New research reveals these 20 Australian reptiles are set to disappear by 2040



Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko
Conrad Hoskin, Author provided

Hayley Geyle, Charles Darwin University and David Chapple, Monash University

Action came too late for the Christmas Island forest skink, despite early warnings of significant declines. It was lost from the wild before it was officially listed as “threatened”, and the few individuals brought into captivity died soon after.

Australia is home to about 10% of all known reptile species — the largest number of any country in the world. But many of our reptiles are at risk of the same fate as the Christmas Island forest skink: extinction.

In new research published today, we identified the 20 terrestrial snakes and lizards (collectively known as “squamates”) at greatest risk of extinction in the next two decades, assuming no changes to current conservation management.

Preventing extinctions of Australian lizards and snakes.

While all 20 species meet international criteria to be officially listed as “threatened”, only half are protected under Australian environmental legislation— the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. This needs urgent review.

Many of these reptiles receive little conservation action, but most of their threats can be ameliorated. By identifying the species at greatest risk of extinction, we can better prioritise our recovery efforts — we know now what will be lost if we don’t act.

Six species more likely than not to go extinct

Our research team — including 27 reptile experts from universities, zoos, museums and government organisations across the country — identified six species with greater than 50% likelihood of extinction by 2040.

This includes two dragons, one blind snake and three skinks. Experts rated many others as having a 30-50% likelihood of extinction over the next 20 years.

More than half (55%) of the 20 species at greatest risk occur in Queensland. Three live on islands: two on Christmas Island and one on Lancelin Island off the Western Australian coast.

Two more species are found in Western Australia, while the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and New South Wales each have one species.




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Each of the 20 species at greatest risk occur in a relatively small area, which partly explains the Queensland cluster — many species in that state naturally have very small distributions.

Most of the top 20 occupy a total range of fewer than 20 square kilometres, so could be lost to a single catastrophic event, such as a large bushfire.

A map of Australia showing where the 20 snakes and lizards are located
The approximate locations of the 20 terrestrial snakes and lizards at greatest risk of extinction.
Author provided

So why are they dying out?

Reptile species are declining on a global scale, and this is likely exacerbated by climate change. In Australia, where more than 90% of our species occur nowhere else in the world, the most threatened reptiles are at risk for two main reasons: they have very small distributions, and ongoing, unmitigated threats.

The Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko meets this brief perfectly. This large and spectacular species was only discovered in 2013, on a remote mountain range on Cape York. It’s threatened by virtue of its very small distribution and population size, and by climate change warming and drying its upland habitat.

Arnhem Land gorges skink
The Arnhem Land gorges skink is considered more likely than not to become extinct by 2040. Threats include changes to food resources and habitat quality, feral cats, and possibly poisoning by cane toads.
Chris Jolly

Habitat loss is also a major threat for the top 20 species. Australia’s most imperilled reptile, the Victoria grassland earless dragon, used to be relatively common in grasslands in and around Melbourne. But the grasslands this little dragon once called home have been extensively cleared for agriculture and urban development, and now cover less than 1% of their original extent.




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Little conservation attention

For most reptile species, there has been less conservation work to address the declines, partly because reptiles have historically received less scientific attention than birds or mammals.

We also still don’t fully understand just how many species there are in Australia. New reptile species are being scientifically described at an average rate of 15 per year (a higher rate than for other vertebrate groups) and many new reptiles are already vulnerable to extinction at the time of discovery.

The Mount Surprise slider, a light-brown snake
The Mount Surprise slider is threatened by invasive plant species and cattle compacting sandy soils.
Stephen Zozaya, Author provided

To make matters worse, few reptiles in Australia are well-monitored. Without adequate monitoring, we have a poor understanding of population trends and the impacts of threats. This means species could slip into extinction unnoticed.

Reptiles also lack the public and political profile that helps generate recovery support for other, (arguably) more charismatic Australian threatened animals — such as koalas and swift parrots — leading to little resourcing for conservation.

Lessons from the past

Only one Australian reptile, the Christmas Island forest skink, is officially listed as extinct, but we have most probably lost others before knowing they exist. Without increased resourcing and management intervention, many more Australian reptiles could follow the same trajectory.

The Roma earless dragon sitting up on hind legs.
Habitat loss and degradation due to agriculture is a major threat to the Roma earless dragon. It has not been listed under Australian legislation.
A. O’Grady Museums Victoria, Author provided

But it’s not all bad news. The pygmy bluetongue skink was once thought to be extinct until a chance discovery kick-started a long conservation and research program.

