This bird’s stamina is remarkable: it flies non-stop for 5 days from Japan to Australia, but now its habitat is under threat


David Bassett, Author provided

Birgita Hansen, Federation University AustraliaImagine having to fly non-stop for five days over thousands of kilometres of ocean for your survival. That’s what the Latham’s Snipe shorebird does twice a year, for every year of its life.

This migratory shorebird, similar in size to a blackbird, completes this gruelling migration to warmer climes, where it prepares itself for its return flight and the next breeding season.

Unfortunately, their wetland habitat is now being lost to development and other pressures, putting this tough little bird at risk.

A Latham's Snipe flies past.
The Latham’s Snipe arrives at its destination severely malnourished and spends the Australian summer months build up its strength and body fat to complete its long return flight.
David Sinnott/instagram.com/birdsbydave/, Author provided



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A feat of incredible endurance

Latham’s Snipe breeds in northern Japan and parts of eastern Russia during May-July and spends its non-breeding season (September to March) along Australia’s eastern coast.

Like other migratory shorebirds, it has incredible endurance, undertaking a non-stop, over-ocean flight between its breeding and non-breeding grounds.

It arrives at its destination severely malnourished and spends the Australian summer months building up its strength and body fat to complete its long return flight.

Unlike many other migratory shorebird species in Australia, you won’t find Latham’s Snipe in large flocks enjoying picturesque estuaries and bays. Instead, it hides away in thickly vegetated wetlands during the day to avoid local predators.

Their characteristic brown mottled feathers help them hide in wetlands.

Large eyes high on their heads allow them to see far and wide. Their exceptional eyesight helps them constantly scan for dangers at night, when they forage for food in open wet and muddy areas.

Latham’s Snipe is the ultimate sun-seeker. It breeds in the northern hemisphere when the snows have melted and the weather is warm, then returns to the southern hemisphere to take advantage of spring rains, warmer weather and food-rich wetlands.

It spends its entire time in Australia feeding, resting and growing new flight feathers in preparation for the long haul back to Japan in autumn.

The Latham’s Snipe’s characteristic brown mottled feathers help it hide in wetlands.
Mark Lethlean, Author provided

No food and nowhere to rest

Latham’s Snipe, formerly known as the Japanese Snipe, was once a popular game bird. Hunting and wetland loss during the 20th century have contributed to a decline in Latham’s Snipe in south-eastern Australia.

The signing of the Japan Australia Migratory Bird Agreement in 1981 has stopped snipe hunting in both countries. However, their wetland habitat continues to be lost due to land development and drying of wetlands.

Imagine flying for five days straight, arriving at your destination emaciated and exhausted, only to find your habitat has disappeared. No food and nowhere to rest. This is the crisis facing Latham’s Snipe and many other migratory shorebird species.

No formal protection for many of its wetlands

Under the Australian government Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, any grouping of 18 or more snipe at a wetland site is considered nationally important. Unfortunately, however, development on snipe habitat still occurs.

In 2014 — triggered by a plan to allow housing construction on an important snipe wetland area — a team of passionate researchers and citizen scientists banded together to initiate a monitoring program of Latham’s Snipe in south-west Victoria.

After the first year of the monitoring, the Latham’s Snipe Project expanded to other parts of the country with help from a large number of dedicated volunteers and professionals.

The story from this monitoring is still unfolding but two clear patterns are emerging:

  1. Latham’s Snipe often congregate in urban wetlands; and
  2. the majority of these important wetlands have no formal protection from development or disturbance.

7,000km, non-stop, in three days

Between 2016 and 2020, the Latham’s Snipe Project started tagging snipe with small electronic devices to try and learn about their migratory routes.

The team uncovered an amazing migration from a female snipe captured in Port Fairy. She left her breeding grounds in northern Japan and flew directly to south-east Queensland in three days, a non-stop flight of around 7,000km. A trip that might normally take around five days, this incredible individual did in three.

This is one of the fastest bird migrations on record and highlights how demanding these over-ocean migrations are. It also shines the spotlight on the critical importance of good quality wetland habitat when the snipe return to Australia.

Urban development continues to threaten Latham’s Snipe habitats. Several snipe sites in eastern Australia are at risk from housing developments and large infrastructure projects.

However, a different way of doing things is possible.

Eco-friendly developments like the Cape Paterson Ecovillage in Victoria provide hope. Here, researchers and citizen scientists have worked with the developer to help design conservation areas within the development to protect and restore wetlands for snipe.

Such progress is heartening, but a critically important next step is to make changes to local planning schemes that explicitly recognise wetlands for Latham’s Snipe.

Imagine flying for five days straight, arriving at your destination emaciated and exhausted, only to find your habitat has disappeared.
Mark Lethlean, Author provided



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The Conversation


Birgita Hansen, Senior Research Fellow, Federation University and Better Data for Better Decisions Constellation Leader, Food Agility CRC, Federation University Australia

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

Australia has failed greater gliders: since they were listed as ‘vulnerable’ we’ve destroyed more of their habitat


Josh Bowell , Author provided

Darcy Watchorn, Deakin University and Kita Ashman, Deakin UniversityIn just five years, greater gliders — fluffy-eared, tree-dwelling marsupials — could go from vulnerable to endangered, because Australia’s environmental laws have failed to protect them and other threatened native species.

Our new research found that after the greater glider was listed as vulnerable to extinction under national environment law in 2016, habitat destruction actually increased in some states, driving the species closer to the brink. Now, they meet the criteria to be listed as endangered.

Despite this, the federal government has put forward a bill that would further weaken Australia’s environment laws.

If Australia wants to ditch its shameful reputation as a global extinction leader, our environmental laws must be significantly strengthened, not weakened.

Why is the greater glider losing its home?

At about the size of a cat, greater gliders are the largest gliding marsupial in the world, and can glide up to 100 metres through the forest canopy. They nest in the hollows of big old trees and, just like koalas, they mostly eat eucalypt leaves.

A dark morph greater glider in a patch of old growth forest in Munruben, Logan City, south of Brisbane.
Josh Bowell

Greater gliders were once common throughout the forests of Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria. However, destructive practices, such as logging and urban development, have cut down the trees they call home. The rapidly warming climate and increasingly frequent and severe bushfires are also a major threat.

Together, these threats are causing the greater glider to rapidly disappear.

For our new study, we calculated the amount of greater glider habitat destroyed in the two years before the species was listed as vulnerable under Australia’s environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) Act. We then compared this to the amount of habitat destroyed in the two years after listing.

In Victoria, we measured the amount of habitat that was logged. In Queensland and NSW, we measured the amount of habitat cleared for all purposes, including logging, agriculture, and development projects.

What we found

The amount of greater glider habitat logged in Victoria remained consistently high, with a total of 4,917 hectares logged before listing compared to 4,759 hectares after listing. And of all forest logged in Victoria after listing, more than 45% was mapped as greater glider habitat by the federal government, according to our research paper.

