A deadly fungus threatens to wipe out 100 frog species – here’s how it can be stopped


Deborah Bower, University of New England and Simon Clulow, Macquarie University

What would the world be like without frogs? Earth is in its sixth mass extinction event and amphibians are among the hardest hit.

But in the island of New Guinea, home to 6% of the world’s frog species, there’s a rare opportunity to save them from the potential conservation disaster of a chytrid fungus outbreak.

The amphibian chytrid fungus is a microscopic, aquatic fungus that infects a protein in frog skin. It interferes with the balance of electrolytes and, in turn, effectively gives frogs a heart attack.




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If the amphibian chytrid fungus invades New Guinea, we estimate 100 species of frogs could decline or become extinct. This disease, which emerged in the 1980s, has already wiped out 90 species of frogs around the world.

The New Guinean horned land frog, Sphenophryne cornuta, with young. These frogs are under threat from a fungus that has wiped out 90 frog species around the world.
Stephen Richards

Collaborating with 30 international scientists, we developed a way to save New Guinea’s frog species from a mass extinction, one that’s predictable and preventable. We need urgent, unified, international action to prepare for the arrival of the deadly fungus, to slow its spread after it arrives and to limit its impact on the island.

It’s rare we can identify a conservation disaster before it occurs, but a long history of amphibian declines in Australia and South America has equipped us with the knowledge to protect areas where the amphibian chytrid fungus is yet to reach.

Why we should care about frogs

Like Australian frogs, New Guinea frogs may be particularly vulnerable to the chytrid fungus. These frogs share a close genetic relationship suggesting that, if exposed, New Guinea frogs may respond similarly to Australian ones, where around 16% of frog species are affected.

Impacted frogs include corroboree frogs, Australian lacelid frogs and green and golden bell frogs.




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Losing so many species can have many terrible impacts. Tadpoles and frogs are important because they help recycle nutrients and break down leaf litter. They are also prey for larger mammals and reptiles, and predators of insects, invertebrates and small vertebrates. They help keep insect plagues, such as those from flies and mosquitoes, in check.

Frogs are also an important source of human medical advancements – they were even used for a human pregnancy test until the 1950s.

A call to action to protect frogs

Frogs are one of the most threatened groups of species in the world – around 40% are threatened with extinction.

And species conservation is more expensive once the species are threatened. They can be more costly to collect and more precious to maintain, with a greater need for wider input from recovery groups to achieve rapid results.

In our study, we highlight the increased costs and requirements for establishing captive breeding for two species of closely related barred frog, one common and one threatened. We determined that waiting until a species is threatened dramatically increases the costs and effort required to establish a successful breeding program. The risks of it failing also increase.

Our research draws on lessons learned from other emerging diseases and approaches taken in other countries. By addressing the criteria of preparedness, prevention, detection, response and recovery, we detail a call for action to protect the frogs of New Guinea. It will require dedicated funding, a contingency plan for the likely, eventual arrival of the disease and a task force to oversee it.




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This task force would oversee active monitoring for disease and prepare an action plan to implement on the disease’s arrival. We have already begun to establish facilities that can handle captive breeding and gene banking for frogs in collaboration with PNG counterparts.

The need for amphibian conservation in New Guinea also presents an opportunity for investment and training of local scientists. More species unknown to science will be described and the secret habits of these unique frogs will be discovered before they are potentially lost.

Conservation in New Guinea is complicated

The island of New Guinea is governed by Papua New Guinea on the eastern side and Indonesia on the western side. So it will take a coordinated approach to reduce risks in both countries for successful biosecurity.

Historically, New Guinea has had little import or tourism. But as the country develops, it becomes more at risk of emerging diseases through increased trade and and entry of tourists from chytrid-infected regions, especially with little biosecurity at entry ports.

What’s more, many species there are unknown to science and few ecological studies have documented their habitat requirements. Unlike Australia, many of New Guinea’s frogs have adapted for life in the wet rainforest.

Rather than developing into tadpoles that live in water, more than 200 frog species in New Guinea hatch from their eggs as fully formed baby frogs. It’s difficult for us to predict how the amphibian chytrid fungus will affect these frogs because Australia has only a handful of these types of species.

We don’t know how to remove the amphibian chytrid fungus from large areas once it has invaded, so strict biosecurity and conservation contingency planning is needed to protect New Guinea’s frogs.




