitat will help conservation groups and state governments prioritise locations for recovery efforts. Such efforts include control of invasive predators, supplementary feeding and installation of nest boxes.

Gang gang Cockatoo hanging out on a street sign in Canberra.
Athena Georgiou/Birdlife Photography

Better understanding of how bushfire-affected birds use urban and peri-urban habitats will help governments with long-term planning that identifies and protects critical refuges from being cleared or degraded.

And new data on where birds retreat to after fires is invaluable for helping us understand and plan for future bushfire emergencies.

So what can you do to help?

If you have submitted a bird sighting or survey during lockdown, keep at it! If you have never done a bird survey before, but you see one of the priority birds earmarked for special recovery efforts, please report them.




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There are several tools available to the public for reporting and learning about birds.

iNaturalist asks you to share a photo or video or sound recording, and a community of experts identifies it for you.

BirdLife’s Birds in Backyards program includes a “Bird Finder” tool to help novice birders identify that bird sitting on the back verandah. Once you’ve figured out what you’re seeing, you can log your bird sightings to help out research and management.

The majority of habitat for Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoos burnt last summer.
Bowerbirdaus/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

For more advanced birders who can identify birds without guidance, options include eBird and BirdLife’s Birdata app. This will help direct conservation groups to places where help is most needed.

Finally, if there are fire-affected birds, such as lyrebirds and gang-gang cockatoos, in your area, it’s especially important to keep domestic dogs and cats indoors, and encourage neighbours to do the same. Report fox sightings to your local council.




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If you come across a bird that’s injured or in distress, it’s best to contact a wildlife rescue organisation, such as Wildcare Australia (south-east Queensland), WIRES (NSW) or Wildlife Victoria.

By ensuring their homes are safe and by building a better bank of knowledge about where they seek refuge in times of need, we can all help Australia’s unique wildlife.The Conversation

Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Georgia Garrard, Senior Research Fellow, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group, RMIT University; Michelle Ward, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland, and Monica Awasthy, Visiting Research Scientist, Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University

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

Our field cameras melted in the bushfires. When we opened them, the results were startling



Taronga Zoo

Benjamin Scheele, Australian National University; David Newell, Southern Cross University; Jodi Rowley, Australian Museum, and Michael McFadden, University of Wollongong

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.


In late summer, male northern corroboree frogs call for a female mate. It’s a good time to survey their numbers: simply call out “Hey, frog!” in a low, deep voice and the males call back.

This year, the survey was vital. Bushfires had torn through the habitat of the critically endangered species. We urgently needed to know how many survived.

In late February we trekked into Kosciuszko National Park, through a landscape left charred by the ferocious Dunns Road fire.

We surveyed the scene, calling out: “Hey, frog!”. At ponds not severely burnt, reasonable numbers of northern corroboree frogs responded. At badly burnt sites where frogs had been found for 20 years, we were met with silence. The adults there had likely died.

After completing our surveys we collected melted cameras we’d deployed eight months earlier to monitor water levels in the ponds. Some weeks later, these would reveal just what the frogs had endured.

Northern corroboree frog on burnt moss after the fires.
Ben Scheele

A tiny frog with a big problem

Northern corroboree frogs are tiny – no longer than three centimetres long – and feature distinctive yellow and black stripes. They are listed as critically endangered, but are more abundant than their close relative, the southern corroboree frog.

They’re found only in the high country of southern New South Wales and the ACT. Before last summer’s bushfires, just a few thousand northern corroboree frogs were thought to remain in the wild. Our preliminary post-fire assessment indicates a substantial number might have died where fires were severe.

Caught on camera

Of the frogs’ two key habitat areas in NSW, one was burnt by the fires and one was left untouched. Over the border in the ACT, the fire damage was relatively slight, but the worst came later.

Heavy rain after the fires filled ponds with ash and sediment.
Ben Scheele

After the fires, heavy rain in denuded burnt catchments produced water runoff laden with sediment. Some frog breeding habitat was eroded and filled with silt and ash. Once-mossy ponds were now gravel and ash.

