Let’s get this straight, habitat loss is the number-one threat to Australia’s species


Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne and Sarah Bekessy, RMIT University

Earlier this month, Australia’s outgoing Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews told ABC radio that land clearing is not the biggest threat to Australia’s wildlife. His claim caused a stir among Australia’s biodiversity scientists and conservation professionals, who have plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The ecologist Jared Diamond has described an “evil quartet” of threatening processes that drive species to extinction: habitat destruction; overhunting (or overexploitation); the presence of introduced species; and chains of linked ecological changes, including co-extinctions.


Read more: Australia’s species need an independent champion


In modern times we can add two more to this list. The first is catastrophic disease outbreaks, such as the chytrid fungus that has been instrumental in the catastrophic decline or extinction of almost 200 frog species, or the facial tumour disease that still threatens to
wipe out Tasmanian devils in the wild.

The second is human-induced climate change, which appears to have caused one extinction in Australian Territories and is predicted to result in many more.

So the evil quartet has now become an evil sextet. It sounds ugly because it is. But does habitat loss through land clearing still top the list? The answer, in short, is yes.

Land clearing threat

According to an analysis of data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), habitat loss is the number-one threat to biodiversity worldwide. Many more species are affected by processes such as logging and land clearing for agriculture and housing than by invasive species, disease or other threats.

Number of amphibians impacted by key threats.
IUCN, Author provided
Number of mammals impacted by key threats.
IUCN, Author provided

Habitat loss is the top threat here in Australia too, an assessment that is backed up by the federal government’s State of the Environment Reports in 2011 and 2016.

Pressures affecting species on Australia’s list of nationally threatened species.
State of the Environment Report 2011, Author provided

Compared with the rest of the world, Australia’s introduction of feral predators such as cats and foxes has had a devastating impact on iconic small mammals such as bilbies, and birds such as night parrots. Nationally, we invest a large amount of resources (relative to other threats) in creating predator-proof havens for threatened animals to keep feral predators out of key areas.

But despite this, habitat loss and land clearing pose an even bigger threat to animals and plants alike. It is the single biggest factor adding to Australia’s list of threatened species list, especially given the recent return to record-breaking land clearing rates.

Interacting threats

Of course, the evil sextet do not operate independently; they gang up, often with devastating results. The joint impact of two threats is often larger than the sum of its parts. Habitat destruction is the gang leader that joins forces with other threats to accelerate the slide to extinction.

When habitats are intact, large and in good condition, the species that depend on them are much better equipped to withstand other threats such as bushfires or invasive species. But as habitat is destroyed and chopped into smaller fragments, species’ populations become smaller, more isolated, and more vulnerable to predation or competition.

Larger populations of animals and plants also generally have larger gene pools, making them more able to adapt to new threats before it’s too late. Small populations, on the other hand, are sitting ducks.

You can see where this is heading. It’s all about habitat loss, because habitat loss makes all other threats more acute.

Classic depiction of habitat fragmentation in Warwickshire between 400 AD and 1960.
Wilcove et al. Cons. Biol. (1986), Author provided

The political landscape

Habitat loss is a polarising political issue, which makes it hard to legislate against. Most habitat is lost through land clearing for agriculture and urban development.

The quality and effectiveness of land clearing policy and legislation in Australia has risen and fallen like the tide over the past four decades. After being the world’s largest land clearing jurisdiction behind Brazil in the post-war era, the Beattie government in Queensland introduced hugely improved land-clearing laws in the mid-1990s.

But under the Newman government, Queensland resumed its world leadership in habitat destruction. While Queensland may be the most extreme example, every Australian state and territory has witnessed similar policy uncertainty over the decades. Meanwhile, no federal environment minister has made significant inroads into the problem since the establishment of the 1999 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.


Read more: More sightings of an endangered species don’t always mean it’s recovering


Reducing the impact of land clearing is not a job for a fainthearted politician, given the likely objections from the powerful agriculture and development lobbies.

The federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy and Action Plan provided some excellent initiatives to shield our species from some threats, but action to reduce habitat loss is notably absent. The number-one cause of extinctions has simply not been addressed.

The ConversationOf course, the outgoing Threatened Species Commissioner is right to acknowledge the impact that feral cats and foxes. But I hope that whoever next takes on the role will be prepared to deliver an unambiguous message about the biggest threat to our plants and animals, and to outline a strong vision for how we can address it.

Brendan Wintle, Professor of Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne, University of Melbourne and Sarah Bekessy, Professor, RMIT University

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

Advertisements

More sightings of an endangered species don’t always mean it’s recovering



File 20171013 31408 peh6jb.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Leadbeater’s possum sightings are up – but that doesn’t mean the critically endangered species is recovering.
David Lindenmeyer, Author provided

David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

If more sightings of an endangered species are recorded, does that mean its numbers are increasing? Australia’s native forest logging industry is arguing yes.

On the basis of an increase in sightings of Leadbeater’s possums, advocates for Victorian native forest logging industry has proposed to downgrade the possum’s conservation status from critically endangered (thus facilitating ongoing logging in and around potential habitat in Victoria’s Central Highlands).

But while this sounds reasonable, increased sightings aren’t always a reliable measure of endangered species’ viability. Often, an increase in sightings can be attributed to two things: either more people are trying to spot the animal in question; or new work that has used different parameters to previous studies.


Read more: Victoria must stop clearfelling to save Leadbeater’s possum


Why more sightings may not mean species recovery

One of the ultimate achievements in successful conservation is to downlist a threatened species – for example from critically endangered to endangered, or from endangered to vulnerable. But this requires high-quality, long-term survey data that shows substantial recovery, as well as proof that the key threats to a species’ persistence have been truly mitigated.

An example of a failure to do due diligence was the woylie in Western Australia, (also known as the brush-tailed bettong). It was downlisted in 1996 but then within 3 years suffered an enormous and still not well understood population crash (from which it has still not recovered). Its conservation status was uplisted in 2008.

There have been more records of Leadbeater’s possum in the last few years, but this growth is most likely a function of a large increase in the amount of effort invested in trying to find them.

In areas zoned for timber harvesting, locations with a confirmed Leadbeater’s possum sighting are excluded from logging. This has motivated large numbers of people who are concerned about the plight of the possum to devote many hours to finding animals.

The detection of more animals with greater searching is a well-known phenomenon in ecology and other disciplines. Last year, for example, sightings of wild tiger populations rose by 22% – but further investigation found that the increase was most likely caused by changes in methodology and greater effort in surveying.


Read more: Australia’s species need an independent champion


In fisheries this relationship is termed catch per unit effort. For example, even with rapidly declining numbers in a fishery, the number of fish caught can stay the same or even go up when more efficient and targeted techniques are adopted. Sadly, this intensified effort can often cause fish stocks to collapse.

The real evidence on Leadbeater’s possum

As stated earlier, the first critical piece of evidence required to justify downlisting is robust evidence of long-term improvement in population size. So what does the evidence tell us about Leadbeater’s possum?

For more than 34 years, the Australian National University has monitored Leadbeater’s possum including at more than 160 permanent sites since 1997. This large-scale, long-term data set shows that the possum is in significant decline. Over the past 19 years, the number of survey sites where the possum was detected has dropped by almost two-thirds.

The second critical requirement for delisting is evidence that the key processes threatening the species have been mitigated.

One of the principal threats facing Leadbeater’s possum is the rapid ongoing decline in large old trees which are the sole form of natural nesting sites for the species.

As part of ecological surveys in the wet forests of Victoria, which have been running since 1983, the Australian National University has been collecting information on hollow-bearing trees. The most recent analysis of this large and long-term data set suggests that if current declines continue, by 2040, populations of large old trees may be less than 10% of what they were in 1997.

