I travelled Australia looking for peacock spiders, and collected 7 new species (and named one after the starry night sky)



Heath Warwick, Author provided

Joseph Schubert, Museums Victoria

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.




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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.

Maratus laurenae. Male peacock spiders have brilliant colours on their abdomen to attract females.
Author provided

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.

Classic.

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!

I travelled across Denmark, Western Australia.
Author provided

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.

Kalbarri Gorge, Western Australia, where Maratus constellatus was found.
Author provided

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.

I’d thought the landscape’s harsh, dry conditions were unsuitable for peacock spiders, as most described species are known to live in temperate regions.

Capturing spiders in a bug net.
Heath Warwick, Author provided

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.




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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.




Read more:
Spiders are a treasure trove of scientific wonder


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 azureus.
Author provided
  • Maratus constellatus: “Starry” in Latin, referring to the markings on the male’s abdomen which look like a starry night sky.
Maratus constellatus.
Author provided
  • Maratus inaquosus: “Dry” or “arid” in Latin, for the dry landscape in Little Desert National Park this species was found in.
Maratus inaquosus
Author provided
  • Maratus laurenae: Named in honour of my partner, Lauren Marcianti, who has supported my research with enthusiasm over the past few years.
Maratus laurenae
Author provided
  • Maratus noggerup: Named after the location where this species was found: Noggerup, Western Australia.
Maratus noggerup
Author provided
  • Maratus suae: Named in honour of photographer Su RamMohan who discovered this species and provided useful information about their locations in Western Australia.
Maratus suae
Author provided
  • Maratus volpei: Named in honour of photographer Nick Volpe who discovered and collected specimens of this species to be examined in my paper.
Maratus volpei
Nick Volpe, Author provided

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.The Conversation

Joseph Schubert, Entomology/Arachnology Registration Officer, Museums Victoria

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

We’ve just discovered two new shark species – but they may already be threatened by fishing



One of the newly discovered sixgilled sawshark species (Pliotrema kajae).
Simon Weigmann, Author provided

Per Berggren, Newcastle University and Andrew Temple, Newcastle University

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.

The serrated snout of a sixgill sawshark (Pliotrema annae).
Ellen Barrowclift-Mahon/Marine MEGAfauna Lab/Newcastle University., Author provided

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.

A sixgill sawshark (Pliotrema annae) turned on its side, showing gills and barbels.
Ellen Barrowclift-Mahon, Author provided

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.

The three known species of sixgill sawshark. The two new species flank the original known species. From left to right: Pliotrema kajae, Pliotrema warreni (juvenile female) and Pliotrema annae (presumed adult female).
Simon Weigmann, Author provided

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.

Small-scale fishers of Zanzibar attending their driftnets.
Per Berggren/Marine MEGAfauna Lab/Newcastle University, Author provided

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.




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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.

Pliotrema kajae, as it might look swimming in the subtropical waters of the western Indian Ocean.
Simon Weigmann, Author provided

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.

A selection of landed fish – including sharks, tuna and swordfish.
Per Berggren, Author provided

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.The Conversation

Per Berggren, Marine MEGAfauna Lab, Newcastle University and Andrew Temple, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Marine Biology, Newcastle 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.




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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.




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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.




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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.




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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.

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



Feral horses are destroying what little threatened species habitat was spared from bushfire.
Invasive Species Council

Jamie Pittock, Australian National University

On Friday I flew in a helicopter over the fire-ravaged Kosciuszko National Park. I was devastated by what I saw. Cherished wildlife species are at grave risk of extinction: those populations the bushfires haven’t already wiped out are threatened by thousands of feral horses trampling the land.

The New South Wales park occupies the highest mountain range in Australia and is home to plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Many of these species are threatened, and their survival depends on protecting habitat as best we can.




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Kosciuszko National Park provides habitat for two species of corroboree frog (critically endangered), the alpine she-oak skink (endangered), broad-toothed rat (vulnerable) and stocky galaxias (a critically endangered native fish), among other threatened species.

As the climate has warmed, the cool mountain habitat of these species is shrinking; bushfires have decimated a lot of what was left. Feral horses now threaten to destroy the remainder, and an urgent culling program is needed.

