Australia’s threatened bats need protection from a silent killer: white-nose syndrome



Three North American little brown bats with signs of white-nose syndrome, which is virtually certain to hit Australian bats without further action.
KDFWR/Terry Derting, CC BY-SA

Christopher Turbill, Western Sydney University and Justin Welbergen, Western Sydney University

We already know how deadly this summer’s fires have been for mammals, birds, and reptiles across Australia. But beyond this bushfire season, many of those same species – including our bats, which make up around a quarter of all Australian mammal species – are facing another devastating threat to their survival.

White‐nose syndrome has recently decimated bat populations across North America. While the fungal pathogen responsible for this disease, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, currently doesn’t occur in Australia, the fungus is virtually certain to jump continents in the next decade.

Our recent research, published in the journal Austral Ecology, attempted to quantify this risk – and the results are not encouraging. Up to eight bat species occupy caves in south-eastern Australia that provide conditions suitable for the fungus to grow.

Large parts of southern Australia provides cave habitat suitable for growth by the cold-loving fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome.
Turbill & Welbergen 2019

Even before this summer’s fires, seven of those types of bats were listed on state or federal legislation as threatened with extinction. This includes the critically endangered southern bent-winged bat (Miniopterus orianae bassanii), a species whose caves would all provide optimal conditions for growth of the fungus.

All caves occupied by the critically endangered southern bent-winged bat provide ideal thermal conditions for white-nose syndrome.
Dr Lindy Lumsden

Millions of bats wiped out in North America

White-nose syndrome was first detected in the United States in 2006 at a popular tourist cave in the state of New York. Since then, the disease has spread across North America, killing millions of bats in its wake, with many local populations experiencing 90 to 100% mortality.

The novel pathogen hypothesis explains why P. destructans has such catastrophic impacts on North American bats: the immune system of these species is evolutionarily naive to this fungal attack. Accordingly, in Europe and Asia, where P. destructans is endemic and widespread, few bats exhibit white‐nose syndrome and mortalities are rare.

Australia’s unique wildlife is inherently at risk from invasive novel pathogens because of its long‐term biogeographical isolation. Thus Australian bats, like their distant North American relatives, probably lack an effective immune response to P. destructans and would be susceptible to developing white-nose syndrome.

Since its detection in the United States in 2006, white-nose syndrome has received extensive media attention globally.

Hibernation is the key risk period

Most fungal pathogens grow best at cool temperatures, and a high body temperature in mammals and birds provides an effective barrier against fungal diseases. The fungus causing white-nose syndrome is also cold-loving, ceasing to grow at temperatures above 20°C. The only time it can infect and kill bats is when they hibernate.

Bats go cold (use torpor) during hibernation to prevent starvation over winter in temperate climates. Hibernating bats that are infected by P. destructans rewarm more frequently than normal. These unscheduled bursts of metabolic heat production prematurely burn up the body fat of overwintering bats. Hence, despite the damage caused by white-nose syndrome to the bat’s skin tissue, they apparently die due to starvation or dehydration.

The infection is easily visible under UV light.
Turner et al. 2014

Hibernation is key to predicting the susceptibility of bat populations to mortality from white-nose syndrome: those with less energy to spare over winter are more at risk. Consequently, white-nose syndrome has fuelled a large research program on the winter ecology and hibernation physiology of North American bats.

Bats in south-eastern Australia do enter a period of winter hibernation, but that is about the extent of what we know. This knowledge gap makes it impossible to predict how they will respond if exposed to P. destructans. Even non-lethal impacts, however, will worsen the extinction-bound trajectory of several cave-roosting species, most notably the eastern and southern bent-winged bats.

What can Australia do?

Given the impending arrival of P. destructans in Australia, and our study’s findings of widespread thermal cave suitability in south-eastern Australia, we urge immediate action. This includes tightening biosecurity measures and gaining missing information on bat biology so we are better prepared for a possible white-nose syndrome epidemic.