State-owned forestry company VicForests is responsible for the lion’s share of native forest logging in Victoria. The Conversation contacted VicForests to respond to the arguments in this article. A spokesperson said:

There are 3.7 million hectares of potential Greater Glider habitat in Victoria under the official habitat model. The most valuable areas of this habitat are set aside in conservation reserves that can never be harvested.

The total area harvested by VicForests in any year is around 0.04% of this total potential habitat.

A small bulldozer used for tree ‘thinning’ in Queensland, May 2017.
WWF-Australia

In Queensland, habitat clearing increased by almost 300%, from a total of 3,002 hectares before listing compared to 11,838 hectares after listing. The amount of habitat cleared in NSW increased by about 5%, from a total of 15,204 hectares to 15,890 hectares.

We also quantified how much greater glider habitat was affected by the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires, and found approximately 29% of greater glider habitat was burnt. Almost 40% of this burnt at high severity, which means few gliders are likely to persist in, or rapidly return to, these areas.

As a result, earlier this year — just five years after listing — an assessment by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee found the greater glider is potentially eligible for up-listing from vulnerable to endangered.

A greater glider found in burnt bushland, Meroo National Park, NSW, December 2019.
George Lemann, WWF-Australia

Why was habitat allowed to be cleared?

Development projects can take decades to be implemented after they’ve been approved under the EPBC Act. Therefore, a lot of the habitat cleared in NSW and Queensland was likely to have been approved before the greater glider was listed as vulnerable, and before the 2019-2020 bushfires.

Once a project is approved, it is not reassessed, even if a species becomes vulnerable and a wildfire burns much of its habitat.

This means the impact of clearing native vegetation can be far greater than when initially approved. It also means it can take many years after a species is listed until its habitat is finally safe.

This young greater glider was displaced by clearing near Chinchilla on the Darling Downs, Queensland. It was rescued by a fauna spotter/catcher who was present.
Briano, WWF-Australia

In Victoria and parts of NSW, the forestry industry is allowed to log greater glider habitat under “regional forest agreements”. These agreements allow logging to operate under a special set of rules that bypasses federal environmental scrutiny under the EPBC Act.

The logging industry is required to comply only with state regulations for threatened species protection, which are are often inadequate.




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In 2019, the Victorian government updated the protection measures for greater gliders in logged forests. However, these still allow logging of up to 60% of a forested area authorised for harvest, even when greater gliders are present at high densities.

The spokesperson for VicForests said the company prioritises live, hollow-bearing trees wherever there are five or more greater gliders per spotlight kilometre (a 1 kilometre stretch of forest surveyed with torches). But this level of protection is limited and is unlikely to halt greater glider decline, as the species is highly sensitive to disturbance.

Recently logged native forest from the Central Highlands, Victoria.
Darcy Watchorn

In May 2020 the Federal Court found VicForests breached state environmental laws when they failed to implement protection measures and destroyed critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum and greater glider habitat.

Despite this, earlier this year, the Federal Court upheld an appeal by VicForests to retain their exemption from the EPBC Act. This ruling means VicForests will not be held accountable for destroying threatened species habitat, even when it is found in breach of state requirements.




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The spokesperson for VicForests said the company takes sustainable harvesting seriously.

VicForests operations are subject to Victorian laws, and enforced by the Office of the Conservation Regulator (OCR) and Victorian courts when necessary. The recent federal court appeal decision has not changed that fact.

They add that VicForests surveys show greater gliders continue to persist in recently harvested areas, under its current practices.

VicForests has not seen any evidence that even a single Greater Glider has died as a result of our new harvesting approach.

The government isn’t learning its lesson

The EPBC Act is currently undergoing a once in a decade assessment that considers how well it’s operating, with a recent independent review criticising the EPBC Act for no longer being fit for purpose. Our new research reinforces this, by showing the act has failed to protect one of Australia’s most iconic and unique animals.

And yet, the federal government wants to weaken the act further by implementing a streamlined model, which would rely on state governments to approve actions that would impact threatened species.

There’s a raft of reasons why this would be problematic.




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For one, state environmental laws operate independently, and don’t consider what developments have been approved in other states. Cutting down trees may seem insignificant in certain areas, but without considering the broader impacts, many small losses can accumulate into massive declines, like a death by a thousand cuts.

As a case in point, despite the devastation of greater glider habitat from the Black Summer fires in NSW, the Queensland government have recently approved a new coal mine, which will destroy over 5,500 hectares of greater glider and koala habitat.

What needs to change?

The greater glider is edging towards extinction, but there is still no recovery plan for this iconic marsupial. Adding to this, new research suggests there are actually three species of greater glider we could be losing, rather than just one as was previously thought. Significant effort must be invested to create a clear plan for their recovery.

Because Australia has such a rich diversity of wildlife, we have a great responsibility to protect it. Australia must make important changes now to strengthen — not weaken — its environmental laws, before greater gliders, and many other species, are gone forever.The Conversation

Darcy Watchorn, PhD Candidate, Deakin University and Kita Ashman, Threatened Species & Climate Adaptation Ecologist, Deakin University

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

Artificial refuges are a popular stopgap for habitat destruction, but the science isn’t up to scratch


Shutterstock

Darcy Watchorn, Deakin University; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Mitchell Cowan, Charles Sturt University, and Tim Doherty, University of SydneyWildlife worldwide is facing a housing crisis. When land is cleared for agriculture, mining, and urbanisation, habitats and natural refuges go with it, such as tree hollows, rock piles and large logs.

The ideal solution is to tackle the threats that cause habitat loss. But some refuges take hundreds of years to recover once destroyed, and some may never recover without help. Tree hollows, for example, can take 180 years to develop.

As a result, conservationists have increasingly looked to human-made solutions as a stopgap. That’s where artificial refuges come in.

If the goal of artificial refuges is to replace lost or degraded habitat, then it is important we have a good understanding of how well they perform. Our new research reviewed artificial refuges worldwide — and we found the science underpinning them is often not up to scratch.

What are artificial refuges?

Artificial refuges provide wildlife places to shelter, breed, hibernate, or nest, helping them survive in disturbed environments, whether degraded forests, deserts or urban and agricultural landscapes.

Nest boxes are a commonly used artificial refuge for tree-dwelling animals.
Ed Reinsel/Shutterstock

You’re probably already familiar with some. Nest boxes for birds and mammals are one example found in many urban and rural areas. They provide a substitute for tree hollows when land is cleared.

Other examples include artificial stone cavities used in Norway to provide places for newts to hibernate in urban and agricultural environments, and artificial bark used in the USA to allow bats to roost in the absence of trees. And in France, artificial burrows provide refuge for lizards in lieu of their favoured rabbit burrows.

