To save Australia’s mammals we need a change of heart

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What’s the best way to give Australia’s mammals a helping hand? Northern Australia Hub, National Environmental Research Program
John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University and Peter Harrison, Southern Cross University

Twenty-nine Australian land mammals have become extinct over the last 200 years, and 56 are currently facing extinction. These losses and potential losses represent over a third of the 315 species present at the time of European settlement.

We recently published the first review of all Australian mammals, finding that Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the world, and the situation isn’t improving thanks to feral predators such as cats.

In response, Environment Minister Greg Hunt has proposed investing in research for a cat-killing disease as a form of biological control. But while biological control will be part of the solution, it is not the silver bullet. The real solution will have to involve a change of heart.

Not a thing of the past

Most Australians know of and regret the extinction of the thylacine — but few recognise that this one extinction is symptomatic of a much more pervasive loss. Twenty-eight other mammals have become extinct since 1788, and we suspect that few would know their names, let alone of their loss.

It’s still happening. In 2009 the Christmas Island Pipistrelle (a tiny bat) became extinct, and the Bramble Cay Melomys may have suffered a similar fate recently, thanks to neglect.

These species are or were not obscure marginalia or predestined for oblivion. Instead many were common and played important and irreplaceable roles in our country’s ecology. These species were part of the fabric of this land. The Australian mammal fauna is the most distinctive in the world: 86% of our 315 land mammal species are found nowhere else.

Since the 1840s we’ve lost mammals at the rate of one species per decade. On current trends, there will be many more extinctions of Australian mammals in the next one or two generations: we found 56 land mammal species (more than 20% of our land mammals) are now threatened with extinction.

Out to sea the situation is a little less bleak, but more opaque. Of 58 species reported from Australian waters, six are threatened but 35 are considered Data Deficient – they may or may not be in trouble, but we don’t have enough information to be sure.

Feral cats the greatest threat

It may sound all doom and gloom — and in many respects it is — but it’s important to note that conservation can work. Both Gilbert’s potoroo and the Bridled nailtail wallaby have been brought back from the brink through dedicated effort.

So how do we go about saving the rest of Australia’s threatened mammals?

Some consider this an economic question — with X amount of dollars, we can save X number of species, but which ones? This is the argument of medical triage, a sharp prioritisation that directs funds only at the most savable and valuable species.

But this is a defeatist mentality. To advocate for species’ extinctions by choice or through disinclination is unconscionable. Triage was born on the battlefields of Napoleonic Europe, where life and death choices had to be made in minutes. It is an inappropriate analogy for biodiversity conservation.

A better analogy is with the education system. Our society accepts the obligation that all children should be schooled, and recognises the benefit to society from that premise. So too with conservation: we should recognise the obligation to attempt to safeguard all species. In a nation as affluent as ours, this can and should be a realistic objective.

But to do so we have to target our resources at the right problems.

Cats are the greatest threat to Australia’s mammals. Northern Australia Hub, National Environmental Research Program

Cats are the greatest threat to Australia’s mammals. Like many other threats, they are now a pervasive and deeply-entrenched problem, and we recognise that it will not be solved simply or quickly.

There are some measure we can implement immediately: translocating threatened species, establishing a network of cat-proof enclosures, and better management of dingoes and wild dogs (which can help control cat populations).

But we also need to look at long-term solutions. This has formidable challenges. Current trials in cat-baiting are promising, but we don’t yet know if they will work on a large scale. Biological control (such as a disease) may take decades to develop, and has to overcome concerns from cat owners, and risks to other Australian wildlife and cat species overseas.

Even so, controlling cats is likely to do more for the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity than any other single action.

Learning to care for our country

But we have concluded that we will not solve the mammal extinction crisis simply by repeating the same actions over and over. The problem is far more fundamental.

Conservation is not just an environmental problem; it also charts a moral landscape. How does our society fit into this land? What do we consider is important? Is it reasonable that we gift our descendants only a faint shadow of our country’s extraordinary nature?

We have worked extensively in remote Australia. We have shown old Aboriginal men and women stuffed museum specimens of now-vanished mammals, and been struck to our core by their responses: singing the song of that animal, stroking it, telling its story, crying at its loss. Here is an affinity to nature, a deep connection to our land, an ache of responsibility, that we settler Australians have not yet felt or learned. To become part of this country, to care for it properly, we need to grow some of that sense of belonging and affinity. Otherwise, extinctions will continue to be viewed as inconsequential.

Our review of the fate of Australian mammals reflects uncomfortably on our society. Without understanding of our country, without linkages to, and affinity to, its nature, and without a corresponding commitment to its well-being, our society will fit poorly in this land and these seas, and we will continue to erode the most remarkable fauna in the world.

