National Biodiversity Month

Across September, Australia celebrated the biodiversity that makes our island continent so unique. Here at Wild Melbourne, we don't think our Victorian species get enough coverage, so we decided to showcase just how diverse our state is! A species for every day of September, collected here in case you missed it. 

Thank you so much to all the photographers that contributed images to our National Biodiversity Month campaign. 

What's in a Name?

The Pokémon GO! phenomenon has invaded our smartphones and public areas over the last few weeks, causing excitement, confusion, approval and outrage (i.e. all the responses that usually accompany a viral craze). To conservation scientists, however, the current obsession with ‘catching them all’ has reignited a concern that was famously highlighted in a study published in Science back in 2002. This study, which focused on English primary school aged children, found that kids were much better at identifying Pokémon species (with an average success rate of 80%) compared to real English wildlife (where they could only identify an average of less that 50%). 

Not sure if rakali or Raticate...? Image: Leo Guida

Not sure if rakali or Raticate...? Image: Leo Guida

This seemed to confirm what conservation scientists and the general public alike already suspected – we as a society are getting much worse at identifying local flora and fauna. Professor Michael Clarke from La Trobe University has dubbed this phenomenon the ‘crisis of ecological illiteracy’ and fears our increasing disengagement from nature may mean we care less about protecting it.

But from the general public’s perspective, what’s the big deal? Considering the multitudes of actual crises popping up daily on the news, knowing ‘what type of lizard that is’ doesn’t rate very high. Remembering the names of species is merely for those obsessed individuals among us with spectacular memories; the rest of us can just use Google it if ever we need to.

Although, seeing you’re reading this article on Wild Melbourne, you may indeed be one of those obsessed individuals, or at least relatively good at paying attention to nature around you and identifying it. The mission of Wild Melbourne is to get people engaged with local wildlife – so being able to name the animals and plants in our immediate vicinity goes hand in hand with this goal. In this case, though, you may think that I’m preaching to the converted.

But to be perfectly honest – I’m not converted. I confess, I’m absolutely terrible at remembering species names, and it’s gotten to the point where I don’t try anymore. As you can imagine, as an ecologist this often causes me much embarrassment. “You’re meant to know these things!” people say. Yes, yes I am – it’s my job. But my memory just isn’t up to it, so over the years I’ve retreated, under the threat of humiliation, to a stance of “Whatever! I don’t care anyway!”.

How easily could you identify this banskia? Image: Australian National Botanic Garden

How easily could you identify this banskia? Image: Australian National Botanic Garden

Of course, I realise this isn’t a very productive stance to take. I really do care about our local environment and want to be a part of a community that values and protects it. Maybe making an effort to identify the animals and plants around me, their names, their morphology, the calls they make, would be another contribution I could make to increasing awareness – and getting others to think about doing the same may be even better. So in this article I’ve decided to see if I can convert myself, and those like me (but if you’re already a wizz at IDing, just come along for the ride and feel good about the positive impact you might already be making!).  

So I did a little bit of research, and I’ve found arguments for caring seem to fall into two broad groups – benefits to the individual, and benefits to the environment.

Firstly, the benefits for ourselves: as you may be aware, even a small amount of nature in our daily lives is extremely beneficial. Being outside and connecting with nature has been linked to improvements in mental and physical health. But being busy people, it may sometimes be hard to stop and take a moment to recognise those small occurrences of nature in the daily hustle and bustle. One way to do this (and therefore reap the benefits) may be simply to name it – therefore bringing it to the forefront of your thoughts.

Can you picture it? “Oh isn’t that a beautiful magpie-lark that’s just landed next to me while I wait for my coffee! Isn’t the world a beautiful place!” *happy sigh* (or more likely something similar but infinitely less cheesy).

In terms of the big picture, being able to name something also goes a long way. Taxonomy is extremely important for conservation because, of course, we need to know what we have before we can begin conserving it. For instance, being able to tell the difference between invasive and native species is very important – how else could we combat harmful species and maintain healthy ecosystems?

