Close to the Western River on Kangaroo Island, ecologist Pat Hodgens had set up cameras to snap the island’s rare dunnart — a tiny mouse-like marsupial that exists nowhere else on the planet.
Now, after two fires ripped through the site a few days ago, those cameras — and likely many of the dunnarts — are just charred hulks.
“It’s gone right through the understory and that’s where these species live. The habitat is decimated,” said Hodgens, of Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, a nonprofit conservation group.
Illustration: Mountain People
On Friday last week, word came through that three additional Land for Wildlife sites protecting dunnarts and other endangered species, such as the southern brown bandicoot, had also been consumed by fire on the island off the South Australian coast.
Australian National University professor Sarah Legge said that the prognosis for the Kangaroo Island dunnart was “not good” and its plight was symbolic of what was happening all across the east coast of Australia.
“Many dozens” of threatened species had been hit hard by the fires, she said, adding that in some cases, “almost their entire distribution has been burnt.”
The current Australian bushfire season has burned through about 5.8 million hectares of bush, known across the world for its unique flora and fauna.
Ecologists have said that the months of intense and unprecedented fires would almost certainly push several species to extinction.
The fires have pushed back conservation efforts by decades, they said, adding that as climate heating grips, some species might never recover.
Climate scientists have long warned that rising greenhouse gases would spark a wave of extinctions.
Now ecologists fear that the bushfires represent the catastrophic beginning of a bleak future for the country’s native flora and fauna.
“It feels like we have hit a turning point that we predicted was coming as a consequence of climate change. We are now in uncharted territory,” Legge said.
Bushfires do not just burn animals to death, but create starvation events. Birds lose their breeding trees and the fruits and invertebrates they feed on.
Ground-dwelling mammals that do survive emerge to find an open landscape with nowhere to hide, which one ecologist said became a “hunting arena” for feral cats and foxes.
“It’s reasonable to infer that there will be dramatic consequences to very many species,” Charles Darwin University professor John Woinarski said.
“The fires are of such scale and extent that high proportions of many species, including threatened species, will have been killed off immediately,” he said.
Footage of kangaroos and flocks of birds fleeing fires was no evidence of their survival, he said, adding that with fires of such wide extent, they run out of places to escape.
“We know that the species that can’t fly away — like koalas and greater gliders — are gone in burnt areas. Wombats may survive as they’re underground, but even if they do escape the immediate fire front, there’s essentially no food for them in a burnt landscape,” Woinarski said.
The critically endangered long-footed potoroo was restricted almost entirely to East Gippsland, which has been devastated by this season’s fires, he said.
In southern Queensland, much of the known range of the silver-headed antechinus “has been obliterated by fires,” Woinarski said.
Fires had always been a feature of the Australian landscape, but in normal circumstances extensive patches of unburned areas were left that helped species survive, he said.
“There are no winners in fires like this,” Woinarski said. “These fires are homogenizing the landscape. They benefit no species.”
“This is a harbinger of a bleak future for our wildlife. They have set back conservation in Australia for a very long period, but [the fires] are a sign of an even more bleak future ahead. Because of climate change, they will become more frequent and more severe. It’s a sad time for conservation in Australia,” he said.
It was “quite likely” that the fires would have caused some extinctions, but “we won’t know until after this summer ends,” Woinarski added.
“There’s an obligation now to do immediate reconnaissance for these species,” he added.
Legge offered other examples.
The endangered Hastings River mouse had about 40 percent of its known distribution “toasted,” she said.
Fire has covered about one-third of the range of the vulnerable rufous scrubbird, she added.
“Even some species that are not snuffed out completely will struggle in the coming months. I think this is the end for a number of species,” Legge said.
One estimate of the number of animals affected by the fires has come from University of Sydney professor in ecology Chris Dickman.
Using research compiled in 2007 on the effects of land clearing in New South Wales, Dickman estimated that about 480 million mammals, birds and reptiles had been affected — but not necessarily all killed.
His estimate did not include bats, which are susceptible to fires and also critical for moving around seeds and pollination.
“There is a suite of small animals that live on the forest floor. If the cover is removed, then foxes and cats move in and they use the burned areas as open hunting arenas,” Dickman said.
As the fires moved into Kosciuszko National Park, he said he is now concerned about the endangered mountain pygmy possum.
One important factor was the ecological role that many affected animals played, Dickman said.
Bandicoots and poteroos help to move fungal spores around after fires that promote regrowth, he said, adding that if those animals die, that “ecological service” goes with them.
University of Melbourne professor Brendan Wintle, a conservation ecology specialist, said that the scale and timing of the fires was “terrifying.”
“If this is what we are seeing now are the beginnings of changes due to climate change, then what are we looking at 2°C or 4°C? I don’t think we can get our heads around what that could be like. This is not the new normal, but it’s a transition to something we have not experienced before,” Wintle said.
“This is really concerning, not just for the impact that this event will have, but the prospect of this happening on a regular basis is really quite terrifying, and it will be to the point where forest ecosystems have changed to have a different character. When they change you definitely lose species,” he said.
Species such as the yellow-bellied glider and the greater glider, already threatened by climate change, would be severely affected, he added.
“These species require large old trees to den and they can’t survive without at least some large old living trees in their range,” Wintle said.
East Gippsland was a stronghold for the two species, but it appeared that “vast swathes” of its habitat had been burned in the past few weeks, he said.
Much of the known range of the endangered brush-tailed rock wallaby — a species already “right on the edge of extinction” — had also been burned, he added.
Three-fourths of threatened species in Australia are plants, many of which exist in only small pockets, such as the dark-bract banksia and the blue-top sun orchid.
“You can lose the lot in one big fire,” Wintle said. “If the timing is wrong, or the fire is too hot, you can also lose the seed bank and that’s then another species on the extinction list.”
Centre for Ecosystem Science director Richard Kingsford at the University of New South Wales said that the fires would rob many bird species of vital old growth trees they need to breed.
Fire had taken away the invertebrate bugs the birds feed on and that food source would not return until there was significant rain, he said.
“There are a whole lot of things that are ecologically off the scale,” Kingsford said.
“We won’t really know how much of a tipping point these fires have been, but the scale in terms of extent and severity I think will be a serious problem for many, many species. It will set back biodiversity in our forests for decades,” he said.
“You have these incredibly savage blows and these animals have not evolved to cope with it. These fires are not, in the scheme of things, natural,” Kingsford said. “We don’t see these smaller animals being incinerated. There is a silent death going on.”
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