Pest plants and animals cost Australia around $25 billion a year – and it will get worse



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Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University and Andrew Hoskins, CSIRO

Shamefully, Australia has one of the highest extinction rates in the world.
And the number one threat to our species is invasive or “alien” plants and animals.

But invasive species don’t just cause extinctions and biodiversity loss – they also create a serious economic burden. Our research, published today, reveals invasive species have cost the Australian economy at least A$390 billion in the last 60 years alone.

Our paper – the most detailed assessment of its type ever published in this country – also reveals feral cats are the worst invasive species in terms of total costs, followed by rabbits and fire ants.

Without urgent action, Australia will continue to lose billions of dollars every year on invasive species.

Feral cats are Australia’s costliest invasive species.
Adobe Stock/240188862

Huge economic burden

Invasive species are those not native to a particular ecosystem. They are introduced either by accident or on purpose and become pests.

Some costs involve direct damage to agriculture, such as insects or fungi destroying fruit. Other examples include measures to control invasive species like feral cats and cane toads, such as paying field staff and buying fuel, ammunition, traps and poisons.

Our previous research put the global cost of invasive species at A$1.7 trillion. But this is most certainly a gross underestimate because so many data are missing.




Read more:
Attack of the alien invaders: pest plants and animals leave a frightening $1.7 trillion bill


As a wealthy nation, Australia has accumulated more reliable cost data than most other regions. These costs have increased exponentially over time – up to sixfold each decade since the 1970s.

We found invasive species now cost Australia around A$24.5 billion a year, or an average 1.26% of the nation’s gross domestic product. The costs total at least A$390 billion in the past 60 years.

Increase in annual costs of invasive species in Australia from 1960 to 2020. The predicted range for 2020 is shown in the upper left quadrant. Note the logarithmic scale of the vertical axis.
CJA Bradshaw

Worst of the worst

Our analysis found feral cats have been the most economically costly species since 1960. Their A$18.7 billion bill is mainly associated with attempts to control their abundance and access, such as fencing, trapping, baiting and shooting.

Feral cats are a main driver of extinctions in Australia, and so perhaps investment to limit their damage is worth the price tag.

Tasmania’s bane — ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)
Adobe Stock/157770032

As a group, the management and control of invasive plants proved the worst of all, collectively costing about A$200 billion. Of these, annual ryegrass, parthenium and ragwort were the costliest culprits because of the great effort needed to eradicate them from croplands.

Invasive mammals were the next biggest burdens, costing Australia A$63 billion.

The 10 costliest invasive species in Australia.
CJA Bradshaw

Variation across regions

For costs that can be attributed to particular states or territories, New South Wales had the highest costs, followed by Western Australia then Victoria.

Red imported fire ants are the costliest species in Queensland, and ragwort is the economic bane of Tasmania.

The common heliotrope is the costliest species in both South Australia and Victoria, and annual ryegrass tops the list in WA.

In the Northern Territory, the dothideomycete fungus that causes banana freckle disease brings the greatest economic burden, whereas cats and foxes are the costliest species in the ACT and NSW.

The three costliest species by Australian state/territory.
CJA Bradshaw

Better assessments needed

Our study is one of 19 region-specific analyses released today. Because the message about invasive species must get out to as many people as possible, our article’s abstract was translated into 24 languages.

This includes Pitjantjatjara, a widely spoken Indigenous language.




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Even the massive costs we reported are an underestimate. This is because of we haven’t yet surveyed all the places these species occur, and there is a lack of standardised reporting by management authorities and other agencies.

For example, our database lists several fungal plant pathogens. But no cost data exist for some of the worst offenders, such as the widespread Phytophthora cinnamomi pathogen that causes major crop losses and damage to biodiversity.

Developing better methods to estimate the environmental impacts of invasive species, and the benefit of management actions, will allow us to use limited resources more efficiently.

Phytophthora cinnamomi, a widespread, but largely uncosted, fungal pathogen.
Adobe Stock/272252666

A constant threat

Fall armyworm, a major crop pest.
Adobe Stock/335450066

Many species damaging to agriculture and the environment are yet to make it to our shores.

The recent arrival in Australia of fall armyworm, a major agriculture pest, reminds us how invasive species will continue their spread here and elsewhere.

As well as the economic damage, invasive species also bring intangible costs we have yet to measure adequately. These include the true extent of ecological damage, human health consequences, erosion of ecosystem services and the loss of cultural values.

Without better data, increased investment, a stronger biosecurity system and interventions such as animal culls, invasive species will continue to wreak havoc across Australia.


The authors acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which they did this research.

Ngadlu tampinthi yalaka ngadlu Kaurna yartangka inparrinthi. Ngadludlu tampinthi, parnaku tuwila yartangka.The Conversation

Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Professor of Global Ecology and Models Theme Leader for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University and Andrew Hoskins, Research scientist CSIRO Health and Biosecurity, CSIRO

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

‘One of the most damaging invasive species on Earth’: wild pigs release the same emissions as 1 million cars each year


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Christopher J. O’Bryan, The University of Queensland; Eve McDonald-Madden, The University of Queensland; Jim Hone, University of Canberra; Matthew H. Holden, The University of Queensland, and Nicholas R Patton, University of CanterburyWhether you call them feral pigs, boar, swine, hogs, or even razorbacks, wild pigs are one of the most damaging invasive species on Earth, and they’re notorious for damaging agriculture and native wildlife.

A big reason they’re so harmful is because they uproot soil at vast scales, like tractors ploughing a field. Our new research, published today, is the first to calculate the global extent of this and its implications for carbon emissions.

Our findings were staggering. We discovered the cumulative area of soil uprooted by wild pigs is likely the same area as Taiwan. This releases 4.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year — the same as one million cars. The majority of these emissions occur in Oceania.

A huge portion of Earth’s carbon is stored in soil, so releasing even a small fraction of this into the atmosphere can have a huge impact on climate change.

The problem with pigs

Wild pigs (Sus scrofa) are native throughout much of Europe and Asia, but today they live on every continent except Antarctica, making them one of the most widespread invasive mammals on the planet. An estimated three million wild pigs live in Australia alone.

A herd of wild pigs
Wild pigs are one of the most widespread invasive animals on Earth.
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It’s estimated that wild pigs destroy more than A$100 million (US$74 million) worth of crops and pasture each year in Australia, and more than US$270 million (A$366 million) in just 12 states in the USA.

Wild pigs have also been found to directly threaten 672 vertebrate and plant species across 54 different countries. This includes imperilled Australian ground frogs, tree frogs and multiple orchid species, as pigs destroy their habitats and prey on them.

Their geographic range is expected to expand in the coming decades, suggesting their threats to food security and biodiversity will likely worsen. But here, let’s focus on their contribution to global emissions.

Their carbon hoofprint

Previous research has highlighted the potential contribution of wild pigs to greenhouse gas emissions, but only at local scales.