An artificial burrow created for a burrowing owl.
AZ Outdoor Photography/Shutterstock

But do we know if they work?

Artificial refuges can be highly effective. In central Europe, for example, nest boxes allowed isolated populations of a colourful bird, the hoopoe, to reconnect — boosting the local genetic diversity.

Still, they are far from a sure thing, having at times fallen short of their promise to provide suitable homes for wildlife.




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One study from Catalonia found 42 soprano pipistrelles (a type of bat) had died from dehydration within wooden bat boxes, due to a lack of ventilation and high sun exposure.

Another study from Australia found artificial burrows for the endangered pygmy blue tongue lizard had a design flaw that forced lizards to enter backwards. This increased their risk of predation from snakes and birds.

And the video below from Czech conservation project Birds Online shows a pine marten (a forest-dwelling mammal) and tree sparrow infiltrating next boxes to steal the eggs of Tengmalm’s owls and common starlings.

The effects of predation should be considered when using artificial refuges.

So why is this happening?

Our research investigated the state of the science regarding artificial refuges worldwide.

We looked at more than 220 studies, and we found they often lacked the rigour to justify their widespread use as a conservation tool. Important factors were often overlooked, such as how temperatures inside artifical refuges compare to natural refuges, and the local abundance of food or predators.

Alarmingly, just under 40% of studies compared artificial refuges to a control, making it impossible to determine the impacts artificial refuges have on the target species, positive or negative.

This is a big problem, because artificial refuges are increasingly incorporated into programs that seek to “offset” habitat destruction. Offsetting involves protecting or creating habitat to compensate for ecological harm caused by land clearing from, for instance, mining or urbanisation.

For example, one project in Australia relied heavily on nest boxes to offset the loss of old, hollow-bearing trees.

But a scientific review of the project showed it to be a failure, due to low rates of uptake by target species (such as the superb parrot) and the rapid deterioration of the nest boxes from falling trees.




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The future of artificial refuges

There is little doubt artificial refuges will continue to play a role in confronting Earth’s biodiversity crisis, but their limitations need to be recognised, and the science underpinning them must improve. Our new review points out areas of improvement that spans design, implementation, and monitoring, so take a look if you’re involved in these sorts of projects.

We also urge for more partnerships between ecologists, engineers, designers and the broader community. This is because interdisciplinary collaboration brings together different ways of thinking and helps to shed new light on complex problems.

Some key steps arising from our research which suggest a way forward for artificial refuge science and implementation.
Author provided

It’s clear improving the science around artificial refuges is well worth the investment, as they can give struggling wildlife worldwide a fighting chance against further habitat destruction and climate change.




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The Conversation


Darcy Watchorn, PhD Candidate, Deakin University; Dale Nimmo, Associate Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University; Mitchell Cowan, PhD Candidate, Charles Sturt University, and Tim Doherty, ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Sydney

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

A lone tree makes it easier for birds and bees to navigate farmland, like a stepping stone between habitats


Shutterstock

Carla Archibald, Deakin University; Eduardo van den Berg, Federal University of Lavras, and Jonathan Rhodes, The University of QueenslandVast, treeless paddocks and fields can be dangerous for wildlife, who encounter them as “roadblocks” between natural areas nearby. But our new research found even one lone tree in an otherwise empty paddock can make a huge difference to an animal’s movement.

We focused on the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, a biodiversity hotspot with 1,361 different known species of wildlife, such as jaguars, sloths, tamarins and toucans. Habitat loss from expanding and intensifying farmland, however, increasingly threatens the forest’s rich diversity of species and ecosystems.

We researched the value of paddock trees and hedges for birds and bees, and found small habitat features like these can double how easily they find their way through farmland.

This is important because enabling wildlife to journey across farmlands not only benefits the conservation of species, but also people. It means bees can improve crop pollination, and seed-dispersing birds can help restore ecosystems.

Connecting habitats

Lone trees in paddocks, hedges and tree-lined fences are common features of farmlands across the world, from Brazil to Australia.

They may be few and far between, but this scattered vegetation makes important areas of refuge for birds and bees, acting like roads or stepping stones to larger natural habitats nearby.

Scattered paddock trees, for instance, offer shelter, food, and places to land. They’ve also been found to create cooler areas within their canopy and right beneath it, providing some relief on scorching summer days.

Hedges and tree-lined fences are also important, as they provide a safe pathway by providing hiding places from predators.

White-browed meadowlark perched on a bush in a farm paddock within the Atlantic Forest
White-browed meadowlark perched on a bush in a farm paddock within the Atlantic Forest.
Milton Andrade Jr, CC BY

For our research, we used satellite images of the Atlantic Forest and randomly selected 20 landscapes containing different amounts of forest cover.

We then used mathematical models to calculate the habitat connectivity of these landscapes for three groups of species — bees, small birds such as the rufous-bellied thrush, and large birds such as toucans — based on how far they can travel.




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And we found in areas with low forest cover, wildlife is twice as likely to move from one natural habitat to another if paddock trees and hedges can be used as stepping stones.

We also found vegetation around creeks and waterways are the most prevalent and important type of on-farm habitat for wildlife movement. In Brazil, there are legal protections for these areas preventing them from being cleared, which means vegetation along waterways has become relatively common compared to lone trees and hedges, in places with lower forest cover.

Insights for Australia

While the contribution of lone trees, hedges and tree-lined fences towards conservation targets is relatively low, our research shows they’re still important. And we can apply this knowledge more widely.

Two koalas sitting on a branch
Koalas use roadside vegetation for feeding and resting.
Shutterstock

For example, in Australia, many koala populations depend on scattered trees for movement and habitat. In 2018, CSIRO researchers in Queensland tracked koalas using GPS, and found koalas used roadside vegetation and scattered trees for feeding and resting significantly more than they expected.

Likewise, lone trees, hedges and tree-lined fences can also facilitate the movement of Australian fruit-eating birds such as the olive-backed oriole and the rose-crowned fruit dove. Improving habitat connectivity can help these birds travel across landscapes, feeding and dispersing seeds as they go.

In fragmented landscapes, where larger patches of vegetation are hard to find, dispersing the seeds of native plants encourages natural regeneration of ecosystems. This is a key strategy to help achieve environmental restoration and conservation targets.

Policies overlook lone trees

In Brazil, there’s a strong initiative to restore natural areas, known as the Brazilian Pact for Restoration. This pact is a commitment from non-government organisations, government, companies and research centres to restore 15 million hectares of native vegetation by 2050.

However, the pact doesn’t recognise the value of lone trees, hedges and tree-lined fences.




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Likewise, the Brazilian Forest Code has historically provided strong legal protection for forests since it was introduced. While this policy does value vegetation along waterways, it overlooks the value of lone trees, hedges or tree-lined fences.

