The endangered species list: counting lemurs in Madagascar


File 20180723 189335 1t5uopy.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The endangered Coquerel’s Sifaka lemur.
Shutterstock/Monika Hrdinova

Ian Colquhoun, Western University

Most people are familiar with the endangered species list. Officially known as the IUCN Red List of threatened species, it’s coordinated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and provides the most up-to-date indication of the health of the world’s plants, animals and fungi to guide critical conservation action.

Examples include reports on declining leopard populations and improving mountain gorilla numbers. The list also signals when a species hasn’t been sighted in decades, is feared extinct, or has been “rediscovered” – as was the case for the large-billed reed-warbler.

To date, more than 91 000 species have been assessed for The IUCN red list. But, how is the list constructed and who is involved?

It’s a surprisingly complex process, involving the combined efforts of literally thousands of researchers. These “specialist group” volunteers use their expertise and time to create and maintain a central database which monitors the conservation statuses of the planet’s species. For mammals alone, there are 37 specialist groups.

My own involvement in contributing to the list has been through the Madagascar section of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group. This group involves approximately 450 primatologists worldwide. We are organised into specialist sections according to the biological classification of primate groups, such as the great apes, or regional areas of primate occurrence like South America or Africa. The Madagascar section of the group includes about 90 researchers who specialise in the study of lemur species.

Cyclical evaluation

Every five years the various specialist groups undertake reevaluations of the conservation statuses of the species on which they focus. This is currently being carried out for all 113 known lemur species by our section.

The last conservation assessment, conducted back in 2012, led to the alarming conclusion that lemurs are the most endangered group of mammals on the planet – 94% of all lemur species were classified as either “endangered” or “critically endangered”. A lot can change in five years. Since then, new lemur species have been described and there’s been a wealth of new field study data gathered on known lemur species. All this feeds into the current lemur conservation status reassessments.

The basis of the cyclical process is information that the IUCN specialist groups gather from researchers and their field studies. The researchers can either be university based, NGO’s or privately funded ones. The field data are assessed according to an extensive set of evaluative quantitative criteria, including: population size; the risk of continuing decline in total population size; and the degree to which the species under consideration now exist in small and relatively isolated subpopulations, as these subpopulations are at a greater risk of going locally extinct.

Species were broadly categorised as “endangered”, “vulnerable”, “rare”, “indeterminate”, or “other”. But, since the mid-1990s, a quantitatively-based conservation status assessment process has instead been adopted. This developed out of internal review of the species conservation assessment process. The current assessment practice places a premium on using up-to-date quantitative field data to the greatest extent possible. Species are now classified as either: “data deficient”, least concern”, or as falling into one of the “threatened” categories, “vulnerable”, “endangered”, or “critically endangered”.

It’s not unusual that for a given species the desired quantitative data are simply not available or known. In such cases, the IUCN still encourages that:

the absence of high-quality data should not deter attempts at applying the criteria, as methods involving estimation, inference and projection are emphasised as being acceptable…

This is where the role of research experts really comes to the fore. Researchers who have conducted recent field studies can provide relatively up-to-date insight on situations regarding species, even though these data may not yet be published. For many species groups, including lemurs, it’s a relatively short list of researchers who fit that bill.

So, to some extent, it’s a case of either using on-the-ground knowledge of the species or site knowledge of those experienced researchers, or attempt to arrive at conservation assessments without their expert input. But it also depends on who is in the room when the assessments are made.

Important lists

This reliance on expert input, while recognised as being of key importance, has also recently come under criticism for not also employing evidence or proper process in making decisions.

But, because swift conservation action is seen as crucial to the overall process, the central role of expert researchers in determining the conservation statuses of species will continue in the future.

The IUCN Red List is not the only endangered species list out there. For example in the primate world, the International Primatological Society produces a biennial review report with the IUCN looking at the 25 most endangered primates.

The ConversationThe next one will be released after the Congress of the International Primatological Society in Nairobi. It will show how important these lists are to raise public consciousness of the threats that primates face, and the conservation efforts used to address them.

Ian Colquhoun, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Western University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia relies on volunteers to monitor its endangered species



File 20180608 191943 14qfk2l.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Nik Borrow/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Matthew H Webb, Australian National University; David M Watson, Charles Sturt University, and Dejan Stojanovic, Australian National University

The King Island Scrubtit and the King Island Brown Thornbill have the dubious distinction of being considered the first and third most likely birds to go extinct in the next 20 years.

Yet the only reason we know the status of the scrubtit and the thornbill is the diligent efforts of volunteers.




