The endangered species list: counting lemurs in Madagascar


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The endangered Coquerel’s Sifaka lemur.
Shutterstock/Monika Hrdinova

Ian Colquhoun, Western University

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

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

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

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

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

Cyclical evaluation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Important lists

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

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

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

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

Ian Colquhoun, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Western University

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

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A numbers game: killing rabbits to conserve native mammals



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Controlling rabbit populations has a key role in conserving Australia’s native plants and animals
William Booth

Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Damien Fordham, University of Adelaide, and Miguel Lurgi, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS)

Invasive species have a devastating effect on biodiversity. In Australia, introduced red foxes and feral cats have been implicated in the majority of the extinctions of the native mammal fauna, which has been decimated since European arrival.

But there’s a herbivore that also causes eco-catastrophe. Rabbits both compete with native animals for food and shelter and act as easy prey for abundant populations of cats and foxes. By over-grazing vegetation and reducing habitat complexity, they make hunting easier for introduced predators.




Read more:
Invasive predators are eating the world’s animals to extinction – and the worst is close to home


Food webs are complex. Because of this, once an invasive species is embedded in a food web, simply eradicating them without considering the potential knock-on effects to other species they interact with, could cause unintended and undesirable consequences. We modelled different rates of rabbit population reduction to assess what level of control might be best for aiding the conservation of native mammals and not causing negative outcomes.

Rabbit numbers boom and crash

Rabbits, famously, reproduce rapidly and can cope with a relatively high predation rate. This can cause “hyper-predation”, where rabbit-inflated cat and fox populations indirectly increase the predation pressure on native mammals. This is especially so when rabbit populations intermittently crash due to, for example, extreme environmental events (like severe and prolonged droughts) or disease. This causes predators to switch their diet and eat more native mammals.

Threatened species such as the greater bilby are likely to benefit from rabbit control.
Jasmine Vink

This logically suggests that reducing rabbit numbers might thus help reduce cat and fox populations, by removing their abundant prey. Collectively this should benefit native plants and animals, including many threatened mammal species. However, ecosystem and pest management is a complex game.

When controlling rabbits we need to look beyond one or two species. We should consider the potential consequences for the entire ecological community, which ultimately depend on how changes in one species percolate through the network of ecological interactions between them.

Our new research, recently published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, set out to examine these questions in more detail. We consider other key players in Australia’s arid regions, such as kangaroos and dingoes, when looking at the effects of rabbit control on small native mammals. Our aim was to provide a better understanding of how changes in rabbit populations might affect other species via the food web.

We developed a multi-species ecological network model to describe and quantify how changing rabbit abundance can affect species on different feeding levels. In addition to rabbits, small native mammals, and mesopredators (cats and foxes), our model also considers apex predators (dingo) and large herbivores (kangaroo) as part of the Australian arid food web. This model allowed us to examine changes in predator-prey interactions (including potential prey switching and hyper-predation) and how these could affect the survival of native prey through time.

Our model of an Australian arid ecosystem food web.
Author provided

We found that removing rabbits at rates between 30-40% appeared to benefit small mammals. This is approximately the rate at which rabbits are currently managed in Australia using biocontrol agents (introduced diseases).

Rabbit control in Australia typically involves a “press and pulse” approach. Rabbit populations are suppressed via biocontrol (press) and periods of warren destruction and poisoning (pulse). Finding that reducing rabbit populations by around 40% seems most beneficial to small mammals is important, as it informs how and when we combine these strategies.

The 40% rate corresponds well with the disease-induced (press) mortality rate in rabbit populations due to rabbit haemorrhagic disease and myxomatosis. These are the primary biocontrol agents used in arid Australia to control rabbit populations.

Our study supports rabbit-reduction strategies that involve sustained “press” control, that kill a moderate portion of a rabbit population, with less frequent removal at higher proportions of the population.

To effectively manage invasive species, it’s important to focus on entire communities. Targeting single species might not be enough – every animal exists within a complex web of interactions.




Read more:
Mourn our lost mammals, while helping the survivors battle back


There has been much focus by the current government on controlling feral cats, as a way to conserve many of Australia’s unique and threatened mammal species.

