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.

Marine life is fleeing the equator to cooler waters. History tells us this could trigger a mass extinction event


Shutterstock

Anthony Richardson, The University of Queensland; Chhaya Chaudhary, University of Auckland; David Schoeman, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Mark John Costello, University of AucklandThe tropical water at the equator is renowned for having the richest diversity of marine life on Earth, with vibrant coral reefs and large aggregations of tunas, sea turtles, manta rays and whale sharks. The number of marine species naturally tapers off as you head towards the poles.

Ecologists have assumed this global pattern has remained stable over recent centuries — until now. Our recent study found the ocean around the equator has already become too hot for many species to survive, and that global warming is responsible.

In other words, the global pattern is rapidly changing. And as species flee to cooler water towards the poles, it’s likely to have profound implications for marine ecosystems and human livelihoods. When the same thing happened 252 million years ago, 90% of all marine species died.

The bell curve is warping dangerously

This global pattern — where the number of species starts lower at the poles and peaks at the equator — results in a bell-shaped gradient of species richness. We looked at distribution records for nearly 50,000 marine species collected since 1955 and found a growing dip over time in this bell shape.

A chart with three overlapping lines, each representing different decades. It shows that between 1955 and 1974, the bell curve is almost flat at the top. For the lines 1975-1994 and 1995-2015, the dip gets progressively deeper, with peaks either side of the centre.
If you look at each line in this chart, you can see a slight dip in total species richness between 1955 and 1974. This deepens substantially in the following decades.
Anthony Richardson, Author provided

So, as our oceans warm, species have tracked their preferred temperatures by moving towards the poles. Although the warming at the equator of 0.6℃ over the past 50 years is relatively modest compared with warming at higher latitudes, tropical species have to move further to remain in their thermal niche compared with species elsewhere.

As ocean warming has accelerated over recent decades due to climate change, the dip around at the equator has deepened.

We predicted such a change five years ago using a modelling approach, and now we have observational evidence.




Read more:
The ocean is becoming more stable – here’s why that might not be a good thing


For each of the 10 major groups of species we studied (including pelagic fish, reef fish and molluscs) that live in the water or on the seafloor, their richness either plateaued or declined slightly at latitudes with mean annual sea-surface temperatures above 20℃.

Today, species richness is greatest in the northern hemisphere in latitudes around 30°N (off southern China and Mexico) and in the south around 20°S (off northern Australia and southern Brazil).

school of tuna fish
The tropical water at the equator is renowned for having the richest diversity of marine life, including large aggregations of tuna fish.
Shutterstock

This has happened before

We shouldn’t be surprised global biodiversity has responded so rapidly to global warming. This has happened before, and with dramatic consequences.

252 million years ago…

At the end of the Permian geological period about 252 million years ago, global temperatures warmed by 10℃ over 30,000-60,000 years as a result of greenhouse gas emissions from volcano eruptions in Siberia.

A 2020 study of the fossils from that time shows the pronounced peak in biodiversity at the equator flattened and spread. During this mammoth rearranging of global biodiversity, 90% of all marine species were killed.

125,000 years ago…

A 2012 study showed that more recently, during the rapid warming around 125,000 years ago, there was a similar swift movement of reef corals away from the tropics, as documented in the fossil record. The result was a pattern similar to the one we describe, although there was no associated mass extinction.

Authors of the study suggested their results might foreshadow the effects of our current global warming, ominously warning there could be mass extinctions in the near future as species move into the subtropics, where they might struggle to compete and adapt.

Today…

During the last ice age, which ended around 15,000 years ago, the richness of forams (a type of hard-shelled, single-celled plankton) peaked at the equator and has been dropping there ever since. This is significant as plankton is a keystone species in the foodweb.

Our study shows that decline has accelerated in recent decades due to human-driven climate change.

The profound implications

Losing species in tropical ecosystems means ecological resilience to environmental changes is reduced, potentially compromising ecosystem persistence.

In subtropical ecosystems, species richness is increasing. This means there’ll be species invaders, novel predator-prey interactions, and new competitive relationships. For example, tropical fish moving into Sydney Harbour compete with temperate species for food and habitat.

This could result in ecosystem collapse — as was seen at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods — in which species go extinct and ecosystem services (such as food supplies) are permanently altered.

The changes we describe will also have profound implications for human livelihoods. For example, many tropical island nations depend on the revenue from tuna fishing fleets through the selling of licenses in their territorial waters. Highly mobile tuna species are likely to move rapidly toward the subtropics, potentially beyond sovereign waters of island nations.




