The Albany Wind Farm on our Amazing South Coast is one of the most spectacular and largest wind farms in Australia.
It is a wind power station owned by Verve Energy. It has 18 wind turbines, with a maximum generating capacity of 35.4 MW of electricity. It was commissioned in October 2001, after ten years of planning. The wind farm has the capacity to produce 80 per cent of the electricity requirements of Albany.
The farm originally had 12 wind turbines, with 6 extra turbines installed in 2011. The original turbines are ENERCON model E66, each with three 35 metres (115 ft) long blades made from fibreglass and kevlar (making them very flexible in order to withstand any conditions) and are fitted to 65 metres (213 ft) towers. The nose cone which the blades attach to weighs around 14 tonnes. These turbines are the largest that have been installed in the southern hemisphere. The turbines operate automatically, with the three blades adjusted to make best use of power output from any wind direction or strength. They have been designed to withstand the strongest winds likely in Albany and incorporate special lightning protection. Each turbine has a rating of 1.8 MW and is able to produce electrical energy at wind speeds of 7–130 kilometres per hour (4–70 kn) at which the turbines are shut down. Maximum output is achieved at a wind speed of 50 kilometres per hour (27 kn). The 6 new turbines installed in 2011 are ENERCON model E70 with a rating of 2.3 MW. The turbines were made in Germany.
Albany wind farm is situated on the coast about 12 kilometres (7 mi) south-west of the city. It is in an elevated position at approximately 80 metres (262 ft) above the Southern Ocean. The height and locality is designed to maximise exploitation of local wind conditions, and combined with the short distance to the main electricity transmission system make this an outstanding wind farm site.
The wind farm walk offers spectacular views of the eco-friendly turbines along the Torndirrup Peninsula at Sand Patch.
Altered ecology and changing land use have led to a status of 'critically endangered' of extinction. Populations occur on 'private property', exposing the habitat to cattle grazing and—since the 1990s—viticulture and eucalypt plantations. Threats such as fire and cattle can degrade vegetation surrounding the frog's habitat; damming and land clearing for viticulture or planting of introduced tree species alters the hydrology. Research has been undertaken by UWA and CALM. Funding has been allocated to provide fencing to land owners and a reserve connecting the Forest Grove and Blackwood River National Parks to assist the protection of the riparian habitat.
The White-bellied Frog (Geocrinia alba) is a tiny frog from south-west Western Australia, inhabiting a range of 130km2 between Margaret River and Augusta. It was only discovered in the early 1980s and described in 1989.
Male White-bellied Frogs call from small depressions in wet soils during the breeding season. These wet areas are formed by seepages in swamps. The eggs are laid in jelly in the same place. The eggs hatch in the jelly and develop into frogs without feeding, relying instead on the yolk in their stomachs.
The White-bellied Frog is one of four Geocrinia species found across south-western Australia’s wetter forest systems. All have similar breeding biology. Its closest relative, the Orange-bellied Frog (Geocrinia vitellina) lives nearby.
Whichever way you look at it the White-bellied Frog is a species at risk. Over 70% of likely habitat has been cleared and is now unsuitable for the frogs’ specific breeding needs. Its range is heavily fragmented, and movement between populations is low or non-existent. In most of them there are fewer than 10 frogs. It is no longer found in many of the places where this species was found in the early 1980s.
The main threats to White-bellied Frogs are activities that change their habitat, particularly the delicate seepages that they rely on for breeding.
Land clearing fragments the populations of frogs. It also modifies the structure of creeks. Slow-moving creeks with seepages are turned into well-defined channels which are unsuitable for breeding. Plantations of blue-gums have a different effect. By lowering groundwater supplies they cause breeding sites to dry up.
Illegal marijuana crops, which use the same wet soils as the frogs, have also disturbed the habitat. Adding chemicals and nutrients through fertilisers disrupts the growth and development of the frogs. Other agricultural impacts come from grazing, which destroys the seepages, and vineyards, which alter water supplies through damming.
Amphibian chytrid has been found in White-bellied Frog populations, and is widespread across south-west Australia. Strangely it doesn’t appear to be responsible for declines in White-bellied Frogs.
One of the early management strategies for the White-bellied Frog was to fence off the isolated populations from livestock, allowing them to recover and maintain healthy populations.
Fire is currently excluded from land managed by the Western Australian government, but proper fire management must eventually include burnoffs. Fortunately it appears the frogs can tolerate fire. Experiments show that even if fire reduces numbers locally they do eventually recover.
Perth Zoo has successfully reared frogs. Frogs were raised from wild-collected eggs and released near Margaret River in 2010 and 2011. Nests in the wild suffer from predation and rearing frogs gives the frogs a better chance.
The Zoo has also successfully bred White-bellied Frogs in captivity, a significant achievement given their breeding requirements, and five of these frogs were released at the Margaret River site in 2012.
In 2000 the state and federal governments purchased a large area of private land where a number of frogs were found. This was a major breakthrough for managing the frogs and their habitat.
There’s hope for the White-bellied Frog under climate change too. The species is thought to be seven million years old (using molecular clocks), meaning it has already survived seven million years of climate upheaval. We know that its orange-bellied relative can survive disturbance such as logging, and its likely the White-bellied Frog is the same. This suggests the species will be able to survive disturbance to its habitat caused by climate change.
There is an interesting epilogue to the White-bellied Frog’s tale. In the 1960s and 1970s, before the frog was discovered, large areas of its range was cleared. Paradoxically this vegetation loss may have raised the water table, creating new habitat for the frog, and artificially expanded the range.
The current decline may partly reflect loss of those new populations that arose during land clearing. It goes to show that managing this species and water is a particular challenge in a region with diverse land uses.
Pictures courtesy of Perth Zoo. Perth Zoo has successfully reared, bred and released White-bellied Frogs into the wild to increase their numbers.
The Conversation is running a series on Australian endangered species. See it here
Gilbert's potoroo (Potorous gilbertii), sometimes called the "rat-kangaroo" or "garlgyte", is Australia's most endangered marsupial and one of the world's most endangered mammals. It is a small nocturnal marsupial which lives in small groups or colonies. It has long hind feet and front feet with curved claws which it uses to dig for food. Its body has large amounts of fur which helps with insulation, and its fur ranges between brown and grey; the color fading on its belly. This potoroo has a long, thin snout curving downward that it uses to smell its surroundings; this trait is common in all potoroo species. Its eyes appear to bulge out of its face and look as though they are on an angle and its ears are almost invisible, buried under thick fur. Male and female body types are very similar and are both within the same size range. Adult females range in weight from 708–1205 g (including pouch young where present), whereas adult males range in weight from 845–1200 g.
Gilbert’s Potoroo (Potorous gilbertii) is one of four species of potoroo. It has dense grey-brown fur, paler on the underside, with furry jowls,
large eyes and an almost hairless tail. It is the smallest extant member of the genus,
weighing in at around a kilogram. With a diet of over 90% underground fungi
(truffles), it is one of the most fungi-dependent mammals in the world.
Like other potoroos, these animals are mainly solitary, with little overlap in home
range between individuals of the same sex, although a male and a female may
be found nesting together under the dense sedges in their heathland habitat,
sometimes with a young-at-heel. Gilbert’s Potoroos may live ten years and
reach sexual maturity at around one year of age. A female potoroo rears one
young at a time, but up to three a year, so she could produce well over 20
progeny in her lifetime.
Discovered near Albany in 1840 by John Gilbert, the renowned collector for
British taxonomist John Gould, Gilbert’s Potoroos were never widespread. Sub-fossil remains in caves near the southwest corner show, at most, a narrow
zone along the moist south coast where the marsupials lived. Rain in most months
of the year supports year-round truffles in the soil.
The species was so rare by
the early 1900s that it was thought to be extinct – appearing to meet the
same fate as its desert-dwelling relative, the Broad-faced Potoroo (P. platyops).
Remarkably it was rediscovered on the Mount Gardner
headland at Two Peoples Bay Nature Reserve in 1994. However extensive surveys in
likely sites along the south coast failed to find any more colonies. The tiny
surviving population is now 30-40 animals strong and has been the focus of
intensive recovery efforts.
As these potoroos prefer to live in dense heaths, the greatest threat to the Two
Peoples Bay population and any recovery colonies is catastrophic wildfire.
Lightning strikes are common in this area during summer, often without rain to
extinguish the fires. The popularity of the area with locals and tourists alike also
increases the risk of fire. The rugged terrain and highly flammable vegetation
would severely hamper fire-fighting efforts, although ironically the largely
inaccessible habitat may have contributed to its survival. Potoroos rarely venture
into open habitat, but those leaving cover risk predation by foxes and feral cats
as well as native predators.
