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.




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


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.

Photos from the field: zooming in on Australia’s hidden world of exquisite mites, snails and beetles



Dragon springtails (pictured) are widely distributed in forests of eastern Australia — yet they’re still largely unknown to science.
Nick Porch, Author provided

Nick Porch, Deakin University

Environmental scientists see flora, fauna and phenomena the rest of us rarely do. In this series, we’ve invited them to share their unique photos from the field.


Which animals are quintessentially Australian? Koalas and kangaroos, emus, tiger snakes and green tree frogs, echidnas and eastern rosellas, perhaps. And let’s not forget common wombats.

Inevitably, most lists will be biased to the more conspicuous mammals and birds, hold fewer reptiles and frogs, and likely lack invertebrates — animals without a backbone or bony skeleton — altogether.

I’m an invertophile, fascinated by our rich terrestrial invertebrate fauna, so my list will be different. I’m enchanted by stunning dragon springtails, by cryptic little Tasmanitachoides beetles, and by the poorly known allothyrid mites, among thousands of others.

Australia’s terrestrial invertebrate multitude contains several hundred thousand uniquely Australian organisms. Most remain poorly known.

To preserve our biodiversity, we first must ask: “which species live where?”. For our invertebrates, we are a long way from knowing even this.

The Black Summer toll

Last year, a team of scientists estimated that the Australian 2019-2020 bushfires killed, injured or displaced three billion animals. That was a lot. But it was also a woefully inadequate estimate, because it only accounted for mammals, reptiles, birds and frogs.

Hidden from view, many trillions more invertebrates burned or were displaced by the fires. And yes, invertebrates are animals too.

A mite from the family Bdellidae (on the right) has captured a springtail, and is using its piercing mouthparts to suck it dry. Mites and springtails are among the most abundant animals on the planet.
Nick Porch, Author provided

Admittedly, it’s hard to come to terms with invertebrates because they’re often hard to find and difficult to identify. Most species are inconspicuous, even if they belong to incredibly abundant groups, such as mites and springtails, which can occur in numbers exceeding 10,000 per square metre.

Most invertebrates are poorly known because there are so many species and so few people working on them. In fact, it’s likely only a quarter to one-third of Australia’s terrestrial invertebrate fauna is formally described (have a recognised scientific name).

A translucent land snail
Meredithina dandenongensis, a species from the wet forests of Victoria. It can be found during the day under rotting logs. The land snail family Charopidae contains hundreds of species across wetter parts of southern and eastern Australia.
Nick Porch, Author provided

One of the problems invertebrates have, in terms of attracting attention, is that many are not easily seen with the naked eye.

Macrophotography can magnify these wonders for a view into a world most of us are completely unfamiliar with. Even then, it often will be hard to know what we see. Everyone will recognise a kangaroo, but who can identify an allothyrid mite?

The photo below shows an undescribed species of mite from the family Allothyridae, from Mount Donna Buang in Victoria. The mite family Allothyridae has three described Australian species, and dozens more awaiting description.

An undescribed Allothyridae species. Just one of the many species in this group waiting to be studied.
Nick Porch, Author provided

This collage shows a selection of mites found in the forests of southeastern Australia. It’s likely many of the species shown here are unknown to science.

Mites are a very ancient and diverse group. They can be found abundantly in most terrestrial habitats but are rarely seen because most are several millimetres long or smaller.
Nick Porch, Author provided

A deeply ancient lineage

Animal ecologists, most of whom work on vertebrates, often joke that I “study the ‘food’, haha…”. They think they’re funny, but this reflects a deep seated bias — one extending from scientists to the wider public. This limits the development of a comprehensive understanding of biodiversity that has flow-on effects for conservation more broadly.

It’s true: invertebrates are food for larger animals. But their vital role in maintaining Australia’s ecosystems doesn’t end there.

Every species has an evolutionary history, a particular habitat, a set of behaviours reflecting that history, and a role to play in the ecosystem. And many terrestrial invertebrates belong to especially ancient lineages that record the deep history of Australia’s past.

The moss bug family Peloridiidae, for example, dates back more than 150 million years. For context, the kangaroo family (Macropodidae) is likely 15-25 million years old.

Their history is reflected in the breakup of the ancient supercontinent, Gondwana. In fact, Australian species of moss bugs are more closely related to South American species than to those from nearby New Zealand.

A bronze-coloured beetle with delicate, translucent wings
Chasoke belongs to the beetle family Staphylinidae, which is currently considered the largest family of organisms on Earth, with more than 60,000 scientifically described species. Mt. Donna Buang, Victoria.
Nick Porch, Author provided

This is a common pattern in terrestrial invertebrate groups. It reflects how the New Zealand plate separated from the remainder of Gondwana about 80 million years ago, while the Australian plate remained connected to South America via Antarctica.

Similar stories can be told from across the invertebrate spectrum. The photo below shows a few examples of these relics from Gondwana.