In March 2019, we’d set up cameras to take one photograph a day, to monitor water levels in ponds. The fires melted the cameras, and some were also waterlogged. One of the authors, Ben Scheele, took them home and left them in his garage, assuming the footage was lost.

But several weeks later, bored during the COVID-19 lockdowns, he chiselled open the warped casing and removed the memory cards. Amazingly, most still worked.

They contained a fascinating series of photos. Some revealed how a number of ponds largely escaped the fires, only to be destroyed afterwards by flooding.

The series below shows a pond in Kosciuszko National Park. Watch the transition from autumn to deep winter snow, then to dry earth before the fire and its smoky aftermath (when the camera had fallen to the ground):

A frog emergency

Australia is home to around 240 frog species, most found nowhere else in the world.

The expert panel advising the federal government on bushfire recovery has identified 16 frog species likely to be severely affected by last summer’s fires.

All but one was listed as threatened by the IUCN prior to the fires. Importantly, the panel noted not much is known about how Australian frogs respond to fire.

Many Australian frog species have adapted to survive fire. But last summer, fires tore through areas where such events are extremely rare.




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This includes World Heritage rainforests in northern NSW, home to the mountain frog, found nowhere else on Earth. How these frogs will respond to the fires remains to be seen.

For species associated with streams, such as the Barred River frogs, the impacts of fire may not be immediately apparent. Males typically stay near streams and may have escaped the flames, but females spend much time away from streams and may have died. These frogs are long-lived, so it may be many years before population declines are detected.

A stuttering frog after a fire in Gibraltar Range National Park last summer.
Jodi Rowley

A shared fate

The effects of last summer’s fires on frogs are likely to be felt for years to come. For example, regrowing forests use lots of water, which will affect species in forested areas such as the northern corroboree frogs. This compounds a trend towards less rainfall under climate change, which is already driving their decline.

Annual northern corroboree frog monitoring conducted under the NSW government’s Saving Our Species program has been in place since 1998. This, coupled with the fact about half the known sites were fire-affected, puts us in a good position to better understand the species’ responses to fire by comparing burnt and unburnt sites in coming years.




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


The NSW government’s Saving Our Species program, and Taronga Conservation Society Australia, have started work on a captive “assurance” population for the species. The project, supported by Commonwealth funding, involves collecting eggs from the wild to safeguard the species’ unique genetic diversity.

Ongoing monitoring of other frog species is also critical. Importantly, anyone can get involved in helping understand frog responses to fire through the FrogID app.

Habitat degradation, climate change and disease threaten frogs globally. In this, they have much in common with humans. Last summer’s severe fires were a direct result of climate change. And of course, COVID-19 has killed more than 500,000 people in recent months.

Perhaps humanity should reflect on the fate we share with wildlife, and act.

David Hunter of the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment contributed to this article.The Conversation

Benjamin Scheele, Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University; David Newell, Senior Lecturer, School of Environment, Science & Engineering, Southern Cross University; Jodi Rowley, Curator, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology, Australian Museum, and Michael McFadden, PhD Candidate, University of Wollongong

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

After last summer’s fires, the bell tolls for Australia’s endangered mountain bells



Darwinia nubigena also known as the Success Bell or Red Mountain Bell.
A.T Morphet, Author provided

Kingsley Dixon, Curtin University

This article is a preview from 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.


Hidden in the Stirling Range national park in Western Australia – an area so diverse, so ecologically important, I’ve described it as a “coral reef out of water” – are Australia’s spectacular mountain bells.

When Western botanists encountered these predominantly bird-pollinated plants, they found them so intriguing and so unlike anything they knew (Britain has no bird pollination), they named them Darwinia after Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

These breathtaking native Australian flowers are now at grave risk from recent fires, with many species listed on the government’s provisional list of plants requiring urgent management intervention. The Stirling Ranges were ravaged by this summer’s fires, and three-quarters of this WA national park now experience fire cycles twice as frequent as species recovery rates.

