Victoria’s wild storms show how easily disasters can threaten our water supply


Ian Wright, Western Sydney UniversityThe wild storms that recently raged across eastern Victoria caused major property and environmental damage, and loss of lives. They’ve also triggered serious water contamination incidents.

Yarra Valley Water issued an urgent health warning to not to drink tap water — not even if it’s boiled — in three affected suburbs: Kalista, Sherbrooke and The Patch.

So what caused this incident? Yarra Valley Water says the severe weather led to an equipment failure, with potentially unsafe water entering the drinking water system.

I spoke to the water authority about the nature of the contamination, and they did not provide any more detail. But based on my three decades of experience in the water industry, I can offer some insight into how disasters create contamination crises, and Australia’s vulnerabilities.

Does boiling water help?

Despite recent health warnings, it’s worth pointing out that Australia’s water supply is generally safe and reliable, with few exceptions. Still, this is hardly the first time disasters have disrupted water supply, whether from droughts, storms and floods, or bushfires.

For example, the Black Summer bushfires damaged water supply infrastructure for many communities, such as in Eden and Boydtown on the south coast of New South Wales. The Bega Valley Shire Council issued a boil water notice, as the loss of electricity stopped chlorinating the water supply, which is needed to maintain safe disinfection levels.

Boil water alerts indicate harmful pathogens may be present in the water, and you should boil water for at least one minute to kill them.




Read more:
Better boil ya billy: when Australian water goes bad


In inland and remote communities, drinking water contamination can be more common and very difficult to resolve.

For example, many remote Western Australian towns have chronic water quality problems, with drinking water often failing to meet Australian standards. And in 2015, the WA Auditor General reported the water in many Indigenous communities contains harmful contaminants, such as uranium and nitrates.

The source of this contamination is often naturally occurring chemical compounds in the local geology of ground water supplies.

One of the biggest contamination incidents in Australia occurred in August and September in 1998. A series of extreme wet weather events after a long drought triggered the contamination of Sydney’s drinking water with high levels of protozoan parasites, which can cause serious diseases such as gastroenteritis or cryptosporidiosis. It resulted in boil water alerts across much of the Sydney metropolitan area.

But what makes this latest incident in Victoria so concerning is that authorities have warned even boiling will not reduce contamination. This suggests contamination may be due to the presence of a harmful chemical, or high levels of sediment particles.

Sediment in water — measured as “turbidity” — can be hazardous because these particles can hold other contaminants, or even shield pathogens from disinfection.

Yarra Valley Water’s advice for the affected suburbs is to avoid using water in any cooking, making ice, brushing teeth or mixing baby formula, and for people to take care not to ingest water in the shower or bath. Emergency drinking water is being supplied by Yarra Valley Water in some locations.

So why do disasters threaten our drinking water?

This latest incident is another reminder that our drinking water is vulnerable to disruption from extreme weather.

This is almost certain to continue, and worsen, as the the Bureau of Meterology’s State of the Climate 2020 report predicts more extreme weather — including drought, heatwaves, bushfires, storms, and floods — in Australia’s future.

As these disasters become more frequent and extreme under climate change, impacts on water supplies across Australia are likely to become more destructive.

A good example of how this can unfold was the impact on Canberra’s water supply after the destructive 2003 bushfires.

Fire burned most of the region’s Cotter River catchments, which hold three dams. After fires went out, massive storms eroded the weakened ground, and washed ash, soil and organic debris into the storage reservoirs. It took years for the water supply system to fully recover.

Physical damage to water infrastructure is also a big risk, as modern water supplies are large and complex. For example, a fallen tree could break open the roof of a sealed water storage tank, exposing water to the elements.

Interruptions of electrical supplies after extreme weather are also common, leading to failures of water supply technology. This, for instance, could stop a water pump from operating, or break down the telemetry system which helps control operations.

As difficult as these hits to Australia’s water security are, and will be in future, it’s even more problematic in the developing world, which may not have the resources to recover.

How can we withstand these challenges?

To maintain optimal water quality, we must protect the integrity of water catchments — areas where water is collected by the natural landscape.

For example, damaging logging operations along steep slopes in Melbourne’s biggest water catchment threatens to pollute the city’s drinking water because it increases the risk of erosion during storms.