Devastation as far as the eye can see on the burnt western face of Kosciuszko National Park.
Jamie Pittock

Not a green leaf in sight

Australia’s plants and ecosystems did not evolve to withstand trampling by hard-hooved animals, or their intensive grazing. Unfortunately, the New South Wales government has allowed the population of feral horses in the park to grow exponentially in recent years to around 20,000.

I flew over the northern part of the park with members of the Invasive Species Council, who were conducting an urgent inspection of the damage. Thousands of hectares were completely incinerated by bushfires: not a green leaf was visible over vast areas. A cataclysm has befallen the western face of the mountains and tablelands around Kiandra and Mount Selwyn.




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Further north and east of Kiandra the fires were less intense and burnt patchily. On Nungar Plain the grassland and peat wetlands were only lightly burnt, and the first green shoots were already visible along the wetlands of the valley floor.

At first, I wondered if the fires may have spared two animals which live in tunnels in the vegetation on the sub-alpine high plains: the alpine she-oak skink and broad-toothed rat (which, despite the name is a cute, hamster-like creature).

The hamster-like broad toothed rat.
Flickr

But not only was their understory habitat burnt, a dozen feral horses were trampling the peat wetlands and eating the first regrowth.

On the unburnt or partially burnt plains a few ridges over, 100 or more horses were mowing down the surviving vegetation.

Precarious wildlife refuges

Next we flew over a small stream that holds the last remaining population of a native fish species, the stocky galaxias. A small waterfall is all that divides the species from the stream below, and the jaws of the exotic trout which live there.

The aftermath of the fires means the last refuge of the stocky galaxias is likely to become even more degraded.

Over the years, feral horses have carved terraces of trails into the land causing erosion and muddying the stream bank. As more horses congregate on unburnt patches of vegetation after the fires, more eroded sediment will settle on the stream bed and fill the spaces between rocks where the fish shelter. Ash runoff entering the stream may clog the gills of the fish, potentially suffocating them.

An Alpine she-oak skink.
Renee Hartley



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Many key wetland habitats of the southern and northern corroboree frogs have also been burnt. These striking yellow and black frogs nest in wetland vegetation.

A corroboree frog.
Flickr

We hovered over a key wetland for the northern corroboree frog that had not been burnt, deep in the alpine forest. A group of feral horses stood in it. They had created muddy wallows, trampled vegetation and worn tracks that will drain the wetland if their numbers are not immediately controlled.

Horses out of control

Five years ago a survey reported about 6,000 feral horses roaming in Kosciuszko National Park. By 2019, the numbers had jumped to at least 20,000.

We saw no dead horses from the air. Unlike our native wildlife, most appear to have escaped the fires.




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Flying down the upper Murrumbidgee River’s Long Plain, I saw large numbers of feral horses gathered in yet more wetlands. Displaced by the fires to the south and west, they were already trampling the mossy and heathy wetlands that store and filter water in the headwaters.

The Murrumbidgee River is a key water source for south-east Australia. The horses stir up sediment and defecate in the water. They create channels which drain and dry the wetlands, exposing them to fire.

One-third of Kosciuszko National Park has been burnt out and at the time of writing the fires remain active. Feral horses are badly compounding the damage.

If we don’t immediately reduce feral horse numbers, the consequences for Kosciuszko National Park and its unique Australian flora and fauna will be horrendous.

Responsible managers limit the numbers of livestock on their lands and control feral animals. The NSW government must repeal its 2018 legislation protecting feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, and undertake a responsible control program similar to those of the Australian Capital Territory and Victorian governments.

Without an emergency cull of feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, burnt vegetation may not fully recover and threatened species will march further towards extinction.The Conversation

Jamie Pittock, Professor, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

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

Six million hectares of threatened species habitat up in smoke



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

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

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

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



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

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




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

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

The bad news

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



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

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

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

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


Author supplied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rising from the ashes

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Playing the long game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A season in hell: bushfires push at least 20 threatened species closer to extinction



Birds are disoriented by smoke and often cannot escape a fire.
James Ross/AAP

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; Chris Dickman, University of Sydney; David Bowman, University of Tasmania; David Keith, UNSW, and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

Images of desperate, singed koalas in blackened landscapes have come to symbolise the damage to nature this bushfire season. Such imagery has catalysed global concern, but the toll on biodiversity is much more pervasive.