If it sounds grim, that’s because it is. There’s hope yet for the mountain bell, though, thanks largely to the efforts of concerned community members.

Darwinia collina, the yellow mountain bell, is listed as endangered.
A. T. Morphet, Author provided

Why are mountain bells so special?

With an astonishing range of colours, the Stirling Range mountain bells are the glamour plants in WA’s floral bouquet.

Standing up to 60cm tall, these glorious shrubs are a gardener’s dream. They have neat foliage and pendulous, bell-like flowers in colours ranging from yellow, to greens, to striking reds and multicoloured variegated blooms.

Darwinia has just 70 species – a modest number compared with some plant genera in Australia.

They occur in southeastern and southwestern Australia. Darwinia split from their ancestral lineage 16 million years ago with the southwest, including the Stirling Ranges – a cradle of the genus. The chance dispersal of seed to southeastern Australia meant the two nodes of diversity were separated by the Nullarbor and central desert, and evolved in splendid isolation. How these heavy-seeded plants managed such an epic journey across the Australian deserts remains a mystery.




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The phoenix factor: what home gardeners can learn from nature’s rebirth after fire


Nectar-hungry Australian birds found the rewards in the rain-protected, bell-like flowers irresistible.

In what was a blink of evolutionary time, mountain bells capitalised on birds as a better system for pollination than offered by insects, and new species appeared across the peaks of the Stirlings.

Today, there are ten species of mountain bells. All but one are only found in the Stirling Ranges, often on single peaks or in highly restricted locations. And many feature on the provisional list of plants requiring urgent management.

Virtually each peak could have its very own mountain bell. I recall my first encounter with the mountain bells years ago. I’d spotted the delicate cherry-coloured blooms of Wittwer’s bell nestled in a small wooded hollow, midway along the main drive through the Stirlings. I eagerly sought out other mountain bell species and, soon enough, realised I had an untreatable case of “bell fever”.

A _Darwinia macrostegia or Mondurup Bell on Mondurup Peak.
A.T Morphet, Author provided

A biodiversity hotspot at a crossroads

Traditional owners revered the Stirling Ranges as sacred land that had endured countless ice ages and climate ravages. But today, the Stirling Ranges are at a crossroads.

The discovery of dieback disease (Phytophthora cinnamomi) in 1974, as well as fires both prescribed and natural, have taken a heavy toll on the plants and animals in the park.

Last summer’s cataclysmic fires scorched half of the Stirling Ranges national park, and the danger the mountain bells now face is emblematic of the broader problem of biodiversity loss.

Many plants and animal species here may never recover. Yes, many Australian plants evolved to cope with bushfire – but not with how frequently these fires are reoccurring.

The Stirling Ranges national park is like no other, with an astonishing 1,500 plant species, eclipsing the flora of the British Isles.

Threats abound

Contemporary fire is now one of the single greatest threats to what remains of this extraordinary ecosystem.

The mountain bells need more than 15 years or more to rebuild their soil seed bank, as these plants are killed by even the mildest of fire.

We knew this was coming. Dire predictions by conservation scientists as early as 2015 warned the Stirling Ranges faced a biodiversity meltdown, and that mountain bells were particularly at risk of extinction.




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


Though the fires have retreated, the once thriving populations of mountain bells are reduced to blackened stems. It is indescribably sad to see.

For some species, the 2020 bushfires came hot on the heels of an out-of-control prescribed burn in 2018, and few species can survive such short interval fire. Scientists are surveying the damage, to see if parts of the soil seed bank survived to grow the next generation of mountain bells. But it may be too late for some species. Time will tell.

The endemic grass tree Kingia australis absorbs ethylene gas from bushfire to initiate flowering within months.
Keith Bradbury, Author provided

Community action

Is there a future for mountain bells? I like to think so. I have grown them in wildflower gardens from cuttings handed down from wildflower gardeners over decades. Through temperamental and often unpredictable to grow, mountain bells are remarkably easy to propagate.

A key part of saving our mountain bells is, I believe, intimately linked to the community of wildflower enthusiasts. These passionate, committed community members stand ready to help save the last bells.