Read more:
Logging must stop in Melbourne’s biggest water supply catchment


There’s also merit in Australian cities investing in advanced treatment of wastewater for reuse, rather than build infrequently used desalination plants for when there’s drought.

Australia could follow the US state of California which has ambitious targets to reuse more than 60% of its sewage effluent.

And it’s completely safe — Australia has developed guidelines to ensure recycled water is treated and managed to operate reliably and protect public health.




Read more:
Why does some tap water taste weird?


If you’re concerned about water quality from the tap and haven’t received any alerts, you might just not like its taste. If in doubt, contact you local water supplier.


This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay foundation. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

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

Social plants: in the wild, staghorn ferns grow in colonies to improve water storage for all members


Shutterstock/Florist_Yana

Kevin Burns, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of WellingtonSocial colonies are nothing new in the animal kingdom. We know bees, ants and termites live in large colonies, divide labour and co-operate to take care of offspring produced by a single queen.

This behaviour, known as eusociality, has evolved independently in insects, crustaceans (certain species of shrimp) and even some mammals (naked mole rats), but it has never been observed in plants. This suggested plants were somehow less complex than animals.

Our study, published this week, turns our understanding of the evolution of biological complexity on its head. It documents the life history of a remarkable species of fern that grows in the tops of rainforest trees on Lord Howe Island, a small volcanic island in the north Tasman Sea.

Rather than growing as individual ferns in the treetops, the staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) lives in colonies, in an adaptation to its harsh habitat high above the water and nutrients stored in the soil below.

Individuals differ markedly in size, shape and texture. But they always grow side-by-side within colonies, fitting together like puzzle pieces to form a bucket-like store of water and nutrients available to all colony members.

Many individuals forgo reproduction and instead focus on capturing or storing water to the benefit of other colony members.




Read more:
We found the genes that allowed plants to colonise land 500 million years ago


Life in the tree tops

Staghorn ferns belong to a group of tree-dwelling plants known as epiphytes. Tree canopies are a challenging environment for plants to grow. Without access to soil, epiphytes are regularly exposed to severe water and nutrient stress.

Epiphytes have evolved several ways to mediate the lack of access to water and nutrients. Bromeliads grow cup-shaped leaves, while orchids have specialised root tissues. But staghorn ferns have developed a colony lifestyle to overcome the problem.

Panorama taken on Lord Howe Island
On Lord Howe Island, staghorn ferns grow in colonies.
Author provided

Staghorn ferns can be bought at many garden stores and will grow like any other pot plant. But in the wild on Lord Howe Island, we discovered individual plants collaborate, specialising in different tasks in the construction of the communal water and nutrient store, often at the cost of their own reproduction — just like social insects.

This radically changes our understanding of biological complexity. It suggests major evolutionary transitions towards eusociality can occur in both plants and animals. Plants and beehives aren’t as different as they might seem.

For decades, scientists interested in eusociality argued for a strict definition — many felt the term should be reserved for only a select group of highly co-operative insects.

This perspective led to widespread scepticism about its occurrence in the natural world. Perhaps this is why it was overlooked for so long in one of horticulture’s most popular pot plants.

Evolution of biological complexity

Four billion years ago, life began as simple, self-replicating molecules. Today’s diversity arose from these simple origins towards increasingly complex organisms.

Evolutionary biologists think that biological complexity developed in abrupt, major evolutionary transitions, rather than slow and continuous changes. Such transitions occur when independent entities begin to collaborate, forming new, more complex life forms — such as, for example, when single-celled organisms evolved into multi-cellular organisms.

A microcopic image of one of the first complex multi-cellular plants, algae known as Volvox
Early in the evolution of plants, single-celled algae joined to form more complex structures.
Shutterstock/Lebendkulturen.de

Another example is the transition from unspecialised bacterial (prokaryotic) cells to cells with an enclosed nucleus and specialised organelles that perform particular functions, known as eukaryotic cells.

Co-operation underpins the evolutionary origins of organelles — they likely evolved from free-living ancestors that gave up their independence to live safely within the walls of another cell.




