Author: Miki Perkins
Publish date: 2023-05-20 19:55:00
At first glance, it’s not much to look at, this little brown bird with feathers fluffed into a ball against the morning chill.
But up close, the King Island brown thornbill is an exquisite creature: soft brown plumage on its breast, rufus tail feathers and an arresting red eye, staring angrily at me from between the fingers of its human captor.
The woman grasping this bundle of fluff is Dr Catherine Young, an ecologist with the aptly-named Difficult Birds Research Group, based at the Australian National University. The group’s scientists are experts on very endangered birds that are difficult to find, occur in wild and rugged terrain, and move around the landscape.
The thornbill has minuscule brown claws and an endearing bald spot on its stomach where moulted feathers are yet to regrow. One tiny pin feather floats on the morning air and Dr Young whisks it into a specimen bag.
Let’s drink this bird in, and savour the moment. Because thornbills exist on the very knife edge of extinction. When scientists parse the grim likelihood of which Australian species is likely to die out next in Australia, these birds always come out near the top.
Last October, about five months after Labor won the federal election, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek made a “zero new extinctions” pledge that may come to haunt her. Australia would adopt a target of preventing any new extinctions of plants and animals, Plibersek announced, as part of the new federal Threatened Species Action Plan, which focuses on only 110 of our 1900 threatened species.
Although extinctions occur naturally, the rate of global extinctions is currently 1000 times the background rate. Plibersek’s pledge raised some pressing questions. Which Australian species will follow the poor Bramble Cay melomys, a rodent declared extinct due to climate change in 2016, and disappear next? And what would actually be required to make “zero extinctions” a reality?
“Tanya Plibersek is not going to achieve zero new extinctions, unfortunately, it would be nice if she did,” says the University of Queensland’s Professor Hugh Possingham, also co-chair of the Biodiversity Council. “Many species are already below the population sizes that enable them to be viable in the long term.”
Nature doesn’t follow the Australian political cycle, so the next extinction may not come during Plibersek’s stewardship, or that of whoever follows her. But come it will, Possingham is sure. “These populations wink out one by one. Some of those species may persist for 100 and 200 years, but until we get the [habitat] connectivity, they are the living dead.”
The dubious honour of coming first
Forecasting which species are at imminent risk of extinction is not an exact science: at any moment a bushfire, flood, or highly infectious disease could lay waste to the inhabitants of Australia’s fragile alpine fens or rainforest peaks.
But experts have tried to predict which Australian birds and mammals are most likely to be lost in the next 20 years, including in a key CSIRO research paper in 2018. Consider it a well-educated guess, not a prophecy.
For birds, the King Island brown thornbill takes the dubious honour of most likely to become extinct. But the reality is they could easily be leap-frogged to oblivion by the orange-bellied parrot, King Island scrub tit, or western ground parrot. Other leading candidates from the wider animal kingdom are the Christmas Island flying fox, gastric-brooding frogs or the red-finned blue-eye fish.
And spare a thought for the slender-nerved acacia and dwarf spider orchid, which both had less than five mature plants in the wild at the end of 2020. In 2023, there are 1911 Australian endangered species – and a staggering 1389 of them are plants.
Only this week, ecologists set alarm bells ringing about the maugean skate, an ancient species of ray that only lives in Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast and is at immediate risk of extinction due to salmon farming and reduced river flows cutting the ocean’s dissolved oxygen.
Weighing in at only nine grams – about the same as a tablespoon of butter – King Island brown thornbills only live in scattered remnant areas of wet eucalypt forest on King Island, in the windy Bass Strait between Victoria and the north-west coast of Tasmania/lutruwita, a place best known for its cheese and world-class golf courses.
We do not know how many thornbills are left – the current guess is up to 200 – or how genetically diverse the remaining population is, a critical factor in long-term survival. The odds are also stacked against them in the public popularity stakes: they are not fluffy (like koalas), anthropomorphic (have you seen quoll feet?), quirky (platypus) or high profile (whales).
In fact, they are a quintessential “LBB”, or little brown bird, the informal name used by birdwatchers for any of the large number of species that are notoriously difficult to distinguish. But enigmatic or not, King Island brown thornbills, and all endangered species, urgently need our attention. And their extinction doesn’t need to be inevitable – rare species have been pulled back from the brink (more on this later).