The Stirling Ranges national park in Western Australia.
Trevor Dobson, CC BY-NC-ND

The way we’ve done conservation in the past needs a reboot. For the mountain bells and many other threatened species to have a future, we need to embrace a new way of engaging with community volunteers and particularly our traditional owners.

Everyone I have spoken to is ready to roll up their sleeves and help our plants, and animals struggling to come out of the fires. Such an approach will need trust, training and support – but it may be our only hope.




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The Conversation


Kingsley Dixon, John Curtin Distinguished Professor, Curtin University

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

Australia, you have unfinished business. It’s time to let our ‘fire people’ care for this land



Rangers from Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, conducting cool season burning on Martu Country.
Tony Jupp,The Nature Conservancy

David Bowman, University of Tasmania and Greg Lehman, University of Tasmania

Since last summer’s bushfire crisis, there’s been a quantum shift in public awareness of Aboriginal fire management. It’s now more widely understood that Aboriginal people used landscape burning to sustain biodiversity and suppress large bushfires.

The Morrison government’s bushfire royal commission, which began hearings this week, recognises the potential of incorporating Aboriginal knowledge into mainstream fire management.

Its terms of reference seek to understand ways “the traditional land and fire management practices of Indigenous Australians could improve Australia’s resilience to natural disasters”.

Incorporating Aboriginal knowledge is essential to tackling future bushfire crises. But it risks perpetuating historical injustices, by appropriating Aboriginal knowledge without recognition or compensation. So while the bushfire threat demands urgent action, we must also take care.

Accommodating traditional fire knowledge is a long-overdue accompaniment to recent advances in land rights and native title. It is an essential part of the unfinished business of post-colonial Australia.

Grant Stewart, a ranger from Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa. The benefits of Indigenous fire practices are becoming well-known.
Louie Davis

A living record

Before 1788, Aboriginal cultures across Australia used fire to deliberately and skilfully manage the bush.

Broadly, it involved numerous, frequent fires that created fine-scale mosaics of burnt and unburnt patches. Developed over thousands of years, such burning made intense bushfires uncommon and made plant and animal foods more abundant. This benefited wildlife and sustained a biodiversity of animals and plants.

Following European settlement, Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land and the opportunity to manage it with fire. Since then, the Australian bush has seen dramatic biodiversity declines, tree invasion of grasslands and more frequent and destructive bushfires.




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In many parts of Australia, particularly densely settled areas, cultural burning practices have been severely disrupted. But in some regions, such as clan estates in Arnhem Land, unbroken traditions of fire management date back to the mid to late Pleistocene some 50,000 years ago.

Not all nations can draw on these living records of traditional fire management.

Indigenous people around the world, including in western Europe, used fire to manage flammable landscapes. But industrialisation, intensive agriculture and colonisation led to these practices being lost.

In most cases, historical records are the only way to learn about them.

Aborigines Using Fire to Hunt Kangaroos, by Joseph Lycett. Indigenous people have used cultural fire practices for thousands of years.
National Library of Australia

Rising from the ashes

In Australia, many Aboriginal people are rekindling cultural practices, sometimes in collaboration with non-indigenous land managers. They are drawing on retained community knowledge of past fire practices – and in some cases, embracing practices from other regions.

Burning programs can be adapted to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. These include the need to protect assets, and new threats such as weeds, climate change, forest disturbances from logging and fire, and feral animals.




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This process is outlined well in Victor Steffensen’s recent book Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia. Steffensen describes how, as an Aboriginal man born into two cultures, he made a journey of self-discovery – learning about fire management while being guided and mentored by two Aboriginal elders.

Together, they reintroduced fire into traditional lands on Cape York. These practices had been prohibited after European-based systems of land tenure and management were imposed.

Steffensen extended his experience to cultural renewal and ecological restoration across Australia, arguing this was critical to addressing the bushfire crisis:

The bottom line for me is that we need to work towards a whole other division of fire managers on the land […] A skilled team of indigenous and non-indigenous people that works in with the entire community, agencies and emergency services to deliver an effective and educational strategy into the future. One that is culturally based and connects to all the benefits for the community.