Gilbert’s Potoroo could be lost in a single wildfire. The recovery strategy focusses on managing this risk by increasing numbers and establishing more populations. Initially,
considerable effort went into attempts to breed Gilbert’s Potoroos in captivity. However, this proved unreliable, and
efforts turned to assisted reproduction techniques including artificial
insemination and cross-fostering using Long-nosed Potoroos (Potorous tridactylus).
Unfortunately, neither of these methods were successful. Meanwhile,
regular monitoring of the wild population showed that it remained stable, and new young were born. Failure to find many of these individuals again as adults suggested that most available home
ranges were taken and they were unable to establish
So the focus of the recovery plan, which continues to protect
the existing wild colony (through fox baiting and fire exclusion), shifted to
establishing new colonies. With this in mind, a few wild potoroos
from Mount Gardner were moved 25 km east to 800 ha Bald Island. Ten
potoroos were taken from Two Peoples Bay to Bald Island between 2005 and
2007, with on-going monitoring of the tiny founding population. In 2009, the new
Bald Island population had grown to over 25 animals, and six individuals were
moved back to the mainland for introduction into a purpose-built 380 ha enclosure
from which foxes and cats had been removed. Despite more removals back to
the new mainland enclosure, by 2012, the Bald Island population surpassed 60 and there
were over 20 within the new enclosure.
While Gilbert’s Potoroo remains arguably the worlds’ rarest marsupial, its
survival and recovery so far is due to the remarkable haven provided by Two
Peoples Bay, where it continues to breed naturally. Ongoing allocation of funding, particularly by the Western
Australian State Government, has allowed long-term recovery goals to be
This piece was co-authored by Tony Friend who heads the Gilbert’s Potoroo recovery project through the Western Australia Department of Environment and Conservation
The Conversation is running a series on Australian endangered species. See it here
The woylie is a small macropod, being only some 30 to 35 cm in body length, with a tail around 37 cm long, and weighing between 1.1 and 1.6 kg. The fur of this bettong is yellowish-brown in color with a patch of paler fur on its belly, while the end of its furry tail is dark colored. It has little or no hair on the muzzle and tail. This species has a more slender build and larger ears than its relative the burrowing bettong.
The introduced red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has had a devastating impact of Australia’s native mammal fauna, particularly on those in the “Critical Weight Range”, between 35 and 5500 grams. Combined with landscape modification due to agricultural practices, changed fire regimes and other introduced species, many of these species have become extinct across much of mainland Australia.
An example of one of these species is the Woylie or Brush-tailed Bettong (Bettongia penicillata). With a former distribution covering large areas of arid and semi-arid Northern Territory, South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, its natural occurring populations became restricted in the 1970s to three small wheatbelt reserves in Western Australia – Dryandra Woodland, and Tutanning and Perup Nature Reserves.
Woylies are members of the Family Potoridae, all small kangaroo-like marsupials under 3kg, formally known as “rat-kangaroos”. Woylies reach a maximum of 1850g, and are grey animals, with a dark brushy tail. They build basic nests on the ground in or near vegetation thickets, and their diet consists largely of fungi, tubers, bulbs, and seeds. They play an important ecological role through seed dispersal, and increasing soil and nutrient turnover with their diggings.
The woylie has shown some dramatic changes in conservation status. The IUCN listed the woylie as Endangered in 1982, due to its dramatic decline. A review of the conservation status of the woylie undertaken in 1998, lead to its status being downgraded on Western Australian, Australian and international threatened species lists, due to its apparent recovery in response to both fox baiting and reintroductions.
The main threats to the woylie were red foxes. One of the reasons they were able to survive in the three remaining reserve areas, was the presence of Gastrolobium plants, which contain monofluoroacetate, the compound present as sodium monofluoroacetate in “1080” toxic baits. These plants both protect the woylies with cover, as well as possibly causing reduction in predators due to secondary poison when the predators eat them.
As the recent causes of decline are unknown, it is difficult to plan actions for the woylie recovery. As with all declining species, additional research is essential to pinpoint causes of decline. As well as controlling foxes and cats, surveillance monitoring for diseases needs to continue.
The woylie is an example where continual research is needed on wildlife populations, even when we think they are in the clear. Without dedicated researchers, the extent of the recent decline of the woylie would have gone unnoticed. Without continual research-lead conservation of the woylie, the reasons for the decline will remain a mystery.
The Conversation is running a series on Australian endangered species. See it here.
On the first day of spring, it’s time to take stock of the winter that was. It may have felt cold, but Australia’s winter had the highest average daytime temperatures on record. It was also the driest in 15 years.
Back at the start of winter the Bureau of Meteorology forecast a warm, dry season. That proved accurate, as winter has turned out both warmer and drier than average.
While we haven’t seen anything close to the weather extremes experienced in other parts of the world, including devastating rainfalls in Niger, the southern US and the Indian subcontinent all in the past week, we have seen a few interesting weather extremes over the past few months across Australia.
Drier weather than normal has led to warmer days and cooler nights, resulting in some extreme temperatures. These include night-time lows falling below -10℃ in the Victorian Alps and -8℃ in Canberra (the coldest nights for those locations since 1974 and 1971, respectively), alongside daytime highs of above 32℃ in Coffs Harbour and 30℃ on the Sunshine Coast.
Australia’s average daytime maximum temperatures were the highest on record for this winter, beating the previous record set in 2009 by 0.3℃. This means Australia has set new seasonal highs for maximum temperatures a remarkable ten times so far this century (across summer, autumn, winter and spring). The increased frequency of heat records in Australia has already been linked to climate change.
The record winter warmth is part of a long-term upward trend in Australian winter temperatures. This prompts the question: how much has human-caused climate change altered the likelihood of extremely warm winters in Australia?
I took the same simulations that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses in its assessments of the changing climate, and I put them into two sets: one that represents the climate of today (including the effects of greenhouse gas emissions) and one with simulations representing an alternative world that excludes our influences on the climate.
I used 14 climate models in total, giving me hundreds of years in each of my two groups to study Australian winter temperatures. I then compared the likelihood of record warm winter temperatures like 2017 in those different groups. You can find more details of my method here.
I found a stark difference in the chance of record warm winters across Australia between these two sets of model simulations. By my calculations there has been at least a 60-fold increase in the likelihood of a record warm winter that can be attributed to human-caused climate change. The human influence on the climate has increased Australia’s temperatures during the warmest winters by close to 1℃.
More winter warmth to come
Looking ahead, it’s likely we’re going to see more record warm winters, like we’ve seen this year, as the climate continues to warm.
Even if global warming is limited to either of these levels, we would see more winter warmth like 2017. In fact, under the 2℃ target, we would likely see these winters occurring in more than 50% of years. The record-setting heat of today would be roughly the average climate of a 2℃ warmed world.
Last night I was watering the garden with a hose. It is easy to see how stressed the plants are on a 38 degree day, but then I remembered that the animals in my garden need water too. So I filled some shallow bowls and placed them in quiet shady spots. During a hot Australian summer day, such an act can save a life. A small life, perhaps, but every little bit counts.
I have a small suburban garden but it still supports a range of insects, birds, frogs and reptiles. Whenever we move a pile of wood we disturb some lovely spotted geckos. Even in the city most Australians will have possums moving through the trees and skinks sheltering under the back steps. Suburbs on the edge of town have wombats, wallabies and kangaroos. Birds and insects live everywhere. On hot days all creatures will seek water and shade.
So why not add a routine to your normal gardening chores and put out some water for wildlife? Here are a few hints to ensure that the animals benefit.
Tips for watering wildlife
Use only shallow bowls so small animals do not drown. Alternatively (or additionally) add a few rocks or sticks so they can easily crawl out. Do not use metal bowls as these will become hot and may burn their feet or paws. Place the water in a shady spot, out of the way of human activity and protected from domestic pets.
Birds and tree dwelling animals will appreciate water hung at various levels. You can nail a plastic tub to a fence, or hang a modified water bottle in a tree.
If you are able to set up a hose to mist a shady corner in the garden, you will create a small haven for wildlife. I did this last night with the excuse that the lemon tree needed a good drink anyway.
Don’t worry if you don’t see the animals using your water. It is likely that they prefer privacy and will use it when you are not looking.
On the other hand, if you do see animals showing signs of heat stress, you may have to take further steps.