Read more:
Just ten MPs represent more than 600 threatened species in their electorates


For 15 years, the Threatened Species Committee has quietly summarised the plight of Australia’s most endangered birds, feeding the information to government, including the most recent report on those species most likely to go extinct in the coming two decades.

Experts in conservation management, specialist bird researchers, dedicated birders, and passionate local landholders all give their time freely to monitor endangered species. This is not outsourcing by the government: this is unpaid work by dedicated Australians stepping up.

King Island crisis

For these two King Island species, the most current information came from surveys conducted by specialist ornithologists, who funded the surveys themselves. In surveys completed this year, a handful of scrubtit were found in just three locations. The thornbill wasn’t found at all.

Follow-up surveys at these sites throughout King Island were carried out as part of the Wings on King initiative, with local landholders and visiting birders teaming up to tally records.

Like most of southern Australia, the native vegetation of King Island has been extensively cleared. This clearing is ongoing, and slated changes to Tasmanian planning laws would allow farmers to remove up to 40 hectares per year.

A key driver of this process is the influx of beef producers to the island, attracted by King Island’s rich soils and reliable rainfalls. Large operators are moving from Queensland and buying up prime grazing land, changing the way the land is used.

Many of these changes are bad news for local wildlife. Shelterbelts and remnant forests are making way for grass to feed ever more beef cattle.

This is alarming enough for the scrubtits, for which we at least have some baseline population data and knowledge of habitat requirements. It may be even worse for the thornbill – but we can’t be sure because we know so little about its habitat requirements or key locations.

Fire is another major threat. Uncontrolled bushfires razed almost a quarter of the island in 2007, decimating the Melaleuca Swamp forest at Nook Swamp, the last stronghold for the scrubtits. Only fragments of the swamp remain. This fire also exacerbated acid sulfate soils in unburned habitats, compromising regeneration in the wetland.

Shedding staff

Yet despite these mounting challenges, the federal Department of Environment is shedding vital staff. Just last month the loss of 60 positions from the biodiversity division was announced, representing a third of the people charged with overseeing monitoring of our threatened species.

Tasmania, despite being home to more than 600 threatened species, has a threatened species section of effectively two full-time positions (one of which is not currently filled). They have an annual budget of about A$5,000, or roughly A$7.14 per species).

This abrogation of biodiversity monitoring and basic conservation management is not new. State and federal departments have been losing capacity for decades.

The embedded research units within these agencies are all but gone, and any long-term monitoring is conducted either with external funds or through dedicated individuals nearing retirement. Entire national parks have been handed over to NGOs to manage, like Pilliga and Mallee Cliffs National Parks in New South Wales. NGOs now manage an estate many times larger than our national parks.

Federal funding has shrunk dramatically, with researchers increasingly reliant on philanthropic trusts, mining offsets, and crowdfunding campaigns to cover the costs of last-ditch interventions.

Another way

You don’t have to look very far to find alternatives. New Zealand has just announced a major increase in investment in endangered species funding, $181.6 million in additional funds for conservation initiatives over the next four years.

New Zealand has long been an international leader in conservation management, eradicating feral animals from entire islands to safeguard wildlife. It is ramping up efforts under the Predator Free New Zealand initiative, which aims to eradicate all introduced predators by 2050 in what has been described as “the most ambitious conservation project anywhere in the world”.

In contrast, the deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub recently pointed out that a third of Australia’s most threatened species aren’t monitored at all.




Read more:
Protecting endangered species: 6 essential reads


The ConversationEleventh-hour funding will be too late for King Island’s thornbill. It hasn’t been seen since a keen-eyed photographer happened across a single bird in 2016. Despite the valiant efforts of volunteers, inspirational videos, and direct representations and grant applications, it has an estimated 6% chance of surviving the next 20 years.

Matthew H Webb, Dr Matt Webb, Australian National University; David M Watson, Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University, and Dejan Stojanovic, Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Yes, kangaroos are endangered – but not the species you think


Karl Vernes, University of New England

Do you know what kind of animal the mala, nabarlek, or boodie is? What about the monjon, northern bettong, or Gilbert’s potoroo?

If you answered that they are different species of kangaroo – the collective term for more than 50 species of Australian hopping marsupials – you’d be right. But you’d be in the minority.

Include nearby New Guinea, and the number of kangaroo species jumps to more than 70. Kangaroos are so diverse that they have been dubbed Australia’s most successful evolutionary product.

But sadly, not everyone is aware of this great diversity, so most kangaroo species remain obscure and unknown.




Read more:
Bans on kangaroo products are a case of emotion trumping science


This is brought into sharp relief by a new movie that premieres nationally this week called Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story. The filmmakers set out to expose the kangaroo industry, painting a picture of gruesome animal cruelty, an industry cloaked in secrecy, and the wholesale slaughter of an Australian icon.