We must accept that biodiversity conservation is not only an obligation of government, but a shared societal responsibility.

The ConversationThis article was co-written by Dr Andrew Burbidge, who is a co-author of the action plan. He is a Research Fellow with the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife.

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University and Peter Harrison, Director, Marine Ecology Research Centre, Southern Cross University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink

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Gump, who died in May, was the last known member of her species. Director of National Parks/Supplied
John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Don Driscoll, Australian National University, and Hal Cogger, Australian Museum

Among the most haunting and evocative images of Australian wildlife are the black and white photographs of the last Thylacine, languishing alone in Hobart Zoo. It’s an extraordinary reminder of how close we came to preventing an extinction.

That loss is also an important lesson on the consequences of acting too slowly. Hobart Zoo’s Tasmanian tiger died just two months after the species was finally given protected status.

Last year, we wrote about the last-known Christmas Island Forest Skink, an otherwise unremarkable individual affectionately known as Gump. Although probably unaware of her status, Gump was in a forlorn limbo, hoping to survive long enough to meet a mate and save her species. It was an increasingly unlikely hope.

Despite substantial effort searching Christmas Island for another Forest Skink, none was found.

On 31 May 2014, Gump died, alone. Like the Thylacine, she barely outlived the mechanisms established to protect her, dying less than five months after being included on the list of Australia’s threatened species.

Sad precedent: the Thylacine was another species that dwindled to a single captive individual, who then died. National Archives of Australia/Wikimedia Commons

Sudden decline

Until the late 1990s, Forest Skinks were common and widespread on Christmas Island. Their population then crashed, and has now vanished. It has been a remarkable disappearance but not entirely peculiar, as it was preceded by an eerily similar pattern of decline and extinction (in 2009) for the Christmas Island Pipistrelle, the most recent Australian mammal known to have become extinct. Nor is the skink unique among the island’s native reptiles – most of them have shown similar patterns of decline.

We think Gump’s death is momentous because it probably marks the extinction of her species. If so, this will be the first Australian native reptile known to have become extinct since European colonisation – a most unwelcome distinction. (Unlike the death of an individual, extinction can be hard to prove. There are, after all, some optimists who believe Thylacines still live. For the Forest Skink, the trajectory of decline and the fruitlessness of dedicated searches provide reasonable grounds to presume extinction, although this conclusion may take some years to be officially recognised. And, of course, we’d like to be proved wrong.)

All but officially extinct, the outlook is bleak. Hal Cogger/Supplied

Lessons and legacies

Gump’s death might be passed over as a trivial bit of bad news and quickly forgotten. But Forest Skinks have been around since before modern humans walked out of Africa, so their extinction on our watch is not trivial. We should treat this loss with a profound respect, and seek to learn lessons that may help prevent similar losses in the future.

These are the legacies we seek from Gump’s life and death:

First, we should acknowledge that extinction is an unwelcome endpoint that is usually caused by ecological factors, but in recent times has often been compounded by deliberate human action or inaction. In most cases, extinction can be seen as a tangible demonstration of failure in policy and management, of inattention or missed opportunities.

In comparable cases elsewhere in our society, such as unexplained deaths or catastrophic governmental shortcomings, coronial inquests are instigated. Such inquests are widely recognised as a good way to learn lessons and to change practices in a way that will help avoid future failures. Inquests are also useful to acknowledge accountability, and to explain negative events to the public.

An inquiry – albeit more modest than a coronial inquest – is an appropriate response to any extinction. The presumed first extinction of an Australian reptile species would make for a worthwhile precedent: how could it have been averted, and what lessons can we learn?

Second, the Australian government has shown a welcome attention to the conservation of threatened species. It has appointed the first Threatened Species Commissioner, and federal environment minister Greg Hunt recently committed to seeking to prevent any more Australian mammal extinctions.

We would urge that this avowed interest be further consolidated by the loss of the Christmas Island Forest Skink, with a clear statement that this extinction is momentous and deeply regretted. The government should explicitly seek to avoid future preventable extinctions (a commitment recognised internationally through the Millennium Development Goals), and should pledge to implement a more effective and successful strategy for conserving Australia’s threatened species (and biodiversity generally).

Gump’s legacy could be a renewed push to prevent any more extinctions. Director of National Parks/Supplied

Third, it is no coincidence that two endemic vertebrate species have gone extinct on Christmas Island in the past decade, and that many other native species are declining there, despite the fact that most of the island is a national park.