One such study was conducted for three years in hardwood forests of Switzerland. The researchers found wild pigs caused soil carbon emissions to increase by around 23% per year.

Similarly, a study in the Jigong Mountains National Nature Reserve in China found soil emissions increased by more than 70% per year in places disturbed by wild pigs.

Wild pigs turn over 36,214 to 123,517 square kilometres of soil each year.
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To find out what the impact was on a global scale, we ran 10,000 simulations of wild pig population sizes in their non-native distribution, including in the Americas, Oceania, Africa and parts of Southeast Asia.

For each simulation, we determined the amount of soil they would disturb using another model from a different study. Lastly, we used local case studies to calculate the minimum and maximum amount of wild pig-driven carbon emissions.

And we estimate the soil wild pigs uproot worldwide each year is likely between 36,214 and 123,517 square kilometres — or between the sizes of Taiwan and England.

Most of this soil damage and associated emissions occur in Oceania due to the large distribution of wild pigs there, and the amount of carbon stored in the soil in this region.




Read more:
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So how exactly does disturbing soil release emissions?

Wild pigs use their tough snouts to excavate soil in search of plant parts such as roots, fungi and invertebrates. This “ploughing” behaviour commonly disturbs soil at a depth of about five to 15 centimetres, which is roughly the same depth as crop tilling by farmers.

Wild pigs uproot soil in search of food, such as invertebrates and plant roots.
University of Kentucky, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Forestry Extension.

Because wild pigs are highly social and often feed in large groups, they can completely destroy a small paddock in a short period. This makes them a formidable foe to the organic carbon stored in soil.

In general, soil organic carbon is the balance between organic matter input into the soil (such as fungi, animal waste, root growth and leaf litter) versus outputs (such as decomposition, respiration and erosion). This balance is an indicator of soil health.

When soils are disturbed, whether from ploughing a field or from an animal burrowing or uprooting, carbon is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

This is because digging up soil exposes it to oxygen, and oxygen promotes the rapid growth of microbes. These newly invigorated microbes, in turn, break down the organic matter containing carbon.

Wild pigs have a rapid breeding rate, which makes controlling populations difficult.
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Tough and cunning

Wild pig control is incredibly difficult and costly due to their cunning behaviour, rapid breeding rate, and overall tough nature.

For example, wild pigs have been known to avoid traps if they had been previously caught, and they are skilled at changing their behaviour to avoid hunters.




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In Australia, management efforts include coordinated hunting events to slow the spread of wild pig populations. Other techniques include setting traps and installing fences to prevent wild pig expansion, or aerial control programs.

Some of these control methods can also cause substantial carbon emissions, such as using helicopters for aerial control and other vehicles for hunting. Still, the long-term benefits of wild pig reduction may far outweigh these costs.

Working towards reduced global emissions is no simple feat, and our study is another tool in the toolbox for assessing the threats of this widespread invasive species.




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Tiny Game of Thrones: the workers of yellow crazy ants can act like lazy wannabe queens. So we watched them fight


The Conversation


Christopher J. O’Bryan, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Eve McDonald-Madden, Associate professor, The University of Queensland; Jim Hone, Emeritus professor, University of Canberra; Matthew H. Holden, Lecturer, School of Mathematics and Physics, The University of Queensland, and Nicholas R Patton, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Canterbury

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

Attack of the alien invaders: pest plants and animals leave a frightening $1.7 trillion bill


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Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University; Boris Leroy, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (MNHN); Camille Bernery, Université Paris-Saclay; Christophe Diagne, Université Paris-Saclay, and Franck Courchamp, Université Paris-SaclayThey’re one of the most damaging environmental forces on Earth. They’ve colonised pretty much every place humans have set foot on the planet. Yet you might not even know they exist.

We’re talking about alien species. Not little green extraterrestrials, but invasive plants and animals not native to an ecosystem and which become pests. They might be plants from South America, starfish from Africa, insects from Europe or birds from Asia.

These species can threaten the health of plants and animals, including humans. And they cause huge economic harm. Our research, recently published in the journal Nature, puts a figure on that damage. We found that globally, invasive species cost US$1.3 trillion (A$1.7 trillion) in money lost or spent between 1970 and 2017.

The cost is increasing exponentially over time. And troublingly, most of the cost relates to the damage and losses invasive species cause. Meanwhile, far cheaper control and prevention measures are often ignored.

Yellow crazy ants attacking a gecko
Yellow crazy ants, such as these attacking a gecko, are among thousands of invasive species causing ecological and economic havoc.
Dinakarr, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

An expansive toll

Invasive species have been invading foreign territories for centuries. They hail from habitats as diverse as tropical forests, dry savannas, temperate lakes and cold oceans.

They arrived because we brought them — as pets, ornamental plants or as stowaways on our holidays or via commercial trade.

The problems they cause can be:

  • ecological, such as causing the extinction of native species
  • human health-related, such as causing allergies and spreading disease
  • economic, such as reducing crop yields or destroying human-built infrastructure.

In Australia, invasive species are one of our most serious environmental problems – and the biggest cause of extinctions.

Feral animals such as rabbits, goats, cattle, pigs and horses can degrade grazing areas and compact soil, damaging farm production. Feral rabbits take over the burrows of native animals, while feral cats and foxes hunt and kill native animals.




Read more:
Invasive species are Australia’s number-one extinction threat


Wetlands in the Northern Territory damaged by invasive swamp buffalo (Bubalus bubalis)
Warren White

Introduced insects, such as yellow crazy ants on Christmas Island, pose a serious threat to a native species. Across Australia, feral honeybees compete with native animals for nectar, pollen and habitat.

Invasive fish compete with native species, disturb aquatic vegetation and introduce disease. Some, such as plague minnows, prey on the eggs and tadpoles of frogs and attack native fish.

Environmental weeds and invasive fungi and parasites also cause major damage.

Of course, the problem is global – and examples abound. In Africa’s Lake Victoria, the huge, carnivorous Nile perch — introduced to boost fisheries – has wiped out more than 200 of the 300 known species of cichlid fish — prized by aquarium enthusiasts the world over.

And in the Florida Everglades, thousands of five metre-long Burmese pythons have gobbled up small, native mammals at alarming rates.




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cichlid fish
In Africa, numbers of the beautiful cichlid fish have been decimated by Nile perch.
Shutterstock

Money talks

Despite the serious threat biological invasions pose, the problem receives little political, media or public attention.

Our research sought to reframe the problem of invasive species in terms of economic cost. But this was not an easy task.

The costs are diverse and not easily compared. Our analysis involved thousands of cost estimates, compiled and analysed over several years in our still-growing InvaCost database. Economists and ecologists helped fine-tune the data.

The results were staggering. We discovered invasive species have cost the world US$1.3 trillion (A$1.7 trillion) lost or spent between 1970 and 2017. The cost largely involves damages and losses; the cost of preventing or controlling the invasions were ten to 100 times lower.

