Seeing animals and birds is one of the main draws of spending time in nature. But as researchers who study conservation, wildlife and human impacts on wild places, we believe it’s important to know that you can have major effects on wildlife just by being nearby.
In a recent review of hundreds of studies covering many species, we found that the presence of humans can alter wild animal and bird behavior patterns at much greater distances than most people may think. Small mammals and birds may change their behavior when hikers or birders come within 300 feet (100 meters) – the length of a football field. Large birds like eagles and hawks can be affected when humans are over 1,300 feet (400 meters) away – roughly a quarter of a mile. And large mammals like elk and moose can be affected by humans up to 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) away – more than half a mile.
Many recent studies and reports have shown that the world is facing a biodiversity crisis. Over the past 50 years, Earth has lost so many species that many scientists believe the planet is experiencing its sixth mass extinction – due mainly to human activities.
Protected areas, from local open spaces to national parks, are vital for conserving plants and animals. They also are places where people like to spend time in nature. We believe that everyone who uses the outdoors should understand and respect this balance between outdoor recreation, sustainable use and conservation.
How human presence affects wildlife
Pandemic lockdowns in 2020 confined many people indoors – and wildlife responded. In Istanbul, dolphins ventured much closer to shore than usual. Penguins explored quiet South African Streets. Nubian ibex grazed on Israeli playgrounds. The fact that animals moved so freely without people present shows how wild species change their behavior in response to human activities.
Decades of research have shown that outdoor recreation, whether it’s hiking, cross-country skiing or riding all-terrain vehicles, has negative effects on wildlife. The most obvious signs are behavioral changes: Animals may flee from nearby people, decrease the time they feed and abandon nests or dens.
Other effects are harder to see, but can have serious consequences for animals’ health and survival. Wild animals that detect humans can experience physiological changes, such as increased heart rates and elevated levels of stress hormones.
And humans’ outdoor activities can degrade habitat that wild species depend on for food, shelter and reproduction. Human voices, off-leash dogs and campsite overuse all have harmful effects that make habitat unusable for many wild species.
Effects of human presence vary for different species
For our study we examined 330 peer-reviewed articles spanning 38 years to locate thresholds at which recreation activities negatively affected wild animals and birds. The main thresholds we found were related to distances between wildlife and people or trails. But we also found other important factors, including the number of daily park visitors and the decibel levels of people’s conversations.
The studies that we reviewed covered over a dozen different types of motorized and nonmotorized recreation. While it might seem that motorized activities would have a bigger impact, some studies have found that dispersed “quiet” activities, such as day hiking, biking and wildlife viewing, can also affect which wild species will use a protected area.
Put another way, many species may be disturbed by humans nearby, even if those people are not using motorboats or all-terrain vehicles. It’s harder for animals to detect quiet humans, so there’s a better chance that they’ll be surprised by a cross-country skier than a snowmobile, for instance. In addition, some species that have been historically hunted are more likely to recognize – and flee from – a person walking than a person in a motorized vehicle.
Generally, larger animals need more distance, though the relationship is clearer for birds than mammals. We found that for birds, as bird size increased, so did the threshold distance. The smallest birds could tolerate humans within 65 feet (20 meters), while the largest birds had thresholds of roughly 2,000 feet (600 meters). Previous research has found a similar relationship. We did not find that this relationship existed as clearly for mammals.
We found little research on impact thresholds for amphibians and reptiles, such as lizards, frogs, turtles and snakes. A growing body of evidence shows that amphibians and reptiles are disturbed and negatively affected by recreation. So far, however, it’s unclear whether those effects reflect mainly the distance to people, the number of visitors or other factors.
How to reduce your impact on wildlife
While there’s much still to learn, we know enough to identify some simple actions people can take to minimize their impacts on wildlife. First, keep your distance. Although some species or individual animals will become used to human presence at close range, many others won’t. And it can be hard to tell when you are stressing an animal and potentially endangering both it and yourself.
Second, respect closed areas and stay on trails. For example, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, wildlife managers seasonally close some backcountry ski areas to protect critical habitat for bighorn sheep and reduce stress on other species like moose, elk and mule deer. And rangers in Maine’s Acadia National Park close several trails annually near peregrine falcon nests. This reduces stress to nesting birds and has helped this formerly endangered species recover.