Another key threatening processes which has not been addressed is fire. Victoria’s wet ash forests are extremely fire prone, in part because forests that regenerate after logging are significantly more likely to burn at elevated severity.

The significant risks facing the mountain ash forests in which Leadbeater’s possum lives has resulted in the forest itself being classified as critically endangered.

No grounds for reducing the conservation status

Efforts to downlist Leadbeater’s possum are misguided at best. The greater number of records in recent years is most likely a reflection of greater survey effort. In contrast, robust long-term monitoring data clearly shows a significant decline in population.

Most importantly, the key processes causing the decline of Leadbeater’s possum (and other threatened species in the same area, like the greater glider) have not been mitigated; indeed they are intensifying (such as the increasing fire burden with increasing area of logged forest).

There is little room to gamble with these species. Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider currently do not breed in captivity, so expensive fallback options like captive breeding and reintroduction are not viable possibilities if wild populations crash.

The loss of these animals from ill-informed downlisting would add to Australia’s already appalling record on species loss. Approximately 10% of our mammal fauna has gone extinct – the worst rate in the world, and 30 times worse than places of equivalent size, such as the United States.

The ConversationMore formally protected areas, and not downlisting their conservation status, is the most scientifically robust option for the conservation of this iconic animal.

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

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

Australia’s species need an independent champion


Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Geoffrey Heard, Charles Sturt University; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Megan C Evans, The University of Queensland, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University

Furore erupted last week among many Australians who care for our native species.

First we heard that land clearing in Queensland soared to a staggering 400,000 or so hectares in 2015-16, a near 30% increase from the previous year. Second, the federal government’s outgoing Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews, implied on national radio that land clearing was not a pressing issue for Australia’s threatened species.

This is a troubling public message, particularly as the government’s own State of the Environment Report 2016 lists “clearing, fragmentation and declining quality of habitat” as a primary driver of biodiversity decline across the continent.

What’s more, loss of vegetation cover can exacerbate threats to wildlife, by making it easier for cats and other invasive predators to kill native animals.

Habitat loss and fragmentation are major threats to Australian biodiversity. The down arrow represents a deteriorating trend and the straight line represents a stable trend.
State of the Environment Report 2016 – Biodiversity section

These comments highlight key issues with the Threatened Species Commissioner’s current remit, made more pressing due to timing: the federal government will soon appoint a new commissioner, a “TSC 2.0”, if you will.

Threatened Species Commissioner 1.0

The commissioner’s role was established in 2014 to address the dire state of threatened species; a key initiative of the then environment minister, Greg Hunt. The remit was sixfold, including bringing a new national focus to conservation efforts; raising awareness and support for threatened species in the community; and taking an evidence-based approach to ensure conservation efforts are better targeted and co-ordinated and more effective.

The increasing number of species listed as threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Some 492 species have been added since 2000.
Source: Federal Department of Environment and Energy

Did TSC 1.0 meet the objectives?

We can confidently say “yes” in relation to the objectives of collaboration, public awareness and promotion of threatened species conservation. Andrews travelled widely and engaged directly with stakeholders, maintained active social media feeds, developed a YouTube channel, and had numerous media engagements.

Also laudable was the 2015 Threatened Species Summit, attended by some 250 delegates from a diverse set of stakeholders, which garnered significant media coverage.

But elsewhere progress has been mixed. The development of the Threatened Species Strategy is welcome, but the plan does not go nearly far enough. Key targets by 2020 are improvements in the population trajectories of 20 mammals, 20 birds and 30 plants. But this represents a mere 4% of Australia’s threatened species, excluding all threatened reptiles, amphibians, fishes and invertebrates, and most of our threatened flora.

The focus on threatening processes is equally narrow. The science tells us that habitat loss is a top threat to Australia’s biodiversity. Land clearing has been listed as a key threatening process under federal legislation since 2001.