Until the fires stop burning, we won’t know the full extent of the environmental damage. But these fires have significantly increased the extinction risk for many threatened species.

We estimate most of the range and population of between 20 and 100 threatened species will have been burnt. Such species include the long-footed potoroo, Kangaroo Island’s glossy black-cockatoo and the Spring midge orchid.

A dead koala after bushfires swept through on Kangaroo Island on January 7.
DAVID MARIUZ

The fires are exceptional: way beyond normal in their extent, severity and timing. The human and property losses have been enormous. But nature has also suffered profoundly. We must urgently staunch and recover from the environmental losses, and do what it takes to avoid future catastrophes.

The fire and its aftermath

The South Australian sub-species of the glossy black cockatoo, extinct on the mainland.
David Cook/Flickr

One estimate last month put the the number of birds, mammals (other than bats) and reptiles affected by fire in New South Wales alone at 480 million. The toll has risen since.

Most will have been killed by the fires themselves, or due to a lack of food and shelter in the aftermath.

Some animals survive the immediate fire, perhaps by hiding under rocks or in burrows. But the ferocity and speed of these fires mean most will have perished.

One might think birds and other fast-moving animals can easily escape fires. But smoke and strong winds can badly disorient them, and mass bird deaths in severe bushfires are common.

We saw this in the current fire crisis, when dead birds including rainbow lorikeets and yellow-tailed black-cockatoos washed up on the beach at Mallacoota in Victoria.

The charred remains of Flinders Chase National Park after bushfires swept through Kangaroo Island.
DAVID MARIUZ

Damage lasts decades

Fire impacts are deeply felt in the longer-term. Many habitat features needed by wildlife, such as tree and log hollows, nectar-bearing shrubs and a deep ground layer of fallen leaves, may not develop for decades.

Populations of plant and animal species found only in relatively small areas, which substantially overlap fire-affected areas, will be worst hit. Given the fires are continuing, the precise extent of this problem is still unknown.




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Animal response to a bushfire is astounding. These are the tricks they use to survive


We estimate most of the range and population of between 20 and 100 threatened species will have been burnt. The continued existence of such species was already tenuous. Their chances of survival are now much lower again.

For example, the long-footed potoroo exists in a very small range mostly in the forests of Victoria’s East Gippsland. It’s likely intense fires have burnt most of these areas.

The Kangaroo Island dunnart.
Jody Gates

On South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, one-third of which burned, there are serious concerns for the Kangaroo Island dunnart, an endangered small marsupial, and the endangered glossy black-cockatoo, whose last refuge was on the island. Both species have lost much of their habitat.

Many threatened plants are also affected: in NSW, fires around Batemans Bay have burnt some of the few sites known for the threatened Spring midge orchid.

This time, it’s different

Fire has long been a feature of Australian environments, and many species and vegetation types have adapted to fire. But the current fires are in many cases beyond the limits of such adaptation.

The fires are also burning environments that typically go unburnt for centuries, including at least the perimeter of World Heritage rainforests of the Lamington Plateau in south-eastern Queensland. In these environments, recovery – if at all – will be painfully slow.

Feral cats flock to fire grounds where prey are exposed.
Mark Marathon

Many Australian animal species, particularly threatened birds, favour long-unburnt vegetation because these provide more complex vegetation structure and hollows. Such habitat is fast disappearing.

The shortening intervals between fires are also pushing some ecosystems beyond their limits of resilience. Some iconic Alpine Ash forests of Kosciuszko have experienced four fires in 20 or 30 years.




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‘This crisis has been unfolding for years’: 4 photos of Australia from space, before and after the bushfires


This has reduced a grand wet forest ecosystem, rich in wildlife, to a dry scrub far more flammable than the original forest. Such ecosystem collapse is all but impossible to reverse.

Fires also compound the impacts of other threats. Feral cats and foxes hunt more effectively in burnt landscapes and will inexorably pick off wildlife that may have survived the fire.

What does this mean for conservation?