The ConversationHowever, more focus could be devoted to protecting habitat cover and complexity, by reducing the land clearing and over-grazing that makes hunting easier. We can also manage rabbits sensibly to reduce competition for resources, and indirectly control cats and foxes.

Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Damien Fordham, , University of Adelaide, and Miguel Lurgi, Postdoctoral research fellow, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS)

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

Polar invasion: how plants and animals would colonise an ice-free Antarctica



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Tom Hart, Author provided

Peter Convey, British Antarctic Survey and Tom Hart, University of Oxford

Antarctica’s ice sheets could totally collapse if the world’s fossil fuels are burnt off, according to a recent climate change simulation. While we are unlikely to see such a dramatic event any time soon, we are already observing big changes and it’s worth considering what the worst case scenario might look like for the continent’s ecosystems. How long before Antarctica turns into grassy tundra?

For now, life thrives mostly at the very edge of the continent – it’s driven by the plankton-rich Southern Ocean and clustered around seasonally ice-free areas of coastal land. The interior might be sparsely inhabited, but the continent is not as barren as many think. There are around 110 native species of moss and two flowering plants, the Antarctic hairgrass and pearlwort. These plants have flourished along the relatively mild Antarctic Peninsula in recent decades. However they can’t go much further – they already occur at almost the most southern suitable ice-free ground.

With ice-caps and glaciers receding already in the Peninsula region, native land plants and animals are benefiting from more easily available liquid water. Already we are starting to see increased populations, greater areas occupied and faster growth rates, consequences only expected to increase – everything is currently limited by the extreme physical environment.

The world’s most southerly flower, the Antarctic hairgrass (Deschampsia Antarctica)
British Antarctic Survey, Author provided

It may eventually prove too warm for some native species, but the bigger issue in upcoming decades and centuries will be whether new and currently “non-native” species will arrive that are stronger competitors than the native organisms.

Antarctic invasions

Native polar species are inherently weak competitors, as they have evolved in an environment where surviving the cold, dry conditions is the overriding selective pressure rather than competition from other biological sources. If humans (or other wildlife expanding their range southwards) bring new competitors and diseases to Antarctica, that may pose a very grave risk to the existing biodiversity. Some native species would likely be pushed into the remaining more extreme regions where they can avoid competition and continue to rely on their inherent stress tolerance abilities.

Tom Hart with two million chinstrap penguins. Isolation has made Antarctic species vulnerable to introduced competition.
Richard White, Author provided

We usually split the process of natural colonisation – which applies even today in Antarctica – and that of movement of “alien” species by human agency. The best available data for the Antarctic region come from some sub-Antarctic islands, where it appears humans have been responsible for many more successful colonisations than nature. In fact, over the recent centuries of human contact with the region we have introduced 200-300 species compared to just two or three known natural colonisations.

Penguins, seals and flying seabirds move between islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, so there is potential for some natural colonisation. Vagrant birds are regularly observed across the sub-Antarctic and even along the Peninsula, some of which have colonised successfully (such as the starlings, redpolls and mallard ducks on Macquarie Island).

Migrants such as skuas and gulls, which spend time on land at both ends of their migration, could be important natural vectors of transfer for invertebrates, plant seeds and spores, and microbes into an ice-free Antarctica. Importantly, bird colonies also fertilise surrounding rock and soil with faeces, eggshells and carcasses. Plant and animal life flourishes near seabird colonies, encouraged by this enrichment.

What’s hitching a ride on this skua?
Tom Hart, Author provided

However it can be tough to predict what Antarctic melt would mean for individual species, never mind entire ecosystems. Take penguins, for instance – they have already survived previous inter-glacial retreats, but at reduced population sizes. This time round it is likely that Adélie and emperor penguins who are more dependent upon sea ice would decline, while less ice-dependent species such as gentoos and chinstraps might benefit. Indeed, there is already some evidence that emperors are struggling (although also that they may be adapting and learning to emigrate).

However the fact fish-eating gentoo penguins are increasing on the Peninsula while Adélies and chinstraps (both krill eaters) aren’t doing so well suggests prey availability can be more to blame than ice cover. Figuring out the impact of large-scale environmental change at ecosystem or food-web level is hard – it’s a complex process that will no doubt throw up some unexpected results.