Caring for heat stressed wildlife
Animals that are suffering from heat stress will behave strangely. Nocturnal animals that are out during the day, tree dwelling animals sitting on the ground, or animals that are lethargic or staggering are all showing signs of stress.
The first concern about stressed wildlife is your own safety. Do not approach snakes, flying foxes, large kangaroos, eagles, hawks or goannas. Your best bet is to contact a trained wildlife carer for advice.
It is a good idea to have the phone numbers of your local wildlife carers handy, or download the wildlife rescue app.
If it is safe to do so, you can assist a heat stressed animal by picking it up in a towel, placing it in a well ventilated box in a cool spot and provide water. Do not feed the animal or handle it more than necessary. The animal may recover enough to release again in the evening, but if not you will need to take them to a wildlife carer or a vet.
Wildlife and bushfires
Unfortunately many Australians now live under the threat of bushfires and face evacuations throughout the summer months. Obviously, fires are bad for both domestic and wild animals. The best thing you can do during an evacuation is to take your dogs and cats with you and leave out plenty of water for wildlife.
If you do find injured wildlife, take them to the vet if it is safe to do so. Never go into a fire affected area searching for injured animals. This is a job best left to trained staff who are coordinated by the appropriate agencies and assisted by volunteers who have had the right training.
On the other hand, all of us can help by putting out water for wildlife. Every little bit helps.
As global commerce grows, the movement of goods is occurring at ever-faster rates. And with increased global trade comes the spread of non-native species. This includes invasive insects that are making life difficult for domestic bees.
Non-native species get introduced both intentionally and accidentally. However they migrate, though, their spread can lead to devastating results. Non-native species can dramatically reshape their invaded habitats and disrupt the interactions between native species.
After direct habitat loss, invasive species are the second greatest threat to biodiversity. Biodiversity is crucial to a healthy ecosystem, providing us services such as food, the natural resources that sustain our current lifestyle, and the building blocks of medicines.
Invasive species come in all forms – plants, animals and microbes – but all share common traits: they are non-native, they are increasing in prevalence, and they negatively affect native species.
Native bees in North America are declining drastically. Habitat loss is the number one reason for bee decline, with pesticide use, invasive species, and climate change also playing a major role. With the growth of cities and farms, habitat suitable for our native bees shrinks. And with competition and habitat degradation from invasive species, suitable habitat becomes even less.
We depend on native bees, like our humble bumble bees (Bombus spp.), to pollinate native flowers and crops. Bumble bees pollinate tomatoes, peppers, blueberries and many more of our favorite food items. Honey bees, which are widely used in agriculture and are suffering from colony collapse disorder, are a non-native species, and can’t replace the pollination services provided by native bees such as bumble bees.
But one invasive species in particular is threatening the livelihood of bumble bees.
New bee on the block
The European wool-carder bee was first discovered in North America in 1963 near Ithaca, New York, and since then, its impact has been felt from coast to coast. Wool-carder bees get their name from the nest building behavior of the female bees. Females collect plant hairs, called trichomes, by cutting them with their mandibles. The up-and-down motion they use during trichome collection to cut the hair-like fibers and ball them up is reminiscent of carding wool.
My research has shown that carding behavior induces chemical changes in the plant similar to what occurs when insects eat plants. These chemical changes signal other wool-carder bees, attracting them to the plant, which causes further damage.
In addition to damaging plants, female wool-carder bees compete with our native bees for flowers. Bees depend on nectar and pollen from flowers for food, and increased competition from invasive species raises concerns over the future of our native bees.
But the behavior of male wool-carder bees appears even more sinister. Males aggressively defend flower patches in order to attract mates. Males use evolved weapons on the base of their abdomen to attack any interloper who isn’t a potential mate, often causing severe injury or even death to the attacked bee. By decreasing competition for flowers, the male wool-carder bee hopes to entice more female wool-carder bees to visit his patch, thus increasing his chances of mating.
Of all our native bees, bumble bees (Bombus spp.) receive the brunt of attacks from male wool-carder bees. Therefore, my research focuses on the impact of these attacks on bumble bee well-being. My preliminary research shows that bumble bees avoid foraging for nectar and pollen in areas with wool-carder bees - likely to avoid attack. Because they stay away from areas defended by wool-carder bees, the number of flowers available to bumble bees decreases.
As bumble bees are already facing a shortage of flowers due to habitat loss, this additional restriction on flower availability is causing serious concern about the sustainability of local bumble bee populations. Because the population of wool-carder bees is growing, my current research is trying to determine the extent of the negative impact they are having on our precious native pollinators.
Native pollinators, such as bumble bees, cannot easily be replaced by other species. This is because our native bees perform a special form of pollination, buzz pollination, where they use a unique vibration pattern to shake loose pollen from flowers. Many of our native crops, such as tomatoes and blueberries, need buzz pollination for efficient pollen transfer. So for the health and well-being of our native plants, we must care for our native bees.
Plant native wildflowers – Ornamental non-native plants are often easy choices for the garden, but they promote the spread of invasive species such as the wool-carder bee, and often go unvisited by our native bees. So while you may think you are helping the bees by planting flowers, make sure that you are planting flowers that our native bees will actually visit. Native wildflowers help mitigate the effects of urbanization on our native bees by increasing the availability of food in an otherwise challenging urban environment.
Opt for a more natural yard – Treating our yards with herbicides and cutting the grass very short can lead to a perfectly manicured lawn, but at what cost? Lawns with no flowers are food deserts to our bees. Allowing wildflowers such as clover to blossom in your yard provides much-needed resources for our native bees. If you absolutely can’t give up the manicured look of your lawn, opt for a wildflower garden at the perimeter of the yard instead. The bees will thank you!
Buy organic – Pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids, have devastating effects on bees, and are linked to the decline of both bumble bees and other bee species worldwide. Lessen your pesticide footprint by buying organic produce when you can.
As the weather warms and days lengthen, your attention may be turning to that forgotten patch of your backyard. This week we’ve asked our experts to share the science behind gardening. So grab a trowel and your green thumbs, and dig in.
Whether you live in an urban apartment or a rural homestead, your outdoor area is more than just a private space. Ecologically, a garden is another jigsaw piece in the landscape.
Whatever their size, gardens can contribute to natural functions and processes in the local area, such as regulating water drainage, buffering the damaging effects of strong winds, or providing food and shelter for native wildlife.
Many wildlife species survive in urban areas, but their presence and persistence depend on how specific their food and shelter needs are, how they respond to disturbances, and the quality and quantity of other green spaces in the landscape.
For larger animals, such as birds and mammals, a home garden could become a stepping stone across an otherwise hostile urban landscape. For smaller animals, such as insects, it could be the centre of their home range.
In urban areas, where space is often limited, gardening with pollinators in mind is a simple way to encourage biodiversity in the backyard. And, depending on the surrounding landscape, habitat for pollinators will also be habitat for other animals.
Flowers are just the first step
Flowers produce sugar (nectar) and protein (pollen), the main diet for many adult insects and birds. Unlike other insect groups, native bee larvae develop almost exclusively on pollen collected by their parents, so flowers are essential to grow native bee populations.
There is no single best combination of flowers for wild bees. Many “plants for pollinators” lists available online are based on local experiences and rarely apply to all geographic regions. A general rule of thumb for a pollinator garden is one that produces flowers for most of the year and is built on diversity – monocultures of any single flower type or colour will suit only a very small number of generalist species.
Native plants are an ideal option for attracting native pollinator insects and birds, but many garden exotics, especially herbs, fruit and vegetable plants, are just as popular. Modern hybrid varieties should be chosen carefully, as some are bred for commercial fruit or flower traits (like size or colour), but the flowers lack the nectar or scent cues that attract pollinators looking for food.
Build it and they will come
The structure and design of a garden can determine what wildlife species will visit or make a home. Vertical structure, built from multiple layers of different plant heights, provides more spaces for wildlife to co-exist. Small plants and shrubs provide good shelter for insects and very small birds, while larger trees will attract visits from more mobile birds and mammals.
Large trees with rough or shedding bark that creates lots of cracks and crevices are excellent shelter for insects and small lizards. Trees that produce resins and sap flows, such as conifers, acacias and eucalypts, are also useful for some native bee and wasp species that use resin to seal their nest cells.
Insect hotels can provide homes for insects that usually nest in dead wood. But only a small proportion of the world’s bee species are wood-nesters. About 75% of bee species dig their nests into the ground, usually in sandy, uncompacted soil, preferably on a slope that won’t get waterlogged.