Read more:
The social animals that are inspiring new behaviours for robot swarms


There are eight commonly recognised major evolutionary transitions — and eusociality is the most recent. Eusocial animals differ from others in three fundamental ways:

  • they live in colonies comprised of different generations of adults
  • they subdivide labour into reproductive and non-reproductive groups
  • they care for offspring co-operatively.

Our observations over the past two years on Lord Howe Island found staghorn ferns meet these criteria.

In highly eusocial species, caste membership is permanent and unchanging. But in primitively eusocial species, individuals can alter their behaviour to suit many roles required by the colony. Staghorn ferns probably fit under the latter category.

Our ongoing research will determine the staghorn’s position along this continuum of eusociality. But, for now, we know plants and animals share a similar evolutionary pathway towards greater biological complexity.The Conversation

Kevin Burns, Professor, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

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

Feral desert donkeys are digging wells, giving water to parched wildlife


Erick Lundgren, University of Technology Sydney; Arian Wallach, University of Technology Sydney, and Daniel Ramp, University of Technology SydneyIn the heart of the world’s deserts – some of the most expansive wild places left on Earth – roam herds of feral donkeys and horses. These are the descendants of a once-essential but now-obsolete labour force.

These wild animals are generally considered a threat to the natural environment, and have been the target of mass eradication and lethal control programs in Australia. However, as we show in a new research paper in Science, these animals do something amazing that has long been overlooked: they dig wells — or “ass holes”.

In fact, we found that ass holes in North America — where feral donkeys and horses are widespread — dramatically increased water availability in desert streams, particularly during the height of summer when temperatures reached near 50℃. At some sites, the wells were the only sources of water.

Feral donkeys and horses dig wells to desert groundwater.
Erick Lundgren

The wells didn’t just provide water for the donkeys and horses, but were also used by more than 57 other species, including numerous birds, other herbivores such as mule deer, and even mountain lions. (The lions are also predators of feral donkeys and horses.)

Incredibly, once the wells dried up some became nurseries for the germination and establishment of wetland trees.

Numerous species use equid wells. This includes mule deer (top left), scrub jays (middle left), javelina (bottom left), cottonwood trees (top right), and bobcats (bottom right).
Erick Lundgren

Ass holes in Australia

Our research didn’t evaluate the impact of donkey-dug wells in arid Australia. But Australia is home to most of the world’s feral donkeys, and it’s likely their wells support wildlife in similar ways.

Across the Kimberley in Western Australia, helicopter pilots regularly saw strings of wells in dry streambeds. However, these all but disappeared as mass shootings since the late 1970s have driven donkeys near local extinction. Only on Kachana Station, where the last of the Kimberley’s feral donkeys are protected, are these wells still to be found.

In Queensland, brumbies (feral horses) have been observed digging wells deeper than their own height to reach groundwater.

https://www.kachana-station.com/projects/wild-donkey-project/
Some of the last feral donkeys of the Kimberley.
Arian Wallach

Feral horses and donkeys are not alone in this ability to maintain water availability through well digging.

Other equids — including mountain zebras, Grevy’s zebras and the kulan — dig wells. African and Asian elephants dig wells, too. These wells provide resources for other animal species, including the near-threatened argali and the mysterious Gobi desert grizzly bear in Mongolia.

These animals, like most of the world’s remaining megafauna, are threatened by human hunting and habitat loss.

Other megafauna dig wells, too, including kulans in central Asia, and African elephants.
Petra Kaczensky, Richard Ruggiero

Digging wells has ancient origins

These declines are the modern continuation of an ancient pattern visible since humans left Africa during the late Pleistocene, beginning around 100,000 years ago. As our ancestors stepped foot on new lands, the largest animals disappeared, most likely from human hunting, with contributions from climate change.




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


If their modern relatives dig wells, we presume many of these extinct megafauna may have also dug wells. In Australia, for example, a pair of common wombats were recently documented digging a 4m-deep well, which was used by numerous species, such as wallabies, emus, goannas and various birds, during a severe drought. This means ancient giant wombats (Phascolonus gigas) may have dug wells across the arid interior, too.

Likewise, a diversity of equids and elephant-like proboscideans that once roamed other parts of world, may have dug wells like their surviving relatives.

Indeed, these animals have left riddles in the soils of the Earth, such as the preserved remnants of a 13,500-year-old, 2m-deep well in western North America, perhaps dug by a mammoth during an ancient drought, as a 2012 research paper proposes.