Clearly, getting on top of control and prevention would have helped avoid the massive damage bill.




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Average costs have been increasing exponentially over time — trebling each decade since 1970. For 2017 alone, the estimated cost of invasive species was more than US$163 billion. That’s more than 20 times higher than the combined budgets of the World Health Organisation and the United Nations in the same year.

Perhaps more alarming, this massive cost is a conservative estimate and likely represents only the tip of the iceberg, for several reasons:

  • we analysed only the most robust available data; had we included all published data, the cost figure would have been 33 times higher for the estimate in 2017
  • some damage caused by invasive species cannot be measured in dollars, such as carbon uptake and the loss of ecosystem services such as pollination
  • most of the impacts have not been properly estimated
  • most countries have little to no relevant data.
A bucket by a lake with a sign reading 'Biosecurity station. Please dip your feet and nets'
Prevention strategies, such as biosecurity controls, are a relatively cheap way to deal with invasive species.
Shutterstock

Prevention is better than cure

National regulations for dealing with invasive species are patently insufficient. And because alien species do not respect borders, the problem also requires a global approach.

International cooperation must include financial assistance for developing countries where invasions are expected to increase substantially in the coming decades, and where regulations and management are most lacking.

Proactive measures to prevent invasion must become a priority. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. And this must happen early – if we miss the start of an invasion, control in many cases is impossible.

More and better research on the economic costs of biological invasions is essential. Our current knowledge is fragmented, hampering our understanding of patterns and trends, and our capacity to manage the problem efficiently.

We hope quantifying the economic impacts of invasive species will mean political leaders start to take notice. Certainly, confirmation of a A$1.7 trillion bill should be enough to get the ball rolling.




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The Conversation


Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Professor of Global Ecology and Models Theme Leader for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University; Boris Leroy, Maître de conférences en écologie et biogéographie, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (MNHN); Camille Bernery, Doctorante en écologie des invasions, Université Paris-Saclay; Christophe Diagne, Chercheur post-doctorant en écologie des invasions, Université Paris-Saclay, and Franck Courchamp, Directeur de recherche CNRS, Université Paris-Saclay

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

An unexpected consequence of climate change: heatwaves kill plant pests and save our favourite giant trees



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Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

Australia is sweltering through another heatwave, and there will be more in the near future as climate change brings hotter, drier weather. In some parts of Australia, the number of days above 40℃ will double by 2090, and with it the tragedy of more heat-related deaths.

In the complex world of plant ecology, however, heatwaves aren’t always a bad thing. Rolling days of scorching temperatures can kill off plant pests, such as elm beetles and mistletoe, and even keep their numbers down for years.

This is what we saw after the 2009 heatwave that reached a record 46.4℃ in Melbourne and culminated in the catastrophic Black Saturday bushfires. Years later, the trees under threat from the pest species were thriving. Here are a few of our observations.

Saving red gums from mistletoe

In the days following Black Saturday, botanists, horticulturists and arborists noticed a curious heatwave side-effect: the foliage of native Australian mistletoes (Amyema miquelii and A. pendula species) growing on river red gums lost their green colour and turned grey.

The two species of mistletoe are important in the ecology of plant communities and to native bird and insect species. But infestation on older trees can lead to their deaths, particularly in drought years.

Australian mistletoe is not related to the northern hemisphere mistletoes of Christmas kissing fame. They are water and nutrient parasites on their host tree and can kill host tissues through excessive water loss.

A eucalyptus tree trunk covered in leaves on a dried brown grass
The native mistletoe, Amyema miquelii, strangles this eucalyptus coolabah in the Burke River floodplain.
John Robert McPherson/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Often mistletoes go largely unnoticed, only becoming obvious when they flower. This is because many have evolved foliage with a superficial resemblance to the host species, a phenomenon known as host mimicry or “crypsis”.

During the Black Saturday heatwave, many mistletoes growing on river red gums died. The gums not only survived, but when record rains came in 2010, they thrived. A decade on, the mistletoe numbers are gradually increasing, but they’re still not high enough to threaten the survival of older, significant red gums.




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We want both mistletoes and red gums to persist. But often the old red gums are last survivors of larger populations that have been cleared — a seed source for future regeneration.

Under-appreciated elms

In many parts of Australia, the exotic English and Dutch elms are important parts of the landscapes of cities and regional towns. Elms provide great shade, are resilient and often low-maintenance. They also provide important environmental services, such as nesting sites for native mammals and birds.

Indeed, as Dutch elm disease decimates elm populations across North America and Europe, Australia can claim to have many of the largest elms and the grandest elm avenues and boulevards in the world, which we often under-appreciate.

A street lined by tall elms
Australia is home to some of the most beautiful elm avenues in the world.
denisbin/Flickr, CC BY-ND

But sadly, over the past 30 years the grazing of the elm leaf beetle, Xanthogaleruca luteola, has threatened the grandeur of our elms. These beetles can strip leaves to mere skeletons, and while the damage doesn’t usually kill the tree, it can make them look unsightly.

On Black Saturday, tens of thousands of elm leaf beetles fell from trees after prolonged exposure to high temperature. So many died, they formed what looked like a shadow under the tree canopies. Beetle numbers remained low for at least five years after that.




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Control programs, which often involve spraying chemical pesticides, were not required in that five year period. This was good for the environment as the chemicals can affect non-target sites and species. And we calculated that this saved well over A$2 million for Melbourne alone, money that could be better spent on parks and gardens (and of course, the elms looked splendid!).

Our iconic Moreton Bay figs

Then there are our magnificent, iconic Moreton Bay figs (Ficus macrophylla). Their large, glossy leaves, huge trunks, veils of aerial roots and massive canopies spread for more than 40 metres, and make them an Australian favourite.

Moreton Bay figs are prone to insect infestations of the psyllid, Mycopsylla fici, which can seriously defoliate trees under certain conditions. The fallen leaves can also stick to the shoes of pedestrians, causing a slipping hazard.

In Melbourne, psyllid numbers that were high before Black Saturday fell to undetectable levels in the following month.

Once again, a heatwave and hot windy weather had done an unexpected service. The incidence of psyllids has remained low for a decade or more now and, as with elm leaf beetles, control measures proved unnecessary and money was saved.

An enromous Moreton Bay fig trunk in a park
Moreton Bay figs are prone to insect infestations.
Shutterstock

Winners and losers

Many urban trees are renowned for their resilience to stress, both natural and human-caused. Climate change is proving a significant stress to be overcome, but we’ve observed how the stress can affect pests and disease species more than their hosts.

This gives the species growing in very tough urban conditions, where they lack space and are often deprived of water and good soils, a slight advantage, which may be the difference between living and dying under climate change.




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Climate change is bringing far more losses than gains. But, occasionally, there will be wins, and those managing pests in our urban forests must take advantage when they present.

