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If a Taxonomist Falls in the Forest...

By Ian Lowe

Taxonomists are so under-resourced it would take them 400 years to describe all of Australia’s species, which means that species are going extinct before we even know about them.

Credit: nuclear_lily/Adobe

More than 20 years ago, the first independent report on the state of the Australian environment identified the loss of our unique biodiversity as a major problem. Four subsequent reports have repeated the warning. Now researchers have estimated that 17 unique local birds and mammals are likely to disappear in the next 20 years.

Australia already has an unfortunate reputation as a global leader in extinctions. At least 30 mammal species have been lost since 1788, the highest rate of mammal extinctions in the world.

Now scientists at the Threatened Species Recovery Hub have estimated the risk of further losses in the near future. Their paper in Pacific Conservation Biology makes gloomy reading. They estimate the chance that the King Island brown thornbill will be lost in the next 20 years as 94%, so it is almost certain to go extinct. The chances are not much better for the orange-bellied parrot (87%), King Island scrub tit (83%), western ground parrot (75%) and so on.

Overall, nine bird species are more likely than not to be lost in the next 20 years. At the lower level of 25% chance of going extinct, 11 mammal species and 14 types of birds are at risk.

We know what causes extinctions: habitat loss, introduced species, chemical pollution and climate change. None of those forces looks like slowing down in the near future. Arguably, all are accelerated by our rapidly growing human population.

The Commonwealth government does have a Threatened Species Strategy, but it isn’t funded on the scale needed. The latest estimate I saw put total spending on threatened species at about $70 million. To put that in perspective, our annual defence budget is about $30 billion, upgrading airport security this year will cost nearly $300 million, while it cost $100 million for the recently opened museum commemorating Australians who died 100 years ago in a European war, and this year’s federal Budget allocated $50 million for a memorial to Captain James Cook.

An equally important threat to our biodiversity is simply not knowing what’s out there. This is a problem addressed by a new 10-year plan produced by the Australian Academy of Science and the Royal Society of New Zealand. Plant taxonomist Dr Kevin Thiele of the University of Western Australia, who is leading the project, believes that only about 30% of the species living in Australia have been identified. This means organisms are going extinct before we even know about them.

There just aren’t enough taxonomists employed to do this painstaking work. While governments spend huge sums helping the minerals industry to identify new deposits, we are clearly not serious about finding the species that live here. Thiele estimates it would take about 400 years to compile a full picture of Australian species at the current rate of progress. Queensland Museum taxonomist Dr Claudia Arango commented on the lack of career options in this field: “Nearly half of all taxonomists are on short-term contracts and around 25% are not even paid for the work they do”.

Sir David Attenborough wrote the foreword to the new plan, lamenting the fact that “at the very time that many species are under greatest threat, funding and other resources allocated to the task of discovering, naming and documenting nature are declining”.

The Australian Academy of Science has called for a tenfold acceleration of the process of identifying species “in order to describe our hidden biodiversity within a generation”. As they say, we can’t make plans to conserve plants or animals if we don’t know they exist.

On a brighter note, in NSW I recently saw the work being done by the 18 members of the Central West Councils Environment and Waterways Alliance. Their conference in Bathurst showcased work being done to protect endangered species. Whether it was the brush-tailed rock wallaby, the wild regent honey-eater or the Booroolong frog, in every case populations had been restored by a systematic approach, protecting habitat and dealing with introduced species. There were also success stories of restoring endangered ecological communities, such as the grassy box gum woodlands. As one researcher put it, “where good science is available, evidence-based decisions can be made”.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.