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


Acting like long-lost megafauna

Feral equids are resurrecting this ancient way of life. While donkeys and horses were introduced to places like Australia, it’s clear they hold some curious resemblances to some of its great lost beasts.

Our previous research published in PNAS showed introduced megafauna actually make Australia overall more functionally similar to the ancient past, prior to widespread human-caused extinctions.

Donkeys share many similar traits with extinct giant wombats, who once may have dug wells in Australian drylands.
Illustration by Oscar Sanisidro

For example, donkeys and feral horses have trait combinations (including diet, body mass, and digestive systems) that mirror those of the giant wombat. This suggests — in addition to potentially restoring well-digging capacities to arid Australia — they may also influence vegetation in similar ways.

Water is a limited resource, made even scarcer by farming, mining, climate change, and other human activities. With deserts predicted to spread, feral animals may provide unexpected gifts of life in drying lands.

Feral donkeys, horses (mapped in blue), and other existing megafauna (mapped in red) may restore digging capacities to many drylands. Non-dryland areas are mapped in grey, and the projected expansion of drylands from climate change in yellow.
Erick Lundgren/Science, Author provided

Despite these ecological benefits in desert environments, feral animals have long been denied the care, curiosity and respect native species deservedly receive. Instead, these animals are targeted by culling programs for conservation and the meat industry.

However, there are signs of change. New fields such as compassionate conservation and multispecies justice are expanding conservation’s moral world, and challenging the idea that only native species matter.The Conversation

Erick Lundgren, PhD Student, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney; Arian Wallach, Lecturer, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney, and Daniel Ramp, Associate Professor and Director, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney

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

5 ways fungi could change the world, from cleaning water to breaking down plastics


Shutterstock

Mitchell P. Jones, Vienna University of TechnologyFungi — a scientific goldmine? Well, that’s what a review published today in the journal Trends in Biotechnology indicates. You may think mushrooms are a long chalk from the caped crusaders of sustainability. But think again.

Many of us have heard of fungi’s role in creating more sustainable leather substitutes. Amadou vegan leather crafted from fungal-fruiting bodies has been around for some 5,000 years.

More recently, mycelium leather substitutes have taken the stage. These are produced from the root-like structure mycelium, which snakes through dead wood or soil beneath mushrooms.

You might even know about how fungi help us make many fermented food and drinks such as beer, wine, bread, soy sauce and tempeh. Many popular vegan protein products, including Quorn, are just flavoured masses of fungal mycelium.

But what makes fungi so versatile? And what else can they do?

Show me foamy and flexible

Fungal growth offers a cheap, simple and environmentally friendly way to bind agricultural byproducts (such as rice hulls, wheat straw, sugarcane bagasse and molasses) into biodegradable and carbon-neutral foams.

Fungal foams are becoming increasingly popular as sustainable packaging materials; IKEA is one company that has indicated a commitment to using them.

Fungal foams can also be used in the construction industry for insulation, flooring and panelling. Research has revealed them to be strong competitors against commercial materials in terms of having effective sound and heat insulation properties.

Rigid and flexible fungal foams have several construction applications including (a) particle board and insulation cores, (b) acoustic absorbers, (c) flexible foams and (d) flooring.
Jones et al

Moreover, adding in industrial wastes such as glass fines (crushed glass bits) in these foams can improve their fire resistance.

And isolating only the mycelium can produce a more flexible and spongy foam suitable for products such as facial sponges, artificial skin, ink and dye carriers, shoe insoles, lightweight insulation lofts, cushioning, soft furnishings and textiles.




Read more:
Scientists create new building material out of fungus, rice and glass


Paper that doesn’t come from trees? No, chitin

For other products, it’s the composition of fungi that matters. Fungal filaments contain chitin: a remarkable polymer also found in crab shells and insect exoskeletons.

Chitin has a fibrous structure, similar to cellulose in wood. This means fungal fibre can be processed into sheets the same way paper is made.

When stretched, fungal papers are stronger than many plastics and not much weaker than some steels of the same thickness. We’ve yet to test its properties when subject to different forces.

Fungal paper’s strength can be substituted for rubbery flexibility by using specific fungal species, or a different part of the mushroom. The paper’s transparency can be customised in the same way.