Getting involved with educational or volunteer programs is a great way to learn about wildlife and help maintain undisturbed areas. As our research shows, balancing recreation with conservation means opening some areas to human use and keeping others entirely or mostly undisturbed.
As development fragments wild habitat and climate change forces many species to shift their ranges, movement corridors between protected areas become even more important. Our research suggests that creating recreation-free wildlife corridors of at least 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) wide can enable most species to move between protected areas without disturbance. Seeing wildlife can be part of a fun outdoor experience – but for the animals’ sake, you may need binoculars or a zoom lens for your camera.
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Jeremy Dertien, PhD Candidate in Forestry and Environmental Conservation, Clemson University ; Courtney Larson, Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Wyoming, and Sarah Reed, Affiliate Faculty in Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, Colorado State University
Michelle Lim, Macquarie UniversityIt’s no secret the world’s wildlife is in dire straits. New data shows a heatwave in the Pacific Northwest killed more than 1 billion sea creatures in June, while Australia’s devastating bushfires of 2019-2020 killed or displaced 3 billion animals. Indeed, 1 million species face extinction worldwide.
These numbers are overwhelming, but a serious global commitment can help reverse current tragic rates of biodiversity loss.
This week the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity released a draft of its newest ten-year global plan. Often considered to be the Paris Agreement of biodiversity, the new plan aims to galvanise planetary scale action to achieve a world “living in harmony with nature” by 2050.
But if the plan goes ahead in its current form, it will fall short in safeguarding the wonder of our natural world. This is primarily because it doesn’t legally bind nations to it, risking the same mistakes made by the last ten-year plan, which didn’t stop biodiversity decline.
A lack of binding obligations
The Convention on Biological Diversity is a significant global agreement and almost all countries are parties to it. This includes Australia, which holds the unwanted record for the greatest number of mammal extinctions since European colonisation.
All other, otherwise sensible, provisions of the convention are limited by a series of get-out-of-jail clauses. Countries are only required to implement provisions “subject to national legislation” or “as far as possible and as appropriate”.
The convention has used non-binding targets since 2000 in its attempt to address global biodiversity loss. But this has not worked.
The ten-year term of the previous targets, the Aichi Targets, came to an end in 2020, and included halving habitat loss and preventing extinction. But these, alongside most other Aichi targets, were not met.
In the new draft targets, extinction is no longer specifically named — perhaps relegated to the too hard basket. Pollution appears again in the new targets, and now includes a specific mention of eliminating plastic pollution.
Is this really a Paris-style agreement?
I wish. Calling the plan a Paris-style agreement suggests it has legal weight, when it doesn’t.
The fundamental difference between the biodiversity plan and the Paris Agreement is that binding commitments are a key component of the Paris Agreement. This is because the Paris Agreement is the successor of the legally binding Kyoto Protocol.
The final Paris Agreement legally compels countries to state how much they will reduce their emissions by. Nations are then expected to commit to increasingly ambitious reductions every five years.
If they don’t fulfil these commitments, countries could be in breach of international law. This risks damage to countries’ reputation and international standing.
The door remains open for some form of binding commitment to emerge from the biodiversity convention. But negotiations to date have included almost no mention of this being a potential outcome.
So what else needs to change?
Alongside binding agreements, there are many other aspects of the convention’s plan that must change. Here are three:
First, we need truly transformative measures to tackle the underlying economic and social causes of biodiversity loss.
The plan’s first eight targets are directed at minimising the threats to biodiversity, such as the harvesting and trade of wild species, area-based conservation, climate change and pollution.
While this is important, the plan also needs to call out and tackle dominant worldviews which equate continuous economic growth with human well-being. The first eight targets cannot realistically be met unless we address the economic causes driving these threats: materialism, unsustainable production and over-consumption.
Second, the plan needs to put Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, science, governance, rights and voices front and centre.
An abundance of evidence shows lands managed by Indigenous and local communities have significantly better biodiversity outcomes. But biodiversity on Indigenous lands is decreasing and with it the knowledge for continued sustainable management of these ecosystems.
Indigenous peoples and local communities have “observer status” within the convention’s discussions, but references to Indigenous “knowledges” and “participation” in the draft plan don’t go much further than in the Aichi Targets.