Read more:
Tropical fisheries: does limiting international trade protect local people and marine life?


Similarly, many reef species important for artisanal fishers — and highly mobile megafauna such as whale sharks, manta rays and sea turtles that support tourism — are also likely to move toward the subtropics.

The movement of commercial and artisanal fish and marine megafauna could compromise the ability of tropical nations to meet the Sustainable Development Goals concerning zero hunger and marine life.

Is there anything we can do?

One pathway is laid out in the Paris Climate Accords and involves aggressively reducing our emissions. Other opportunities are also emerging that could help safeguard biodiversity and hopefully minimise the worst impacts of it shifting away from the equator.

Currently 2.7% of the ocean is conserved in fully or highly protected reserves. This is well short of the 10% target by 2020 under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Manta ray with other fish
Manta rays and other marine megafauna leaving the equator will have a huge impact on tourism.
Shutterstock

But a group of 41 nations is pushing to set a new target of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030.

This “30 by 30” target could ban seafloor mining and remove fishing in reserves that can destroy habitats and release as much carbon dioxide as global aviation. These measures would remove pressures on biodiversity and promote ecological resilience.

Designing climate-smart reserves could further protect biodiversity from future changes. For example, reserves for marine life could be placed in refugia where the climate will be stable over the foreseeable future.

We now have evidence that climate change is impacting the best-known and strongest global pattern in ecology. We should not delay actions to try to mitigate this.

This story is part of Oceans 21

Our series on the global ocean opened with five in-depth profiles. Look out for new articles on the state of our oceans in the lead-up to the UN’s next climate conference, COP26. The series is brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.




Read more:
Australia’s marine (un)protected areas: government zoning bias has left marine life in peril since 2012


The Conversation


Anthony Richardson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Chhaya Chaudhary, , University of Auckland; David Schoeman, Professor of Global-Change Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Mark John Costello, Professor, University of Auckland

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

The secret life of puddles: their value to nature is subtle, but hugely important


Shutterstock

Gregory Moore, The University of MelbourneIt’s official: Australians endured the coldest, wettest summer in at least five years thanks to La Niña, a climate phenomenon over the Pacific Ocean.

Before we knew it, autumn rolled in bringing more rain. Tragically, it led to widespread flooding across New South Wales, but elsewhere it helped to create more puddles. In our urban environments puddles are inconvenient: they can damage property and block our paths. But from a biological perspective, puddles are very important components of microhabitats and biodiversity.

We know for many animals — including birds and pets — puddles are a ready source of drinking water and provide a much-needed bath after a hot and dusty day. They’re also well known for providing water-reliant species such as mosquitoes with opportunities for breeding, and many of us may remember watching tadpoles developing in puddles as children.

But puddles make more nuanced and subtle contributions to the natural world than you may have realised. So with more rain soon to arrive, let’s explore why they’re so valuable.

Rainy day on Swanston St, Melbourne
Puddles are getting harder to find in urban environments.
Shutterstock

Take a closer look

Puddles are a diverse lot. They can be small or large, shallow or deep, long lasting or gone in a matter of hours. If you look closely at a puddle you will often find it is not even, especially on a slope.

Puddles consist of small, naturally formed ridges (berms) and depressions (swales). The berms form from silt and organic matter like leaf litter, which act as mini dams holding back the water in the swales behind them.

Berms and swales can be hard to see, but if you look closely they’re everywhere and contribute to the retention of water, affecting the depth, spread and the very existence of the puddle.

All of this means they meet the needs of different species.

Flooded country path
The tiny ridges and depressions in puddles can make a big difference to wildlife.
Shutterstock

On rainy days you may have seen birds such as magpies feeding on worms that wriggle to the surface. Worm burrows can be two to three metres deep and many species might come to the surface to feed on leaf litter.

Worms emerge during and after heavy rain when water floods their burrows and soil becomes saturated. The worms won’t drown but they do need oxygen, which is low in very wet soils.

Often in drier weather, getting a worm is not as easy as you might think — not even for the legendary early bird. So when heavy rain drives worms to the surface, it’s party time for birds that feed on them, and they make the most of the opportunity.

A spotted pardalote near a puddle
A spotted pardalote inspecting puddle.
Shutterstock

Swales in puddles often persist for days, which allows water-dependent insects to breed. Mosquito larvae, for instance, live in water for between four and 14 days, depending on temperature (so if you’re worried about mozzies, then remember puddles have to persist for days before the pesky pests emerge).

