The sixth mass extinction
Things were already looking grim for countless species on our planet. As the Centre for Biological Diversity and other science-backed organisations have been pointing out for the last several years, Earth is undergoing the sixth mass extinction since life forms began developing on it an estimated 3.8 billion years ago, with 1,000 species now disappearing per year. But the latest spate of Australian bushfires, which as of this writing had consumed 10.7 million hectares, have significantly upped that ante. Some already-endangered animals are potentially gone forever.
Dunnart (Sminthopsis aitkeni)
The most recent fires have reportedly affected an estimated half-billion – you read that right – animals throughout the country, including a tiny marsupial called the dunnart. These mouse-like, insect-eating rarities were already vulnerable due to habitat loss from land being cleared for agriculture. The Kangaroo Island dunnart, found only on Kangaroo Island, had its habitat destroyed by three separate fires as of this writing, according to the Daily Mail. Like other impacted animals, some dunnarts were killed by flames and smoke outright; some will die later, either succumbing to hunger and loss of shelter as the trees and shrubs they rely on were destroyed, or being eaten by feral cats and foxes.
Long-nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus)
Australia already had the highest rate of extinction in the world – 34 species and subspecies have gone extinct in the last 200 years, per estimates by Chris Dickman, PhD, an expert on Australian biodiversity at the University of Sydney. And the devastation seems on track to continue with this season’s bushfires. The long-nosed potoroo, a type of truffle-eating wallaby that’s a denizen of the country’s biodiverse forests and was already listed as vulnerable, is of particular concern; October fires wiped out an especially vibrant habitat that succored them in New South Wales, according to Science. No potoroos have been seen in the region since.
Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)
A November 2019 article in the Guardian provided a critical fact check about claims that these beloved marsupials were “functionally extinct” in the wild; they weren’t… at least, not then. In the intervening weeks, 25,000 koalas of a 50,000 koala population on Kangaroo Island – the only disease-free animals left in existence, on which huge hopes for population recovery rested – have died in the fires, reports a more recent Guardian piece. Now, their future is gravely threatened and experts worry their numbers will never recover. Images of burned koalas emerging from the smoke to beg for food and water from passersby have raised an enormous outcry of grief from concerned citizens worldwide.
Blue mountains water skink (Eulamprus leuraensis)
Australia’s peak fire season has another six weeks to go, at least as of early January 2020 – climate change makes predictions of seasons highly unstable. The horrific news for the continent’s native animal species continues to mount. This medium-size, yellow-striped skink – a type of lizard – was listed as endangered on the Australian government’s Office of Environment & Heritage profile back in April 2019. What’s become of it now, in the wake of massive fires ravaging its already minuscule range in the Greater Blue Mountains, is unknown and potentially calamitous.
Regent honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia)
The Greater Blue Mountains have also been called the “final stronghold” for a bird called the regent honeyeater by ecologists. The beautifully black-and-lemon-patterned birds, festooned with small, graceful curved beaks, were already critically endangered going into this current fire season, with only an estimated 250 to 400 of the animals extant in the wild. The vast majority of birds remaining lived in this region, breeding and feeding on nectar. Fires have destroyed nesting sites in at least five of their home valleys, leading Newsweek to posit that they could be facing “complete eradication.”
Silver-headed antechinus (Antechinus argentus)
Southern Queensland comprises most of the remaining range for this silvery, shrew-like, and endangered carnivorous marsupial. And by early January, the majority of that range had been obliterated by fire. This has dire consequences for the antechinus as well as for all of Australia’s animals, as the extensive fires, in opposition to fires of previous years, have left no small patches of un-burnt land that can help species rebound by offering even scant resources – instead wiping out everything in their path in what professor John Woinarski of Charles Darwin University told the Guardian was a “harbinger of a bleak future for our wildlife.”
Hip-pocket frog (Assa darlingtoni)
“I think this is the end for a number of species.” Grim words indeed from Sarah Legge, researcher with the Australian National University in speaking to the media about the fires’ impacts on Australia’s animals. One that’s known to have no fire-resistance whatsoever is the hip-pocket frog – so named because of a pocket in which the golden-eyed amphibian carries its tadpoles after they hatch. Massive numbers of them are presumed dead in fires that consumed the Gondwana rainforest, where it needs damp leaf litter in order to survive. And, like all animals in this story, the frog requires immediate and decisive interventions from humans to address the climate change that imperils us all.
To help wildlife affected by the Australian wildfires, donate to WIRES, an organisation committed to helping Australian wildlife.
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