The importance of this threat has not been missed by Wildlife Health Australia, which has produced guidelines for reporting and response to incursion. Advice is also available from the Commonwealth. Just recently, white-nose syndrome was listed in the national priority list for exotic environmental pests and diseases, ranking in the top five of native animal diseases and their pathogens.

Cave enthusiasts have also been proactive in alerting members to white-nose syndrome and the risk of accidentally introducing P. destructans, especially when returning from overseas caving adventures. And the Australasian Bat Society – a strong advocate for bat conservation – has alerted the public and government agencies to this potential new threat.

Action now is critical

At present, there is little that would prevent P. destructans from making it its way to Australian caves, despite two years passing since experts assessed the risk of incursion as almost certain.

We need effective measures at all levels, from requiring incoming visitors to identify contact with cave environments, to decontamination procedures at caves popular with international tourists.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s White-nose Syndrome Response Team produced this infographic, including what you can do to help bats.

Predicting the impact of white-nose syndrome on Australian bats is currently not possible because we know so little about their winter biology. We urge the Australian government to fund specific research to gain this information.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has injected more than US$46 million since 2008 into research and fieldwork to address the threat. Australian researchers can use this work to focus on the critical data needed to inform models that predict the vulnerability of local bat populations.

Why we need bats to survive

Bats are incredibly valuable in their own right. But the world needs healthy bat populations: a single insectivorous bat can eat up to half its body mass in insects each night, and together colonies of bats provide a service with an estimated value to the agricultural industry alone in the billions of dollars per year.

We hope this terrible disease will not threaten Australian bats. But the precautionary principle dictates we should plan and act now, assuming the worst-case scenario. Alarm bells are ringing.


Read more: The importance of Australia’s weird and wonderful batsThe Conversation


A selection of Australia’s bat diversity. Top row from left: grey-headed flying-fox; orange leaf-nosed bat; common blossom bat; large-footed myotis. Bottom row: golden-tipped bat; eastern horseshoe bat; common sheath-tailed bat; ghost bat.
Justin Welbergen (grey-headed flying-fox, eastern horseshoe bat); Nicola Hanrahan (ghost bat); Bruce Thomson (golden-tipped bat); Steve Parish & Les Hall for remainder of species

Christopher Turbill, Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology, Western Sydney University and Justin Welbergen, President of the Australasian Bat Society | Associate Professor of Animal Ecology, Western Sydney 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.




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


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.




Read more:
The science of drought is complex but the message on climate change is clear


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.




Read more:
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.




Read more:
‘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.

Australia’s threatened birds declined by 59% over the past 30 years


Elisa Bayraktarov, The University of Queensland and Jaana Dielenberg, The University of Queensland

Australia’s threatened birds declined by nearly 60% on average over 30 years, according to new research that reveals the true impact on native wildlife of habitat loss, introduced pests, and other human-caused pressures.

Alarmingly, migratory shorebirds have declined by 72%. Many of these species inhabit our mudflats and coasts on their migration from Siberia, Alaska or China each year.




Read more:
For the first time we’ve looked at every threatened bird in Australia side-by-side


These concerning figures are revealed in our world-first Threatened Bird Index. The index, now updated with its second year of data, combines over 400,000 surveys at more than 17,000 locations.

It’s hoped the results will shed light on where conservation efforts are having success, and where more work must be done.

Bringing conservation efforts together

The index found a 59% fall in Australia’s threatened and near threatened bird populations between 1985 and 2016.

Migratory shorebirds in South Australia and New South Wales have been worst hit, losing 82% and 88% of their populations, respectively. In contrast, shorebirds in the Northern Territory have increased by 147% since 1985, potentially due to the safe roosting habitat at Darwin Harbour where human access to the site is restricted.

Habitat loss and pest species (particularly feral cats) are the most common reasons for these dramatic population declines.

Many of Australia’s threatened species are monitored by various organisations across the country. In the past there has never been a way to combine and analyse all of this evidence in one place.




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


The Threatened Species Recovery Hub created the index to bring this information together. It combines 17,328 monitoring “time series” for threatened and near threatened bird species and subspecies. This means going back to the same sites in different years and using the same monitoring method, so results over time can be compared.

