At least a billion animals killed in bushfires

At least a billion animals killed in bushfires

The images have been heartbreaking. Australian native animals killed
or injured while trapped by fire. “I think the worst affected in an immediate
sense will be the large and slow-moving ones and the koalas, I guess, are probably the
most visible examples in this group and we’ve all seen, I’m sure, some of the
horrible videos that have been captured of koalas escaping the flames with
burns on their arms and face.” Academy Fellow Chris Dickman first estimated
that half a billion animals had been killed but as the fires continued to rage, he
now puts that figure at over a billion and that number doesn’t include
frogs, bats, fish or insects. “For a lot of species that have small
populations or small geographical distributions, if the fire affects the entire habitat where they
occur, then they’re at risk of imminent extinction.” And even if they survive the fires, they still
must deal with the loss of habitat and food and the threat from feral animals
such as foxes and cats. “Among the better-known and better-
catalogued examples are species like the long-footed potoroo that occurs in East
Gippsland and just over the border into southern New South Wales. A very small distribution, small population,
and fires have burnt all or most of the habitat that we know where
the potoroo occurs. And there are other species too that are
perhaps even better-known and more iconic. In the High Country, in Kosciuszko,
there’s the Mountain Pygmy-possum and the Southern Corroboree frog and although the habitats haven’t burnt yet,
there are fires in both Victoria and the New South Wales side of the Alpine Region
and it’s possible that the habitat for both of these species will go up in flames.” The loss of so many animals will have a
major affect on how our forests regrow. “Take as an example the potoroos, these
species are important in the sense that they eat fungi and the fungi they eat are
important for plant regeneration and growth. So, the potoroos dig in the surface soil. They
find the fruiting bodies of the fungi, they eat them and as the spores pass
through the body and out the other end, they’re scattered across the landscape and
then when you have a disturbance event, the mycorrhizal fungi are able to form
around the roots of growing plants, enabling to gather more nutrients
and thus speeding their growth. If you lose the potoroos from forest
areas, then you potentially lose the ability of the spores to get around
and to help with forest regeneration.” Professor Dickman says the impact
of this disaster will be long-lasting. “We’re clearly at risk of losing a
significant proportion of biodiversity and because much of Australian biodiversity
occurs only here, it’s a global loss.” 2019 was the hottest and driest
year on record for Australia, the first time both records
have been broken together. Perhaps the rest of the world is looking
on to see what it might be like for them in years to come and learning from
Australia’s woes at the moment to see how they can best manage their
natural environment to mitigate the effects.”

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