Animals are now being taken from the wild and relocated to new areas to establish more populations, signifying that positive outcomes are possible when informed by good science.

And the very restricted distributions of most of the species identified here should allow for targeted and effective recovery efforts.

By identifying the species at greatest risk, we hope to give governments, conservation groups and the community time to act to prevent further extinctions before it’s too late. Neglect should no longer be the default response for our fabulous reptile fauna.




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The Conversation


Hayley Geyle, Research Assistant, Charles Darwin University and David Chapple, Associate Professor in Evolutionary and Conservation Ecology, Monash University

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

Humans are encroaching on Antarctica’s last wild places, threatening its fragile biodiversity



SL Chown, CC BY-NC

Rachel Leihy, Monash University and Steven Chown, Monash University

Since Western explorers discovered Antarctica 200 years ago, human activity has been increasing. Now, more than 30 countries operate scientific stations in Antarctica, more than 50,000 tourists visit each year, and new infrastructure continues to be developed to meet this rising demand.

Determining if our activities have compromised Antarctica’s wilderness has, however, remained difficult.

Our study, published today in Nature, seeks to change that. Using a new “ecological informatics” approach, we’ve drawn together every available recorded visit by humans to the continent, over its 200 year history.

We found human activity across Antarctica has been extensive, especially in the ice-free and coastal areas, but that’s where most biodiversity is found. This means wilderness areas – parts of the continent largely untouched by human activity – do not capture many of the continent’s important biodiversity sites.

Historical and contemporary human activity on Deception Island.
SL Chown

One of the world’s largest intact wildernesses

So just how large is the Antarctic wilderness? For the first time, our study calculated this area and how much biodiversity it captures. And, like all good questions, the answer is “that depends”.

If we think of Antarctica in the same way as every other continent, then the whole of Antarctica is a wilderness. It has no farms, no cities, no suburbs, no malls, no factories. And for a continent so large, it has very few people.

Antarctica’s wilderness should be held to a higher standard.
SL Chown

But Antarctica is too different to compare to other continents – it should be held to a higher standard. And so we define “wilderness” as the areas that aren’t highly impacted by people. This would exclude, for example, tourist areas and scientific stations. And under this definition, the wilderness area is still large.

It’s about 13,598,148 square kilometres, or more than 99% of the continent. Only the wilderness in the vast forested areas of the far Northern Hemisphere is larger. Roughly, this area is nearly twice the size of Australia.




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On the other hand, the inviolate areas (places free from human interference) that the Antarctic Treaty Parties are obliged to identify and protect are dwindling rapidly.

Our analyses suggest less than 32% of the continent includes large, unvisited areas. And even that’s an overestimate. Not all visits have been recorded, and several new traverses – crossing large tracts of unvisited areas – are being planned.

Human activity has been extensive across Antarctica, but large areas with no visitation record might still exist across central parts of the continent.
Leihy et al. 2020 Nature

Wilderness areas have poor biodiversity value

If so much of the continent remains “wild”, how much of Antarctica’s biodiversity lives within these areas?

Surprisingly few sites considered really important for Antarctic biodiversity are represented in the “un-impacted” wilderness area.

For example, only 16% of the continent’s Important Bird Areas (areas identified internationally as critical for bird conservation) are located in wilderness areas. And only 25% of protected areas established for their species or ecosystem value, and less than 7% of sites with recorded species, are in wilderness areas.

This outcome is surprising because wilderness areas elsewhere, like the Amazon rainforest, are typically valued as crucial habitat for biodiversity.

Ice-free areas are critical habitat for Antarctic biodiversity, like Adélie penguins, and frequently visited by people as well.
SL Chown

Inviolate areas have seemingly even less biodiversity value. This is because people have mostly had to visit Antarctic sites to collect species data.

In the future, remote sensing technologies might allow us to investigate and monitor pristine areas without setting foot in them. But for now, most of our knowledge of Antarctic species comes from places that have been impacted to some extent by people.

How does human activity threaten Antarctic biodiversity?

Antarctica’s remaining wilderness areas need urgent protection from increasing human activity.

Even passing human disturbance can impact the biodiversity and wilderness value of sites. For example, sensitive vegetation and soil communities can take years to recover from trampling.

Increasing movement around the continent also increases the risk people will transfer species between isolated regions, or introduce new alien species to Antarctica.

Expanding the existing network of Antarctic protected areas can secure remaining wilderness areas into the future.
SL Chown

So how can we protect it?

Protecting the Antarctic wilderness could be achieved by expanding the existing Antarctic Specially Protected Areas network to include more wilderness and inviolate areas where policymakers would limit human activity.

