The damage caused by the catastrophic 2019–2020 Australian bushfires could lead to a dramatic jump in the number of native species at risk, according to new research.
James Cook University’s Dr Stewart Macdonald was part of a University of Queensland-led study—published in Nature Ecology and Evolution—that examined the impact of the fires on animal habitats.
He said the fires that burnt through 97,000 square kilometres of forest, bush and farmland were unprecedented.
“By comparison, these fires were at least 50 times more extensive than California’s worst wildfires on record. They were also exceptionally severe, burning Australian ecosystems that typically do not burn, such as rainforest,” Dr Macdonald said.
At least 832 vertebrate species are likely to have been impacted by the fires to some degree. Many were already declining in numbers because of drought, disease, habitat destruction, and invasive species.
The research shows these mega-fires may have made the situation much worse by reducing population sizes, reducing food sources and rendering habitat unsuitable for many years.
The team found that 49 species not currently listed as threatened may now warrant assessment for listing under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. If these EPBC assessments find that all 49 animals meet listing criteria, the number of threatened Australian terrestrial and freshwater animals would increase by 14 per cent.
Professor James Watson, from the Wildlife Conservation Society and UQ, said anthropogenic climate change was exacerbating fires in Australia.
“While fire is a crucial aspect of many ecosystems, we’re witnessing climate change-induced drought combined with land use management practices that make forests more fire prone,” Professor Watson said.
“We need to learn from these events as they are likely to happen again.”