If insect pest numbers fall we can direct resources to establishing more trees and ensuring our trees are healthier. The best way to avoid pests and diseases attacking trees is by providing the best possible growing conditions. That way we avoid problems before they arise rather than treating symptoms.

So as you swelter during this heatwave, remember it may not be all bad news for our urban and natural environments. Sometimes, positive outcomes arise when and where we least expect them.




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The Conversation


Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne

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

The diet of invasive toads in Mauritius has some rare species on the menu



The invasive guttural toad.
Author supplied.

James Baxter-Gilbert, Stellenbosch University

The guttural toad (Sclerophrys gutturalis) is a common amphibian found in much of sub-Saharan Africa, from Angola to Kenya and down to eastern South Africa. With such a wide geographic range, and a liking for living in human-disturbed areas, it’s often seen in people’s backyards. Around gardens it can be thought of as a helpful neighbour, as it is a keen predator of insects and other invertebrates that may try to eat plants. Yet it also has the potential to be ecologically hazardous outside its native range – and this toad is an accomplished invader.

In the Mascarene Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, far from mainland Africa, these toads have been an established invasive species for almost 100 years. In 1922, the director of dock management in Port Louis, Mauritius, deliberately released guttural toads in an attempt to control cane beetles – a pest of the country’s major crop, sugar cane. This attempt at biocontrol failed, but the toads appeared to thrive and rapidly spread across the island.

Mauritius had no native amphibian species for it to compete with, and no native predators with a recent evolutionary history with toads. In mainland Africa these toads would have to divide resources, like food, with a host of native amphibians and deal with an array of native birds, mammals and snakes that evolved feeding on them. But without these challenges on Mauritius, the toads colonised the entire island rapidly.

Most toads are generalist predators and hunt a wide variety of prey, more or less eating whatever they can fit in their mouth. So as the guttural toad’s population numbers grew through the decades, so too did the concerns from Mauritian ecologists about the impact on native fauna. Anecdotal accounts as early as the 1930s suggest that the toads were having a negative impact on endemic invertebrate populations. In fact it has been suggested that the toads may have been a driver in the decline, and possible extinction, of endemic carabid beetles and snails.

But it’s only recently that the toad’s diet in Mauritius has been examined closely. In our new study we examined the stomach contents of 361 toads collected in some of the last remaining native forests of Mauritius.

By knowing more about what species the toads are eating, and which groups they favour, our research may help inform toad control actions to protect areas with known sensitive species.

In the belly of the beast

Through our research we were able to identify almost 3,000 individual prey items, encompassing a wide variety of invertebrates like insects, woodlice, snails, spiders, millipedes and earthworms.

This research also went one step further to examine the prey preference of the toads. In general, they seemed to favour, some of the more abundant and common prey species. These included ants and woodlice, which made up about two-thirds of their overall diet.

These findings may suggest that the toads were able to identify a readily available food source, and this may have fuelled their invasive population growth. Yet they are also eating prey that represents a more serious conservation concern.

Inside the toads we found 13 different species of native snail, most of which were island endemics. Four species are listed as being vulnerable to extinction and one, Omphalotropis plicosa, being critically endangered – having been presumed extinct until it was rediscovered in 2002. Understandably, we found it very troubling to find a “Lazarus species” within the stomach of an invasive predator.

Unanswered questions

These early insights into the native species now being hunted by a widespread and voracious predator raise new research questions. To understand the greater impact the toads are having on native species much more work is required to understand their prey’s population dynamics so we can determine if the toad’s invertebrate “harvest” is contributing to declines.

Furthermore, how does the toad’s invasive diet in Mauritius compare with that of other invasive populations, like those in Réunion or Cape Town – is their invasive success linked to a common prey type? And how does it compare with their diet in their own native species range?

Our study could only examine what they are eating currently, but Mauritius has seen numerous species decline over the past 100 years. What role did the toad play in these losses? Perhaps they historically fed more readily on creatures that were more abundant in the past, but had to switch their favour to ants and woodlice when the populations of other species dropped. We may never know.

What is clear is that there is much to learn about the habits of this far-from-home amphibian and its impact on the ecosystems it has invaded.The Conversation

James Baxter-Gilbert, Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Invasion Biology (C·I·B), Department of Botany & Zoology, Stellenbosch University

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

‘Compassionate conservation’: just because we love invasive animals, doesn’t mean we should protect them



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Kaya Klop-Toker, University of Newcastle; Alex Callen, University of Newcastle; Andrea Griffin, University of Newcastle; Matt Hayward, University of Newcastle, and Robert Scanlon, University of Newcastle

On an island off the Queensland coast, a battle is brewing over the fate of a small population of goats.

The battle positions the views of some conservation scientists and managers who believe native species must be protected from this invasive fauna, against those of community members who want to protect the goat herd to which they feel emotionally connected. Similar battles colour the management decisions around brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park and cats all over Australia.




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These debates show the impact of a new movement called “compassionate conservation”. This movement aims to increase levels of compassion and empathy in the management process, finding conservation solutions that minimise harm to wildlife. Among their ideas, compassionate conservationists argue no animal should be killed in the name of conservation.

But preventing extinctions and protecting biodiversity is unlikely when emotion, rather than evidence, influence decisions. As our recent paper argues, the human experience of compassion and empathy is fraught with inherent biases. This makes these emotions a poor compass for deciding what conservation action is right or wrong.

It sounds good on paper

We are facing a biological crisis unparalleled in human history, with at least 25% of the world’s assessed species at risk of extinction. These trends are particularly bad in Australia, where we have one of the world’s worst extinction records and the world’s highest rate of mammal extinctions.

The federal government recently announced it will commit to a new ten-year threatened species strategy, focused on eradicating feral pests such as foxes and cats.




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This approach goes against the principles underpinning compassionate conservation. The movement, which first emerged in 2010, is founded on the ideals of “first do no harm” and “individuals matter”.

When you first think about it, this idea sounds great. Why kill some animals to save others?

Well, invasive animals — those either intentionally or accidentally moved to a new location — are one of the biggest threats to global biodiversity.

Invasive predators, such as cats and foxes, have caused the extinction of 142 vertebrate species worldwide. In Australia, feral and domestic cats kill more than 15 billion native animals per year.

Fortunately, endangered populations can recover when these pests are removed. Controlling pest numbers is one of the most effective tools available to conservationists.

Conflicting moral standpoints

Killing pests is at stark odds with the “do no harm” values promoted by the compassionate conservation movement.

Thousands of wild horses are rapidly degrading the ecosystems of Australia’s high country.

Compassionate conservationists argue it’s morally wrong to kill animals for management, whereas conservation scientists argue it’s morally wrong to allow species to go extinct — especially if human actions (such as the movement of species to new locations) threaten extinction.

These conflicting moral standpoints result in an emotional debate about when it is justified to kill or let be killed. This argument centres on emotion and moral beliefs. There is no clear right or wrong answer and, therefore, no resolution.