Yet the Threatened Species Strategy mentions land clearing zero times and habitat loss just twice. Feral cats, on the other hand, are mentioned 78 times, with the plan overwhelmingly focused on culling this one invasive species. Other major introduced pests – foxes, rabbits, feral pigs and goats – are mentioned 10 times between them.

Feral cats are a key threat to mammals, reptiles and birds, but not to Australia’s 1,272 threatened plants.

An on-ground focus and mobilising of financial and logistical resources to support threatened species recovery was a welcome development during Andrews’s tenure. His second progress report cites AU$131 million in funding for projects in support of threatened species since 2014.

This is a significant sum. But it is just 0.017% of the government’s AU$416.9 billion annual revenue – well short of what’s needed to reverse species declines.

Likewise, funding for threatened species must be better targeted. Of the 499 projects cited in the TSC second progress report, 361 were those of the Green Army and 20 Million Trees programs (costing AU$78 million, 60% of total funding). Neither program is specifically devoted to threatened species, and their benefit in this regard is doubtful.

The next commissioner’s checklist

Australians and democratic societies should have access to reliable, independent and objective information about the current state of our natural heritage, and how government decisions influence its trajectory. That’s a critical role that TSC 2.0 should play.

Expertise will be crucial for the new appointee. Given the complex science of species conservation, a background in environmental science is a clear requirement, just as a background in economics would be expected for the chair of the Productivity Commission, or a grounding in law for a human rights commissioner.

For a commissioner to work effectively, they must also be willing to comment on politically sensitive issues and put themselves at odds with the government when necessary. Commissioners typically work as the head of an independent statutory body, such as the Productivity Commission, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and the Australian Electoral Commission.

However, the TSC position sits within the Department of Environment and Energy and so, like any public servant, the commissioner is restricted in what they can say in public forums. A more accurate name for the current position would be Threatened Species Ambassador.

The ConversationBut if the TSC 2.0 is to be a truly informed and independent voice for Australia’s threatened species, the role must sit within a statutory authority, at arm’s length from government. This is the case in New Zealand, where an independent environment commission has operated since 1986. It’s time for Australia to follow suit.

Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University; Dale Nimmo, ARC DECRA Fellow, Charles Sturt University; Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Geoffrey Heard, Lecturer in Wildlife Ecology and Management, Charles Sturt University; James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; Megan C Evans, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Environmental Policy, The University of Queensland, and Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University

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

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



File 20170902 27513 hsa0io
Most of the world’s wild horses, such as the Australian brumby, are outside their historic native range.
Andrea Harvey

Erick Lundgren, University of Technology Sydney; Arian Wallach, University of Technology Sydney; Daniel Ramp, University of Technology Sydney, and William Ripple, Oregon State University

Throughout history, humans have taken plants and animals with them as they travelled the world. Those that survived the journey to establish populations in the diaspora have found new opportunities as they integrate into new ecosystems.

These immigrant populations have come to be regarded as “invaders” and “aliens” that threaten pristine nature. But for many species, migration may just be a way to survive the global extinction crisis.

In our recently published study, we found that one of the Earth’s most imperilled group of species is hanging on in part thanks to introduced populations.

Megafauna – plant-eating terrestrial mammals weighing more than 100kg – have established in new and unexpected places. These “feral” populations are rewilding the world with unique and fascinating ecological functions that had been lost for thousands of years.

Today’s world of giants is only a shadow of its former glory. Around 50,000 years ago, giant kangaroos, rhino-like diprotodons, and other unimaginable animals were lost from Australia.


Read more: Giant marsupials once migrated across an Australian Ice Age landscape


Later, around 12,000 years ago, the last of the mammoths, glyptodonts, several species of horses and camels, house-sized ground sloths and other great beasts vanished from North America.

In New Zealand, a mere 800 years ago, a riot of giant flightless birds still grazed and browsed the landscape.

The loss of Earth’s largest terrestrial animals at the end of the Pleistocene was most likely caused by humans.