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For example, all incoming goods into New Guinea should be inspected for possible hitchhiker frogs that could carry chytrid. Camping or hiking equipment carried by tourists should also be closely inspected for attached mud, which could harbour the pathogen, as is the case in Australia.

International researchers have experience in emerging amphibian diseases. Papua New Guineans and Indonesians have traditional and ecological expertise. Together we have the opportunity to avert another mass decline of frogs. Without taking action, we could lose a hundred more species from the world and take another step towards mass extinction.The Conversation

Deborah Bower, Lecturer in Ecosystem Rehabilitation, University of New England and Simon Clulow, MQ Research Fellow, Macquarie University

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

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Invasive species are Australia’s number-one extinction threat



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

Andy Sheppard, CSIRO and Linda Broadhurst, CSIRO

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

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




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‘Revolutionary change’ needed to stop unprecedented global extinction crisis


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

Australia’s number one threat

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

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

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

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

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

The effects of invasive species are getting worse

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

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

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

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

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




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

The cost to Australia

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

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

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

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

From island to savannah

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




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

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

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

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

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

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




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What solutions do we have?

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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



The endangered Cumberland Plain Woodland is an ecological community that have shrunk to 6% of their original area.
Pete the Poet/Flickr, CC BY-SA

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

The world’s largest assessment of biodiversity recently shared the alarming news that 1 million species are under threat of extinction.

Australia’s extinction record is poor compared to the rest of the world, and our investment into conservation doesn’t do enough to restrain the growing crisis.

Currently, 511 animal species, 1,356 plant species and 82 distinct “ecological communities” – naturally occurring groups of native plants, animals and other organisms – are listed as nationally threatened in Australia. And these numbers are increasing.




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While much conservation effort focuses on protecting individual species, we are failing to protect and restore their habitats.

Our ongoing research into environmental investment programs shows that current levels of investment do not even come close to matching what’s actually needed to downgrade threatened ecosystems.

One of the programs we evaluated was the 20 Million Trees Program, a part of the Australian government’s National Landcare Program. For example, we analysed investment targeted at the critically endangered Peppermint Box Grassy Woodlands of South Australia.

Fewer than three square kilometres of woodland were planted. That’s less than 1% of what was needed to move the conservation status of these woodlands by one category, from critically endangered to endangered.

Many Australian species live in endangered woodlands.
Shutterstock

Restoring communities

Conservation efforts are often focused on species – easily understood parts of our complex and interrelated ecosystems.

In recent years, some effective measures have been put in place to conserve species that are teetering on the edge of extinction. We have, for instance, seen the appointment of a Threatened Species Commissioner and the release of a Threatened Species Strategy and Prospectus.

But we don’t often hear about the 82 threatened ecological communities in which many of these species live.

Temperate eucalypt woodlands once covered vast areas of southern Australia before being cleared to make way for agriculture. The Peppermint Box Grassy Woodlands of South Australia, for instance, have been reduced to 2% of their former glory through land clearing and other forms of degradation.

These woodlands provide critical habitat for many plant and animal species, among them declining woodland birds such as the Diamond Firetail and Jacky Winter.

The habitat of Diamond Firetails is under threat.
Andreas Ruhz/Shutterstock

Focusing on the conservation and restoration of our threatened communities (rather than individual species) would create a better understanding of how much effort and investment is required to curb the extinction crisis and improve the outcomes of biodiversity restoration.




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A problem of scale

Large-scale restoration investment programs are often touted in politics, particularly when these have a national focus. And many recent restoration programs, such as the Environment Restoration Fund, National Landcare Program, Green Army and 20 Million Trees, are important and worthwhile.

But in the majority of cases the effort is inadequate to achieve the stated conservation objectives.

Underlying threats to the environment often remain – such as vegetation clearing, genetic isolation and competition from introduced pests and weeds – and biodiversity continues to decline.




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The 20 Million Trees program, for example, is the most recent national initiative aimed at restoring native vegetation systems, attracting A$70 million in investment between 2014 and 2020.

To place the scale of this investment into context, we analysed the impact of the 20 Million Trees program on the critically endangered Peppermint Box Grassy Woodlands of South Australia.

The restoration priority for this community should be to enhance the condition of existing remnant areas. But improving its conservation status would also require more effort to increase the area of land the woodland covers.