In a matter of weeks, the fires have subverted decades of dedicated conservation efforts for many threatened species. As one example, most of the 48,000 hectares of forest reserves in East Gippsland established last year in response to the rapid decline of greater gliders has been burnt. This has further endangered the species and makes the remaining unburnt areas ever more critical.

Beyond counting the wildlife casualties, responses are needed to help environmental recovery. Priorities may differ among species and regions, but here is a general list:

Care and rehabilitation of animals injured in a bushfire is key.
AAP
  • quickly protect unburnt refuge patches in otherwise burnt landscapes

  • increase control efforts for pest animals and weeds that would magnify the impacts of these fires on wildlife

  • strategically establish captive breeding populations of some threatened animals and collect seeds of threatened plants

  • provide nest boxes and in special circumstances plant vegetation providing critical food resources

  • care for and rehabilitate injured wildlife and establish monitoring programs to chart a hoped-for recovery.

Some of these actions may be mere pinpricks in the extent of loss. But any useful action will make a small difference, and perhaps help alleviate the community’s profound sense of dismay at the damage wrought by these fires.

Governments, conservation groups and landholders must all play a role. Recovery actions should be thoughtfully coordinated, and form part of the broader social and economic post-fire recovery program.




Read more:
In fact, there’s plenty we can do to make future fires less likely


Critically, we must also reduce the likelihood of similar catastrophes in future. Some have blamed the fires on national parks and a lack of hazard reduction burning. Skilful and fine-scale application of preventative burning does have merit. But such measures would not have stopped these fires, and the number of days suitable for such burning is diminishing.

Increasingly severe drought and extreme heat, associated with global warming, are the immediate causes of these wildfires and their ferocity. To prevent this fire-ravaged summer becoming the new normal, we must take drastic measures to tackle climate change.


A caption in an earlier version of this article said the glossy black cockatoo was extinct on the mainland. It was referring to the South Australian subspecies found on Kangaroo Island. The caption has been amended to clarify this.The Conversation

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne; Chris Dickman, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, University of Sydney; David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania; David Keith, Professor of Botany, UNSW, and Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University

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

Scientists re-counted Australia’s extinct species, and the result is devastating



The Tasmanian tiger is among the best known of our extinct species, but researchers have now revealed the extent of the crisis.
TASMANIAN MUSEUM AND ART GALLERY

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Michael F. Braby, Australian National University; Sarah Legge, Australian National University, and Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University

It’s well established that unsustainable human activity is damaging the health of the planet. The way we use Earth threatens our future and that of many animals and plants. Species extinction is an inevitable end point.

It’s important that the loss of Australian nature be quantified accurately. To date, putting an exact figure on the number of extinct species has been challenging. But in the most comprehensive assessment of its kind, our research has confirmed that 100 endemic Australian species living in 1788 are now validly listed as extinct.

Alarmingly, this tally confirms that the number of extinct Australian species is much higher than previously thought.

A southern black-throated finch, which conservationists say is threatened by the Adani coal mine.
ERIC VANDERDUYS/BirdLife Australia

The most precise tally yet

Counts of extinct Australian species vary. The federal government’s list of extinct plants and animals totals 92. However 20 of these are subspecies, five are now known to still exist in Australia and seven survive overseas – reducing the figure to 60.

An RMIT/ABC fact check puts the figure at 46.

The states and territories also hold their own extinction lists, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature keeps a global database, the Red List.

An endangered Manning River turtle.
AUSTRALIAN REPTILE PARK

Our research collated these separate listings. We excluded species that still exist overseas, such as the water tassel-fern. We also excluded some species that, happily, have been rediscovered since being listed as extinct, or which are no longer recognised as valid species (such as the obscure snail Fluvidona dulvertonensis).

We concluded that exactly 100 plant and animal species are validly listed as having become extinct in the 230 years since Europeans colonised Australia:

  • 38 plants, such as the magnificent spider-orchid
  • 1 seaweed species
  • 34 mammals including the thylacine and pig-footed bandicoot
  • 10 invertebrates including a funnel-web spider, beetles and snails
  • 9 birds, such as the paradise parrot
  • 4 frogs, including two species of the bizarre gastric-brooding frog which used its stomach as a womb
  • 3 reptiles including the Christmas Island forest skink
  • 1 fish, the Pedder galaxias.
A 19th century illustration of the Pig-footed bandicoot.
Wikimedia

Our tally includes three species listed as extinct in the wild, with two of these still existing in captivity.