The film, which includes brutal footage, also includes the claim that Australia’s kangaroos may be heading down the path of extinction.

The film has already screened in the United States and Europe to sold-out premieres, opening first in those places because they are important markets for kangaroo products.

But foreign audiences also probably know less about Australia’s major kangaroo species or the complexities of the kangaroo industry, and may perhaps be more easily swayed towards the filmmakers’ point of view.

Many US reviews have been positive about the film, although one review described it as “frustratingly one-sided”.

Most Australians, whatever their view on the kangaroo industry, would surely agree that if kangaroos are to be harvested, it should be done with minimal suffering. But are Australia’s kangaroos really at risk of extinction?

The iconic red kangaroo. Large kangaroos are typically widespread and secure, unlike many of their smaller cousins.
Karl Vernes

On mainland Australia, four species are sustainably harvested, largely for their meat or fur: the eastern grey, western grey, common wallaroo, and Australia’s most famous icon (and largest marsupial), the red kangaroo.

The best scientific survey data, based on millions of square kilometres surveyed by aircraft each year, puts the combined number of these four kangaroo species currently at around 46 million animals.

This is a conservative estimate, because only the rangelands where kangaroos are subject to government-sanctioned harvest are surveyed. There is almost as much kangaroo habitat again that is not surveyed.

Of the estimated population, a quota of roughly 15% is set for the following year, of which barely a quarter is usually filled. Quotas are set and enforced by state governments, with the aim of sustaining population numbers.

For example, of 47 million animals estimated in 2016, a quota of 7.8 million animals was set for the following year, but only 1.4 million of these animals (3.1% of the estimated population) were harvested.

The wildlife management community is pretty much unanimous that the four harvested species are widespread and abundant, and at no risk of extinction.

Are non-harvested species at risk?

But what of the other forgotten 95% of kangaroo species? The conservation prognosis for these – especially the smaller ones under about 5.5kg in weight – is far less rosy.

The nabarlek – a small endangered rock wallaby from Australia’s northwest – has become so rare that its mainland population in the Kimberley seems to have disappeared. It is now only found on a few islands off the coast.

The boodie – a small burrowing species of bettong – was one of Australia’s most widespread mammals at the time of European arrival, but is extinct on the mainland and now found on just a few islands.

Gilbert’s potoroo holds the title of Australia’s most endangered mammal, clinging precariously to existence in the heathlands around Albany on Western Australia’s south coast. One intense wildfire could wipe out the species in the wild.

Meanwhile, if the alarming increasing impact of cats on our northern Australian wildlife continues, recent modelling suggests that the northern bettong – a diminutive kangaroo that weighs barely a kilogram – will disappear.




Read more:
Australian endangered species: Gilbert’s Potoroo


The list goes on: mala, bridled nail-tail wallaby, parma wallaby, woylie, banded hare-wallaby, long-footed potoroo, Proserpine rock-wallaby – all of these and more could slip to extinction right under our noses.

The culprits are the usual suspects: cats, foxes, land-use change – and our collective apathy and ignorance. Australia holds the title for the worst record of mammal extinctions in modern times, and kangaroos, unfortunately, contribute many species to that list.

Population modelling paints a grim picture for the northern bettong.
Karl Vernes, Author provided

The theatrical trailer for Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story’ features a voiceover from a concerned kangaroo activist, who says:

If Australians really knew what happens out there in the dark, they would be horrified.

Indeed they might. But it’s not just the treatment of the abundant big four kangaroos that are harvested (yet secure) that should attract attention.

The ConversationIf we also look at the other 95% of kangaroo species that need our urgent attention, we might just be able to do something about their dwindling numbers – and the real kangaroo extinction crisis – before it’s too late.

Karl Vernes, Associate Professor, School of Environmental & Rural Science, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

More sightings of an endangered species don’t always mean it’s recovering



File 20171013 31408 peh6jb.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Leadbeater’s possum sightings are up – but that doesn’t mean the critically endangered species is recovering.
David Lindenmeyer, Author provided

David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

If more sightings of an endangered species are recorded, does that mean its numbers are increasing? Australia’s native forest logging industry is arguing yes.

On the basis of an increase in sightings of Leadbeater’s possums, advocates for Victorian native forest logging industry has proposed to downgrade the possum’s conservation status from critically endangered (thus facilitating ongoing logging in and around potential habitat in Victoria’s Central Highlands).

But while this sounds reasonable, increased sightings aren’t always a reliable measure of endangered species’ viability. Often, an increase in sightings can be attributed to two things: either more people are trying to spot the animal in question; or new work that has used different parameters to previous studies.