Third, there must be cross-scale collaborations as global economic, social and environmental systems are connected like never before.
The unprecedented movement of people and goods and the exchange of money, information and resources means actions in one part of the globe can have significant biodiversity impacts in faraway lands. The draft framework does not sufficiently appreciate this.
For example, global demand for palm oil contributes to deforestation of orangutan habitat in Borneo. At the same time, consumer awareness and social media campaigns in countries far from palm plantations enable distant people to help make a positive difference.
The road to Kunming
The next round of preliminary negotiations of the draft framework will take place virtually from August 23 to September 3 2021. And it’s likely final in-person negotiations in Kunming, China will be postponed until 2022.
It’s not all bad news, there is still much to commend in the convention’s current draft plan.
For example, the plan facilitates connections with other global processes, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It recognises the contributions of biodiversity to, for instance, nutrition and food security, echoing Sustainable Development Goal 2 of “zero hunger”.
But if non-binding targets didn’t work in the past, then why does the convention think this time will be any different?
A further set of unmet biodiversity goals and targets in 2030 is an unacceptable scenario. At the same time, there’s no point aiming at targets that merely maintain the status quo.
We can change the current path of mass extinction. This requires urgent, concerted and transformative action towards a thriving planet for people and nature.
Euan Ritchie, Deakin University and Ayesha Tulloch, University of SydneyAustralia is globally renowned for its abysmal conservation record – in roughly 230 years we’ve overseen the extinction of more mammal species than any other nation. The federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy was meant to address this confronting situation.
The final report on the five-year strategy has just been published. In it, Threatened Species Commissioner Dr Sally Box acknowledges while the plan had some important wins, it fell short in several areas, writing:
…there is much more work to do to ensure our native plants and animals thrive into the future, and this will require an ongoing collective effort.
Clearly, Australia must urgently chart a course towards better environmental and biodiversity outcomes. That means reflecting honestly on our successes and failures so far.
How did the strategy perform?
The strategy, announced in 2015, set 13 targets linked to three focus areas:
- feral cat management
- improving the population trajectories of 20 mammal, 21 bird and 30 plant species
- improving practices to recover threatened species populations.
Given the scale of the problem, five years was never enough time to turn things around. Indeed, as the chart below shows, the report card indicates five “red lights” (targets not met) and three “orange lights” (targets only partially met). It gave just five “green lights” for targets met.
Falling short on feral cats
In the five years to the end of 2020, an estimated 1.5 million feral cats were killed under the strategy – 500,000 short of the 2 million goal. But this estimate is uncertain due to a lack of systematic data collection. In particular, the number of cats culled by farmers, amateur hunters and shooters is under-reported. And more broadly, information is scattered across local councils, non-government conservation agencies and other sources.
Australia’s feral cat population fluctuates according to rainfall, which determines the availability of prey – numbering between 2.1 million and 6.3 million. Limited investment in monitoring makes it impossible to know whether the average of 300,000 cats killed each year over the past five years will be enough for native wildlife to recover.
The government also failed in its goal to eradicate cats from five islands, only achieving this on Dirk Hartog Island off Western Australia. Importantly, that effort began in 2014, before the strategy was launched. And it was primarily funded by the WA government and an industry offset scheme, so the federal government can’t really claim this success.
On a positive note, ten mainland areas excluding feral cats have been established or are nearly complete. Such areas are a vital lifeline for some wildlife species and can enable native species reintroductions in the future.
Priority species: how did we do?
The strategy met its target of ensuring recovery actions were underway for at least 50 threatened plant species and 60 ecological communities. It also made good headway into storing all Australia’s 1,400 threatened plant species in seed banks. This is good news.
The bad news is that, even with recovery actions, the population trajectories of most priority species failed to improve. For the 24 out of about 70 priority species where population numbers were deemed to have “improved” over five years, about 30% simply got worse at a slower rate than in the decade prior. This can hardly be deemed a success.
What’s more, the populations of at least eight priority species, including the eastern barred bandicoot, eastern bettong, Gilbert’s potoroo, mala, woylie, numbat and helmeted honeyeater, were increasing before the strategy began – and five of these deteriorated under the strategy.