It can be difficult to build all of this into small gardens, but many pollinator insects will have home ranges of a few hundred metres, while birds and mammals can travel much further. So landscape composition can also influence the wildlife potential of an individual garden. A high proportion of paved areas can reduce the number of wild bees or native birds in the neighbourhood. Highly manicured green spaces can also have a negative effect on wild bee species.
Disrupting the food chain
Like any ecosystem, gardens involve an intricate web of life, from the soil microbes underground to the birds in the trees. It’s easy to grab the spray bottle to kill off the dandelions and blow down the flies, but what are the knock-on effects?
Many of the animals and plants we think of as a backyard nuisance often provide services we don’t see. For example, many native wasp and fly species (even blowflies!) are pollinators as adults. And as larvae, they control many of the insect pests we see on our plants, or decompose organic wastes. Small reptiles, like geckoes and skinks, mostly feed on small insects that annoy us, like mosquitoes and midges.
Plants we think of as lawn weeds, particularly dandelions and clover, are a favourite food source for native bees and hoverflies. Aphids and scale insects also produce a sugary substance called honeydew as they suck on plants, which is an important sugar source for some beneficial insects like wasps, bees, ants and hoverflies.
Limiting synthetic chemical use is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to enhance wildlife in gardens. Insecticides can kill beneficial insects, or affect them indirectly by disrupting their metabolism or reproductive cycles. Overuse of herbicides removes important food resources, like dandelions, that pollinators rely on if other flowers are scarce.
Many wildlife don’t like regular disturbances, which is why urban areas can be intimidating environments for animals. It can be hard to balance human needs with the habitat needs of wildlife. Many actions that minimise risks for humans can have the opposite effect for wildlife.
For example, pollinators generally prefer open grassy areas to dark forested areas. In urban environments, grassed areas are often mown regularly for human recreational and safety needs. This affects the availability of flowers for pollinators and also affects the persistence of these plant species. Mowing less often and outside peak flowering times can make a big difference for plants and pollinators.
Similarly, large old trees are homes to myriad animals. Unless they pose a very real risk of danger to human lives, pruning overhanging branches can be better for the local ecosystem than removing the whole tree.
Wildlife are rarely deterred by fences, so it is likely that most of the animals you see in your yard are also using your neighbours’ yards. Managing gardens as a collective landscape, rather than individual gardens, can keep wildlife happy while also enhancing neighbourhood communication.
As urban populations around the globe skyrocket and the demand for housing grows, space is increasingly at a premium in cities. Unfortunately, despite some notable efforts to include green space in cities, native wildlife is not often a priority for urban planners, despite research showing the benefits it brings to both people and ecosystems.
It may seem that bringing biodiversity back into cities would require large areas of land set aside for habitat restoration. But it is possible to use relatively small spaces such as transport corridors, verges and the edges of sporting grounds. Think of it as “land sharing” rather than “land sparing”“.
These gardens are obviously great for sustainable food production and community engagement. But we think similar efforts should be directed towards creating green spaces filled with native vegetation, so that local wildlife might thrive too.
Cities are often built in fertile areas on coasts, and because of their fertility are often home to large numbers of species, which means that planting native vegetation in public spaces can potentially help a wide range of different species.
There are many places in urban areas that can be tinkered with to encourage native species, with little or no disruption to their intended use. Picture the typical Australian park, for example: large expanses of grass and some isolated gum trees. Biodiverse systems are more complex, featuring tall trees, smaller ones, shrubs, herbs and grasses, which together create diverse habitat for a range of species. So by building native garden beds around single trees, at the park’s edges, or within designated areas (even among playgrounds!), we can gain complex layers of habitats for our native animals without losing too much picnic space.
We think of verges as places to park our cars or wheelie bins, but these grass borders are another underused area where we could plant native gardens. This not only improves the aesthetics of the streetscape but also reduces water use and the need to mow.
Australia is a sporting nation and our sports grounds are cherished features of the urban landscape, yet there are plenty of opportunities here for native vegetation. The average golf course, for instance, only uses two-thirds of its area for actual golf (unless you’re a very bad shot). The out-of-bounds areas nestled between the fairways offer plenty of space for native biodiversity. Likewise, the boundaries of sporting ovals are ideal locations for native vegetation borders.
As the existence of community gardens and Landcare groups shows, there is already a drive within local communities to make these ideas a reality. In fact, some groups of “guerrilla gardeners” are so passionate about urban greening that they dedicate their own time and resources towards creating green public space, often without permission.
But urban gardening doesn’t need to be illegal. Many councils in Australia have policies that encourage the planting of native plants in private gardens, with some even offering rebates for native landscaping projects.
Ultimately we need to both share and spare urban landscapes. By conserving habitat fragments and planting native gardens to connect these patches, we can bring native plants and animals back into our cities.
Being a “locavore” means choosing food that is grown locally, and is one way that you can help ensure there is more food to go around.
To feed the predicted nine billion people in the world in 2050, the world will need to produce 70-100% more food. This unprecedented increase in food production will require substantial changes in soil management, land cultivation, and crop production.
The primary reason why eating local is good for the planet is the reduction in energy resources required for transport and storage. Generally, the further a food has travelled from “paddock to plate”, the greater its impact on the environment. This is because of fuel used in transport and increased greenhouse gas emissions used for refrigerated storage.
The global food system lets us eat food from all over the world, all year round. But food miles impact adversely on the nutritional quality of fresh foods, and on the environment.
Yet while eating foods grown close to where we live makes planetary sense, farmers markets and foods grown more sustainably (organically) often carry a price premium, and seem to be targeted to a trendy and wealthy demographic.
The lack of a definition of “eating locally” also raises questions of how to incorporate organic and fair trade produce within the larger sustainability movement, and how to support developing nations.
Global supply chains place great demands on ecosystems and natural resources, and large distances between where food is produced and consumed is often seen as evidence of an unsustainable food system. However, this is not always as straightforward as it appears.
10 tips for eating local
1: Become familiar with foods that are grown or produced locally and what time of the year they are available. Seasonal food guides are available from some fruit markets and online such as one developed for south-east Queensland.
2: Look for local farmers markets, community gardens, food co-operatives and community supported agriculture schemes. Green Connect is one example of a community-supported agriculture scheme operating in the Illawarra region of New South Wales. In some states such as Tasmania, a thriving food tourism culture may encourage consumers to eat locally but this concept has not been replicated in other parts of the country.
3: Grow your own fruit and vegetables and keep chickens in your own backyard, or get involved in your local community garden, and trade produce with neighbours.
4: Read the labels of packaged foods. The new “Made in Australia” labelling on foods makes it easier to determine where the food (and its individual components) has been grown, processed and packaged.
5: Choose less processed foods. Generally, the more processed a food is, the more energy and water it requires in the production process. Replace junk food with fresh fruit, nuts and vegetables.
7: Cook meals using fresh ingredients rather than purchasing ready-made meals.
8: Ask your food retailers and manufacturers about the origin of the food you are buying. Locate fruit and vegetable retailers, who sell food produced locally.
9: Limit your intake of alcohol and purchase locally-grown alcohol with the lowest food miles possible. If you enjoy a particular beer or wine, contact the manufacturer to learn about their environmental policies and to advocate for more environmentally friendly production methods.
10: The Fair Food Forager app allows you to search for food outlets that adhere to fair and sustainable practices.
Creating consumer demand for more locally and sustainably produced food is being led not only by food champion Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, but also by our very own Australian Youth Food Movement, whose organisers are passionate about improving the food supply for future generations.
So your well-earned holiday is finally here. But before you pack your swim gear, magazines and camera, take a moment to think about your health.
Experiencing an illness in a foreign destination can be very challenging. Obviously it will reduce the quality of your trip, but it can also leave travellers with unexpected costs and exposed to a foreign medical system. On occasion, serious complications can follow.
More than nine million Australians travel internationally per year, with most trips undertaken by people between the ages of 25 and 55. The top ten most popular destinations for Australians are New Zealand, Indonesia, the USA, UK, Thailand, China, Singapore, Japan, Fiji and India.
A range of new health problems can be encountered during travel, and existing health problems can be exacerbated. Staying healthy is all about being informed, prepared and sensible.
Minimise your chances of experiencing these by following a simple ABCDE.
A: Allow time to prepare
Around popular holiday periods, it pays to allow plenty of time to book an appointment at a travel clinic, or a local medical clinic that offers travel vaccinations.
Some vaccinations have two or three doses and may need four weeks for the course to be completed. Examples include vaccines for Japanese encephalitis and rabies.
If travelling as a family, several visits may be required for preparing children for travel certain destinations.