Making it happen

So how do we realise this ideal? Explicit affirmative action policies, funded by state and federal governments, are a practical way to protect and extend Aboriginal burning cultures.

Specifically, such programs should provide ways for Aboriginal people and communities to:

  • develop their fire management knowledge and capacity
  • maintain and renew traditional cultural practices
  • enter mainstream fire management, including in leadership roles
  • enter a broad cross section of agencies, and community groups involved in fire management.

This will require rapidly building capacity to train and employ Aboriginal fire practitioners.

In some instances, where the impact of colonisation has been most intense, action is needed to support Aboriginal communities to re-establish relationships with forested areas, following generations of forced removal from their Country.




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Importantly, this empowerment will enable Aboriginal communities to re-establish their own cultural priorities and practices in caring for Country. Where these differ from the Eurocentric values of mainstream Australia, we must understand and respect the wisdom of those who have been custodians of this flammable landscape for millennia.

Non-indigenous Australians should also pay for these ancient skills. Funding schemes could include training, and ensuring affirmative action programs are implemented and achieve their goals.

Involving Aboriginal people and communities in the development of fire management will ensure cultural knowledge is shared on culturally agreed terms.

Fire people, fire country

In many ways, last summer’s fire season is a reminder of the brutal acquisition of land in Australia and its ongoing consequences for all Australians.

The challenges involved in helping to right this wrong, by enabling Aboriginal people to use their fire management practices, are complex. They span social justice, funding, legal liability, cultural rights, fire management and science.

Fundamentally, we must recognise that Aborigines are “fire people” who live on “fire country”. It’s time to embrace this ancient fact.

Andry Sculthorpe of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre contributed to this article.The Conversation

David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania and Greg Lehman, Pro Vice Chancellor, Aboriginal Leadership, University of Tasmania

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

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



Daniel Marius/AAP

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Rachael Gallagher, Macquarie University, and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

No other event in our lifetimes has brought such sudden, drastic loss to Australia’s biodiversity as the last bushfire season. Governments, researchers and conservationists have committed to the long road to recovery. But in those vast burnt landscapes, where do we start?

We are among the wildlife experts advising the federal government on bushfire recovery. Our role is to help determine the actions needed to stave off extinctions and help nature recover in the months and years ahead.

Our first step was to systematically determine which plant and animal species and ecosystems needed help most urgently. So let’s take a closer look at how we went about it.

Plants and animals are recovering from the fires, but some need a helping hand.
David Crosling/AAP

Sorting through the smoke

One way to work out how badly a species is affected by fire is to look at how much of its distribution – or the area in which it lives – was burnt.

This is done by overlapping fire maps with maps or records showing the species’ range. The greater the overlap, the higher the potential fire impact. But there are several complicating factors to consider:

1. Susceptibility: Species vary in how susceptible they are to fire. For instance, animals that move quickly – such as red-necked wallabies and the white-throated needletail – can escape an approaching fire. So too can animals that burrow deeply into the ground, such as wombats.

Less mobile animals, or those that live in vegetation, are more likely to die. We also considered post-fire recovery factors such as a species’ vulnerability to predators and reproductive rate.

The white-throated needle tail can escape the flames.
Tom Tarrant/Flickr

2. What we know: The quality of data on where species occur is patchy. For example, there are thousands of records for most of Australia’s 830 or so bird species. But there are very few reliable records for many of Australia’s 25,000-odd plant species and 320,000-odd invertebrate species.

So while we can estimate with some confidence how much of a crimson rosella’s distribution burned, the fire overlaps for less well-known species are much less certain.

3. The history of threats: The impact of fires on a region depends on the extent of other threats, such as drought and the region’s fire history. The time that elapses between fires can influence whether populations have recovered since the last fire.

For instance, some plants reproduce only from seed rather than resprouting. Fires in quick succession can kill regrowing plants before they’ve matured enough to produce seed. If that happens, species can become locally extinct.