Sadly, even those large beasts that survived that collapse are now being lost, with 60% of today’s megafauna threatened with extinction. This threat is leading to international calls for urgent intervention to save the last of Earth’s giants.

A wilder world than we think

Formal conservation distribution maps show that much of Earth is empty of megafauna. But this is only a part of the picture.

Many megafauna are now found outside their historic native ranges. In fact, thanks to introduced populations, regional megafauna species richness is substantially higher today than at any other time during the past 10,000 years.

Megafauna have expanded beyond their historic native range to rewild the world. Number of megafauna per region, in their ‘native’ range only (a) and in their full range (b)
Modified and reproduced from Lundgren et al. 2017

Worldwide introductions have increased the number of megafauna by 11% in Africa and Asia, by 33% in Europe, by 57% in North America, by 62% in South America, and by 100% in Australia.

Australia lost all of its native megafauna tens of thousands of years ago, but today has eight introduced megafauna species, including the world’s only wild population of dromedary camels.

Australia lost all of its native megafauna tens of thousands of years ago, but is now home to eight introduced species, including the world’s only population of wild dromedary camels. Remote camera trap footage from our research program shows wild brumbies, wild donkeys and wild camels sharing water sources with Australian dingoes, emus and bustards in the deserts of South Australia.

These immigrant megafauna have found critical sanctuary. Overall, 64% of introduced megafauna species are either threatened, extinct, or declining in their native ranges.

Some megafauna have survived thanks to domestication and subsequent “feralisation”, forming a bridge between the wild pre-agricultural landscapes of the early Holocene almost 10,000 years ago, to the wild post-industrial ecosystems of the Anthropocene today.

Wild cattle, for example, are descendants of the extinct aurochs. Meanwhile, the wild camels of Australia have brought back a species extinct in the wild for thousands of years. Likewise, the vast majority of the world’s wild horses and wild donkeys are feral.

There have been global calls to rewild the world, but rewilding has already been happening, often with little intention and in unexpected ways.

A small population of wild hippopotamuses has recently established in South America. The nicknamed “cocaine hippos” are the offspring of animals who escaped the abandoned hacienda of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

Colombia’s growing ‘cocaine hippo’ population is descended from animals kept at Pablo Escobar’s hacienda.

By insisting that only idealised pre-human ecosystems are worth conserving, we overlook the fact that these emerging new forms of wilderness are not only common but critical to the survival of many existing ecosystems.

Vital functions

Megafauna are Earth’s tree-breakers, wood-eaters, hole-diggers, trailblazers, wallowers, nutrient-movers, and seed-carriers. By consuming coarse, fibrous plant matter they drive nutrient cycles that enrich soils, restructure plant communities, and help other species to survive.

The wide wanderings of megafauna move nutrients uphill that would otherwise wash downstream and into the oceans. These animals can be thought of as “nutrient pumps” that help maintain soil fertility. Megafauna also sustain communities of scavengers and predators.

In North America, we have found that introduced wild donkeys, locally known as “burros”, dig wells more than a metre deep to reach groundwater. At least 31 species use these wells, and in certain conditions they become nurseries for germinating trees.

Introduced wild donkeys (burros) are engineering the Sonoran Desert, United States.

The removal of donkeys and other introduced megafauna to protect desert springs in North America and Australia seems to have led to an exuberant growth of wetland vegetation that constricted open water habitat, dried some springs, and ultimately resulted in the extinction of native fish. Ironically, land managers now simulate megafauna by manually removing vegetation.

It is likely that introduced megafauna are doing much more that remains unknown because we have yet to accept these organisms as having ecological value.

Living in a feral world

Like any other species, the presence of megafauna benefits some species while challenging others. Introduced megafauna can put huge pressure on plant communities, but this is also true of native megafauna.

Whether we consider the ecological roles of introduced species like burros and brumbies as desirable or not depends primarily on our own values. But one thing is certain: no species operates in isolation.

