Koalas are unique in the animal kingdom, living on a eucalyptus diet that would kill other creatures and drinking so little their name comes from the Dharug word gula, meaning “no water”. Today, many koala populations across Australia are in decline, due to habitat destruction caused by agriculture, urbanisation, droughts and bushfires intensified by climate change, and diseases such as chlamydia and koala retrovirus.
Genetic information can play a key role in the effort to conserve koalas and other species. A detailed map of the koala genome is vital to understanding their susceptibility to disease, their genetic diversity, and how they may respond to new environmental pressures.
We have created a new “chromosome-length” sequence of the koala genome, which will allow researchers to study its three-dimensional structure and understand its evolution.
The modern koala is the only living representative of the marsupial family Phascolarctidae, a family that once included several genera and species. During the Oligocene and Miocene epochs (from 34 to 5 million years ago), the ancestors of modern koalas lived in rainforests and didn’t eat only leaves.
During the Miocene, the Australian continent began drying out, leading to the decline of rainforests and the spread of open eucalyptus woodlands. Koalas evolved several adaptations that allowed them to live on a specialised eucalyptus diet. This specialisation makes them picky eaters, so they’re very prone to habitat loss.
Koalas are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It was hunted heavily in the early 20th century for its fur, and large-scale cullings in Queensland resulted in public outcry, initiating a movement to protect the species. Sanctuaries were established, and koalas whose habitat was disappearing were relocated.
Koalas are particularly vulnerable to bushfires; they are slow moving and eucalypt trees are very flammable. They instinctively seeks refuge in higher branches, exposing them to intense heat and flames. Bushfires also fragment the animal’s habitat, which restricts their movement and leads to population decline and loss of genetic diversity.
Piecing together the puzzle
The koala genome was first sequenced in 2013. This was only the first step in understanding koala genetics — akin to finding all the pieces of the puzzle, but being unsure how to put them all together into the meaningful patterns of genes and chromosomes.
Our new chromosome-length assembly follows the work of others, especially the Koala Genome Consortium and the Koala Genome Project led by Australian geneticist Rebecca Johnson. It is based on a draft by the Earlham Institute in the UK.
We organised the genome into 8 chromosomes, a great improvement on the draft of 1,907 fragments we began with.
Vital for conservation
A high-quality genome sequence is essential if we want to bring genetic insights to conservation management initiatives. Some 200 Australian vertebrate species currently have species recovery plans, and 80% of those plans include genome-based actions. However, only 15% of those species have any genomic data available.
Our chromosome-length koala genome assembly enables a highly detailed 3D view of the genome architecture for koala. It is easier to use than earlier genomes, and means conservation management initiatives will have fast, cost-effective and reliable analysis options available.
This will give us insights into koalas’ genetic susceptibility to diseases like koala retrovirus (KoRV) and chlamydia. It may also form a basis for innovative vaccines. What’s more, it can be used in new conservation management strategies that aim to diversify the koala gene pool.
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.
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.
Last summer, many Australians were shocked to see fires sweep through the wet tropical rainforests of Queensland, where large and severe fires are almost unheard of. This is just one example of how human activities are changing fire patterns around the world, with huge consequences for wildlife.
In a major new paper published in Science, we reveal how changes in fire activity threaten more than 4,400 species across the globe with extinction. This includes 19% of birds, 16% of mammals, 17% of dragonflies and 19% of legumes that are classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.
But, we also highlight the emerging ways we can help promote biodiversity and stop extinctions in this new era of fire. It starts with understanding what’s causing these changes and what we can do to promote the “right” kind of fire.
Exceptionally large and severe fires have also been observed in areas with a long history of fire. For example, the 12.6 million hectares that burnt in eastern Australia during last summer’s devastating bushfires was unprecedented in scale.
Most are categorised as threatened by an increase in fire frequency or intensity.
For example, the endangered mallee emu-wren in semi-arid Australia is confined to isolated patches of habitat, which makes them vulnerable to large bushfires that can destroy entire local populations.
Likewise, the Kangaroo Island dunnart was listed as critically endangered before it lost 95% of its habitat in the devastating 2019-2020 bushfires.
However, some species and ecosystems are threatened when fire doesn’t occur. Frequent fires are an important part of African savanna ecosystems and less fire activity can lead to shrub encroachment. This can displace wild herbivores such as wildebeest that prefer open areas.
How humans change fire regimes
There are three main ways humans are transforming fire activity: global climate change, land-use and the introduction of pest species.
