Australia’s 2019–2020 mega-fires were exacerbated by drought, anthropogenic climate change and existing land-use management. Here, using a combination of remotely sensed data and species distribution models, we found these fires burnt ~97,000 km2 of vegetation across southern and eastern Australia, which is considered habitat for 832 species of native vertebrate fauna. Seventy taxa had a substantial proportion (>30%) of habitat impacted; 21 of these were already listed as threatened with extinction. To avoid further species declines, Australia must urgently reassess the extinction vulnerability of fire-impacted species and assist the recovery of populations in both burnt and unburnt areas. Population recovery requires multipronged strategies aimed at ameliorating current and fire-induced threats, including proactively protecting unburnt habitats.
Ward M., Tulloch A. I. T., Radford J. Q., Williams B. A., Reside A. E., Macdonald S. L., Mayfield H. J., Maron M., Possingham H. P., Vine S. J., O’Connor J. L., Massingham E. J., Greenville A. C., Woinarski J. C. Z., Garnett S. T., Lintermans M., Scheele B. C., Carwardine J., Nimmo D. G., Lindenmayer D. B., Kooyman R. M., Simmonds J. S., Sonter L. J. & Watson J. E. M. (2020). Impact of 2019–2020 mega-fires on Australian fauna habitat. Nature Ecology & Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1251-1
Ecosystems are being altered by rapid and interacting changes in natural processes and anthropogenic threats to biodiversity. Uncertainty in historical, current and future effectiveness of actions hampers decisions about how to mitigate changes to prevent biodiversity loss and species extinctions. Research in resource management, agriculture and health indicates that forecasts predicting the effects of near-term or seasonal environmental conditions on management greatly improve outcomes. Such forecasts help resolve uncertainties about when and how to operationalise management. We reviewed the scientific literature on environmental management to investigate whether near-term forecasts are developed to inform biodiversity decisions in Australia, a nation with one of the highest recent extinction rates across the globe. We found that forecasts focused on economic objectives (e.g. fisheries management) predict on significantly shorter timelines and answer a broader range of management questions than forecasts focused on biodiversity conservation. We then evaluated scientific literature on the effectiveness of 484 actions to manage seven major terrestrial threats in Australia, to identify opportunities for near-term forecasts to inform operational conservation decisions. Depending on the action, between 30 and 80% threat management operations experienced near-term weather impacts on outcomes before, during or after management. Disease control, species translocation/reintroduction and habitat restoration actions were most frequently impacted, and negative impacts such as increased species mortality and reduced recruitment were more likely than positive impacts. Drought or dry conditions, and rainfall, were the most frequently reported weather impacts, indicating that near-term
forecasts predicting the effects of low or excessive rainfall on management outcomes are
likely to have the greatest benefits. Across the world many regions are, like Australia, becoming warmer and drier, or experiencing more extreme rainfall events. Informing conservation decisions with near-term and seasonal ecological forecasting will be critical to harness uncertainties and lower the risk of threat management failure under global change.
New paper led by Elise Verhoeven who did this research as part of an undergraduate internship at the University of Technology Sydney. Well done Elise on your first paper!
Assessing wildfire regimes and their environmental drivers is critical for effective land management and conservation. We used Landsat imagery to describe the wildfire regime of the north-eastern Simpson Desert (Australia) between 1972 and 2014, and to quantify the relationship between wildfire extent and rainfall. Wildfires occurred in 15 of the 42 years, but only 27% of the study region experienced multiple wildfires. A wildfire in 1975 burned 43% of the region and is the largest on record for the area. More recently, a large wildfire in 2011 reburned areas that had not burned since 1975 (47% of the 2011 wildfire), as well as new areas that had no record of wildfires (25% of the 2011 wildfire). The mean minimum wildfire return interval was 27 years, comparable with other spinifex-dominated grasslands, and the mean time since last wildfire was 21 years. Spinifex-dominated vegetation burned most frequently and over the largest area. Extreme annual rainfall events (> 93rd percentile) effectively predicted large wildfires occurring 2 years after those events. Extreme rainfall is predicted to increase in magnitude and frequency across central Australia, which could alter wildfire regimes and have unpredictable and far-reaching effects on ecosystems in the region’s arid landscapes.
Defined as “public participation and collaboration in scientific research”, citizen science allows everyday people to use technology to unite towards a common goal – from the comfort of their homes. And it is now offering a chance to contribute to research on the coronavirus pandemic.
Anyone is welcome to contribute. You don’t need expertise, just time and interest. Projects exist in many forms, catering to people of diverse ages, backgrounds and circumstances. Many projects offer resources and guides to help you get started, and opportunities to collaborate via online discussion forums.