In an attempt to break this emotional stalemate, we explored the biases inherent in the emotions of compassion and empathy, and questioned if increased empathy and compassion are really what conservation needs.

Evolutionary biases

At first, compassion and empathy may appear vital to conservation, and on an individual level, they probably are. People choose to work in conservation because they care for wild species. But compassion and empathy come with strong evolutionary biases.

The first bias is that people feel more empathy toward the familiar — people care more for things they relate most closely to. The second bias is failure to scale-up — we don’t feel 100 times more sorrow when hearing about 100 people dying, compared to a single person (or species).

Evolution has shaped our emotions to peak for things we relate most strongly to, and to taper off when numbers get high — most likely to protect us from becoming emotionally overloaded.

Let’s put these emotions in the context of animal management. Decisions based on empathy and compassion will undoubtedly favour charismatic, relatable species over thousands of less-familiar small, imperilled creatures.

This bias is evident in the battle over feral horses in national parks. There is public backlash over the culling of brumbies, yet there is no such response to the removal of feral pigs, despite both species having similarly negative impacts on protected habitats.

More harm than good

If compassionate conservation is adopted, culling invasive species would cease, leading to the rapid extinction of more vulnerable native species. A contentious example is the race to save the endangered Tristan albatross from introduced mice on Gough Island in the south Atlantic.

Sealers introduced mice in the 1800s, and the mice have adapted to feed on albatross chicks, killing an estimated two million birds per year. Under compassionate conservation, lethal control of the mice would not be allowed, and the albatross would be added to the extinction list within 20 years.




Read more:
Invasive species are Australia’s number-one extinction threat


What’s more, compassionate conservation advocates for a more hands-off approach to remove any harm or stress to animals. This means even the management of threatened fauna would be restricted.

Under this idea, almost all current major conservation actions would not be allowed because of temporary stress placed on individual animals. This includes translocations (moving species to safer habitat), captive breeding, zoos, radio tracking and conservation fencing.

With 15% of the world’s threatened species protected in zoos and undergoing captive breeding, a world with compassionate conservation would be one with far fewer species, and we argue, much less conservation and compassion.

In this time of biodiversity crisis and potential ecosystem collapse, we cannot afford to let emotion bias our rationale. Yes, compassion and empathy should drive people to call for more action from their leaders to protect biodiversity. But what action needs to be taken should be left to science and not our emotions.




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Don’t blame cats for destroying wildlife – shaky logic is leading to moral panic


The Conversation


Kaya Klop-Toker, Conservation Biology Researcher, University of Newcastle; Alex Callen, Post-doctoral researcher, University of Newcastle; Andrea Griffin, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Newcastle; Matt Hayward, Associate professor, University of Newcastle, and Robert Scanlon, PhD Candidate in Restoration Ecology, University of Newcastle

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

The mystery of the Top End’s vanishing wildlife, and the unexpected culprits



A brush-tailed rabbit-rat, one of the small mammals disappearing in northern Australia.
Cara Penton, Author provided

Alyson Stobo-Wilson, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Graeme Gillespie, University of Melbourne; Jaana Dielenberg, The University of Queensland, and John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University

Only a few decades ago, encountering a bandicoot or quoll around your campsite in the evening was a common and delightful experience across the Top End. Sadly, our campsites are now far less lively.

Northern Australia’s vast uncleared savannas were once considered a crucial safe haven for many species that have suffered severe declines elsewhere. But over the last 30 years, small native mammals (weighing up to five kilograms) have been mysteriously vanishing across the region.




Read more:
Scientists and national park managers are failing northern Australia’s vanishing mammals


The reason why the Top End’s mammals have declined so severely has long been unknown, leaving scientists and conservation managers at a loss as to how to stop and reverse this tragic trend.

The author smiles at an adorable glider in a little blanket she's holding.
Alyson Stobo-Wilson with a savanna glider. Gliders are among the mammals rapidly declining in northern Australia.
Alyson Stobo-Wilson, Author provided

Our major new study helps unravel this longstanding mystery. We found that the collective influence of feral livestock — such as buffaloes, horses, cattle and donkeys — has been largely underestimated. Even at quite low numbers, feral livestock can have a big impact on our high-value conservation areas and the wildlife they support.

The race for solutions

In 2010, Kakadu National Park conducted a pivotal study on Top End mammals. It found that between 1996 and 2009, the number of native mammal species at survey sites had halved, and the number of individual animals dropped by more than two-thirds. Similar trends have since been observed elsewhere across the Top End.

Given the scale and speed of the mammal declines, the need to find effective solutions is increasingly urgent. It has become a key focus of conservation managers and scientists alike.

The list of potential causes includes inappropriate fire regimes, feral cats, cane toads, feral livestock, and invasive weeds.

Many small and medium-sized mammals are in rapid decline in northern Australia.

With limited resources, it’s essential to know which threats to focus on. This is where our study has delivered a major breakthrough.

We looked for patterns of where species have been lost and where they are hanging on. With the help of helicopters to reach many remote areas, we used more than 1,500 “camera traps” (motion-sensor cameras to record mammals) and almost 7,500 animal traps (such as caged traps) to survey 300 sites across the national parks, private conservation reserves and Indigenous lands of the Top End.

A new spotlight on feral livestock

We found most parts of the Top End have very few native mammals left. The isolated areas where mammals are persisting have retained good-quality habitat, with a greater variety of plant species and dense shrubs and grasses.

This habitat provides more shelter and food for native mammals, and has fewer cats and dingoes, which hunt more efficiently in open areas. In contrast, sites with degraded habitat have much less food and shelter available, and native mammals are more exposed to predators.

Six dark coloured horses roam among sparse trees in the Top End.
Feral horses can overgraze and trample over habitat, making it far less suitable for small native mammals.
Jaana Dielenberg, Author provided

Across northern Australia, habitat quality is primarily driven by two factors: bushfires and introduced livestock, either farmed or feral.

Our surveys revealed that areas with more feral livestock have fewer native mammals. This highlights that the role of feral livestock in the Top End’s mammal declines has previously been underestimated.

Even at relatively low densities, feral livestock are detrimental to small mammals. Through overgrazing and trampling, they degrade habitat and reduce the availability of food and shelter for native mammals.




Read more:
The world’s best fire management system is in northern Australia, and it’s led by Indigenous land managers


Frequent, intense fires also play a big role. Australia’s tropical savannas are among the most fire-prone on Earth, but fires that are too frequent, too hot and too extensive remove critical food and shelter.

Yet, even if land managers can manage fires to protect biodiversity, for example by reducing the occurrence of large, intense fires, the presence of feral livestock will continue to impede native mammal recovery.

A wild buffalo walks over grass, in front of trees.
Even small numbers of feral livestock can play a big role in native mammal declines.
Northern Territory Government, Author provided

A new way to manage cats

Cats have helped drive more than 20 Australian mammals to extinction. So it’s not surprising we found fewer native mammals at our sample sites where there were more cats.