The finding that more priority species recovery efforts failed than succeeded means either:
- the wrong actions were implemented
- the right actions were implemented but insufficient effort and funding were dedicated to recovery
- the trajectories of the species selected for action simply couldn’t be improved in a 5-year window.
All these problems are alarming but can be rectified. For example, the government’s new Threatened Species Strategy, released in May, contains a more evidence-based process for determining priority species.
For some species, it’s unclear whether success can be attributed to the strategy. Some species with improved trajectories, such as the helmeted honeyeater, would likely have improved regardless, thanks to many years of community and other organisation’s conservation efforts before the strategy began.
What must change
According to the report, habitat loss is a key threat to more than half the 71 priority species in the strategy. But the strategy does not directly address habitat loss or climate change, saying other government policies are addressing those threats.
Of the priority bird species threatened by land clearing and fragmentation, the trajectory of most – including the swift parrot and malleefowl – did not improve under the five years of the strategy. For several, such as the Australasian bittern and regent honeyeater, the trajectory worsened.
Preventing and reversing habitat loss will take years of dedicated restoration, stronger legislation and enforcement. It also requires community engagement, because much threatened species habitat is on private properties.
Effective conservation also requires raising public awareness of the dire predicament of Australia’s 1,900-plus threatened species and ecological communities. But successive governments have sought to sugarcoat our failings over many decades.
Bushfires and other extreme events hampered the strategy’s recovery efforts. But climate change means such events are likely to worsen. The risks of failure should form part of conservation planning – and of course, Australia requires an effective plan for emissions reduction.
The strategy helped increase awareness of the plight our unique species face. Dedicated community groups had already spent years volunteering to monitor and recover populations, and the strategy helped fund some of these actions.
However, proper investment in conservation – such as actions to reduce threats, and establish and maintain protected areas – is urgently needed. The strategy is merely one step on the long and challenging road to conserving Australia’s precious species and ecosystems.
Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University and Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney
William Terry, Southern Cross UniversityEnvironmental scientists see flora, fauna and phenomena the rest of us rarely do. In this series, we’ve invited them to share their unique photos from the field.
As a result of logging and severe bushfires, Australian wildlife is facing a severe shortage of tree hollows — holes in the trunks and branches of large old trees. More than 300 species of birds and mammals, including possums, bats, cockatoos, owls and kookaburras, rely on tree hollows for shelter or breeding.
In Australia, hollows are usually formed through the decay of a tree scar, and it can take hundreds of years for tree hollows big enough for medium-sized animals to form naturally.
This includes phascogales — the rat-sized, carnivorous marsupials that live in open woodlands across Australia and are the focus of my research and photography. But like many of Australia’s forest-dwelling mammals, phascogales are vulnerable to extinction.
So with hollows becoming harder to find, I venture into forests and study how well artificial hollows, made with chainsaws, can replace them. And, incredibly, it’s working: my research shows phascogales and other native animals are enthusiastically moving into the new real estate.
Meet the mysterious brush-tailed phascogale
Phascogales are an important species to Australia but, unfortunately, their cryptic behaviour and nocturnal habits mean people rarely see them.
Phascogales feed on insects after stripping bark from eucalypts. But through my close interactions and radio tracking, I’ve documented phascogales eating other more unusual foods, including bird eggs and sometimes even small birds, such as grey-shrike thrush.
I’ve also recorded them taking dead birds, such as the rosella pictured below. They even have a reputation among farmers as being a fierce chicken killer, but this may be exaggerated.
Phascogales have an unusual life. Shortly after mating between April and May, all males die at about 11 months of age from stomach ulcers. This frees up resources for the next generation of young joeys that will emerge from the nest in early summer.
But will they survive in the future?
Tragically, at least one species, the brush-tailed phascogale, is threatened with extinction, primarily due to habitat loss, climate change, and feral predators such as foxes and cats.
The brush-tailed phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa tapoatafa) occurs across the eastern side of Australia, from southern Queensland to Victoria. It’s now extinct in South Australia.
Likewise, the much smaller red-tailed phascogale (Phascogale calura) once survived across a vast swathe of land from Western Australia to Victoria. Today, it survives only in small pockets in the Western Australia wheatbelt.
Household cats are a particularly major issue for phascogales, and many cat owners in central Victoria have a story about their cat bringing home a phascogale (so please keep your pet cat inside at all times).
