Tag Archives: Bushfires

Animal deaths in the Australian bushfires even greater than first feared – and what about the plants?

2019-12-27 15.07.16

Earlier this year I reported on the unprecedented Australian bushfires with some reflections of what I was observing during my time as a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales – see: How are the Australian bushfires affecting biodiversity? Australia reflections part 4.   Karin also wrote a piece about the fires, focusing on the human impacts – see: Climate Change Stories From a Nation on Fire.

At the time scientists and the media were suggesting that perhaps half a billion reptiles, mammals and birds had been killed, a figure that provoked a strong public reaction when accompanied by images of fire-scorched koalas.  This was then revised upwards to 1 billion. But it turns out that even a billion is nowhere close to the real number of animal deaths.  A new interim report commissioned by WWF-Australia suggests that just under 3 billion animals were either directly killed or displaced.  Those which were displaced were vulnerable to feral predators such as foxes and cats, or more likely to succumb to starvation. An article in The Guardian about the WWF-Australia report is worth reading – here’s the link.

The actual figure is 2.69 billion individual animals.  Think about that for a moment.  That’s about equivalent the number of people living in India and China combined.  This is the breakdown for the different animal groups that were assessed:

● 143 million mammals
● 2.46 billion reptiles
● 180 million birds
● 51 million frogs

One thing should be immediately apparent: this is not a complete list of the “animals” that have been killed.  A lack of data means that fish, turtles and (crucially) invertebrates such as spiders, bees, beetles, and earthworms, were excluded.  Those invertebrates live at much higher densities than any of the animal groups that were assessed and indeed are the sole or principle food for many of those species.  The number of insects required to support just the insectivorous birds is staggering: globally, birds are estimated to eat 400-500 million tonnes of insects and other arthropods every year.

Even if we were to consider just the larger invertebrates, those bigger than say 0.5 cm in length (which are a minority – most are considerably smaller), then then the true scale of the animal deaths is going to be one or two orders of magnitude higher.  Or possibly more.  Thirty billion, 300 billion, 3 trillion…?  Who knows?  It’s impossible to estimate, we just don’t have enough information about those organisms.

The other major component of wildlife that is missing from the report is the plants.  I know that studies of plant mortality are being undertaken at the moment and it will be important that this is given the same level of publicity as the assessments of animals.

Writing in the foreword of the report, Dermot O’Gorman the CEO of WWF-Australia pointed out that: “It’s hard to think of another event anywhere in the world in living memory that has killed or displaced that many animals. This ranks as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history”.

I disagree.  I think it’s THE worst wildlife disaster in terms of the scale of animal losses over such a short period of time.  No doubt deforestation and destruction of grasslands in South America, Asia and Africa has killed more animals and plants.  But that’s over a timescale of decades to hundreds of years.  Australian wildlife was devastated in a matter of months. And no one knows exactly what the 2020-21 fire season will bring.  But I think that we can safely predict further impacts on wildlife – and people.

 

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Birds

How are the Australian bushfires affecting biodiversity? Australia reflections part 4

2019-12-24 14.10.52

Australia’s vast, unprecedented wildfires are going to have a devastating effect on the biodiversity of the country.  To fully understand why this is the case, you need to know something about where species occur and why.

Australia is a land of lizards.  Karin and I see them everywhere we walk and frequently encounter them in gardens.  Reptiles are the most diverse group of vertebrates in Australia, with more than 1000 described species.  Of these, over half are lizards.  One family alone, the skinks (Scincidae) accounts for almost 440 species, with species new to science being described every year.  Some of these lizards are physically extremely impressive, particularly the dragons (Agamidae – about 90 species) and the monitors or goannas (Varanidae – 30 species).  We encountered lace monitors (Varanus varius) over Christmas at Port Macquarie, in coastal bushland and (very dry) rainforest at Sea Acres National Park (see photos above and below):

2019-12-26 10.06.02

Spot the goanna:

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Growing up to two metres in length, they seem to arrogantly swagger through the bush as though they own it; which of course they sort of do – they were here millions of years before people arrived.  Smaller but still impressive are the Eastern water dragons (Intellagama lesueurii) – here’s male and female checking one another out:

2019-12-24 11.23.26

Much smaller but more charming are the various skinks that seem to inhabit every garden and green space in the city; this one seems to be the Eastern water skink (Eulamprus quoyii):

2020-01-02 13.02.24

And here’s where we get to the main point of this post.  All of the lizards I mentioned above are endemic to Australia, it’s the only place on Earth where they naturally occur.  But they are all widespread species found across a huge area in the east of the country, from Queensland to Victoria, a linear distance of over 2,000 km.  This is unusual for species in Australia, and indeed in the rest of the world; most organisms naturally occur over a much smaller area.  To see what I mean, look at the image below from Steve Wilson & Gerry Swan’s book A Complete Guide to Reptiles of Australia:

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The maps adjacent to each species description illustrate the distribution of these organisms. The garden skink and the grass skink live in suitable habitat over vast areas. But the other two species are much more restricted in their ranges, which are so small that they need to be highlighted with arrows.  The elongate sunskink (Lampropholus elongata) for instance is found only “in the vicinity of Grundy Fire Tower and “The Flags”” at 1180-1455 m in the Great Dividing Range.  This is more typical of species distributions in Australia: most are restricted, and some are extremely restricted.  This is true of other reptiles, plants, birds, insects and fungi, in fact all major groups, not just the lizards.  Such a skewed distribution of species occurrences, with many rare and localised, and a few common and widespread, is natural; it’s an outcome of the processes of natural selection and evolution.  But it’s been exacerbated by habitat loss across the world, including Australia.  According to the Wilderness Society of Australia, the country “has lost 25% of rainforest, 45% of open forest, 32% of woodland forest and 30% of mallee forest in 200 years”.

But even these figures do not reflect the full scale of the loss: I’ve seen estimates that more than 90% of the temperate rainforest exemplified by Sea Acres National Park has been destroyed.  Given what I’ve said about the limited distribution of many species, that must mean that locally endemic species have gone extinct in the past.  The huge extent of some of the Australian bushfires, individually covering tens of thousands of hectares and collectively around 6 million hectares, means that most or all of a species’ population could be wiped out.  To give just one example, a small marsupial mammal, the Kangaroo Island dunnart (Sminthopsis aitkeni), is found only on Kangaroo Island.  Indeed, it’s restricted to the western part of the island, where a large bushfire has been raging out of control in recent days.  We will only know whether this species has survived, and in what numbers, once ecologists are able to survey the area once the danger is over.

However even for widespread species the fires can have a massive effect on their genetic diversity, which is an important component of biodiversity.  When we lose individuals from a population we lose genetic variants too.  A recent assessment by ecologists at the University of Sydney has suggested that almost half a billion reptiles, mammals and birds have been killed so far by the fires.  Losses of trees and other flowering plants, as well as insects, spiders and so forth, will be much, much greater of course.

This destruction of biodiversity has a human impact too.  On television news reports we’ve heard farmers and fire fighters describing the emotional trauma of seeing animals on fire and hearing the screams of koalas as they burn in the tree tops.  All of this biodiversity serves to ensure that Australian ecosystems function effectively and sustainably now and in the future. Ecosystems which are crucial for reducing the future effects of climate change, for ensuring supplies of fresh water, supporting agriculturally-important pollinators and predators of pests, and bringing in billions of tourist dollars.  All in all these fires are a tragedy for Australian biodiversity, as well as for the human population of this fabulous country.

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Biogeography, Climate change, Mammals