However, our results suggest the best way to manage the impact of cats in this region may not be to simply kill cats, which is notoriously difficult across vast, remote landscapes. Instead, it may be more effective to manage habitat better, tipping the balance in favour of native mammals and away from their predators.

A striped, ginger cat with shining eyes looks at the camera at night.
A feral cat at one of the study sites. Cats have helped cause more than 20 native mammal extinctions.
Northern Territory Government, Author provided

The combination of prescribed burning to protect food and shelter resources, and culling feral livestock, might be all that’s needed to support native mammals and reduce the impact of feral cats.

What about dingoes?

Many scientists have suggested dingoes could also be part of the solution to reducing cat impacts — as cats are believed to avoid dingoes. With this in mind, we explored the relationship between the two predators in this study.

A brownish motion detection camera trap strapped to a tree.
One of more than 1,000 motion detection cameras used in this study.
Jaana Dielenberg, Author provided

We found no evidence dingoes influenced the distribution of feral cats. In fact, survey sites with more dingoes had fewer native small mammals, suggesting a negative impact by dingoes.

But, unlike cats, culling dingoes is not an option because they provide other important ecological roles, and are culturally significant for Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) Australians.

Controlling herbivores, not predators

Our study suggests an effective way to halt and reverse Top End mammal losses is to protect and restore habitat. For example, by improving fire management and controlling feral livestock through culling.




Read more:
EcoCheck: Australia’s vast, majestic northern savannas need more care


It is also very important to conserve the environments that still have high-quality habitat and healthy mammal communities, such as the high-rainfall areas along the northern Australian coast. These areas provide refuge for many of our most vulnerable mammal species.

A photo from a camera trap showing a black-footed tree-rat on its hind legs.
The native black-footed tree-rat has had major declines across northern Australia. It’s vulnerable to cats and is now restricted to areas that still have good quality habitat, fewer herbivores and less frequent fire.
Hugh Davies, Author provided

The tropical savannas of northern Australia are the largest remaining tract of tropical savanna on Earth and new species are still being discovered.

While there’s more research to be done, it’s crucial we start managing habitat better, before we lose more of our precious mammal species.


The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the support from many Indigenous ranger groups, land managers and Traditional Owners. This includes the Warddeken, Bawinanga, Wardaman and Tiwi rangers, the Traditional Owners and land managers of Kakadu, Garig Gunak Barlu, Judbarra/Gregory, Litchfield and Nitmiluk National Parks, Djelk, Warddeken and Wardaman Indigenous Protected Areas, and Fish River Station and was facilitated by the Northern, Tiwi and Anindilyakwa Land Councils.The Conversation

Alyson Stobo-Wilson, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Associate Professor / ARC Future Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Graeme Gillespie, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; Jaana Dielenberg, Science Communication Manager, The University of Queensland, and John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University

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

When introduced species are cute and loveable, culling them is a tricky proposition



Shutterstock

Lily van Eeden, University of Sydney; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; Jeremy T. Bruskotter, The Ohio State University; Mathew Crowther, University of Sydney, and Thomas Newsome, University of Sydney

Almost one in five Australians think introduced horses and foxes are native to Australia, and others don’t want “cute” or “charismatic” animals culled, even when they damage the environment. So what are the implications of these attitudes as we help nature recover from bushfires?

Public opposition to culling programs is often at odds with scientists and conservationists.

These tensions came to the fore last month when scientists renewed calls for a horse-culling program to protect native species in Kosciusko National Park – a move strongly opposed by some members of the public.

To manage the environment effectively, including after bushfires, we need to understand the diversity of opinion on what constitutes a native animal, and recognise how these attitudes can change.

Governments are responding

In Australia, native species are usually defined as those present before European settlement in 1788. Lethal pest control usually targets species introduced after this time, such as horses, foxes, deer, rabbits, pigs, and cats.

But fire makes native fauna more vulnerable to introduced predators. Fire removes ground layer vegetation that small wildlife would use as protective cover. When this cover is gone, these animals are easier targets for predators like cats and foxes.




Read more:
Fire almost wiped out rare species in the Australian Alps. Feral horses are finishing the job


State governments have started to respond to this impending crisis. In January, the New South Wales government announced its largest ever program to control feral predators, in an effort to protect native fauna after the fires.

The plan includes 1500-2000 hours of aerial and ground shooting of deer, pigs, and goats and distributing up to a million poison baits targeting foxes, cats, and dingoes over 12 months.

Similarly, the Victorian government announced a A$17.5 million program to protect biodiversity the fires affected, including A$7 million for intensified management of threats like introduced animals.

But will the public be on board? Widespread media coverage of the recent fires and their impacts on wildlife, including the loss of more than a billion animals, might garner support for protecting native wildlife from pests.

On the other hand, efforts to manage animals such as cats and horses might be hampered by a lack of public support for culling charismatic animals that many people value or view as belonging in Australia now.

Different folks, different strokes

The distinctions many Australians draw – native animals are “good” and introduced species are “bad” – shape how people view conservation efforts. A survey we conducted in 2017 found people more likely to disapprove of lethal methods for managing species they perceived to be native.

In the same survey, we found nearly one in five Australians considered horses and foxes to be native to Australia.

This suggests either that a) people lack knowledge of Australia’s natural history or b) people disagree with conservationists’ definition of animal “nativeness”.

Calls to manage horses to prevent environmental degradation in Australian national parks are hugely controversial, with many people arguing the horses belong now.
Shutterstock

Many introduced species, such as horses and foxes, have existed in Australia for more than a century and have established populations across much of the country. It’s unlikely they’ll ever be eradicated.

Some people, including scientists, say we should just accept introduced species as part of Australia’s fauna. They argue current management justifies killing based on moral, not scientific judgements and introduced animals may increase biodiversity.




Read more:
Feral cat cull: why the 2 million target is on scientifically shaky ground


But the issue remains extremely divisive. A central tenet of traditional conservation is that humans have a duty to protect native species and ecosystems from the threat introduced species pose. It’s difficult to do this without culling introduced animals.

Animal welfare concerns may also drive opposition to culling, taking the view that all animals, even non-natives, have intrinsic value and the right to live.

What’s more, non-native culling programs can be controversial when the animal is considered “cute” or “charismatic”, or of cultural value. For example, a plan to cull feral horses in the Kosciusko National Park in 2018 was met with public outrage, prompting the NSW government to overturn the decision.

Yet protecting introduced species in national parks goes against the very reason they were created – to conserve native ecosystems and species.

Some animals are more equal than others

When analysing public attitudes towards various species, we must also consider how attitudes shift over time.

In Australia, non-native animals such as domestic camels and donkeys were considered useful for transport and highly valued. But we ultimately turned them loose and relabelled them as pests when we started using cars.