Last year, research confirmed climate change would reduce the available areas phascogales could survive. This research found areas with a phascogale-friendly climate would decline by up to 79% in Queensland, 67% in Victoria and 17% in NSW, by 2070.
Climate change also threatens to bring longer, more frequent and severe heatwaves. For phascogales and many other mammals, this could be a death sentence.
Tree hollows with thick walls can protect the animals sheltering inside from the high temperatures outside.
But these are getting increasingly rarer, and this is where my research on chainsaw hollows comes in. Thick-walled hollows may be very important for the long-term survival of phascogales and other species in a warming climate.
Carving them a home
A chainsaw hollow is a cavity constructed inside a tree. A faceplate is then attached over the top, with a hole drilled into it for the animal to enter. They offer refuge for Australia’s endangered mammals and birds.
For our project, we carved 45 chainsaw hollows in dry forests and woodland where phascogales are known to occur. We also installed similar-sized nest boxes — which are more commonly used to offset the loss of hollows — on nearby trees. We monitored these for two and a half years.
Research from 2018 shows nest boxes offer little protection from outside temperatures. I’ve collected data, which is not yet published, that confirms this.
My research shows chainsaw hollows provide 27% more protection from extreme temperatures during heatwaves compared to nest boxes, which provided almost no protection.
So it’s no wonder we observed and recorded phascogales and the more common sugar glider (Petaurus notatus) more frequently sheltering in chainsaw hollows than in nearby nest boxes.
Other animals used the chainsaw hollows, too. This includes the feather-tailed glider, yellow-footed antechinus, and the white-throated treecreeper.
But like nest boxes, the chainsaw hollows showed signs they would be only an interim measure, requiring maintenance with bark growing over entrance holes and issues with a buildup of moisture.
In any case, further research into this species is needed, as it will aid land managers to conserve this enigmatic species as more challenges are thrown their way into the future.
Barry Hunter, Indigenous Knowledge; Alice Buhrich, James Cook University; Asa Ferrier, La Trobe University; Gerry Turpin, James Cook University, and Patrick Roberts, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human HistoryThe Wet Tropics of Australia — rainforest stretching 450 kilometres along Queensland’s coastline — is renowned for its vast array of wildlife and ancient plant species. It’s little wonder the rainforest is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of 20 in Australia.
However, the cultural heritage of the Wet Tropics isn’t recognised or celebrated with quite the same gusto, with the world heritage listing failing to acknowledge the rich, ongoing significance of Aboriginal culture.
Our recent paper assessed existing archaeological, paleoenvironmental, and historical evidence. And we showed the diverse ways these forests are globally significant — not just for their ecological heritage, but also for preserving traces of millennia of human activities.
But there’s much scope for cultural recognition to go further on a national level, too. While the Wet Tropics’ National Heritage Listing recognises Indigenous heritage, Traditional Owners should have more freedom to manage the region in our holistic way. This would lead to better outcomes for the environment.
The cultural significance of these rainforests
Aboriginal rainforest people used a wide variety of forest resources. For example, studies of ancient plant parts and stone tools show these communities were processing often-toxic rainforest nuts for eating from as early as 5,000 years ago.
They also hunted local animals, such as tree kangaroos, pythons and wallabies. And they may even have captured and tamed the enigmatic cassowaries, later feasting on them during large ceremonial gatherings.
Rainforest people also used tropical forest plants for medicine and to manufacture artefacts. They also manipulated them – for example, evidence shows Aboriginal people strategically used fire to keep open pockets clear of invading rainforest for campsites and ceremonial grounds.
Their skillful forest management enabled pre-colonial Aboriginal populations to survive all year round in rainforests characterised by high humidity, rainfall, cyclones, heat, and dense vegetation.
Today, we can still see Aboriginal people’s ecological legacy in the region, such as through the clusters of rainforest food trees near cultural sites.
The long fight for recognition
Aboriginal rainforest occupation and land management was majorly impacted with European settlement across the region, and the subsequent clearing of rainforest for agriculture.
Aboriginal rainforest people were forcefully removed from their traditional lands and resettled on reserves and in missions, often far away from their homelands.