A suite of emerging actions — some established but receiving increasing attention, others new — could help us navigate this new fire era and save species from extinction. They include:
managed wildfire — let some fires burn naturally in fire-prone ecosystems where fire has been absent for too long, suppressing only under specific conditions
deployment of rapid response teams to enact targeted fire suppression and emergency conservation management, including providing animal refuges, reseeding to promote plant regeneration and large-scale habitat restoration
green firebreaks or greenbelts, which comprises low-flammability land uses such as parkland and open vegetation to help reduce fire spread, while providing refuges for wildlife.
Where to from here?
The input of scientists will be valuable in helping navigate big decisions about new and changing ecosystems.
Empirical data and models can monitor and forecast changes in biodiversity. For example, new modelling has allowed University of Melbourne researchers to identify alternative strategies for introducing planned or prescribed burning that reduces the risk of large bushfires to koalas.
At the local and regional scale, Indigenous-led fire stewardship is an important approach for fostering relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations and communities around the world.
And international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming are crucial to reduce the risk of extreme fire events. With more extreme fire events ahead of us, learning to understand and adapt to changes in fire regimes has never been more important.
Many of us are aware of the enormous destruction feral cats inflict on Australia’s native wildlife, but there’s another introduced species that will cause at least as much harm if left unmanaged — yet it receives far less attention.
We’re referring to buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris), a plant native to parts of Africa and Asia that has been widely introduced elsewhere for pasture and to stabilise soils.
Buffel is fast growing, deep rooted and easy to establish, with each plant producing thousands of seeds. But these very characteristics for which it was prized have caused it to spread much further than ever planned.
We recently published two studies on buffel grass. One looked at just how serious the buffel invasion is to humans and wildlife by comparing it to other high-profile threats such as cats and foxes. The other study found that when buffel was removed, native wildlife quickly bounced back.
A catastrophic threat to wildlife
Buffel is now one of the worst invaders of dryland ecosystems worldwide. In Australia, this single species has replaced once diverse communities of native grasses and wildflowers across vast tracks of land. For example, most conservation reserves in the southern part of the NT have been invaded, including parts of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
Because it grows so thickly, the dense grassy fuel can feed bigger, hotter and sometimes unexpected fires. These new fires are a risk to wildlife, humans and large, old trees.
Our study compared buffel to threats posed by changed fire regimes, feral predators (cats and foxes) and feral herbivores (rabbits and camels). We found buffel was equal to feral cats and foxes in terms of future risk to biodiversity.
Feral cats are currently listed as threatening some 139 species under national environment legislation, including the night parrot and the central rock rat. Each year across Australia, feral cats kill more than three billion animals.
Buffel is formally listed as threatening 27 species under this legislation, such as the floodplain skink (buffel can choke its burrows). But because there has been much less research on the impacts of buffel, this number is likely a significant underestimate.
Unlike cats, buffel impacts whole plant communities and the animals they support. For example, when large old trees are burnt, birds that rely on tree hollows for nesting can no longer breed successfully.
What’s more, buffel has only spread widely in the last 20-30 years, which means its full impact on ecosystems has not yet been realised. In fact, 70% of the Australian continent has suitable conditions for buffel growth and could, in time, become invaded.
In contrast, cats have already roamed Australia for more than 200 years and, tragically, have caused many species, like the lesser stick-nest rat, to become extinct.
A social and cultural threat for Aboriginal people
Our study found buffel ranked higher than any other environmental threat in terms of its social and cultural impacts for Aboriginal people.
Because buffel is valued as a pasture grass in some regions, much debate has focused on its agro‐economic benefits versus environmental costs.
Meanwhile, the views and values of Aboriginal custodians of inland Australia have remained marginalised. It’s time this changes.
While feral cats and buffel both threaten culturally important wildlife, buffel is also causing the decline of valued plant foods and medicines.
For example, native desert raisin (Solanum centrale) — “katjirra” to Western Arrernte people and “kampuṟarpa” to Pitjantjatjara people — remains an important staple food across central Australia and is part of Australia’s living cultural heritage.
However, it is becoming harder for women to find and collect as buffel takes over country.
Buffel also damages important cultural sites by bringing fire and choking water holes. Thick grass makes it difficult to walk through country and it’s now hard to see tracks or animals.
Together with the loss of species, this inhibits the transfer of cultural knowledge from one generation to another.
The return of native wildlife
Buffel responds well to herbicide in smaller areas, and spread can be slowed or stopped by treating isolated infestations.
For six years, we tracked the response of native plants and animals (particularly lizards) after buffel was treated at six sites in the Tjoritja National Park near Alice Springs. And we found biodiversity soon bounced back.
Following good rains, native plants like billy buttons and golden everlastings that had just been hanging on quickly re-established in areas where buffel was treated. And as native plant communities were restored, a range of lizards and other wildlife returned, too.