It's important to know your black rats (introduced) from your bush rats (native). Image: Sydney University

It's important to know your black rats (introduced) from your bush rats (native). Image: Sydney University

Identifying something is also a way to keep track of the local environment, and helps you recognise changes if and when they occur. The urban ecosystem is extremely turbulent – by not knowing what is out there we can become oblivious to these changes and consequent losses of native species. And if we didn’t know it was there in the first place, why should we care when it’s gone?

That all sounds fairly important and valuable – right? And the only real shortcoming of caring about IDing species is the humiliation associated with failure – but what is a little risk of failure in the face of all the benefits? Even if I continue to bomb spectacularly and only manage to remember one new species name a year, I guess it’s still better than none!

So, I have managed to convert myself, so I very much hope that there are other closeted “awful IDers” out there who are at least considering trying a bit more as well.

If so – here are some great apps that could help (if you have room on your phone after downloading Pokémon GO!):

Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at: @elkelly1210 

A Question of Balance

Australia is famous for its battles with invasive species. A memorable episode of The Simpsons shows Bart releasing a bullfrog in an Australian airport; half an hour later, the country is brimming with bullfrogs (or ‘chazzwazzers’ as a local naturally names them). The impact of the poisonous cane toad in its inexorable spread across the country since 1935 is already legend. Today, these amphibians inhabit approximately half the continent and are believed to number in the billions. Yet despite having been a part of the landscape for longer than the living memory of most of Australia’s human population, cane toads are still considered an invasive species. So at what point does an animal stop being considered ‘invasive’ and become ‘native’?

Dingo ( Canis dingo ). Photo: Alex Mullarky

Dingo (Canis dingo). Photo: Alex Mullarky

It’s hard to imagine an Australia without dingoes, but 4,000 years ago this country had never seen anything like a wild dog. Dingoes are believed to have migrated to Australia alongside several groups of humans, spreading across the country over the subsequent four millennia. So why are dingoes considered native when cane toads have a similar story? It appears to be a question of their ecological impact. “For a long time, dingoes were blamed for the demise of thylacines and devils from the mainland, as these losses occurred at about the same time as dingoes arrived,” says Dr Sarah Legge, one of the leaders of the National Environmental Science Program’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub. “But more recent research instead implicates human impacts and climate change as the primary agents causing the mainland extinctions of thylacines and devils.

“Whatever the case, dingoes have since taken on a key role as an apex predator in Australian ecosystems (along with some of the largest reptiles, large raptors and of course humans). Apex predators play a critical role in regulating populations of smaller predators and prey species, as well as promoting ecosystem diversity and stability.” The dingo may once have been an outsider, but it has since found a place in Australian ecosystems, making it an invaluable part of the landscape. According to Dr Legge, where dingo numbers have declined, cat and fox numbers have increased and have had a major impact on small native mammals.

Dingo tracks in the sand. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Dingo tracks in the sand. Photo: Alex Mullarky

These predators are another issue entirely. “I consider feral cats and foxes to be introduced, because they arrived extremely recently,” says Dr Legge. One school of thought places all ‘invasive’ animals in concurrence with the arrival of European colonists in Australia: 1788. Animals that were introduced after this date, including rabbits, foxes, camels, donkeys, horses, cats, and cane toads, are considered invasive. There are even dozens of species of earthworm which have been introduced for agricultural reasons (or by accident) that now populate Australian soils.

Cats and foxes in particular have upset the delicate balance of many ecosystems in the country. “They have been destabilising, causing a large number of mammal and some bird extinctions, simplifying faunal communities, and they continue to exert negative impacts on Australia’s unique fauna,” explains Dr Legge. Estimates place the number of feral cats anywhere between 5 and 23 million, and these cats aren’t happily eating kibble in urban apartments. Research has demonstrated a devastating impact on Australia’s native fauna, which aren’t adapted to this kind of predation.

While dingoes appear to have slotted relatively easily into the landscape, cats are upsetting the balance. Australia has seen as many as 30 mammal extinctions since European colonisation: a clear indicator of how ecosystems have been changed by introduced species.