Traditional land practices were suppressed, which caused these rainforests to change. Weed infestations and feral pigs became widespread. Likewise, the rainforest understory thickened, as any area not felled by Europeans was left to “look after itself”.
These changes have exposed both biological and cultural heritage to increasingly intense fires, such as those we saw in the horror bushfire season of 2019-2020.
Since the World Heritage Area was declared in 1988, rainforest Aboriginal peoples have campaigned to be included in management plans.
In 1998, they produced the seminal report “Which Way Our Cultural Survival”, which reviewed the significant contribution rainforest Aboriginal people make to managing the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.
Finally, in 2012, the Australian National Heritage List recognised the Wet Tropics’ cultural values. This is extremely important because it gives rainforest Aboriginal people a seat at the table in management decision making.
Rainforest Aboriginal people’s long fight for recognition in the Wet Tropics is now turning into direct action, as we apply our unique knowledge to Country. Today, Indigenous land and sea rangers manage biodiversity, threatened species, waterways and water quality, and we care for country through fire management programs.
For example, there are numerous management plans for threatened species that need a defined fire regime. This includes the northern bettong, whose forest habitat on the edge of rainforest requires frequent burning to keep the understorey open and grassy. Indigenous knowledge forms the basis of this.
But our campaign isn’t over yet
On a national level, we need to manage Country as a “whole”, not just one species at a time.
Fire is an integral tool for this management, and we need to apply the right fire for the right Country (something we’re showing through the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation). In traditional fire management, the dominant tree species and soils in a specific area determines the fire to apply to Country, and at what time of year. There’s no “one size fits all” solution.
Our research paper makes it clear “long-term” perspectives from oral history, archaeology, history, and paleoecology can make important contributions to conservation management plans for threatened species. This includes the northern bettong, cassowary and tree kangaroo.
Knowledge from Traditional Owners can also add important information on vegetation change over several decades. This knowledge allows us to reconstruct vegetation changes since European settlement. It also provides insights into past Aboriginal use of plants and animals, and mapping cultural sites and walking routes.
One example shows the potential for this. In September 2019, a Queensland government grant supported Jirrbal Traditional Owners to return to Urumbal Pocket, an archaeological site on the upper Tully River. Jirrbal Traditional Owners undertook surveys to identify imprints of past human activities left on the landscape.
They found significant changes to the region’s biodiversity since the removal of Aboriginal land management around 100 years ago. They noted, for example, that no new trees were naturally growing, and remnant sclerophyll tree species were dying, enhancing the rainforest takeover.
The visit also helped Traditional Owners reconnect with their Country, and initiated discussions relating to contemporary burning and other land management tools.
We need equal recognition of the Wet Tropics’ natural and cultural values, and more detailed investigations into how people shaped the rainforest. This will help raise awareness of the international importance of the cultural heritage, and eventually help get it recognised by UNESCO.
And this will help more Australians see the rainforest as a cultural landscape – one that has been managed and maintained by people, rather than just a relic unchanged since the dinosaurs.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Ellen Weber from the Wet Tropics Management Authority.
Barry Hunter, Djabugay Aboriginal Corporation, Kuranda, Indigenous Knowledge; Alice Buhrich, Adjunct Researcher, College of Arts, Society and Education, James Cook University; Asa Ferrier, Honorary Research Associate, La Trobe University; Gerry Turpin, Ethnobotanist, James Cook University, and Patrick Roberts, Research Group Leader, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kevin Thiele, The University of Western Australia and Jane Melville, Museums VictoriaHere are two quiz questions for you. How many species of animals, plants, fungi, fish, insects and other organisms live in Australia? And how many of these have been discovered and named?
To the first, the answer is we don’t really know. But the best guess of taxonomists – the scientists who discover, name, classify and document species – is that Australia’s lands, rivers, coasts and oceans probably house more than 700,000 distinct species.
On the second, taxonomists estimate almost 200,000 species have been scientifically named since Europeans first began exploring, collecting and classifying Australia’s remarkable fauna and flora.
Together, these estimates are disturbing. After more than 300 years of effort, scientists have documented fewer than one-third of Australia’s species. The remaining 70% are unknown, and essentially invisible, to science.
Taxonomists in Australia name an average 1,000 new species each year. At that rate, it will take at least 400 years to complete even a first-pass stocktake of Australia’s biodiversity.