Paper sheets with varying transparency derived from the brown crab’s shell (C. pagurus) (column 1), fungi Daedaleopsis confragosa (column 2) and the mushroom Agaricus bisporus (column 6). Columns 3, 4 and 5 show fungal papers of varying transparencies based on mixtures of the two species.
Wan Nawawi et al

Growing fungi in mineral-rich environments results in inherent fire resistance for the fungus, as it absorbs the inflammable minerals, incorporating them into its structure. Add to this that water doesn’t wet fungal surfaces, but rolls off, and you’ve got yourself some pretty useful paper.

A clear solution to dirty water

Some might ask: what’s the point of fungal paper when we already get paper from wood? That’s where the other interesting attributes of chitin come into play — or more specifically, the attributes of its derivative, chitosan.

Chitosan is chitin that has been chemically modified through exposure to an acid or alkali. This means with a few simple steps, fungal paper can adopt a whole new range of applications.

For instance, chitosan is electrically charged and can be used to attract heavy metal ions. So what happens if you couple it with a mycelium filament network that is intricate enough to prevent solids, bacteria and even viruses (which are much smaller than bacteria) from passing through?

White-button mushroom
Fungal chitin paper derived from white-button mushrooms is an eco-friendly alternative to standard filter materials.
Shutterstock

The result is an environmentally friendly membrane with impressive water purification properties. In our research, my colleagues and I found this material to be stable, simple to make and useful for laboratory filtration.

While the technology hasn’t yet been commercialised, it holds particular promise for reducing the environmental impact of synthetic filtration materials, and providing safer drinking water where it’s not available.

Mushrooms in modern medicine

Perhaps even more interesting is chitosan’s considerable biomedical potential. Fungal materials have been used to create dressings with active wound healing properties.

Although not currently on the market, these have been proven to have antibacterial properties, stem bleeding and support cell proliferation and attachment.

Fungal enzymes can also be used to combat bacteria active in tooth decay, enhance bleaching and destroy compounds responsible for bad breath.




Read more:
Vegan leather made from mushrooms could mould the future of sustainable fashion


Then there’s the well-known role of fungi in antibiotics. Penicillin, made from the Penicillium fungi, was a scientific breakthrough that has saved millions of lives and become a staple of modern healthcare.

Many antibiotics are still produced from fungi or soil bacteria. And in an age of increasing antibiotic resistance, genome sequencing is finally enabling us to identify fungi’s untapped potential for manufacturing the antibiotics of the future.

Mushrooms mending the environment

Fungi could play a huge role in sustainability by remedying existing environmental damage.

For example, they can help clean up contaminated industrial sites through a popular technique known as mycoremediation, and can break down or absorb oils, pollutants, toxins, dyes and heavy metals.

They can also compost some synthetic plastics, such as polyurethane. In this process, the plastic is buried in regulated soil and its byproducts are digested by specific fungi as it degrades.

These incredible organisms can even help refine bio fuels. Whether or not we go as far as using fungal coffins to decompose our bodies into nutrients for plants — well, that’s a debate for another day.

But one thing is for sure: fungi have the undeniable potential to be used for a whole range of purposes we’re only beginning to grasp.

It could be the beer you drink, your next meal, antibiotics, a new faux leather bag or the packaging that delivered it to you — you never know what form the humble mushroom will take tomorrow.




Read more:
The secret life of fungi: how they use ingenious strategies to forage underground


The Conversation


Mitchell P. Jones, Postdoctoral researcher, Vienna University of Technology

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

Water markets are not perfect, but vital to the future of the Murray-Darling Basin



kaman985shu/Shutterstock

Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

Water markets have come in for some bad press lately, fuelled in part by the severe drought of 2019 and resulting high water prices.

They have also been the subject of an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry, whose interim report released last year documented a range of problems with the way water markets work in the Murray-Darling Basin. The final report was handed to the treasurer last week.

While water markets are far from perfect, new research from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) has found they are vital in helping the region cope with drought and climate change, producing benefits in the order of A$117 million per year.

To make the most of water markets, we will need to keep improving the rules and systems which support them. But with few “off-the-shelf” solutions, further reform will require both perseverance and innovation.