Tadpoles take between four and 12 weeks to develop into frogs, and requires a deeper, long-lasting puddle. But these puddles are becoming rarer in urban areas, and so it’s not often you see tadpoles or frogs in our suburbs.

Why seeds love them

Puddles also provide small, but important, reservoirs where seeds of many plant species germinate. In some cases, the seeds have chemical inhibitors in them, which prevent the seeds from germinating until after a period of heavy rainfall.

Then, the inhibitors are leeched from or diluted within the seeds, allowing them to germinate. Many desert species have this adaptation, including Australian eremophilas (emu bush).




Read more:
La Niña will give us a wet summer. That’s great weather for mozzies


In other cases, plants that grow all year round (annoyingly, weeds among them) need the dose of water puddles provide to kick start their very rapid growth and reproduction.

Easily germinated plants (such as tomatoes and cabbages) and ornamental flowering plants (such as hollyhocks and delphiniums) often require just a little extra water to trigger the whole germination process.

Important growing opportunities for iconic trees

Puddles also provide more subtle opportunities for wildlife. Take Australia’s iconic river red gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) as an example. River red gums are water-loving trees that can withstand up to nine months of inundation without getting stressed.

River red gum
Puddles can wash away plant-inhibiting chemicals from the soil.
Shutterstock

What’s not so well known, however, is river red gums produce chemicals that rain washes from their leaves, accumulating beneath the tree. These chemicals can inhibit the growth of plants, such as weeds, under the canopies.

This effect — where chemicals produced by one plant have an effect on other plants — is called “allelopathy”. Many wattle species produce allelopathic chemicals and so do some important food plants, such as walnuts, rice and the common pea.

River red gum allelopathic chemicals can prevent the trees’ own seedlings from growing near them. So river red gums require floods to wash the chemicals from the soil away. This mechanism allows river red gums to germinate and regenerate when the soil is wet, and in places away from the competition of mature trees.




Read more:
The river red gum is an icon of the driest continent


Puddles can do the same thing, on a small scale, ensuring trees have plenty of opportunities to persist in the wild. This pattern of regeneration is important to provide a mosaic of species and trees of different ages, making up a diverse range of habitats for other wildlife.

Puddles are no piddling problem

A muddy golden retriever playing in a puddle
Puddles are becoming harder to find in the suburbs.
Shutterstock

As property developers iron the creases from our created landscapes with much less open space and more paved surfaces, puddles are becoming harder to find close to home.

Taking away puddles removes a whole range of microhabitats, jeopardising the chances of a diverse range of species to breed and persist, especially in urban areas. These days, any loss of biodiversity is worrying.

So when you’re next out and about after or during heavy rain, keep an eye out for puddles.

Remember the life that depends on them and, if you can, try not to disturb them. Perhaps capture the joy of jumping over — rather than in — them. They are not just a nuisance, but a key to a nuanced and biodiverse local community.The Conversation

Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, The University of Melbourne

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

Many New Zealand species are already at risk because of predators and habitat loss. Climate change makes things worse


Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Cate Macinnis-Ng, University of Auckland and Angus Mcintosh, University of CanterburyIslands are biodiversity hotspots. They are home to 20% of the world’s plants and animals yet cover only 5% of the global landmass. But island ecosystems are highly vulnerable, threatened by habitat fragmentation and introduced invasive weeds and predators.

Climate change adds to all these stresses. In our recent paper, we use Aotearoa New Zealand as a case study to show how climate change accelerates biodiversity decline on islands by exacerbating existing conservation threats.

Banded dotterel chick in a snad nest
Many native birds are threatened by introduced predators such as rats, possums and cats.
Shutterstock/Imogen Warren

Aotearoa is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, with 80% of vascular plants, 81% of arthropods and 60% of land vertebrate animals found nowhere else.

Its evolutionary history is dominated by birds. Before the arrival of people, the only native land mammals were bats. But now, introduced predators threaten the survival of many species.

Complex interplay between many threats

Conservation efforts have rightly concentrated on the eradication of introduced predators, with world-leading success in the eradication of rats in particular.

Potential climate change impacts have been mostly ignored. Successive assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlight the lack of information for Aotearoa. This could be due to insufficient research, system complexity or a lack of impacts.

In the past, some researchers even dismissed climate change as an issue for biodiversity in Aotearoa. Our maritime climate is comparatively mild and already variable. As a result, organisms are expected to be well adapted to changing conditions.




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


Palaeo-ecological records suggest few species extinctions despite abrupt environmental change during the Quaternary period (from 2.5 million years ago to present). But past climate change provides an incomplete picture of contemporary change because it did not include human-induced threats.

