Tagged: Leadbeater’s Possum

Snail’s place

In 1996, Dr John Stanisic, then curator of invertebrates at the Queensland Museum, was doing a routine environmental impact assessment near Taroom in southern central Queensland, some 380 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. The purpose of Stanisic’s survey was to check for rare and threatened species around an impoundment for the proposed Nathan Dam, on the Dawson River.

The dam was a controversial project in the district, as it would have flooded large areas of arable farmland. The usual arguments were trotted out about jobs for the local community. The water, it was said, would supply the needs of the local towns. Others suspected that the real reason was to service a proposed mine at nearby Wondoan, now in mothballs due to the tanking price of coal.

Stanisic and his team were checking an unusual habitat called boggomoss, where natural springs emerge from the Great Artesian Basin and create small lagoons in the otherwise dry semi-arid woodlands of the Brigalow Belt. One of his team, who was searching for isopods (which the rest of us know as slaters), unearthed a snail from the leaf litter. “I knew right away what it was,” Stanisic says. “It was like, Eureka!”

Stanisic, who goes by the name of the Snail Whisperer on his own website – he has discovered and described some 900 species since 1980 – had been searching for this particular mollusc for 10 years. He recognised it instantly from one of two shells in the museum’s collection, historically collected from the nearby township of Theodore, but otherwise completely unknown in the wild.

Stanisic then went through the process of formally describing and naming the species: Adclarkia dawsonensis, the Boggomoss Snail. As its entire known habitat was about to disappear into a pit, he also went through the process of listing it for protection. “It takes about a 12-page pro-forma to get one of these things through, it’s like filling out a census form, and you’ve got to know a bit about the snail first,” he says.

The snail halted development of the dam, and its oddly triumphant story is an instructive one. Last week, the office of the Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews released an updated list of threatened species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999. It has been widely and erroneously reported that 49 species were added to the list.

This is not true: 21 species were added, including six mammals, seven birds, six plants, an insect and a fish. One species, the Swift Parrot, was upgraded from the endangered to critically endangered category, and a further 27 already listed species were updated to reflect changes in their currently accepted names and taxonomy, with no change to their status. Two species were deleted from the list altogether.

Nonetheless, it was the biggest update to the list since 2009, and took the number of threatened species listed – and thus protected – under the EPBC Act to 1,794. “That legislation is relatively strong,” says Chris Pavey, an arid zone ecologist with the CSIRO in Alice Springs. “If you want to go ahead with a development, you can’t ignore any EPBC-listed species on your land; there’s just no way around it.”

When the left professes a grudging admiration for former Prime Minister John Howard, it is usually for strengthening gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. But the EPBC Act, which passed with the aid of the Democrats’ Meg Lees as part of the deal for getting the GST through the Senate, is the other piece of legislation it should thank him for.

That deal ultimately destroyed the Democrats, but it left a profound environmental legacy. Its efficacy was demonstrated last August, when the Federal Court stayed development of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine on account of federal environment minister Greg Hunt’s failure to consider the mine’s impact on two threatened species: the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake.

The halting of the mine on account of two reptiles caused apoplexy within the Abbott government. The Senate had repeatedly frustrated its attempts to de-fang the EPBC Act via its “One Stop Shop” legislation, an attempt to streamline environmental approvals for large projects by handing the process to the states as part of its war on so-called green tape.

The decision also proved the act recognised, very simply, that all species have an inherent right to exist and are deserving of our protection: the obscure as well as the iconic.

The problem, as the snail shows, is that we aren’t even close to knowing the extent of our own biodiversity. According to A.D. Chapman’s 2009 edition of The Number of Living Species in Australia and the World, Australia has an estimated 566,398 types of plants, animals and fungi. Of these, only 147,579 have been formally described and named. Stanisic says 700 of Australia’s snails alone remained formally undescribed.

This illustrates two issues: the paucity of taxonomists in Australia, and that we are potentially at risk of losing thousands more species from under our noses. “There are many species about which we know almost nothing that probably merit listing and we simply don’t know anything about them,” says John Woinarski, deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub and a professor at Charles Darwin University.

Worldwide, about 18,000 new species are described each year, roughly 75 percent of which are invertebrates. And taxonomists themselves are a threatened species. Much of the work is left to museums, with small staffs and limited resources. “We actually need people to be out there finding and describing new species,” Pavey says. “Way before cuts started happening to research-based organisations like the CSIRO, museums have been copping it for a long time.”

A related problem is the tendency to prioritise cute and colourful megafauna. “People tend to forget that small animals and plants form 99 percent of our terrestrial biodiversity,” Stanisic says. “But they get less than .001 percent of a look-in when it comes to assessments and environmental surveys. Yet they have so much to tell us about what the fine-grain make-up of the landscape is.”