Ditch the news cycle – engage, gain skills and make a difference
Scientists worldwide are racing to find effective treatments and vaccines to halt the coronavirus pandemic. As a citizen scientist, you can join the effort to help tackle COVID-19, and other infectious diseases.
Foldit is an online game that challenges players to fold proteins to better understand their structure and function. The Foldit team is now challenging citizen scientists to design antiviral proteins that can bind with the coronavirus.
The highest scoring designs will be manufactured and tested in real life. In this way, Foldit offers a creative outlet that could eventually contribute to a future vaccine for the virus.
Another similar project is Folding@home. This is a distributed computing project that, rather than using you to find proteins, uses your computer’s processing power to run calculations in the background. Your computer becomes one of thousands running calculations, all working together.
One way to combat infectious diseases is by monitoring their spread, to predict outbreaks.
Online surveillance project FluTracking helps track influenza. By completing a 10-second survey each week, participants aid researchers in monitoring the prevalence of flu-like symptoms across Australia and New Zealand. It could also help track the spread of the coronavirus.
Such initiatives are increasingly important in the global fight against emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19.
Another program, PatientsLikeMe, empowers patients who have tested positive to a disease to share their experiences and treatment regimes with others who have similar health concerns. This lets researchers test potential treatments more quickly.
Some sites ask volunteers to digitise data from ongoing environmental monitoring programs. Contributors need no prior experience, and interpret photos taken with remote digital cameras using online guides. One example is Western Australia’s Western Shield Camera Watch, available through Zooniverse.
Other sites crowdsource volunteers to transcribe data from natural history collections (DigiVol), historical logbooks from explorers, and weather observation stations (Southern Weather Discovery).
Nature watching is a great self-isolation activity because you can do it anywhere, including at home. Questagame runs a series of “bioquests” where people of all ages and experience levels can photograph animals and plants they encounter.
In April, we’ll also have the national Wild Pollinator Count. This project invites participants to watch any flowering plant for just ten minutes, and record insects that visit the flowers. The aim is to boost knowledge on wild pollinator activity.
The data collected through citizen science apps are used by researchers to explore animal migration, understand ranges of species, and determine how changes in climate, air quality and habitat affect animal behaviour.
This year for the first time, several Australian cities are participating in iNaturalist’s City Nature Challenge. The organisers have adapted planned events with COVID-19 in mind, and suggest ways to document nature while maintaining social distancing. You can simply capture what you can see in your backyard, or when taking a walk, or put a moth light out at night to see what it attracts.
Connecting across generations
For those at home with children, there are a variety of projects aimed at younger audiences.
If you’re talented at writing or drawing, why not keep a nature diary, and share your observations through a blog.
By contributing to research through digital platforms, citizen scientists offer a repository of data experts might not otherwise have access to. The Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA) website has details on current projects you can join, or how to start your own.
Apart from being a valuable way to pass time while self-isolating, citizen science reminds us of the importance of community and collaboration at a time it’s desperately needed.
To delve deeper into the conservation impact, we used publicly available satellite imagery to look at the burnt areas (up to January 7, 2020) and see how they overlapped with the approximate distributions of all the threatened animals and plants listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
We restricted our analysis to the mediterranean and temperate zone of south-east and south-west Australia.
The bad news
We found that 99% of the area burned in the current fires contains potential habitat for at least one nationally listed threatened species. We conservatively estimate that six million hectares of threatened species habitat has been burned.
Given that many fires are still burning and it is not yet clear how severe the burning has been in many areas, the number of species affected and the extent of the impact may yet change.
What we do know is that these species are already on the brink of extinction due to other threats, such as land clearing, invasive species, climate change, disease, or previous fires.
Approximately 70 nationally threatened species have had at least 50% of their range burnt, while nearly 160 threatened species have had more than 20% of their range burnt.
More threatened plants have been affected than other groups: 209 threatened plant species have had more than 5% of their range burnt compared to 16 mammals, ten frogs, six birds, four reptiles, and four freshwater fish.
Twenty-nine of the 30 species that have had more than 80% of their range burnt are plants. Several species have had their entire range consumed by the fires, such as the Mountain Trachymene, a fire-sensitive plant found in only four locations in the South Eastern Highlands of NSW.
Other species that have been severely impacted include the Kangaroo Island dunnart and the Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo. These species’ entire populations numbered only in the hundreds prior to these bushfires that have burned more than 50% of their habitat.
Glossy black cockatoos have a highly specialised diet. They eat the seeds of the drooping sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata). These trees may take anywhere from 10 to 50 years to recover enough to produce sufficient food for the black cockatoos.