Christmas Island’s extraordinary natural values are not being matched by the resources provided to manage them, or by their low profile in our national awareness. The island meets the criteria to qualify as a World Heritage site, and it is time for the government to seek such a listing.

The fourth hoped-for legacy concerns the so far successful captive breeding program for two other Christmas Island species that otherwise would have gone the same way as Gump: the endemic Blue-tailed Skink and Lister’s Gecko.

This is an admirable accomplishment. But it is at best a halfway house, because a species solely represented by individuals in cages becomes an artifice. We urge the government to commit fully to a currently proposed conservation plan for Christmas Island that seeks to allow such species to return to their natural haunts, following eradication or effective control of their primary threats such as introduced black rats, feral cats, yellow crazy ants, giant centipedes and wolf snakes.

Fifth, this extinction has largely been enacted out of public view. With the exception of a 2012 scientific paper, the few reports documenting the Christmas Island Forest Skink’s decline are not readily accessible.

There is an island-wide biodiversity monitoring program (which is admirable), yet the results of such monitoring are not routinely reported or interpreted to the public. Our society deserves to be warned of impending and unrecoverable losses, and to know when good management has averted them.

Let’s hope Gump hasn’t died in vain. Hal Cogger/Supplied

This case is not unusual: for most Australian threatened species, it is difficult if not impossible to find reliable information on population trends. This makes it difficult to prioritise management, making it likely that management responses will be initiated too late, and it severely limits public awareness of conservation issues. We recommend the development of a national biodiversity monitoring program that would allow ready public access to information about trends in threatened and other species.

The ConversationIt is 78 years since the death of the last Thylacine. Our photographs of extinct Australian animals are now taken in colour, rather than black and white. But has anything else improved? We hope it will.

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Don Driscoll, Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University, and Hal Cogger, John Evans Memorial Fellow, Australian Museum

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Threat of extinction demands fast and decisive action

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Extinct: the Christmas Island Pipistrelle. Lindy Lumsden
Tara Martin, CSIRO

When it comes to mammal extinctions, Australia’s track record over the last 200 years has been abysmal. Since European settlement, nearly half of the world’s mammalian extinctions have occurred in Australia – 19 at last count. So, when faced with the additional threat of climate change, how do we turn this around and ensure the trend doesn’t continue?

Learning from previous extinctions is a good place to start. A comparison between two Australian species, the recently extinct Christmas Island pipistrelle and the critically endangered but surviving orange-bellied parrot, provides some insight into the answer to this question. Namely, that acting quickly and decisively in response to evidence of rapid population decline is a key factor in determining the fate of endangered species.

A bat and a parrot

Endemic to Christmas Island, the pipistrelle was a tiny (3.5 gram) insect-eating bat. It was first described in 1900, when numbers were widespread and abundant. In the early 1990s this began to change. The decline was rapid and the exact cause uncertain. By 2006, experts were calling for a captive breeding program to be initiated. These pleas were ignored until 2009 when it was finally given the green light. Sadly the decision came too late, and two months later the Federal Minister of Environment announced that the rescue attempt had failed.

Critically endangered: Orange-bellied Parrot, otherwise known as Neophema chrysogaster. John Harrison

Concern about the orange-bellied parrot began in 1917, but it wasn’t until 1981 that it was confirmed to be on the brink of extinction. In an attempt to save the parrot, a multi-agency, multi-government recovery team was set up and a captive breeding program began in 1983. Like the bat, threats to the parrot remain poorly understood. In 2010, monitoring showed that the species would become extinct in the wild within three to five years unless drastic action was taken. The recovery team immediately took action to bolster the captive population as insurance against extinction. There are currently 178 birds in captivity and less than 20 in the wild.

What do these two tales tell us about how me might avoid future Australian extinctions? It seems that one of the main differences, and perhaps the difference over which we have the most control, were the decision-making processes involved.

How we manage endangered species ultimately comes back to the decisions made, including who makes the decisions, who is held accountable, and the timing of these decisions. Examining these cases in the context of decision-making reveals some clear differences and highlights some important recommendations for the future management of endangered species.

Leadership, accountability, and timely action

One of the key differences was in the governance and leadership surrounding the two cases. Experts involved in monitoring the pipistrelle provided recommendations to government bodies, but did not have the authority to make decisions nor was there an effective leader to champion the urgent need to act. Conversely, the Orange-bellied Parrot Recovery Team had the authority to make decisions and act on them. Indeed, thanks to the Recovery Team’s broad representation, any failure to act would likely have resulted in public outcry – which raises the issue of accountability.