Woinarski says that while creatures like the Leadbeater’s Possum play an important public relations role in raising awareness of conservation issues, they create a bias at the expense of less charismatic species. And because so little is known about so much of our fauna and flora, the process of listing them as threatened is slow, finite, and ad-hoc. In some years, marine animals might be the theme; reptiles in others.

“There’s a substantial degree of evidence that’s required, and for many of the most poorly known and most restricted species, there’s simply not enough knowledge to satisfy the onus for listing,” Woinarski says. “Many other species in Australia are highly imperilled and deserve to be listed, but aren’t. So our conservation problems are likely to be far worse than what is currently apparent.”

Further, as the sad decline of the of the Swift Parrot shows, listing a species is no guarantee of saving it. “The act is far less good at dealing with more pervasive and subtle and insidious threats, such as predation by feral cats,” Woinarski says. “We need to understand the threats that are affecting threatened species and ensure we can combat those threats far more effectively than what we’re doing at the moment.”

Years before his move into politics, former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen pioneered a way of clearing the Brigalow woodlands around his Kingaroy peanut farm by pulling a heavy chain between two bulldozers, a method still being used today in the mulga woodlands further west. These days, almost all of what remains of the Brigalow is on roadside verges, with next to none protected.

Stanisic points out that he has since found two more critically endangered snails in those remnants of Brigalow around Dalby, Chinchilla and Miles, now the heart of coal seam gas development. “Every type of bushland I look at, I find another one,” he says cheerily. “I’m just in the process of describing two large snails from Queensland; it’s really quite amazing that things that large can still be un-named in 2016.”

Invertebrate zoology, he says, remains a wide-open field of study. The Snail Whisperer signs off with a flourish: “Anything I can do to promote the snail world, the better!”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 14 May 2016

Not pretty enough: an extinction under our nose

“Why do you see, why do you see, why do you see right through me?” – Kasey Chambers

Recently, my partner and I took a walk up in the forests of Mt Mee, at the northern end of the D’Aguilar Range about an hour’s drive from Brisbane. We had a specific purpose: we were searching for the rare, threatened and exceptionally beautiful Richmond Birdwing. To our delight, we found a male quickly, not far from the car park of the Mill Rainforest Walk. I’d wanted to see one of these creatures for years, and it was truly an eye-popping pleasure (photo courtesy Tom Tarrant).

RBW

The birdwing is a very large butterfly, one of three in the genus Ornithoptera in Australia. The males of all three species found in this country (the other two are the Cairns and New Guinea Birdwings) are similar: the upperwings are a striking contrast of deep velvet black and emerald green; the abdomen is bright yellow, while the underwings are adorned with an intricate latticework of yellow, black and turquoise. They are the southernmost representatives of their type, originally occurring from around Maryborough in south-east Queensland down to the Clarence River in northern New South Wales. Apparently they were abundant in Brisbane in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

You would be hard-pressed to find a birdwing in Brisbane now. Destruction of the subtropical rainforests on which it depends has both shrunk the butterfly’s distribution and fragmented it (less than one percent of the original area still exists). The extreme drought of last decade exacerbated its decline, and as remnant populations became isolated from one another, the effects of inbreeding resulted in more local extinctions, even where the habitat remains suitable.

As if all that isn’t enough, the butterflies are prone to mistakenly laying their eggs on a poisonous exotic vine, a South American species called the Dutchman’s Pipe, which kills the larvae. They do this because the host vine on which the butterflies depend – the similar-looking Richmond Birdwing Vine (Pararistolocia praevenosa) – is itself very scarce, suffering its own contraction in range along with the forest in which it lives.

Depressed already? Sorry, it gets worse. But not necessarily for the Richmond Birdwing, which actually has a fighting chance of survival. Thanks mainly to its extreme beauty, it’s considered an “iconic species“. Now, I’ve never heard of any committee or individual deciding what makes an iconic species; rather it seems that certain animals and plants somehow just become iconic, and are used to represent a region’s entire biodiversity. Sometimes a species may represent a whole state, or even country – Pandas in China being the classic example.

Often, iconic species may be extinct (think the Thylacine, otherwise known as the Tasmanian Tiger) or endangered (such as the Tasmanian Devil, or Victoria’s twin faunal emblems, the Helmeted Honeyeater and Leadbeater’s Possum). Koalas are so ridiculously cute and therefore iconic on a national scale that a whole foundation exists to conserve it – which is lucky for them, given the rate at which they’re getting knocked off in Queensland lately. Polar Bears are a different type of iconic species, with its increasingly terminal decline a potent global symbol of climate change.