New research from the Invasive Species Council finds that historically, mammal extinctions were caused mainly by introduced predators; plant extinctions by habitat loss; frog extinctions by disease; reptile extinctions by an introduced snake; and invertebrate extinctions by a range of human-related processes.
The same holds roughly true for contemporary extinctions within the past 20 years. Land clearing is often assumed to have been the leading cause, but this report shows even when habitat loss is grouped with livestock grazing, land clearing didn’t match invasive species as an exterminating force.
Global heating ratchets up the pressure. As local climates change, so do the plants and vegetation, drying out or burning more often. Over evolutionary time, species would have been able to move or adapt, but global warming is so rapid they are being left with no escape.
When the thornbill is caught in fine net strung between two trees, the researchers surge forward to gently untangle it. Using a tiny needle, Young draws a drop of blood from under its wing and puts it into a vial of ethanol. The samples will be sent to a laboratory for DNA extraction, to allow the team to assess the genetic diversity of the thornbill population.
“You want a lot of genetic diversity and to look for signs of inbreeding,” says Young. “If it’s small population size, and they’re just breeding with each other, that’s a bad sign.”
To prevent an extinction, scientists need to glean every scrap of information they can about a species; from genetics to behaviour and what it eats for breakfast. That’s why these ecologists will spend five days on King Island wading through waist-high grass and bracken and fending off enormous leeches, in a race against time.
Over thousands of years the King Island thornbill has evolved a longer bill than its Tasmanian cousin, and it has a distinctive song. But are these genes flowing around the island or are they suffering from inbreeding? There are ways humans could facilitate genetic flow by transporting birds between patches of habitat, says ANU postdoctoral researcher Dr Ross Crates, who leads the project on King Island.
“This bird epitomises the challenges that we face in Australia with so many threatened species,” says Crates. “There’s a lot of endangered biodiversity in Australia, not many people doing research and issues with funding.”
Conversations about endangered species always return to funding. The King Island project is funded by a modest $70,000 grant from the federal government. There’s no change from that sum once it has paid the salaries and travel for four people for a week, the lab work and DNA sequencing, and writing up the research. “We’re doing it because we think it’s worthwhile, and we’re interested. But there would be so many species without even that kind of backing,” says Crates.
Australia’s endangered species have their own intrinsic value, of course, but many also play an important role in nature. Without pollination, seed dispersal, soil engineering and river filtration, for example, the quality of our food chain and the environment rapidly begins to erode.
It’s a life-or-death problem that should be beyond politics, says Professor Robert Heinsohn from ANU, one of the co-founders of the Difficult Birds Research Group. There has been no consistent effort from governments to identify the problems in our approach to nature and develop a long-term plan to solve them.
“The people trying to do good work are forever out there scrambling, trying to find money and resources,” he says. “We need a proper bank of funding that is used to set up long-term programs. That’s how we’ll resurrect all these things and keep them going for perpetuity.”
After a long day spent chasing thornbills through thick forest, the weary researchers return to their accommodation to news the Labor federal government has announced it will spend up to $368 billion to build eight nuclear submarines in South Australia.
In comparison, they point out, Australia’s environmental protection is chronically underfunded. In 2019, key Australian research suggested the cost of saving our listed threatened species would be about $1.7 billion a year. By way of comparison, we spend about $12 billion of our own money each year on pet care.
“That’s probably the cost of one propeller for one of the submarines. If we cared enough, it’s something we could do,” says Crates.
The federal budget earlier this month did little to improve this picture. It included $262 million for degraded national parks, and $121 million over four years for a natural Environment Protection Agency, but no significant boost in funding to protect threatened species.
Plibersek contends federal environment funding has never been higher, pointing out the government committed $224.5 million for its native species program and $231 million to establish 10 new Indigenous Protected Areas.
“We also know that protecting threatened species requires action across governments,” she says in a statement. “We can’t do it without protecting critical environments and the animals that live in them, which is why we are rewriting our broken environmental laws – to better protect, manage and restore our environment.”
Government failure at state and federal levels to adequately fund conservation is “patently absurd”, says Monash University’s Professor Euan Ritchie, an expert in wildlife ecology and conservation.
“It’s hard to know why, because it genuinely defies logic, what the science suggests is essential and urgent, and the government can afford it,” he says.
Do we love it enough to save it?
Broadly, research finds Australians hold positive attitudes towards nature. The vast majority – 85 per cent – agree humans are abusing nature and have a collective responsibility to show more respect for it, according to an Australian Conservation Foundation in-house poll of 3000 people in 2021.