Management of endangered species requires tough decisions, yet they are decisions we must make. If we monitor declining populations without a process for deciding between different management options, we will only document extinctions. In some cases, the logical decision may be to employ a triage system where priority is given to species with a high likelihood of recovery. Assigning institutional accountability around the management of endangered species could help to ensure that tough decisions are made and that the processes involved are transparent.

Finally, the cases of the bat and the parrot also highlight the need to act quickly when a species is found to be on the brink of extinction. Delaying decisions only narrows our choices and removes opportunities to act. We may not always have all the answers, but this cannot be used as a reason to delay decision making. Based on a triage system a decision to not to act might be the best way forward, but if we delay the decision it becomes the only way forward.

Send in the scientists and heed their advice. Luke Diett

Better decisions with science

It is all well and good to say that we need leaders to be accountable and make timely decisions; but in a world where insufficient conservation resources exist to manage all endangered species, how do we ensure that the decisions we make are the right ones?

This is where science can help.

Scientific analysis can be used to determine how much information we need to inform a good conservation decision. In the case of the Christmas Island pipistrelle, the decision to start a captive breeding program came many years too late. By evaluating the costs, benefits, and feasibility of taking different management actions in the light of what we know about a species’ decline (or don’t know - i.e. the degree of uncertainty), it is possible to get the timing right.

Research into the methods used to stem species decline is also underway. For example, captive breeding and reintroduction programs are generally regarded as having good success rates. Further investigation into genetic management, habitat restoration, and effective techniques for reintroduction and risk management will help ensure the success of these programs for a variety of species.

Stemming the global loss of biodiversity through recovery planning will require brave decision-making in the face of uncertainty. Monitoring must be linked to decisions, institutions must be accountable for these decisions and decisions to act must be made before critical opportunities, and species, are lost forever.

Particular thanks go to Mark Holdsworth, Stephen Harris, Fiona Henderson, Mark Lonsdale, and my co-authors on the original paper on which this article is based.

The ConversationComments welcome below.

Tara Martin, Senior Research Scientist, Ecosystem Sciences, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Research shows ecotourism can help save threatened species

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Black rhino cow and calf, southern Africa. Guy Castley, Author provided
Guy Castley, Griffith University; Clare Morrison, Griffith University, and Ralf Buckley, Griffith University

Should your next holiday include a safari, whale watching, or a trip to a tiger temple? Ecotourism has recently been in the spotlight. For instance, we’ve seen claims that tourism helps conserve tigers and that it has been linked to wildlife trafficking.

But how can we tell if ecotourism is good or bad for threatened species? In our research published today in PLOS ONE we looked at nine different species, and found that overall, ecotourism is good for wildlife. Great green macaw in Costa Rica, Egyptian vultures in Spain, hoolock gibbons in India, African penguins, African wild dogs, cheetahs, and golden lion tamarins in Brazil all benefited from tourism.

But we also found that current tourism levels aren’t enough to help orang utans in Sumatra, and are actually bad for sea lions in New Zealand. So how do we get the balance right?

African penguins in Algoa Bay, South Africa. Guy Castley

What is ecotourism?

“Ecotourism” is a very broad term. It may include visitors to public national parks, volunteers for community projects, or adventurous expeditions to remote regions. Some may even include hunting safaris.

Ecotourism has both positive and negative effects. It can contribute to conservation, or impact wildlife, or both. Some effects are small, others large; some direct, others indirect.

Attitudes of local communities towards native wildlife, for example, influence whether they support or oppose poaching. Furthermore, income from ecotourism may be used for conservation and local community development projects, but not always.

We also need some way to measure ecotourism effects on wildlife? Many ecotourism measures are social or economic rather than ecological. It’s often difficult to compare positive and negative impacts on a species. Therefore, quantifying the net effect of ecotourism is challenging.

For species at risk of extinction, such as those in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, it is critical to be able to assess how various threats, including tourism, affect their survival. So we wanted to develop a way of measuring how ecotourism affects the risk of extinction for these species.

Measuring ecotourism

Previously when considering ecotourism researchers looked at revenue to parks, and how much of a species’ global population was protected by these parks.

This approach showed that tourism funding is significant for many IUCN Redlisted mammals, birds and amphibians. But it doesn’t tell us whether ecotourism will help or harm a specific species or population.

Our new approach uses population analysis (specifically population viability analysis). This sort of analysis is the gold standard for predicting future population trends, and probable time to extinction, for threatened species.

We looked at how populations changed over time in response to threatening processes, by simulating births and deaths one generation at a time. We do this thousands of times to estimate extinction risk. These methods are well-tested and widely-used in practical wildlife management.