Water markets generate big benefits

Australia’s biggest and most active water markets are in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, which covers the Murray River and its tributaries in Victoria, NSW and South Australia.

Murray Darling Basin.
MDBA

Each year water right holders are assigned “allocations”: shares of water in the rivers’ major dams. These allocations can be traded across the river system, helping to get water where it is most needed.

Water markets also allow for “carryover”: where rights holders store rather than use their allocations, holding them in dams for use in future droughts.

Our research estimates that water trading and carryover generate benefits to water users in the southern Murray-Darling, of A$117 million on average per year (around 12% of the value of water rights) with even larger gains in dry years. Carryover plays a key role, accounting for around half of these benefits.

Together water trading and carryover act to smooth variability in water prices, while also slightly lowering average prices across the basin.

There’s room for improvement

One of many issues raised in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission interim report was the design of the trading rules, including limits on how much water can move between regions.

These rules are intended to reflect the physical limits of the river system, however getting them right is extremely difficult.

The rules we have are relatively blunt, such that there is potential at different times for either too much water to be traded or too little.

National Electricity Market.
AGL

One possible refinement is a shift from a rules-based system to one with more central coordination.

For example, in electricity, these problems are addressed via so-called “smart markets”: centralised computer systems which balance demand and supply across the grid in real-time.

Such an approach is unlikely to be feasible for water in the foreseeable future.

But a similar outcome could be achieved by establishing a central agency to determine inter-regional trade volumes, taking into account user demands, river constraints, seasonal conditions and environmental objectives.

While novel in Australia, the approach has parallels in the government-operated “drought water banks” that have emerged in some parts of the United States.

Some of the good ideas are our own

Another possible refinement involves water sharing rules, which specify how water allocations are determined and how they are carried over between years.

At present these rules are often complex and lacking in transparency. This can lead to a perceived disconnect between water allocations and physical water supply, creating uncertainty for users and undermining confidence in the market.

Although markets in the northern Murray-Darling Basin are generally less advanced than the south, some sophisticated water sharing systems have evolved in the north to deal with the region’s unique hydrology (highly variable river flows and small dams).

Beardmore Dam at St George in Southern Queensland, where water markets operate under a capacity sharing system.
ABARES

There is potential for the southern basin to make use of these northern innovations (known as “capacity sharing” or “continuous accounting”) to improve transparency and carryover decisions.

Don’t throw the market out with the river water

Governance failures in the water market have led to understandable frustration.

But it is important to remember how vital trading and carryover are in smoothing variations in water prices and making sure water gets where it is needed, especially during droughts.

The ACCC’s final report (due soon) will provide an opportunity to take stock and develop a roadmap for the future.


Water markets will be discussed at Today’s ABARES Outlook 2021 conference in an online panel session at 3-4pm AEDT.The Conversation

Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

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

Blind shrimps, translucent snails: the 11 mysterious new species we found in potential fracking sites



An ostracod, a small crustacean with more than 70,000 identified species.
Anna33/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Jenny Davis, Charles Darwin University; Daryl Nielsen, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, CSIRO, and Stefanie Oberprieler, Charles Darwin University

There aren’t many parts of the world where you can discover a completely new assemblage of living creatures. But after sampling underground water in a remote, arid region of northern Australia, we discovered at least 11, and probably more, new species of stygofauna.

Stygofauna are invertebrates that have evolved exclusively in underground water. A life in complete darkness means these animals are often blind, beautifully translucent and often extremely localised – rarely living anywhere else but the patch they’re found in.

The species we discovered live in a region earmarked for fracking by the Northern Territory and federal government. As with any mining activity, it’s important future gas extraction doesn’t harm groundwater habitats or the water that sustains them.

Our findings, published today, show the importance of conducting comprehensive environmental assessments before extraction projects begin. These assessments are especially critical in Australia’s north, where many plants and animals living in surface and groundwater have not yet been documented.

When the going gets tough, go underground

Stygofauna were first discovered in Western Australia in 1991. Since then, these underground, aquatic organisms have been recorded across the continent. Today, more than 400 Australian species have been formally recognised by scientists.