Feral horses cause enormous problems for Australia's biodiversity, but an immense cultural connection remains. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Feral horses cause enormous problems for Australia's biodiversity, but an immense cultural connection remains. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Large herbivores such as horses and cattle obviously aren’t going after the quolls and numbats, but their impact has nonetheless been measured. Australia has no native large herbivores or hoofed animals that its ecosystems would be prepared for, so grazing decimates native plant life while making hunting easier for feral predators – giving native mammals nowhere to hide. Horses and cats are inadvertently working together. However, it can’t be denied that the feral horses of Australia – numbering around 400, 000 – have worked their way into the national psyche. A search for ‘High Country Victoria’ brings up images of horses cantering across streams in mountain ranges. The Man from Snowy River and The Silver Brumby are some of the country’s most famous literary works. Unsurprisingly then, large-scale removal of these particular feral animals is always likely to encounter vocal opposition.

Invasive species could be defined as those that are introduced with the movements of humans. However, we’ve already seen in the case of dingoes that it isn’t always so simple. Perhaps, then, only recent arrivals should be considered truly invasive, although this too feels simplistic. Maybe the only real test of an animal’s ‘invasiveness’ is its impact on the existing flora and fauna. Predators like cats and foxes cause more harm than native species can recover from, leading to irreversible changes in the Australian landscape; this makes them invasive. It’s a contentious issue that’s difficult to navigate, but if a species can’t exist in harmony with its surroundings, perhaps that’s what we should call ‘invasive’. ‘Native’ doesn’t mean it’s been around forever - it simply indicates an ability to coexist. 

Cover image by Billy Geary

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.

Crowdfunding for Conservation

Crowdfunding – whereby a large amount of money is raised by the proportionally smaller donations of dozens, hundreds or thousands of contributors – has taken flight over the past few years as a means for individuals and organisations to raise funds for their passion projects. In large part, it is associated with the arts: raising money for amateur theatre groups, for student films, for independent artists’ exhibitions, for the self-publishing of books. There isn’t much you can’t crowdfund, and the support of a combination of friends, family and interested strangers has successfully funded projects as varied as collecting meteorites from the Nullarbor or paying the vet bills of two dogs who had a brush with a porcupine.

As the practice has evolved, particularly in Australia, more and more groups have come to recognise the potential of crowdfunding to support conservation. In 2014, a group of lobbyists and scientists who have studied the montane ash forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria for more than 30 years, launched a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible to gather public support for the proposed Great Forest National Park: a large protected area for the region which would preserve more than 500, 000 hectares of forest. The highly successful campaign, which raised $71, 965 (significantly exceeding its target of $60, 000), directed funds to community outreach and broader awareness-raising about the park proposal to the Victorian public.

Funds are also being crowdsourced for conservation on the ground. In November, a campaign led by Mt Rothwell Landcare Volunteers entitled “Quoll in the hand, worth 2 in the bush” successfully raised more than $11, 000 for a captive breeding program for Eastern Quolls: an iconic species that is extinct in the wild on the Australian mainland. Another campaign, “Where do Wedgies Dare?”, run by environmental scientist Simon Cherriman, has raised more than $20, 000 to monitor a pair of wedge-tailed Eagles by GPS tracking, with the aim of learning more about the raptors’ biology.

This growing propensity to turn to the general public for funding could be seen as an indicator that funding from traditional sources is increasingly less available. However, an initiative by DELWP (the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning) in Victoria demonstrates that the government is aware of the medium’s potential. The Threatened Species Collection, currently running on Pozible, is a group of five campaigns aimed at protecting some of Victoria’s most vulnerable species. Each campaign in the collection that successfully reaches its target will receive dollar-for-dollar matched funding from DELWP. White-bellied sea-eagles and brush-tailed phascogales are among the species intended to receive support from the campaigns, run by a collection of community landcare and conservation groups. This and similar projects would allow the government to invest in those issues deemed most important by the Australian public itself.

That crowdfunding for conservation is enjoying such success in Australia indicates just how much the general public cares for the natural world. The community is already heavily involved in conservation on their own land and in the lands that surround them, and is deeply invested in the future of the country and its species. Crowdfunding for conservation projects is a natural extension of an extant love for the Australian landscape, and the inclination of its people to take conservation into their own hands.

Cover image by Robert Geary Photo and is used with permission.

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.

You can find her on Twitter at @ajmullarky