Authors supplied

4. Fire severity: Some areas burn more intensely than others. High severity fires tend to kill more animals. They also incinerate vegetation and can scorch seeds lying in the soil.

Many Australian plant species are exquisitely adapted to regenerate and resprout after fire. But if a fire is intense enough, even these plants may not bounce back.

5. Already threatened?: Many species affected by these bushfires were already in trouble. For some, other threats had already diminished their numbers. Others were highly vulnerable because they were found only in very limited areas.

The bushfires brought many already threatened species closer to extinction. And other species previously considered secure are now threatened.




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Which species made the list?

With these issues in mind, and with contributions from many other experts, we compiled lists of plant, invertebrate and vertebrate species worst-affected by the 2019-20 fires. A similar assessment was undertaken for threatened ecosystems.

Some 471 plant, 213 invertebrate and 92 vertebrate species have been identified as a priority for interventions. Most had more than half their distribution burnt. Many have had more than 80% affected; some had 100% burnt.

The purple copper butterfly is listed as a priority for recovery efforts.
NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment

Priority invertebrates include land snails, freshwater crayfish, spiders, millipedes, beetles, dragonflies, grasshoppers, butterflies and bees. Many species had very small ranges.

For example, the inelegantly named Banksia montana mealybug – a tiny insect – existed only in the foliage of a few individuals of a single plant species in Western Australia’s Stirling Range, all of which were consumed by the recent fires.

Some priority plants, such as the Monga waratah, have persisted in Australia since their evolution prior to the break-up of the Gondwanan supercontinent about 140 million years ago. More than 50% of its current range burned, much at high severity. During recovery it is vulnerable to diseases such as phytophthora root rot.




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Some priority vertebrates have tiny distributions, such as the Mt Kaputar rock skink that lives only on rocky outcrops of Mt Kaputar near Narrabri, New South Wales. Others had large distributions that were extensively burnt, such as the yellow-bellied glider.

The priority lists include iconic species such as the koala, and species largely unknown to the public, such as the stocky galaxias, a fish that lives only in an alpine stream near Cooma in NSW.

Half the Monga waratah’s range burned in the fires.
Wikimedia

What’s being done

A federal government scheme is now allocating grants to projects that aim to help these species and ecosystems recover.

Affected species need immediate and longer-term actions to help them avoid extinction and recover. Critical actions common to all fire-affected species are:

  1. careful management of burnt areas so their recovery isn’t compromised by compounding pressures

  2. protecting unburnt areas from further fire and other threats, so they can support population recovery

  3. rapid surveys to identify where populations have survived. This is also the first step in ongoing monitoring to track recovery and the response to interventions.

Targeted control of feral predators, herbivores and weeds is also essential to the recovery of many priority species.

In some rare cases, plants or animals may need to be moved to areas where populations were reduced or wiped out. Captive breeding or seed collection can support this. Such restocking doesn’t just help recovery, it also spreads the risk of population loss in case of future fires.

Feral animals such as cats threaten native species in their recovery.
Hugh McGregor, Threatened Species Recovery Hub

Long road back

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to some challenges in implementing recovery actions. Like all of us, state agency staff, NGOs, academics and volunteer groups must abide by public health orders, which have in some cases limited what can be done and where.

But the restrictions may also have an upside. For instance, fewer vehicles on the roads might reduce roadkill of recovering wildlife.

As states ease restrictions, more groups will be able to continue the recovery process.




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As well as action on the ground, much planning and policy response is still required. Many fire-affected species must be added to threatened species lists to ensure they’re legally protected, and so remain the focus of conservation effort.

Fire management methods must be reviewed to reduce the chance of future catastrophic fires, and to make sure the protection of biodiversity assets is considered in fire management planning and suppression.

Last bushfire season inflicted deep wounds on our biodiversity. We need to deal with that injury. We must also learn from it, so we can respond swiftly and effectively to future ecological disasters.