Keep in mind that your travel medicine practitioner may need detailed information about your exact itinerary, your past childhood vaccinations, your medical history and medications. If you have all this information readily available, you can get the most out of your travel consultation.
If you have an existing medical condition, get checked out to make sure it’s being managed as expected. For example, blood pressure medications may need to be adjusted if your blood pressure is either too high or too low.
Yellow fever immunisations and other live vaccines – those that contain active components – should be avoided if you are on medications that reduce your immunity, such as steroids like prednisolone. You may need alterations to immunosuppressive medications some weeks before you travel, or an official letter exempting you from a vaccine that is necessary for entry into certain countries (as is the case with yellow fever vaccine).
B: Behaviour - think about it
Holiday makers often seek to get out of their comfort zones. But it’s worth avoiding the temptation to completely let your hair down: behaviours you would never entertain in the home setting should be avoided in a foreign setting as well. You may also need to alter some of your daily living behaviours.
Traveller’s diarrhoea can largely be avoided by using bottled water in any setting that you consume water, including staying hydrated, brushing your teeth, washing fruit and salads, and making ice blocks and other drinks.
Eat food from venues that appear to adhere to good food hygiene standards – although this can be difficult to judge. Avoid hawker food or street food where items may have been left for long periods at temperatures where bacteria can multiply. When uncertain of hygiene standards, selecting packaged food is the safest choice.
Respiratory infections are common in travellers. If you find yourself in a crowded setting where someone appears unwell and is coughing, create a distance to reduce the risk of being infected. Alcohol-based hand gels are useful to maintain hand hygiene and may protect you from infection due to common colds and other viruses that linger on surfaces.
Smart packing is also important. You should travel with sunscreen and clothes that protect you from sun exposure, and repellent that has an active component to repel insects if travelling to an area where mosquitoes can transmit infections such as dengue, Zika and malaria.
Avoid acquiring a sexually transmitted infection by using barrier protection (condoms) for sexual intercourse.
C: Check safety, and have a check up
Review travel warnings at a reputable website, such as SmartTraveller.
A general check up is advised to ensure your health is stable. Health conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes or a lowered immune system may put you at greater risk of travellers’ diarrhoea. Cancer or recent operations can increase risk of developing a blood clot.
Check ups are also a good opportunity to ensure that your vaccinations are up-to-date (see below).
D: Drugs (medications) and vaccines are vital
Medications that can reduce the time or severity of travellers’ diarrhoea are recommended for almost any destination, but particularly when travelling to developing countries where food hygiene standards can be variable. Examples include antibiotics such as azithromycin that treat bacterial causes of diarrhoea, and drugs such as tinidazole to treat parasitic causes of diarrhoea.
Medications such as doxycycline or malarone that protect against being infected with malaria are recommended in some regions within Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific.
Zika virus infection generally causes a mild illness or no symptoms at all. Pregnant female travellers are advised to avoid travel to a Zika endemic area. Couples planning a pregnancy in the near future should seek advice from a health professional if travelling to a Zika endemic country.
If you’re travelling to destinations that are above 2500 metres (such Cusco in Peru), talk to your doctor about medications that help prevent or manage altitude sickness.
The normal schedule of vaccinations provided to Australians may not cover you for illnesses found in your holiday destination. Extra vaccinations are necessary for certain destinations.
For example, yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes and can cause anything from mild fevers to a severe illness involving multiple organs. Vaccination against yellow fever is required for entry into countries with known yellow fever transmission, and for returning back to Australia if visiting an area of known transmission.
Australians may consider vaccinations against the following diseases before travel to popular holiday destinations:
Australians love to travel. About 9 million Australians travelled overseas in 2013, 60% of them on holiday. For most tourists, sustainable developmenimate change were probably not high on their list of concerns. But increasing numbers of travellers are concerned about these issues.
Is sustainable tourism possible when tourism accounts for about 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions? If the tourism sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest greenhouse emitter in the world.
By far the largest source of these emissions is transport, particularly air travel. If the current growth trend continues, these emissions could triple within 30 years.
On the other hand, tourism is incredibly important for local development.
Indeed, it offers the only sustainable means of economic development for many developing countries. The UN World Tourism Organization says that tourism will be important in reaching the Millennium Development Goals, which include ensuring environmental sustainability and eliminating extreme poverty.
Exactly how the tourism industry can best help to meet these goals is a matter of debate. However, it seems clear that tourism can make a positive contribution to conservation efforts around the world as well as boosting local economies, although you do have to pump out greenhouse gases to get there.
To travel or not to travel, that is the question
What options does the environmentally concerned tourist have? Is the only responsible action to restrict holidays to places that can be reached by foot, bike, or train? This is certainly not impossible, but it seems unlikely that enough people would be willing to do it to deliver much of an impact. And even if they did, they would deprive many developing countries of the economic and environmental benefits of tourism.
So is it possible to enjoy an overseas holiday without contributing to catastrophic climate change? Will our enjoyment of a remote tropical beach literally submerge it under rising sea levels? Is there a balance between the environmental costs of tourism and its benefits? Sustainable tourism arguably means working out what this balance is, and then ensuring we stay on the right side of it.
Carbon offsets: atoning for sins of emission?
Reducing emissions growth projected in a “business as usual” scenario requires changes both in consumer behaviour and in the way the tourism industry is structured.
Carbon-offset schemes are not universally supported, and can be confusingly complex. It is important to understand that there are uncertainties involved in such offset schemes. Because they aim merely to offset emissions rather than reduce them, some people reject these schemes altogether as an option. Some even portray the notion of offsetting as a modern-day indulgence for climate sins.
Some of the criticisms are valid. But purists miss an important point: many activities that are vital to global development goals are unlikely ever to be emissions-free. Tourism is one such activity.
Carbon-offset schemes and the standards by which they are accredited certainly need monitoring and regulation. Ultimately this will need to be done within the framework of a global climate treaty. They are, however, a positive example of business opportunities generated by the demand for low-carbon tourism options.
For the individual tourist, offsetting is increasingly easy and cheap. According to the Qantas calculator, offsetting a round-trip from Melbourne to Los Angeles only costs about A$25 at present. Flights within Australia can be offset for as little as the price of a cup of coffee.
Other tourism activities can be offset too – rental car firm Europcar, for instance, offers offsets purchased though carbon forestry company Greenfleet.
Other companies offering offsets in Australia include Climate Friendly, Carbon Planet, and Carbon Neutral. These firms engage in many types of offset projects including forestry, wind power, and others. Our Planet Travel recommends that consumers look into the types of projects an offset scheme uses, to ensure it is one they support.
Forestry projects, in particular have attracted a lot of attention. It is generally accepted that forest growth can store carbon dioxide, and an analysis of forest carbon sink projects found that this approach can be useful in meeting emissions-reduction targets. However, these projects come with inherent uncertainties: if a forest burns, for example, the stored carbon is re-emitted.
Of course, climate change itself may exacerbate the risk of such fires. On the other hand, timber harvested from forestry projects is safe from bushfires and could still be counted towards the offset total, because it still contains much of the carbon from the tree. All of these different factors will need to be studied carefully, preferably at an international level as part of an agreed climate treaty.
A guilt-free pleasure?
Given that offsets seem to be a way of having one’s cake and eating it too, these schemes should appeal to tourists. By offsetting, they can enjoy their holiday and contribute to global development while at the same time atoning for their sins of emission. Unfortunately, according to Qantas, only 5% of air travellers currently choose to offset.
Sadly, this is an area where consumer choice may not be best and responsible governments as well as corporations need to take the lead. Ecotours, for example, often bundle carbon offsets into their price. It can only be hoped that airlines will follow suit.
Ultimately, however, what’s required is a clear global framework for reducing emissions, in which offsets can play a part. We need, in other words, an international climate agreement. The devil, as always, will be in the details.
… a unique opportunity to advance the contribution of the tourism sector to the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental, while raising awareness of the true dimensions of a sector which is often undervalued.
Sustainable tourism comes from the concept of sustainable development, as set out in the 1987 Brundtland report. Sustainable development is:
… development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
British environmental activist George Monbiot argued that, over the years, sustainable development has morphed into sustained growth. The essence of his argument is that little resolve exists to go beyond rhetoric. This is because environmental crises require we limit the demands we place on it, but our economies require endless growth.
At the moment, economic growth trumps environmental limits, so sustainability remains elusive.
What is sustainable tourism?
Tourism is important to our efforts to achieve sustainable development. It is a massive industry, and many countries rely on it for their economies.
In 2016, more than 1.2 billion people travelled as tourists internationally, and another 6 billion people travelled domestically.
According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, sustainable tourism is:
… tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.