These oversights could result in poor connectivity between natural areas, seriously hampering conservation efforts.

Australia doesn’t fare much better. For example, in Queensland, the native vegetation management laws protect only intact native vegetation or vegetation of a certain age. This means scattered, but vital, vegetation isn’t protected from land clearing.

Small habitat features scattered across a farm paddock in the Atlantic Forest.
Flávia Freire Siqueira, CC BY., Author provided

Helping your local wildlife

But farmers and other landowners in Australia can make a big difference through land stewardship grant schemes (such as from Landcare) and private land conservation programs (such as Land for Wildlife or conservation covenants).

These schemes and programs can help landowners finance revegetation and protect native vegetation. Grants and programs vary by state and territory, and local council.




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Restoring natural areas is a key goal on the global conservation agenda for the next decade, and it’s clear that lone trees, hedges and tree-lined fences on farms may play a larger role than once thought.

So think twice before you remove a tree or a hedge. It might be a crucial stepping stone for your local birds and bees.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Dr Flávia Freire Siqueira who led this research collaboration, and co-authours Dr Dulcineia de Carvalho and Dr Vanessa Leite Rezende from the Federal University of Lavras.The Conversation

Carla Archibald, Research Fellow, Conservation Science, Deakin University; Eduardo van den Berg, , Federal University of Lavras, and Jonathan Rhodes, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland

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

DIY habitat: my photos show chainsaw-carved tree hollows make perfect new homes for this mysterious marsupial


William Terry, Author provided

William Terry, Southern Cross UniversityEnvironmental 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.


As a result of logging and severe bushfires, Australian wildlife is facing a severe shortage of tree hollows — holes in the trunks and branches of large old trees. More than 300 species of birds and mammals, including possums, bats, cockatoos, owls and kookaburras, rely on tree hollows for shelter or breeding.

A sacred kingfisher using a natural tree hollow for nesting.
William Terry

In Australia, hollows are usually formed through the decay of a tree scar, and it can take hundreds of years for tree hollows big enough for medium-sized animals to form naturally.

This includes phascogales — the rat-sized, carnivorous marsupials that live in open woodlands across Australia and are the focus of my research and photography. But like many of Australia’s forest-dwelling mammals, phascogales are vulnerable to extinction.

So with hollows becoming harder to find, I venture into forests and study how well artificial hollows, made with chainsaws, can replace them. And, incredibly, it’s working: my research shows phascogales and other native animals are enthusiastically moving into the new real estate.

Meet the mysterious brush-tailed phascogale

Phascogales are an important species to Australia but, unfortunately, their cryptic behaviour and nocturnal habits mean people rarely see them.

Brush-tailed phascogales live in trees, but will come to the ground to forage for food among leaf litter and fallen timber.
William Terry
Phascogales belong to the same family as the Tasmanian devil, quoll (pictured) and the tiny antechinus.
William Terry, Author provided

Phascogales feed on insects after stripping bark from eucalypts. But through my close interactions and radio tracking, I’ve documented phascogales eating other more unusual foods, including bird eggs and sometimes even small birds, such as grey-shrike thrush.

I’ve also recorded them taking dead birds, such as the rosella pictured below. They even have a reputation among farmers as being a fierce chicken killer, but this may be exaggerated.

A phascogale inspects a dead crimson rosella it found at the base of a tree. Moments later, this phascogale dragged the bird away. It was unclear what happened next.
William Terry

Phascogales have an unusual life. Shortly after mating between April and May, all males die at about 11 months of age from stomach ulcers. This frees up resources for the next generation of young joeys that will emerge from the nest in early summer.

But will they survive in the future?

Tragically, at least one species, the brush-tailed phascogale, is threatened with extinction, primarily due to habitat loss, climate change, and feral predators such as foxes and cats.

The brush-tailed phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa tapoatafa) occurs across the eastern side of Australia, from southern Queensland to Victoria. It’s now extinct in South Australia.

Likewise, the much smaller red-tailed phascogale (Phascogale calura) once survived across a vast swathe of land from Western Australia to Victoria. Today, it survives only in small pockets in the Western Australia wheatbelt.

Brush-tailed phascogales were once known as ‘bottle-brush squirrels’, due to the stunning resemblance of its tail to the iconic native flowers.
William Terry
The red-tailed phascogale has been lost from much of its former range and now only exists in the Western Australian wheatbelt.
William Terry, Author provided

Household cats are a particularly major issue for phascogales, and many cat owners in central Victoria have a story about their cat bringing home a phascogale (so please keep your pet cat inside at all times).




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Last year, research confirmed climate change would reduce the available areas phascogales could survive. This research found areas with a phascogale-friendly climate would decline by up to 79% in Queensland, 67% in Victoria and 17% in NSW, by 2070.

Climate change also threatens to bring longer, more frequent and severe heatwaves. For phascogales and many other mammals, this could be a death sentence.

Tree hollows with thick walls can protect the animals sheltering inside from the high temperatures outside.

But these are getting increasingly rarer, and this is where my research on chainsaw hollows comes in. Thick-walled hollows may be very important for the long-term survival of phascogales and other species in a warming climate.

A relative to the phascogale, the tiny agile antechinus commonly uses tree hollows on the ground.
William Terry, Author provided

Carving them a home

A chainsaw hollow is a cavity constructed inside a tree. A faceplate is then attached over the top, with a hole drilled into it for the animal to enter. They offer refuge for Australia’s endangered mammals and birds.

For our project, we carved 45 chainsaw hollows in dry forests and woodland where phascogales are known to occur. We also installed similar-sized nest boxes — which are more commonly used to offset the loss of hollows — on nearby trees. We monitored these for two and a half years.

A chainsaw hollow constructed for phascogales.
William Terry, Author provided
Chainsaw hollow creation is a specialised skill. Here, tree climber Lachlan installs a chainsaw hollow on a red ironbark tree.
William Terry, Author provided

Research from 2018 shows nest boxes offer little protection from outside temperatures. I’ve collected data, which is not yet published, that confirms this.

My research shows chainsaw hollows provide 27% more protection from extreme temperatures during heatwaves compared to nest boxes, which provided almost no protection.




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Two phascogales peeking out of a nest box.
William Terry, Author provided

So it’s no wonder we observed and recorded phascogales and the more common sugar glider (Petaurus notatus) more frequently sheltering in chainsaw hollows than in nearby nest boxes.

Other animals used the chainsaw hollows, too. This includes the feather-tailed glider, yellow-footed antechinus, and the white-throated treecreeper.

Brush-tailed phascogale inspects a chainsaw hollow.
Sugar gliders also frequently used chainsaw hollows.
William Terry

But like nest boxes, the chainsaw hollows showed signs they would be only an interim measure, requiring maintenance with bark growing over entrance holes and issues with a buildup of moisture.