This poor knowledge is a serious threat to Australia’s environment. And a first-of-its kind report released today shows it’s also a huge missed economic opportunity. That’s why today, Australia’s taxonomists are calling on governments, industry and the community to support an important mission: discovering and documenting all Australian species within 25 years.
Australia: a biodiversity hotspot
Biologically, Australia is one of the richest and most diverse nations on Earth – between 7% and 10% of all species on Earth occur here. It also has among the world’s highest rates of species discovery. But our understanding of biodiversity is still very, very incomplete.
Of course, First Nations peoples discovered, named and classified many species within their knowledge systems long before Europeans arrived. But we have no ready way yet to compare their knowledge with Western taxonomy.
Finding new species in Australia is not hard – there are almost certainly unnamed species of insects, spiders, mites and fungi in your backyard. Any time you take a bush holiday you’ll drive past hundreds of undiscovered species. The problem is recognising the species as new and finding the time and resources to deal with them all.
Taxonomists describe and name new species only after very careful due diligence. Every specimen must be compared with all known named species and with close relatives to ensure it is truly a new species. This often involves detailed microscopic studies and gene sequencing.
More fieldwork is often needed to collect specimens and study other species. Specimens in museums and herbaria all over the world sometimes need to be checked. After a great deal of work, new species are described in scientific papers for others to assess and review.
So why do so many species remain undiscovered? One reason is a shortage of taxonomists trained to the level needed. Another is that technologies to substantially speed up the task have only been developed in the past decade or so. And both these, of course, need appropriate levels of funding.
Of course, some groups of organisms are better known than others. In general, noticeable species – mammals, birds, plants, butterflies and the like – are fairly well documented. Most less noticeable groups – many insects, fungi, mites, spiders and marine invertebrates – remain poorly known. But even inconspicuous species are important.
Fungi, for example, are essential for maintaining our natural ecosystems and agriculture. They fertilise soils, control pests, break down litter and recycle nutrients. Without fungi, the world would literally grind to a halt. Yet, more than 90% of Australian fungi are believed to be unknown.
Mind the knowledge gap
So why does all this matter?
First, Australia’s biodiversity is under severe and increasing threat. To manage and conserve our living organisms, we must first discover and name them.
At present, it’s likely many undocumented species are becoming extinct, invisibly, before we know they exist. Or, perhaps worse, they will be discovered and named from dead specimens in our museums long after they have gone extinct in nature.
Second, many undiscovered species are crucial in maintaining a sustainable environment for us all. Others may emerge as pests and threats in future; most species are rarely noticed until something goes wrong. Knowing so little about them is a huge risk.
Third, enormous benefits are to be gained from these invisible species, once they are known and documented. A report released today
by Deloitte Access Economics, commissioned by Taxonomy Australia, estimates a benefit to the national economy of between A$3.7 billion and A$28.9 billion if all remaining Australian species are documented.
Benefits will be greatest in biosecurity, medicine, conservation and agriculture. The report found every $1 invested in discovering all remaining Australian species will bring up to $35 of economic benefits. Such a cost-benefit analysis has never before been conducted in Australia.
The investment would cover, among other things, research infrastructure, an expanded grants program, a national effort to collect specimens of all species and new facilities for gene sequencing.
Australian taxonomists – in museums, herbaria, universities, at the CSIRO and in
government departments – have spent the last few years planning an ambitious mission to discover and document all remaining Australian species within a generation.
So, is this ambitious goal achievable, or even imaginable? Fortunately, yes.
It will involve deploying new and emerging technologies, including high-throughput robotic DNA sequencing, artificial intelligence and supercomputing. This will vastly speed up the process from collecting specimens to naming new species, while ensuring rigour and care in the science.
A national meeting of Australian taxonomists, including the young early career researchers needed to carry the mission through, was held last year. The meeting confirmed that with the right technologies and more keen and bright minds trained for the task, the rate of species discovery in Australia could be sped up by the necessary 16-fold – reducing 400 years of effort to 25 years.
With the right people, technologies and investment, we could discover all Australian species. By 2050 Australia could be the world’s first biologically mega-rich nation to have documented all our species, for the direct benefit of this and future generations.