Following on from Monbiot’s criticism, we might ask if efforts are directed at “sustaining tourism”, or instead harnessing tourism for wider sustainable development goals.
No place is off the tourism circuit
Looking at some of the tourism trouble spots, complacency is not called for.
No place is off the tourism circuit, so tourism grows with few limits. Ironically, tourists even want to tour Antarctica to see its pristine environment before it disappears (“last-chance tourism”). This is despite their impacts contributing to global warming and threatening this last wild place.
It is difficult to get a complete picture of the impacts of tourism because no-one is working to build a comprehensive view. So, insights are fragmented.
While we might be sceptical that UN “years” are often more rhetoric than real, we can nonetheless seize the opportunity to make tourism more sustainable.
How can tourism be made more sustainable?
Tourism can be made more sustainable through several achievable measures. Some look to technological solutions so we can continue business as usual. Others highlight conscious consumerism and ideas like slow travel.
But in a world in which growing populations with endless consumer demands are pitted against a fragile environment, we require more concerted effort.
1) Governments must implement policies that foster sustainable development by overcoming the growth fetish. Tourism then should be developed only within sustainable development parameters. Governments must tackle the environmental limits to growth and climate change challenges we confront. Tourism development requires integrated planning. So, we need the government tourism authorities – such as Tourism Australia or state tourism commissions – focused equally on integrated planning as the marketing they currently emphasise.
2) Consumers should be educated for responsible travel choices. For example, few realise that all-inclusive resorts result in economic benefits from tourism leaking out of the host economy back to the home economies of the big multinationals and corporations that often own such resorts (think Club Med). Civics education in schools could educate for responsible travel.
3) Local communities, often treated as only as one stakeholder among the many, must have a right to participate in tourism decision-making and have a say on if and how their communities become tourism destinations.
4) Workers of tourism must have their rights respected and given decent conditions. Tourism should not be allowed to continue as a low-wage and precarious source of employment.
5) The tourism industry needs to assume greater responsibility, submitting to local tax regimes and regulations so its presence builds thriving communities, rather than undermining them. This is increasingly essential as a social license to operate. The industry should also educate its clients on responsible tourism.
6) Non-governmental organisations are essential for reporting on the abuses of tourism, including land grabs, human rights abuses, community opposition and corruption.
Harnessing these essential stakeholders in a rigorous agenda for sustainable development, rather than sustaining tourism, would make the UN’s “year” more meaningful.
Wildlife would disappear most dramatically in the remaining forests and grasslands of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. The greatest species loss would occur in the Peruvian Amazon basin where as many as 317 species could vanish as a result of agricultural development.
As a doctoral researcher at Humboldt University Berlin, I studied human food consumption, land use and how they affect wildlife. Our research was published July 17 in Nature Ecology and Evolution.
Our research shows that Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly at risk of harmful agricultural development. This region is at the crossroads of economic, demographic and agricultural growth, and minimizing potential effects of agricultural change there is an urgent challenge.
This becomes more worrying when considering the percentage of land that is currently at risk (i.e. natural but arable) and not protected against future development. Four-fifths of the regions we identify at risk of farmland expansion in Sub-Saharan Africa are unprotected. This is less than half of the 43 per cent protected in Latin America.
Some may mistakenly believe that protecting land from farming is about preserving wildlife habitat while local people go hungry. But it’s not a binary choice. Instead, the goal is to ensure an ample supply of nutritious food while at the same time conserving the most biodiverse and unique places on Earth. This is possible if we try. Knowing in advance what areas are most at risk allows us to better plan for a more sustainable future.
Aside from protecting land, food can be grown at little to no cost to biodiversity. For example, small-holder agro-ecological farming, which uses diverse cropping techniques along with fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides, can produce large quantities of nutritious food at little to no cost to wildlife.
We need to increase awareness of agro-ecological farming methods and secure local people’s land-holder rights — a crucial step to preventing large foreign corporations from buying up land for monoculture farming.
Communities adopting agro-ecological techniques is a win-win solution that goes a long way towards sustainably feeding the world without pushing wildlife towards extinction.
What can policy makers do?
Current large-scale conservation schemes are based on factors that include past habitat loss and the threatened status of species, but none include the potential for future land-use change. We need to do a better job of predicting future pressures on wildlife habitat, especially because timely conservation action is cheaper and more effective than trying to fix the damage caused by farming. Our research takes a step in this direction.
We also show which countries could do with more support for conservation initiatives to protect land and find ways to sustainably grow food. Suriname, Guyana and the Republic of the Congo are just a few examples, as well as a number of countries in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa that are at the centre of high agricultural growth, low conservation investment and very high numbers of species that could be lost due to agricultural development.
Since most agricultural demand comes from richer nations, those countries should provide education and support for sustainable farming methods and locally led conservation efforts.
What can you do?
All of this raises the question: How can we eat well without harming wildlife? One simple step we can all take right now that would have a far greater impact than any other (aside from having fewer children): Cut out the grain-fed beef.
Imagine throwing away 25 plates of perfectly good food to get one plate of beef — the idea is absurd and would likely be news if done en masse. But that is precisely what we are all unknowingly doing by eating resource-intensive meat. Articles on food waste seem half-baked when keeping in mind the bizarre grain-to-meat ratio of many of our most popular meats.
There are ways in which farmers can raise livestock with little to no environmental damage, particularly when land is not overgrazed and trees remain on the landscape. Indeed, in some remote areas grazing cattle are a crucial source of food and nourishment. Unfortunately, the industrialized feedlot model that relies heavily on grain makes up the overwhelming majority of the meat in your supermarket. That is the kind of farming that our research investigates.
Livestock quietly causes 10 times more deforestation than the palm oil industry but seems to get about 10 times less media attention. While it’s certainly true that avoiding unsustainable palm oil is a good idea, avoiding eating animals that were raised on grain is an even more effective conservation tactic.
Feeding the world without damaging nature is one of the greatest challenges humanity faces. But with a little foresight, better land governance and some simple meal changes, many of the solutions are at arm’s length.
For wildlife’s sake, go forth and enjoy your veggie burgers.
Rosie, like a real-life Babe, ran away from an organic piggery when she was only a few days old. She was found wandering in a car park, highly agitated, by a family who took her home and made her their live-in pet. However, after three months they could no longer keep her.
She was relocated to the Sugarshine animal sanctuary, outside Lismore in New South Wales. Kelly Nelder, Sugarshine’s founder and a mental health nurse, described her as “highly strung” and “needy”. It’s not surprising that Rosie, after the loss of two primary care attachments, was unable to bond with the other pigs; she was traumatised.
I met Rosie when I visited Sugarshine, investigating the similarities between human and animal trauma. I spent 20 years as a clinical and forensic psychologist, but as an undergraduate I studied zoology.
My zoology lecturers told us not to anthropomorphise – that is, not to project human qualities, intentions and emotions onto the animals we studied. But now there is a growing recognition of animals’ inner life and their experience of psychopathology, including trauma.
At Sugarshine, traumatised animals are given freedom to find solitude or company as they wish. Interspecies relationships are encouraged, like a baby goat being cared for by a male adult pig, or a rooster who sleeps alongside a goat.
Rosie has been at Sugarshine for a few months now and is more settled, roaming its gullies, farmyards and shelters, although according to Kelly she’s still anxious. She prefers the company of the bobby calves, wedging herself between them as they lie on the ground, getting skin-to-skin contact, falling asleep, and beginning the reattachment process.
Understanding trauma in animals
I first made the connection between human and animal trauma on a visit to Possumwood Wildlife, a centre outside Canberra that rehabilitates injured kangaroos and abandoned joeys, wallabies and wombats. There I met its founders, economics professor Steve Garlick and his partner Dr Rosemary Austen, a GP.
When joeys were first brought into their care, Steve told me, they were “inconsolable” and “dying in our arms”, even while physically unharmed, with food and shelter available to them.
But this response made sense once they recognised the joey’s symptoms as reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder in humans: intrusive symptoms, avoidant behaviour, disturbed emotional states, heightened anxiety and hypervigilance.
To rehabilitate from trauma, humans and animals need to feel safe and away from cues that trigger the individual’s threat response, deactivating the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-flight response). They also need a means of self-soothing, or to gain soothing from another, activating the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest, digest and calm response).
Progress, from then on, requires the development of a secure relationship with at least one other accepting and caring person or animal. Often, this “other” is someone new. In mammals, including us, this activates our affiliative system: our strong desire for close interpersonal relationships for safety, soothing and stability. We enter a calmer, receptive state of being so that the reattachment process can begin.