Although megafauna are very large, predators can have significant influence on them. In Australia, dingo packs act cooperatively to hunt wild donkeys, wild horses, wild water buffalo and wild boar. In North America, mountain lions have been shown to limit populations of wild horses in some areas of Nevada.

Visions of protected dingoes hunting introduced donkeys and Sambar deer in Australia, or protected wolves hunting introduced Oryx and horses in the American West, can give us a new perspective on conserving both native and introduced species.

Nature doesn’t stand still. Dispensing with visions of historic wilderness, and the associated brutal measures usually applied to enforce those ideals, and focusing on the wilderness that exists is both pragmatic and optimistic.

After all, in this age of mass extinction, are not all species worth conserving?


The ConversationThis research will be presented at the 2017 International Compassionate Conservation Conference in Sydney.

Erick Lundgren, PhD Student, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney; Arian Wallach, Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney; Daniel Ramp, Associate Professor and Director, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney, and William Ripple, Distinguished Professor and Director, Trophic Cascades Program, Oregon State University

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

Debris from the 2011 tsunami carried hundreds of species across the Pacific Ocean



File 20170928 24177 15udpfb
Japanese vessel washed ashore on Long Beach, Washington being inspected by John Chapman.
Russ Lewis

Steven Chown, Monash University

When a foreign species arrives in a new environment and spreads to cause some form of economic, health, or ecological harm, it’s called a biological invasion. Often stowing away among the cargo of ships and aircraft, such invaders cause billions of dollars of economic loss annually across the globe and have devastating impacts on the environment.

While the number of introductions which eventually lead to such invasions is rising across the globe, most accidental introduction events involve small numbers of individuals and species showing up in a new area.

But new research published today in Science has found that hundreds of marine species travelled from Japan to North America in the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami (which struck the east coast of Japan with devastating consequences).


Read more: Widespread invasive species control is a risky business


Marine introductions result from biofouling, the process by which organisms start growing on virtually any submerged surface. Within days a slimy bacterial film develops. After months to a few years (depending on the water temperature) fully formed communities may be found, including algae, molluscs such as mussels, bryozoans, crustaceans, and other animals.

Current biosecurity measures, such as antifouling on ships and border surveillance, are designed to deal with a steady stream of potential invaders. But they are ill-equipped to deal with an introduction event of the scale recorded along most of the North American coast. This would be just as true for Australia, with its extensive coastlines, as it is for North America.

Mass marine migration

Marine animals were transported vast distances on tsunami debris.
Carla Schaffer / AAAS

This research, led by James Carlton of Williams College, shows that over a few years after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, many marine organisms arrived along the west coast of North America on debris derived from human activity. The debris ranged from small pieces of plastic to buoys, to floating docks and damaged marine vessels. All of these items harboured organisms. Across the full range of debris surveyed, scores of individuals from roughly 300 species of marine creatures arrived alive. Most of them were new to North America.

The tsunami swept coastal infrastructure and many human artefacts out to sea. Items that had already been in the water before the tsunami carried their marine communities along with them. The North Pacific Current then transported these living communities across the Pacific to Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, Washington and California.

Japanese tsunami buoy with Japanese oyster Crassostrea gigas, found floating offshore of Alsea Bay, Oregon in 2012.
James T. Carlton

What makes this process unusual is the way a natural extreme event – the earthquake and associated tsunami – gave rise to an extraordinarily large introduction event because of its impact on coastal infrastructure. The researchers argue that this event is of unprecedented magnitude, constituting what they call “tsunami-driven megarafting”: rafting being the process by which organisms may travel across oceans on debris – natural or otherwise.

It’s not known how many of these new species will establish themselves and spread in their new environment. But, given what we know about the invasion process, it’s certain at least some will. Often, establishment and initial population growth is hidden, especially in marine species. Only once it is either costly or impossible to do something about a new species, is it detected.