When planning how we’ll use Antarctica in the future, we could also consider the trade off between the benefits of science and tourism activities, and the value of retaining pristine wilderness and inviolate areas.




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This could be done explicitly through the environmental impact assessments required for activities in the region. Currently, impacts on the wilderness value of sites are rarely considered.

We have an opportunity in Antarctica to protect some of the world’s most intact and undisturbed environments, and prevent further erosion of Antarctica’s remarkable wilderness value.The Conversation

Ross Sea Region, Antarctica. Few sites considered really important for Antarctic biodiversity are represented in the wilderness area.
SL Chown

Rachel Leihy, PhD candidate, Monash University and Steven Chown, Professor of Biological Sciences, Monash University

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

Back from extinction: a world first effort to return threatened pangolins to the wild



Alex Braczkowski, Author provided

Alexander Richard Braczkowski, Griffith University; Christopher O’Bryan, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Griffith University, and Raymond Jansen, Tshwane University of Technology

Pangolins are one of the most illegally trafficked animals on the planet and are suspected to be linked to the current coronavirus pandemic.

Pangolins are also one of the world’s most threatened species but new efforts are underway to reintroduce pangolins to parts of Africa where the animal has been extinct for decades.




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The reintroduction of pangolins has not been easy. But it’s vital to prevent this shy, mysterious creature from being lost forever.

A cute but threatened species

Pangolins are the only mammals wholly-covered in scales, which they use to protect themselves from predators. They can also curl up into a tight ball.

They eat mainly ants, termites and larvae which they pick up with their sticky tongue. They can grow up to 1m in length from nose to tail and are sometimes referred to as scaly anteaters.

But all eight pangolin species are classified as “threatened” under International Union for Conservation of Nature criteria.

There is an unprecedented demand for their scales, primarily from countries in Asia and Africa where they are used in food, cultural remedies and medicine.

Between 2017 and 2019, seizures of pangolin scales tripled in volume. In 2019 alone, 97 tons of pangolin scales, equivalent to about 150,000 animals, were reportedly intercepted leaving Africa.

There is further evidence of the illegal trade in pangolin species openly on social media platforms such as Facebook.

The intense global trafficking of the species means the entire order (Pholidota) is threatened with extinction. For example, the Temminck’s pangolins (Smutsia temminckii) went extinct in South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal Province three decades ago.

Reintroduction of an extinct species

Each year in South Africa the African Pangolin Working Group (APWG) retrieves between 20 and 40 pangolins through intelligence operations with security forces.

These pangolins are often-traumatised and injured and are admitted to the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital for extensive medical treatment and rehabilitation before they can be considered for release.

In 2019, seven rescued Temminck’s pangolins were reintroduced into South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reservein the KwaZulu Natal Province.

Nine months on, five have survived. This reintroduction is a world first for a region that last saw a viable population of this species in the 1980s.

During the release, every individual pangolin followed a strict regime. They needed to become familiar with their new surroundings and be able to forage efficiently.

Pangolins curl up into a tight ball of scales.
Alex Braczkowski

Previous releases, including early on in South Africa and in other countries such as the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Thailand had minimal post-release monitoring.

Pangolins released immediately following medical treatment had a low level of survival for various reasons, including inability to adapt to their release sites.

A ‘soft release’ in to the wild

The process on Phinda game reserve involved a more gentle ease into re-wilding a population in a region that had not seen pangolins for many decades.

The soft release had two phases:

  1. a pre-release observational period
  2. an intensive monitoring period post release employing GPS satellite as well as VHF tracking tags.
A satellite tag is fitted to each pangolin before release and transmits its location on an hourly basis.
Alex Braczkowski

The pre-release period lasted between two to three weeks and were characterised by daily walks (three to five hours) of individuals on the reserves. These walks were critical for acclimatising individuals to the local habitat, its sounds, smells and possible threats. It also helped them source suitable and sufficient ant and termite species for food.

Following that, the post release period of two to three months involved locating released pangolins daily at first, and then twice per week where they were weighed, a rapid health assessment was made and habitat features such as burrows and refuges monitored.

Phinda reserve manager Simon Naylor said:

A key component of the post release period was whether individuals gained or maintained their weight.

The way the animals move after release also reveals important clues to whether they will stay in an area; if they feed, roll in dung, enter burrows. Much of this behaviour indicates site fidelity and habitat acceptance.




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Following nine months of monitoring and tracking, five of the seven survived in the region. One died of illness while the other was killed by a Nile crocodile.