Habitat loss and fragmentation, land‐use change and complex interactions between native species and introduced predators or invasive weeds all contribute to these threats.

How climate change affects biodiversity

Species respond to climate change by evolving physiological adjustments, moving to new habitats or, in the worst cases, becoming extinct. These responses then change ecosystem processes, including species interactions and ecosystem functions (such as carbon uptake and storage).

Methods for identifying climate change impacts are either empirical and observational (field studies and manipulative experiments) or mechanistic (ecophysiological models). Mechanistic approaches allow predictions of impacts under future climate scenarios. But linking species and ecosystem change directly to climate can be challenging in a complex world where multiple stressors are at play.

Tuatara, a reptile found only in New Zealand.
Tuatara survive only on a few offshore islands and in sanctuaries.
Shutterstock/Ken Griffiths

There are several well-known examples of climate change impacts on species endemic to Aotearoa. First, warming of tuatara eggs changes the sex ratio of hatchlings. Hotter conditions produce more males, potentially threatening long-term survival of small, isolated populations.

Second, mast seeding (years of unusually high production of seed) is highly responsive to temperature and mast events are likely to increase under future climate change. During mast years, the seeds provide more food for invasive species like rats or mice, their populations explode in response to the abundant food and then, when the seed resource is used up, they turn to other food sources such as invertebrates and bird eggs. This has major impacts on native ecosystems.

How masting plants respond to climate change is complex and depends on the species. The full influence of climate is still emerging.

Looking up into the canopy of beech trees.
Every few years, beech trees produce significantly higher amounts of seed.
Shutterstock/sljones

Indirect effects of climate change

We identified a range of known and potential complex impacts of climate change in several ecosystems. The alpine zone is particularly vulnerable. Warming experiments showed rising temperatures extend the overlap between the flowering seasons of native alpine plants and invasive plants. This potentially increases competition for pollinators and could result in lower seed production.

Some large alpine birds, including the alpine parrot kea, will have fewer cool places to take refuge from invasive predators. This will cause
local extinctions in a process know as “thermal squeeze”.

Small alpine lakes, known as tarns, are not well understood but are also likely to suffer from thermal squeeze and increased drought periods. Warmer temperatures may also allow Australian brown tree frogs to invade further into these sensitive systems.

The alpine parrot kea
The alpine parrot kea lives in New Zealand’s mountain ranges.
Shutterstock/Peter Nordbaek Hansen

Climate change disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. In Aotearoa, culturally significant species such as tītī (sooty shearwater) and harakeke (flax) will be influenced by climate change.

The breeding success of tītī, which are harvested traditionally, is strongly influenced by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle. As ENSO intensifies under climate change, numbers of young surviving are decreasing. For harakeke, future climate projections predict changes in plant distribution, potentially making weaving materials unavailable to some hapū (subtribes).




Read more:
Traditional knowledge helps Indigenous people adapt to climate crisis, research shows


Mātauranga, the Indigenous knowledge of Māori, provides insights on climate change that haven’t been captured in western science. For instance, the Māori calendar, maramataka, has been developed over centuries of observations.

Maramataka for each hāpu (subtribe) provide guidance for the timing of gathering mahinga kai (traditional food sources). This includes the gathering of fish and other seafood, planting of crops and harvesting food. Because this calendar is based on knowledge that has accrued over generations, some changes in timing and distributions due to environmental or climate change may be captured in these oral histories.

Climate change is here now

Future projections of climate change are complicated in Aotearoa — but it is clear the climate is already changing.

Last year was the seventh hottest on record for Aotearoa. Many parts of the country suffered severe summer drought. NASA captured images of browned landscapes across the country.

Satellite images of New Zealand, showing two years and the impact of drought.
These images show how the Hawke’s Bay dried out between the summer (December to February) periods of 2019 (left) and 2020 (right).
NASA, CC BY-SA

Much of the focus of climate change research has been in agricultural and other human landscapes but we need more effort to quantify the threat for our endemic systems.

On islands across the world, rising sea levels and more severe extreme weather events are threatening the survival of endemic species and ecosystems. We need to understand the complicated processes through which climate change interacts with other threats to ensure the success of conservation projects.

While we focused on terrestrial and freshwater systems, marine and near-shore ecosystems are also suffering because of ocean acidification, rising sea levels and marine heatwaves. These processes threaten marine productivity, fisheries and mahinga kai resources.