We asked the Australian public whether they viewed dingoes, horses, and foxes as native or non-native in Australia.
van Eeden et al. (2020)

Interestingly, we’ve already accepted some introduced species as native. Humans brought dingoes to Australia at least 3,500 years ago. They’re described as native under Australian biodiversity legislation, and 85% of our 2017 survey participants considered dingoes to be native.

Perhaps its only a matter of time until more recently arrived species like horses and foxes are counted as native. Some scientists argue this shift should be based on how ecosystems and species adapt to these new arrivals. For example, some small Australian mammals show fear of dingoes or dogs, but they haven’t yet learnt to fear cats.

Native species can be pests too

Native species, such as kangaroos and possums, may also be culled if they’re perceived to be overabundant or damaging economic interests like agriculture.




Read more:
From feral camels to ‘cocaine hippos’, large animals are rewilding the world


While the plight of bushfire-affected koalas on Kangaroo Island attracted considerable media interest, and the immediate welfare of any animal affected by fires is always a concern, koalas were actually introduced there.

They’ve been managed as a pest on Kangaroo Island for more than 20 years, and it’s unlikely the rescued koalas will be returned to the island. In this case, public concern transcends the distinction between native and introduced.

Public perception is important

We might never all agree on how best to manage native and non-native species. But effective environmental management, including after bushfires, requires understanding the diversity of opinion.

Doing so can help to develop management plans the public supports and allow effective communication about management that is controversial.

In fact, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage did undertake an extensive public consultation process in developing their horse management plan for Kosciuszko National Park, but it wasn’t used after the “brumby bill” gave horses protection in 2018.




Read more:
Passing the brumby bill is a backward step for environmental protection in Australia


With human lives and many animal lives lost, response to the bushfires is already highly emotive. Failure to consider public attitudes towards managing animals will lead to backlash, wasted money and time, and continuing decline of the native species whose conservation is the goal of these actions.The Conversation

Lily van Eeden, PhD Candidate in Human-Wildlife Conflict, University of Sydney; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; Jeremy T. Bruskotter, Professor, School of Environment and Natural Resources, The Ohio State University; Mathew Crowther, Associate professor, University of Sydney, and Thomas Newsome, Lecturer, University of Sydney

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

Invasive species are Australia’s number-one extinction threat



Barking Owls are one of Australia’s 1,770 threatened or endangered species.
Navin/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Andy Sheppard, CSIRO and Linda Broadhurst, CSIRO

This week many people across the world stopped and stared as extreme headlines announced that one eighth of the world’s species – more than a million – are threatened with extinction.

According to the UN report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) which brought this situation to public attention, this startling number is a consequence of five direct causes: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species.




Read more:
‘Revolutionary change’ needed to stop unprecedented global extinction crisis


It’s the last, invasive species, that threatens Australian animals and plants more than any other single factor.

Australia’s number one threat

Australia has an estimated 600,000 species of flora and fauna. Of these, about 100 are known to have gone extinct in the last 200 years. Currently, more than 1,770 are listed as threatened or endangered.

While the IPBES report ranks invasive alien species as the fifth most significant cause of global decline, in Australia it is a very different story.

Australia has the highest rate of vertebrate mammal extinction in the world, and invasive species are our number one threat.

Cats and foxes have driven 22 native mammals to extinction across central Australia and a new wave of decline – largely from cats – is taking place across northern Australia. Research has estimated 270 more threatened and endangered vertebrates are being affected by invasive species.

Introduced vertebrates have also driven several bird species on Norfolk Island extinct.

The effects of invasive species are getting worse

Although Australia’s stringent biosecurity measures have dramatically slowed the number of new invasive species arriving, those already here have continued to spread and their cumulative effect is growing.

Recent research highlights that 1,257 of Australia’s threatened and endangered species are directly affected by 207 invasive plants, 57 animals and three pathogens.

These affect our unique biodiversity, as well as the clean water and oxygen we breath – not to mention our cultural values.

When it comes to biodiversity, Australia is globally quite distinct. More than 70% of our species (69% of mammals, 46% of birds and 93% of reptiles) are found nowhere else on earth. A loss to Australia is therefore a loss to the world.

Some of these are ancient species like the Wollemi Pine, may have inhabited Australia for up to 200 million years, well before the dinosaurs.




Read more:
Wollemi pines are dinosaur trees


But invasive species are found in almost every part of Australia, from our rainforests, to our deserts, our farms, to our cities, our national parks and our rivers.

The cost to Australia

The cost of invasive species in Australia continue to grow with every new assessment.

The most recent estimates found the cost of controlling invasive species and economic losses to farmers in 2011-12 was A$13.6 billion. However this doesn’t include harm to biodiversity and the essential role native species play in our ecosystems, which – based on the conclusions of the IPBES report – is likely to cost at least as much, and probably far more.

Rabbits, goats and camels prevent native desert plant community regeneration; rabbits alone impacting over 100 threatened species. Rye grass on its own costs cereal farmers A$93M a year.

Aquaculture diseases have affected oysters and cost the prawn industry $43M.

From island to savannah

Globally, invasive species have a disproportionately higher effect on offshore islands – and in Australia we have more than 8,000 of these. One of the most notable cases is the case of the yellow crazy ants, which killed 15,000,000 red land crabs on Christmas Island.




Read more:
A tiny wasp could save Christmas Island’s spectacular red crabs from crazy ants


Nor are our deserts immune. Most native vertebrate extinctions caused by cats have occurred in our dry inland deserts and savannas, while exotic buffel and gamba grass are creating permanent transformation through changing fire regimes.

Australia’s forests, particularly rainforests, are also under siege on a number of fronts. The battle continues to contain Miconia weed in Australia – the same weed responsible for taking over 70% of Tahiti’s native forests. Chytrid fungus, thought to be present in Australia since 1970, has caused the extinction of at least four frog species and dramatic decline of at least ten others in our sensitive rainforest ecosystems.

Myrtle rust is pushing already threatened native Australian Myrtaceae closer to extinction, notably Gossia gonoclada, and Rhodamnia angustifolia and changing species composition of rainforest understories, and Richmond birdwing butterfly numbers are under threat from an invasive flower known as the Dutchman’s pipe.

Australia’s rivers and lakes are also under increasing domination from invasive species. Some 90% of fish biomass in the Murray Darling Basin are European carp, and tilapia are invading many far north Queensland river systems pushing out native species .

Invasive alien species are not only a serious threat to biodiversity and the economy, but also to human health. The Aedes aegypti mosquito found in parts of Queensland is capable of spreading infectious disease such as dengue, zika, chikungunya and yellow fever.

And it’s not just Queensland that is under threat from diseases spread by invasive mosquitoes, with many researchers and authorities planning for when, not if, the disease carrying Aedes albopictus establishes itself in cooler and southern parts of Australia.




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Stowaway mozzies enter Australia from Asian holiday spots – and they’re resistant to insecticides


What solutions do we have?

Despite this grim inventory, it’s not all bad news. Australia actually has a long history of effectively managing invasive species.