This is particularly the case if you refer to ‘nature’ rather than terms like ‘biodiversity’ or ‘ecosystem’ which can be confusing, says Professor Liam Smith, one of Australia’s leading experts on behavioural change.
“Biodiversity is a bit problematic because what does it mean? Biological diversity? That’s hard for people to comprehend,” Smith says. “But they do have a clear view when you ask about nature.”
The ACF research also found while 80 per cent of respondents said they cared about the extinction of plants and animals, only 35 per cent agreed Australia was in an extinction crisis.
It’s different with climate change. Australians are concerned about global warming: six in 10 people say it’s a serious and pressing problem, about which we should take steps now even if it involves significant costs, according to the Lowy Institute, which has been polling attitudes to climate change since 2014.
“Climate change is much more tangible … when smoke clouds Melbourne or Sydney, a good proportion of the population will link that to global warming,” says Smith. “Whereas if the Christmas Island pipistrelle goes extinct, it has no real bearing on our lives … the psychological distance is much greater.”
Smith suggests two ways to change this. We should encourage behaviours – any behaviours – that support greater biodiversity, from planting native gardens to lobbying politicians or keeping domestic cats indoors.
And we should thank people for their efforts: research into values shows the more we “flex our muscles” about placing value on the environment, the more powerful that motivator becomes, and the more likely people are to act in the same way again.
Celebrate the wins
The night is moonless, and we’re shining a torch at a small round shape snuffling its way through native grass. The light catches its tapered snout and striped rump before it dashes away at warp speed.
“Damn,” says Age photographer Simon Schluter under his breath, who has the difficult task of shooting this moving target. But as the night passes we spot dozens of bandicoots as they hunt for insects, skitter away from the light or bunk down inside clumps of grass. The night is full of the thudding sounds of them and the other endangered Australian species, such as southern brush-tailed rock wallabies, eastern quolls and bettongs.
We’re at Mount Rothwell, just 40 minutes south-west of Melbourne in the shadow of the You Yangs, a wildlife sanctuary owned and managed by nature conservation organisation Odonata. Conservationist Nigel Sharp founded Odonata in 2016 to educate the public and encourage businesses to embrace biodiversity.
Mount Rothwell is Victoria’s second-largest fenced, feral predator-free sanctuary (the largest is Odonata’s Tiverton Farm in the western district). The foundation survives on grants, philanthropy and income from business investments, and has an ambitious goal of setting up 30 sanctuaries by 2030.
Eastern barred bandicoots were once common across the basalt plains of south-west Victoria but were decimated by habitat destruction, foxes and feral cats. The last wild population was discovered living in abandoned cars at Hamilton’s rubbish tip in the mid-1980s, and by the end of that decade only 150 animals remained. The situation looked dire.
When Odonata joined the bandicoot recovery team, which includes Zoos Victoria and Philip Island Nature Parks, they relied on purpose-built predator fences and flew in larger-sized Tasmanian bandicoots to increase genetic diversity.
It was a roaring success: there are now almost 2500 bandicoots in Odonata’s care, and plans to extend their network of five sanctuaries. In an inter-national first, the bandicoot’s threatened species status was downgraded from critically endangered to endangered.
“They are two-thirds mainland and one-third Tasmanian bandicoots – we’ve maintained the uniqueness of the mainland animal but given them a boost of new genetics,” says Sharp. “We call them supercharged bandicoots.”
There are other Australian conservation success stories: in February scientists reported 29 Australian animal species – 15 mammals, four frogs, eight birds, one reptile and one fish – had pulled back from the brink of extinction to the extent they no longer met the criteria for being listed as threatened.
They include well-loved animals such as humpback whales, Murray cod and cassowaries, and lesser-known species including the burrowing bettong and Flinders Ranges worm-lizard.
As we drink tea on the verandah at King Island, Heinsohn tells me searching for good news stories is something he actively does to avoid becoming mired in cynicism.
When his twins were about 12 years old (they are now young adults), he decided he would not hide bad environmental news from them, but would make a point of showing his excitement when something positive occurred. And he still does.
“When Joe Biden passes a huge package of funding for climate change, or when we got the global biodiversity treaty, I’ll send them a message saying ‘Look at this wonderful thing that happened’,” he says. “You can be cynical … I’m a bit cynical. But we have to turn this into a happy story.”
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Author: Miki Perkins
Publish date: 2023-05-20 19:55:00