And for long-term conservation success, we need to consider both direct and indirect impacts of climate change on our unique species and ecosystems.The Conversation

Cate Macinnis-Ng, Associate Professor, University of Auckland and Angus Mcintosh, Professor of Freshwater Ecology, University of Canterbury

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

5 remarkable stories of flora and fauna in the aftermath of Australia’s horror bushfire season



hamiltonphillipa/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC-SA

Will Cornwell, UNSW; Casey Kirchhoff, UNSW, and Mark Ooi, UNSW

Around one year ago, Australia’s Black Summer bushfire season ended, leaving more than 8 million hectares across south-east Australia a mix of charcoal, ash and smoke. An estimated three billion animals were killed or displaced, not including invertebrates.

The impact of the fires on biodiversity was too vast for professional scientists alone to collect data. So in the face of this massive challenge, we set up a community (citizen) science project through the iNaturalist website to help paint a more complete picture of which species are bouncing back — and which are not.

Almost 400 community scientists living near or travelling across the firegrounds have recorded their observations of flora and fauna in the aftermath, from finding fresh wombat droppings in blackened forests, to hearing the croaks of healthy tree frogs in a dam choked with debris and ash.

Each observation is a story of survival against the odds, or of tragedy. Here are five we consider particularly remarkable.

Greater gliders after Australia’s largest ever fire

The Gospers Mountain fire in New South Wales was the biggest forest fire in Australian history, razing an area seven times the size of Singapore. This meant there nothing in history scientists could draw from to predict the animals’ response.

So it came as a huge surprise when a community scientist observed greater gliders deep within the heart of the Gospers Mountain firegrounds in Wollemi National Park, far from unburned habitat. Greater gliders are listed as “vulnerable” under national environment law. They’re nocturnal and live in hollow-bearing trees.

A greater glider with shining eyes at night
A citizen scientist snapped this photo of a greater glider in the heart of the the Gospers Mountain firegrounds.
Mike Letnic/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

How gliders survived the fire is still unknown. Could they have hidden in deep hollows of trees where the temperature is relatively cooler while the fire front passed? And what would they have eaten afterwards? Greater gliders usually feed on young leaves and flowers, but these foods are very rare in the post-fire environment.

Finding these gliders shows how there’s still so much to learn about the resilience of species in the face of even the most devastating fires, especially as bushfires are forecast to become more frequent.

Rare pink flowers burnishing the firegrounds

The giant scale of the 2019-20 fires means post-fire flowering is on display in grand and gorgeous fashion. This is a feature of many native plant species which need fire to stimulate growth.

Excitingly, community scientists recorded a long-dormant species, the pink flannel flower (Actinotus forsythii), that’s now turning vast areas of the Blue Mountains pink.

Pink flannel flowers are bushfire ephemerals, which means their seeds only germinate after fire.
Margaret Sky/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

Pink flannel flowers are not considered threatened, but they are very rarely seen.

Individuals of this species spend most of their life as a seed in the soil. Seeds require a chemical found in bushfire smoke, and the right seasonal temperatures, to germinate.

Rediscovering the midge orchid

Much of Australia’s amazing biodiversity is extremely local. Some species, particularly plants, exist only in a single valley or ridge. The Black Summer fires destroyed the entire range of 100 Australian plant species, incinerating the above-ground parts of every individual. How well a species regenerates after fire determines whether it recovers, or is rendered extinct.

The midge orchid.
Nick Lambert/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

One of these is a species of midge orchid, which grows in a small area of Gibraltar Range National Park, NSW.

All of the midge orchid’s known sites are thought to have burned in late 2019. The species fate was unknown until two separate community scientists photographed it at five sites in January 2021, showing its recovery.

Like many of Australia’s terrestrial orchids, this species has an underground tuber (storage organ) which may have helped part of it avoid the flames’ lethal heat.




Read more:
After last summer’s fires, the bell tolls for Australia’s endangered mountain bells


Don’t forget about insects

Despite their incredible diversity and tremendous value to society, insects tend to be the forgotten victims of bushfires and other environmental disasters.

Many trillions of invertebrates would have been killed in the fires of last summer. A common sight during and after the bushfire season was a deposit of dead insects washed ashore. Some died from the flames and heat, while others died having drowned trying to escape.

Dead insects washed up on the beach was a common sight in the fire aftermath.
BlueBowerStudio/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

One dead insect deposit — one of hundreds that washed up near Bermagui, NSW on Christmas Eve — included a range of species that have critical interactions with other organisms.