Many species experts and state/territory agency representatives contributed to the analyses of priority species. Staff from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (especially the Environmental Resources Information Network (Geospatial and Information Analytics Branch), the Protected Species and Communities Branch and the Threatened Species Commissioner’s Office) and Expert Panel members also contributed significantly to this work.The Conversation

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Dale Nimmo, Associate Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University; Rachael Gallagher, Senior Lecturer/ARC DECRA Fellow, Macquarie University, and Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University

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

If you’re worried about bushfires but want to keep your leafy garden, follow these tips



Shutterstock/autau

Philip Gibbons, Australian National University and Geoff Cary, Australian National University

As we witnessed last summer, the number of houses destroyed during bushfires in Australia has not been stemmed by advances in weather forecasting, building design and the increased use of large water-bombing aircraft.

At the latest count, more than 3,500 homes were destroyed the summer just gone, which makes this the most destructive bushfire season in Australia’s history.

The principal reason for the continually high rate of destruction is that so many homes are being built close to bushland. An estimated 85% of all houses destroyed in bushfires in Australia are within 100m of the bush.

It follows that clearing vegetation around houses is at the forefront of advice provided by fire authorities to homeowners in bushfire-prone areas.

A home without trees and shrubs around it is the safest option during a bushfire. But realistically, many people will want to retain some vegetation. And there are ways to do this sensibly.

Is clearing bushland the solution?

Research shows houses close to bushland are more effectively protected by clearing trees and shrubs within approximately 40m of the home.

There are laws in most states and territories, such as New South Wales’ 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Scheme, that permit this to some extent.

But if all homeowners in bushfire-prone areas exercised their right to clear trees and shrubs, places such as the Blue Mountains, Perth Hills, Mount Lofty Ranges, Dandenongs and our coastal towns like Mallacoota, Margaret River and Batemans Bay would be vastly different in character.




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Residents and tourists are attracted to these areas for the aesthetics, privacy, wildlife and shade native trees and shrubs provide.

A study of rural-residential areas north of Melbourne found property values were higher where there was a considerable cover of native vegetation. We not only like our native bush, we are prepared to pay for it.

Because many people value trees and shrubs around their homes, it is not realistic to expect uniformly low fuel loads within bushfire-prone parts of Australia.

Can we have our cake and eat it?

We analysed data collected before and after the 2009 Black Saturday Fires, in which 2,133 houses were destroyed.

We found that the extent of “greenness” of vegetation surrounding homes had a bearing on whether the structure withstood fire.

Greenness refers to the extent to which plants are actively growing. Houses with trees and shrubs within 40m were slightly less likely to be destroyed if the vegetation had relatively high values of “greenness”, as compared to houses surrounded by vegetation with low greenness value.

This makes sense because greener vegetation, typically with higher moisture content, has lower flammability, requires more energy to ignite and therefore can reduce the intensity of a fire.




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Thus, watering your garden through summer, if this is feasible, or choosing plants with high moisture content (such as succulents) may reduce the bushfire risk compared with the same amount of vegetation with a lower moisture content.

We also found the risk to houses during bushfire was slightly less where trees and shrubs within 40m were not continuous, but instead arranged as discrete patches separated by a ground layer with low fuel hazard, such as mown grass.

As trees and shrubs become less continuous the heat transfer between patches becomes less efficient and the intensity of the fire is likely to decline.

Provided bushfires in your area come from a predictable direction, retaining more trees and shrubs downwind of this direction from your house poses less risk than the same cover of trees and shrubs retained upwind from your house.

This makes sense because burning embers, which are the main cause of house losses during bushfires, travel in the direction of the wind.

You can’t eliminate risk from bushfires

We must emphasise that while these strategies can strike a balance between retaining trees and shrubs and preparing for bushfires, they will not guarantee your home will survive a bushfire – especially in severe fire weather.

So in addition to vegetation management, other strategies – such as building design, adequate insurance and evacuating early to a safer place – should be considered in every household’s bushfire planning.




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The Conversation


Philip Gibbons, Professor, Australian National University and Geoff Cary, Associate Professor, Bushfire Science, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

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