Birds such as Australian ring-neck parrots and red-tailed black-cockatoos began to selectively use the treated areas, foraging on seeds on the more open ground.
Ants also became much more abundant and diverse where buffel was removed. Ants play an important role in ecosystems, for example, by dispersing seeds. This has likely been diminished in buffel-occupied areas.
Importantly, while research demonstrates the potential for ecosystem recovery following effective control, the negative effects of buffel on fauna increased in areas where we did nothing.
Where to from here?
The findings from both our studies underline the urgent need for management on a much larger scale than what is currently possible, and prevention of further spread.
It’s clear a nationally coordinated response is required, along with policies that support positive local initiatives.
Creating and maintaining large buffel-free sanctuaries in areas not yet invaded could help to protect biodiversity in the future. But we found the cost of maintaining these could be an estimated 40–50 times more than other pest-free sanctuaries, if restricted to current methods of control.
This is why Australia needs new, cost-effective, culturally appropriate and safe control options, rolled out on a broad scale. We stress the need for Aboriginal people from regions affected by buffel and prone to invasion to be central to discussions and the development of solutions.
It’s also important to note controlling buffel doesn’t require its eradication from pastoral regions where it’s valued. It does, however, require a national commitment and dedicated research, with strategic, coordinated and committed action.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Taxonomy, or the naming of species, is the foundation of modern biology. It might sound like a fairly straightforward exercise, but in fact it’s complicated and often controversial.
Why? Because there’s no one agreed list of all the world’s species. Competing lists exist for organisms such as mammals and birds, while other less well-known groups have none. And there are more than 30 definitions of what constitutes a species. This can make life difficult for biodiversity researchers and those working in areas such as conservation, biosecurity and regulation of the wildlife trade.
In the past few years, a public debate erupted among global taxonomists, including those who authored and contributed to this article, about whether the rules of taxonomy should be changed. Strongly worded ripostes were exchanged. A comparison to Stalin was floated.
But eventually, we all came together to resolve the dispute amicably. In a paper published this month, we proposed a new set of principles to guide what one day, we hope, will be a single authoritative list of the world’s species. This would help manage and conserve them for future generations.
In the process, we’ve shown how a scientific stoush can be overcome when those involved try to find common ground.
How it all began
In May 2017 two of the authors, Stephen Garnett and Les Christidis, published an article in Nature. They argued taxonomy needed rules around what should be called a species, because currently there are none. They wrote:
for a discipline aiming to impose order on the natural world, taxonomy (the classification of complex organisms) is remarkably anarchic […] There is reasonable agreement among taxonomists that a species should represent a distinct evolutionary lineage. But there is none about how a lineage should be defined.
‘Species’ are often created or dismissed arbitrarily, according to the individual taxonomist’s adherence to one of at least 30 definitions. Crucially, there is no global oversight of taxonomic decisions — researchers can ‘split or lump’ species with no consideration of the consequences.
Garnett and Christidis proposed that any changes to the taxonomy of complex organisms be overseen by the highest body in the global governance of biology, the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS), which would “restrict […] freedom of taxonomic action.”
Garnett and Christidis’ article raised hackles in some corners of the taxonomy world – including coauthors of this article.
These critics rejected the description of taxonomy as “anarchic”. In fact, they argued there are detailed rules around the naming of species administered by groups such as the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature and the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. For 125 years, the codes have been almost universally adopted by scientists.
So in March 2018, 183 researchers – led by Scott Thomson and Richard Pyle – wrote an animated response to the Nature article, published in PLoS Biology.
They wrote that Garnett and Christidis’ IUBS proposal was “flawed in terms of scientific integrity […] but is also untenable in practice”. They argued:
Through taxonomic research, our understanding of biodiversity and classifications of living organisms will continue to progress. Any system that restricts such progress runs counter to basic scientific principles, which rely on peer review and subsequent acceptance or rejection by the community, rather than third-party regulation.
In a separate paper, another group of taxonomists accused Garnett and Christidis of trying to suppress freedom of scientific thought, likening them to Stalin’s science advisor Trofim Lysenko.
Finding common ground
This might have been the end of it. But the editor at PLoS Biology, Roli Roberts, wanted to turn consternation into constructive debate, and invited a response from Garnett and Christidis. In the to and fro of articles, we all found common ground.
We recognised the powerful need for a global list of species – representing a consensus view of the world’s taxonomists at a particular time.
Such lists do exist. The Catalogue of Life, for example, has done a remarkable job in assembling lists of almost all the world’s species. But there are no rules on how to choose between competing lists of validly named species. What was needed, we agreed, was principles governing what can be included on lists.
