Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Islands of Extinction

The flooding of Chiew Larn Reservoir

The flooding of Chiew Larn Reservoir created scores of small islands like the one in the foreground. Photo: Tony Lynam

By William Laurance

Native mammals are disappearing rapidly as an aggressive invader takes over in forests fragmented by a hydroelectric dam.

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Take a glance around you right now and chances are that any native vegetation you see will be in small, isolated patches of what was formerly an expanse of natural habitat. This, of course, is the process of habitat fragmentation, one of the most devastating ways that humans are transforming the Earth.

Many ecologists think that habitat fragmentation is the number one threat to Earth’s biodiversity – worse than climate change, pollution and over-harvesting, for instance. It’s the reason I’ve spent most of my 30-year career studying habitat fragmentation, and its impacts on nature, in places like the rainforests of northern Queensland, the Amazon and the Congo Basin.

Working in such exotic places can produce some exciting moments. In northern Queensland, for instance, I’ve twice stepped on venomous red-bellied black snakes while spotlighting at night. And I’ve been stalked by jaguars in the Amazon and chased by angry forest elephants and cobras in the Congo.

Despite these occasional dramas it’s a privilege to work in places where nature still reins. But these places are becoming all too rare.

In a recent article in Science, my colleagues and I have described our latest attempt to understand the consequences of habitat fragmentation. It’s difficult not to be jolted by our findings about what is happening to native mammals in Thailand.

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The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.