Sci­en­tists seek rare species amid Aus­tralia’s flames

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY CHRISTINA LARSON AND MATTHEW BROWN

Aus­tralia’s un­prece­dented wild­fires sea­son has so far charred 40,000 square miles of brush­land, rain­forests, and national parks – killing by one es­ti­mate more than a bil­lion wild an­i­mals. Sci­en­tists fear some of the is­land con­ti­nent’s unique and col­or­ful species may not re­cover. For oth­ers, they are try­ing to throw life­lines.

Where flames have sub­sided, bi­ol­o­gists are start­ing to look for sur­vivors, hop­ing they may find enough left of some rare and en­dan­gered species to re­build pop­u­la­tions. It’s a grim task for a na­tion that prides it­self on its di­verse wildlife, in­clud­ing crea­tures found nowhere else on the planet such as koalas, kan­ga­roos and wal­la­bies.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a sin­gle event in Aus­tralia that has de­stroyed so much habi­tat and pushed so many crea­tures to the very brink of ex­tinc­tion,” said Kings­ley Dixon, an ecol­o­gist at Curtin Uni­ver­sity in Perth.

Not long af­ter wild­fires passed through Ox­ley Wild Rivers National Park in New South Wales, ecol­o­gist Guy Bal­lard set out look­ing for brush-tailed rock wal­la­bies.

The small mar­su­pi­als re­sem­ble minia­ture kan­ga­roos with long floppy tails and of­ten bound be­tween large boul­ders, their pre­ferred hid­ing spots.

Be­fore this fire sea­son, sci­en­tists es­ti­mated there were as few as 15,000 left in the wild. Now re­cent fires in a re­gion al­ready stricken by drought have burned through some of their last habi­tat, and the species is in jeop­ardy of dis­ap­pear­ing, Bal­lard said.

In prior years, his team iden­ti­fied a hand­ful of colonies within the national park. Af­ter the re­cent fires, they found smok­ing tree stumps and dead an­i­mals.

“It was just dev­as­tat­ing,” said Bal­lard from the Uni­ver­sity of New Eng­land in Ar­mi­dale. “You could smell dead an­i­mals in the rocks.”

But some wal­la­bies, his team dis­cov­ered, were still alive. “All you can do is fo­cus on the sur­vivors,” he said.

Aus­tralia’s forests and wildlife evolved along­side pe­ri­odic wild­fires. What’s dif­fer­ent this year is the vast ex­tent of land burned – an area as big as Ken­tucky – against a back­drop of drought and sear­ing tem­per­a­tures at­trib­uted to cli­mate change. Last year, among the dri­est in more than a cen­tury, saw tem­per­a­tures that rou­tinely topped 104 de­grees Fahren­heit.

Not all an­i­mals will per­ish in the blazes. Some can shel­ter in rock crevices or hide deep in un­der­ground bur­rows. Yet when sur­vivors emerge into a fire-scorched waste­land, they will face hunger, thirst and non-na­tive predators, in­clud­ing in­tro­duced foxes and feral cats.

Since fires swept through parts of Ox­ley

Wild Rivers National Park nearly two months ago, there’s been lit­tle rain and no green shoots.

So Bal­lard’s team has trekked through the ash­cov­ered for­est car­ry­ing wa­ter and sacks of sweet pota­toes, car­rots and food pel­lets.

“There are so few left that, with a species this rare, ev­ery in­di­vid­ual counts,” he says.

Else­where in New South Wales, con­ser­va­tion work­ers are drop­ping veg­eta­bles from air­planes into scorched forests, hop­ing that wal­la­bies and other species find a meal.

In the state of Vic­to­ria, au­thor­i­ties es­ti­mate that brush-tailed rock wal­la­bies lost 40% of their habi­tat as did an­other rare mar­su­pial, the long-footed po­toroo, ac­cord­ing to a pre­lim­i­nary dam­age assess­ment.

The full toll on Aus­tralia’s wildlife in­cludes at least 20 and pos­si­bly as many as 100 threat­ened species pushed closer to ex­tinc­tion, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists from sev­eral Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties.

“The worry is that with so much lost, there won’t be a pool of rare an­i­mals and plants to later re­pop­u­late burnt ar­eas,” said Jim Rad­ford, an ecol­o­gist at La Trobe Uni­ver­sity in Mel­bourne.

The fires could knock out rain­for­est species dat­ing back to the time of the Gond­wana su­per­con­ti­nent, be­fore the mod­ern con­ti­nents split apart, he said.

Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney ecol­o­gist Christo­pher Dick­man es­ti­mated that more than 1 bil­lion an­i­mals have been killed so far. His cal­cu­la­tions took pre­vi­ously-pub­lished an­i­mal den­sity num­bers for dif­fer­ent veg­e­ta­tion types and mul­ti­plied that by acreage burned.

He says that num­ber does not in­clude bats, am­phib­ians, in­sects or other in­ver­te­brates.

The wildlife toll in­cludes tens of mil­lions of pos­sums and small mar­su­pi­als known as glid­ers, which live in tree tops and can leap ex­tra­or­di­nary dis­tances by us­ing a para­chute-like mem­brane of skin be­tween their an­kles and wrists. State of­fi­cials in Vic­to­ria pre­dicted more than a 25% re­duc­tion in glider num­bers from the fires.

“The im­pli­ca­tions for some species are pretty grim,” Dick­man said. “If we can’t pro­tect them here, they’re gone. No one else has them.”

The Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment an­nounced Mon­day that it was spend­ing $50 mil­lion on emer­gency wildlife res­cue ef­forts and habi­tat re­cov­ery.

Fires are still burn­ing in the Blue Moun­tains, a UNESCO World Her­itage site west of Syd­ney – one of the last stronghold­s of the re­gent hon­eyeater, an el­e­gant black and yel­low bird that has al­ready lost 95% of its breed­ing habi­tat since Euro­pean set­tlers ar­rived in Aus­tralia.

DANA MITCHELL Kan­ga­roo Is­land Wildlife Park

This res­cued koala was in­jured in a bush­fire in Kan­ga­roo Is­land, South Aus­tralia. “We know there’s been a mas­sive re­duc­tion of their over­all habi­tat,” siad Mathew Crowther, an ecol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney.

GUY BAL­LARD AP

A male brush-tailed rock wal­laby eats sup­ple­men­tary food re­searchers pro­vided in the Ox­ley Wild Rivers National Park in New South Wales, Aus­tralia.

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