Even if the full six-year budget for 20 Million Trees (A$70 million) was used to replant only this type of woodland, it would still fall short of upgrading its conservation status to endangered. We estimate that moving the community up a category would require a minimum investment of A$150 million, excluding land value.

And Peppermint Box Grassy Woodland is just one of the threatened ecological communities listed for conservation. There are 81 others.




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Although any effort to improve the status of threatened ecosystems (and species) is important, this example shows how current levels of effort and investment are grossly inadequate to have any substantial impact on threatened communities and the species that live there.

Our estimates relate to how restoration activities affect land cover. But ensuring they are also of adequate quality would need more long-term investment.

Boosting investment

Investment in biodiversity conservation in Australia is falling while the extinction crisis is worsening.

Protecting and restoring ecological communities will preserve our unique native biodiversity and develop an environment that sustains food production and remains resilient to climate change. But failure to invest now will lead to extinctions and the collapse of ecosystems.

To make genuine inroads and have an enduring impact on Australian threatened species and ecosystems, restoration programs must be clear on the amount they expect to contribute to conservation and restoration objectives, along with co-benefits like carbon sequestration.

The programs must be at least an order of magnitude larger and be structured to produce measurable outcomes.The Conversation

Stuart Collard, Research Fellow, The Centre for Global Food and Resources, University of Adelaide; Patrick O’Connor, Associate Professor, 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.

Despite its green image, NZ has world’s highest proportion of species at risk



File 20190429 194606 lj1e80.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
About 74% of New Zealand’s land birds, including the endemic takahe, are either threatened or at risk of extinction.
AAP/Brendon Doran, CC BY-ND

Michael (Mike) Joy, Victoria University of Wellington and Sylvie McLean, Victoria University of Wellington

A recent update on the state of New Zealand’s environment paints a particularly bleak picture about the loss of native ecosystems and the plants and animals within them.

Almost two-thirds of rare ecosystems are threatened by collapse, according to Environment Aotearoa 2019, and thousands of species are either threatened or at risk of extinction. Nowhere is the loss of biodiversity more pronounced than in Aotearoa New Zealand: we have the highest proportion of threatened indigenous species in the world.

This includes 90% of all seabirds, 84% of reptiles, 76% of freshwater fish and 74% of terrestrial birds. And this may well be an underestimate. An additional one-third of named species are listed as “data deficient”. It is likely many more would be on the threatened list had they been assessed. Then there are the species that have not been named and we have no idea about.




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Why biological diversity matters

Biodiversity is a word that means different things to different people. Its use has exploded recently as more people appreciate the magnitude of its decline and its importance to people’s future.

Popularly biodiversity is understood as the number of species in a given country or ecosystem. For scientists, the concept is deeper. It includes genetic and ecosystem diversity and has crucial components such as endemicity (species found nowhere else), native diversity (the proportion of native species) and keystone species (species that are crucial to ecosystem function).

Globally, biodiversity in all its guises is undergoing an unprecedented decline. Estimates are that we are now losing species at more than 1,000 times the background or natural rate. People are also moving species outside their native ranges, and this results in a global biological homogenisation and has helped a small number of species to thrive in human-dominated habitats across the world.

The classification of threat status, globally and in New Zealand, is complex. There are multiple levels, ranging from “nationally critical” to “at risk”. When describing levels of biodiversity decline, it is simpler to look at the proportion of species listed as “not threatened”.

In New Zealand, only around 18% of beetles, 26% of freshwater fish, 38% of marine mammals, 12% lizards, 5% of snails and 50% of plants are listed as not threatened or not at risk. This is a rather dire situation, especially given the 100%-pure slogan used to market Aotearoa New Zealand overseas.

Ineffective legal protection

Another important facet of biodiversity decline is that New Zealand has many endemic species, with around 40% of plants, 90% of fungi, 70% of animals and 80% of freshwater fish found nowhere else. If they are lost here they are lost entirely.

In a recent report to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the Department of Conservation could not say whether New Zealand’s biodiversity is declining or not. One quarter of the nearly 4,000 species currently classified as threatened or at risk have only been assessed once and there is no way to know whether their conservation status has changed. Of the remaining roughly 3,000 threatened or at risk species, 10% had worsened to a more threatened ranking. Only 3% had improved.

The numbers above show the failure of legislation intended to protect biodiversity in Aotearoa New Zealand. The Wildlife Act (1953) purportedly gives absolute protection to all wildlife. But it is not enforced in any meaningful way, and therefore has had no impact on biodiversity conservation.