African wild dogs. Ralf Buckley

To do this we need to know a couple of things about the species we are looking at: habitat area; population size and age. We also need to know the birth and death rates for different ages as well as migration patterns. This information exists only for some threatened species such as those used in our study.

We also need to be able to convert ecotourism effects into these measures of species performance. By looking at how ecotourism affects these aspects we can compare ecotourism to other threats such as poaching, logging, or fishing.

A tiger in India (from the back of an elephant) Ralf Buckley

Winners and losers

For seven of the species that we looked at, ecotourism provides net conservation gains. This is achieved through establishing private conservation reserves, restoring habitat or by reducing habitat damage. Removing feral predators, increasing anti-poaching patrols, captive breeding and supplementary feeding also helps.

But for orang utans in Sumatra, small-scale ecotourism cannot overcome the negative impacts of logging. However, larger-scale ecotourism yields a net positive outcome by enabling habitat protection and reintroduction of individuals from captive situations.

Unfortunately for New Zealand’s sea lions, ecotourism only compounds the impacts of intensive fisheries, because it increases the number of sea lion pups dying as a result of direct disturbance at haul out sites.

Our research highlights three key messages. The first is that to predict how ecotourism affects wildlife, we need to know basic things about them: ecotourism needs biologists as well as social scientists.

The second is that the effects of ecotourism are not universal: whether ecotourism is good or bad depends on the species and local circumstances.

The ConversationThe third, and perhaps most important, is that ecotourism, at appropriate levels, can indeed help to save threatened species from extinction.

River ecotourism at the Storms River Mouth, Tsitsikama National Park, South Africa. Guy Castley

Guy Castley, Senior Lecturer, Griffith University; Clare Morrison, Research Fellow - Academic Editor, Griffith University, and Ralf Buckley, International Chair in Ecotourism Research, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Macropod - Western brush wallaby

The western brush wallaby (Macropus irma), also known as the black-gloved wallaby, is a species of wallaby found in the southwest coastal region of Western Australia. The wallaby's main threat is predation by the introduced red fox (Vulpes vulpes). The IUCN lists the western brush wallaby as Least Concern, as it remains fairly widespread and the population is believed to be stable or increasing, as a result of fox control programs.

Image Credit: Perth Zoo

Image Credit: Perth Zoo

The western brush wallaby has a grey colour with distinctive white colouring around the face, arms and legs (although it does have black gloves as its alternative common name implies). It is an unusually diurnal macropod that eats mainly grass.

Although quite small, the western brush wallaby's coloring resembles the larger kangaroos of the region. The western brush wallaby's head and body length usually falls around 1.2 m. Their tail length, which ranges from 54–97 cm, is proportionally long to their smaller body size. The adult western brush wallaby weighs anywhere from 7.0-9.0 kg. Their coloring consists of a pale to mid gray coat with a distinct white facial stripe. Other distinct features include black and white ears, black hands and feet, and crest of black hairs on the tail.[6] The size of the male and female are quite similar.

The western brush wallaby is a herbivore, although there is disagreement on whether it is a browser, eating mainly leaves, or a grazer, eating mainly grass, as there has not been extensive research done. It is a diurnal animal, which is somewhat unusual for macropods, and is active during dawn and dusk.

Like all others in the family Macropodidae, the western brush wallabies are characterized by powerful hind limbs and long hind feet. It runs by weaving or sidestepping, utilizing its powerful hind-limbs, while keeping its head low and its tail extended straight, making it very speedy.

Although decades of research have been done in regards to the reproductive behavior of the western brush wallaby, their habits are relatively unknown. The young are usually born during April and May. Females, like all marsupials, have a well-developed forwardly opening pouch containing four teats.The female gives birth to one young a time, with two rarely occurring. Gestation lasts from three to five weeks. After birth, the young enter the lactation period for seven months, until October or November. After vacating the pouch the young wallaby goes through a weaning period during which it will stick its head in the pouch temporarily attach itself to a teat.

Albany History - Wave

The Wave was a brig that was wrecked in 1848 at Cheynes Beach near Cape Riche, Western Australia.


Built in 1838 in Victoria, Bermuda the vessel was constructed from wood and copper sheathed. It had a square stern, single deck, no galleries and a billet head. The vessel was acquired by R. Brown in 1847 and was registered in London. It was then acquired in 1848 by William Younghusband and Company of Adelaide and registered there.

The vessel was in command of James C. Coke and was transporting cargo from Adelaide to Shanghai via Albany and Singapore.[1] The brig left Adelaide 5 June 1848 loaded mostly with flour and was en route to Albany to load a shipment of sandalwood.