As it stands now, anyone can name a species, or decide which to recognise as valid and which not. This creates chaos. It means international agreements on biodiversity conservation, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), take different taxonomic approaches to species they aim to protect.
We decided to work together. With funding from the IUBS, we held a workshop in February this year at Charles Darwin University to determine principles for devising a single, agreed global list of species.
Participants came from around the world. They included taxonomists, science governance experts, science philosophers, administrators of the nomenclatural (naming) codes, and taxonomic users such as the creators of national species lists.
The result is a draft set of ten principles that to us, represent the ideals of global science governance. They include that:
the species list be based on science and free from “non-taxonomic” interference
all decisions about composition of the list be transparent
governance of the list aim for community support and use
the listing process encompasses global diversity while accommodating local knowledge.
The principles will now be discussed at international workshops of taxonomists and the users of taxonomy. We’ve also formed a working group to discuss how a global list might come together and the type of institution needed to look after it.
We hope by 2030, a scientific debate that began with claims of anarchy might lead to a clear governance system – and finally, the world’s first endorsed global list of species.
The following people provided editorial comment for this article: Aaron M Lien, Frank Zachos, John Buckeridge, Kevin Thiele, Svetlana Nikolaeva, Zhi-Qiang Zhang, Donald Hobern, Olaf Banki, Peter Paul van Dijk, Saroj Kanta Barik and Stijn Conix.
After I found my first peacock spider in the wild in 2016, I was hooked. Three years later, I was travelling across Australia on a month-long expedition to document and name new species of peacock spiders.
Peacock spiders are a unique group of tiny, colourful, dancing spiders native to Australia. They’re roughly between 2.5 and 6 millimetres, depending on the species. Adult male peacock spiders are usually colourful, while female and juvenile peacock spiders are usually dull brown or grey.
Like peacocks, the mature male peacock spiders display their vibrant colours in elegant courtship displays to impress females. They often elevate and wave their third pair of legs and lift their brilliantly coloured abdomens – like dancing.
Up until 2011, there were only seven known species of them. But since then, the rate of scientific discovery has skyrocketed with upwards of 80 species being discovered in the last decade.
Thanks to my trip across Australia and the help from citizen scientists, I’ve recently scientifically described and named seven more species from Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria. This brings the total number of peacock spider species known to science up to 86.
Spider hunting: a game of luck
Citizen scientists – other peacock spider enthusiasts – shared photographs and locations of potentially undocumented species with me. I pulled these together to create a list of places in Australia to visit.
I usually find spider hunting to be a relaxing pastime, but this trip was incredibly stressful (albeit amazing).
The thing about peacock spiders is they’re mainly active during spring, which is when they breed. Colourful adult males are difficult – if not impossible – to find at other times of year, as they usually die shortly after the mating season. This meant I had a very short window to find what I needed to, or I had to wait another year.
Even when they’re active, they can be difficult to come across unless weather conditions are ideal. Not too cold. Not too rainy. Not too hot. Not too sunny. Not too shady. Not too windy. As you can imagine, it’s largely a game of luck.
The wild west
I arrived in Perth, picked up my hire car and bought a foam mattress that fitted in the back of my car – my bed for half of the trip. I stocked up on tinned food, bread and water, and I headed north in search of these tiny eight-legged gems.
My first destination: Jurien Bay. I spent the whole day under the hot sun searching for a peculiar, scientifically unknown species that Western Australian photographer Su RamMohan had sent me photographs of. I was in the exact spot it had been photographed, but I just couldn’t find it!
The sun began to lower and I was using up precious time. I made what I now believe was the right decision and abandoned the Jurien Bay species for another time.
I spent days travelling between dramatic coastal landscapes, the rugged inland outback, and old, mysterious woodlands.
I hunted tirelessly with my eyes fixed on the ground searching for movement. In a massive change of luck from the beginning of my trip, it seemed conditions were (mostly) on my side.
With the much-appreciated help of some of my field companions from the University of Hamburg and volunteers from the public, a total of five new species were discovered and scientifically named from Western Australia.
The Little Desert
Two days after returning from Western Australia, I headed to the Little Desert National Park in Victoria on a Bush Blitz expedition, joined by several of my colleagues from Museums Victoria.
To my surprise, we found a massive diversity of them, including two species with a bigger range than we thought, and the discovery of another species unknown to science.
This is the first time two known species – Maratus robinsoni and Maratus vultus – had been found in Victoria. Previously, they had only been known to live in eastern New South Wales and southern Western Australia respectively.
Our findings suggest other known species may have much bigger geographic ranges than we previously thought, and may occur in a much larger variety of habitats.