In any case, further research into this species is needed, as it will aid land managers to conserve this enigmatic species as more challenges are thrown their way into the future.




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The Conversation


William Terry, PhD Researcher, Supervision by Associate Prof. Ross Goldingay, Southern Cross University

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

Environment Minister Sussan Ley faces a critical test: will she let a mine destroy koala breeding grounds?


Lachlan G. Howell, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, University of Newcastle

In the next few weeks, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley will decide whether to approve a New South Wales quarry expansion that will destroy critical koala breeding grounds.

The case, involving the Brandy Hill Quarry at Port Stephens, is emblematic of how NSW environment laws are failing wildlife — particularly koalas. Efforts to erode koala protections hit the headlines last week when NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro threatened to detonate the Coalition over the issue.




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Koala populations are already under huge pressure. A NSW parliamentary inquiry in June warned the koala faces extinction in the state by 2050 if the government doesn’t better control land clearing and habitat loss.

Ley could either continue these alarming trends, or set a welcome precedent for koala protection. Her decision is also the first big test of federal environment laws since an interim review found they were failing wildlife. So let’s take a closer look at what’s at stake in this latest controversy.

A koala clinging to a tree branch
This female koala is under threat from the Brandy Hill Quarry expansion.
Lachlan Howell, Author provided

The Brandy Hill Quarry expansion

The NSW government gave approval to Hanson Construction Materials, a subsidiary of Heidelberg Cement, to expand the existing Brandy Hill Quarry in Seaham in Port Stephens.

The project would provide concrete to meet Sydney’s growing construction demands, as the state fast-tracks infrastructure projects to help the economy recover from COVID-19.

The approval came despite the known presence of koalas in the area. A koala survey report, completed on behalf of the developer in 2019, determined the project would “result in a significant impact to the koala”.

The report recommended the quarry expansion be referred to the federal Environment Minister under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999, for its potential impacts on “Matters of National Environmental Significance”.




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The expansion site intersects habitat with preferred high quality koala feed and shelter trees. This habitat is established forest containing various key mature Eucalyptus trees, including the forest red gum and swamp mahogany.

The survey report didn’t propose any mitigation strategies to sustain the habitat. Instead, it suggested minimisation measures, such as ecologists to be present during habitat clearing, low speed limits for vehicles on site, and education on koalas for workers.

A disaster for koalas

In support of a community grassroots campaign (Save Port Stephens Koalas), we produced an report on the effect of the quarry expansion on koalas. The report now sits with Ley ahead of her decision, which is due by October 13.

Male koalas will bellow during the breeding season to attract females.

The expansion will clear more than 50 hectares of koala habitat. We found koalas breeding within 1 kilometre of the current quarry boundary, which indicates the expansion site is likely to destroy critical koala breeding habitat.

During the breeding season, male koalas bellow to attract females. Within 1km of the boundary we observed a female koala and a bellowing male koala 96m apart. A second male was reported bellowing 227m from the quarry boundary.

What’s more, the site expansion occurs within a NSW government listed Area of Regional Koala Significance. The expansion site actually has higher average koala habitat suitability than all remaining habitat on the quarry property.

The Koala Habitat Suitability Model from our independent report. The red boundary represents the Quarry expansion site containing high habitat suitability.
Map produced by S. A. Ryan using the Koala Habitat Information Base and arcGIS 10.6., Author provided

CSIRO research from 2016 suggests koalas in Port Stephens can move hundreds of metres in a day and up to 5km in one month. Movement is highest during the breeding season. This potential for koalas to move away was a key reason the NSW government approved the expansion.

Koalas can move in to the remaining property to breed, or they can move away from it. But habitat outside the expansion site is, on average, lesser quality, and this is where the expansion would force the koalas to move to.




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This habitat fragmentation would not only result in lost access to potential breeding grounds, but also further restrict movement and expose koalas to threats such as predation or road traffic.

Lastly, the expansion would sever a crucial East–West corridor koalas likely use to move across the landscape and breed.

Approved under the state’s weak environmental protections

It may seem surprising this destructive project was approved by the NSW government. But it’s a common story under the state’s protections.

Alarm over the weaknesses of NSW environmental protections has been raised by NSW government agencies including the Natural Resources Commission and NSW Audit Office.




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The expansion approval is an example of how the NSW government relaxed the regulatory requirements for land clearing between 2016 and 2017. This led to a 13-fold increase in land clearing approvals, and tipped the balance away from sustainable development.

Female and male koalas spotted 1 km from the quarry boundary. The male was observed bellowing 96 m from the female koala. Photo: Lachlan Howell.

The expansion shines another spotlight on NSW’s poor biodiversity offset laws.

Biodiversity offsets involve compensating for environmental damage in one location by improving the environment elsewhere. Under the expansions approval, the developer was required to protect an estimated 450 hectares of habitat as offset.

But the recent parliamentary inquiry into NSW koalas recommended offsetting of prime koala habitat — such as that involved in the quarry expansion — be prohibited, which would mean not destroying the habitat in the first place.




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The NSW decision also does not account for the Black Summer Bushfires which claimed 5,000 koalas and burned millions of hectares of koala habitat. The Port Stephens population was unburned but more than 75% of its habitat has been lost since colonial occupation. Securing this population is important for the overall security of koalas in the state.

The koalas are in Sussan Ley’s hands

Sussan Ley will now assess the expansion under the EPBC Act. A recent interim report into the laws said they’d allowed an “unsustainable state of decline” of Australia’s environment.

Rejections under these laws are rare; just 22 of 6,500 projects referred for approval under the act have been refused. However, it’s not impossible.

Earlier this year Ley rejected a wind-farm in Queensland which threatened unburned koala habitat. If Ley gives full consideration to the evidence in our report, she should make the same decision.




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The Conversation


Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle

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

We modelled the future of Leadbeater’s possum habitat and found bushfires, not logging, pose the greatest threat



Rohan Clarke, Author provided

Craig Nitschke, University of Melbourne; Andrew Robinson, University of Melbourne; Melissa Fedrigo, University of Melbourne; Patrick Baker, University of Melbourne, and Raphael Trouve, University of Melbourne

The Federal Court recently ruled that a timber harvesting company couldn’t log potential habitat of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum.

This decision led to the immediate protection of more Leadbeater’s possum habitat and will lead to further habitat set aside over the next ten years as native timber harvesting is phased out in Victoria.

But these short-term, site-based measures will not guarantee the long-term conservation of this iconic Victorian species.




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Our new study modelled changes in forests over the next 250 years, focusing on 280,000 hectares of Victoria’s Central Highlands, home to the majority of remaining Leadbeater’s possums.

We looked at different scenarios of how both climate change and timber harvesting might play out. And we identified three important findings.

First, Leadbeater’s possum habitat is dynamic. It’s transient across the landscape over time as disturbances, such as bushfires, continually change the spatial distribution of hollow-bearing trees and young forests.