The vessel was anchored at Cheyne Bay near Cape Riche when it was blown ashore by a heavy gale. The Champion and Arpenteur were dispatched from King George Sound[4] to assist. The Champion managed to pull the Wave offshore but Wave was leaking badly and foundered then sunk.

Champion then salvaged some of the cargo and then transported the crew, minus the Captain, back to Albany. Captain Coke sailed to Adelaide aboard the HMS Acheron, commanded by Captain John Lort Stokes.

The owners of the Arpenteur acquired the wreck of the Wave and that cargo not already salvaged for £330. The Arpenteur sailed for Fremantle with 27 tons of flour, 1,000 bushels of wheat, the rigging and sails that the crew had salvaged from the Wave

We need to tighten the law to protect wildlife homes

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The critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possums is just one of Australia’s animals threatened by habitat loss. Greens MPs/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
Don Anton, Griffith University

Three recent reports make clear that we should be saving habitat in order to save species. It is pretty simple. Destroy a species’ habitat and you destroy its home.

The first report was issued last week by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), Birdlife Austrlia and Environmental Justice Australia*. Its take away message is that in Australia we will do little to halt the continuing threat to and extinction of species here until we get serious about providing effective legal protection to habitat.

The second report accompanied an update of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species at the end of June. It highlighted that the main threat to 85% of the 22,784 known and assessed species threatened with extinction (1,839 in Australia) is the loss and degradation of habitat.

The third study, also published at the end of June, was even more disturbing. It found that over the last century the extinction rate for many species was 100 times faster than usual and that we are heading into a human-created sixth mass extinction on Earth. It blamed this on habitat destruction, as well as climate change, trade, and pollution.

Without an adequate home, a species cannot survive. Of course, stressing the need to protect habitat is much easier said than done. Why is that? It largely comes down to three obstacles that have been intractable so far.

Where threatened species are found in Australia. Environmental Resources Information Network (ERIN), Department of Environment

Protecting species, but not their homes

First, the law in Australia does not protect habitat per se. It only protects species. It does this through a process of listing and then making it an offence to kill or take the listed species. Listing species alone, however, does nothing to protect habitat.

It is true that it is possible to list critical habitat under Commonwealth law and various state laws. That has largely been ignored. The problem has been a persistent lack of political will.

Politicians are reluctant to list habitat because it means that parcel of land will be off limits to development. That is something most politicians seek to avoid in pursuit of short-term economic benefits.

Second, protecting habitat is subject to politics. Even when a species is listed, it is possible for governmental decision-makers to exercise discretion and permit a development, even if it will threaten the species.

A decion-maker will be required to consider a number of factors (ordinarily environmental, economic, and social impact) in exercising his or her discretion.

However, if these factors are appropriately ventilated, then the law allows the discretion to be exercised against a threatened species. What we have in these sorts of cases is environmental law without necessarily environmental protection.

It becomes a matter of right process and the only remedy for those dissatisfied when the process has been followed is at the ballot box.

Third, protecting habitat is economically tough. David Attenborough, the famous environmental documentary presenter, has highlighted that humans are in competition with the other species for space on this finite planet.

He correctly observed that it will take a great deal of willpower and economic strength to fix things. The questions for us is, do we have what it takes? Or, will we leave future generations with an environment less rich, less diverse than the one we inherited?

Tighter regulation, more money

The ACF report recommends that in Australia we start by improving recovery plans for species. In particular, ACF maintains that recovery plans must contain “measurable and targeted restraints on the destruction of threatened species habitat and outline restorative outcomes that any approval decisions must work toward”.

The ACF recognises this will not be cheap. It calls for an annual investment of A$370 million to implement recovery plans and purchase land for protected areas.

To follow the recommendation would be to start to seriously protect habitat. It would only be a start though.

Much would depend on whether the new recovery plan arrangements deprived decision-makers of discretion to allow the destruction of habitat despite protection.

Much would depend on where and how much habitat was set aside. Much would depend on the sufficiency of funding. Still, it is a start and you have to start somewhere. One thing is certain, we should start now.

The Conversation*This sentence was updated to include the other contributors to the report.

Don Anton, Professor of International Law, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

National parks are vital for protecting Australia’s endangered plants

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There are fewer than a thousand Graveside gorge wattles in Kakadu National Park. Parks Australia
Linda Broadhurst, CSIRO

Norfolk Island, nearly 1,500km from Australia’s east coast, is home to one of the country’s most endangered species, but you probably haven’t heard of it. Clematis dubia, a woody climber with white and hairy flowers, was known to number only 15 mature plants in 2003.

Once common on the island, this clematis illustrates what stands in the way of survival for many of our threatened plants. Around 84% of Australia’s native plants don’t occur anywhere else on Earth.