Released pangolins are located at burrows like this one.
Alex Braczkowski

Why pangolin reintroduction is important

We know so little about this group of mammals that are vastly understudied and hold many secrets yet to be discovered by science but are on the verge of collapse.

The South African and Phinda story is one of hope for the Temminck’s pangolin where they once again roam the savanna hills and plains of Zululand.

The process of relocating these trade animals back into the wild has taken many turns, failures and tribulations but, the recipe of the “soft release” is working.The Conversation

Alexander Richard Braczkowski, Research Associate, Griffith University; Christopher O’Bryan, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Senior Research Fellow Social-Ecological Systems & Resilience, Griffith University, and Raymond Jansen, Professor: Zoology & Ecology, Tshwane University of Technology

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

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



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

Per Berggren, Newcastle University and Andrew Temple, Newcastle University

Finding a species that’s entirely new to science is always exciting, and so we were delighted to be a part of the discovery of two new sixgill sawsharks (called Pliotrema kajae and Pliotrema annae) off the coast of East Africa.

We know very little about sawsharks. Until now, only one sixgill species (Pliotrema warreni) was recognised. But we know sawsharks are carnivores, living on a diet of fish, crustaceans and squid. They use their serrated snouts to kill their prey and, with quick side-to-side slashes, break them up into bite-sized chunks.

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

Sawsharks look similar to sawfish (which are actually rays), but they are much smaller. Sawsharks grow to around 1.5 metres in length, compared to 7 metres for a sawfish and they also have barbels (fish “whiskers”), which sawfish lack. Sawsharks have gills on the side of their heads, whereas sawfish have them on the underside of their bodies.

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

Together with our colleagues, we discovered these two new sawsharks while researching small-scale fisheries that were operating off the coasts of Madagascar and Zanzibar. While the discovery of these extraordinary and interesting sharks is a wonder in itself, it also highlights how much is still unknown about biodiversity in coastal waters around the world, and how vulnerable it may be to poorly monitored and managed fisheries.

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

Fishing in the dark

Despite what their name might suggest, small-scale fisheries employ around 95% of the world’s fishers and are an incredibly important source of food and money, particularly in tropical developing countries. These fisheries usually operate close to the coast in some of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, such as coral reefs, mangrove forests and seagrass beds.

For most small-scale fisheries, there is very little information available about their fishing effort – that is, how many fishers there are, and where, when and how they fish, as well as exactly what they catch. Without this, it’s very difficult for governments to develop management programmes that can ensure sustainable fishing and protect the ecosystems and livelihoods of the fishers and the communities that depend on them.

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

While the small-scale fisheries of East Africa and the nearby islands are not well documented, we do know that there are at least half a million small-scale fishers using upwards of 150,000 boats. That’s a lot of fishing. While each fisher and boat may not catch that many fish each day, with so many operating, it really starts to add up. Many use nets – either driftnets floating at the surface or gillnets, which are anchored close to the sea floor. Both are cheap but not very selective with what they catch. Some use longlines, which are effective at catching big fish, including sharks and rays.




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In 2019, our team reported that catch records were massively underreporting the number of sharks and rays caught in East Africa and the nearby islands. With the discovery of two new species here – a global hotspot for shark and ray biodiversity – the need to properly assess the impact of small-scale fisheries on marine life is even more urgent.

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

How many other unidentified sharks and other species are commonly caught in these fisheries? There is a real risk of species going extinct before they’re even discovered.

Efforts to monitor and manage fisheries in this region, and globally, must be expanded to prevent biodiversity loss and to develop sustainable fisheries. There are simple methods available that can work on small boats where monitoring is currently absent, including using cameras to document what’s caught.

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

The discovery of two new sixgill sawsharks also demonstrates the value of scientists working with local communities. Without the participation of fishers we may never have found these animals. From simple assessments all the way through to developing methods to alter catches and manage fisheries, it’s our goal to make fisheries sustainable and preserve the long-term future of species like these sawsharks, the ecosystems they live in and the communities that rely on them for generations to come.The Conversation

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

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

To save these threatened seahorses, we built them 5-star underwater hotels



Two adult seahorses living on the seahorse hotels four months after the hotels were deployed.
Author provided

David Harasti, Southern Cross University; Michael Simpson, University of Sydney; Rebecca L. Morris, University of Melbourne, and Ross Coleman, University of Sydney

Venture beneath the ocean and you’ll see schools of fish and other alien-like species that may take your breath away. But one species in particular is an enigma in the marine world: the shy, elusive seahorse.

Approximately 50 species of seahorse are found worldwide, and Australia’s waters are home to at least 17 of them.