The mammal toll represents 10% of the species present in 1788. This loss rate is far higher than for any other continent over this period.

The 100 extinctions are drawn from formal lists. But many extinctions have not been officially registered. Other species disappeared before their existence was recorded. More have not been seen for decades, and are suspected lost by scientists or Indigenous groups who knew them best. We speculate that the actual tally of extinct Australian species since 1788 is likely to be about ten times greater than we derived from official lists.

And biodiversity loss is more than extinctions alone. Many more Australian species have disappeared from all but a vestige of their former ranges, or persist in populations far smaller than in the past.

The geographical spread of extinctions across Australia. Darker shading represents a higher extinction tally.

Dating the losses

Dating of extinctions is not straightforward. For a few Australian species, such as the Christmas Island forest skink, we know the day the last known individual died. But many species disappeared without us realising at the time.

Our estimation of extinction dates reveals a largely continuous rate of loss – averaging about four species per decade.

Continuing this trend, in the past decade, three Australian species have become extinct – the Christmas Island forest skink, Christmas Island pipistrelle and Bramble Cay melomys – and two others became extinct in the wild.

Cumulative tally of Australian extinctions since 1788.

The extinctions occurred over most of the continent. However 21 occurred only on islands smaller than Tasmania, which comprise less than 0.5% of Australia’s land mass.

This trend, repeated around the world, is largely due to small population sizes and vulnerability to newly introduced predators.

We must learn from the past

The 100 recognised extinctions followed the loss of Indigenous land management, its replacement with entirely new land uses and new settlers introducing species with little regard to detrimental impacts.

Introduced cats and foxes are implicated in most mammal extinctions; vegetation clearing and habitat degradation caused most plant extinctions. Disease caused the loss of frogs and the accidental introduction of an Asian snake caused the recent loss of three reptile species on Christmas Island.

The causes have changed over time. Hunting contributed to several early extinctions, but not recent ones. In the last decade, climate change contributed to the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys, which lived only on one Queensland island.

The prospects for some species are helped by legal protection, Australia’s fine national reserve system and threat management. But these gains are subverted by the legacy of previous habitat loss and fragmentation, and the ongoing damage caused by introduced species.

Our own population increase is causing further habitat loss, and new threats such as climate change bring more frequent and intense droughts and bushfires.

Environment laws have demonstrably failed to stem the extinction crisis. The national laws are now under review, and the federal government has indicated protections may be wound back.

But now is not the time to weaken environment laws further. The creation of modern Australia has come at a great cost to nature – we are not living well in this land.


The study on which this article is based was also co-authored by Andrew Burbidge, David Coates, Rod Fensham and Norm McKenzie.The Conversation

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Associate Professor / ARC Future Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Dale Nimmo, Associate professor/ARC DECRA fellow, Charles Sturt University; Michael F. Braby, Associate Professor, Australian National University; Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University, and Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University

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

Non-native species should count in conservation – even in Australia



Australia is home to many new species, including wild camels found nowhere else on Earth.
Author provided

Arian Wallach, University of Technology Sydney; Chelsea Batavia, Oregon State University; Danielle Celermajer, University of Sydney; Daniel Ramp, University of Technology Sydney; Erick Lundgren, University of Technology Sydney, and Esty Yanco, University of Technology Sydney

As the world struggles to keep tabs on biodiversity decline, conservation largely relies on a single international database to track life on Earth. It is a mammoth and impressive undertaking – but a glaring omission from the list may be frustrating conservation efforts.




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In defence of invasive alien species



The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List aims to be a “complete barometer of life”. But non-native wildlife is excluded from the list.

Our study, published today in the journal Conservation Biology, questions the wisdom of this omission. It means, for example, vulnerable species facing existential threats in their “home country” may be exterminated freely in another. Excluding these animals, such as wild camels in Australia, and rare Australian frogs living overseas, distorts conservation science.

What counts as ‘native’?