The populations of many species will need careful management and protection to give their habitats enough time to recover and re-supply critical resources.
The figures above do not account for cumulative impacts of previous fires. For example, the critically endangered western ground parrot had around 6,000 hectares of potential habitat burnt in these fires, which exacerbates the impact of earlier extensive fires in 2015 and early 2019.
Threatened species vary in their ability to cope with fire. For fire-sensitive species, almost every individual dies or is displaced. The long-term consequences are likely to be dire, particularly if vegetation composition is irrevocably changed by severe fire or the area is subject to repeat fires.
More than 50% of the habitat of several species known to be susceptible to fire has been burnt – these include the long-footed potoroo and Littlejohn’s tree frog.
Some species are likely to thrive after fire. Indeed, of the top 30 most impacted species on our list, almost 20% will likely flourish due to low competition in their burnt environments – these are all re-sprouting plants. Others will do well if they are not burnt again before they can set seed.
Rising from the ashes
For fire-sensitive threatened species, these fires could have substantially increased the probability of extinction by virtue of direct mortality in the fires or reducing the amount of suitable habitat. However, after the embers settle, with enough investment and conservation actions, guided by evidence-based science, it may be possible to help threatened species recover.
Protection and conservation-focussed management of areas that have not burned will be the single most important action if threatened species are to have any chance of persistence and eventual recovery.
Management of threatening processes (such as weeds, feral predators, introduced herbivores, and habitat loss through logging or thinning) must occur not just at key sites, but across the landscapes they sit in. Maintaining only small pockets of habitat in a landscape of destruction will lock many species on the pathway to extinction.
In some cases, rigorous post-fire restoration will be necessary to allow species to re-colonise burnt areas. This may include intensive weed control and assisted regeneration of threatened flora and specific food sources for fauna, installing nest boxes and artificial cover, or even targeted supplementary feeding.
Unconventional recovery actions will be needed because this unique situation calls for outside-the-box thinking.
Playing the long game
These fires were made larger and more severe by record hot, dry conditions. Global temperatures have so far risen by approximately 1°C from pre-industrial levels.
We are in a moment of collective grief for what has been lost. A species lost is not just a word on a page, but an entire world of unique traits, behaviours, connections to other living things, and beauty.
These losses do not need to be in vain. We have an opportunity to transform our collective grief into collective action.
Australians are now personally experiencing climate impacts in an unprecedented way. We must use this moment to galvanise our leaders to act on climate change, here in Australia and on the world stage.
The futures of our beloved plants and animals, and our own, depend on it.
We aim to develop a digitally enabled network which will monitor native flora and fauna to inform sustainable agricultural practices. A unique combination of methods will be used: We will test new methods in camera trapping and acoustic recorders (birds and bats) in quantifying on-farm biodiversity and develop spatial models to identify biodiversity hotspots.
Simpson Desert Insights: designing Citizen Science programs for identifying wildlife in remote camera trap images (with Australian Museum)
This project will work
closely with DigiVol at the Australian Museum, and the School of Life and Environmental
Sciences, University of Sydney. It will determine the level of uncertainty in
using Citizen Scientists to identify species in remote camera trap images.
Identifying species of high conservation value for restoring ecosystem function after disturbance.
This project aims to determine how
ecosystem function changes after a disturbance (e.g. wildfire) event and
partition each source of change from disturbance—species loss, gain and change
in resident species dynamics—to ecosystem function. We aim to discover the
mechanisms of how disturbance changes ecosystem function in order to identify
species of high conservation value or act as a threatening process.
This project aims to address the significant knowledge gap of how species
composition may change due to extreme drought, and in-turn, quantify the loss
of ecosystem function resulting from species turnover. Further, this project
will identify species that contribute the most to function.
A unique combination of methods will be used: The international DroughtNet protocol will be employed, where drought will be imposed using fixed shelters that passively reduce rainfall events and remote camera traps will be used as phenocams to quantify the loss of gross primary production in pastures after an extreme drought event. Results from this study will provide land managers, in both the agricultural and environmental sectors, the critical knowledge of how natural and human-modified systems will be impacted by more frequent and extreme drought events in order to maintain food security and biodiversity.