Threats to our native plants include ongoing habitat destruction, fire, invasive species, more frequent extreme weather events, and declining populations of the animals involved in their pollination and seed dispersal.

Clematis dubia is lucky to call Norfolk Island National Park home. Our national parks are places of beauty and adventure for us to enjoy. They are also a haven for many species.

But life in a national park doesn’t guarantee a species’ survival. Recently we assessed 41 endangered or significant plants that occur in Australia’s six Commonwealth National Parks, to identify ways to help these plants recover.

We found that many of these species don’t occur outside national parks, meaning the parks play a huge role in their conservation. Few of these species have been secured in living plant collections or seed banks, and very few are regularly monitored in the wild.

We have little information on either the impacts of threats or of species biology, which limits our ability to secure these species against further loss.

There were only 15 mature Clematis dubia on Norfolk Island known in 2003. Parks Australia

Threats to plants

Clematis dubia lives in small and isolated populations. It faces many perils of modern life, like invasive weeds. We understand very little of its biology, including how its seeds are dispersed, how long it takes to start producing seed, and even how long it lives.

Another plant we assessed was the Graveside Gorge wattle (Acacia equisetifolia) found in Kakadu National Park. A small shrub, less than a metre tall with small yellow flowers, this wattle is listed as critically endangered.

Fewer than a thousand plants are growing in only two locations about a kilometre apart in a restricted area of the park. There is little information on the basic biology of this shrub.

Like other acacias, Graveside Gorge wattle is probably pollinated by, and provides food for, a variety of different insect species. It probably only reproduces sexually and its seeds might be dispersed by ants and probably germinate after fires. The main threat to this species is fires, especially ones that are too frequent or too intense.

As a safeguard against extinction, Parks Australia has collected seed from the Graveside Gorge wattle, which is now stored in the National Seed Bank at the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra.

Hibiscus brennanii is a vulnerable shrub found in Kakadu National Park. Parks Australia
Jenny Hunter, Kakadu ranger, collecting Hibiscus brennanii seed for the seed bank. Parks Australia

Seed banking can extend the longevity of seeds to hundreds of years, protecting a species from extinction and helping in its recovery should the worst happen. Germination trials at the National Seed Bank help unlock the often complex germination requirements of different species so that they can be regrown from seed.

As a result of trials with Graveside gorge wattle, the Gardens now has a living collection of this species. In Kakadu, Parks Australia is protecting the two wild populations by planning protective burning to create longer intervals between fires and reduce the likelihood of severe fires.

Protecting plants

Seed banking and living collections are two of the strategies we recommended to safeguard populations of threatened plant species. Some species may also benefit from establishing new populations outside national parks, similar to the management strategies used for vertebrate animals.

We also recommend surveying all endangered plant species in national parks that are not currently part of a formal monitoring program or that have not been surveyed within the past two years.

Finally, realising the gaps in our knowledge of the biology of and threats to many of Australia’s threatened plants, we recommend partnering with researchers and NGOs with restoration experience to draw on available scientific and on-the-ground knowledge.

And what of Norfolk Island’s endemic climbing clematis, Clematis dubia? Along with the low number of individuals, competition from weeds is a major threat to the survival of this species, so conservation efforts by Parks Australia have involved intensive weed control work, particularly to deal with the invasive guava plant.

Recent searches in likely habitat have revealed an additional 33 plants, a mix of adults and juveniles. Happily, new seedlings are now showing up in areas where guava has been removed, improving the future prospects for this species.

The ConversationThe report Constraints to Threatened Plant Recovery in Commonwealth National Parks was funded by the Australian Government through the Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews. It was authored by researchers at the Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, a joint initiative between Parks Australia’s Australian National Botanic Gardens and CSIRO.

Linda Broadhurst, Director, Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

In defence of bats: beautifully designed mammals that should be left in peace

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USFWS Pacific/flickr, CC BY
Daniel Horton, University of Surrey

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.

A flying fox shows off its 50 million-year-old wing design. Duncan PJ, CC BY-SA

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.

Some bats are tiny. Gillles San Martin, CC BY-SA

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.

The eerily pale ‘ghost bat’ roosts in the back of caves and will even eat other smaller bats. quollism, CC BY

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.

A Mauritian Tomb Bat with her pup. Frank.Vassen/flickr, CC BY

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.

The ConversationSo my response to those interested in what to do about the bats in their roof? Leave them alone.

Daniel Horton, Lecturer in Veterinary Virology, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Should we move species threatened by climate change?