Possumwood uses three stages for trauma rehabilitation. Young animals are first kept in a dark, quiet environment indoors to reduce noises or sounds that might trigger their fight-flight response. Here they have the opportunity to develop new kin friendships of their own choosing.
Sedatives (Diazepam and Fluphenazine) are judiciously used in the early stages. Then, the principal carer spends as much time as possible feeding and caressing them to build a new bond.
Kangaroos are social animals, unable to survive in the wild unless part of a mob. So joeys are moved next to a large garage, and then finally to an outdoor yard, gradually being exposed to more kangaroos and creating social bonds. Once a mob grows to 30 or so healthy animals, they are released into the wild together.
The fundamentals are the same
The similarity between animal and human trauma is not surprising. Mammalian brains (birds also appear to experience trauma) share the principal architecture involved in experiencing trauma. The primates, and certainly humans, have a greater capacity for cognitive reflection, which in my clinical experience can be both a help and a hindrance.
My observations of trauma rehabilitation at Sugarshine and Possumwood emphasises the universal fundamentals:
A sense of agency (freedom and control over their choices)
To feel safe
To develop a trusting, caring bond with at least one other creature
Reintegration into the community at the trauma sufferer’s own discretion.
For those experiencing social isolation and shame around their trauma – such as returned soldiers or the victims of domestic violence – these principles could not be more pertinent. And for our non-human cousins, like Rosie, we would do well to remember that they do feel, and they do hurt.
As a wildlife veterinarian, I often get asked about bats. I like bats, and I am always eager to talk about how interesting they are. Unfortunately the question is often not about biology but instead “what should I do about the ones in my roof?”.
With some unique talents and remarkable sex lives, bats are actually one of the most interesting, diverse and misunderstood groups of animals. Contrary to popular belief, they are beautiful creatures. Not necessarily in the cuddly, human-like sense – although some fruit bats with doey brown eyes and button noses could be considered so – but they are beautifully designed.
Soon afterwards, fossils record another game-changing adaptation in the evolution of most bats, and that is the ability to accurately locate prey using sound (what we call echolocation). These two adaptations early in their history gave bats an evolutionary edge compared to some other mammals, and allowed them to diversify into almost all habitats, on every continent except Antarctica.
There are now more than 1,300 different species, divided among 26 different families (compared to fewer than 500 primate species). Indonesia alone has 219 different bat species.
It is not just a quantity though – the variety is astonishing. The thumb-sized bumblebee bat of Thailand is the smallest species, weighing just two grammes. And like other insectivorous bats, it can eat its own body weight in insects every night. At the other end of the scale, some large flying foxes have wingspans of well over a metre and, having lost the ability to echolocate, eat fruit and nectar.
Everyone knows that some bats feed on blood, but despite the “vampire” myth, only three species actually feed on blood. And these haematophagous bats are only found in parts of South America. They also definitely don’t get tangled in your hair. Bats are far too good at flying.
If thus far I haven’t persuaded you to like bats, you must admit that they are useful. Bats defecate while regularly flying very long distances (up to 350km in one night), making them extremely effective at dispersing seeds. Add to that the fact that some fruit bats live in colonies up to 1m strong, and you can start to imagine their impact. So much so, they have been proven key in reforestation.
Another unappreciated and major role is as pest controllers. The sheer volume of insects that some bats species can eat makes them very effective at suppressing pest insects. Bats reduce the nuisance and disease threat of mosquitoes, and it has been estimated they save the US economy at least $3.7 billion every year through increased crop productivity and reduction of pesticide usage.
Despite their ancient design, they show some remarkable talents. One of these is shared only by several select animals. Bats are vocal learners – able to learn and then imitate sounds even in adulthood. This is likely important for the development of the complex social organisation seen in many bat species. Most surprising of all is the recent revelation that they are also members of an even more exclusive and less salubrious club: animals known to partake in fellatio during copulation.
Bats have had some bad press recently due to their association with infectious diseases, from rabies to Ebola. And they appear able to tolerate some viruses fatal to other species. If anything, that illustrates again why they should be respected, especially as various bat species are also endangered and therefore protected by law in many regions.
So my response to those interested in what to do about the bats in their roof? Leave them alone.
Climate change is one of the greatest threats the world’s animals and plants are facing. In fact the world is facing an extinction crisis, which should concern all of us. The major problem with climate change is not so much that climate is changing, but that it is changing faster than species can move or adapt.
One of the solutions is to move species to places with a more suitable climate. But the idea of introducing species to areas where they have never occurred before is controversial, because species introduced to somewhere they’ve never lived could have devastating consequences for the species already there. Just think of foxes, lantana, cane toads and other invasive species in Australia.
So how do we weigh up the costs and benefits? In a new study published today in journal PLOS ONE, we developed a way of finding the answer.
Australia’s species at risk
Moving species threatened by climate change isn’t a new idea. In fact we’ve already moved some, while others are being considered.
One of them is the critically endangered Western Swamp Tortoise from Perth in Western Australia - Australia’s rarest reptile. It currently faces extinction thanks to declining seasonal rainfall, which is drying up the swamps the tortoise calls home. To stop the tortoise becoming extinct, scientists have considered potential new sites far to the south of its home range.
Another species facing climate extinction is the Mountain Pygmy-possum, a tiny mammal that currently resides on three snowy mountain tops in Victoria and New South Wales. As temperatures warm the possum is running out of room to move upwards. Snow cover, and the length of time snow stays on the ground, is decreasing rapidly.
This means the possums come out of winter hibernation earlier, and can’t find enough food. The mountains have also seen an influx of feral predators, which previously found the area inaccessible thanks to snow cover.
Weighing up the costs
It’s far from clear cut which species might benefit from this drastic action, and for which it would be a costly and risky mistake. How should wildlife managers approach the decision of whether to move animals into new areas, or leave them in places that may become uninhabitable for them?
In our study we outlined a framework that can quantify whether the benefit of moving a species outweighs the ecological cost.
The benefit of moving a species is based on the likelihood it will go extinct in its original habitat as the local climate becomes hostile, the likelihood that a breeding population can be established at a new site, and the value or importance of the species.
The ecological cost depends on the potential for the species to adversely affect the ecosystem at the new site. Species are considered candidates for re-location only if the benefit of doing so is greater than the ecological cost.
This decision involves both scientific predictions (what’s the likelihood the species will go extinct in its current range?) and subjective judgements (how do we value the conservation of this species compared to species already living at the introduction site?). Our framework separates these questions out.
We test drove our new framework using the hypothetical case of the New Zealand tuatara which is being considered for relocation from its home on a number of small offshore islands in the north of NZ to the South Island, outside of its current range. The tuatara is the country’s largest reptile and the only surviving representative of an ancient lineage.
The tuatara faces a peculiar threat from climate change. Like many reptiles, the sex of a tuatara is determined by incubation temperature, with higher temperatures giving rise to males and lower temperatures to females. The population from North Brother Island in New Zealand’s Cook Strait is already showing signs of too many males. This is expected to worsen as temperatures increase, putting the population at risk of extinction.
We considered an introduction from the North Brother Island population to a hypothetical mainland sanctuary on New Zealand’s South Island. We used a previously published population model to predict the effect of climate change on the North Brother Island population, and estimated that the current population of 550 tuatara has a 0.43 chance of persisting in 150 years time. If we remove animals to introduce them elsewhere, this slightly decreases the probability to 0.42.
We found that the chance of successfully establishing a new population was good, and that the chance that the new population will impact negatively on the ecosystem was low.
Tuatara show why it’s essential to have a rigorous framework like this to take the gut instinct and guesswork out of the decision, so we can make smarter choices for conserving species under climate change.
The Mountain Pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus) is one of five living species of pygmy-possum, all of which are classified within a single family. It is the largest of the pygmy-possums, and can be easily distinguished from other members of the family by its distinctive “buzz saw” premolar teeth.
Unlike most other possums, it is mainly ground-dwelling, inhabiting alpine and subalpine boulderfields and rocky scree in south-eastern Australia. Males and females spend most of the year separately. Females and their young occupy the best quality habitat.
The Mountain Pygmy-possum is also the only Australian marsupial that hibernates for long periods during the winter. Mating begins in early spring when the possums emerge from their winter sleep.
Up to four young are born. The young grow quickly and are weaned 9-10 weeks after conception. They leave the nest a month later. Most pygmy-possums live for only 1-3 years, however males can live to five years, and females to 12.
The Mountain Pygmy-possum is remarkable in that it was first described from a Pleistocene fossil by Robert Broom in 1896. At the time it was thought to be extinct.