Targeting viruses as options for controlling rabbits, carp and tilapia; we have successfully suppressed rabbit populations by 70% in this way for 50 years.

Weeds too are successful targets for weed biological control, with over a 65% success rate controlling more than 25 targets.

The IPBES report calls for “transformative action”. Here too Australia is at the forefront, looking into the potential of gene-technologies to suppress pet hates such as cane toads.




Read more:
We’ve cracked the cane toad genome, and that could help put the brakes on its invasion


Past and current invasive species programs have been supported by governments and industry. This has provided the type of investment we need for long-term solutions and effective policies.

Australia is better placed now, with effective biosecurity policies and strong biosecurity investment, than many countries. We will continue the battle against invasive species to stem biodiversity and ecosystem loss.The Conversation

Andy Sheppard, Research Director CSIRO Health & Biosecurity, CSIRO and Linda Broadhurst, Director, Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, CSIRO

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

The summer bushfires you didn’t hear about, and the invasive species fuelling them



File 20190311 86707 1ji5xqu.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Fire has burned through a swathe of the Tjoritja National Park.
Author provided

Christine Schlesinger, Charles Darwin University and Barry Judd, Charles Darwin University

In January 2019, fires burned across a 100-kilometre length of the iconic Tjoritja National Park in the West MacDonnell Ranges, from Ormiston Gorge nearly to the edge of Alice Springs.

These fires affected an area comparable to the recent Tasmanian fires, but attracted relatively little national attention. This is partly because the fires in Tasmania were so unusual – but we believe the fires in central Australia were just as unexpected.




Read more:
Dry lightning has set Tasmania ablaze, and climate change makes it more likely to happen again


In the past, fires of this magnitude have tended to come after heavy rain that powers the growth of native grasses, providing fuel for intense and widespread fires. But our research highlights the new danger posed by buffel grass, a highly invasive foreigner sweeping across inland Australia and able to grow fast without much water.

Far from being pristine, Tjoritja and the Western MacDonnell Ranges are now an invaded landscape under serious threat. Our changing climate and this tenacious invader have transformed fire risk in central Australia, meaning once-rare fires may occur far more often.

Buffel grass in Australia

Buffel grass is tough and fast-growing. First introduced to Australia in the 1870s by Afghan cameleers, the grass was extensively planted in central Australia in the 1960s during a prolonged drought.

Introductions of the drought-resistant plant for cattle feed and dust suppression have continued, and in recent decades buffel grass has become a ubiquitous feature of central Australian landscapes, including Tjoritja.

Buffel grass has now invaded extensive areas in the Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia and is spreading into New South Wales and Victoria. It was legally recognised as a key threat in 2014, but so far only South Australia has prohibited its sale and created statewide zoning to enforce control or destruction.

Buffel grass crowds out other plants, creating effective “monocultures” – landscapes dominated by a single species. In central Australia, where Aboriginal groups retain direct, active and enduring links to Country, buffel grass makes it hard or impossible to carry out important cultural activities like hunt game species, harvest native plant materials or visit significant sites.

Buffel grass impacts on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara communities in central Australia.

But buffel grass isn’t only a threat to biodiversity and Indigenous cultural practices. In January the Tjoritja fires spread along dry river beds choked with buffel, incinerating many large old-growth trees. Much like the alpine forests of Tasmania, the flora of inland river systems has not adapted to frequent and intense fires.

We believe the ability of the fires to spread through these systems, and their increased intensity and size, can be directly attributed to buffel grass.

Fire and buffel grass

Because of the low average rainfall, widespread fires in central Australia have been rare in the recorded past, only following unusual and exceptionally high rainfall.

This extreme rain promoted significant growth of native grasses, which then provided fuel for large fires. There could be decades between these flood and fire cycles. However, since the Tjoritja (previously West MacDonnell Ranges) National Park was established in the 1990s, there have been three large-scale fires in 2001, 2011 and 2019.

What has changed? The 2001-02 and 2011-12 fires both came after heavy rainfall years. In fact, 2011 saw one of the biggest La Niña events on record.

Climate change predictions suggest that central Australia will experience longer and more frequent heatwaves. And although total annual rainfall may stay the same, it’s predicted to fall in fewer days. In other words, we’ll see heavy storms and rainfall followed by long heatwaves: perfect conditions for grass to grow and then dry, creating abundant fuel for intense fires.

The remains of a corkwood tree after an unplanned bushfire in an area heavily invaded by buffel grass near Simpsons Gap. Very few large old corkwood trees now remain in this area.
Author provided

If central Australia, and Tjoritja National Park in particular, were still dominated by a wide variety of native grasses and plants, this might not be such a problem. But buffel grass was introduced because it grows quickly, even without heavy rain.

The fires this year were extraordinary because there was no unusually high rainfall in the preceding months. They are a portent of the new future of fire in these ecosystems, as native desert plant communities are being transformed into dense near-monocultures of introduced grass.

The fuel that buffel grass creates is far more than native plant communities, and after the fire buffel grass can regenerate more quickly than many native species.

So we now have a situation in which fuel loads can accumulate over much shorter times. This makes the risk of fire in invaded areas so high that bushfire might now be considered a perpetual threat.

Changing fire threat

In spinifex grasslands, traditional Aboriginal burning regimes have been used for millennia to renew the landscape and promote growth while effectively breaking up the landscape so old growth areas are protected and large fires are prevented. Current fire management within Tjoritja “combines traditional and scientific practices”.

However, these fire management regimes do not easily translate to river environments invaded by buffel grass. These environments have, to our knowledge, never been targeted for burning by Aboriginal peoples. Since the arrival of buffel grass, there is now an extremely high risk that control burns can spread and become out-of-control bushfires.

Even when control burns are successful, the rapid regrowth of buffel grass means firebreaks may only be effective for a short time before risky follow-up burning is required. And there may no longer be a good time of year to burn.




Read more:
How invasive weeds can make wildfires hotter and more frequent


Our research suggests that in areas invaded by buffel grass, slow cool winter burns – typical for control burning – can be just as, or more, damaging for trees than fires in hot, windy conditions that often cause fires to spread.

Without more effective management plans and strategies to manage the changing fire threat in central Australia, we face the prospect of a future Tjoritja in which no old-growth trees will remain. This will have a devastating impact on the unique desert mountain ranges.

We need to acknowledge that invasive buffel grass and a changing climate have changed the face of fire risk in central Australia. We need a coordinated response from Australia’s federal and state governments, or it will be too late to stop the ecological catastrophe unfolding before us.


The authors acknowledge the contribution of Shane Muldoon, Sarah White, Erin Westerhuis, CDU Environmental Science and Management students, and NT Parks and Wildlife staff to the research at experimental sites and ongoing tree monitoring in central Australia.The Conversation

Christine Schlesinger, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science and Ecology, Charles Darwin University and Barry Judd, Professor, Indigenous Social Research, Charles Darwin University

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