Read more: Victoria must stop clearfelling to save Leadbeater’s possum


Why more sightings may not mean species recovery

One of the ultimate achievements in successful conservation is to downlist a threatened species – for example from critically endangered to endangered, or from endangered to vulnerable. But this requires high-quality, long-term survey data that shows substantial recovery, as well as proof that the key threats to a species’ persistence have been truly mitigated.

An example of a failure to do due diligence was the woylie in Western Australia, (also known as the brush-tailed bettong). It was downlisted in 1996 but then within 3 years suffered an enormous and still not well understood population crash (from which it has still not recovered). Its conservation status was uplisted in 2008.

There have been more records of Leadbeater’s possum in the last few years, but this growth is most likely a function of a large increase in the amount of effort invested in trying to find them.

In areas zoned for timber harvesting, locations with a confirmed Leadbeater’s possum sighting are excluded from logging. This has motivated large numbers of people who are concerned about the plight of the possum to devote many hours to finding animals.

The detection of more animals with greater searching is a well-known phenomenon in ecology and other disciplines. Last year, for example, sightings of wild tiger populations rose by 22% – but further investigation found that the increase was most likely caused by changes in methodology and greater effort in surveying.


Read more: Australia’s species need an independent champion


In fisheries this relationship is termed catch per unit effort. For example, even with rapidly declining numbers in a fishery, the number of fish caught can stay the same or even go up when more efficient and targeted techniques are adopted. Sadly, this intensified effort can often cause fish stocks to collapse.

The real evidence on Leadbeater’s possum

As stated earlier, the first critical piece of evidence required to justify downlisting is robust evidence of long-term improvement in population size. So what does the evidence tell us about Leadbeater’s possum?

For more than 34 years, the Australian National University has monitored Leadbeater’s possum including at more than 160 permanent sites since 1997. This large-scale, long-term data set shows that the possum is in significant decline. Over the past 19 years, the number of survey sites where the possum was detected has dropped by almost two-thirds.

The second critical requirement for delisting is evidence that the key processes threatening the species have been mitigated.

One of the principal threats facing Leadbeater’s possum is the rapid ongoing decline in large old trees which are the sole form of natural nesting sites for the species.

As part of ecological surveys in the wet forests of Victoria, which have been running since 1983, the Australian National University has been collecting information on hollow-bearing trees. The most recent analysis of this large and long-term data set suggests that if current declines continue, by 2040, populations of large old trees may be less than 10% of what they were in 1997.

Another key threatening processes which has not been addressed is fire. Victoria’s wet ash forests are extremely fire prone, in part because forests that regenerate after logging are significantly more likely to burn at elevated severity.

The significant risks facing the mountain ash forests in which Leadbeater’s possum lives has resulted in the forest itself being classified as critically endangered.

No grounds for reducing the conservation status

Efforts to downlist Leadbeater’s possum are misguided at best. The greater number of records in recent years is most likely a reflection of greater survey effort. In contrast, robust long-term monitoring data clearly shows a significant decline in population.

Most importantly, the key processes causing the decline of Leadbeater’s possum (and other threatened species in the same area, like the greater glider) have not been mitigated; indeed they are intensifying (such as the increasing fire burden with increasing area of logged forest).

There is little room to gamble with these species. Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider currently do not breed in captivity, so expensive fallback options like captive breeding and reintroduction are not viable possibilities if wild populations crash.

The loss of these animals from ill-informed downlisting would add to Australia’s already appalling record on species loss. Approximately 10% of our mammal fauna has gone extinct – the worst rate in the world, and 30 times worse than places of equivalent size, such as the United States.

The ConversationMore formally protected areas, and not downlisting their conservation status, is the most scientifically robust option for the conservation of this iconic animal.

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia: Sydney – Green and Golden Bell Frog


The link below is to a media release concerning the Green and Golden Bell Frog, an endangered frog species in New South Wales, Australia.

For more visit:
http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/media/OEHMedia17071801.htm

The lengthy childhood of endangered orangutans is written in their teeth



File 20170513 3689 10bd37p
A young Bornean orangutan nursing.
Erin Vogel, Author provided

Tanya M. Smith, Griffith University

Orangutan populations in the wild are critically endangered, and one of the things that may hamper their survival is the time they take to rear new offspring. The Conversation

An orangutan mother will not give birth again until she’s finished providing milk to her previous offspring. Nursing can take a long time and vary across seasons, as we found in research published today in Science Advances.

Primate mothers, including humans, raise only a few slow-growing offspring during their reproductive years.