This includes orchid dupe wasps (Lissopimpla excelsa), the only known pollinator of the orchid genus Cryptostylis. Transverse ladybirds (Coccinella transversalis), an important predator of agricultural pests such as aphids, also washed up. As did metallic shield bugs (Scutiphora pedicellata), spectacular iridescent jewel bugs that come in green and blue hues.

Some insects died from the flames and heat, while others died having drowned trying to escape the flames.
BlueBowerStudio/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

The unlikely survival of the Kaputar slug

Creatures such as kangaroos or birds have a chance to flee bushfires, but smaller, less mobile species such as native slugs and snails have a much tougher time of surviving.

The 2019-2020 bushfire season significantly threatened the brilliantly coloured Mount Kaputar pink slug, found only on the slopes of Mount Kaputar, NSW. When fires ripped through the national park in October and November 2019, conservationists feared the slug may have been entirely wiped out.




Read more:
Photos from the field: zooming in on Australia’s hidden world of exquisite mites, snails and beetles


But park ranger surveys in January 2020 found at least 60 individuals managed to survive, likely by sheltering in damp rock crevices. Community scientists have spotted more individuals since then, such as the one pictured here found in September 2020.

But the slug isn’t out of the woods yet, and more monitoring is required to ensure the population is not declining.

Bright pink slug
A community scientist spotted this rare slug in firegrounds.
Taylor/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

Continuing this work

While community scientists have been documenting amazing stories of recovery all across Australia, there are still many species which haven’t been observed since the fires. Many more have been observed only at a single site.

The Snowy River westringia (Westringia cremnophila), for instance, is a rare flowering shrub found on cliffs in Snowy River National Park, Victoria. No one has reported observing it since the fire.

So far these community scientist observations have contributed to one scientific paper, and three more documenting the ability for species to recover post-fire are in process.

Recovery from Black Summer is likely to take decades, and preparing a body of scientific data on post-fire recovery is vital to inform conservation efforts after this and future fires. We need more observations to continue this important work.




Read more:
Summer bushfires: how are the plant and animal survivors 6 months on? We mapped their recovery


The Conversation


Will Cornwell, Associate Professor in Ecology and Evolution, UNSW; Casey Kirchhoff, PhD Candidate, UNSW, and Mark Ooi, Senior Research Fellow, UNSW

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

COVID-19 wasn’t just a disaster for humanity – new research shows nature suffered greatly too



Shutterstock

Marc Hockings, The University of Queensland

It’s one year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. While the human and economic toll have been enormous, new findings show the fallout from the virus also seriously damaged nature.

Conservation is often funded by tourism dollars – particularly in developing nations. In many cases, the dramatic tourism downturn brought on by the pandemic meant funds for conservation were cut. Anti-poaching operations and endangered species programs were among those affected.

This dwindling of conservation efforts during COVID is sadly ironic. The destruction of nature is directly linked to zoonotic diseases, and avoiding habitat loss is a cost-effective way to prevent pandemics.

The research papers reveal the inextricable links between the health of humans and the health of the planet. Together, they make one thing abundantly clear: we must learn the hard lessons of COVID-19 to ensure the calamity is not repeated.

A gorilla and man wearing mask
Protected areas are a boon for nature, and can help prevent pandemics.
Jerome Starkey

A disaster for conservation

The findings are contained in a special issue of PARKS, the peer-reviewed journal of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, co-edited with Brent Mitchell and Adrian Phillips.

Researchers found between January and May 2020, 45% of global tourism destinations totally or partially closed their borders to tourists. This caused the loss of 174 million direct tourism jobs around the world, and cost the sector US$4.7 trillion.

Over-dependence on tourism to fund conservation is fraught with peril. For example in Namibia, initial estimates suggested communal wildlife conservancies could lose US$10 million in direct tourism revenues. This threatened funding for 700 game guards and 300 conservancy management employees.

It also threatened the viability of 61 joint venture tourism lodges employing 1,400 community members. This forced families to rely more heavily on natural resource extraction to survive.




Read more:
Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics


Closed entrance to Grand Canyon national park
Around the world, the pandemic forced the closure of national parks – including the Grand Canyon, pictured here.
Lani Strange/AP

Emergency funds were raised to cover critical shortfalls. However in April 2020, rhinos were poached in a communal conservancy in Namibia – the first such event in two years. Researchers believe this may have been linked to the pandemic fallout.

More than 70% of African countries reported reduced monitoring of the illegal wildlife trade as a result of the pandemic. More than half reported impacts on the protection of endangered species, conservation education and outreach, regular field patrols and anti-poaching operations.