Second, while timber harvesting poses a local-scale threat, at a larger scale – across hundreds of thousands of hectares – bushfire poses the greatest threat to the species’ habitat.

Last, we found less than half of the area within current parks, reserves, and timber harvest exclusion zones provided stable long-term habitat for Leadbeater’s possum over the next century.

The Black Saturday bushfires razed almost half of the Leadbeater’s possum habitat in 2009.
Shutterstock

Future habitat scenarios

Leadbeater’s possums live in ash and snow gum forests. They depend on two key habitat features: hollow-bearing trees for nesting and dense understorey for moving around the forest.

We used a set of four scenarios to explore how climate change and timber harvesting impact long-term habitat availability by focusing on the where and when hollow-bearing trees and dense understorey are found in the landscape.




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The scenarios included projecting current climate conditions, and projecting a 2℃ rise in average annual temperature with a 20% reduction in yearly rainfall.

For each of these climate scenarios, timber harvesting at current harvesting rates was either excluded or allowed in areas zoned for timber production.

Bushfires drive long-term habitat loss

Our simulations showed bushfire, not logging, is the biggest threat to habitat availability for Leadbeater’s possum in the Central Highlands. As the cumulative area burnt by fire increased, the quantity and quality of Leadbeater’s possum habitat decreased.

Tthe 2009 Black Saturday fires burned almost half of its habitat, causing its conservation status to jump from endangered to critically endangered.




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Bushfires have always been part of Australian landscapes and many species, including Leadbeater’s possum, have evolved alongside them. Eleven years later, Leadbeater’s possum are now recolonising areas burned in the 2009 bushfires.

But as climate change increases the frequency and scale of bushfires, our models suggest the Central Highlands landscape may support less suitable habitat.

Timber harvesting is less of a threat

While timber harvesting compounds the impacts of bushfires on Leadbeater’s possum habitat, across the landscape the effect is small in comparison. Timber harvesting reduced suitable habitat by only 1.4% to 2.3% over 250 years compared to scenarios without harvesting.

Within a coupe (the area of forest harvested in one operation), timber harvesting immediately reduces nesting and foraging habitat. But foraging habitat returns within 10 to 15 years and can be recolonised by Leadbeater’s possum – as long as nesting sites are nearby.




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Protecting vegetation around waterways, in particular, was critical for the development and survival of hollow-bearing trees in an increasingly fire-prone landscape.

But while timber harvesting had much smaller impacts than bushfires, the two did interact. Over time, the cumulative impacts of timber harvesting and bushfire homogenised forest structure across the landscape, leading to smaller patches of habitat that were less connected.

This increases the risk of local extinction for populations of Leadbeater’s possum living in these patches.

We need dynamic conservation areas

A core question for the conservation of any threatened species is: how well does the network of protected areas protect the species?

Our modelling framework meant we could test whether current areas set aside for Leadbeater’s possum conservation actually provide long-term protection.

Over the next 100 years, less than 50% of existing parks, reserves and timber-harvest exclusion zones will provide continuous habitat for Leadbeater’s possum due to climate change.

Distribution of Leadbeater’s possum habitat in the Central Highlands landscape modelled in our paper. Stable zones provided suitable habitat throughout the scenarios. Loss and gain were areas that lost or became habitat over the scenario.
Author provided

However, we also identified approximately 30,000 hectares of forest outside the current network of protected areas that can provide stable habitat for Leadbeater’s possum over the next century.

It’s vital we put protection zones into the areas possums are likely to migrate to as the climate changes. These areas should be a priority for conservation efforts.

A new conservation strategy

Historically, conservation planning has taken a static, site-based approach to protecting species.

This approach is doomed to fail in dynamic landscapes – particularly in fire-prone landscapes in a warming climate. For conservation planning to be successful, we need coordinated forest, fire, and conservation management that accounts for these dynamics across the whole landscape, not just in individual locations.




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We need a vision for how to make our landscapes more resilient to the growing threat of climate change and provide better protection for the unique flora and fauna that inhabit them.

This will require government agencies responsible for land management and conservation to coordinate current management activities across tenures, while simultaneously implementing future-focused conservation planning. Our landscape-modelling approach provides a first step in that direction.The Conversation

Craig Nitschke, Associate Professor – Forest and Landscape Dynamics, University of Melbourne; Andrew Robinson, Managing Director for Biosecurity Risk Research, University of Melbourne; Melissa Fedrigo, Remote Sensing Scientist and Ecological Modeller, University of Melbourne; Patrick Baker, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology, University of Melbourne, and Raphael Trouve, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Ecosystem And Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne

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

The Leadbeater’s possum finally had its day in court. It may change the future of logging in Australia



Shutterstock

Julia Dehm, La Trobe University

The Federal Court last week ruled that VicForests – a timber company owned by the Victorian government – breached environmental laws when they razed the habitat of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum and the vulnerable greater glider.

Environmentalists welcomed the judge’s decision, which sets an important legal precedent.

Under so-called “regional forest agreements”, a number of logging operations around Australia are exempt from federal environment laws. This effectively puts logging interests above those of threatened species. The court ruling narrows these exemptions and provides an opportunity to create stronger forestry laws.

A legal loophole

Since 1971, the Leadbeater’s possum has been the faunal emblem of Victoria. But only about 1,200 adults are left in the wild, almost exclusively in the Central Highlands region.




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Official conservation advice identifies the greatest threat to the species as habitat loss and fragmentation caused by the collapse of hollow-bearing trees, wildfire, logging and climate change.

Australia’s federal environmental laws require environmental impact assessment of any action likely to significantly impact a matter of national environmental significance, such as a listed threatened species.

But thanks to exemptions under regional forest agreements, logging has continued in the Central Highlands – even in the aftermath of this summer’s devastating bushfires.

So what are regional forest agreements?

Regional forest agreements were designed as a response to the so-called “forest wars” of the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1995, after logging trucks blockaded parliament, then Prime Minister Paul Keating offered a deal to the states: the federal government would accredit state forest management systems, and in return federal law would no longer apply to logging operations. Drawing up regional forest agreements between state and federal governments achieved this.




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Between 1997 and 2001, ten different agreements were signed, covering logging regions in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia. These agreements were for 20 years, which means many have now either expired and been renewed or extended, or are about to expire.

The agreements are supposed to satisfy a number of conditions. This includes that they’re based on an assessment of environmental and social values of forest areas. They should also provide for the ecologically sustainable management and use of forested areas, and the long-term stability of forest and forest industries.

But conservation experts argue the agreements have failed both to deliver certainty to forestry operations or to protect environmental values and ensure the conservation of biodiversity.

History of the court case

The legal proceedings against VicForests were initiated in 2017 by Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum, a small community group which relied on crowd funding to cover legal costs.