The subterranean fauna we collected from NT aquifers, including a range of species unknown to science. A–C: Atyid shrimps, including Parisia unguis; D-F: Amphipods in Melitidae family; G: The syncarid species Brevisomabathynella sp.; H-J: members of the Candonidae family of ostracods; K: the harpacticoid species Nitokra lacustris; L: a new species of snail in the Caenogastropoda: M-N: Members of the Cyclopidae family of copepods; O: The worm species Aeolosoma sp.
GISERA, Author provided

Stygofauna are the ultimate climate change refugees. They would have inhabited surface water when inland Australia was much wetter. But as the continent started drying around 14 million years ago, they moved underground to the relatively stable environmental conditions of subterranean aquifers.




Read more:
Hidden depths: why groundwater is our most important water source


Today, stygofauna help maintain the integrity of groundwater food webs. They mostly graze on fungal and microbial films created by organic material leaching from the surface.

In 2018, the final report of an independent inquiry called for a critical knowledge gap regarding groundwater to be filled, to ensure fracking could be done safely in the Northern Territory. We wanted to determine where stygofauna and microbial assemblages occurred, and in what numbers.

Our project started in 2019, when we carried out a pilot survey of groundwater wells (bores) in the Beetaloo Sub-basin and Roper River region. The Beetaloo Sub-basin is potentially one of the most important areas for shale gas in Australia.

What we found

The stygofauna we found range in size from centimetres to millimetres and include:

  • two new species of ostracod: small crustaceans enclosed within mussel-like shells

  • a new species of amphipod: this crustacean acts as a natural vacuum cleaner, feeding on decomposing material

  • multiple new species of copepods: tiny crustaceans which form a major component of the zooplankton in marine and freshwater systems

  • a new syncarid: another crustacean entirely restricted to groundwater habitats

  • a new snail and a new worm.

A thriving stygofauna ecosystem lies beneath the surface of northern Australia’s arid outback. We sampled water through bores to measure their presence.
Jenny Davis, Author provided

These species were living in groundwater 400 to 900 kilometres south of Darwin. We found them mostly in limestone karst habitats, which contain many channels and underground caverns.

Perhaps most exciting, we also found a relatively large, colourless, blind shrimp (Parisia unguis) previously known only from the Cutta Cutta caves near Katherine. This shrimp is an “apex” predator, feeding on other stygofauna — a rare find for these kinds of ecosystems.

A microscopic image of Parisia unguis, a freshwater shrimp.
Stefanie Oberprieler, Author provided

Protecting groundwater and the animals that live there

The Beetaloo Sub-basin in located beneath a major freshwater resource, the Cambrian Limestone Aquifer. It supplies water for domestic use, cattle stations and horticulture.

Surface water in this dry region is scarce, and it’s important natural gas development does not harm groundwater.

The stygofauna we found are not the first to potentially be affected by a resource project. Stygofauna have also been found at the Yeelirrie uranium mine in Western Australia, approved by the federal government in 2019. More research will be required to understand risks to the stygofauna we found at the NT site.




Read more:
It’s not worth wiping out a species for the Yeelirrie uranium mine


The discovery of these new NT species has implications for all extractive industries affecting groundwater. It shows the importance of thorough assessment and monitoring before work begins, to ensure damage to groundwater and associated ecosystems is detected and mitigated.

Gas infrastructure at Beetaloo Basin
The Beetaloo Basin is part of the federal government’s gas expansion strategy.
Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources

Where to from here

Groundwater is vital to inland Australia. Underground ecosystems must be protected – and not considered “out of sight, out of mind”.

Our study provides the direction to reduce risks to stygofauna, ensuring their ecosystems and groundwater quality is maintained.

Comprehensive environmental surveys are needed to properly document the distribution of these underground assemblages. The new stygofauna we found must also be formally recognised as a new species in science, and their DNA sequence established to support monitoring programs.

Different species of copepods from various parts of the world.
Andrei Savitsky/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Many new tools and approaches are available to support environmental assessment, monitoring and management of resource extraction projects. These include remote sensing and molecular analyses.

Deploying the necessary tools and methods will help ensure development in northern Australia is sustainable. It will also inform efforts to protect groundwater habitats and stygofauna across the continent.




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The Conversation


Jenny Davis, Professor, Research Institute for Environment & Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Charles Darwin University; Daryl Nielsen, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Stefanie Oberprieler, Research associate, Charles Darwin University

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