Rangers have also been hard hit. A global survey of nearly 1,000 rangers found more than one in four had their salaries reduced or delayed due to COVID-related budget cuts. A third of all rangers in Central and South America, Africa and Caribbean countries reported being laid off. Some 90% said vital work with local communities had reduced or ceased.

In more bad news, governments of at least 22 countries used the pandemic as a reason to weaken environmental protections for protected and conserved areas, or cut their budgets.

Many of the changes allowed large-scale infrastructure (such as roads, airports, pipelines, hydropower plants and housing) and extractive activities (such as coal, oil and gas development and industrial fishing). Brazil, India and, until recently, the United States have emerged as hotspots of COVID-era rollbacks.




Read more:
UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature


Man holds up leopard skin
When poverty strikes, vulnerable people can turn to poaching and other illegal means to survive.
James Morgan/AP/WWF-Canon

Humans and animals pushed closer

SARS-COV-2 is very similar to other viruses in bats, and may have been passed to humans via another animal species. The pandemic shows the potentially devastating outcomes when animals and humans are forced into closer contact in shrinking habitats – for example, as a result of forest destruction.

As one paper found, during the last century an average of two new viruses spilled from animals to humans each year. These include Ebola and SARS.

Clearly, investment is needed to preserve the world’s protected and conserved areas, ensuring they act as a buffer against new pandemics. One study puts the required spending at US$67 billion each year – and notes only about one-third of this is currently being spent.

While it’s undoubtedly a large sum, the International Monetary Fund estimated late last year the pandemic would cause US$28 trillion in lost economic output in 2020.

Like many zoonotic epidemics, it appears COVID-19 was caused by the trade in wildlife and wild meat consumption. But diseases caused by uncontrolled land-use change – often for agriculture and livestock production – are just as dangerous.

The greatest risk, according to one group of researchers, is in forested tropical regions where land use is changing and a rich variety of mammal species are present.




Read more:
Most laws ignore ‘human-wildlife conflict’. This makes us vulnerable to pandemics


Rangers managing forest with fire.
Investment is needed in protected areas to ensure important conservation and land management continues.
Shutterstock

2021: a crucial year

As the special issue’s co-editors argue, if COVID-19 is not enough to make humanity wake up to the “suicidal consequences” of misguided development, then how will future calamities be avoided?

The cost of effectively maintaining protected and conserved natural areas is a small fraction of the cost of dealing with the pandemic and getting economies moving again. Imagine, for a moment, if the effort put into the development of vaccines were applied in the same measure to addressing the root causes of zoonotic pandemics.

In 2021, a series of international meetings will be held to decide how to stabilise our climate, save biodiversity, secure human health and revive the global economy. Through these events should run a golden thread: learn the lessons of COVID-19 by protecting nature and restoring damaged ecosystems.The Conversation

Marc Hockings, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

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

COVID has reached Antarctica. Scientists are extremely concerned for its wildlife



Shutterstock

Michelle Power, Macquarie University and Meagan Dewar, Federation University Australia

In December, Antarctica lost its status as the last continent free of COVID-19 when 36 people at the Chilean Bernardo O’Higgins research station tested positive. The station’s isolation from other bases and fewer researchers in the continent means the outbreak is now likely contained.

However, we know all too well how unpredictable — and pervasive — the virus can be. And while there’s currently less risk for humans in Antarctica, the potential for the COVID-19 virus to jump to Antarctica’s unique and already vulnerable wildlife has scientists extremely concerned.

We’re among a global team of 15 scientists who assessed the risks of the COVID-19 virus to Antarctic wildlife, and the pathways the virus could take into the fragile ecosystem. Antarctic wildlife haven’t yet been tested for the COVID-19 virus, and if it does make its way into these charismatic animals, we don’t know how it could affect them or the continent’s ecosystem stability.

A person looking at the red research station in the distance, by the ocean
Bernardo O Higgins Station in Antarctica, where 36 people tested positive to COVID-19.
Stone Monki/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Jumping from animals to humans, and back to animals

The COVID-19 virus is one of seven coronaviruses found in people — all have animal origins (dubbed “zoonoses”), and vary in their ability to infect different hosts. The COVID-19 virus is thought to have originated in an animal and spread to people through an unknown intermediate host, while the SARS outbreak of 2002-2004 likely came from raccoon dogs or civets.

Given the general ubiquity of coronaviruses and the rapid saturation of the global environment with the COVID-19 virus, it’s paramount we explore the risk for it to spread from people to other animals, known as “reverse zoonoses”.