This flightless midge comes from South Georgia but has been introduced further south.
British Antarctic Survey, Author provided

The sub-Antarctic islands are full of examples of such unexpected impacts. Pigs, dogs, cats, sheep, reindeer and rabbits have all been intentionally introduced in the past, with often devastating effects. Rats and mice were introduced to South Georgia and other islands accidentally by sealers and whalers, for instance, and have decimated seabird populations. A recent eradication campaign appears to have been successful and pipits, ducks and small seabirds are showing some immediate signs of recovery.

The removal of non-native cats from Macquarie and Marion Islands has similarly helped native burrowing seabirds, although responses in such ecosystems can be far more complex and unpredictable – the removal of cats from Macquarie also led to increase in the introduced rabbit population, and considerably increased damage to sensitive native vegetation.

Antarctic biodiversity is far more complex than widely assumed, with up to 15 distinct biogeographic regions that have been evolutionarily isolated for many millions of years. Humans present the greatest threat, not only of introducing new species, but also of moving “native” species between regions within Antarctica. This could be even more damaging, as these native species would already be pre-adapted to polar life.

Visitors to Antarctica are subject to increasingly strict biosecurity measures but accidental introductions continue to occur, often through food shipments for scientists. Changes in sea and land ice affect access to new areas, so we can only expect plant and invertebrate invasions to increase unless biosecurity becomes more effective.

The ConversationWhile cost issues may be raised, it is worth remembering that prevention will always be better – and cheaper – than subsequent control and eradication, even if such action is possible.

Peter Convey, Terrestrial Ecologist, British Antarctic Survey and Tom Hart, Penguinologist, University of Oxford

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

Australia relies on volunteers to monitor its endangered species



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Nik Borrow/Flickr, CC BY-NC

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

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

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




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


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

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

King Island crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shedding staff

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

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

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

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

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

Another way

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

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

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




Read more:
Protecting endangered species: 6 essential reads


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

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

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

Australia: Large Fish Species in Serious Decline


The link below is to an article reporting on the serious decline in large fish species across Australia.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/05/australias-large-fish-species-declined-30-in-past-decade-study-says

The future is fenced for Australian animals



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Mala, also known as rufous hare-wallabies, will be protected behind an enormous cat-proof fence.
Donald Hobern/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Michael Bode, The University of Queensland

Many of Australia’s mammals spend their entire lives imprisoned, glimpsing the outside world through tall chain-link fences and high-voltage wires. There are dozens of these enclosures across Australia. Many are remote, standing alone in the endless expanse of inland Australia, but others are on the outskirts of our largest cities – Melbourne, Perth, Canberra.

Every year there are more of them, the imprisoned population growing, while the wild populations outside dwindle. These are Australia’s conservation fences.




Read more:
Let’s move the world’s longest fence to settle the dingo debate


The captives within our conservation fences are adorable – floppy-eared bilbies, tiny hare-wallabies, long-tongued numbats – and they all share an extreme susceptibility to introduced predators. At least 68 native mammal species cannot exist in the wild if either foxes or cats are present. Many of these species once numbered in the millions, ranging from the woodlands of Queensland to the deserts of Western Australia, but predation has driven them to the brink of extinction.

Fences offer these species a future in the wild, and conservation groups have risen to the challenge. Last week, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy completed a new cat-proof fence in their Newhaven Sanctuary, the largest conservation fence ever constructed.

Fences are extraordinarily successful

Make no mistake, these conservation fences work. Species that wilt at the sight of a fox, that have been exterminated from every corner of the Australian mainland, will explode in numbers behind fences. Along with offshore islands, inside these fences are the only places in Australia where these species can prosper – a few hundred square kilometres of safety, surrounded by 7.6 million lethal square kilometres.

Environmentalists have never particularly liked fences. Rather than hide behind walls, they repeatedly took the fight to the cats and foxes on the outside.

Their tactics have been diverse, innovative and brutal. Managers have rained bullets from helicopters and poison baits from planes. They have set cunning snares and traps, mimicked the smell and sound of their enemies, and have turned landscapes to ash with wildfire.