The concept of “native” draws a sharp line between species that count and those that don’t. It is essentially an ethical choice, and a disputed one at that. Regardless of whether one defends or disputes the concept, it is problematic to use a moral term to filter a critical source of scientific data.

Trash Animals: How We Live with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species.

The invisible components of biodiversity – those populations excluded from conservation’s definition of life – can be found in trash lists, where they are described as invasive, aliens, pests, and feral.

So what does the world look like if we include all wildlife in biodiversity assessments? We rummaged around in the “trash piles” to find out.

When all life counts

By focusing on Australian non-native vertebrate species – amphibians, birds, fishes, mammals, and reptiles – we did something many conservationists would find unthinkable. We added unloved species such as feral cats, cane toads, the Indian myna, and carp to Australia’s biodiversity counts.

We created maps showing the range of 87 species whose ancestors were introduced into Australia, and 47 species native to Australia that were introduced elsewhere, since European colonisation.

Many of these so-called invasive species are at risk of extinction in their native ranges; 32% are assessed as threatened or decreasing in the Red List. For 15 of them, non-native ranges provide a lifeline.

Australia’s vertebrate species that are threatened or near threatened in their native ranges with significant populations overseas. From left-to-right: Indian hog deer, banteng, wild cattle, wild water buffalo, wild camel; wild goat, carp, wild donkey, brumby, Mozambique tilapia; European rabbit, Javan rusa, sambar deer, and (emigrants) green and golden bell frog, growling grass frog.
Arian Wallach et al

Not only does Australia contribute to the survival and flourishing of these species, but immigrant vertebrates have also added 52 species to the number of vertebrate species in Australia (after accounting for extinctions).

This number in no way indicates that non-native species replace or make up for those that have been lost. And it does not exonerate humans of their role in causing extinctions. But the current data do not even allow us to acknowledge that these species exist.

Because they are not counted in conservation, these non-native populations are subjected to mass eradication programs. Paradoxically, in assessing how such programs are justified, we found conservation is the most frequently cited reason for killing these wild animals.

Dromedary camels were extinct in the wild for some 5,000 years until they “went feral” in Australia, where they are now endemic. Rather than celebrating what is arguably the most extraordinary rewilding event in the world, wild camels were declared a pest. Between 2009 and 2013, Australia spent A$19 million to gun down 160,000 individuals of a species found nowhere else on Earth in the wild.

Likewise, 89% of the global distribution of Javan rusa, a deer species vulnerable to extinction, is in Australia. As pest, they are culled and hunted for sport.

Stated motivations for killing Australia’s immigrant vertebrate wildlife, shown as percentages of species targeted per taxonomic group. Numbers above bars indicate absolute number of species targeted.

Nativism not only renders countless species invisible, along with their unique and fascinating ecologies; it also exposes them to unfettered, unscientific, unmonitored, and unlamented mass killing programs.




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Mass killing of non-native species, if questioned at all, is generally explained as protecting native species. But ecology is complex. One cannot simply assume that all non-native populations, in all contexts, do nothing but harm.

Where non-native species do contribute to the loss of native species, humans need to confront the ethical complexities and shoulder real responsibility, rather than simply reach for a gun as a first solution.

In many situations changing harmful human behaviours, like persecuting apex predators such as dingoes, can solve problems that appear to be caused solely by non-native species.

Irrespective of whether we value non-native species or not, there is no scientific justification for expunging large swaths of the living world from conservation data. Smuggling ethically dubious distinctions into data harms conservation science, and has grave repercussions.




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Persisting with the assumption that we have the right to pick and choose which species “count” looks like playing God. By now, we should have learned we must not.The Conversation

Arian Wallach, Lecturer, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney; Chelsea Batavia, Postdoctoral research associate, Oregon State University; Danielle Celermajer, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney; Daniel Ramp, Associate Professor and Director, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney; Erick Lundgren, PhD Student, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney, and Esty Yanco, PhD Candidate, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney

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

Kangaroos (and other herbivores) are eating away at national parks across Australia



Grazing from kangaroos affects vulnerable native species.
Tom Hunt, Author provided

Patrick O’Connor, University of Adelaide; Stuart Collard, University of Adelaide, and Thomas Prowse, University of Adelaide

Protected land, including national parks, are a cornerstone of conservation. Once an area is legally protected, it is tempting to assume that it is shielded from further degradation.