Differences in infant development have a profound effect on how many children a female can have over the course of her life – the key marker of success from an evolutionary vantage point.

Great apes have a high-stakes strategy. Chimpanzee mothers nurse their offspring for five years on average, twice as long as humans in traditional small-scaled societies.

Orangutans have been suspected of having even longer periods of infant dependency, although determining just how long has been a particular challenge for field biologists.

Wild orangutan from Gunung Palung National Park, Borneo, Indonesia with her one month old infant. (Gunung Palung Orangutan Project)

Living high up in dwindling Southeast Asian forests, these apes are adept at evading observers. Their nursing behaviour is often concealed, particularly while juveniles cling to their mother or rest together in night nests.

Maintaining continuous field studies to track their development is expensive, and efforts are hindered by frequent forest fires and devastating deforestation for palm oil plantations.

Teeth tell the story

I have spent the past few decades studying how orangutans and other primates form their teeth. Amazingly, every day of childhood is captured during tooth formation, a record that begins before birth and lasts for millions of years.

Teeth also contain detailed dietary, health and behavioural histories, allowing biological anthropologists an unprecedented window into the human past.

I’ve also teamed up with researchers Manish Arora and Christine Austin, at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt Sinai in New York, who have pioneered methods to map the fine-scaled elemental composition of teeth, as well as primate lactation expert Katie Hinde at Arizona State University.

We have shown in a previous study that tiny amounts of the element barium are an accurate marker of mother’s milk consumption. Like calcium, barium is sourced from the mother’s skeleton, concentrated in milk, and ultimately written into the bones and teeth of her offspring.

Tooth growth creates daily lines (indicated by short white lines), as well as a neonatal line (NL) at birth. Growth starts at the junction between enamel and dentine, and progresses away from the junction and towards the root (arrows).
Christine Austin and Tanya Smith

Once animals start nursing after birth, their teeth show increases in barium values, which begin to decrease when solid food is added to the diet. These values drop further to pre-birth levels when primates stop nursing and are weaned.

We’ve recently used this approach to explore the nursing histories of wild orangutans in collaboration with orangutan expert Erin Vogel at Rutgers University. In order to do so, I borrowed teeth housed in natural history museums from individuals that had been shot many years ago during collection expeditions.

Wild Bornean orangutan mother and suckling 19-month old infant.
Paige Prentice, Author provided

Orangutan teeth show a gradual increase in barium values from birth through their first year of life, a time of increasing consumption of their mother’s milk. After 12-18 months, values decrease as infants begin eating solid foods consistently.

But surprisingly, barium levels then begin to fluctuate on an approximately annual basis. We suspect that this is due to seasonal changes in food availability. When fruit is in short supply, infants appear to rely more on their mother’s milk to meet their nutritional needs.

Light microscope image (left) of a wild orangutan molar contrasted with an elemental map of the same tooth (right) showing the distribution of barium. The timing of barium incorporation was determined from accentuated lines (in days of age on the left), which form during enamel and dentine secretion. Approximately annual bands of enriched barium are apparent in the dentine after the first year, likely due to seasonal increases in mother’s milk intake.
Smith et al. (2017) Science Advances

Hanging around

Another surprising finding is that nursing may continue for more than eight years, longer than any other wild animal.

This information is the first of its kind for wild Sumatran orangutans, as they have been especially difficult to study in their native habitat. Previous estimates from two wild Bornean orangutans suggested that juveniles nurse until about six to eight years of age.

Rather than spending so much time and energy breastfeeding their children, human mothers in traditional societies transition their infants onto soft weaning foods around six months of age, tapering them off milk a few years later.

Humans also benefit from having help such as older siblings and grandparents who lend a hand with childcare and enable women to energetically prepare for having their next child.

Orangutan mothers have it hard by comparison. They live alone in unpredictable environments with limited nutritional resources. In order to survive they use less energy than other great apes, raising their young more slowly.

Wild orangutan mother and 11-month old infant.
Tim Laman, Author provided

Vulnerable orangutans

Female orangutans begin reproducing around age 15 and can live until 50 years old in the most favourable of circumstances. They bear new offspring every six to nine years, producing no more than six or seven descendents over their lifetime.

Having a long nursing period and slow maturation makes orangutan populations especially vulnerable to environmental perturbations.

Recent work has also implicated poor habitat quality and the pet trade as additional factors in their rapidly declining numbers, which is underscored by their critically endangered status.

Research on collections housed in natural history museums provides timely evidence of how remarkable orangutans are, how much information we can retrieve from their teeth, and why conservation efforts informed by evolutionary biology are critical.

Tanya M. Smith, Associate Professor in the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.