And our discovery of the unknown species (Maratus inaquosus), along with another collected by another wildlife photographer Nick Volpe from South Australia (Maratus volpei) brought the tally of discoveries to seven.
What’s in a name?
Writing scientific descriptions, documenting, and naming species is a crucial part in conserving our wildlife.
With global extinction rates at an unprecedented high, species conservation is more important than ever. But the only way we can know if we’re losing species is to show and understand they exist in the first place.
Maratus azureus: “Deep blue” in Latin, referring to the colour of the male.
Maratus constellatus: “Starry” in Latin, referring to the markings on the male’s abdomen which look like a starry night sky.
Maratus inaquosus: “Dry” or “arid” in Latin, for the dry landscape in Little Desert National Park this species was found in.
Maratus laurenae: Named in honour of my partner, Lauren Marcianti, who has supported my research with enthusiasm over the past few years.
Maratus noggerup: Named after the location where this species was found: Noggerup, Western Australia.
Maratus suae: Named in honour of photographer Su RamMohan who discovered this species and provided useful information about their locations in Western Australia.
Maratus volpei: Named in honour of photographer Nick Volpe who discovered and collected specimens of this species to be examined in my paper.
These names allow us to communicate important information about these animals to other scientists, as well as to build legislation around them in the case there are risks to their conservation status.
I plan on visiting some more remote parts of Australia in hopes of finding more new peacock spider species. I strongly suspect there’s more work to be done, and more peacock spiders to discover.
Finding a species that’s entirely new to science is always exciting, and so we were delighted to be a part of the discovery of two new sixgill sawsharks (called Pliotrema kajae and Pliotrema annae) off the coast of East Africa.
We know very little about sawsharks. Until now, only one sixgill species (Pliotrema warreni) was recognised. But we know sawsharks are carnivores, living on a diet of fish, crustaceans and squid. They use their serrated snouts to kill their prey and, with quick side-to-side slashes, break them up into bite-sized chunks.
Sawsharks look similar to sawfish (which are actually rays), but they are much smaller. Sawsharks grow to around 1.5 metres in length, compared to 7 metres for a sawfish and they also have barbels (fish “whiskers”), which sawfish lack. Sawsharks have gills on the side of their heads, whereas sawfish have them on the underside of their bodies.
Together with our colleagues, we discovered these two new sawsharks while researching small-scale fisheries that were operating off the coasts of Madagascar and Zanzibar. While the discovery of these extraordinary and interesting sharks is a wonder in itself, it also highlights how much is still unknown about biodiversity in coastal waters around the world, and how vulnerable it may be to poorly monitored and managed fisheries.
Fishing in the dark
Despite what their name might suggest, small-scale fisheries employ around 95% of the world’s fishers and are an incredibly important source of food and money, particularly in tropical developing countries. These fisheries usually operate close to the coast in some of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, such as coral reefs, mangrove forests and seagrass beds.
For most small-scale fisheries, there is very little information available about their fishing effort – that is, how many fishers there are, and where, when and how they fish, as well as exactly what they catch. Without this, it’s very difficult for governments to develop management programmes that can ensure sustainable fishing and protect the ecosystems and livelihoods of the fishers and the communities that depend on them.
While the small-scale fisheries of East Africa and the nearby islands are not well documented, we do know that there are at least half a million small-scale fishers using upwards of 150,000 boats. That’s a lot of fishing. While each fisher and boat may not catch that many fish each day, with so many operating, it really starts to add up. Many use nets – either driftnets floating at the surface or gillnets, which are anchored close to the sea floor. Both are cheap but not very selective with what they catch. Some use longlines, which are effective at catching big fish, including sharks and rays.
In 2019, our team reported that catch records were massively underreporting the number of sharks and rays caught in East Africa and the nearby islands. With the discovery of two new species here – a global hotspot for shark and ray biodiversity – the need to properly assess the impact of small-scale fisheries on marine life is even more urgent.
How many other unidentified sharks and other species are commonly caught in these fisheries? There is a real risk of species going extinct before they’re even discovered.
Efforts to monitor and manage fisheries in this region, and globally, must be expanded to prevent biodiversity loss and to develop sustainable fisheries. There are simple methods available that can work on small boats where monitoring is currently absent, including using cameras to document what’s caught.
The discovery of two new sixgill sawsharks also demonstrates the value of scientists working with local communities. Without the participation of fishers we may never have found these animals. From simple assessments all the way through to developing methods to alter catches and manage fisheries, it’s our goal to make fisheries sustainable and preserve the long-term future of species like these sawsharks, the ecosystems they live in and the communities that rely on them for generations to come.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.