Being declared an iconic species can be pretty handy, though, especially if you also happen to be endangered. It means a lot of public money gets sunk into your conservation. In the case of the Richmond Birdwing, it means having your likeness (and donation buckets) displayed at the entrances to places where you are known to still exist, like Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve near Maleny; it means education and awareness programs in schools; it means specially designated days where lots of your favourite food plants are sown by volunteers in the hope of attracting your attention (and nasty competitors like the Dutchman’s Pipe are removed); it means having your image displayed on tea towels and mugs and other trinkets, with revenues going towards your care; it means teams of people meeting to discuss your perilous situation, and publishing reports documenting your plight or progress.

But if you’re not iconic – not pretty enough, or you live (figuratively speaking) in the slums rather than the gentrified inner suburbs, then it’s a bit like the public health system: you might as well just take a number and die while waiting for someone to attend to you.

By way of example, let me draw to your attention the example of another butterfly, the Laced or Australian Fritillary. When I first started getting seriously interested in butterflies a couple of years ago (a natural extension of my long-standing obsession with birds), the fritillary quickly attracted my attention. For one, it lived locally – roughly, its distribution spanned a similar area to the Richmond Birdwing – and it was considered rare.

But the fritillary was not a denizen of the subtropical forests featured on Queensland tourist brochures. Instead, it inhabited the thick, spiky, swampy coastal heathlands and paperbark woodlands of the coast, where it relied on a small herb from which springs a rather lovely purple flower, Viola betonicifolia, for its survival. And thanks to a combination of urbanisation, farming pressure and general carelessness, much less of that habitat remained than even what remains of our rainforests. Four-fifths of fuck all, really.

You’ll note that I’m suddenly speaking in the past tense. That’s because it’s quite possible and even likely that the Laced Fritillary (which, while nowhere near as spectacular as a Richmond Birdwing, is in its own right a beautiful butterfly, being a deep orange with fine black spots) is not just rare, but already gone. I mean extinct; bleeding demised; snuffed it; gone off to join the choir invisible, etc. A few polite inquiries revealed that the last specimen was collected near Port Macquarie in northern New South Wales nearly a decade ago, in April 2001, with an additional sighting from Bribie Island in south-east Queensland around the same time.

Gone, from right under our nose, and within the last decade. No fanfare. No headlines. No tears. No likenesses on tea towels; no lost archival footage (that I’m aware of, anyway) of the last lonely specimen fluttering sadly in an exhibit, like the famous bored Thylacine filmed in Hobart Zoo in the 1930s.

What’s more, like the Paradise Parrot – Australia’s only bird known to have become extinct post-European settlement, last seen in 1927 – it lived right here on my bloody doorstep: the parrot, too, was once known from inner Brisbane, with records from Kelvin Grove and Bowen Hills, and being as gorgeous as its name suggests, you can bet it would have become an iconic species if only it had managed to stick around long enough.

The next Australian bird in the gun, so to speak, is the Orange-bellied Parrot, which is down to a grand total of about 35 individuals. Although it breeds in the almost pristine wilderness of Tasmania’s south-west, it’s on borrowed time, thanks to its habit of migrating to the mainland each winter to feed on another undervalued and unprepossessing habitat, the saltmarsh plains of coastal Victoria and South Australia. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett once notoriously called the parrot a “trumped-up corella”. I’m not saying the Orange-bellied Parrot has been “Jeffed”, but his attitude, again, summed up the general care factor towards any wildlife that’s either smaller than a whale or not as cute and fluffy as a Bilby or Koala. And the OBP, while not exactly iconic, actually receives quite a lot of publicity relative to other endangered critters. That’s because it’s very visibly sliding off its perch on our watch.

Australia has an appalling track record when it comes to biodiversity loss: according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, our rate of extinction is more akin to small islands than whole continents (and that document was published in 1990). These days, we’re just trying to hold back the tide, really. In 2009 the former environment minister Peter Garrett (who once sang on an EP called Species Deceases, one of my very favourite Midnight Oil releases, which actually helped turn me on to environmental politics) conceded that further extinctions were inevitable, and that the government would shift its focus to preserving entire ecosystems rather than individual species.

I can see his point. Resources are scarce; there simply isn’t enough money to go around to save each creature on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, though, huge amounts of money are going towards saving icons like the Tasmanian Devil. And not that I resent a single dollar, but it leaves the fritillaries of this world up a certain creek with a turd for a paddle.

What disturbs me about the fritillary’s case, and should disturb all of us, is how silent this whole horror show is. We are witnesses to probably the greatest mass extinction event since the age of the dinosaurs, to the point of playing God, deciding what we can and can’t afford to save. Mostly we don’t even know what we’re losing.

And all the while, we’re frantically trying to pretend none of it has any relevance to us.