It may be possible to avert threatened species declines by protecting refuges that promote species persistence during times of stress. To do this, we need to know where refuges are located, and when and which management actions are required to preserve, enhance or replicate them. Here we use a niche-based perspective to characterise refuges that are either fixed or shifting in location over ecological time scales (hours to centuries). We synthesise current knowledge of the role of fixed and shifting refuges, using threatened species examples where possible, and examine their relationships with stressors including drought, fire, introduced species, disease, and their interactions. Refuges often provide greater cover, water, food availability or protection from predators than other areas within the same landscapes. In many cases, landscape features provide refuge, but refuges can also arise through dynamic and shifting species interactions (e.g., mesopredator suppression). Elucidating the mechanisms by which species benefit from refuges can help guide the creation of new or artificial refuges. Importantly, we also need to recognise when refuges alone are insufficient to halt the decline of species, and where more intensive conservation intervention may be required. We argue that understanding the role of ecological refuges is an important part of strategies to stem further global biodiversity loss.
Examples of refuge types and the species that use them. Refuges can sit along a temporal continuum between shifting and fixed refuges. See text for further detailed discussion on each species.
The taxonomic status and systematic nomenclature of the Australian dingo remain contentious, resulting in decades of inconsistent applications in the scientific literature and in policy. Prompted by a recent publication calling for dingoes to be considered taxonomically as domestic dogs (Jackson et al. 2017, Zootaxa 4317, 201-224), we review the issues of the taxonomy applied to canids, and summarise the main differences between
The dingo is one of Australia’s top-predators. Photo by Bobby Tamayo.
dingoes and other canids. We conclude that (1) the Australian dingo is a geographically isolated (allopatric) species from all other Canis, and is genetically, phenotypically,
ecologically, and behaviourally distinct; and (2) the dingo appears largely devoid of many of the signs of domestication, including surviving largely as a wild animal in Australia for millennia. The case of defining dingo taxonomy provides a quintessential example of the disagreements between species concepts (e.g., biological, phylogenetic, ecological,
morphological). Applying the biological species concept sensu stricto to the dingo as suggested by Jackson et al. (2017) and consistently across the Canidae would lead to an aggregation of all Canis populations, implying for example that dogs and wolves are the same species. Such an aggregation would have substantial implications for taxonomic clarity, biological research, and wildlife conservation. Any changes to the current nomen of the dingo (currently Canis dingo Meyer, 1793), must therefore offer a strong, evidence-based argument in favour of it being recognised as a subspecies of Canis lupus Linnaeus, 1758, or as Canis familiaris Linnaeus, 1758, and a successful application to the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature – neither of which can be adequately supported. Although there are many species concepts, the sum of the evidence presented in this paper affirms the classification of the dingo as a distinct taxon, namely Canis dingo.
Authors: Dale G. Nimmo, Sarah Avitabile, Sam C. Banks, Rebecca Bliege Bird, Kate Callister, Michael F. Clarke, Chris R. Dickman, Tim S. Doherty, Don A. Driscoll, Aaron C. Greenville, Angie Haslem, Luke T. Kelly, Sally A. Kenny, Jos´e J. Lahoz-Monfor, Connie Lee, Steven Leonard, Harry Moore, Thomas M. Newsome, Catherine L. Parr, Euan G. Ritchie, Kathryn Schneider, James M. Turner, Simon Watson, Martin Westbrooke, Mike Wouters, Matthew White and Andrew F. Bennett.
Movement is a trait of fundamental importance in ecosystems subject to frequent disturbances, such as fire-prone ecosystems. Despite this, the role of movement in facilitating responses to fire has received little attention. Herein, we consider how animal movement interacts with fire history to shape species distributions. We consider how fire affects movement between habitat patches of differing fire histories that occur across a range of spatial and temporal scales, from daily foraging bouts to infrequent dispersal events, and annual migrations. We review animal movements in response to the immediate and abrupt impacts of fire, and the longer-term successional changes that fires set in train. We discuss how the novel threats of altered fire regimes, landscape fragmentation, and invasive species result in suboptimal movements that drive populations downwards. We then outline the types of data needed to study animal movements in relation to fire and novel threats, to hasten the integration of movement ecology and fire ecology. We conclude by outlining a research agenda for the integration of movement ecology and fire ecology by identifying key research questions that emerge from our synthesis of animal movements in fire-prone ecosystems.
Nimmo D. G., Avitabile S., Banks S. C., Bliege Bird R., Callister K., Clarke M. F., Dickman C. R., Doherty T. S., Driscoll D. A., Greenville A. C., Haslem A., Kelly L. T., Kenny S. A., Lahoz-Monfort J. J., Lee C., Leonard S., Moore H., Newsome T. M., Parr C. L., Ritchie E. G., Schneider K., Turner J. M., Watson S., Westbrooke M., Wouters M., White M. & Bennett A. F. (2018). Animal movements in fire-prone landscapes. Biological Reviews, In press.