The Native Plants Protection Act (1934) stipulates that native plants have protection on conservation land but makes no mention of protection outside that and, in any case, is not enforced. Native fish are not covered by the Wildlife Act and the Freshwater Fisheries Act affords them no protection either.

Human impact on land

Apart from ineffective species protection, another factor is the loss of habitat and ecosystems through land-use change for agricultural and urban intensification. The first changes happened with Polynesian arrival, and then again after European colonisation, including massive forest clearance and wetland drainage. More recently, the expansion of dairy farms has contributed to significant biodiversity losses.

Freshwater fish are a good example. The increase in the proportion of threatened species has gone from around one-quarter in the early 1990s to three-quarters now. This recent loss reveals the failure of successive governments to protect biota, their habitats and ecosystems. Lowland coastal forests and wetlands in particular continue to be degraded by human activity.




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Indigenous terrestrial vegetation cover is now less than 30%, down from approximately 90% in pre-human times. One-third of the country is covered in exotic grasslands.

About one-third of the country is putatively protected by being within the conservation estate. This sounds impressive, but it obscures the true state of protected areas. The ecosystem types in the estate are far from a representative selection. It mostly contains areas that are too steep to farm and too inhospitable to live in.

The failure to protect habitats is reflected in the reduction in ecosystem diversity: 62% of the ecosystems classified as rare are now listed as threatened, and more than 90% of wetlands have been destroyed. This loss is not confined to the past. Estimates are that 214 wetlands (1,250 ha) were lost between 2001 and 2016, and a further 746 wetlands declined in size.

Marine conservation

Protection levels of marine habitats are even worse. New Zealand’s marine area is 15 times larger than its land area, but marine biodiversity is poorly regulated. Only 0.4% is covered by “no-take” marine reserves.




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As a signatory to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), New Zealand is obligated to reduce biodiversity loss. We have committed to achieving SDG 14 (life under water) and SDG 15 (life on land). The former stipulates that we “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. The latter that we “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”.

There is no sign of any real achievement in reducing biodiversity loss. While New Zealand produced a national biodiversity strategy in 2000, it has been largely ineffective at improving the state of biodiversity. As the OECD noted, the strategy and plan lack clarity and clear implementation pathways.

We have tried writing plans with no teeth. Now it is time for action from all levels of society. Cities and regions need to ensure parks and protected areas are adequately managed. Government must work to update ineffective legislation and commit to enforcing the law.The Conversation

Michael (Mike) Joy, Senior Researcher; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington and Sylvie McLean, Masters Student in Environmental Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

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

How many species on Earth? Why that’s a simple question but hard to answer



File 20190423 15194 1hz5xme.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
How many species still to name? That’s a good question.
Shutterstock/ju see

Tanya Latty, University of Sydney and Timothy Lee, University of Sydney

You’d think it would be a simple piece of biological accounting – how many distinct species make up life on Earth?

But the answer may come as a bit of a shock.

We simply don’t know.

We know more accurately the number of books in the US Library of Congress than we know even the order or magnitude – millions and billions and so on – of species living on our planet, wrote the Australian-born ecologist Robert May.




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Current estimates for the number of species on Earth range between 5.3 million and 1 trillion.

That’s a massive degree of uncertainty. It’s like getting a bank statement that says you have between $5.30 and $1 million in your account.

So why don’t we know the answer to this fundamental question?

It’s hard to count life

Part of the problem is that we cannot simply count the number of life forms. Many live in inaccessible habitats (such as the deep sea), are too small to see, are hard to find, or live inside other living things.

New species are discovered on almost every dive, says David Attenborough.

So, instead of counting, scientists try to estimate the total number of species by looking for patterns in biodiversity.

In the early 1980s, the American entomologist Terry Erwin famously estimated the number of species on Earth by spraying pesticides into the canopy of tropical rainforest trees in Panama. At least 1,200 species of beetle fell to the ground, of which 163 lived only on a single tree species.

Assuming that each tree species had a similar number of beetles, and given that beetles make up about 40% of insects (the largest animal group), Erwin arrived at a controversial estimate of 30 million species on Earth.

Many scientists believe the 30 million number is far too high. Later estimates arrived at figures under 10 million.