However, our research, published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, has found Australia’s national parks are under serious threat of overgrazing. Significantly, native kangaroos are major contributors to the problem.

In some places we looked at, the effect of overgrazing in protected areas was just as pronounced as on private land with no legal protection at all.

In the public debate over culling and otherwise managing kangaroo populations, attention is typically divided between their economic impact on people versus welfare concerns. But there’s a third unwilling participant in this dilemma: the thousands of other native species affected when native grazer populations grow out of control.

Native birds like the diamond firetail are threatened when abundant grazing animals eat the plants the birds depend on.
Tom Hunt

Protected from what?

National parks and other protected areas can be safeguarded in a variety of legal ways. Activities such as grazing of domestic stock, building, cropping and some recreational activities (hunting, fishing, dogs) are usually restricted in protected areas. However, previous research has found protected areas continue to face intense pressure from agriculture, urbanisation, mining, road construction, and climate change.

Less conspicuously, the loss of predators from many Australian ecosystems has let herbivore populations grow wildly. Overgrazing, or grazing that leads to changes in habitat, is now a key threat to biodiversity.

Overgrazing by herbivores affects native species such as the diamond firetail, which is declining in southeastern Australia due to loss of habitat and the replacement of native grasses with exotic species after overgrazing and fire. Overgrazing has also been shown to reduce the abundance and diversity of ground-dwelling reptiles.

In the face of a global extinction crisis, we need good evidence that national parks and reserves are serving their purpose.




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To determine whether protected areas are being overgrazed, we assessed grazing impact on native vegetation at 1,192 sites across the entire agricultural region of South Australia. We looked at more than 600 plant species in woodlands, forests, shrublands, and grasslands.

The data were collected by monitoring programs, some of which included citizen scientists, aimed at tracking change in the condition of native vegetation.

Researchers looked at hundreds of sites across Southern Australia to check how grazing animals were affecting the environment.
Tom Hunt

We found that grazing pressure was already high on unprotected land when we began monitoring around 2005, and grazing impact has grown since then. On protected land, three things are happening as a consequence of inadequate management of grazing by native and introduced animals:

  1. grazing impact in protected areas has substantially increased,

  2. protected areas in some regions now show equally severe effects from grazing as seen on private land without any conservation protections, and

  3. the character of our landscapes, including national parks, is set to change as the next generation of edible seedlings is lost from protected and unprotected ecosystems.

The increased severity of grazing in protected areas paints a dire picture. This threat adds to the rising pressure on protected areas for recreational access (and other uses).

The grass is not greener

It’s well accepted that introduced species such as deer, goats, horses, camels and rabbits badly affect Australia’s native vegetation. There are a variety of control measures to keep their populations in check, including culls and strong incentives for control on farmland. Control of feral animals is normally less contentious than control of endemic species like kangaroos, because we feel a custodial responsibility for native species.

But the numbers of native kangaroos and wallabies has also increased dramatically since 2011 as populations across Australia responded to an increase in feed at the end of the Millennium drought and reduced culling in settled areas due to changes in regulation and growing opposition to culls on animal welfare grounds.




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Plants are going extinct up to 350 times faster than the historical norm


Managing kangaroo populations, on the other hand, is a polarising issue. Arguments about culling kangaroos can be bitter and personal, and create perceptions of an urban-rural divide.

However, a few species – even if they are native – should not be allowed to compromise the existence of other native plants and animals, especially not where we have dedicated the land to holistic protection of biodiversity.

Extinction rates in Australia are extremely high, especially among plants. Research has also found conservation funding is disproportionately aimed at individual species rather than crucial ecosystems. We must address our reluctance to manage threats to biodiversity at the scale on which they operate.

Protected areas must be managed to meet clear biodiversity targets and control overgrazing, including from native species.