Peloridiid bugs — such as Hemiodoecus leai China, 1924 (top left) — are restricted to the wettest forests where they feed on moss. Top right: A new species of Acropsopilio (Acropsopilionidae) harvestman from the Dandenong Ranges. Bottom left: a new velvet worm from the Otway Ranges. Bottom right: Tasmanitachoides hobarti from Lake St Clair in central Tasmania.
Nick Porch, Author provided

Their fascinating evolution

Overprinting this deep history are the changes that occurred in Australia, especially the drying of the continent since the middle Miocene, about 12-16 million years ago.

This continent-wide drying fragmented wet forests that covered much of the continent, resulting in the restriction of many invertebrate groups to pockets of wetter habitat, especially along the Great Dividing Range and in southwestern Australia.




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Trapdoor spider species that stay local put themselves at risk


A consequence of this was the evolution in isolation of many “short-range endemic” species.

A short-range endemic species means their geographic distribution is less than 10,000 square kilometres. A short-range endemic mammal you might be familiar with is Leadbeater’s possum, restricted to the wet forests of the Victorian Central Highlands.

A long, brown and orange thrips with six legs.
This is Idolothrips spectrum, the largest thrips in the world. It’s called the giant thrips, even though it’s less than 10mm long. Dandenong Ranges, Victoria.
Nick Porch, Author provided

But short-range endemism is much more common in invertebrates than other organisms. This is because many invertebrates are poor dispersers: they don’t move between habitat patches easily. They may also maintain viable populations in small areas of suitable habitat, and are frequently adapted to very specific habitats.

Take Tropidotrechus, pictured below, a genus of beetles mostly restricted to the same region as Leadbeater’s possum. They, however, divide the landscape at a much finer scale because they’re restricted to deep leaf litter in cool, wet, forest gullies.

As Australia dried, populations of Tropidotrechus became isolated in small patches of upland habitat, evolving into at least seven species across the ranges to the east of Melbourne.

Tropidotrechus victoriae, Victoria’s unofficial beetle emblem (left). Related described and undescribed species are found in the nearby Central Highlands and South Gippsland ranges (right)
Nick Porch, Author provided

Discoveries waiting to happen

The trouble with knowing so little about Australia’s extraordinary number of tiny, often locally unique invertebrates, is that we then massively underestimate how many of them are under threat, or have been badly hit by events like the 2019-2020 fires.

If we wish to conserve biodiversity widely, rather than only the larger charismatic wildlife, then enhancing our knowledge of our short-range species should be a high priority.

One shiny green beetle on top of another
You don’t necessarily need specialist equipment to take pictures of our fascinating invertebrates. This is a phone picture of mating Repsimus scarab beetles (relatives to the Christmas beetles). It was taken at Bemboka in NSW, which burnt during the 2019-2020 fires.
Nick Porch, Author provided

We’ve only just scratched the surface of Australia’s wonderful invertebrate fauna, so there are enough discoveries for everyone.

You can join iNaturalist, a citizen science initiative that lets you upload images and identify your discoveries. Perhaps you’ll discover something new — and a scientist just might name it after you.




Read more:
Want to teach kids about nature? Insects can help


The Conversation


Nick Porch, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Earth Science, Deakin University

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

Australia: Top End Ferals


The link below is to an article that reports on the impact of feral cats on Top End native fauna and some of the cats are enormous.

For more visit:
http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/huge-feral-cats-of-northern-territory.htm

BUSH HERITAGE AUSTRALIA – Update September 2008


One of the groups I have a lot of time for in Australia and one which I am planning to support in a more active way in the New Year (once I get back on my feet so to speak) is Bush Heritage Australia.

Bush Heritage Australia is actively seeking to protect 1% of Australia by 2025, ensuring the protection of our unique flora, fauna and wild places. This is done through purchasing land by money donated to it by those wanting to protect the Australian environment and natural heritage. Bush Heritage currently owns some 1 million hectares, meaning it needs to acquire a further 6 million hectares to obtain its 2025 goal.

In September 2008, Bush Heritage Australia purchased the 8 100 hectare Edgbaston Station, 140km north-east of Longreach in Queensland for 3.5 million dollars. In doing so, Bush Heritage has ensured the survival of Australia’s most endangered and smallest freshwater fish species, the Redfin Blue-Eye Fish. This region is the only location in which this fish species now lives.

But it is not only the Redfin Blue-Eye Fish that will be protected by the purchase of this property as this region and the springs found on the property is the only known habitat for several other species of fish, snails, plants and a crustacean.

The springs on Edgbaston Station are located in the upper catchment of Pelican Creek which flows into the Thompson River and Lake Eyre. There are some 50 artesian springs on the property, supporting a large diversity of life.

The 3.5 million dollars required for the purchase of Edgbaston Station included 1.324 Million dollars from the Australian government’s Maintaining Australia’s Biodiversity Hotspots program and donations from the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Water and the Queensland Department for Sustainability, Climate Change and Innovation.

Bush Heritage will be working alongside of the Iningai people, who are the traditional owners of the land on which Edgbaston Station is located, to manage the property.

For information on what you can do to assist Bush heritage Australia or to get more information on any of the reserves managed by Bush heritage Australia visit the web site below.

http://www.bushheritage.org.au/