Initially, the group argued Victoria’s failure to undertake a required review of the Central Highlands regional forest agreements every five years meant the usual exemption to federal environment laws should not apply.




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But in early 2018, Justice Mortimer ruled against this. But she also rejected VicForests’ arguments that any operation in an area covered by a regional forest agreement is automatically exempt from federal law.

She ruled that the logging operations will only be exempt from federal law if they comply with Victoria’s accredited system of forest management. This includes the requirements for threatened species, as specified in official action and management plans.

In response to this ruling, Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum reformulated their claim.

They argued logging operations in 66 coupes (small areas of forest harvested in one operation) didn’t meet these requirements for threatened species, and so the exemption from federal laws didn’t apply.

The court ruling

In her ruling last week, the judge found VicForests unlawfully logged 26 coupes home to the Leadbeater’s possum and greater glider, and that logging a scheduled 41 other sections would put them at risk.

The court found the company breached a number of aspects of the Code of Practice for Timber Production 2014. This code is part of the Victorian regulatory system accredited by the regional forest agreement.

In particular, VicForests had not, as required, applied the “precautionary principle” in planning and conducting logging operations in coupes containing the greater glider.




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Nor had VicForests developed a comprehensive forest survey system, or engaged in a careful evaluation of management options to avoid dangers to these threatened species.

These failures meant the logging operations were not covered by the exemption from federal laws. As such, the court found VicForests had breached federal environmental law, as the logging operation had, or were likely to have, a significant impact on the two threatened species.

What now?

This case will have clear implications for logging operations governed by regional forest agreements.

In fact, the timber industry has called for state and federal governments to urgently respond to the case, and clarify the future of regional forest agreements.




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Arguably, logging operations conducted under a regional forest agreement can no longer rely on the exemption from federal environmental laws if those operations don’t comply with the state regulatory frameworks accredited under the regional forest agreements, especially provisions that protect threatened species.

And while making logging operations subject to federal environmental laws is a good thing, it’s not enough. Federal environmental laws are weak and don’t prevent species extinctions.

In any case, the result is the perfect opportunity for state and federal governments to rethink forest management. That means properly taking into account the ongoing threats to threatened species from climate change, wildfires and habitat loss.The Conversation

Julia Dehm, Lecturer, La Trobe University

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

Six million hectares of threatened species habitat up in smoke



At least 250 threatened species have had their habitat hit by fires.
Gena Dray

Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland; Aaron Greenville, University of Sydney; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Ayesha Tulloch, University of Sydney; Brooke Williams, The University of Queensland; Emily Massingham, The University of Queensland; Helen Mayfield, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jim Radford, La Trobe University, and Laura Sonter, The University of Queensland

More than one billion mammals, birds, and reptiles across eastern Australia are estimated to have been affected by the current fire catastrophe.

Many animals and plants have been incinerated or suffocated by smoke and ash. Others may have escaped the blaze only to die of exhaustion or starvation, or be picked off by predators.



But even these huge losses of individual animals and plants do not reveal the full scale of impact that the recent fires have had on biodiversity.

Plants, invertebrates, freshwater fish, and frogs have also been affected, and the impact of the fires is likely to be disproportionately greater for threatened species.




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To delve deeper into the conservation impact, we used publicly available satellite imagery to look at the burnt areas (up to January 7, 2020) and see how they overlapped with the approximate distributions of all the threatened animals and plants listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

We restricted our analysis to the mediterranean and temperate zone of south-east and south-west Australia.

The bad news

We found that 99% of the area burned in the current fires contains potential habitat for at least one nationally listed threatened species. We conservatively estimate that six million hectares of threatened species habitat has been burned.



Given that many fires are still burning and it is not yet clear how severe the burning has been in many areas, the number of species affected and the extent of the impact may yet change.

What we do know is that these species are already on the brink of extinction due to other threats, such as land clearing, invasive species, climate change, disease, or previous fires.

Approximately 70 nationally threatened species have had at least 50% of their range burnt, while nearly 160 threatened species have had more than 20% of their range burnt.

More threatened plants have been affected than other groups: 209 threatened plant species have had more than 5% of their range burnt compared to 16 mammals, ten frogs, six birds, four reptiles, and four freshwater fish.


Author supplied

Twenty-nine of the 30 species that have had more than 80% of their range burnt are plants. Several species have had their entire range consumed by the fires, such as the Mountain Trachymene, a fire-sensitive plant found in only four locations in the South Eastern Highlands of NSW.

Other species that have been severely impacted include the Kangaroo Island dunnart and the Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo. These species’ entire populations numbered only in the hundreds prior to these bushfires that have burned more than 50% of their habitat.

The Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo has had more than 50% its habitat impacted by fire.
Mike Barth

Glossy black cockatoos have a highly specialised diet. They eat the seeds of the drooping sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata). These trees may take anywhere from 10 to 50 years to recover enough to produce sufficient food for the black cockatoos.

The populations of many species will need careful management and protection to give their habitats enough time to recover and re-supply critical resources.

The figures above do not account for cumulative impacts of previous fires. For example, the critically endangered western ground parrot had around 6,000 hectares of potential habitat burnt in these fires, which exacerbates the impact of earlier extensive fires in 2015 and early 2019.

Threatened species vary in their ability to cope with fire. For fire-sensitive species, almost every individual dies or is displaced. The long-term consequences are likely to be dire, particularly if vegetation composition is irrevocably changed by severe fire or the area is subject to repeat fires.

More than 50% of the habitat of several species known to be susceptible to fire has been burnt – these include the long-footed potoroo and Littlejohn’s tree frog.

The endangered long-footed potoroo has had more than 50% of its potential habitat impacted by fire.
George Bayliss

Some species are likely to thrive after fire. Indeed, of the top 30 most impacted species on our list, almost 20% will likely flourish due to low competition in their burnt environments – these are all re-sprouting plants. Others will do well if they are not burnt again before they can set seed.

Rising from the ashes

For fire-sensitive threatened species, these fires could have substantially increased the probability of extinction by virtue of direct mortality in the fires or reducing the amount of suitable habitat. However, after the embers settle, with enough investment and conservation actions, guided by evidence-based science, it may be possible to help threatened species recover.

For species on the brink of extinction, insurance populations need to be established. Captive breeding and release can complement wild populations, as occurs for the regent honeyeater.
Dean Ingwersen / BirdLife Australia

Protection and conservation-focussed management of areas that have not burned will be the single most important action if threatened species are to have any chance of persistence and eventual recovery.

Management of threatening processes (such as weeds, feral predators, introduced herbivores, and habitat loss through logging or thinning) must occur not just at key sites, but across the landscapes they sit in. Maintaining only small pockets of habitat in a landscape of destruction will lock many species on the pathway to extinction.

