What must be done to prevent further extinctions?
Australia is home to some remarkable, but critically endangered, wildlife.
Australia’s golden sun moth (Synemon plana) has yellowy-golden hindwings. In the sunlight, they sparkle, just faintly, with light flecks of colour. The female moths prefer to walk around rather than fly, so they can lay their 200 eggs close to the ground. The larvae hatch and burrow into the earth to mature. Adult moths live no longer than five days, because they don’t have mouths and are unable to eat.
Delightful, bizarre, and sometimes unsettling, Australia is home to globally unique wildlife. But, as fascinating as they may be, many of us are oblivious to the truly remarkable animals, plants and other lifeforms we share this nation with. Unless you’ve spotted an endearing willie wagtail in your backyard or been spooked by an Australasian swamphen in a park.
An ecological crisis
We are in the middle of Earth’s sixth mass extinction event. Among the estimated one million species currently at risk are some of Australia’s national treasures.
This includes many species of plants and animals. Associate Professor Euan Ritchie from Deakin University’s Centre for Integrative Ecology says it’s these kinds of species – the ones that some may not as readily form emotional connections with in the same way that we might with a willie wagtail or a possum – that are greatly under-appreciated and ecologically critical for healthy ecosystems.
“Plants in particular have the most threatened species,” he says. “Well over 1000 species, and that’s likely an underestimate. But most Australians couldn’t name even ten threatened plants.”
Among the list of our threatened plant species is the orange dryandra (Banskia aurantia), a delightful shrub with little orange flowers. When they grow, they start as a tight ball of stringy petals. From there, they slowly unfold. They look like they could be soft, but also a bit prickly.
Critically endangered invertebrate species include the aforementioned golden sun moth, as well as the boggomoss snail (Adclarkia dawsonensis). The latter has a semi-transparent shell, through which it’s possible to see the black markings on the roof of its lungs.
Every species in existence, be it animal, plant, fungi or otherwise, performs important roles within ecosystems. Species may be responsible for pollination, or keeping others under control through predation, or digging around in the soil which enhances its fertility and helps seedlings germinate.
“When these roles cease with a species’ extinction, this can have flow on and negative effects, affecting ecosystems, and us,” Associate Professor Ritchie says.
Let’s say that one of the world’s most widespread large carnivores were to become extinct, such as wolves. Deer, one of their main prey, would likely substantially increase in numbers, as there is less predatory presence to regulate their population. In some regions where wolves no longer exist, this has already occurred.
As a result, deer could breed in higher numbers and overgraze plants, in turn negatively impacting the habitats of other species. In addition, people would be more at risk of vehicle collisions with deer.
Understanding and quantifying the ecological roles of species is difficult. Typically and tragically, their importance is often only fully appreciated when they’re gone forever. That’s why it’s imperative that we endeavour to protect all forms of nature from extinction, regardless of how well we understand their role in our ecosystems.
“All species have a right to be conserved, and most have existed on Earth for millions of years, evolving well before humans did,” Associate Professor Ritchie says.
“Species are the result of ecological and evolutionary processes and should be seen and valued as remarkable, unique and irreplaceable entities, just as unreplaceable works of human art are.”
Despite the fact there is legislation in place to protect and conserve nature, such as the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, it’s currently failing dismally to recover species’ populations and avoid them being pushed towards extinction.
“[The legislation] isn’t nearly stringent enough and laws are often not enforced,” says Associate Professor Ritchie. “Or actions such as threatened species recovery plans aren’t properly resourced or even started, despite the identified and dire need to do so.”
Legally, recovery plans must be written and enacted for threatened species, but often this never comes to pass due to insufficient staffing and funding, or else they are significantly delayed. For instance, the boggomoss snail was only formally recognised as being critically endangered in 2006, despite the fact that it had been known to be under threat for much longer.
This may be due to economic and political interests being prioritised before environmental concerns.
“Australia’s appalling record of land clearing, maintaining feral horses in the Alps, or the recent approval of Adani’s Carmichael project are all examples of this failure,” says Associate Professor Ritchie.
“Despite our globally unique flora and fauna, it seems there’s insufficient concern to care for it properly and meet our national and international conservation obligations.”
How we can help
So, if the current legislation may not help us, what can we do instead? Associate Professor Ritchie suggests that some lifestyle changes may be in order.
“Make personal changes, such as eating less meat and reduce flying,” he says. “Food production — especially for red meat — and travel require significant amounts of energy, largely in the form of fossil fuels.”
As land is cleared to make space for livestock, the total amount of habitat available for many native plants, animals and other species is reduced. In addition to this, livestock such as cattle can release large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, which can have an even greater effect on climate change than the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emissions.
“By choosing to lower our meat consumption and flying less, we can help to reduce our negative impacts on the environment and the survival of species,” Associate Professor Ritchie says.
It’s also a good idea to be aware of which political parties may or may not prioritise taking care of the environment, and by extension, our endangered species.
You could also discover the wonders of the natural world by joining a local conservation group, or simply delighting in being in nature, either by yourself or with your family and friends. Who knows? You might come across a golden sun moth!