Over the past year the amount of data underpinning the index has grown considerably and now includes more than 400,000 surveys, across 43 monitoring programs on 65 bird species and subspecies, increasing our confidence in these alarming trends.

Threatened species like the Gilbert’s Whistler, Chestnut quail-thrush and Swift parrot are all on the decline.
Glenn Ehmke, BirdLife Australia, Author provided

About one-third of Australia’s threatened and near threatened birds are in the index but that proportion is expected to grow. As more quality data becomes available, the index will get more powerful, meaningful and representative. For the first time Australia will be able to tell how our threatened species are going overall, and which groups are doing better or worse, which is vital to identifying which groups and regions most need help.

Finding the trends

Trends can be calculated for any grouping with at least three species. A grouping might include all threatened species in a state or territory, all woodland birds or all migratory shorebirds.

The 59% average decrease in threatened bird relative abundance over the last 30 years is very similar to the global wildlife trends reported by the 2018 Living Planet Report. Between 1970 and 2014, global average mammal, fish, bird, amphibian and reptile populations fell by 60%.

One valuable feature of the Threatened Species Index is a visualisation tool which allows anyone to explore the wealth of data, and to look at trends for states and territories.

For instance, in Victoria by 2002 threatened birds had dropped to a bit more than half of their numbers in 1985 on average (60%), but they have remained fairly constant since then.

We can also look at different bird groups. Threatened migratory shorebirds have had the largest declines, with their numbers down by more than 72% since 1985. Threatened terrestrial birds, on the other hand, have decreased in relative abundance by about 51% between 2000 and the year 2016, and show a relatively stable trend since 2006.

Eastern Great Egret, and Bar-tailed Godwit. Pictures kindly provided by Glenn Ehmke, BirdLife Australia.

Making the index better

The index is being expanded to reveal trends in species other than birds. Monitoring data on threatened mammals and threatened plants is being assembled. Trends for these groups will be released in 2020, providing new insights into how a broader range of Australia’s threatened species are faring.

This research is led by the University of Queensland in close partnership with BirdLife Australia, and more than 40 partners from research, government, and non-government organisations. Collaboration on such a scale is unprecedented, and provides extremely detailed information.




Read more:
Citizen scientists count nearly 2 million birds and reveal a possible kookaburra decline


The index team are continuing to work with monitoring organisations across Australia to expand the amount of sites, and the number of species included in the index. We applaud the dedicated researchers, managers and citizen scientists from every corner of the country who have been assembling this data for the nation.

We’d also like to hear from community groups, consultants and other groups that have been monitoring threatened or near-threatened species, collecting data at the same site with the same method in multiple years.

The Threatened Species Index represents more than just data. Over time it will give us a window into the results of our collective conservation efforts.


This article also received input from James O’Connor (BirdLife Australia) and Hugh Possingham (The Nature Conservancy).The Conversation

Elisa Bayraktarov, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Conservation Biology, The University of Queensland and Jaana Dielenberg, Science Communication Manager, The University of Queensland

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

Koala-detecting dogs sniff out flaws in Australia’s threatened species protection



Maya the detection dog was part of a team sniffing out koalas.
Marie Colibri/USC

Romane H. Cristescu, University of the Sunshine Coast; Anthony Schultz, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, University of the Sunshine Coast; David Schoeman, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Kylie Scales, University of the Sunshine Coast

In a country like Australia – a wealthy, economically and politically stable nation with multiple environmental laws and comparatively effective governance – the public could be forgiven for assuming that environmental laws are effective in protecting threatened species.

But our new research, published recently in Animal Conservation, used koala-detecting dogs to find vulnerable koalas in places developers assumed they wouldn’t live. This highlights the flaws of environmental protections that prioritise efficiency over accuracy.

The dog squad: from left to right, Baxter, Billie-Jean, Bear, Charlie and Maya sniffed out vulnerable koalas to see how many are living in areas due to be developed in Queensland.
Author provided

Environmental impact assessments

Every new infrastructure project must carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to see whether it will affect a threatened species. If this is the case, the logical next step is to try to avoid this by redesigning the project.