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New Zealand’s ancient tuatara might need a helping hand to cope with climate change. Flickr/Sheep"R"Us
Tracy Rout, University of Melbourne; Doug Armstrong, Massey University; Eve McDonald-Madden, CSIRO; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; Nicola Mitchell, University of Western Australia, and Tara Martin, CSIRO

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.

The framework is intended to support the revised “IUCN guidelines for re-introductions and other conservation translocations”, which explicitly calls for structured decision-making frameworks for conservation introductions.

Testing on tuatara

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.

The ConversationTuatara 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.

Tracy Rout, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; Doug Armstrong, Professor of Conservation Biology, Massey University; Eve McDonald-Madden, Postdoctoral Fellow, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences., CSIRO; Hugh Possingham, Director ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, The University of Queensland; Nicola Mitchell, Associate Professor in Conservation Physiology, University of Western Australia, and Tara Martin, Senior Research Scientist, Ecosystem Sciences, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How the warming world could turn many plants and animals into climate refugees

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The Flinders Ranges were once a refuge from a changing climate. Shutterstock
Matt Christmas, University of Adelaide

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.

During glacial times, for instance, large swathes of Earth’s surface became inhospitable to many plants and animals as ice sheets expanded. This resulted in populations migrating away from or dying off in parts of their ranges. To persist through these times of harsh climatic conditions and avoid extinction, many populations would migrate to areas where the local conditions remained more accommodating.

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.

Finding the refugia

Evidence for the presence of historic climate refugia can often be found within a species’ genome. The size of populations expanding from a refugium will generally be smaller than the parent population within them. Thus, the expanding populations will generally lose genetic diversity, through processes such as genetic drift and inbreeding. By sequencing the genomes of multiple individuals within different populations of a species, we can identify where the hotbeds of genetic diversity lie, thus pinpointing potential past refugia.

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.

The ConversationSo 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.

Matt Christmas, ARC Research Associate, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Fair winds and following seas: yes, a spider could migrate across an ocean

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Hang on, is that a spider floating this way? Andrea Izzotti/shutterstock
Ceridwen Fraser, Australian National University

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.

Read more: Antarctica may not be as isolated as we thought

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.

Dispersal of organisms can happen via wind, oceanic rafting and the movement of animals. For example, migrating birds can carry seeds, insects and other small organisms long distances, generally moving north-south or vice versa. Terrestrial or shallow water marine organisms can raft across oceans on buoyant objects such as kelp, wood and pumice, generally following the paths of ocean currents. Strong winds, such as the easterly equatorial winds and the westerly mid-latitude winds, can transport small organisms aerially or influence rafting events at sea. Photographs: albatross and drift kelp: C. Fraser; Caribbean iguana: Atsme (Wikimedia Commons). Ceridwen Fraser, Author provided

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.

For example:

  • Ferns probably reached the young Hawaiian islands as spores carried by strong winds. Some spiders are also thought to have blown over to the islands.

  • Many birds migrate long distances each year, and can carry barbed or sticky plant seeds attached to feathers or feet – this mechanism is thought to explain how many plant species reached remote islands.

  • 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.

  • In the 1990s, just after a hurricane, iguanas were found sitting on driftwood on beaches on a Caribbean island that had never before had iguanas on it.

  • Many spiders can travel long distances through the air by “ballooning” – using fine silk threads like a kite or balloon, to catch rides with air currents.

Of course, many plants and animals have remained perched, sedately, on their tectonic plates as they slowly move around the world – not all species have crossed oceans.

Read more: How a warming world turns plants and animals into refugees

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.

Being able to move to a new habitat is a survival skill.

The ConversationThe 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!

Ceridwen Fraser, Senior lecturer, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Conspicuous Cliff - Walpole Wilderness

Conspicuous Beach is a beautiful unspoilt surf beach 20 minutes drive from Walpole on the south coast of Western Australia. It's one of only 3 places along the Walpole Coast that's accessible to 2WD vehicles.  Access to Conspicuous Cliff Beach is via a boardwalk, small stairway, and a walk across the shallow waterway emptying into the ocean.  Great excuse to take of the shoes and walk barefooted through the sand and breathe in the ocean air.  This is what holidays on the South Coast are all about.  We had the whole beach to ourselves, surrounded by beauty and breathtaking views,   A beautiful way to spend the last couple of hours of our last day.  If you are travelling to albany via Walpole it is worth taking a small detour to visit Conspicious Cliffs and Beach.

The beach is named for the small, yet indeed quite conspicuous, limestone cliff perched atop a tall, steep hill that towers over the beach.

Then we saw more stairs and just couldn't resist climbing to the very top.  The views were quite spectacular and the wind almost blew us away.