In 1966 a living specimen was discovered in a Ski Club Lodge on Mount Hotham in Victoria. With evidence of only one living animal in existence, the Guinness Book of Records of 1967 recorded the Mountain Pygmy-possum as the rarest animal on Earth.
Surveys later found a number of colonies across the New South Wales and Victorian Alps ranging in elevation from 1200m-2228m above sea level.
Today there are only three known populations: Mount Higginbotham and Mount Buller in Victoria, and Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales. The total population size is estimated to be less than 2600 adults, restricted to a total range less than 10 square kilometres. It is the only mammal that is entirely restricted to the alpine and subalpine regions of south-eastern Australia.
Only small patches of suitable pygmy-possum habitat remain. Degradation, fragmentation and loss of these remaining refuges are among the immediate threat to the continuing viability of the species. Up to a third of the best breeding habitat has been lost at Mount Buller alone, due to ski resort developments.
How this remaining habitat is connected is essential. Males need to be able to migrate safely to females during the breeding season. Connectivity also maintains the large-scale structure of the population and genetic diversity. However, road and ski slopes have fragmented the landscape.
Climate change poses the greatest ongoing threat to the Mountain Pygmy-possum.
Increases in temperature will cause significant changes in alpine areas. Specifically higher temperatures will reduce snow depth and the time snow remains on the ground. These processes have a cascade of ecological consequences
Bogong moths are a vital food source for Mountain Pygmy-possums when they awake from hibernation. These moths migrate to the mountains every summer to escape lowland heat. If snow melts early, possums awake from hibernation before the moths arrive in the mountains. The possums then have to compete with other small mammals - such as antechinus and rodents - living in the same habitat. They are forced to leave the boulderfields for other sources of food, exposing them to cats and foxes.
Warming also gives invasive predators a chance to move into areas previously inaccessible. Once the extreme cold kept them out.
A national recovery plan was drafted in 2010 to ensure Mountain Pygmy-possums persist across their range and maintain their potential to evolve in the wild.
Healesville Sanctuary has successfully launched a captive breeding program for the Mountain Pygmy-possum in Victoria. This facility maximises genetic diversity within the populations by carefully selecting mating pairs.
A second captive breeding facility is to be established in Lithgow for the New South Wales population as part of the Burramys Project. The captive population is an insurance policy against natural disaster.
The project aims to gain a greater understanding of how Mountain Pygmy-possums will adapt to climate change by looking to the fossil record. The pygymy-possum family has been found in fossils dating to 24 million years ago.
Although the Mountain Pygmy-possum is highly vulnerable to extinction, it can be saved.
After ten years of severe drought and a drastic decline in possum numbers, rain finally arrived in 2010. Over the last three years we have seen a rise in Mountain Pygmy-possums across New South Wales and Victoria. This growth is attributed to a number of factors including more food and water, genetic diversity through translocations, and pest management.
Recently a critically important discovery was made of a new population of Mountain Pygmy-possums in Kosciuszko National Park. These possums live below the tree line, in an area that receives little snow fall. They may play a key role in understanding how this species will adapt to future challenges.
The Conversation is running a series on Australian endangered species. See it here.
Finding the optimum environment and avoiding uninhabitable conditions has been a challenge faced by species throughout the history of life on Earth. But as the climate changes, many plants and animals are likely to find their favoured home much less hospitable.
In the short term, animals can react by seeking shelter, whereas plants can avoid drying out by closing the small pores on their leaves. Over longer periods, however, these behavioural responses are often not enough. Species may need to migrate to more suitable habitats to escape harsh environments.
These areas have been termed “refugia” and their presence has been essential to the persistence of many species, and could be again. But the rapid rate of global temperature increases, combined with recent human activity, may make this much harder.
My colleagues and I recently investigated population genetic diversity in the narrow-leaf hopbush, a native Australian plant that got its common name from its use in beer-making by early European Australians. The hopbush has a range of habitats, from woodlands to rocky outcrops on mountain ranges, and has a wide distribution across southern and central Australia. It is a very hardy species with a strong tolerance for drought.
We found that populations in the Flinders Ranges have more genetic diversity than those to the east of the ranges, suggesting that these populations are the remnants of an historic refugium. Mountain ranges can provide ideal refuge, with species only needing to migrate short distances up or down the slope to remain within their optimal climatic conditions.
In Australia, the peak of the last ice age led to dryer conditions, particularly in the centre. As a result, many plant and animal species gradually migrated across the landscape to southern refugial regions that remained more moist. Within the south-central region, an area known as the Adelaide Geosyncline has been recognised as an important historic refugium for several animal and plant species. This area encompasses two significant mountain ranges: the Mount Lofty and Flinders ranges.
Refugia of the future
In times of increased temperatures (in contrast to the lower temperatures experienced during the ice age) retreats to refugia at higher elevations or towards the poles can provide respite from unfavourably hot and dry conditions. We are already seeing these shifts in species distributions.
But migrating up a mountain can lead to a literal dead end, as species ultimately reach the top and have nowhere else to go. This is the case for the American Pika, a cold-adapted relative of rabbits that lives in mountainous regions in North America. It has disappeared from more than one-third of its previously known range as conditions have become too warm in many of the alpine regions it once inhabited.
Further, the almost unprecedented rate of global temperature increase means that species need to migrate at rapid rates. Couple this with the destructive effects of agriculture and urbanisation, leading to the fragmentation and disconnection of natural habitats, and migration to suitable refugia may no longer be possible for many species.
While evidence for the combined effects of habitat fragmentation and climate change is currently scarce, and the full effects are yet to be realised, the predictions are dire. For example, modelling the twin impact of climate change and habitat fragmentation on drought sensitive butterflies in Britain led to predictions of widespread population extinctions by 2050.
Within the Adelaide Geosyncline, the focal area of our study, the landscape has been left massively fragmented since European settlement, with estimates of only 10% of native woodlands remaining in some areas. The small pockets of remaining native vegetation are therefore left quite disconnected. Migration and gene flow between these pockets will be limited, reducing the survival chances of species like the hopbush.
So while refugia have saved species in the past, and poleward and up-slope shifts may provide temporary refuge for some, if global temperatures continue to rise, more and more species will be pushed beyond their limits.
Today a new paper proposes trapdoor spiders arrived on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, after drifting across the sea from Africa.
Molecular analyses of spiders from Kangaroo Island, other parts of Australia, and Africa show that the Kangaroo Island’s spiders are much more closely related to African species than to other Australian ones. Rough dating of divergences – that is, how long ago different species or groups split apart – suggests that the Kangaroo Island spiders were separated from African relatives long after the breakup of Gondwana (the southern supercontinent), but arrived on Kangaroo Island at least a couple of million years ago (well before humans).
The authors conclude that the spiders must have come to Australia by crossing the Indian Ocean.
So can a spider travel over thousands of kilometres of open ocean? Sure!
There is a lot of evidence that plants and animals can reach new lands by travelling long distances. This usually happens either by drifting across oceans (for example by “rafting” – hitching a ride on floating objects such as uprooted trees or seaweed clumps) or via air travel (blown by strong winds or carried by birds). The evidence has mostly come from genetic studies like the new spider study.
When populations of species on either side of an ocean are genetically very similar, it is reasonable to conclude that there has been some recent movement between them. That’s because DNA changes over time: each time DNA is copied (which happens every time a new cell forms) there is a chance that copying errors will occur. If these errors – known as mutations – are not harmful, they can be copied into later generations. In this way, populations that are not interbreeding gradually drift apart genetically. The result is that populations that have been separated for a long time will be very distinct, whereas those that have been recently connected will be genetically similar.
Genetic and observational studies give us strong evidence that long-distance voyages have happened. It might seem incredible that a plant or animal could survive a long trip at sea, or be blown to a new land by a storm, but it only has to succeed every now and then for dispersal to play a big role in shaping global biodiversity.
A few years ago, seaweed swarming with living invertebrate animals washed up on a beach in southern New Zealand, and DNA tests of the kelp and the animals showed the voyagers had drifted in ocean currents from islands hundreds of kilometres away.
Nonetheless, we now know that intercontinental travel is not something that only those that can fly, swim or build canoes can do – and a good thing, too! Rapid environmental change will force many plants and animals to move to new places. Many species are moving toward the poles, or up mountains, as the climate warms.
The ability to travel is, and has always been, an important part of long-term survival and evolution. But it’s risky, too. Many long-distance trips fail, and the voyagers often perish before finding a new home. These intrepid trapdoor spiders just got very lucky!