But this rarely happens in reality, as we saw recently for the endangered black-throated finch.




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More often, when the EIA suggests an unavoidable impact the response is to identify mitigation and compensation measures, often in the form of “offsets”. These are swathes of comparable habitat assumed to “compensate” the impacted species for the habitat lost to the development.

To take koalas as an example, developers building houses might be required to buy and secure land to compensate for lost habitat. Or a new road might need fencing and underpasses to allow koalas safe passage across (or under) roads.

Koalas can be found in many environments, from the bush to cities.
Detection Dogs for Conservation, University of the Sunshine Coast

These steps are defined in environmental regulations, and depend on the results from the original EIA.




Read more:
Safe passage: we can help save koalas through urban design


An issue of assumptions

With koala numbers still declining, we investigated whether current survey guidelines for EIA were indeed adequate.




Read more:
A report claims koalas are ‘functionally extinct’ – but what does that mean?


For an EIA to be effective, it is fundamental the environmental impact of a future development can be accurately anticipated and therefore appropriately managed. This relies, as a first step, on quantifying how the project will affect threatened species through ecological surveys of presence and extent of threatened species within the project’s footprint.

There are government guidelines to prescribe how these ecological surveys are performed. Every project has time and budget constraints, and therefore survey guidelines seek efficiency in accurately determining species’ presence.

Dr Romane Cristescu performing a koala survey with detection dog Maya.
Marie Colibri

As such, the Australian guidelines recommend focusing survey effort where there is the highest chance of finding a species of concern for the project. This sounded very logical – until we started testing the underlying assumptions.

We used a very accurate survey method – detection dogs – to locate koala droppings, and therefore identify koala habitat, in the entire footprint of proposed projects across Queensland. We did not target our efforts in areas we expected to be successful – therefore leaving out the bias of other surveys.

Unpredictable koalas

We found koalas did not always behave as one would expect. Targeting effort to certain areas, the “likely” koala habitat, to try increase efficiency risked missing koala hotspots.

In particular, the landscape koalas use is intensely modified by human activity. Koalas, like us, love living on the coast and in rich alluvial plains. That means we unexpectedly found them right in the middle of urban areas, along roads that – because they have the final remaining trees in dense agricultural landscapes – are now (counterintuitively) acting as corridors.

This koala was found in a built-up area not captured by traditional surveys.
Detection Dogs for Conservation, University of the Sunshine Coast



Read more:
Koalas can learn to live the city life if we give them the trees and safe spaces they need


Assumptions about where koalas live can massively underestimate the impact of new infrastructure. In one case study, the habitat defined by recommended survey methods was about 50 times smaller than the size of the habitat actually affected.

If surveys miss or underestimate koala habitat while attempting to measure development impact, then we cannot expect to adequately avoid, mitigate or compensate the damage. If the first step fails, the rest of the process is fatally compromised. And this is bad news for koalas, among many other threatened species.

All parts of the landscape are important

What is needed is a paradigm shift. In a world where humans have affected every ecosystem on Earth, we cannot focus on protecting only pristine, high-quality areas for our threatened species. We can no longer afford to rely on assumptions.

This might seem like a big, and therefore expensive, ask. Yet ecosystems are a common resource owned by all of us, and those who seek to exploit these commons should bear the cost of demonstrating they understand (and therefore can mitigate) their impact.

The alternative is to risk society having to shoulder the environmental debt, as we have seen with abandoned mines.




Read more:
What should we do with Australia’s 50,000 abandoned mines?


The burden of proof should squarely reside with the proponent of a project to study thoroughly the project impact.

A koala found in the wild while performing an Environmental Impact Assessment.
Detection Dogs for Conservation, University of the Sunshine Coast

This is where the issue lies – proponents of projects are under time and budget constraints that push them to look for efficiencies. In this tug of war, the main losers tend to be the threatened species. We argue that this cannot continue, because for many threatened species, there is no longer much room for mistakes.