However, seahorses are considered threatened around the world, largely from over-harvesting for traditional Chinese medicines, unintended capture in fish trawl nets, and the loss of natural habitats such as seagrasses and mangroves.




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To help seahorse populations bounce back while their natural habitats recover, we created new artificial habitats, called “seahorse hotels”. Our recent research showed how these hotels gave the Australian endangered White’s seahorse (Hippocampus whitei) – also known as the Sydney seahorse – a safe place to come together and call home.

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Seahorse hotels are magnets for marine growth.

Species under threat

Hippocampus, the entire genus (category) for the species, is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora. This means nations that have signed up to the convention must ensure harvesting seahorses – such as for traditional medicines – is done in a sustainable way.

Unfortunately, the CITES listing hasn’t been enough, and several seahorse species are still experiencing population declines.

Fourteen seahorse species are officially listed as endangered or vulnerable, and these species are considered at risk of becoming extinct in the wild. White’s seahorse is among them. It is one of the two seahorse species listed as globally endangered.

White’s seahorse hiding among sponges.
Author provided

The first Australian seahorse under threat

First discovered in Sydney Harbour, White’s seahorse is native to the east coast of Australia and has been spotted from Hervey Bay in Queensland to the New South Wales south coast.

It grows up to 16 centimetres long and is found in shallow water bays and estuaries, where it lives among its natural habitats of sponges, soft corals and seagrasses. Marine biologists have also shown the species “falls in love” – pairings of males and females mate for life.




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But over the past decade, White’s seahorse populations declined by up to 97% at some sites in Port Stephens. It’s now considered “endangered” under the NSW Fisheries Management Act.

White’s seahorse hiding in their natural soft coral cauliflower habitat.
Author provided

The primary cause is the loss of natural habitats across their range in eastern Australia. In fact, within Port Stephens, more than 90% of soft coral and sponge habitats declined over 10 years at sites where the seahorse was once abundant.

These habitats were destroyed through the installation of boat moorings, anchoring of boats, and the inundation of habitats by sand moving into the Port Stephens estuary.


A home away from home

We devised seahorse hotels to help reverse the decline in White’s seahorse populations. And we named them so because we considered them to be a temporary residence while their natural habitats recovered.




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The idea was born after we saw discarded or lost commercial fisher traps that, when rediscovered, had become heavily covered in marine growth such as sponges and corals.

These lost traps over time become magnets for marine growth which naturally starts to occur within days. As the growth increases over time, fish and invertebrates would move onto these new artificial homes. A few seahorses were even spotted living on them.

An old discarded fish trap that gave David Harasti the idea to develop seahorse hotels.
Author provided

We built on past research, which had also shown White’s seahorse will use artificial habitats if they were available, such as using protective swimming nets found around Sydney.

After we first deployed our 18 hotels, we found it only took within two months for seahorses to start using them. Over time, the numbers of seahorses using the hotels gradually increased: we recorded at least 64 different individuals over the next 12 months of 2018.

Seahorses hold onto the hotels by curling their long tail around the frame, the algae and the sponges, which holds them in place and stops them from being swept away by the waves and currents. By marking each seahorse with small fluorescent tags inserted just beneath the skin (called elastomer), giving each a unique ID, we’re able to track each seahorse.

A baby seahorse clinging to the hotel after months of marine growth.
Author provided

Seahorse babies

We found some seahorses maintained a strong attachment to the hotels – they were spotted regularly on the monthly surveys. One seahorse was even sighted using the hotels in 12 different surveys.




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What’s more, the seahorse hotels help White’s seahorses breed. We saw this when breeding season began in October, finding that 13 males living in the hotels had become pregnant. This gives us hope for the local population size to increase.

Excitingly, our seahorse hotel study has had international interest too, with more hotels trialling in places like Gibraltar, Greece, the United States, Philippines and Indonesia.

A pregnant male seahorse found living on the seahorse hotels for a few months. Look closely and you can spot the fluorescent orange tag just beneath its skin.
Author provided

While we must do what we can to help conserve the natural habitats of seahorses, we at least know we can use the seahorse hotels to recover these elusive populations. Their success in attracting seahorses and helping them come together to mate seems to follow the simple concept of: “If you build it, they will come!”.The Conversation

David Harasti, Adjunct assistant professor, Southern Cross University; Michael Simpson, PhD candidate, University of Sydney; Rebecca L. Morris, Research Fellow In Ecological Engineering, University of Melbourne, and Ross Coleman, Professor, University of Sydney

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

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

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