In 2011, scientists used a technique based on patterns in the number of species at each level of biological classification to arrive at a much lower prediction of about 8.7 million species.

A jewel beetle, one of the more colourful species of insect alive today.
Shutterstock/Suttipon Thanarakpong

All creatures great and very, very small

But most estimates of global biodiversity overlook microorganisms such as bacteria because many of these organisms can only be identified to species level by sequencing their DNA.

As a result the true diversity of microorganisms may have been underestimated.

After compiling and analysing a database of DNA sequences from 5 million microbe species from 35,000 sites around the world, researchers concluded that there are a staggering 1 trillion species on Earth. That’s more species than the estimated number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

But, like previous estimates, this one relies on patterns in biodiversity, and not everyone agrees these should be applied to microorganisms.

It’s not just the microorganisms that have been overlooked in estimates of global biodiversity. We’ve also ignored the many life forms that live inside other life forms.

Most – and possibly all – insect species are the victim of at least one or more species of parasitic wasp. These lay their eggs in or on a host species (think of the movie Aliens, if the aliens had wings). Researchers suggest that the insect group containing wasps may be the largest group of animals on the planet.

A parasitic wasp finds a host for her young.

What do we mean by species?

A more fundamental problem with counting species comes down to a somewhat philosophical issue: biologists do not agree on what the term “species” actually means.

The well-known biological species concept states that two organisms belong to the same species if they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. But since this concept relies on mating, it cannot be used to define species of asexual organisms such as many microorganisms as well as some reptiles, birds and fish.

It also ignores the fact that many living things we consider separate species can and do interbreed. For example, dogs, coyotes and wolves readily interbreed, yet are usually considered to be separate species.

Three six-to-seven-month-old hybrids between a male western gray wolf and a female western coyote resulting from artificial insemination.
PLOS One (L. David Mech et al), CC BY

Other popular species definitions rely on how similar individuals are to one another (if it looks like a duck, it is a duck), their shared evolutionary history, or their shared ecological requirements.

Yet none of these definitions are entirely satisfactory, and none work for all life forms.

There are at least 50 different definitions of a species to choose from. Whether or not a scientist chooses to designate a newly found life form as a new species or not can come down to their philosophical stance about the nature of a species.

The cost of species loss

Our ignorance about the true biodiversity on our planet has real consequence. Each species is a potential treasure trove of solutions to problems including cures for disease, inspirations for new technologies, sources of new materials and providers of key ecosystem services.

Yet we are living in an age of mass extinction with reports of catastrophic insect declines, wide-scale depopulation of our oceans and the loss of more than 50% of wildlife within the span of a single human life.

Our current rate of biodiversity loss means we are almost certainly losing species faster than we are naming them. We are effectively burning a library without knowing the names or the contents of the books we are losing.

So while our estimate of the number of species on the planet remains frustratingly imprecise, the one thing we do know is that we have probably named and described only a tiny percentage of living things.




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New species are turning up all the time, at a rate of roughly 18,000 species each year. For example, researchers in Los Angeles found 30 new species of scuttle fly living in urban parks, while researchers also in the US discovered more than 1,400 new species of bacteria living in the belly buttons of university students.

Even if we take the more conservative estimate of 8.7 million species of life on Earth, then we have only described and named about 25% of life forms on the planet. If the 1 trillion figure is correct, then we have done an abysmally poor job, with 99.99% of species still awaiting description.

It’s clear our planet is absolutely teeming with life, even if we cannot yet put a number to the multitudes. The question now is how much of that awe-inspiring diversity we choose to save.The Conversation

Tanya Latty, Senior Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney and Timothy Lee, Associate Lecturer in Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney

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

Trapdoor spider species that stay local put themselves at risk



File 20190405 123397 omwexr.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A palisade trapdoor spider of the new species E. turrificus walks across the rainforest floor near Maleny, Queensland.
Jeremy Wilson, Author provided

Jeremy Dean Wilson, Griffith University

Several new species of trapdoor spiders found in Queensland are finally described in an article published this month in Invertebrate Systematics.

But each of the new species occurs in only its own single, isolated patch of rainforest in southeastern Queensland, and nowhere else.

Because these species have such tiny natural distributions, they are especially vulnerable to extinction.




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Unique spider burrows

These newly described spiders have been given the common name palisade trapdoor spiders because of the strange and unique burrows they construct. The entrance to the burrow projects out from the surrounding soil like a miniature turret.