Biosecurity surveillance systems are designed to overcome this problem, but surveillance of an entire coast for multiple species is a significant challenge.

Perhaps one of the largest questions the study raises is whether this was a once off event. Might similar future occurrences be expected? Given the rapid rate of coastal infrastructure development, the answer is clear: this adds a new dimension to coastal biosecurity that will have to be considered.

The ConversationInvestment in coastal planning and early warning systems will help, as will reductions in plastic pollution. But such investment may be of little value if action is not taken to adhere to, and then exceed, nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement. Without doing so, a climate change-driven sea level rise of more than 1 m by the end of the century may be expected. This will add significantly to the risks posed by the interactions between natural extreme events and the continued development of coastal infrastructure. In other words, this research has uncovered what might be an increasingly common new ecological process in the Anthropocene – the era of human-driven global change.

Steven Chown, Professor of Biological Sciences, Monash University

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

Curious Kids: What happens if a venomous snake bites another snake of the same species?



File 20170728 23784 v68xsb
Scientists usually use the word “venomous” rather than “poisonous” when they’re talking about snakes.
Flickr/Sirenz Lorraine, CC BY

Jamie Seymour, James Cook University

This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky!


If a lethally poisonous snake bites another lethally poisonous snake of the same species does the bitten snake suffer healthwise or die? – Ella, age 10, Wagga Wagga.


Hi Ella,

That’s a great question.

If a venomous snake is bitten by another venomous snake of the same species, (for example during a fight or mating), then it will not be affected.

However, if a snake is bitten by a venomous snake of another species, it probably will be affected.

This is probably because snakes have evolved to be immune to venom from their own species, because bites from mates or rivals of the same species probably happen fairly often.

But a snake being regularly bitten by another snake from a different species? It’s unlikely that would happen very often, so snakes haven’t really had a chance to develop immunity to venom from other species.


Read more: Guam’s forests are being slowly killed off – by a snake


Scientists often collect venom from snakes to create anti-venoms.
Kalyan Varma/Wikimedia

Snakes can break down venom in the stomach

Many people believe that snakes are immune to their own venom so that they don’t get harmed when eating an animal it has just injected full of venom.

But in fact, they don’t need to be immune. Scientists have found that special digestive chemicals in the stomachs of most vertebrates (animals with backbones) break down snake venom very quickly. So the snake’s stomach can quickly deal with the venom in the animal it just ate before it has a chance to harm the snake.

People that have snakes as pets often see this. If one venomous snake bites a mouse and injects venom into it, for example, you can then feed that same dead mouse to another snake. The second snake won’t die.


Read more: Curious Kids: How do snakes make an ‘sssssss’ sound with their tongue poking out?


The eastern brown snake, which is found in Australia, is one of the most venomous snakes in the world.
Flickr/Justin Otto, CC BY

The difference between venom and poison

By the way, scientists usually use the word “venomous” rather than “poisonous” when they’re talking about snakes. Many people often mix those words up. Poisons need to be ingested or swallowed to be dangerous, while venoms need to be injected via a bite or a sting.

Some snakes can inject their toxins into their prey, which makes them venomous. However, there seem to be a couple of snake species that eat frogs and can store the toxins from the frogs in their body. This makes them poisonous if the snake’s body is eaten. Over time, many other animals will have learned that it is not safe to eat those snakes, so this trick helps keep them safe.


Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to us. You can:

* Email your question to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.au

* Tell us on Twitter by tagging @ConversationEDU with the hashtag #curiouskids, or

* Tell us on Facebook


CC BY-ND

The ConversationPlease tell us your name, age and which city you live in. You can send an audio recording of your question too, if you want. Send as many questions as you like! We won’t be able to answer every question but we will do our best.

