Wildfires decimate Australian biodiversity

Australian researchers have warned the world needs to take urgent action on biodiversity as the country is set to put 11 species of bees, decimated by climate change, on the endangered list.

The research led by a team at Flinders University revealed the number of threatened Australian native bee species is expected to increase by nearly five times after the devastating Black Summer bushfires in 2019-20.

Bees have a vital role in global food production and the loss of a raft of bee species would have a serious impact on the country’s agriculture and biodiversity.

With 24 million hectares of Australia’s land area burnt, researchers said the casualties are clear among bee fauna and other insects and invertebrates after studying 553 species (about one-third of Australia’s known bee species) to assess the long-term environmental damage from the natural disaster.

“Our research is a call for action, from governments and policymakers, to immediately help these and other native populations most in danger,” says lead author Flinders University PhD candidate James Dorey, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Yale University Centre for Biodiversity and Global Change.

Of the bees studied, nine species were assessed as Vulnerable and two more Endangered as a result of the multiple fire fronts in the 2019-20 bushfires that also destroyed approximately 3000 homes and killed or displaced an estimated 3 billion animals.

The study warned widespread wildfire and forest fire damage is being repeated all around the world, from North America and Europe to the Congo and Asia, causing catastrophic impacts on biodiversity and sudden and marked reduction in population sizes of many species.

“In these circumstances, there is a need for government and land managers to respond more rapidly to implement priority conservation management actions for the most-affected species in order to help prevent extinctions,” said Dorey. “Conserving insects and other less visible taxa should also be a factor in restoring and preserving some of the hundreds of bees that may not yet have been studied or recorded.”

He says the study forms a foundation for assessment of other taxa in Australia and on other continents where species are understudied and not registered on datasets or by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN Red List).

“Climate change is increasing the frequency of natural disasters like wildfire, which impacts our wildlife,” says fellow author Dr Stefan Caddy-Retalic, from The University of Adelaide and University of Sydney. “Our study shows that we can assess the likely impact of natural disasters on poorly studied species, even when we can’t physically visit the field to do surveys.”

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