Nothing has worked for the most threatened marsupials. Some of the largest and most expensive management campaigns in Australian conservation history have ended in exhaustion and stalemate, and with a retreat back behind the fences.

Fences were once a source of vehement debate in conservation circles. Should they be permanent? Are fenced populations wild or captive? Should they contribute to species’ conservation status?

These arguments have effectively been abandoned. Scientific studies and painful experience has proven fences and offshore islands to be the only reliable method of protecting predator-threatened species http://www.wildliferesearchmanagement.com.au/Final%20Report_0609.pdf. In place of these debates, conservation organisations and governments have turned to more practical questions of fence height, electric wire voltage and skirt depth.

So now, on average, Australians are building a new fence every year, some of them truly enormous. The just-completed fence at Newhaven encloses a staggering 10,000 hectares of red sand and spinifex. By the time the project is complete, this fence will be home to 11 different threatened mammal species.

And Australia is not alone: around the world, from New Zealand to Hawaii to South Africa, an archipelago of fences is emerging from an ocean of predators. It is one of the great achievements of modern conservation and has already averted the extinction of critically endangered species. Although it’s much smaller than our network of protected areas, it offers refuge to species that are long-gone from our national parks and wilderness areas.

Red foxes have been extraordinarily successful in Australia.
Harley Kingston/Flickr, CC BY

A troubling pattern

However, in recent years a concerning pattern has begun to emerge. While the number and size of fences continue to increase, the number of new species being protected has stalled. In fact, the last five fences haven’t included any new species – they have only offered additional protection to species that were already protected behind existing fences https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-017-0456-4.

As an example, the first two marsupials planned for introduction behind the Newhaven fence will be the mala (Lagorchestes hirsutus) and the burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur). These two species undeniably deserve more protection. Both are highly susceptible to foxes and cats and will derive tremendous benefit from the protection of this enormous fence. However, both species are already found elsewhere behind fences (four different fences for burrowing bettongs). Meanwhile, yet-to-be-published research from the National Environmental Science Program has found 41 other species that are desperately vulnerable to introduced predators are not protected by any fence.

This problem is not new to conservation. In the 1990s, Australian researchers suddenly realised that our national park system was failing to protect the full range of Australian ecosystems. Despite our best efforts, we had created a system of reserves that was biased towards mountainous landscapes and deserts, and away from the fertile valley floors. The solution was to create new national parks using systematic and mathematical methods.

This discovery – the theory of systematic conservation planning – revolutionised global conservation. In 2018, conservation fences need their own systematic revolution.

Unfortunately, the national park system had natural advantages that fences lack. The vast majority of Australia’s protected areas belong to the state and federal governments. The centralised nature of the protected area network is perfect for systematic thinking and top-down optimisation – picture the Soviet Union’s Politburo. In contrast, the conservation fencing sector is diverse and decentralised – picture the third day of Woodstock.




Read more:
All cost, little benefit: WA’s barrier fence is bad news for biodiversity



Fences are built by governments at the state, federal and municipal levels, by multimillion-dollar NGOs like the Australia Wildlife Conservancy, by tiny local environmentalist groups and by profit-making corporations. This diversity is a fundamental strength of the fence network, giving it access to a spectrum of funding and ideas. But it makes it almost impossible to plan in a systematic manner. You can’t tell a small bilby conservation group in western Queensland that they should protect the central Australian rock-rat instead (Zyzomys pedunculatus). It doesn’t necessarily matter to them that bilbies are already protected behind four different fences and the rock-rat has none.

While conservation science tries to work this problem out, new and larger fences will continue to be built at an accelerating rate into the foreseeable future. True, the absence of coordination will make mathematicians break their slide rules, but each fence will do its job. The furry denizens will hop, and scurry, and bounce around, heedless of their precarious safety.

The ConversationAnd for us, from the outside looking in, these fences will help us forget the parlous state of Australian marsupial conservation. It will be possible to forget our record-breaking rate of extinctions, to forget the empty forests and deserts, and to imagine what a bushwalk might have been like before Europeans unleashed foxes and cats onto Australia.

Michael Bode, Associate Professor of Mathematics, The University of Queensland

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