The environmental regulations that define survey requirements need to prioritise accuracy over efficiency.

A review of Australian’s primary environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is due to begin by October this year. We call on the government to use this opportunity to ensure threatened species are truly protected during development.


The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Dr David Dique and Russell L. Miller to this research and the two original papers this piece is based upon (feature paper and response).The Conversation

Romane H. Cristescu, Posdoc in Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast; Anthony Schultz, PhD Candidate, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast; David Schoeman, Professor of Global-Change Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Kylie Scales, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast

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Sharks: one in four habitats in remote open ocean threatened by longline fishing



Though they’re protected worldwide, great white sharks encounter longline fishing vessels in half of their range.
Wildestanimal/Shutterstock

David Sims, University of Southampton

Unlike the many species which stalk the shallow, coastal waters that fisheries exploit all year round, pelagic sharks roam the vast open oceans. These are the long-distance travellers of the submarine world and include the world’s largest fish, the whale shark, and also one of the fastest fish in the sea, the shortfin mako shark, capable of swimming at 40mph.

Because these species range far from shore, you might expect them to escape most of the lines and nets that fishing vessels cast. But over the last 50 years, industrial scale fisheries have extended their reach across the world’s oceans and tens of millions of pelagic sharks are now caught every year for their valuable fins and meat.

On average, large pelagic sharks account for over half of all shark species identified in catches worldwide. The toll this has taken on species such as the shortfin mako has prompted calls to introduce catch limits in the high seas – areas of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction where there is little or no management for the majority of shark species.

We wanted to know where the ocean’s shark hotspots are – the places where lots of different species gather – and how much these places are worked by fishing boats. We took up the challenge of finding out where pelagic sharks hang out by satellite tracking their movements with electronic tags. This approach by our international team of over 150 scientists from 26 countries has an important advantage over fishery catch records. Rather than showing where a fishing boat found them, it can precisely map all of the places sharks visit.

Nowhere to hide

For a new study published in Nature we tracked nearly 2,000 sharks from 23 different species, including great whites, blue sharks, shortfin mako and tiger sharks. We were able to map their positions in unprecedented detail and discern the most visited hotspots where sharks feed, breed and rest.

Hotspots were often located in frontal zones – boundaries in the sea between different water masses that can have the best conditions of temperature and nutrients for phytoplankton to bloom, which attracts masses of zooplankton, as well as the fish and squid that sharks eat.

Then we calculated how much these hotspots overlapped with global fleets of large, longline fishing vessels, which we also tracked by satellite. This type of fishing gear is used very widely on the high seas and catches more pelagic sharks than trawls and other gear. Each longline vessel is capable of deploying a 100km long line bearing over 1,000 baited hooks.

We found that even the most remote parts of the ocean that are many miles from land offer pelagic sharks little refuge from industrial-scale fishing fleets. One in four of the places sharks visited each month overlapped with the areas longline fishing vessels operated in.

Sharks such as the North Atlantic blue and the shortfin mako – which fishers also target for their fins and meat – were much more likely to encounter these vessels, with as much as 76% of the places these species visited most in each month overlapping with where longline vessels were fishing. Even internationally protected species such as great whites and porbeagle sharks encountered longline vessels in half of their tracked range.

It’s now clear that much of the world’s fishing activity on the high seas is centred on shark hotspots, which longlines rake for much of the year. Many large sharks, which are already endangered, face a future without refuge from industrial fishing in the places they gather.

High seas marine protected areas

The maps of shark hotspots and longline fishing activity that we created can at least provide a blueprint for where large-scale marine protected areas aimed at conserving sharks could be set. Outside of these, strict quotas could reduce catches.

The United Nations is creating a high seas treaty for protecting ocean biodiversity – negotiations are due to continue in August 2019 in New York. They’ll consider large-scale marine protected areas for the high seas and we’ll suggest where these could be located to best protect pelagic sharks.

Satellite monitoring could give real-time signals of where sharks and other threatened creatures such as turtles and whales are gathering. Tracking where these species roam and where fishers interact with them will help patrol vessels monitor these high-risk zones more efficiently.