The remarkable palisade burrows constructed by two different species of palisade trapdoor spider. The burrow entrances project from the surrounding soil.
Jeremy Wilson (left), Michael Rix (right)

Not only that, but each of the four new palisade trapdoor spider species constructs its own unique type of burrow.

One species, found in national parkland near Gympie and known scientifically as Euoplos crenatus, constructs a particularly elaborate burrow. The hinged door that covers the burrow entrance is adorned with several rounded lobes which project from the door’s circumference.

This marvel of natural architecture is constructed by the spider using silk and soil. No other spider species in the world constructs something similar.

This species was originally discovered by local naturalists Kelvin and Amelia Nielsen in 1999, who then guided researchers back to the discovery location in 2016 to collect specimens so the species could be formally named.

The burrow entrance of Euoplos crenatus, with its peculiar ‘crenate’ burrow door.
Michael Rix

Another species, Euoplos thynnearum, constructs a burrow entrance with a thick lip within which the burrow door sits. It’s found in the Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve, a 55-hectare patch of subtropical rainforest popular with visitors to the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

This species is named after Elizabeth, Mabel and Mary Thynne, who originally donated the reserve land to the local council in 1941 to honour their mother Mary Thynne (née Cairncross). Currently, this species is known to occur only within the reserve and in other rainforest patches in the immediate vicinity.

Burrow entrances of the new palisade trapdoor spider species Euoplos thynnearum. This species is largely restricted to a single rainforest patch, occurring within Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve near Maleny.
Michael Rix

Short-range species at risk

Species that only only occur in a very small area, like these new palisade trapdoor spider species, are known as short-range endemic species.

Although scientists are naming new species at a faster rate than ever before, estimates of the total number of species on Earth still suggest that most animal species have not been formally named. With so much work still to do, some scientists have chosen to prioritise work on particular types of animals that are especially vulnerable to extinction.

In 2002, Mark Harvey, an arachnologist from the Western Australian Museum, proposed that scientists should prioritise the discovery and description of short-range endemic species.

He reasoned that the small ranges of these species make them inherently vulnerable to extinction, and that identifying, naming and studying them is the first step to protecting them.

The strange burrows of the trapdoor spider species Euoplos crenatus project out from between the roots and leaf-litter on the bank of a creek in a rainforest patch near Gympie, Queensland.
Jeremy Wilson

Staying local

For trapdoor spiders, short-range endemism is the rule, not the exception. These spiders live their entire lives in a burrow. Juvenile spiders walk only short distances from their mother’s burrow, before constructing a burrow of their own.

Usually, these spiders will then remain in the same burrow for the remainder of their lives, enlarging it as they grow.

Examples of different trapdoor spider species from eastern Australia. Top left, Arbanitis longipes; top right, Heteromigas sp.; bottom left, Cataxia sp.; bottom right, Namea sp.
Jeremy Wilson

Adult male trapdoor spiders will also leave their burrow to breed, but will only travel relatively short distances. Over time, this extremely limited dispersal ability has led to the evolution of many different trapdoor spider species, each of which occurs in only a very small area.

Since 2012, a research team, led by Queensland Museum researcher Michael Rix, has been trying to discover and name all species of spiny trapdoor spider – this group includes the palisade trapdoor spiders, as well as other strange trapdoor spider species such as the shield-backed trapdoor spiders of Western Australia.

A shield-backed trapdoor spider from Western Australia, showing the distinctive hardened disk on its abdomen which the spider uses to ‘plug’ its burrow as a protection from predators.
Mark Harvey

So far, this project has led to the description of more than 100 new species from throughout Australia, some of which are already classified as threatened by federal and state governments.




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The most iconic of these is Idiosoma nigrum (also a shield-backed trapdoor spider), which is a listed threatened species.

The discovery of all these weird and wonderful spider species should remind us that Australia has some of the most remarkable invertebrate species in the world, and new species are waiting to be discovered in the national parks and reserves which occur around, and even within, our towns and cities – under our noses.