Jamie Seymour, Associate Professor, James Cook University

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

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



File 20170906 9823 1y1uxry
The critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum lives within a single federal electorate. Their local MP has a responsibility to be their voice.
Zoos Victoria

James Watson, The University of Queensland; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Brooke Williams, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland; Richard Fuller, The University of Queensland; Scott Consaul Atkinson, The University of Queensland, and Stephen Kearney, The University of Queensland

Australia is rapidly losing its world-famous biodiversity. More than 90 species have gone extinct since European colonisation (including three in just the past decade), and more than 1,700 species are now formally recognised as being in danger of extinction.

Despite the pride many Australians feel in our unique natural heritage (and the billions of dollars made from nature-based tourism) the amount of federal funding for biodiversity conservation has dropped by 37% since 2013.


Read more: The environment needs billions of dollars more: here’s how to raise the money


If a local industry or public institution experienced such a drastic funding cut, the people affected would petition their local representatives and the issue would be raised in parliament as a matter of local or national importance.

Threatened species cannot of course lobby government. But all threatened species on the land have at least one elected official who should take responsibility for them.

Threatened species as local constituents

A member of parliament’s primary job, besides being a party member and parliamentarian, is to speak up for local interests. Data from the Species of National Environmental Significance shows that every federal electorate contains at least one threatened species, so every single federally elected politician has a role to play in abating species extinction.

We’ve used that data to create an interactive map that shows the number of threatened species in each federal electorate, along with details of the local MP and their party. It’s obvious from a glance that a handful electorates contain most of Australia’s threatened species. (You can click on an electorate to view information on the local member, and to download its threatened species lists.)

https://greenfirescience.carto.com/builder/2d738892-7aec-4c0d-99f9-4c942a5518b1/embed

This is because species are not uniformly spread across the landscape, and also because electorate size varies hugely according to population density. The biggest electorate is the Division of Durack, which at 1.6 million square kilometres is half the size of Germany, while the smallest (the Division of Grayndler in inner Sydney) is 0.002% Durack’s size.

Because extremely large seats are in remote and rural areas, they are dominated by Liberal and National politicians. Melissa Price, the Liberal member for Durack, represents 359 threatened species, or about 20% of Australia’s total.

The box below highlights the 10 seats with the most threatened species. Between them, the members for these 10 electorates represent 609 – or 36% – of all threatened species in Australia. These MPs need to be empowered to protect the natural heritage of their electorates.



Green Fire Science, CC BY-ND

While this issue affects every MP, some 79 electorates contain a species that resides mainly – or even only – inside that electoral boundary. Several electorates have more than 50 species that rely on habitat found in one electorate, including the divisions of Durack (Liberal), O’Connor (Liberal), Lingiari (Labor), and Lyons (Labor).

The figure below shows electorates that contain more than 80% of a species’ range. The size of the bubble scales directly to the size of the electorate. It’s clear that some electorates are important sites of biodiversity.


Author provided

For example, Warren Entsch, the Liberal National member for Leichardt, has the endangered Golden shouldered parrot living entirely within his electoral boundaries. The federal division of Canberra, represented by Labour MP Gai Brodtmann, contains the entire habitat of the spectacular Brindabella Midge-orchid. These are just two of 79 members who can make such a claim.

Local members should not just be aware of this but active in saving these species.

While many of the factors that imperil threatened species come from far outside an electorate’s borders, local threatened species need local voices. As arguably the strongest local voice, all federal MPs can fight for more money and more action for threatened species, especially those within their electoral boundaries. And given the inequity in terms of threatened species per electorate, some will need to fight for much greater resourcing than others.

The ConversationExtinction is forever, and every time we lose a species our world becomes a poorer place. Ultimately, only local action on the ground can prevent the irreversible loss of our precious threatened species.

James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Brooke Williams, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Michelle Ward, PhD Student, The University of Queensland; Richard Fuller, Associate Professor in Biodiversity and Conservation, The University of Queensland; Scott Consaul Atkinson, Research Assistant, The University of Queensland, and Stephen Kearney, PhD Candidate , The University of Queensland

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