In some cases, rigorous post-fire restoration will be necessary to allow species to re-colonise burnt areas. This may include intensive weed control and assisted regeneration of threatened flora and specific food sources for fauna, installing nest boxes and artificial cover, or even targeted supplementary feeding.

Unconventional recovery actions will be needed because this unique situation calls for outside-the-box thinking.




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Playing the long game

These fires were made larger and more severe by record hot, dry conditions. Global temperatures have so far risen by approximately 1°C from pre-industrial levels.

Current projections indicate that we are on track for a 3°C increase. What will that look like?

We are in a moment of collective grief for what has been lost. A species lost is not just a word on a page, but an entire world of unique traits, behaviours, connections to other living things, and beauty.

These losses do not need to be in vain. We have an opportunity to transform our collective grief into collective action.

Australians are now personally experiencing climate impacts in an unprecedented way. We must use this moment to galvanise our leaders to act on climate change, here in Australia and on the world stage.

The futures of our beloved plants and animals, and our own, depend on it.The Conversation

Michelle Ward, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland; Aaron Greenville, Lecturer in Spatial Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney; Brooke Williams, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland; Emily Massingham, PhD Student, The University of Queensland; Helen Mayfield, Postdoctoral Research Fellow School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jim Radford, Principal Research Fellow, Research Centre for Future Landscapes, La Trobe University, and Laura Sonter, PhD Candidate in Global Environmental Change, The University of Queensland

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

Extreme weather caused by climate change has damaged 45% of Australia’s coastal habitat



Bleached staghorn coral on the Great Barrier Reef. Many species are dependent on corals for food and shelter.
Damian Thomson, Author provided

Russ Babcock, CSIRO; Anthony Richardson, The University of Queensland; Beth Fulton, CSIRO; Eva Plaganyi, CSIRO, and Rodrigo Bustamante, CSIRO

If you think climate change is only gradually affecting our natural systems, think again.

Our research, published yesterday in Frontiers in Marine Science, looked at the large-scale impacts of a series of extreme climate events on coastal marine habitats around Australia.

We found more than 45% of the coastline was already affected by extreme weather events caused by climate change. What’s more, these ecosystems are struggling to recover as extreme events are expected to get worse.




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There is growing scientific evidence that heatwaves, floods, droughts and cyclones are increasing in frequency and intensity, and that this is caused by climate change.

Life on the coastline

Corals, seagrass, mangroves and kelp are some of the key habitat-forming species of our coastline, as they all support a host of marine invertebrates, fish, sea turtles and marine mammals.

Our team decided to look at the cumulative impacts of recently reported extreme climate events on marine habitats around Australia. We reviewed the period between 2011 and 2017 and found these events have had devastating impacts on key marine habitats.

Healthy kelp (left) in Western Australia is an important part of the food chain but it is vulnerable to even small changes in temperature and particularly slow to recover from disturbances such as the marine heatwave of 2011. Even small patches or gaps (right) where kelp has died can take many years to recover.
Russ Babcock, Author provided

These include kelp and mangrove forests, seagrass meadows, and coral reefs, some of which have not yet recovered, and may never do so. These findings paint a bleak picture, underscoring the need for urgent action.

During this period, which spanned both El Niño and La Niña conditions, scientists around Australia reported the following events:

2011: The most extreme marine heatwave ever occurred off the west coast of Australia. Temperatures were as much as 2-4℃ above average for extended periods and there was coral bleaching along more than 1,000km of coast and loss of kelp forest along hundreds of kilometres.

Seagrasses in Shark Bay and along the entire east coast of Queensland were also severely affected by extreme flooding and cyclones. The loss of seagrasses in Queensland may have led to a spike in deaths of turtles and dugongs.

2013: Extensive coral bleaching took place along more than 300km of the Pilbara coast of northwestern Australia.

2016: The most extreme coral bleaching ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef affected more than 1,000km of the northern Great Barrier Reef. Mangrove forests across northern Australia were killed by a combination of drought, heat and abnormally low sea levels along the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria across the Northern Territory and into Western Australia.

2017: An unprecedented second consecutive summer of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef affects northern Great Barrier Reef again, as well as parts of the reef further to the south.

Heritage areas affected

Many of the impacted areas are globally significant for their size and biodiversity, and because until now they have been relatively undisturbed by climate change. Some of the areas affected are also World Heritage Areas (Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay, Ningaloo Coast).

Seagrass meadows in Shark Bay are among the world’s most lush and extensive and help lock large amounts of carbon into sediments. The left image shows healthy seagrass but the right image shows damage from extreme climate events in 2011.
Mat Vanderklift, Author provided

The habitats affected are “foundational”: they provide food and shelter to a huge range of species. Many of the animals affected – such as large fish and turtles – support commercial industries such as tourism and fishing, as well as being culturally important to Australians.

Recovery across these impacted habitats has begun, but it’s likely some areas will never return to their previous condition.

We have used ecosystem models to evaluate the likely long-term outcomes from extreme climate events predicted to become more frequent and more intense.

This work suggests that even in places where recovery starts, the average time for full recovery may be around 15 years. Large slow-growing species such as sharks and dugongs could take even longer, up to 60 years.

But extreme climate events are predicted to occur less than 15 years apart. This will result in a step-by-step decline in the condition of these ecosystems, as it leaves too little time between events for full recovery.

This already appears to be happening with the corals of the Great Barrier Reef.

Gradual decline as things get warmer

Damage from extreme climate events occurs on top of more gradual changes driven by increases in average temperature, such as loss of kelp forests on the southeast coasts of Australia due to the spread of sea urchins and tropical grazing fish species.

Ultimately, we need to slow down and stop the heating of our planet due to the release of greenhouse gases. But even with immediate and effective emissions reduction, the planet will remain warmer, and extreme climatic events more prevalent, for decades to come.

Recovery might still be possible, but we need to know more about recovery rates and what factors promote recovery. This information will allow us to give the ecosystems a helping hand through active restoration and rehabilitation efforts.




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We will need new ways to help ecosystems function and to deliver the services that we all depend on. This will likely include decreasing (or ideally, stopping) direct human impacts, and actively assisting recovery and restoring damaged ecosystems.

Several such programs are active around Australia and internationally, attempting to boost the ability of corals, seagrass, mangroves and kelp to recover.

But they will need to be massively scaled up to be effective in the context of the large scale disturbances seen in this decade.The Conversation

Mangroves at the Flinders River near Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The healthy mangrove forest (left) is near the river while the dead mangroves (right) are at higher levels where they were much more stressed by conditions in 2016. Some small surviving mangroves are seen beginning to recover by 2017.
Robert Kenyon, Author provided

Russ Babcock, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Anthony Richardson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Beth Fulton, CSIRO Research Group Leader Ecosystem Modelling and Risk Assessment, CSIRO; Eva Plaganyi, Senior Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Rodrigo Bustamante, Research Group Leader , CSIRO

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