The World Organisation for Animal Health is monitoring cases of the COVID-19 virus in animals. To date, only a few species around the globe have been found to be susceptible, including mink, felines (such as lions, tigers and cats), dogs and a ferret.

Whether the animal gets sick and recovers depends on the species. For example, researchers found infected adolescent cats got sick but could fight off the virus, while dogs were much more resistant.




Read more:
Can your pets get coronavirus, and can you catch it from them?


Researchers and tourists

While mink, dogs or cats are not in Antarctica, more than 100 million flying seabirds, 45% of the world’s penguin species, 50% of the world’s seal populations and 17% of the world’s whale and dolphin species inhabit the continent.

A tourist sits near a penguin and takes a photo
Tourists visit penguin roosts in large numbers.
Shutterstock

In a 2020 study, researchers ran computer simulations and found cetaceans — whales, dolphins or porpoises — have a high susceptibility of infection from the virus, based on the makeup of their genetic receptors to the virus. Seals and birds had a lower risk of infection.

We concluded that direct contact with people poses the greatest risk for spreading the virus to wildlife, with researchers more likely vectors than tourists. Researchers have closer contact with wildlife: many Antarctic species are found near research stations, and wildlife studies often require direct handling and close proximity to animals.

Tourists, however, are still a concerning vector, as they visit penguin roosts and seal haul-out sites (where seals rest or breed) in large numbers. For instance, a staggering 73,991 tourists travelled to the continent between October 2019 and April 2020, when COVID-19 was just emerging.

Each visitor to Antarctica carries millions of microbial passengers, such as bacteria, and many of these microbes are left behind when the visitors leave. Most are likely benign and probably die off. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it takes only one powerful organism to jump hosts to cause a pandemic.

How to protect Antarctic wildlife

There are guidelines for visitors to reduce the risk of introducing infectious microbes. This includes cleaning clothes and equipment before heading to Antarctica and between animal colonies, and keeping at least five metres away from animals.

These rules are no longer enough in COVID times, and more measures must be taken.

The first and most crucial step to protect Antarctic wildlife is controlling human-to-human spread, particularly at research stations. Everyone heading to Antarctica should be tested and quarantined prior to travelling, with regular ongoing tests throughout the season. The fewer people with COVID-19 in Antarctica, the less opportunity the virus has to jump to animal hosts.

A killer whale poking its head out the water near sea ice
Cetaceans, such as orcas, are more susceptible to COVID infections than sea birds and seals.
Shutterstock

Second, close contact with wildlife should be restricted to essential scientific purposes only. All handling procedures should be re-evaluated, given how much we just don’t know about the virus.

We recommend all scientific personnel wear appropriate protective equipment (including masks) at all times when handling, or in close proximity to, Antarctic wildlife. Similar recommendations are in place for those working with wildlife in Australia.

Migrating animals that may have picked up COVID-19 from other parts of the world could also spread it to other wildlife in Antarctica. Skuas, for example, migrate to Antarctica from the South American coast, where there are enormous cases of COVID-19.




Read more:
Coronavirus: wastewater can tell us where the next outbreak will be


And then there’s the issue of sewage. Around 37% of bases release untreated sewage directly into the Antarctic ecosystem. Meanwhile, an estimated 57,000 to 114,000 litres of sewage per day is dumped from ships into the Southern Ocean.

Fragments of the COVID virus can be found in wastewater, but these fragments aren’t infectious, so sewage isn’t considered a transmission risk. However, there are other potentially dangerous microbes found in sewage that could be spread to animals, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A huge cruise ship in icy Antarctic waters
Ships dump 114,000 litres of sewage into the water, each day.
Shutterstock

We can curb the general risk of microbes from sewage if the Antarctic Treaty formally recognises microbes as invasive species and a threat to the Antarctic ecosystem. This would support better biosecurity practices and environmental control of waste.

Taking precautions

In these early stages of the pandemic, scientists are scrambling to understand complexity of COVID-19 and the virus’s characteristics. Meanwhile, the virus continues to evolve.

Until the true risk of cross-species transmission is known, precautions must be taken to reduce the risk of spread to all wildlife. We don’t want to see the human footprint becoming an epidemic among Antarctic wildlife, a scenario that can be mitigated by better processes and behaviours.




Read more:
Humans threaten the Antarctic Peninsula’s fragile ecosystem. A marine protected area is long overdue


The Conversation


Michelle Power, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University and Meagan Dewar, Lecturer, Federation University Australia

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