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Fixing Australia’s extinction crisis means thinking bigger than individual species


Welfare concerns for conspicuous native species need to be weighed against the concern for the many other less obvious native plant and animal species. If our national parks and reserves are not managed properly, they will fail to meet the conservation need for which they were established.The Conversation

Patrick O’Connor, Associate Professor, University of Adelaide; Stuart Collard, Research Fellow, The Centre for Global Food and Resources, University of Adelaide, and Thomas Prowse, Postdoctoral research fellow, School of Mathematical Sciences, University of Adelaide

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

Waratah is an icon of the Aussie bush (and very nearly our national emblem)



Waratah flowers stand out vividly in the bush.
Tim J Keegan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Jacob Krauss, UNSW

On one of my first field trips as a young student, searching in sweltering September heat for banksia trees in the bush around Sydney, my eye was caught by a flash of remarkable crimson. Trudging over the red dust, we saw the beautiful waratah flower.

The cone-shaped flower sat upon a green leaf throne, sepals facing upward towards the heavens. The sun lit the red petals just right, and I felt a sense of awe for the flower emblem of New South Wales.




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The rounded flower head and the green razored leaves are iconic. The long stem that can grow up to 4 metres tall allows it to stand above the other vegetation.

The waratah’s long stem lifts it high in the bush understory.
Margaret Donald/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

There are five species of waratah flowers, although the species chosen for NSW’s emblem, Telopea speciosissima, is simply known as the New South Wales waratah.

These grow across southeastern Australia along the central coast and up the mountains from the Gibraltar range north of Sydney to Conjola in the south.




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Robert Brown named the genus Telopea in 1810, which derives from the Greek word for “seen from afar” – just as I was able to spot the striking red flowers in the bush. (There is even a botanical journal named Teleopea, after the flower.)

This flower thrives in the shrub understory of open forest and survives despite sandstone soils and volcanic rock. Delicate, the flowers need lots of rainfall. There is also a rare white morph called “Wirrimbira white.” This form was found in the Robertson, NSW near the Kangaloon water catchment.

A beautiful white variation in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens.
Royal Botanic Garden Sydney/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Warratahs have a lignotuber in their root system that allows them to store energy and nutrients. They can regenerate within two years after a wildfire destroys the main flower.

It flowers from September to November, though flowering is highly variable and is sensitive to the environment. The flower is pollinated by birds that feed on its sweet nectar. The plant releases brown leathery pods with large, winged seeds, which germinate readily – making it a popular garden ornament.




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A lovely first alternate for national flower

The waratah flower is a cultural symbol, adorning Australiana ranging from stamps to the state flag of New South Wales. Because it was so common, it helped play a role in developing a colonial Australia’s cultural identity. In fact, it almost beat out the golden wattle as the national emblem back in the 1900s.

There was heated debate, but ultimately the waratah’s bias towards coastal habitat – which meant it was only found on the east coast of Australia and Tasmania – led to its loss. However, in 1962 the flower was proclaimed the official floral emblem of New South Wales.

The wonga pigeon is linked to the waratah in Indigenous Dreamtime stories.
Bernard DUPONT/Flickr, CC BY-SA

There is a rich aboriginal history regarding the flower as well. Gulpilil’s Stories of the Dreamtime tells a story explaining how the white warratah became red. In the story, a female wonga pigeon flew above the tree canopy looking for her lost mate. She was caught by a hawk but broke free, tearing her breast. She landed on a white warratah and her flowing blood stained it red. As she flew from flower to flower, the blood from the wounds drenched all the flowers red.




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If you stick your finger in the flower when it is in bloom you’ll see the “blood” of the pigeon on your finger. The red nectar is sweet, and a medicinal tonic can be made from the red blooms.

It also made a striking impression on European artists in the 18th and 19th centuries. The flower can be seen on collections ranging from vases to statues and stained-glass windows.

An inflatable light installation in Vivid Sydney.
Ashley/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

In 1915, Australian botanist R.T. Baker wrote, “The entire plant…lends itself to such a boldness of artistic ideas in all branches of Applied Art that it has few compeers amongst the representatives of the whole floral world.”




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I first spotted the flower on one of my first experiences in the bush near Sydney, hunting banksia for a professor who studies the unique fire ecology of Australian plants in Royal National Park. It is one of my favourite Australian flowers, made even more special by the memory when I first encountered it on that sunny, September day.


Do you love native plants? Sign up to The Conversation’s Beating Around the Bush Facebook group.The Conversation

Jacob Krauss, Graduate Student, UNSW

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