Science helping threatened species recovery

September 24, 2018

For World Cassowary Day, we asked CSIRO’s Dr David Westcott to highlight cutting-edge threatened species science in the Wet Tropics region.

Check out his recommendations below.  Also, find out what scientists and others are saying about “Australia’s faunal extinction crisis” and which local community groups and traditional owners are collecting and sharing threatened species data.  Plus, take a look at a great new Tropical North Queensland Threatened Species video and story map.

Dr David Westcott - Science Helping Threatened Species:

Cassowaries and seed dispersal: Cassowaries don’t just eat fruits - they also disperse fruit seeds through the forest.  This is a fundamentally important process because dispersal, by cassowaries or other species, is usually the only chance a plant has of moving away from the maternal tree.  Learning how far a key disperser like the cassowary transports seeds is important for understanding the role that it plays in rainforest dynamics (see this paper) and in weed spread (read more). We have examined the diet of cassowaries and their fruit preferences in Wooroonooran National Park, and then considered the consequences for a seed of being eaten by a cassowary, in terms of whether  its chances of germinating and surviving are improved.

Climate Change: A major threat to Wet Tropics rainforest plants and animals is climate change.  While we often focus on climate change’s impacts in terms of shifting species’ distributions and causing extinctions, we less frequently consider how climate change will influence the ecosystem processes driven by species.  In the Wet Tropics regions, many vertebrates including threatened species such as the cassowary and the spectacled flying-foxes disperse the seeds of plants and in doing so drive a key process that structures our rainforests.  In the following papers, we examine how climate change will influence the distribution of plants and animals in the Wet Tropics and, from this, how it will influence the distribution of dispersal services in the forests of the future and what this means for how plants will be able to track climate change into the future.
Climate Change - Global Ecology Paper
Climate Change - Plant Diversity Paper
Climate Change - Seed Disperal Paper

Flying Foxes: Australia is home to many threatened species but few are as polarising as flying-foxes.  Non-indigenous Australians have been battling flying-foxes in orchards and urban areas since the 1800s and over that period we have not only used lethal force to take out our frustrations on them but have cleared enormous areas of their habitat.  As a consequence, of Australia’s five flying-fox species only the black and little-red flying-foxes are listed as “Of Least Concern” while the Christmas Island flying-fox is listed as “Critically Endangered”. The grey-headed and our local spectacled flying-foxes are listed as “Vulnerable”.

A major part of debates about how flying-foxes should be ‘managed’ is the question of how many flying-foxes there actually are.  Answering this question is extremely difficult due to the ecology of the animals and the conditions under which counts must be conducted.  You can see the results of the National Flying-Fox Monitoring Program here.

Read here about our best efforts  to provide an estimate of the population size of the spectacled flying-fox and how this has trended over the last decade.  This work identifies tropical cyclones as a major driver of the species population dynamics and the most likely cause of the major decline in this species’ numbers over the last decade.

'Australia's Faunal Extinction Crisis' Senate Inquiry:

Terrain NRM highlighted the importance of science, citizen science and traditional knowledge in our submission to the recent inquiry. Read more here.

Mapping portals:

Terrain helps community groups and traditional owners collect, manage and share threatened species data through community mapping portals.

New Wet Tropics Threatened Species Video:

Learn more about work to help the cassowary, northern bettong, spotted quoll, mahogany glider, Kuranda tree frog and Mabi Forest... This video, funded through an Australian Government National Landcare Program grant, includes first-hand accounts of  the importance of science in the recovery of threatened species.

Find out more about Terrain NRM’s threatened species work:

Threatened Species Story Map