Such management action is overdue for many shark populations in the high seas. Take North Atlantic shortfin makos – not only are they overfished
and endangered, but now we know they have no respite from longline fishing during many months of the year in the places they gather most often. Some of these shark hotspots may not exist in the near future if action isn’t taken now to conserve these species and the habitats they depend on.The Conversation

David Sims, Professor of Marine Ecology, University of Southampton

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Here’s how your holiday photos could help save endangered species



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Kasim Rafiq, Liverpool John Moores University

Animal populations have declined on average by 60% since 1970, and it’s predicted that around a million species are at risk of extinction. As more of the Earth’s biodiversity disappears and the human population grows, protected landscapes that are set aside to conserve biodiversity are increasingly important. Sadly, many are underfunded – some of Africa’s most treasured wildlife reserves operate in funding deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars.

In unfenced wilderness, scientists rarely have an inventory on the exact numbers of species in an area at a particular time. Instead they make inferences using one of many different survey approaches, including camera traps, track surveys, and drones. These methods can estimate how much and what kind of wildlife is present, but often require large amounts of effort, time and money.

Camera traps are placed in remote locations and activated by movement. They can collect vast quantities of data by taking photographs and videos of passing animals. But this can cost tens of thousands of dollars to run and once in the wild, cameras are at the mercy of curious wildlife.

Track surveys rely on specialist trackers, who aren’t always available and drones, while promising, have restricted access to many tourism areas in Africa. All of this makes wildlife monitoring difficult to carry out and repeat over large areas. Without knowing what’s out there, making conservation decisions based on evidence becomes almost impossible.

Citizen science on Safari

Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in the world – 42m people visited sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 alone. Many come for the unique wildlife and unknowingly collect valuable conservation data with their phones and cameras. Photographs on social media are already being used to help track the illegal wildlife trade and how often areas of wilderness are visited by tourists.

Despite this, tourists and their guides are still an overlooked source of information. Could your holidays snaps help monitor endangered wildlife? In a recent study, we tested exactly this.

Partnering with a tour operator in Botswana, we approached all guests passing through a safari lodge over three months in the Okavango Delta and asked them if they were interested in contributing their photographs to help with conservation. We provided those interested with a small GPS logger – the type commonly used for tracking pet cats – so that we could see where the images were being taken.

We then collected, processed, and passed the images through computer models to estimate the densities of five large African carnivore species – lions, spotted hyaenas, leopards, African wild dogs and cheetahs. We compared these densities to those from three of the most popular carnivore survey approaches in Africa – camera trapping, track surveys, and call-in stations, which play sounds through a loudspeaker to attract wildlife so they can be counted.

The tourist photographs provided similar estimates to the other approaches and were, in total, cheaper to collect and process. Relying on tourists to help survey wildlife saved up to US$840 per survey season. Even better, it was the only method to detect cheetahs in the area – though so few were sighted that their total density couldn’t be confirmed.

Thousands of wildlife photographs are taken every day, and the study showed that we can use statistical models to cut through the noise and get valuable data for conservation. Still, relying on researchers to visit tourist groups and coordinate their photograph collection would be difficult to replicate across many areas. Luckily, that’s where wildlife tour operators could come in.

Tour operators could help collect tourist images to share with researchers. If the efforts of tourists were paired with AI that could process millions of images quickly, conservationists could have a simple and low-cost method for monitoring wildlife.

Tourist photographs are best suited for monitoring large species that live in areas often visited by tourists – species that tend to have high economic and ecological value. While this method perhaps isn’t as well suited to smaller species, it can still indirectly support their conservation by helping protect the landscapes they live in.

The line between true wilderness and landscapes modified by humans is becoming increasingly blurred, and more people are visiting wildlife in their natural habitats. This isn’t always a good thing, but maybe conservationists can use these travels to their advantage and help conserve some of the most iconic species on our planet.The Conversation

Kasim Rafiq, Postdoctoral Researcher in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Liverpool John Moores University

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