Next time you visit a national park, or drive past a patch of forest while commuting along Australia’s east coast, think to yourself, what might be living in there? Do those species occur anywhere else? And above all, if we lose that forest remnant, what unique species might disappear along with it?The Conversation

Jeremy Dean Wilson, Ph.D candidate, Department of Environment & Science, Griffith University, Griffith University

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

The 39 endangered species in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and other Australian cities



File 20190402 177190 cksuwv.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Threatened species live in cities and towns around Australia, including the critically endangered western swamp tortoise.
Elia Purtle, AAP Image/Perth Zoo

Kylie Soanes, University of Melbourne and Pia Lentini

The phrase “urban jungle” gets thrown around a lot, but we don’t usually think of cities as places where rare or threatened species live.

Our research, published today in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, shows some of Australia’s most endangered plants and animals live entirely within cities and towns.

Stuck in the city with you

Australia is home to 39 urban-restricted threatened species, from giant gum trees, to ornate orchids, wonderful wattles, and even a tortoise. Many of these species are critically endangered, right on the brink of extinction. And cities are our last chance to preserve them within their natural range.


Credit: Elia Purtle

Urban environments offer a golden opportunity to preserve species under threat and engage people with nature. But that means we might need to think a little differently about how and where we do conservation, embrace the weird and wonderful spaces that these species call home, and involve urban communities in the process.

Roads to the left of them, houses to the right

When you picture city animals you might think of pigeons, sparrows or rats that like to hang out with humans, or the flying foxes and parrots that are attracted to our flowering gardens.

But that’s not the case here. The threatened species identified in our research didn’t choose the city life, the city life chose them. They’re living where they’ve always lived. As urban areas expand, it just so happens that we now live there too.

The first hurdle that springs to mind when it comes to keeping nature in cities is space: there’s not a lot of it, and it’s quickly disappearing. For example, the magnificent Caley’s Grevillea has lost more than 85% of its habitat in Sydney to urban growth, and many of its remaining haunts are earmarked for future development. Around half of the urban-restricted species on our list are in the same predicament.

It’s especially tough to protect land for conservation in urban environments, where development potential means high competition for valuable land. So when protected land is a luxury that few species can afford, we need to work out other ways to look after species in the city.

Caley’s grevillea has lost 85% of its habitat as Sydney has expanded.
Isaac Mammott

Not living where you’d expect

Precious endangered species aren’t all tucked away in national parks and conservation reserves. These little battlers are more often found hiding in plain sight, amid the urban hustle and bustle.

Our research found them living along railway lines and roadsides, sewerage treatment plants and cemeteries, schools, airports, and even a hospital garden. While these aren’t the typical places you’d expect to find threatened species, they’re fantastic opportunities for conservation.

The spiked rice flower is a great example. Its largest population is on a golf course in New South Wales, where local managers work to enhance its habitat between the greens, and raise awareness among residents and local golfers. These kinds of good partnerships between local landowners and conservation can find “win-win” situations that benefit people and nature.




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A series of unfortunate events

It’s no secret that living in the ‘burbs can be risky: a fact best illustrated in the cautionary tale of a roadside population of the endangered Angus’s onion orchid. Construction workers once unwittingly dumped ten tonnes of sand over the patch in the late 1980s, then quickly attempted to fix the problem using a bulldozer and a high-pressure hose. Later, a portaloo was plonked on top of it.

Examples like this show just how important it is for policy makers, land managers and the community to know that these species are there in the first place, and are aware that even scrappy-looking habitats can be important to their survival. Otherwise, species are just one stroke of bad luck away from extinction.

People power

It’s common to think if you want to conserve nature, you need to get as far away from people as you can. After all, we can be a dangerous lot (just ask Angus’s onion orchid). But we also have extraordinary potential to create positive change – and it’s much easier for us to do this if we only have to travel as far as our backyard or a local park.

Many urban-restricted species get support by their local communities. Examples from our research showed communities across Melbourne raising thousands of dollars in conservation crowdfunding, dedicating countless volunteer hours to caring for local habitats, and even setting up neighbourhood watches to combat vandals. This shows a huge opportunity for urban residents to be on the conservation frontline.

Our research focused on 39 species that are restricted to Australian cities and towns today. But that’s not where the opportunity for urban conservation ends.

There are about another 370 threatened species that share their range with urban areas across Australia, as well as countless “common” native species that call cities home. And as cities continue to expand, many other threatened species stand to become urban dwellers. It’s clear that if we only focus conservation efforts in areas far from humans, species like these will be lost forever.The Conversation

Kylie Soanes, Postdoctoral fellow, University of Melbourne and Pia Lentini, Research Fellow, The University of Melbourne

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